Saturday, January 10, 2009

Interview with Kindness

Illness returned to me again this week. Put that with an absurd amount of snow (How much more can I possibly shovel?) and 2009 is off to a complicated start. Given that I am buried in for the short term, it seemed like a perfect time to check in with things around the blogosphere.

ProfBW, HistoriAnn, and Squadratomagico continue to offer advice for academic job candidates about to venture into the “on-campus” interview. For those who don’t know, the “on-campus” interview is a grueling gauntlet where candidates visit potential departments for two or three days presenting their research and teaching skills. Anybody on the market should consult this advice.

I would highlight two things from their sage wisdom: 1) practice your job talk over and over until your retinas dry out and 2) Do your homework on the department, reading at least something from every person on your itinerary.

It's also a good idea to let go of the delusion that you will get a job in your preferred location. Are you a “city person,” who just can’t imagine living anywhere but New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston? Well, guess what – Almost everybody on the job market thinks the same thing. That is why universities in those cities don’t have to try very hard to recruit candidates and often end up with many more applications for their jobs. In the immortal words of Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” Of course, he also said, “Hey! You! Get off of my cloud,” so he might not always have made the most sense.

For me, I want to continue offering advice to the interviewers rather than the interviewees. At this point, the search committee has done most of the heavy lifting. Now is the time where the full department comes into play. Here are some things to remember as candidates visit your department:

    1. Candidates have bladders that need emptying from time to time. There is a temptation to cram itineraries so jammed packed with meetings that candidates literally don’t have a free moment from 9:00 am until 8:00 pm. Build in a couple of fifteen minute breaks, plus an hour before their presentation(s), where the candidate can compose hirself. (N.B. to candidates: Remember to pee before you presentation. You don’t want to look unusually antsy half-way through it).

    2. Keep in mind that things that you perceive as “selling points” of your location might not be construed as such by others. Hopefully we all want to sell the merits of our particular location, but sometimes our zeal and personal interests expose hidden presumptions. Telling a candidate that your town is a “great place to raise children because it has lots of young parents,” for instance, might seem like an innocent statement or even an obvious plus. But is it? Those individuals, straight or gay, who have no desire for children might hear this as “our town is stifling unless you conform.” For those who are single, they might hear, “You will have a better chance of flying on a concord jet than finding a romantic partner in this town.” For those who are gay and/or single and have children, they might wonder if the subtext of that statement is that the town has a narrow definition of [heterosexual] “family.”

    None of this is to say that a “family friendly” town is a bad thing or that they can’t also have plenty of attractive options for singles and/or queer folk. Candidates want to know, though, that their hiring units have thought about the possible diversity of candidates and recognize that not everybody makes the same personal choices. Since it is illegal (see the previous entry on hiring) to inquire about the personal life of the candidate, we should remember that not everybody finds the same things desirable.

    Comparably, sometimes gendered assumptions can come out unintentionally. Noting that the majority of your department frequently plays basketball during lunch might seem like it shows that the department is relaxed and collegial; however, this might raise some concerns for women candidates (even if they do enjoy playing basketball themselves). Those types of sports activities have historically been associated with a certain type of “being one of the boys” mentality that excluded women (again, even if they have an interest in sports). It can be taken as enforcing a masculine vision of collegiality. Or, for someone like me who hates competitive sports, its might seem like a huge imposition to be expected to participate in such a thing just to socialize with my colleagues. (N.B. to candidates: Do not trash the location of the university where you interview. If you hate small towns, keep it to yourself. Asking things like, “What in the world do people do for entertainment in this god-forsaken cultural wasteland?” doesn't make you sound cosmopolitan. It makes you sound like you don't need a job.)

    3. Remember to allow the candidate to eat. Everybody interviewing for a job understands that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are part of the interview and expect to answer questions. The temptation for those interviewing, though, is to focus all of the conversation on the candidate. An hour can pass quickly with the candidate having only taken a couple of bites from their plate. Take time in the middle of meals to redirect the conversation to your other colleagues, thus allowing the candidate to get much needed fuel for the rest of their day. (N.B. to candidates: Keep your blood sugar high and remember that you will get dehydrated through the day. It’s not a terrible idea to carry around a protein bar just in case. Also, if you regularly drink and the other people at your table are having wine, limit yourself to one glass only).

    4. Be explicit about the department’s expectations for this particular position. Departments most often decide to hire because of a perceived hole in their unit (e.g. “We don’t have anybody whose research focuses on Latino/as in the U.S., thus making us grossly out of step with the reality of the nation.”). Many units also vary wildly about the expectations for service from junior faculty. It is important, therefore, to be clear about how you imagine a particular candidate filling that hole and serving your unit. Are they expected to teach a particular class or classes? Is it a class that has never been taught at this institution previously? Are they going to also need to teach survey classes? Are they going teach graduate seminars? Are junior faculty responsible for changing the urinal cakes in the men’s room?

