Landing a Job

I’m in the midst of coaching my 21st and 22nd advisees through the process of interviewing for faculty jobs. Every year, I think, I should write this stuff down in case it’s useful to others. This year I finally did it and the following list of recommendations is the result. I hope you find it useful.

Here are my primary recommendations

(1) Your job talk is THE most important aspect of your visit. If you bomb the talk it will be hard to get the job. If your talk soars you will likely be the one to beat.

To give a great talk it’s important that you take the time to really make sure your audience understands what drives your curiosity and what specific actions and roles you have taken in satisfying it. It is important for as many audience members as possible to understand WHY your questions and answers are interesting things to know. Be wary of the tendency to direct your talk towards the person in the room that is closest to your field and who intimidates you the most. Aiming your talk at that famous professor is going to make your talk too dense, too in the weeds and too defensive to be enjoyable for them or anyone else. Instead, aim your talk to the graduate students in the room who aren’t in your field. Your goal is to capture the interest and educate the largest number of audience members. This will convince them you are an interesting scholar and that you are likely to be a good teacher.

The job talk always has a requirement of a “future directions” end cap. These are hard, particularly for newly minted PhDs and early postdocs who have not yet had the luxury of being able to plan at those long time scales. Try to start with the very next thing you are doing, and then bridge that out to one or two examples of questions that arise from what you have already done that you hope to be working on 5 to 10 years down the line. Don’t make the mistake of over tailoring for the program you are interviewing with. I personally don’t think your future directions plan should be highly contingent on where you go, I want to see someone who feels quite sure about where they are headed. Also don’t drop names of existing faculty by saying I hope to work on A with your Professor X and B with your Professor Y. Stick to the ideas and let the faculty imagine how this meshes with their own work. (Besides, Professors X and Y might be a$$holes so you don’t want to commit.)

(2) Put in the homework in preparing for your one-on-one meetings.

While I don’t recommend revising your job talk heavily to fit a particular program, I do think it is well worth your time to read the recent work (at least the abstracts) and visit the website of every faculty member you will be meeting with. Jot down some keywords about their research on a cheat sheet you keep with you throughout the interview. Be ready to ask a question that shows you are not only interested in them, you have some idea what they do. Not only will this make one-on-one conversations more substantive, but the upfront reading will also help you see better how your intellectual interests and skills fit within the faculty. Are you in a large intellectual gap or do you see ways to interact with lots of different faculty? This “meta” understanding of the group you are auditioning to join will be extremely helpful as you navigate the interview AND will help you decide whether this is even a job that you want.

(3) Prepare for challenging questions ahead of time.

Get your mentors and colleagues to tell you about the most common questions and the worst question they got asked on their campus interview. People love sharing these war stories and they will get you laughing but also well-armed. Make a list of likely and particularly challenging questions and then write out some notes about how you would like to answer them.

Especially if you have an academic partner, get prepared to decide whether and how to reveal that during your campus visit (side note, based on my own experience and stories from others, I usually suggest revealing to the search chair and dean and bringing their CV in a sealed envelope in case they choose to negotiate with you). Even if you don’t reveal, people may ask you about your partner and/or your kids. It is not legal, but it will happen so go ahead and decide how you will deflect or answer this question.

(4) Prepare some fun questions for dead time.

It’s awful when you come to the natural end of a conversation with someone but you still have 5-10 minutes of time remaining. Have a handful of stopgap questions in your pocket for these moments. Here are a few gems to consider. (1) Since we have just a few minutes left, I’m wondering if there are any questions you wish you had asked when you were interviewing here at XYZ University? (then ask them that question); (2) I would love to know what you appreciate about [fill in name of town/city] since coming here? (this usually opens up some conversation about where they came from); (3) How easy have you found it to work with faculty in other departments or schools across campus? (this will open up conversations about other scholars and sources of funds for interdisciplinary work). If none of that works, I recommend “I wonder if you would excuse me for a minute to take a bio-break.”

(5) Really listen to people – most people are pretty interesting.

If you talk less and listen more you are going to make people very happy (academics love to talk about themselves) and you are going to learn a whole lot more about the job you might be offered. You will also get more chances to find meaningful connections with people if you give them more time to share more about themselves. Regardless of how the search turns out, this might be a great opportunity to find a new colleague, collaborator or mentor so try to enjoy this chance to meet a whole bunch of interesting people.

(6) Avoid answering questions about your specific startup needs.

If people start asking you what you will need for startup, refuse to give them a number. Talk about the things you will absolutely need to have or have access to in order to support your research trajectory. If pressed, ask them about shared resources and talk about the need to learn more about what resources already exist. Don’t let them make your price tag an upfront part of their hiring decision.

(7) Don’t fall in love (with the job).

Protect yourself from heartbreak by treating your interview as a long-shot and an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people. DO NOT start imagining yourself growing old on the campus and don’t start mentally decorating your office or lab. Even if you actually NEED this job, play it cool and try to keep emotionally detached while very intellectually engaged. This is hard, but it’s important. Treat a job interview like you treat writing a major grant proposal: A ton of effort from which you learn a lot and for which you have only a small hope of success.

(8) Take care of yourself.

Take a bottle of water along (all that talking will make you thirsty). Wear layers you can remove and shoes that you can walk forever in – you might get hauled all over campus, up and down many flights of stairs, and through all kinds of temperatures. At some point in all that moving around you’ll have to stand up and give a public talk. It’s best if you come prepared for the workout and figure out what you can wear that will still look presentable after hours of that! If that represents a challenge for you make sure the search committee chair knows that you need to have accommodations that don’t require so much moving around.

(9) This is truly random, but read up on the sports teams and local festivals.

When all else fails, having some small talk involving their biggest athletic program and local traditions can help shift an interrogation dinner or walk into a more casual conversation. Its a handy trick to have in your pocket.

(10) Try to enjoy yourself.

People want to hire other people who are fun to be around. A job interview can be very stressful, so try to enjoy all the moments that you can. Where you can’t – save those memories to share with your friends and colleagues, they make for some of the best war stories.

More Resources

Not That Kind of Tale: Roundup for the Academic Job Season

How Not to Blow an Interview

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