How To Talk To A Dean

Over the course of the 2011-2012 job market cycle, several clients wrote to me inquiring about how they should talk to the Dean they were scheduled to meet during their campus visit. Indeed, many, if not most, campus visits still include a visit with the Dean, and this is often the least understood element of the entire experience. What in the world do Deans want to talk about?

Well, I have never been a Dean, so I don’t as thorough a grasp of this question as I do of job interview matters at the departmental level. Because of that, this is one of those topics that will benefit greatly from the collected wisdom of the group. Please share your own experiences of meeting with the Dean in the comment stream below.

For now, I am reliant on the experiences that I had myself on the job market, many years ago, added on to the more intimate knowledge of Deans I gained as a department head. Based on this set of experiences, I would say that Deans tend to fall into three general patterns in terms of interactions with job candidates—the explanatory pattern, the budgetary pattern, and the intellectual pattern.  These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In the first pattern, they take their job to be a primarily explanatory one, and focus on the “compensation package” aspects of the job, which include not just salary range but also the benefits and retirement plans, as well as general policies about 3rd year review and tenure, and the raises associated with promotion. In cases like this, the meeting with the Dean is actually very easy for the candidate, who mainly occupies a listening role.

In the second pattern, the Dean takes his or her job to be primarily a budgetary one, and asks questions that relate, directly or indirectly, to money. The forms these can take are varied, but include inquiring about a candidate’s past success with major grants; plans for future grants; budgetary requirements for research and plans for fulfilling them; comfort in teaching extremely large classes; commitment to interdisciplinarity and cross listing of classes (ie, filling multiple teaching needs with this single line); and willingness to be the “sole” representative of a field in the department or on campus.

This last one is particularly treacherous for candidates. In the course of the conversation you might inquire, very reasonably, “are there plans to build the program in xxx and hire other xxx specialists in departments such as xx in the next few years?” The Dean responds, “of course we’d always like to build in every worthy direction, but in the current financial situation, hard choices have to be made, and there’s a good possibility you will be the only xxx specialist for the foreseeable future.” And then she looks at you expectantly.

Here is how you probably will want to respond: “I hope that there will be hires at LEAST in the xxx department because I can’t be expected to carry the weight of an entire program on my own…” And that would lose you the job (at least from the Dean’s perspective—and some Deans play a large stealth role in hiring decisions).

The correct answer is, instead: “I see plenty of opportunity for growth with even a single faculty member. With strategic collaborations with yy and zzz scholars in departments such as yy and zzzz, and leveraging the resources already on campus in the form of qqqqq, I can imagine creating opportunities for students in the areas of bb and cc even without the addition of another dedicated line.”

That, my friends, is how you deal with a Dean who is taking the budgetary line.

In the third pattern, the Dean takes his or her job to be primarily an intellectual one. This means that the Dean takes the interview with you as an opportunity to quiz you on the state of your field and its most important directions of future growth. This tactic kills two Deanly birds with one stone. On the one hand, obviously the Dean is quizzing you on your intellectual breadth and confidence, determining the degree to which you can look up from your narrow dissertation project to speak to the broad trends in your field as a whole. On the other hand, the Dean is getting an excellent candid perspective on the emergent trends in your field, against which he or she can judge and evaluate what the current members of the department are talking about and doing. If three candidates come through the Dean’s door all telling her that the most important new trend in the field is xxxx, and nobody in the department is currently doing xxxx, the Dean has a very useful insight into that department’s likely lack of status and competitiveness, nationally, over the next several years and thus diminishing worthiness for increased budget allocations and raise funds.

If you encounter a Dean who is taking the intellectual tack, you need to be prepared to speak broadly about the most important current debates in your field. An “intellectual Dean question” will sound something like the following:

“What do you think are the most important current debates in your field?”

“How do you think your field will change the most in the next ten years and why?”

“What is the single biggest challenge facing your field right now?”

“What is the most important text published in the last five years in your field, and why?”

Sadly, most job candidates are ill-prepared indeed to deal with the intellectual Dean’s line of questioning.

