Professorial Dopers: tell me about academic job interviews

… or, “Why Fretful hasn’t been around much lately.”

So I’ve been plugging steadily away at my dissertation and applying to various assistant professor jobs, and somewhat to my shock, I’ve got two MLA convention interviews and one phone interview lined up. And it’s started to hit me, belatedly, that this is actually real and I’m going to be Dr. Porpentine in a few months, and frankly I’m scared to death.

I’ve been reading up on typical interview questions and I’ve got a practice interview lined up with my department, but I’d like some candid tips from people who have been through the process: What should I expect? Are there any hidden pitfalls and trick questions that I should watch out for? When people ask “Tell me about your dissertation” or “How would you teach a course on X?” what are they actually looking for? How do I handle the dreaded “Have you got any questions for us?” moment?

(And yes, I am aware that the Chronicle of Higher Education has a whole forum for questions like these, but reading the postings for any length of time tends to make me want to curl up into a small hedgehog-like ball of inadequacy, so I’d really appreciate some advice from friendly Dopers.)

Oh, and my field is English Renaissance lit, in case you can’t tell from my screen name :slight_smile:

I’m in about the same place, and I hope you do better this year, ABD and first time out, than I did last year. The only interviews I got were from small lib arts schools that were mostly interested in teaching-- nothing close to research-1 schools, so I got questions like “So, service. We’re interested in our candidates plans for service.” "Oh, Um. Service… . " Basically it was a question prompting me to talk about how excited I am to serve on committees and work with study-abroad and Upward Bound and coaching wrestling or whatever. So that code word might help you.
Speaking of hedgehog, until I saw Porpentine away from fretful , I had always thought you were a fretful porcupine straight up. I’d never heard the term porpentine. . .
I will be checking back in here for my own benefit. . .

“Porpentine” is Elizabethan for “porcupine.” They had cooler words back then.

That I can deal with, actually – I have a fair bit of committee work and four summers as a tutor for Basic Writing on my c.v. It’s the “What are your research plans?” questions that I think I’m going to choke on. (A completely truthful answer would be something along the lines of “Shove my dissertation in a desk drawer and never look at it again,” but I suspect this is not the correct answer.)

It is a bit different, but one of my instructors was on the committee (comprised of staff and students) to elect a new dean at our institution. What he said really matter to him and the other committee members wasn’t so much the answers themselves, but how the candidate presented themselves. Confidence was key, things like the handshake and the thank yous, eye contact and clear language (no stammering when trying to find time to answer, just take a few seconds to think). He also said they were impressed when a candidate took notes. Personal ancedotes were great when asked things. I think when they ask you about your research plans, saying what you are interested in and a story of what you enjoyed the most of doing your dissertation would count, or experiences tutoring someone when asked how you would teach a class.

I realize what I said about the answers is probably deceiving. Of course the answers count, but what I also said is what can make them even better.

  1. Learn the mission of the school/University and determine if this is a place you want to work, and not just a job you would take if offered. If your answer is “yes” then determine why and what makes this school a good fit.

  2. Have a research plan. Teaching is only a 9-hour a week gig at most schools… double that with prep time and you still have 20+ hours per week to kill. This is what makes you a prof, so figure out how you will fill up that time with research and service.

  3. Even if it is not a “Research 1” school, one of the main criteria for tenure will be your scholarly work, so you better have an interest and focus. If this is not the case, then go for lecturer positions without the research requirements,

  4. Student development is often a key to success, esp. at smaller schools, so if your “plan” can involve students at the undergraduate (or graduate) levels, in independent studies, senior theses, etc, and you can engage them in research and conference poster presentations then by all means sell that point to them.

  5. Service is a nasty reality of professiorial life, but many schools start you off slow with departmental service in the first year or two, then try to get you on College-based committees and then University-based committees. If you have a particular talent that may help you contribute, then use it to your advantage.

  6. If you do an on-site interview, you will likely be asked to present your research. You wil be evaluated on how you interact and carry yourself, with an attempt to determine how you teach. Make sure your talk is spit-shined and polished. Don’t re-hash yoru dissertation defense ppt presentation, include references, and read up on the faculty in the department. Each member wil feel compelled to ask a self-serving question that covers their area of expertise, so anticipate the questions. If you have lunch and/or dinner, then watch yourself. You are being evaluated on what type of person you are, and whether or not the others in the department want to live with you for the next 3 years before your pre-tenure evaluation.

