Job-Search Jitters or Warning Bells?

March 19, 1999

How can you tell if your job interview went badly or if you were just nervous? Dawn Formo and Cheryl Reed, authors of a new book on the academic job market, say that job interviews present certain cues that candidates can learn to read -- what the authors call the "rhetorical scene" of the interview. Reading those cues, they say, can help you make the best decision about the job.

Here are some questions that candidates should keep in mind, drawn from Ms. Formo's and Ms. Reed's experiences and interviews with job candidates and adpted from their book.

Did I feel demeaned by committee comments or interview arrangements?

Search-committee comments can be, well, searching, but they should not leave a candidate feeling diminished. Comments such as, "The purpose of this meeting is to give candidates the opportunity to tell us how their experience and training -- or, in your case, the lack of it -- equip you to teach at our university" do not serve any purpose but to intimidate. Even if you feel desperate enough to put up with such interview tactics, do you really want such a group eventually voting on your tenure?

Likewise, the arrangements of the on-campus interview should allow you to assess the institution and its context, as well as be assessed as a candidate. Leaving candidates no time to initiate conversations or to explore the surrounding city betrays a lack of professional courtesy, even if the search committee seems enthusiastic about your candidacy.

Is my training or experience being misread or ignored?

While institutions give varying weight to different types of training and work experience, there should be some recognition of how your activities as a student stack up against others. Note how these activities are "read." Is your role in the research you conducted clear to the interviewers? Is part-time teaching considered "experience"? Is your experience as a teaching assistant interpreted as "marking time"? How are publications and conference presentations talked about? If you find yourself justifying praiseworthy graduate experience, watch out.

Is the job description clear, or are there different readings from different committee members?

A department that can't define what position it wants filled, or how it wants a job performed, offers shaky ground for eventual tenure. If the expectations of the new hire are always under revision and no single job description stands as the evaluative standard, both the interview and the tenure processes could be harrowing experiences.

Does the faculty seem able to work together? Do I sense one faction pushing my candidacy against another, dissenting factions? What tends to settle disagreements (student interests, administrative action, group decisions)?

While it's possible (even probable) that some faculty members will like you more than others, strong opposition -- or the advocacy of one powerful figure, like a dean or chair -- can make trouble at tenure time. Remember, the campus interview is your opportunity to earn votes from the faculty and administrators. You, however, don't want to be the "pet" of the current dean and inherit his or her enemies. In addition, that powerful advocate may no longer be in a position to help you later.

Does the salary range and rank seem reasonable for an entry-level job in this particular area of the country?

Along with the local cost of living, it's smart to find out the salary ranges for similar positions at other area colleges. (A story on faculty salaries in 1997-98, with links to salary tables for each state, appeared on April 10, 1998, in The Chronicle. The figures will be updated within the next few weeks. That will give you a better idea of how the salary you're being offered rates in the local economy. A telephone search in one city revealed that salaries for similar positions varied as much as $6,000 a year, depending on whether the college served a historically underprivileged student population, whether it was supported by state or private means, or whether it lacked status in the area.

Also consider physical or economic factors that can affect your overall perception of the rank and salary. Do poor conditions in public schools mean you'll be paying private-school tuition for your children, or will high rents or energy bills cut into that projected paycheck? Conversely, does a hefty salary make an otherwise unattractive position seem like a good job?

What does my intuition tell me?

While this is the least-tangible criterion, it is in many ways the most important. You can feel worried, trapped, and denigrated in an interview, with no articulable cause. Or, you can see all sorts of things in a prospective position that would make your mentors blanch, yet you feel excited, challenged, and creative.

Along with the job candidates we've interviewed, we have found that advice --- however well-intentioned -- is always rooted in someone else's experience. Helpful suggestions spring from individual ways of seeing, and may not be borne out by your experience.

Adapted fromJob Search in Academe, by Dawn Formo and Cheryl Reed (Stylus Publishing). Copyright (c) 1999 Stylus Publishing. Reproduced by permission.