[This post is excerpted from the Professor's Guide to Taming the Academic Job Market, available at The Prof Shop.]
I will address some specific questions to expect in the search committee interview below. Before that, however, I wish to emphasize that before you ever open your mouth, your body language and overall demeanor will make a powerful impression that may well gain or lose you the job. Your body is speaking, at all times. Control what it is saying.
Master the confident sitting posture. Take up all the room in the chair to which you’re entitled. Square your shoulders, and keep your arms wide apart. Do not fold or nervously twist your hands in your lap. Keep them up, visible, on the arms of the chair or on the table. Gesture visibly for emphasis. Keep your chin up, and make strong, steady, direct eye contact with each and every committee member in turn. Speak directly to the person asking each question, while also including the others in your response.
Do not laugh nervously. Do not fiddle with your hair. Do not fiddle with your jewelry. Do not let your eyes dart anxiously around the room. Do not apologize. Do not make excuses. Do not open any response, or any kind, at any time, with what you “don’t know,” or “didn’t do.” Here’s an example:
Q: Tell us about your publication plans.
A: Well, I haven’t really sent anything out to a refereed journal yet, but I am definitely planning on it. I just haven’t quite finished the essay yet.
Banish this! Let these words never pass your lips! Here’s what it should sound like:
Q: Tell us about your publication plans.
A: I have a manuscript nearly finished that I will be submitting in the Spring to the American Anthropologist.
Let’s try another one, a common question that easily trips up a candidate:
Q: What do you think of Nelson’s new book?
(You have not read Nelson, although Nelson is famous, so you know his general point of view)
A: (bad version): Oh, gosh, I haven’t actually read that yet. Ummm, yeah, sorry. I, um, know it’ll be good and I definitely need to read that!
A: (good version): Nelson and I agree on a lot of things, and I’ve taken many insights from his work on XXXX. But my work departs from his in its focus on XXX.
Get it? You use scholarly Jiu Jitsu to move the discussion away from what you don’t know and back to what your own work is and does.
In the search committee interview you should be prepared to answer all of the questions listed above under the conference interview, as well as other ones. These include:
- We notice you were trained at a large public institution; how do you feel you’ll fit in at a small liberal arts institution like ours? (and variations on this theme)
- What is the most significant piece of research that you have read in the last year?
- What do you envision for creating a research program here?
- Do you plan to apply for research funding?
- What is the funding record of your field?
- We have a large teaching load here – 3 classes a term. How would you manage this and still stay productive in research and writing?Your current research requires more technological support than this institution is able to provide. How will you deal with this?
- We see that you have done a lot of conference papers and presentations; we have limited research funding here to support that kind of travel. How will you adapt to that?
(Many of the questions above I drew from: http://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/current/dev/AcademicJobInterview_Questions.pdf)
As you can see from this selection of questions, once on the campus visit, you must be prepared to move beyond abstract discussion of your dissertation and teaching experience, to answer direct questions about your fit with that particular institution and department.
Some questions can become quite pointed (although all questions related to private issues such as marital status or children are illegal), and you must be prepared to offer thoughtful, plausible responses. How would you deal with highly limited research support? How do you feel about living in the Midwest? How will you cope with a heavy teaching load? These are questions you MUST answer satisfactorily in your own mind before you ever set foot on that campus.
Be aware that all departments in the humanities and social sciences are facing severe budgetary crises. Many are in a chaotic state of flux. Many are confronting immediate imperatives from the Deans and upper administration to reduce costs and increase enrollments. You may be asked questions specifically about saving money. Be prepared for these.
If the search committee asks you, “how do you feel about teaching large classes?” there is only one correct answer, and that is: “I believe large classes can be a powerful and effective learning environment. I would look forward to using new technological innovations to maximize the opportunities for student discussion and participation.”
If the search committee asks you, “how would you propose increasing the undergraduate enrollment in our discipline/department?” you respond, “I would certainly welcome the opportunity to create classes that show how fascinating our discipline is to new populations of undergraduates. I am developing a class on sexuality/popular media/blogging cultures/major league baseball/reggae/slam poetry that I would be happy to open up to enrollments over 100.”
Be the job candidate who saves the Department Head (and Dean) money.
And of course, you must be prepared to ask questions of your own. One of the biggest interview pitfalls is when the candidate is asked, “do you have any questions?” and he can’t respond with a single one. To prevent that from happening, here is a selection of questions, all drawn from Tara Kuther’s About.com site, “What To Ask During an Academic Job Interview” (be aware that her list includes some absolutely inappropriate questions as well, such as “How is the university organized? What are the major units and administrators of the school and what are their responsibilities? What does the organizational flow chart look like?” You would come off as bizarre and maybe a bit paranoid if you asked anything like this on a campus visit. I have included below only those questions that I feel can be safely asked in any interview context.)
- What’s the relative importance of teaching, research and service for tenure?
- About what percent of faculty receive tenure?
- Can grants be used to supplement salary?
- What type of retirement program is there? What percentage of the salary goes to retirement? What does the school contribute?
- What type of health program exists? What are the costs and benefits?
- How many undergraduate and graduate students are presently in the department? How are their numbers changing?
- Tell me about your student population.
- Where do the undergraduate students go after graduation?
- What kinds of technology are available in the classroom?
- How well does the library meet departmental needs?
- What courses are you looking to fill?
- How does the department and university support the improvement of teaching?
- What resources for research are available within the department (e.g., computer facilities, equipment)
- Is there a research office on campus to help faculty write grants?
- Is outside grant support essential for promotion and tenure?
- How are graduate students supported?
- How do graduate students select research advisors?
- What kinds of financial support are available for research and supplies?
Remember, on the campus visit, you are also interviewing them. Make sure that your major questions get answered. If you’re worried you’ll forget them, write out the list ahead of time, and refer to it at the end of the interview. It’s ok to do that.