I can haz job? Tips and tricks for the academic interview

The job season is in full swing, which means those of you on the job market are probably anxiously checking and re-checking your email for an update about your applications. If you’ve done the work of putting together a really compelling application package, and you’ve pitched yourself appropriately, and you’re a good fit for the jobs you’ve applied for (yes, it’s a real thing), you can probably expect to get an interview at some point in your job-hunting future. I’ve had a bit of success with interviews and been on a couple of search committees (if you haven’t done this yet, I urge you to do so! It’s really valuable!). Given that the interview season is just starting up, I wanted to share my thoughts as a recent hire with the folks still in the trenches. Some of this will vary by discipline, so I’ve tried to keep this as broad as possible. Also, as a blog by and about women in academia, we’re often writing for a particular audience, but most of this post is really relevant to folks regardless of gender. 

Nail the phone or Skype interview. If you’ve made it through the first hoop and been short-listed, the phone or Skype interview (or a session at a conference, depending on the field) can help get you in the door. The Professor Is In has some really good advice about how to rock these (as well as lots of other career advice, for free on the blog or via consulting for a fee). Phone interviews can feel very awkward, because it feels less like a personal back-and-forth– especially if you can’t see your audience! I suggest practicing first with a friend, in the environment you’ll actually be doing the interview in. Wear interview clothes, top and bottom; you don’t want to have to get up in the middle to grab your calendar or turn off your phone and have your committee see that you’re wearing Wonder Woman pajama pants! Similarly, practicing with a friend on another computer gives you a committee’s eye, highlighting potential issues; you may decide the blouse you planned to wear doesn’t work well with the camera angle on your desktop, for example. Ask colleagues in your field what they were asked and what they ask during interviews. I found it helpful to have a few bullet points written out in large print to remind me of my answers to suspected questions, in case I froze.

If you’ve rocked the phone/Skype conversation and are invited to the campus interview:

Communicate your logistical requirements before your campus visit. If you have any specific needs (pumping time, disability accommodations, etc.) make sure you communicate those in advance with whomever is organizing your visit. Let them know about any dietary restrictions you have– don’t assume that the campus cafeteria can accommodate gluten allergies or vegan diets, for example. You may feel as though you shouldn’t make a fuss about your needs because you don’t want to annoy your interviewers, but this information is helpful in preventing frustration or embarrassment during the interview.

Plan ahead, and be prepared to spend money you may not have. You may be expected to cover your travel expenses up front and then get reimbursed, so make sure you’ve got some means to cover the expenses. Add that to wardrobe, luggage, and accessory needs (below), and the costs can add up. Start budgeting for that now, or have a credit card to help out with the expense. You’ll want a decent suitcase that fits in the overhead compartment (luggage gets lost, even on interviews!) if you don’t have one. Make sure you have every charger, adapter, connecting cable, laser pointer, or other devices you might need, and don’t assume your host will have everything.

Be thoughtful about your appearance. This is a huge topic, and we’ve covered it before, but there are some points worth making about interviews in particular. Consult both senior and early career faculty on their opinions about what to wear for interviews in your field. Get a nice, professional haircut in preparation for your visit, and take care of any hair removal needs you may have (you never know what may come up during your visit). Consider buying or borrowing a professional briefcase or bag (rather than that field-worn backpack you’ve used since undergrad). Buy comfortable, professional shoes, and test them out extensively before your interview. You’ll likely do a lot of walking, and you don’t want to be limping in blood-filled shoes on the day of your interview– I’ve done it, and my feet still bear the scars. Pay attention to geography; if you’re Californian and interviewing in Minnesota, invest in sensible boots and a warm coat for your December interview. People may be concerned that you can’t handle the weather (it’s a common reason faculty leave my university– don’t underestimate the power of climate!). Of course, women in particular face all sorts of double standards and complications, but even men may face conundrums about ties or jackets. As a general rule, layers are great for everyone– you may go from single digit temperatures outside to a sauna in your seminar room with overactive radiators, so make sure you’ve actually got something underneath that jacket or sweater so you can be comfortable in all temperatures! Make sure someone can give you feedback on your outfits from all angles– seated, from the front and back– to avoid any issues. 

Ultimately, you want to be comfortable (a must!), professional (as defined by the culture of your field and the university you’re interviewing at), and you don’t want your clothing to leave more of an impression than you do (so, don’t be ‘that woman with the giant scarf that kept falling off’).

