Friday, February 19, 2010

Job Search Saga: Interview Day

Although my interview schedule easily contained a full day's worth of meetings, that day didn't start until noon. Either the department chair was thoughtful enough to consider that the two-hour time change was not in my favor, or I lucked out on their idea of convenient interview times. I didn't sleep in, but I did make a final walk-through of my presentation and immerse myself one last time on the school website.

Promptly at 11:58, I left my hotel room and headed for the lobby. I had absolutely no idea how the chair and I were supposed to recognize each other, as the college website was surprisingly devoid of any faculty images. Fortunately, I didn't have to dwell on this, as the one person waiting in the lobby took the initiative and introduced herself. I wasn't sure what the protocol was for starting an interview in the lobby, so I focused on small talk during the drive to the college, mostly about the weather. The uncertainty persisted over lunch; it just doesn't feel like an interview when you're eating typical college cafe fare with students chatting on either side. She told me in more detail about what they were looking for (a replacement for a retiring faculty member, but opening up a new line of courses and research that students had requested), and flipped through my application packet looking for any final questions she had. I think our entire meeting covered more information about what they were looking for, with me working a few of my qualifications into the conversation where I could, than any interrogative interview.

Which made it all the more jarring to be switch from this laid-back conversation to my interview with the Provost. The department chair apologized when she picked me up, because she forgot to warn me that the man had no discernible sense of humor. Here I felt like I was being interrogated. There was the time he read a particular sentence from the job listing, twice, and then asked me how I would meet those requirements. (For the record, not a single person in the department asked me about those particular qualifications). Then there was the time that he left the room to fetch a posterboard copy of the college's new mission statement, propped it up on his desk, lectured me about the design, and then asked me how I would fit in with the college's central mission. The man never smiled, not once in forty-five minutes. I left the interview seriously wondering if he would veto any decision to hire me, even though I thought I handled all of the questions well, even the one that caught me completely off-guard, "What do you think are the biggest challenges facing higher education?".

On the bright side, I did have time to ask my own questions; I learned that the Provost could name every member of the department interviewing me, and had some idea of their reputation as teachers; I also learned that faculty had a lot of freedom in setting policies and designing new courses, and that I wouldn't be expected to do much service as a "visiting" professor. Still, I had never thought I would feel so intimidated on an interview.

So it was with great trepidation that I went on to my meeting with the faculty interview committee. To my immense relief, this committee consisted of three faculty members, as laid-back as anyone might expect at the college. They asked mainly standard, expected questions, they laughed readily at jokes and entertaining descriptions of research or teaching mishaps, and generally seemed happy to chat with me for the allotted time. The most interesting question I was asked was really more of a challenge: Explain why a student who would not major in your discipline should take an intro course in it. I think that question is much like the unexpected question from the Provost; you might not have explicitly prepared for it, but if you're right for a job at a liberal arts college you'll have thought about it enough in the past to be able to answer promptly. I even knew exactly what story to tell to back up the usefulness of something that would be learned in such an intro course.

Next came individual interviews with three of the faculty in the department. Two questions were fairly standard: If you could teach any class in our discipline, what would it be?, and How are you going to arrange your research given the limited resources of a liberal arts college in a small town? I'm not sure that any other questions were even asked. I did get to learn some of what pulled my application toward the top of the pile. The newest faculty member, who started just this year, was interested in a non-academic article I had written for a professional organization's magazine. Another was thrilled that our areas of research had some overlap, more than he had with the existing faculty, which would give him someone to discuss his research with in more depth. The third was the most brusque of the bunch - not unfriendly, but definitely businesslike; I rather got the impression that she thought I would do and was otherwise busy with preparing for other classwork.

My job talk went off without a hitch. I hadn't memorized every word, but I hit every point I need to make, the demonstrations worked perfectly with enthusiastic audience response (perhaps not from the students, who had assumed their standard "I'm being lecture at" faces, not unlike the slack-jawed stare of those watching TV, but I didn't let that deter me). I ended on time, answered a few questions that were perfectly relevant and not from left field, and could only hope that I had simultaneously conveyed my research abilities and teaching skills.

My final interview was really dinner, with the chair and the senior faculty member. The senior faculty member was incredibly nice as we prepared to leave for dinner; we were a few minutes ahead of schedule, and he arranged to vanish while I took a few minutes to myself. I walked up and down the silent hallway, breathing deeply, convincing myself that the worst was over; all I had to do was avoid any major social transgressions over dinner and I would be fine. Dinner was indeed an incredibly relaxed affair, at a surprisingly fancy restaurant. I shared the story of the Provost fetching the posterboard of the mission statement, to amusement all around, but otherwise the topics stayed enough away from teaching and research that I didn't feel under the microscope. After dinner, the senior faculty member gave me a driving tour of the town, including the main downtown area and the places near the college that faculty typically lived.

I returned to my hotel room both exhilarated and exhausted. I had survived my first interview, my impressions of the liberal arts college were everything I had hoped for and enough to convince me that I had chosen the correct career path. And all I had to do now was wait.

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