The Campus Visit, Part 1: Search Committee Interview

[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 a now-defunct online resource that I reproduce below).

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 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.


The Academic Job Interview: Sample Academic Job Interview Questions

Questions about Research
• Describe your current research. Will you be continuing in this research track? Describe your future research plans.
• How would you involve graduate/undergraduate students in your research?
• Where do your research strengths lie? (Quantitative/qualitative, etc.?) Why? What are your research weaknesses? And how will you improve?
• 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 professional development funds. How do you feel about that as a limiting factor? (Will you continue to go and pay your own way – stop doing research? Resent the limitations?)
• Could you tell us about your dissertation?
• What audiences are you addressing, what are the other hot books or scholars in your field, and how does your work compare with theirs?
• What is the cutting edge in your field and how does your work extend it?
• How will you go about revising your dissertation for publication?
What is the broader significance of your research? How does it expand our historic understanding, literary knowledge, humanistic horizons?
• Can you explain the value of your work to an educated layperson?
• Tell us how your research has influenced your teaching. In what ways have you been able to bring the insights of your research to your courses at the undergraduate level?
• How would you balance your teaching duties and your own research plans?
• If you were organizing a special symposium or conference on your research topic, which scholars would you invite?
• In what journals do you expect to publish your research?
• Would you be able to take on a graduate student immediately?
• Tell us briefly what theoretical framework you used in developing your research?
• If you were to begin it again, are there any changes you would make in your dissertation?
• What facilities do you need to carry out your research?
• How does your research address culture, language, race, ethnicity, socio-economic factors?
• What is left out of the talk?
• 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 – 12 hours per term; how would you manage this and still work on doing research and publishing?
• Tell us about a research project in which you’ve been involved that was successful and one that was not. Why do you think these were the outcomes?
Questions about Teaching
• What is your philosophy of teaching?
• What do you consider your teaching strengths/weaknesses?
• If you have a student who is doing poorly in your class, but has not missed classes and appears to be a good student, what would you do?
• There is a strong move to infuse interdisciplinary work into the curriculum. With what other disciplines could you work (teach/research)? Have you done such work in the past?
• What classes could you teach in our program?
• How would you plan a course in ___? What texts would you use? What topics would you cover?
• How would you evaluate student learning?
• How do you assess your students’ performances?
• Have you ever conducted formative evaluation or an SGID?
• How do you bring diversity into your day to day teaching?
• What is the difference between collaborative and cooperative learning?
• Could you tell us about your teaching experiences?
• How have you used technology in the classroom?
• How do you feel about teaching students of mixed abilities?
• If you could teach any course you wanted, what would it be? What would you teach next if you could teach two of them?
• How would you organize a freshman composition course?
• How would you organize an upper division course in your field?
• How would you organize a senior seminar in your field?
• How would you organize a graduate course in your field?
• If you could teach your dream upper level specialty course, what would that be?
• What critical approaches do you find most persuasive? How do they translate into your teaching?
• What kinds of essays do you want your students to write?
• How do reading and writing interact in your classroom?
• How do you feel about teaching ……… (composition, calculus , public speaking – substitute course from your field) ?
• How do you know you’ve been successful in teaching ….. (composition, calculus, public speaking)?
• How would you teach a major work in your field? (They may name one)
• Can you think of a specific example of when a student you were teaching really seemed to learn something that you regarded as worthwhile? Briefly describe what happened. What thing or things did you do that contributed to that student learning? Why, do you think, did these actions of yours work?
• Take course ___. As you would teach it, what three goals would the course achieve? When students had completed your course, what would they have learned that is of lasting value?
• What experience have you had teaching at (community college, private, liberal arts, faith-based) institution? How if at all do you think teaching at [type of] institution differs from teaching at a four year college or university?
• What experiences have you had teaching diverse students? (Well prepared, under prepared, first-generation, low-income, full-time, part-time, students with full-time jobs and/or family care responsibilities, students representing different ethnic groups and races, religions, ages and genders?) What teaching methods have proved effective with such students?
• How well prepared are you to teach the following 5 basic level courses? (Insert appropriate courses from your field)
• Describe your familiarity and experience with different teaching methods such as collaborative learning, learning styles adaptation, and classroom assessment.
• Tell me about your teaching techniques (e.g., group projects, case method, etc.)
• What is your favorite lecture and why?
• Tell me about your industry experience (if you have any)? How would you bring that industry experience into the classroom?
• If you have no industry experience: How do you expect to be able to teach students about the field if you have never worked in it?
• What is your favorite theory or theorist to teach?
• How do you motivate your students?
• How would you encourage your students to major in our field?
• How would you work with our students as opposed to those at your current institution?
• What would you change in an undergraduate/graduate/teacher education curriculum?
• How do you address culture, language, ethnicity, race in your courses? Give me an example or an activity that helps teachers/researchers talk about these issues.
• How should teacher education programs be set up so that prospective teachers are prepared to teach?
Questions about Department and Community Involvement
• Institution ___ is dedicated to providing a liberal arts/ spiritually based/ holistic education. How would you describe your place within that vision?
• You’ve seen our mission statement. How would you see yourself contributing to our mission and campus atmosphere?
• We have instituted a community service requirement for all undergraduates – how would you see yourself interface with such a program?
• Could you tell us about your long-range plans and commitment to this department?
• What is your opinion on single sex education? (if it is a Women’s University/ College)
• How will you fit in as a department member and what kind of contribution will you make to our community?
• Why do you especially want to teach at University ___? How do you see yourself contributing to our department?
• Apart from the obvious financial reasons, why would you like to join the Faculty of Y at University X?
• We conceive of our campus as one large community. What non- or extra -academic activities would you be interested in sponsoring or participating in?
• What is your perception of the responsibilities of a full-time faculty member in a University / College? …To the department? …To the division? …To the University / College as a whole?
Questions about Career and Personal Choices
• Describe your goals and plans for professional development as a University / College instructor?
• Where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years? In 10 years?
• What are some of the specific things you would like to address/learn in your own professional development? How is this connected to your work as an academic?
• What about our position is particularly attractive to you?
• What do you do when you are not working? (Modern equivalent of “what are your hobbies?”)
• How long do you plan on staying at University ___?
• What is the last book that you read for fun?
• How do you feel about living in ___ city?
• I understand that your partner is completing his/her Ph.D. What if you receive job offers in different locations?
• What kind of salary are you looking for?
• Why have you changed jobs so frequently?
• If you get more than one job offer how will you decide between them?
• Who else is interviewing you?
• How did you go about researching / preparing for the interview for this position?
• What questions do you have for us?

