Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Job Search Saga: Interview Preparation

The months-long wait was over, and I had finally received an invitation to interview. The interview request itself surpassed my expectations, because it didn't start out slowly with the phone or Skype interview, instead jumping straight to the "we will pay for you to fly out here and visit us" interview. The only catch was that they wanted me out there soon; the invitation arrived on a Friday, with suggested interview dates ranging from the coming Wednesday to the following Tuesday, just a week and a half later. That did not leave much time to prepare.

The first step of preparation was remembering what I had applied for. I deliberately kept myself removed from all my applications, letting myself learn about the colleges in depth for the day or so it took to decide to apply and customize my cover letter, and then forgetting about anything to do with the college so I would not be overly disappointed if I were not selected for a given job. So the name of the college and chair were vaguely familiar, but I did not remember the job description or anything I wrote in my application.

My excitement about the interview increased, impossible as that would seem, when I pulled up the cover letter I had written. I had applied to 18 jobs, and done my best to customize 18 cover letters, but sometimes the position announcement or the school website just doesn't present anything exciting to write about. This college had been one of the exciting ones. Oh, I was probably more enthusiastic about my applications at the time, as it was within the first half-dozen letters I wrote, but the school had contributed as well. I was excited about the January term, a not uncommon feature of liberal arts colleges, the prospect of teaching freshmen seminars, and a few unique features of the college curriculum, and I waxed enthusiastic about them in my letter.

The fun part of my preparation was doing my best to visit every page on the college website, to review all those features that had excited me and to become an expert on the college curriculum and advertising materials. I found myself wishing that I had known about liberal arts colleges, and this one in particular, when I was applying to colleges myself, which has to be a good sign in becoming a professor.

The second step of preparation was creating a job talk. I had known that I was likely to need a job talk, but been too discouraged about my chances of getting an interview to make an effort, especially as I applied to jobs in two sub-fiields, and would likely have had to adapt the talk anyway. I hadn't expected to be given only a week to prepare, and count myself as incredibly lucky that my advisor and lab were incredibly supportive. We called together a special lab meeting just so I could practice my job talk and get their advice.

The most important piece of advice was something I had heard before, but which was useful to hear again: Liberal arts colleges favor teaching, and job talks often do double-duty of showcasing both your research qualifications and your teaching ability. My job talk was all about trying to present my research in a way that would be accessible to undergraduates, and in a way that would be interesting despite being in a formal presentation - which I do my best to avoid during teaching. This included ditching all that statistics, and most of the caveats of what nitpicky questions get raised about my interpretations of my data. It also included making as many connections to other subfields in my area as possible when discussing future directions, to suggest to the faculty present that we could build some nice connections and collaborations as well. It was a tall order to accomplish in just one week.

The third and final step of preparation was general interview preparation. I knew the kinds of questions that might be asked in a regular job interview, but what would be asked of a faculty candidate? I had received the schedule of interviews, which included 45 minutes with the Provost and 30 minutes with the Faculty Interview Committee; what should I ask these administrative people or other faculty members? That topic deserves a post of its own.

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