Do your homework. Read up on everyone in the department. Create a cheat-sheet and take it with you on the plane, with details about the research background for every faculty in the department. Get a copy of your schedule in advance if you can, and ask for a list of faculty on your committee. Read at least one paper for each of those folks. Be prepared to answer very specific questions– about how you’d teach a class, what textbook you’d use, what local field sites you’d be interested in, who you might collaborate with. Know if the university is land grant, in an EPSCOR state, is on the trimester system, or other details that may come up in conversation that could leave you looking unprepared. If conversation wanes, you can always ask someone about their recent paper — it’s a great way to get someone talking, and it’ll make you look good!

Be prepared to take care of yourself. Interviews are typically heavily scheduled. You may get picked up as early as 7 am for breakfast, with back-to-back stops along the way and no built in time for self care before you’re dropped off at the hotel as late as 10 pm. Bring a water bottle, snacks (granola bars, jerky, dried fruit, nuts), menstrual products, any medications you could possibly need, tissues, an umbrella, and a reusable mug. Pack a small bag with a brush/comb, makeup, lip balm, lotion, bandaids, moleskin (because you’ll ignore my advice about shoes), and other items you might need to touch up your appearance during the day. Regularly ask if you can make a stop at the bathroom on your way to your next appointment, and take that time to also scarf down a granola bar to make sure you keep your energy levels up (though, adrenalin does go a long way). Be mindful of how much coffee you’re drinking — consume just enough to function, but not so much that you’re jittery or anxious. It’s okay to say “no, thanks!” if someone offers you another cup!

Interview them. What people don’t always realize about the interview is that it’s very much a two-way process. You’re vetting the university just as much as they’re vetting you. Be prepared to ask questions of the deans, faculty, graduate students, and your committee members. Make sure you ask the same question of more than one person; not only do you never want to be caught without a question, it’s also quite helpful to get different perspectives on the same issues. Be on the lookout for signs of a toxic department or campus. If the all-male faculty are telling sexist jokes during your interview dinner, ask yourself, “is this really a department I want to join?”

Be prepared for inappropriate questions. Committees are not legally allowed to ask if you’re married (or have kids, etc.)…but they probably will, anyway. Some will volunteer information about spousal accommodation or schools without you having to ask, saying “I don’t know if you need this or not, but we have…” Others will point blank ask you, “are you married?” This can be a bit of a minefield, but the advice on this topic has shifted in recent years. You are under no obligation to answer questions about your family, but you should think in advance of how you’ll respond. First, these can be very awkward moments, and can throw you off your game if you haven’t practiced a response. Secondly, departments are increasingly asking not as a way to try to weed out women, but to better help you in terms of a spousal accommodation. It’s not right, and it’s not the best scenario (particularly because you have no way of knowing offhand what the motivation is), but I have heard of scenarios where revealing information about families helped faculty get spousal hires by getting the negotiations started much earlier. Either way, you don’t want to get caught without a strategy to respond to questions about family.

Give a compelling, well-pitched job talk. This is probably the most important aspect of your interview. Your one-on-one interactions are valuable, but nothing will make up for a poor job talk. Devote a couple of weeks to honing (not writing!) your job talk, and give it to a couple of different audiences, ideally more than once. Pay attention to the tone an pace of your voice, eliminate weak language, and use your body language to convey confidence and capability (check out The Eloquent Woman for great public speaking tips). Think very carefully about your audience, and don’t be afraid to ask who your audience will be! I have seen many people bomb job talks by either pitching too high or too low. If you do the former, you’re alienating everyone in the room as well as boring them. If you do the latter, by overcorrecting for jargon or discipline-specific background information, then you leave the audience feeling as though your work is not rigorous enough. Have a compelling arc or unifying thread. Avoid the urge to talk about everything you’ve done. Avoid the words “dissertation” (don’t act like a grad student!) or “we” (in a job talk, it’s about you). End with where you’re going– what are your next research projects, and how will you tie in undergraduate or graduate research and teaching? Q&A often carries a lot of weight, so do your best to anticipate questions and be prepared with direct, confident answers.