Read The Compleat Academic (that is the title, not my spelling mistake).

English prof here, interviewed at MLA last year:

Agree with poster above. Be ready to discuss their campus and students in a way that doesn’t sound like “I memorized this from your website on the plane ride here.”

Research, as much as possible, the fields and publications of the search committee and the department as a whole. Though the mantra is that schools look for cutting-edge scholars, I think the truth can sometimes be closer to they look for candidates who most resemble themselves BUT aren’t perceived as an intellectual threat or snotbag (this is a big statement, does not apply to all schools, Ivies are probably different: Your mileage may vary.)

Be sure you can answer “why do you want to come here” confidently. I’m sure you know this, but don’t ever say “because I need a freakin’ job, dumbbell!”

Gauge if the department leans more toward teaching or research and skew your replies to that end. If it’s a teaching school, make sure you’re clear about your enthusiasm for teaching both intro and advanced courses. Many newbies (like me) end up teaching intros for a while – express enthusiasm and competency! Be sure you can expand on “how would you teach x for first-year students? For advanced grad students?” If you’re in a field with esoteric potentials, be ready for the crazy search committee member to ask how you would teach 12th century mnemonic plainsong hymns via their new online Blackboard delivery system.

For research questions, be clear and direct. Don’t try the I’m-a-grad-student-out-to-impress-and-cite-every-person-in-the-field-I-can-remember. Express enthusiasm and connection to your dissertation, speak in clear language, and outline a few plans for the future ("I really feel that chapter three, in particular, will make for an exciting book project because . . . ") Make sure the committee knows when you will absolutely, positively be done and have the diss defended.

So far as questions to ask: How many undergrads? Grads? Retention rates? Support centers for student learning? Interdisciplinary efforts? I asked some questions about how campuses recruited from diff populations to support their mission statement of diversity and access and what the first-year typically looks like for a new hire, etc. Do not ask anything about salary or benefits. I have some friends who asked when the committee would be making their decision, I wasn’t comfortable asking.

“The Academic Job Search Handbook” was an excellent resource for me. Since I’m anxious about being able to remember stuff, I also made bullet-point 3x5 cards and put aside some time each day to “study” myself.

Good luck!

My tip for being confident is to act like you are interviewing them. Study the website, and come prepared with questions, and don’t hesistate to ask about anything that comes up during interviews.

In academics, important that you fit together. From the point of view of both the candidate and the department, hiring on the tenure track is an awful lot like deciding to get married based on one day of getting to know a person. They want someone who will fit their needs, but you don’t want to end up somewhere you’ll be miserable.

I’ve walked away from interviews thinking: no way am I accepting an offer from that freakshow of a department. But in that case, the feeling was apparently mutual, 'cause I didn’t get one. :wink:

Just a lowly MA student here, but I was involved with a selection committee one year. Things that impressed us were: when one of the candidates had come in with printed data on our program, and had in advance set out some of his goals and possible plans for revitalizing the program. Specific things - we need a class on material history, for example. We appreciated both his drive and his enthusiasm. All candidates for this position also gave a lecture to whatever students and profs desired to come. If this is the case, make sure your subject matter is a) cutting edge, b) accessible to both profs AND students, and c) you’re far enough into the subject to have been able to cover most of it. One of the candidates presented on a topic she had clearly just begun researching, and it didn’t go over well. Also - try to avoid talking politics at the dinners. Trust me.

I might also add, in the event you haven’t been to MLA before, that it can be quite intimidating. There are gazillions of hopefuls running about interviewing, August persons surveying their kingdoms, and high-octane scholars in little black suits and little German eyeglasses.

If you’re prone to stressing out/feeling intimidated, you might want to plan a few calm, non-academic activities in D.C. prior to the interview. All this being said, I really enjoyed my interviews at last year’s conference and found the committees to be professional, pleasant, and personable (i.e., I didn’t experience any of the legendary MLA disasters.)

I also wanted to add to be certain of where your interview is – most, but not all, interviews are held in a committee member’s hotel room.