Many years ago a senior colleague of mine in Anthropology told me a story about going on a campus visit to an Ivy League anthropology department, and meeting with the graduate students. “What are you reading right now??” he told me he had asked them eagerly, “What is the book that everyone is reading and talking about??”

The graduate students paused, and looked at each other and thought for awhile. “The Nuer!“ they finally responded. “Yeah, everybody is reading The Nuer!

For those of you who are not anthropologists, let me pause to explain that The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and  Political Institutions of a Nilotic People is a classic ethnography, a foundational text of old school British social anthropology, written by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and published in 1940. A core element of a “History of Anthropology” seminar reading list, The Nuer is a book that “everyone” reads only if “everyone” is conceived of as 1st and 2nd year anthropology graduate students in a very old-fashioned department indeed.

What my friend was asking, but what the graduate students entirely failed to grasp, was not “what is everyone reading in their classes,” but instead “what is the thing that everyone is reading that is exciting, new, dynamic, controversial, and that has the department riled up, challenged, inspired, thinking, and talking?” Ie, what is the book that is changing our field?

Although it’s a different set of circumstances entirely, this story encapsulates at a thematic level the problem of green job candidates confronting an intellectual Dean’s question. The green job candidate is very likely to be, still, myopically focused on the grad student experience. That is, the experience of taking classes, suffering through comprehensive exams, and enduring the dissertation defense. This narrow, terribly narrow, set of experiences is entirely based on the graduate student “proving” that he or she has read enough, knows enough, is legit enough, to be “passed” to the next stage as a credible practitioner in the field.

However, the Dean demands something else, something more. The Dean, who is mostly likely not in your discipline, is prepared to accept that you are indeed perfectly qualified as a practitioner of your field. What the Dean is testing is whether you are, or are poised to be, a LEADER in your field. A leader is someone who doesn’t just accept others’ judgments about the traditional, foundational core thinkers and writers (The Nuer), but who thinks and judges independently, in an organic and evolving and up to date way about what is important now, what is becoming important, what needs to happen next, and why.

The best job candidates will be thoroughly prepared to answer the kinds of “intellectual Dean questions” I listed above. Now, it goes without saying that the Dean you encounter on your visit may never ask them.  But the fact is, you really never know who will.  These questions have a pesky habit of popping up from the search chair, the department head, the graduate students….  all sorts of people.  And to be prepared to transition to the next step, and assume your rightful position as a important scholar in your field, someone who is listened to, respected, and cited, you actually need to have an answer.  You must leave behind your graduate student blinders, and learn to think and speak like an intellectual leader.



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How To Talk To A Dean — 30 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. You gave me a bit of a shake in terms of realizing how having my head in my dissertation project has left me generally unaware of what’s new and interesting in my field. I tend to be rather fond of the retro and unfashionable, so I’ve avoided keeping tabs on current book releases etc. Plenty of time to fix that, though!

  2. In my recent interview I had an example of the third type of Dean, the intelectual one. The question he asked was “What is your big vision and what great problem are you attempting to solve?”. This sort of threw me and to be honest, I had no idea what to say, because in my field there is no big overwhelming vision, it’s a technical multidisciplinary field that has applications in several disciplines. So I just blurted that out and proceeded to list what several big names are doing, giving some examples and how I think this all contributes to the development of the field. It seems to have been the right thing to say, because afterwards the Head of Department congratulated me on answering this question. He said in his experience, 95% of candidates blow this one completely and it is very rare to find someone who doesn’t stumble on it. Which surprised me, because I didn’t think I answered very well, I was just honest. Well, it worked for me and perhaps may be of use to someone else as well.

  3. One useful piece of advice I received was to NOT engage too much when the dean starts talking about salary, retirement plan, etc. Just nod politely and wait until you have the offer in hand to try to negotiate. You should not appear to be difficult and there will be a more opportune moment to work out the financial nitty gritty.