Remember that they’re hiring a colleague as well as a professor. They’re not interviewing robots who will bring in grant money and pump out papers and students; they’re interviewing colleagues. You’ll potentially be working, teaching, socializing, and collaborating with these people, so do your best to convince them that you’re the kind of person they want to join their department. Be prepared with a few things to talk about that aren’t work; cultures differ on this, but often times, dinner is used to socialize, rather than talk about research. Be prepared to talk about books, current events, a fun new scientific study, or a recent film you’ve seen. Have one glass of beer or wine at dinner, if someone else orders some first (you’ll likely be so tired and hungry by this point that you’ll feel that one drink surprisingly quickly!). Finally, send thank you emails to the folks you met one-on-one. Even if you don’t get the position, these people may be your future collaborators or reviewers, and your interactions– and impression– can still be valuable!

If you don’t get the job, make the most of it and move on. Each interview is an opportunity to hone your skills and improve for next time. If you know what you did wrong, you can work on it for the next interview. You may have excellent credentials and give a great job talk and still not get the job. This could be due to any number of things, but departmental fit often makes a big difference. It’s sometimes hard to know what tipped the balance against you (or for someone else) in the end, and it’s always worth asking the chair of your search committee what you could do differently next time. It may be that they decided they really needed a different area of expertise, or that all else being equal they wanted to improve the diversity in the department– which would have nothing to do with you, personally. Even so, you’ve probably still got a running list of things you can improve. If you are turned down, take some time to grieve, but then figure out what you need to work on and take active steps to improve.

As a final point, interviewing doesn’t have to be awful. At the institution that ultimately hired me, I had a blast during my interview — when I came home, and I told my colleagues I’d had fun, and they looked at me like I was crazy. Interviews are exhausting, yes, but they’re also really great ways to network, and preparing for them can help you figure out where you are in your career and where you’d like to go next.

Feel free to share your experiences, positive or negative negative, ask questions, or offer advice in the comments below. To those getting those email notifications in the coming weeks: good luck! 

34 thoughts on “I can haz job? Tips and tricks for the academic interview

  1. This is *great* advice, very complete!

    I’ll add is that you should also try to ask questions about living in the town, not just the university. You can ask, for example, whether it is easy to buy a house near the institution and/or in the part of town that interest you. Asking these sorts of questions gives the impression that you would seriously consider moving to that particular place. Besides, the answers provide useful information.

    I’d like to emphasize that you should try to have questions prepared for everybody. For example, you never know who will take you to see the dean. A staff member? Ask them about how the department is organized. A graduate student? Ask them about the graduate program. Ask the dean how they see the department within the faculty, and how the see the chair, etc. All these little pieces of info may not contribute to your decision about accepting a potential offer, but they may be useful if you do get the job.

  2. I’m intrigued by the section on being asked about family situations. I am a queer woman in a long-term relationship with a woman: my partner and I hope to be together for a long time, but have no plans to get married, even though we live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. I’m concerned that answering that I’m in a committed relationship with a woman would open me up for heterosexism and/or people thinking that my relationship isn’t serious or committed because I am not married. Any advice?

    • Thanks for your question. As a heterosexual (and married), I didn’t have this question come up personally, though many of my colleagues have. I’d be very curious to hear more about this, too!

      If you’re not married or in a domestic partnership, your partner isn’t eligible to get a spousal hire (if your university has same-sex benefits like that). So, there’s really no reason to divulge that information in that case. If I were you, I’d err on the side of not sharing that information, and coming up with a good way to deflect the question. Of course, it can be useful to know what the climate is in this case — if someone does respond in a way that’s heterosexist/homophobic/etc., that can be useful information in making a decision (unfortunately!).

      • It is my understanding that university HR departments regard questions about a family situation improper — a candidate may mention, but may not be asked.

        I would suggest a neutral answer – such as “my family and I have discussed this offer and we find it an interesting one to pursue”. Unless the questioner is a troglodyte (and they do exit), presumably it will be backed off on.

        • At a recent job panel I was on, every single one of the panelists said they’d been outright asked about family, -even though the questions are expressly not allowed-.

    • What type of situation do you anticipate talking about this? e.g. are you going to be looking to negotiate some sort of ‘spousal’ deal? Or are you just wondering how people might take it?

      • My partner isn’t an academic, and I have a few more years of grad school anyway, so this isn’t an immediate concern. The post just made me wonder what to do if I’m in an interview and this kind of question is asked. The honest answer is that I have a long-term female partner, but that seems like it might not go over well, so it’s a good thing to think through.

