How to get a(n academic) job: Interviews

Advice for Early Career Academics on applying for jobs in the humanities.

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  1. This is my original blogpost on preparing for and surviving interviews for academic jobs:
  2. This storify collects subsequent comments and suggestions made by generous friends and colleagues (real and virtual, academics and fellow-travellers). More feedback and links always welcome, especially on twitter (@josephinequinn), and especially from people from or working in places outside the Eur-UK-US axis; I will post updated versions from time to time.
  3. Preparation
  4. The big advice here is, of course, "Do your homework". One colleague says "I'm always surprised how many candidates clearly haven't even looked at the website to see what courses departments actually run, or how they're assessed. If you're applying for a job in a country where you were not yourself educated, make sure you know how that country's system of HE works. I've often interviewed US candidates for British jobs who assumed without question that the teaching methods they were familiar with (continuous assessment with points for attendance, quizzes, etc., TAs for marking, set textbooks for everything) just transfer wholesale to another country. This comes across not only as ignorant but also as arrogant."
  5. Several other commentators emphasised how different the academic job search is in different contexts, and how important it is to be aware of those differences. So candidates from the UK applying for jobs in the US, used to hearing the outcome of an interview within a day or two, should be aware that they might not find out the results of their interview(s) for months, and candidates from Oxbridge applying for jobs at other UK universities shouldn't be surprised to encounter representatives of 'divisional'-level administration as a much more important part of the interview panel, or to face a significant level of questioning about attracting external funding - and about whether their (usually tutorial) teaching experience is relevant for the kind of teaching done at that institution.
  6. There can be an even larger conceptual gulf between the US/UK and Everywhere Else - so that, as one friend told me, "even the idea that you need to have looked up the departmental syllabus in advance is not immediately obvious to everyone. In many places it goes without saying that when you apply for a job in your general area, you will teach what comes with it, whatever that may be, and no one expects you to have looked it up."
  7. Knowing what questions you might be asked isn't enough; you also need to know how - and how not - to answer them. So the appropriate answer to "Why do you want to work here" is not the honest "I'm desperate for a job", but something much more positive - i.e. don't succumb to the temptation to 'be yourself'. More generally, it's a good idea to have some sort of vision for the position, especially if it is a permanent one: "'how do you want to develop your field if you are offered the job' or something along those lines can come as a question, and if it doesn't it is always a good idea to slip it in anyway."
  8. Make it easy for the people interviewing you to hire you. "Since tenure [in the US] and hitting research goals [everywhere] are such big concerns, you want to spend a good chunk of time thinking about your research plan to and beyond tenure. In my experience, this means having a good plan for your first book, a realistic second book, and a couple of articles. You might need to roll out more or less of this research plan in different conversations."
  9. And keep at the forefront of your mind the required and desired skills and experiences that are often conveniently listed in the job specifications. One friend recalls an interview panel where "one candidate, not unreasonably, only had 3 of our 5 skills under their belt, but rather than having read-up and prepared something plausible to say about the remaining 2 (or even suggest how they planned to get themselves up to speed), had nothing to say about them at all, while another candidate who also only had 3 of the required skills had read up on the rest" - and so came across much better. As she puts it, "It's suicide to admit ignorance about something that was explicitly required."
  10. Several people suggest working up answers to specific, likely questions in advance. And a colleague sends excellent advice from the world of NGOs that can certainly apply to academic interviews as well, especially for jobs that involve any kind of administrative or pastoral responsibility: "Many candidates these days will come up against "example" questions about behaviours - "tell me about a time when you...". The rule for these is firstly to prepare your examples (one for each behaviour or competence) so you have them in your back pocket, and secondly to follow the three Cs rule in telling the story. Context (what was the situation, briefly, and what was the problem); conduct (what did you do, and how did you decide on that course of action); and conclusion (why things were better because of the action you took)."