Resources used in compiling this list include The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers Mary Dillon Johnson “The Academic Job Interview Revisited” The University of Georgia, Teaching Assistant Resources “Job Search” University of Maryland College Park Department of American Studies, Mary Corbin Sies “Academic Job Interview Advice” Michigan State University, University Teaching Assistant Programs K. M. Johnson “Talking about Teaching in the Interview” The University of Michigan, Division of Student Affairs The Career Centre “Interview Questions – Academic Job Search” University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences, Department of English Michael Gamer and Anne K. Krook “Job-Interviewing Handout” San Francisco State University, Department of Mathematics Julia Aguirre “Academic Interview Preparation Resource Document” The University of Texas at Austin, Trina Sego and Jeff L. Richards “Ph.D. Interview Preparation Guide for Positions in Academia” The University of Western Ontario, Teaching Support Centre Graduate Career Day Handout October 2007 “Entering the Academic Profession” University of Minnesota Centre for Teaching and Learning, Preparing Future Faculty Retreat Handouts (2001) Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning Harvard University

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The Campus Visit, Part 1: Search Committee Interview — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: What Inside Candidates Persist in Doing Wrong |

  2. Dr. Karen,

    A question for you regarding the larger role of hiring committees in the ultimate decision making process: Does the committee generally tend to be advisory, that is, coming back to the department as a whole with a suggestion like “Our ranking of candidates for this search is: (1) Dr. K, (2) Dr. Q and (3) Dr. D.”, which is then open for debate? Or is their role more decisive in that the members are charged with making a decision by which the department will more-or-less abide?

    Furthermore, I’m wondering if you could elaborate on whether these rankings result from systematic analysis by rubric or more by personal impression and overall gestalt? If rubrics are used, would you please provide a few examples of evaluation criteria (obviously the job talk matters greatly, but what other interactions like dinner?)?

    Great blog. Many thanks!

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