Entering the Academic Job Market, Part II

Proper Preparation, Performance, and Postmortem for Interviews

By Jeremy Ashton Houska

The process of waiting for responses from search chairs and preparing for interviews can be both an exciting and stressful time for academic job applicants. While the prospect of finally “growing up,” visiting new locales, or taking that first step toward professional life can be energizing, the unknown element surrounding one’s first academic interview can be overwhelming.  Applicants should take some solace in the finding that many graduate students have reported they were not trained in how to navigate several important professional issues (Myers, Reid, & Quina, 1998). The bulk of graduate study focuses on research specialization and perhaps some pedagogical training and experience, but some of the implicit aspects of academe, such as how to do well during an interview, remain murky. Yet a number of informative resources are readily available for early academics, and I will discuss how to use these to tackle some important issues when preparing for academic job interviews.

Issue 1: Proper Preparation

Often, the bulk of interview planning centers on developing and refining one’s job talk. Despite its reputation as “the talk that gets or loses the job” (see Darley & Zanna, 2004 for important considerations), this should not be your only preparation for your interview.

The wait to receive interview invitations is an uncomfortable silent period; make it more bearable by devouring any resources you can find pertaining to academic job interviews and the professional aspects of the academy. The Compleat Academic (Darley & Zanna, 2004), “The More Compleat Academic” (Dunn & Zaremba, 1998), and McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006) are all good places to start. It is also useful to check in with The Chronicle of Higher Education at least weekly, and it is a must for the on-campus interview.  Depending on the type of institution and itinerary, applicants may have meetings with the academic dean, vice president for academics, provost, and even the institution’s president, so it is helpful to keep abreast of the issues facing higher education for those meetings and informal conversations during the visit (Korn & Sikorski, 2010). Such preparation also shows that, while applicants may currently be graduate students, they will soon be ready and able to assume the role of a junior colleague (Johnson, 2004).

After you are invited to a phone or on-campus interview, you should spend some time digging around the institution’s website and department and faculty webpages. Getting to know as much as possible about the institution’s mission, the department’s history and composition, curriculum, course offerings, and the faculty and students themselves serves a number of purposes. You will be better able to develop specific and informed questions to ask faculty, students, and administrators.  Use that stack of printouts and pages of notes to aid you during phone interviews. Most of all, this background work will help convey to the search committee that you are, in fact, interested in them and have taken the time and effort to complete the requisite “homework” about them and their institution.

In the process of developing thoughtful questions geared toward the specific institution, you should also make an effort to craft a general script of questions you can fall back upon during interviews. I was very fortunate that my mentor passed along a compendium of “Questions to ask” and “Questions to be prepared to answer,” organized by the categories of search chair, dean, faculty members, students, and other administrators. I added to it, revised it, and reflected upon it before and after each interview. Most of my go-to questions had to do with expectations for tenure, the particulars of the review process, the institution’s definition of scholarship, what constitutes teaching excellence, and what types of service are valued. All of these factors can vary widely across institutions.

Lastly, you should develop your own “success stories” or relevant anecdotes to answer frequently asked interview questions (see Wagner, 2000). Personal stories will benefit applicants because they are more memorable than mere statements, they help set applicants apart from other finalists, and, most of all, success stories prevent applicants from reaching for off-the-cuff examples while under pressure.

Issue 2: The Performance

The campus interview is a critical opportunity for applicants to present their professional selves as best they can. I experienced a wide variety of tasks while on interviews. Depending on the interview, I delivered a traditional 45 minute job talk and taught a class, I gave a biographical talk to students, I was interviewed by members of Psi Chi, and, in one case, I gave a teaching demonstration to the faculty, who role-played as students. In each case, I was evaluated in terms of my potential as a scholar, teacher, and also as a colleague. I believe the latter consideration is often overlooked by graduate students, and so I will focus on that rather than on specific recommendations for job talks or teaching demonstrations.

