Advice

7 Hazards of the Campus Interview

How to handle inappropriate questions, random comments, and offers of alcohol

Indi Samarajiva / Creative Commons

January 26, 2015

So you got invited on campus for a job interview. Awesome. That means you’ve already showed—either via a conference interview, Skype, or on the phone—that you’re well equipped to handle what comes next.

And what comes next is a nerve-racking slog. By this time, I hope you’ve readied your teaching demo and practiced your job talk. So it’s time to prepare for the potential obstacles. From the inappropriate question asked by a senior professor to the matter of whether to accept that second glass of wine, here’s how to deal with seven common hazards on the road to getting hired. I’m at a liberal-arts college so the hazards I describe are focused on interviews at teaching-oriented institutions, but often apply at research-oriented campuses as well.

Hazard No. 1: Worrying too much about whether we like you.
I understand the irony of telling you not to worry about being liked during a job interview. But our personal feelings about you are less important than you think. We really are most concerned with whether you’ll do a good job. That’s what will make us happy to see you every day.

As a candidate, I was nervous about the prospect of campus interviews, because I smile a lot, in general, and it gets worse under stress. During job interviews, I always felt like a simpering idiot. But as an interviewer, a candidate’s personal tics are the least of my worries. Normally, they don’t interfere with the department’s evaluation, since the crucial part of the interview for a small college happens in the classroom, where teaching-oriented candidates feel most comfortable.

We have a wide range of characters in my department—from sparkling extroverts to kindly introverts. They’re all great teachers and colleagues. Don’t worry that you have to become someone else. Be your professional self: the slightly more polished and organized version of you that we invited to the campus. And if you smile too much, we’ll just put it down to nerves.

Hazard No. 2: Answering the inappropriate and potentially illegal question.
A friend of mine was once asked in an interview, "I see you’re wearing an engagement ring. What does your fiancé think of your taking a job here?" My friend felt trapped by this question—posed by a senior faculty member during a reception—and so she answered honestly that her fiancé was another academic who would support her decision. She got offered the job, which she ended up turning down.

When I asked friends and colleagues how to answer a question like that, several told me that you, the candidate, should be using the interview to assess your prospective employer, too. But what do inappropriate questions actually reflect? After all, there’s at least one dud in every institution.

When that senior professor cornered my friend, I imagine his colleagues probably muttered, "Oh, God, what is he saying to her now?" That doesn’t make the question less inappropriate or, in certain states, less illegal. (In a statutory splitting of hairs, it’s only illegal to act upon this information in some states.)

For my friend, the question about her fiancé was one of many unsettling moments during her campus visit. She was able to reject the college’s offer because she had another job waiting for her. Most candidates don’t have that luxury.

Many advisers tell their students to respond, "That is an inappropriate question." Hypothetically, it’s easy to imagine standing up for your rights. But what makes these questions—generally about your marital status, children, sexual orientation—so pernicious is that they’re always asked by someone with power over your future, at a time when you feel truly vulnerable.

Of course, your personal situation could be a handy way of letting your prospective employer know that, if hired, you plan to stick around. At small colleges, we fear being used by candidates as a steppingstone to a bigger and more prestigious institution. So don’t be afraid to answer an intrusive question honestly—or even to volunteer information—if the truth makes you look good, like having a partner who dreams of moving to an isolated little town like the one where the college is located. Just know that once you mention a partner, that opens the door to more questions about him or her.

How do you answer an inappropriate question if you believe the answer would make you look less hirable?

One response is the classic turnaround, which I’ve modified to include blaming someone else. This should be said in a friendly tone: "You know, I was told by my adviser never to answer personal questions during an interview." Most people will stop right there. If they persist, you can add, "Of course, if it’s important to getting hired, I’d love to know." (If the questioner is awful enough to complain about you later, rest assured that in most departments it wouldn’t be you who looks bad as a result.)

Google yourself before you go and you may find that your interviewers know a great deal about you. If your sister created a website for your wedding photos and your spouse blogs about relationship issues, then your future department probably knows that you cried at the reception and that you complain in bed about your students. Having a sense of what the department knows about you can help you decide how to respond should any of these questions arise.

Hazard No. 3: Misunderstanding the college’s religious affiliation.
Many small colleges are affiliated with a particular religion, but whether your faith will affect your candidacy depends both on the denomination and on the culture of the place. Find out about that before you apply to avoid wasting time on an employer who may never hire you. Once you get invited to the campus, there’s no need to pretend—as candidates occasionally feel compelled to do—that you attend services every week, when the closest you get a house of worship is the Starbucks around the corner. You wouldn’t have made it this far in the interview process if your religious beliefs were an issue. (And religious colleges are legally allowed to make hiring decisions based on your faith.) However, you will need to prepare to talk about how you will support the college’s mission, which may include a reference to faith.