    Whatever your department’s needs and expectations, be sure to communicate those directly to the candidate. Nothing will make a new hire more unhappy than feeling like they were the victim of bait-and-switch. If you claim that your main goal with this hire is to expand your graduate program, but then forbid your new hire from teaching grad students because they need to teach four sections of the freshmen survey, they are going to feel like you lied. (N.B. to candidates on the market: You will instantly eliminate yourself from any search if you respond to a direct statement about a unit’s teaching needs by saying, “I have no ability/interest in teaching a class like that.”)

    5. If you are charged with returning candidates to their hotel, offer to stop by a drugstore on the way back in case they forgot to pack something. It’s a minor courtesy, but one that will be greatly appreciated by somebody who inadvertently left behind their hair gel, pantyhose (Do people still wear those?), or their favorite brand of toothpaste (N.B. to candidates, do not use this time to buy yourself a fifth of bourbon and a package of Ramses).

    6. Remember that these candidates will still be your future colleagues even if you don’t offer them a job at your institution. The academic world is a shockingly small one (As the ease with which my Diana-Prince identity is exposed suggests). I have been surprised by some individuals who imagine that their particular department is the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega, of intellectual inquiry. Not every job-candidate fits every job. Maybe you are looking for a central Europeanist who specializes in the Weimer Republic, but found during the campus interview that a particular candidate only touches on the Republic before spending more of hir time on the rise of Nazism. Does this make the candidate wrong for this search? Probably. Does this make this candidate just plain wrong? Not at all. In fact, if you gave them a campus interview, some of your peer institutions probably did as well. It is likely that this candidate’s name will constantly reappear among Central Europeanists in the future. Perhaps they will even train the next generation of scholars. It’s a bad idea to have an army of former job candidates out in the academic world talking about how unprofessional your department was in the interview process. Even if they don’t get the job, work to make sure that everybody is friends before they leave campus.

    The academic job market is a crazy business. The candidate you interview today might just be interviewing you for a job ten years from now.


dance said...

Job interviews are the ONLY time I wear pantyhose (nylons). And I have bought them on the road.

I talk very positively about departments that made my interview pleasant, even if they didn't hire me.

squadratomagico said...

Thanks for the link! I love your comments on "selling points," too. I have a post brewing with some discussion of this issue as well, and on abuses of "collegiality" as a hiring priority. I also would add: inquire about candidates' food restrictions before making reservations at restaurants; and if, at next years' conference, you see someone you interviewed, but did not hire, be cordial instead of ducking into the bathroom!

GayProf said...

Dance: I also have positive things for some departments that interviewed me but didn't extend an offer. It's not that hard to creative a good relationship, yet so many fumble it.

Squdratomagico: D'oh! I meant to mention something about the food. Not only are there many people who avoid pork and shellfish, but there are also allergies, vegetarian preferences, and just plain preferences.

Susan said...

Your post made me recall that one department where I interviewed told me that the men in the department went to opening day at the local baseball park together. Oh, and that department liked me so much they interviewed me twice, 10 years apart (the job that evaporated in 1982 resurfaced in 1992). And it was the same story. Huh?

I was indeed interviewed by -- and worked on a conference with -- someone I once interviewed. Also, one of the readers of my manuscript was someone else I had once interviewed. So your #6 is really well taken!

wd said...

Bravo!!! A wonderful collection of wise thoughts - and I've never even interviewed for a college position!!! I chuckled all the way through it and compared it to other types of interviewing ...

(HUGE bear hug) ...b

prof bw said...

thanks for doing these two posts on the job search they are both spot on.

my blog is down for maintenance for the next week or so, but the key info from the piece you link to is reposted at historiann's.

Rick said...

It's interesting to compare your experience to the corporate world. Many differences but also many similarities. I have a friend that just got his Ph.D. and is going through the same stuff.

GayProf said...

Susan: My guess is that the men at the baseball park never quite understood why women faculty didn't accompany them (if they bothered to invite them at all). And you stories about the overlapping links between interviewing and other career aspects is telling.

WD: It's good to know that I can still make people chuckle -- and give bear hugs.

ProfBW: Hurry back to the blogosphere soon.

Rick: Your friend is probably wondering why he spent all that time earning that Ph.D. in the first place.

historiann said...

Great advice. I approve of this message. Your stop at the drugstore offer is a good one--one that could be easily made on the ride from the airport.

Laverne said...

I'm so sorry you're still feeling crummy. If you have what I had over vacation, this thing lingers on and on.

I suggest lots of booze to kill the germs. Or help you sleep. Or do nothing, but if you drink enough, you won't care.

The academic world of which you speak is miles away from my reality. Secondary school principals are not looking for experience and accomplishment. Nope, they want the young and fresh kids, straight out of university. Those youngin's can be trained more easily to the principal's whims, and can be counted on to brown nose and volunteer for every committee, not realizing that one is expected to have a life outside the school walls.

Wait. Do I sound bitter?

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