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!