Friday, February 12, 2010

Job Search Saga: Interview Advice

The world is full of interview advice. Tips for getting or maintaining that job appear regularly on, the career center at my university spams us regularly with advice and prompts, and a quick Google search will return more results than any job applicant could possibly sift through. Unfortunately, most of that advice is designed for the business world, not the academic one. Those tips do not presuppose that the interviewers will have read a 2-page cover letter, full academic vita, and teaching and research statements. It was difficult to imagine any faculty members or even the provost asking me what my greatest accomplishment was, a challenge I had overcome, or any of the other cute questions that are apparently so popular these days.

But the Internet is vast, and as an academic I am well trained in tracking down information. Searching for information on faculty interviews, and liberal arts colleges specifically, I found a wide selection of resources. Some of these seemed rather irrelevant, designed for research universities or for departments too foreign from my own. Others, though, provided excellent leads.

The resource I relied on most heavily was actually a book, and a very old one, called "Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges". The edition in my library was published in 1992 - and may be the most recent one - so at times is was somewhat fascinating and highly amusing to read of searching for job announcements before the age of the Internet, and of how it was a seller's market for faculty candidates, and to look at the tables of median starting salaries, which were not all that much better than what I've been making as a grad student. What sold me on the book, though, was the story used to illustrate each part of the application process and early faculty career. Gerald Gibson, the author, adapted his own life story with observations made over the years to create a series of vignettes in the life of a new faculty member that opened each chapter. I didn't read the entire book, but I did read the story, and the chapters on the interview process and the first year as faculty. Seeing a story made me feel like I had some idea what I might experience, and let me generate my own questions instead of blindly following a list.

In addition to that broad picture, and a few discipline-specific suggestions, I found two pieces of advice that would become the focus of my afternoon of interviews:

1. The interviewers are looking for a colleague, albeit a junior one. It seems like it should have been obvious, but after almost five years of graduate school, I was in the habit of thinking of myself as a student. Even when I have presented my research at conferences, or was preparing my faculty application materials, I was thinking of myself as a graduate student. Reading that one simple statement shocked me out of that self-conception and gave me something to focus on projecting during my interviews. I am not a graduate student, I am an assistant professor, and although I will need some help in my first few years, I will be an excellent colleague.

2. Ask everyone who interviews you: What do you like the most, and dislike the most, about teaching at this college. A half-hour with each member of the department is not going to give you a great idea of who they are, or what it would be like to join them, but you can get a close approximation by prompting them to name what they like and dislike. It tells you something about the college, and something about the person. Liking the students and the rest of the department are obvious plusses; like the weather and town may not be the best sign.. Disliking the pay is not to be unexpected; disliking the students or the administration will raise some red flags.

By the time I was ready to fly out for my interview, I had created sheets with the questions I would ask the chair and the provost, and had found at least one specific thing to ask each faculty member, about programs they were involved in, specific projects their students had done, or the research facilities they used. I had anticipated a wide range of potential questions about my research, my ability to mentor undergraduates, and my teaching, and I was sure that if nothing else I wouldn't be left with long awkward silences during my interviews. I'm not sure if anything more constructive could be done to prepare for the first interview.

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