        Acclimatrix, I think you’re right that it would be useful to know if the environment is hostile to queer folks before taking a job.

    • Lor, in my experience so far the underlying goals of the conversation about family situations are 1) What do you need, in order to be successful here? (as in, can we, or the town, offer it to you?) and 2) How likely are you to come if we extend an offer? (if you’re here, you’re on the top of a long list, so that’s a distinct possibility, and we want to know what it takes to get you). So your answers, if you choose to give any, should be about what you and your partner need to lead a happy life in the new town together. That could be jobs in a particular industry or a neighborhood with a dog park. We are not at all concerned with judging the details of your partnership. I hope this is helpful, to know what we’re looking for from this side of the table. Once you’re here to interview — we want to know, in all areas, what you need to succeed.

    • Personally I had a lavender CV and was looking for a position in a place where my sexual orientation was a non-issue or even viewed as desirable as an aspect of diversity. In addition, the availability of benefits for same-sex partners was a concern for me in weighing job offers as my partner was unlikely to obtain a benefited job. So, I was fairly straightforward about having a same-sex partner and brought it up in questions myself. I realize this is not the best/most desirable approach for everyone. However, almost everyone has concerns about their partner’s ability to find a job and related issues so it is bound to be something you will need to raise sooner or later – although later (ie, after a job offer) might certainly be viewed as the best strategy. Another side point is that, at least in some disciplines “partner” has become the default terminology for discussing a significant other regardless of gender or legal status – so if you feel comfortable talking about your partner in gender-neutral terms that could also be an approach. However, with the spread of same-sex marriage legalization this may (unfortunately) fade out of practice? Otherwise referencing “family” in only the vaguest of terms if necessary, as others have mentioned, seems like the way to go.

  3. On that note of disability accommodations, actually: A good litmus test, I’ve found, is when my asthma makes me have to bring out my inhaler. If someone says, “Oh, do you have asthma? My [friend/relative] has that. [anecdote]” it’s usually but not always a sign that they’ll be reasonable about it. If they totally over-react and start hovering over me, it’s a sign that they’ll likely over-react in the future and could be one who engages in “benevolent” ableism (of the “I worry your asthma could make this job difficult for you, so even if you’re the best candidate, I won’t offer it to you” variety – still chronic illness discrimination, but they convince themselves it’s “for my own good” and that they’re not bigoted, they’re just worried). If they respond with a snide remark about how they don’t like to take medicine or how I need more willpower, that’s a red flag that maybe I want to think about working somewhere else.

    My asthma doesn’t affect me too often, but when it does, I can be out of commission for 1-3 weeks, and a major distraction (I have cough-variant asthma, so when I’m getting over a flare, I’m that annoying person who’s hacking up a lung – though I’m not contagious, I promise) for the next week or two thereafter. Sometimes, if my asthma decides to be a bother, treating it is a calculated risk – if the person has a bias against those with chronic illness or disabilities, I’ve just shot myself in the foot, potentially, but then again, if they’re someone with that bias, I probably want to know before I accept a position.

  4. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of the elevator speech and the 5-second “what do you do” interactions.

    Imagine the following situation: you’re being led from one office to another in your arranged meetings and you run into a friend of the person walking with you. The friend says “oh, you’re the person interviewing for the job in department X, what do you work on?” A good line can make a difference, not only for your future interaction in that department and at that university, but also for impression of the person who is walking with you!

    Or what if the person you meet in the hall says “I’m sorry I can’t come to your talk, but I’m teaching (or catching a plane or picking up kids or whatever) during that time, can you give me the five second summary?” That person may well be voting on your hiring, and may be a very senior (and thus very busy) professor.

  5. Best advice ever to ‘wear in’ the shoes. Of course none of us do it. Of course we all should, and when we do it is a magic solution to the sore feet problem! Do what Acclimatrix says, not what we all do!

    • … and on a similar theme, from agonising experience, I recommend a comfortable bra too – don’t wear that smart new one unless you also take a comfy one to change into the next day (if it is more than one day that you will be away). Same applies for conferences.

  6. And in back-and-forth discussions (formal or social) if you don’t know, be confident to say you don’t know, or you haven’t thought about it yet but it is an interesting idea. Don’t fudge it. You sound more professional and ‘in control’ if you are honest, even if you haven’t a clue. Yes really.

