The #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview

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.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


The #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview — 27 Comments

  1. Thanks Karen –
    for those of us a few years out of our PhD / looking for our second TT job, do we still need to talk / be prepared to talk about the PhD or can we move on to our new research projects?

    • Good question, Ally! No, you guys need to talk about your current major project. it is always best when you can link that organically to the diss in some way though, to show a consistent ARC of scholarly trajectory.

  2. Thanks for another insightful post! Are you thinking of writing a book?
    (I’m sure your gentle readers would understand if you switched to weekly blog entries, given that it’s almost December…)

    • KG, funny you should mention that…. I’m currently contemplating what my first book as Dr. Karen will look like. Any thoughts or requests?

      Re my posting schedule, I appreciate my reacers’ understanding! But looks like I’ve come out the other side as of today! The inbox is quieting. I will eventually switch to once a week, but I”m not there yet–I have too much to say!!! (And so many promised special request posts still to deliver on….)

      • Excellent news that you are thinking of writing a book! You seem to have cornered an untapped (if specialized) market. Ideas: 1. It would be great if the book was structured in a way that would facilitate its use as a “textbook lite” if someone wanted to offer a professional development course to their doctoral students. 2. Personally, I would appreciate a chapter that focuses on advice for those of us that didn’t follow the traditional path of bachelor’s–> master’s–> PhD–> post doc. (The “on-ramps” set.) 3. From an “international” perspective, it would be helpful to have a table outlining what all of the school types / rankings mean, plus their relevance to application materials and what can (generally) be expected for those on the tenure track. (I only recently figured these things out and I’m a Canadian married to an American, so not that far away.) 4. As a matter of style within the book, I am drawn to personal excerpts; these could be from a hiring committee member’s or an applicant’s perspective. (To cast a wider net and get perspectives from various types of schools.) 5. I love the photos /links that accompany your fashion advice but it might be hard to incorporate that type of thing into a book without it becoming dated. (For a fashion disaster like me the fashion advice is terrific! Maybe you could reference a link to an up-to-date page on your website, in the way that textbooks offer additional materials online.)

        Good to hear things are slowing down a bit! I have a specialized consultancy too, and it’s a major challenge balancing home life and deadlines.

  3. The one that has had me paralyzed is… “and do you have any questions for us?” Of course for an interview you are so tremendously, insanely prepped, you often DON’T have any questions–at least not of the kind you can ask. I never felt more lame than the time I paused slightly too long and then replied, “No.” It finally dawned on me that I could ask questions even when I knew the answer. Also, for the campus interview, never forget that you can ask different people the same questions. The variety of responses can be illuminating.

  4. When I’ve been on search committees, if people say “Tell me about the students” I think, “you can’t read a website?” It reads like a fluff question because they couldn’t think of a better one. Good questions are those that show the candidate has given the position some thought. If the people interviewing you can’t tell you about a 5-year plan because it’s too political, then that would concern me as a candidate.

    • The website does not tell you what the students are like to teach in particular classes, if they do the reading, why they are in that major, etc. When I have asked about the students in interviews, the interviewers have glowed and tripped over themselves to say wonderful things about their amazing students. If they have nothing more to say that what was on the website — very bad sign. (I am now in my second TT job). This question should be easy for the committee (if they can remember any of their students), and very informative for the candidate.

  5. I’ve seen doctoral program websites that include the general places where their graduates have gone (industry, academia, federal government) and some information about the more prestigious post-doctoral fellowships their graduates have gotten. I can’t believe people can’t describe their dissertation in a couple minutes when it’s most likely consumed their entire lives for at least 3 or more years, lol.

    What about when it’s obvious that you’re part of a diversification of ideas for the department – is it ok to ask what other areas are going to be addressed with the other hires? For example, my most recent university’s biology department was all about birds, wildlife, plants and microscopic “bugs.” Realizing they had a lot of undergraduates going premed, they looked for a more biomedical focus for 2 of their 3 recent faculty hires. If I was one of them, it would definitely affect my number of research students if they hired someone else with similar interests in addition to myself, therefore making the topic very relevant.