  11. When it comes to practising, remember that you don't necessarily need an audience. One friend used to practise in the car: "just saying the words, paying attention to how I sounded and how long it took me to come to the point"
  12. In The Room
  13. Far and away the most controversial point in my original post was about the dreaded 'do you have a question for us' question. I took - and take - the view that this is an unnecessary part of an interview (as long as ample opportunities have been advertised for asking informal questions in advance of application), works against international candidates (who aren't usually expecting it), and can be rather dangerous for everyone: if you ask a question about something that you could have found out in advance you risk looking underprepared; if you ask people about themselves and their jobs (a popular option among some of my correspondents: what are the department's current priorities, what do you like best about working here, what do you most enjoy about teaching students at X, and so on) there is a risk that the interview is suddenly extended by an unexpected and awkward period of time on a busy day; if you ask a real question that might actually affect your willingness to take the job you could look like an appointment risk - such matters are in my personal view best discussed after you've been offered the job. This certainly isn't the moment to start negotiating pay and conditions. But not having any questions at all can also look a little odd. That's why I think that being ready with a short, anodyne, and practical question such as 'When am I likely to hear the outcome?', or perhaps a rather specific clarificatory question about something that you have read in the further particulars or on the website, is a safe bet; Saskia Roselaar suggests asking about interdisciplinary relationships with other departments. But it is worth being aware that there are a range of views out there about this, and so if you do want to ask something more interesting or complicated (assuming you are given the opportunity, which certainly doesn't always happen) that's fine - I'd just run it by a couple of people in advance. But don't worry about this too much: by the time you get to this stage of the interview the panel are likely to have formed an opinion one way or the other, and it's unlikely that what happens in the last minute or two will make much difference.
  14. More sartorial suggestions: no union jack socks, no bow ties. And more conduct advice: take a pause if you need to - "that's interesting, let me think about it for a moment" - but don't take forever, and take cues from your interviewers about their perception of the position and show that you fit them. Importantly, exhibit a very positive attitude about your alma mater/post-doc institution/previous job: "it's important to show that, even if where you were before was awesome or mediocre or a snake pit, *you* are a gracious and positive colleague."
  15. Presentations
  16. Excellent advice on strategy from a colleague who knows both the UK and North American systems: "Thinking about the format is crucial: if there is a teaching demonstration and a research demonstration, both should clearly be exactly that. One should be a top-notch research lecture with bells and whistles aimed both at the expert in one’s field and at an audience who might not know anything about one's topic (the furthest member of the panel might be the dean’s representative)...the explanation of a foreign field to a non-expert can serve as a litmus test of whether a candidate ‘is ready to lecture’. In the teaching demonstration, one should of course still demonstrate mental agility and methodological sharpness, but one should not forget that despite all one's attempts to persuade panels of one’s own dazzling abilities, the presentation should not go over the students’ heads. Also, involve (or try to), students, even in lectures. A persona of a smiling and a happy collegial, energetic self is probably not a bad thing. If there is only one demonstration then things get trickier (and in my experience this is a UK phenomenon), but these rules still apply."
  17. And a UK colleague notes that if you've read up on the institution's taught programme this is an opportunity to show that: 'you asked me to give a second year class on Roman emperors; I know that students here will have taken the compulsory first year module on Augustus, and that many will want to take the optional third year module on Hadrian, so for this class I've prepared a short session on ...'
  18. Campus Visits
  19. A couple of useful reminders: "do consider any meals or other social interaction or 'informal tours' etc as part of the interview process. The person showing you around may well be reporting to the interview panel later." "Be polite and friendly to everyone you meet as a candidate, including receptionists, assistants, and people who offer to get you tea or coffee. The interviewers may ask anybody from their team who's met you - however fleetingly - what they made of you, and it can't hurt to make a good first impression." On the other hand "while everybody knows that this is a time for the panel, and the faculty more generally (administrators and often students, both Grad and UG) to find out whether they want the candidate as a colleague, it is important not to forget that this is also the time for you to find out whether this is where you would like to work."
  20. One US-specific (I think?) point: pay particular attention to the details of the job ad when speaking to Deans.
  21. And both in the UK and US, and in addition to having dinners, giving talks and undergoing interviews, job candidates are increasingly asked to teach sample classes.
  22. More reading
  23. There is good general advice on academic interviews from jobs.ac.uk, and for a great set of tips and sample questions (and a very different take on the 'have you got a question for us' question):
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