It’s crazy, crazy times around here at The Professor Is In just now. I (oh so foolishly) thought we were through the crush as of Nov. 15, only to find that Dec. 1 looms even larger….. I’m racing like a busy little hamster to get final comments and edits back to everyone in time…. but I never want to miss a blog post, so here, today, I offer to you a quick and dirty list of “Facepalm Fails” of the academic interview. These are the questions that are SO EASY and SO OBVIOUS that nobody ever remembers to prepare for them.
And then, encountering them, you fall flat on your face, in a particularly humiliating way (because they’re so obvious), and get shunted out the door.
I have bombed more interviews than I care to remember because of these things.
And now as The Professor, I can effortlessly trip up one Interview Bootcamp client after another with the same set of questions.
The awful thing about the Facepalm Fails is that they are generally among the very first questions that are asked in an interview, and so their failure derails the entire thing, and sometimes your entire candidacy.
So, without further ado, here they are, The Facepalm Fails.
Tell us about your dissertation.
Yeah, I’m serious. I am constantly amazed at how many of you do not know how to simply and clearly and concisely describe your dissertation in a way that makes us understand why we should care about it, and how it intervenes and advances your field, in 3 minutes or less. Figure it out.
How would you teach our Intro class?
People. When you get a t-t job, you aren’t suddenly elevated into a magical sphere in which you spend all day stroking your beard and thinking profound thoughts about arcane subjects! You become a harrassed and overworked junior faculty member. One of the duties that may well fall to you is to teach the Intro class, enrollment ten thousand! Get a plan for that, stat! With textbook, please. Do NOT, whatever you do, start waxing nostalgic about your own halcyon days as an undergraduate in such a class. Nothing screams “Not Ready for Prime Time” more than that. They’re not hiring an undergraduate. They’re hiring the Prof.
How would you teach our Methods course?
Even at the graduate level, you are NOT going to be able to spend your time pontificating endlessly on the minutiae of your project. You will have to serve the needs of all (or many) of the students in the program. Many/most of them will not be working on your area of specialization, but you will still have to show that you can add value for them through the work of several core seminars. One of these is the Methods seminar. Have a plan!
How would you teach our Core Theory Seminar?
Ditto from above. This one is ROUGH! Be prepared. If they’re mean, they’ll quiz you! I lost a very good job on this question once. Know your shit. In Anthro, for example, this means speaking knowledgably about Marx, Weber and Durkheim and then moving up through people such as Freud, Adorno, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault, while also giving honor to Anthro standbys such as Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe- Brown, Boas, Marvin Harris, and the other old white dudes. Sure, you can complicate things by bringing in race and gender and sexuality but NEVER, EVER think that you can fudge a P.C.-lite answer to this without knowing your ancient foundations.
Name two courses you would develop for our department.
Have one undergrad and one graduate course always in your pocket. If the job is a SLAC, then have two undergrad, one lower level and one upper level. It goes without saying that these should be tailored according to the campus, department and job at hand.
You’re young. How would you mentor graduate students?
This one’s tough when you’re just a newbie. Don’t default to the “I’m so young; I don’t have experience!” excuse making mode. The best approach: “I received excellent mentorship from a variety of formal and informal advisors. They taught me xxx and yyy and zzz. I feel well prepared to pass on this knowledge to the next generation, and I’m eager to do so.”
You come from an xxxx kind of school. How would you adapt to a campus like ours?
Be prepared to speak of fit. When you visit an urban school, have some thoughts prepared on how much you love working with urban/returning students. When you visit a rural comprehensive, speak to the appeal of the size and scope of campus. When you visit a SLAC, be prepared to have a shpiel on the classic liberal arts education and wanting small classes and to mentor undergraduates. When you visit a lower ranking school, speak to the gratification of working with less-privileged students. Etc. Etc. Remember that most campuses feel insecure about something. They are always testing to make sure you really like what they are.
Do you have any questions for us?
You must have at least one good question to ask. The question you’re currently planning to ask is most likely NOT good. The vast majority of the questions clients share with me are inappropriate and potentially harmful to their candidacy. Why? Because they put the search committee on the spot, and potentially make them lose face. You must never ask a question that causes an interviewer to lose face. This includes anything that has a simple yes/no answer, anything that is political, anything that hinges on resources, and anything that implies judgment. Thus, “Is there a lot of collaboration in the department?” is bad, because it’s a yes/no question, and if the truthful answer is no, your interviewers will feel embarassed. “What is the plan for the department in the next five years?” is bad, because it is political and probably quite contested, and also implies judgment about what the right answer should be. “Is there automatic junior sabbatical after the third year review?” is bad because it reflects the resource base/financial status of the institution, and the answer could well be no, making the interviewers feel awkward. “You seem to be lacking classes in xxxx; are you looking to increase that coverage area?” is bad, because it is all judgment.
What are good questions? Questions that communicate, once again, that you’re a great fit for the department, and a great potential colleague. Ie, “Tell me about the undergraduates. What do the majors do after graduation?.” Or “What kind of research are the graduate students working on?” Or “I noticed the XXX initiative on the website. Can you tell me more about that?” Get it? Enthusiastic and eager to be involved.
Tell us about your second project.
This one is critical to the tenure track interview!! Read a full blog post on it here. ]
There are undoubtedly more Facepalm Fails, but these are the ones that got me at different moments, and that get the majority of my clients. If you have others, please list them (and the best way to answer!) below.