    • terrific question. very smart. My main concern here would be WHEN you ask this. I would not ask this at the conference or skype interview stage. You don’t want to look like you’re judging them for their possible delay in building up your area of strength, or harboring doubts about whether you’d be happy there (even if you are). You need a job. While some folks might entertain multiple offers, the fact is, it’s pretty much winning the lottery to get even a single offer. Therefore, the interview is much, much less about you judging them, than it is about them judging you. Sorry, but there it is. If there is no other faculty member in your field, then your job #1 is to articulate how effective and enthusiastic you will be in representing your field all by your little old self. It’s good to dream that a second hire will occur, but in this economy, many hires remain at the dream stage.

      Now, when you’re on the campus visit this is the kind of topic that can come up in a more organic and natural way. You can inquire: “what directions is the department hoping to build in the coming years?” and then listen very very carefully to the response.

    • To clarify, my suggested question for the “do you have any questions for us” part of the interview concerns UNDERGRAD students. And websites rarely have information on where they go after graduation.

  6. Because I’m a bit too new on the market, reading your posts makes me nervous every time, but it helps me work on the areas I need. This is the one that I really need right now, with a handful of interviews coming up, so thank you!

  7. This is EXCELLENT advice. I would only add more emphasis to the social component of the campus visit. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF DINNER. Interviewers do NOT want to sit for 90 minutes with a nudnik who never once has the presence of mind/human decency to ask, “So, what do you work on?” Even if you DO know what the person works on (if they’re famous or something) ASK WHAT THEY ARE WORKING ON ANYWAY. Many a candidate has been sunk simply by being a self-absorbed nudnik capable of speaking only about themselves. Committees and interviewers want to know, “Is this someone I could sit on a committee with? Attend a faculty meeting with? Ask to give a guest lecture? Chat pleasantly with in the hall?” If you’re not, you will not get the job. Also, you’re so, so right that in many places, grad student opinions DO matter. Our grads have animal cunning, and can sniff out an impostor/self-absorbed nudnik even better than faculty can. Offend them at your peril.

    • Hear, hear! This is true wisdom!!! One of the oddest thing about so many candidates, and the clients I work with, is how often they say something like “well I/they read their/my stuff, so I don’t need to ask about it.” Seriously. Get a social skill. Everyone loves to talk about themselves. ALWAYS ask and be prepared to engage in some interesting and meaningful way.

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  9. Hi, thanks, everything here is very useful. I wanted to suggest another one. I was doing one of my first interviews the other day and all was going ok until the very last question: how would you increase diversity in our department? long moments of awkward silence followed – then they tried to suggest an unconvincing answer and I went with that.. I guess on the positive side I won’t have to bother booking the flight for the campus visit..:)

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  12. 3 more standard questions:
    1. What would be your dream course to teach (a different course that you currently cannot teach in our department but nevertheless we would want to know about your secret dreams!)
    2. Why do you want to join our school ? (I need a bloody job!)
    3. How do you incorporate your research in your teaching? (I have tripped on this one since my CV predominantly consists of College Writing I and II courses and my PhD area is postcolonial literature!!)

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  15. I understand that nowadays there are more candidates than positions in the market, so often candidates are begging for the jobs, but it does not mean that we do not deserve to be treated like a human being. Some interviewers have forgotten that they were once interviewees. Now they are in a secured position, develop the attitude, and get offended by interviewees’ questions so easily. One time they asked me if I have any question, I said, “how many assistant professors got tenured within 10 years in your department?” The full-professor in the room got extremely angry and questioned me, “Why do you want to know the answer? You are not supposed to ask this question in the interview.” Then he kicked me out from the conference interview room.
    Sadly, it was a prestigious research school. I always thought tenured professors with many years administrative experience would have better manner but it is not always the case.

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