    In my experience, both the dean and tenure committee (with whom I also met as part of my campus visit at a SLAC) seemed primarily interested in gauging how much enthusiasm I could communicate for my subject. They were not just looking for confidence and competence, but for the ability to make others excited and to meet them at their level. Perhaps because I am ABD at an Ivy League with little teaching experience, they also asked me troubleshooting questions about the classroom (e.g. “In ‘beginning’ language classes here, students often come in with different levels of ability. How would you handle a situation like that?”). They were also clearly trying to ascertain MY level of excitement about the job, which I tried to communicate indirectly by “showing I had done my research,” i.e. by mentioning initiatives or programs that already existed on campus and how I might contribute to those.

    I’ve heard stories of deans asking point blank what other offers the candidate has in hand. I assume the best approach in such a situation is to say something non-committal and vague like “I am extremely interested in this position and would consider the offer very seriously.”

    I have also heard of candidates asking deans for the “inside scoop” on the hiring department (e.g. “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the department?”). Even if phrased in a neutral, curious way, this is, in my opinion, a horrible idea, as the dean may be very good friends with someone on the hiring committee and may resent having to say something negative. Throughout the entire campus visit, my MO was not to give ANYONE an opportunity to say anything negative (including the students). Assume everything will get back to the search committee.

    • Yikes, it goes without saying of COURSE you NEVER negotiate with the Dean!!! Never never never, no no no. This is a sit and listen politely situation, and ask basic questions such as, “what is the state retirement contribution?”

  4. I had an interview at a SLAC where the dean engaged me exclusively in talk about pedagogy- questions about my teaching philosophy statement, how I’ve developed as a teacher over time, what I’m like in the classroom, etc. I also met with the provost, who again focused on teaching. Indeed, this was the biggest topic of conversation all day. I was able to anticipate this by doing loads of internet sleuthing on the college website. Know your school when it comes to these types of meetings!

  5. Can someone explain how to manage the other deans, usually early on in the first year — the associate academic dean, for instance? I found my run-in with the associate dean over how to handle trouble students did me no good turn with the main Dean, as the two are very close friends. This is not always the case, I hear, but it certainly was a minefield I was not prepared to navigate, I confess.

  6. This is great! There’s very little info out there on this aspect of the job search. Thanks for a very informative post!

    For my part, I also second the above comments about multiple questions on pedagogy. During my job search this year, the Deans at two separate campuses (both teaching focused) quizzed me extensively on my teaching style, how enthusiastic I was about teaching, etc. (For example, “What do you consider the biggest challenge in teaching, and how do you overcome it”).

  7. I’ve always found meetings with the Dean kind of restful. They tell me a lot about the big picture with the school, I ask questions aimed at big picture things and making sure they know what I could contribute to that (e.g. I want to apply for grants X,Y, and Z, will the grants office be able to work with me on submitting these? How about if I want to bring in a training grant who handles admin on that?). Usually I get to ask a few questions and they talk a lot. It’s gone well so far.

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  9. If things go my way this week, I will be meeting with the vp at a community college. I Hope this will help me get through it.
    I am finding the structure of my current experience with this community college to be vastly from university interviews I’ve been on. It seems to be all about ethical responses to different specific situations. And my ideas about.diversity and social service.

    The process is very different.

  10. Something else to be mindful of… other people that you meet on your visit, even in “non critical” positions, or those who are not on the hiring committee may be evaluating you. At our institution, any one who meets or is familiar with the candidate, or goes to the public lecture, can write a letter to the committee.

    And as for the Deans, also be mindful that although they may offer you something, you need to have that offer on paper. I know three people who were promised some employment for their spouses by the Dean. Deans change frequently, and regardless, the Dean wasn’t in a position to offer this, and of course it should have been in writing. The Dean has a problem… getting you to take the position will solve the problem.

  11. Hi Karen,
    I have an upcoming campus visit at a small liberal arts school and am supposed to meet separately with a Dean and the school President. Do you have thoughts on how the conversation with the President might be similar to or different from the one with the Dean in terms of general concerns and expectations each might have?