In my campus interview with the dean at the Lutheran college in Minnesota where I now teach, I was never asked about any religious preference. The dean did ask how I would support one of the college’s missions, which is to give students a "mature understanding of the Christian faith tradition." I spoke frankly about the ways in which I teach the complex history of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.

Hazard No. 4: Getting thrown by odd comments and random questions.
They can be very unsettling. One minute, you’re talking to the dean, who seems confused about your research and suggests you teach a class on "Marketing Concepts in Medieval Spanish Literature." The next minute you’re having lunch with department members who demand to know your views on the crisis in the Ukraine and then quiz you on who will win the Superbowl.

Don’t be thrown. Sometimes faculty members don’t know what to say to a candidate. If they’re not central to the job search, they may have forgotten to read your file, so they come out with these lame questions in order to hide their own ignorance. At a small college, the dean may have just rushed back from a complex meeting on college finances, feeling completely spent.

If you’re befuddled by a question, you can fall back on, "Interesting. What are your thoughts on that?" The average faculty member is happy to treat you to a strongly held opinion on just about any topic. If the dean or a department member has confused you with another candidate, correct any misinformation politely, without getting flustered.

Hazard No. 5: Telling different things to different people.
You will be interviewed by many people, all of whom will later compare notes. Don’t tell the dean that you adore teaching first-year students and then tell an assistant professor—a friend you’ve known for several years—that you can’t wait to get out of the Gen Ed trenches. Your old buddy has different loyalties, now. Your comment could easily make its way back to the search committee.

Hazard No. 6: Alcohol.
Departments shouldn’t put you in the position of having to aggressively refuse alcohol, but, sadly, some do.

If you do drink, don’t be afraid to have one glass of wine or beer during the evening, as long as your hosts do the same, and as long as one glass won’t make you fuzzy. Otherwise, you can simply say, "No thanks," or, "I think I’ll stick to water. I need to keep a clear head." If anyone presses alcohol on you, just keep refusing in a cheerful tone. Besides, the wine they serve at these things is usually awful.

Hazard No. 7: Etiquette and dress.
Nearly everyone I consulted for this article asked me to remind you: Don’t check for texts when you’re with your interviewers. They will think you incredibly rude if you’re constantly pulling out your phone. (One colleague passed on this advice in all caps: "TELL THEM ONLY TO CHECK THEIR TEXTS WHILE IN THE BATHROOM!")

And please dress appropriately. You’ll be walking outside all day, on the campus tour and as you hustle from meeting to meeting. Wear shoes that will go the distance.

No matter what happens during the interview, stay upbeat and polite. Unless the department suggests it, don’t ask to meet with a real-estate agent—even if a faculty member told you that you’re the committee’s first choice. That may only be wishful thinking on the faculty member’s part.

At a small college, decisions are made by the whole committee, so, conversely, don’t assume you've lost the job just because of a few awkward—or even a few disastrous—moments. Your champions on the committee will have an easier time winning the battle to hire you if you behaved with grace under pressure.

Now for a quiz: The following situations are adapted from real-life interview experiences (as told to me by friends). How would you handle these scenarios?

1. You’re at a department meet-and-greet held in your honor. A senior faculty member seems like one of your biggest supporters. During the reception, she approaches you, leans over, and asks confidentially, "I notice that your Facebook profile picture includes a little boy. How old is your son?" How do you answer?

2. You’re at a meeting with the dean and it’s going really well. Suddenly, he smiles engagingly and tells you that he loved your dissertation about 19th-century French narrative. Your subfield is 20th-century Haitian poetry, so the dean has obviously confused you with another candidate. Do you correct him?

3. Your phone keeps buzzing in your pocket: It’s your dad texting you about a family crisis. You have to keep your phone on, because the college where you are interviewing occasionally calls you with information about your next meeting. Should you: (A) Take your phone out of your pocket and explain gently, "It’s my dad. He’s going through a tough time. I’ll just be a minute." Or (B) Text your dad from the bathroom and ask him to please stop texting you until later in the evening.

See answers below. And good luck on the interview.

Nancy Scott Hanway is an associate professor of Spanish at Gustavus Adolphus College.


Answers

1. See Hazard No. 2. She’s the dud. But she’s your fan. Answer in a nice way.
2. See Hazard No. 4. Correct him politely. You don’t want him saying, “I loved that candidate who wrote about Madame Bovary,” when he means you. 3. See Hazard No. 7. While the crisis is real, your interviewers may not understand this. Unless there’s been a death in the family, or the immediate prospect of one, your dad will have to wait.