  7. Great post, Acclimatrix! I experienced so many of these things while interviewing, from frantically stuffing the granola bar into my mouth in the bathroom, to sitting through an awkward dinner with sexist comments, to feeling like I totally bombed my phone interview (for a job I was later offered). A few things to add or emphasize: 1) don’t feel bad about using part of your appointment times with restroom breaks. Besides a quick sip of water or granola bar, I usually took a quick peek at my cheat-sheet to review notes I’d made about the person I was meeting with next. 2) Don’t feel bad about asking for additional information in advance of the interview. When I started this racket, I was unsure about what I could or should ask in advance. But after a few interviews under my belt, I started to realize that the places that didn’t provide much advance info just weren’t as organized as other places, and it was all info I could and should ask- questions such as “Who will be at my talk?” “Can I get a schedule of my meetings in advance?” etc. And echoing Acclimatrix, I also really enjoyed many of my interviews…and consequently took the ones I didn’t enjoy as a serious sign that the place wouldn’t be a good fit for me, nevermind what they thought about me.

    • Awesome advice about asking in advance! I think people really don’t know what they can and can’t ask, and usually the answer is “anything!”

  8. Great post, Acclimatrix!
    FWIW I found chocolate bars are easier to gulp down than granola – and carrying food goes double if you have dietary restrictions. Nothing worse than chatting with students over a lunch you cannot eat and being hungry for the rest of the day. On this note – while planning your visit, it’s okay to mention dietary restrictions to the people organizing your trip.

    One thing that was surprising and useful was that everyone said “you must be really sick of talking about yourself/your science…is there anything I can tell you about the department, the university, moving here… ?” And I found myself asking the same questions over and over again. That felt really strange, but it was useful to get a sense of general feelings of places – when everyone said similar things, it feels more believable. When everyone tells you how long it takes to get to the nearest big city? …yeah.

    A question that turned out to be really useful was “what is the worst/most difficult thing in this department?” and the almost corollary “Are you happy here?” you can learn a lot by what people say (or what they don’t say).

    Finally – and this is easier said than done – think about the entire job searching process as networking. No matter who gets the job, every discussion and every visit is a networking opportunity. And, as a friend told me when I went on the market – job interviews are kind of fun, what other opportunities are there to talk about your research and your plans while people listen with rapt attention?

    • Thanks!

      Asking the same questions over and over again was hard — as well as getting used to talking about my research over and over again. I had to remind myself that it sounded repeated and stale to me, but it was fresh to the listeners, and I had to make it that way.

  9. You are often given some time to meet with graduate students during your in-person interview.

    Prepare for it!
    Sometimes this is informal, but may have a formal interview aspect which seems to catch some candidates off guard. The students may or may not have much say in any decision the department makes about hiring, but you should plan and prepare as if they do.

    Grad students are a great source of information!
    Graduate students may be more willing to share their candid thoughts about the department, and may be more willing to tell you if there are problems than faculty or those on the search committee. I encourage you to use time with graduate students as an opportunity to get insight into the “health” of the department and feel out any possible disfunction or long standing divisions. When I was interviewing I asked students to tell me something they would change about the department if they could and if they felt like the students in the department were generally happy. Not only do you come across as caring about graduate students (which they will probably like, and hopefully you do!) but these conversations could even give you ideas about solutions you could suggest if you end up at the institution.

    Finally if you are at a loss for things to talk about with graduate students I have found that you can usually ask about process, such as “is there a masters exam”, “when do students form a committee” etc. to which you can compare your own graduate school experience.

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  13. As a nursing mother with a five month old baby, I wasn’t really able to get around the family topic during an on-campus visit for a tenure-track position a few years back. And, although I communicated in advance my need to pump, I received a total of five minutes during my 12+ hour day and returned to my hotel room after all was done with painfully swollen leaky breasts. It was a terrible experience, and I was not ultimately offered the position. My point in commenting here is that sometimes you can’t predict how your personal life will intersect with your ability to be viewed as a serious candidate – particularly if you are a woman. Timing wasn’t on my side that year, and I’m sure I seemed a little desperate in asking about the possibility of a spousal hire. But I did return to the market last year and found an even more desirable tenure track job at a fantastic institution. Here’s to perseverance!

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