    • You can actually assume that a President is a lot like a Dean. The BIG PICTURE is going to be the main thing, and also judging your general affability/collegiality/enthusiasm for the enterprise writ large rather than your own narrow research exclusively.

    • Can someone eapixln how to manage the other deans, usually early on in the first year the associate academic dean, for instance? I found my run-in with the associate dean over how to handle trouble students did me no good turn with the main Dean, as the two are very close friends. This is not always the case, I hear, but it certainly was a minefield I was not prepared to navigate, I confess.

  12. Is it OK to ask about benefits when meeting with the Dean? Or is it expected that this will be brought up when and if a contract is proposed?

  13. I recently got invited to a on-campus interview at a SLAC and in my schedule I am to meet with the following: President, Vice President (for Mission and Ministry, who is also a nun), Provost, Dean, and Human Resources (among others of course).

    In previous interviews that I’ve had with Deans or Assoc. Deans they would tell me about the state of the school (offering the big picture information and talking for quite a bit) and then I would have time to ask them my questions. I am really perplexed as to the types of questions that I should be asking these people, especially the nun.

    In such a situation, is it OK to repeat my questions from meeting to meeting? Do these people typically meet up and discuss the questions that they were asked?

    Has anyone else been in this type of situation before?

    Thank you for your help!

  14. Hi Karen,

    I just thought I’d offer my .02 as to the types of deans, simply because it varied a bit from the types listed.

    I had an on-campus recently and my talk with the dean began with her taking a very explanatory role. Simple enough, I thought. After a bit of talk about how things worked, she actually asked me a few questions that I’d honestly expect from a search committee. The questions didn’t deal with my knowledge of the field as much as she wanted to gauge my passion for the field. (I’m in education-curriculum).

    Somehow, the meeting evolved into more of a laid-back discussion after one of my questions led to her giving me a pretty in-depth background about herself. All in all, I felt like it went well and it became fairly obvious that she is a passionate school teacher in an administrator’s role.


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  16. Hi,

    Is it appropriate to ask about salary and benefits when meeting with the dean (senior associate dean, actually)? If so, how can this be phrased diplomatically?

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  18. Dr. Karen,

    I have an upcoming campus visit in which I have tentatively been scheduled to meet with both the provost and the president. Any advice for sitting in with the president??

    Many thanks.

  19. Although most of this thread is at least a few years old, I know that people doing Google searches are still going to come across it. Therefore, I figured I would add my own two cents to things. I often interview people in my role as associate Dean, and what the Dean’s office is really looking for is proof that a candidate is willing to work as part of a team in things like committees and collaborations. We also want to know your feelings on interdisciplinarity because a lot of the work being done in the University today is being done across disciplines. As mentioned above, we often want to know about grants and your interest in learning how to do them if you haven’t already been successful at them. Ultimately, one of the Deans jobs is to ensure that the departments in his or her unit are helping to increase the visibility of that unit. And so someone interviewing with the dean needs to find a way to show that he or she will help do that.

    • Thank you for this, Kia! I found that the interdisciplinarity issue arose in the budget thread–basically meeting multiple needs with a single hire.

  20. I recently had a meeting with the Dean during an interview. He told me what the salary offer would be and asked me what I thought about it. (During the interview with faculty it was brought up that the salary at this place was lower than average but people thought the quality of life in this region made it worth it.) I told the Dean it was lower than what I would have asked for, then asked about non-academic spousal hires. I told him it was not a requirement for me but could make an offer more appealing. He responded that they often try to help spouses find jobs. I am wondering if I should include a resume for my spouse in my thank you letter for the Dean, or wait to see if I get an offer?

    • Tim, thanks for writing. As VERY FIRM policy I never offer ad hoc advice on offers or negotiating until someone has signed on as a client. I do loads of Negotiating Assistance work, and would be pleased to help you with this. Please do check otu last week’s post, Negotiating as Therapy and follow links to other writing i’ve done on negotiating. Anyway, email me at if you want to know more. Karen

  21. Thank you for this. It was greatly needed :). You are so right, most of us don’t have someone to guide us through the painful job search… I wish this was part of our academic programs.

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