Applicants should not seek to change their personalities or to earnestly try to exhibit what they believe is the prototype sought by the search committee. Instead, job candidates should simply be themselves. However, you should remain mindful of the professional and character impressions you would like to make, while being careful about which information you provide during conversations. You should always remain “on,” even during what is ostensibly down-time (e.g., rides to and from the airport, meals, small-talk in the halls) because anything that occurs is fair game and liable to be relayed during a meeting of the search committee. Be aware that the length of campus visits is typically 1-2 days, so be sure to get your rest to maintain enthusiasm and attentiveness during the interviews.

Also, as the current climate is basically a “buyer’s market” and many well-qualified finalists are applying for few positions, many departments seek good colleagues to help narrow the field. Search committees are looking for new faculty members who can get along well with others and make their department a better place when they arrive (see Keith, 2004).  Collegiality is indeed an important factor during interviews.  Applicants should treat all administrators, faculty, staff, and students as they would like to be treated. Assume they share a role in evaluating candidates, because they very well might. Even with a well-received job talk and effective teaching demonstration, negative interpersonal interactions can still affect your chances of being hired.

Issue 3: Postmortem

Academic job interviews are much like interviews for graduate programs in that they become progressively easier after the first one. I found myself better able to adapt to demanding itineraries, more capable of tailoring my job talk and teaching demonstrations toward specific institutions, and more effective at responding to interview questions after I had one interview under my belt. I also was sure to do an informal postmortem analysis of each interview with my mentor and with other members of my team (Houska, 2010). Because of that continued reflection and subsequent refinement, I believe I was at my best right when the best “fit” presented itself on an interview.  So, be sure to polish your interview presentation continually (i.e., your job talk, teaching demonstration, questions to ask, success stories) because you never know when you will get that next invitation to interview.  Always try to improve, but don’t get too down on yourself when experiencing rejection. Faring well on the academic job market requires thick skin.

Finding a Good Fit

What constitutes a good academic “fit” or a “good match?” The answer will vary among early academics, depending on factors such as institutional prestige, likelihood of tenure, salary, department climate, geographic region, and so on. However, a simpler heuristic, like the one articulated by Robert Sternberg, may lead candidates down a more fulfilling career path. Sternberg (2002) noted, “[a good match is] an institution that you will value and that will value you.”

References and Further Reading:

Darley, J.M., & Zanna, M.P. (2004). The hiring process in academia. In J.M. Darley, M.P. Zanna, & H.L.  Roediger (Eds.). The compleat academic: A career guide (31–56). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Dunn, D.S., & Zaremba, S.B. (1997). Thriving at liberal arts colleges: The more Compleat Academic. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 8–14.

Houska, J.A. (2010, September). Entering the academic job market: Reflections and resources for the early stages of the process. Observer, 23. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2010/september-10/entering-the-academic-job-market.html

Johnson, M.D. (2004, October). The academic job interview revisited. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Academic-Job-Interview-/44607/

Keith, K.D. (2004). The office next door: Making yourself an excellent faculty candidate. In W. Buskist, B. C. Beins, & V. W. Hevern (Eds.), Preparing the new psychology professoriate: Helping graduate students become competent teachers (pp. 104-109). Syracuse, NY: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.teachpsych.org/resources/e books/pnpp/index_pnpp.php

Korn, J.H., & Sikorski, J. (2010). A guide for beginning teachers of psychology. Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/resources/e-books/guide2010/index.php.

McKeachie, W.J., & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Myers, S.A., Reid, P.T., & Quina, K. (1998). Ready or not, here we come: Preparing psychology graduate students for academic careers.  Teaching of Psychology, 25, 124–126.

Sternberg, R.J. (2002, September). The role of institutional culture and values: What really to look for in the job hunt.  Observer, 15. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2002/september-02/the-role-of-institutional-culture-and-values.html

Wagner, R. (2000, December). The secret to a successful job interview. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Secret-to-a-Successful-/46366/

Observer Vol.23, No.10 December, 2010

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