Interviewing Before You're Invited to Campus

December 15, 2000

Question: Yikes! I have a phone appointment for a great faculty job next week. If I do well they'll probably want to interview me in person at the convention next month. What should I do?

Julie: Congratulations! First let's say a few words about the phone interview. It is used more and more as a screening opportunity for employers because it makes it possible for them to get some sense of a candidate without devoting lots of time or money. However, it can be stressful for candidates, especially those with little interviewing experience. Just as it's necessary to prepare for an in-person interview, you must prepare for a phone interview.

Mary: While it's impossible to totally predict what you will be asked, it's a good bet that you'll need to talk about your dissertation, your teaching, and your future research plans. To what extent each of these areas will be probed will depend greatly on the type of institution to which you're applying. You'll revisit them at a convention interview, if you have one, and also when you're invited to campus visits. If you research the institution before the phone interview, you'll get an idea of which areas you should stress. Look at the institutional and departmental Web sites. When the interview is scheduled, it's fine to ask who the interviewers will be. If you are given names, you can do some research to learn a bit about their backgrounds and, therefore, possible interests.

Julie: There are some advantages to a phone interview. You can have notes in front of you, take notes while other people speak, and wear what you choose. Some people enjoy the luxury of interviewing in their pajamas. Others have told us they find it helps to dress up for a phone interview. The choice is yours. Be sure you won't be interrupted and that you are in a quiet environment where you can concentrate on the interviewers' questions and comments. Have any notes you want, as well as note-taking materials, handy. If before the interview you've printed out departmental information from the institution's Web site, you can quickly identify faculty members as they introduce themselves over the phone.

Mary: In a phone interview you don't have the visual feedback to help you judge whether you're getting your points across. If the interviewers don't say much, feel free to ask occasional questions to see whether or not they're with you: "Would you like me to say more about that?" "Was that clear?" "Have I answered your concern about that?"

In general, it's hard to tell how you're doing in an interview. It's even more difficult in a phone interview. At its conclusion, send a thank-you note right away to the person who arranged the interview and then turn your attention to other matters. We hope, however, that soon after that telephone call, you receive an invitation to either visit the campus for an interview or to have another one at a conference.

Julie: The details of interview sequences will vary depending on your field. The sequence could be phone interview, conference interview, campus visit. Sometimes a phone interview or a paper application will lead directly to a campus interview. And sometimes you'll skip the phone interview altogether and have your first interview at a conference. We'll assume in this case that you're also going to a conference that includes some interviewing, whether from this successful phone interview or other applications.

Mary: To prepare for the conference interview, get the basics under control. Make your travel arrangements, and think about what logistics will fit your style. If it's a very large convention, it may be worth paying the higher cost of staying in a more central hotel room so that you don't have to spend a lot of time racing between meetings and interviews. One person might decide to share a room to keep down the cost of a more central hotel. Another might use limited funds to get a private room at a greater distance, in order to have more peace to prepare for interviews. In all of your scheduling, build in extra time so delays won't threaten your ability to participate in interviews or conference sessions.

Julie: Also make sure you know what you're going to wear. In preparation for writing this column we checked with faculty members in a wide variety of fields to see what the latest standards of attire are. As you might expect, they vary according to field. For example, at one end of the spectrum, someone in art history said that women should wear suits that are "beautiful," but not too much like business suits, and, at the other, a scientist said highly individualistic styles of dressing are appropriate. Everyone agreed blue jeans aren't appropriate, and the norm seemed to be, for both men and women, something that comes with a jacket. Of the sociology convention, one faculty member said, "In general, aim for how you'd dress to teach or to go out to dinner, not how you'd dress to go to a business meeting or a party." Due to the variation in fields, be sure to check with people in your own department. And keep in mind, you need to find clothes that fit and are comfortable. Needless to say, you'll pack these in your carry-on luggage, rather than checking them.

Mary: See if you can do a practice interview before the convention. This is also a fine time to try out any new attire. Some academic departments provide interview preparation for their doctoral students. See if your department does. If not, perhaps your adviser or another faculty member will work with you. At your campus career center, you may find counselors experienced in working with graduate students who will do a mock interview with you. If such help is not available to you, figure out which questions you need to practice the most and work with a friend or family member. Have the people who practice with you ask you both predictable and off-the-wall questions. In answering the latter, remember that keeping your cool, and, when appropriate, demonstrating your sense of humor, are often more important than giving the "right" answer.

Julie: Our book, The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press) gives some sample interview questions. But you can also find helpful tips on the Web sites of scholarly associations. For example, articles posted to the American Mathematical Society give many sample questions, the Modern Language Association suggests "Interview Dos and Don'ts," and the College Art Association gives an interesting look at how it tries to prepare faculty members who will be interviewing on the other side of the table. As you prepare, be sure to check the Web site of your own association.

Mary: One of the most important ways you can prepare for the convention is to know the short answer you'll give when anyone asks about your research. Be able to say something brief and interesting. Give a context for your research and make what you've done sound important. In the actual interview, when someone asks about your dissertation give your short answer as an introduction and then be prepared to expand on it, for a long time, if necessary. Remember, though, that convention interviews are short and interviewers have many questions they need to ask you, so you may not get to talk about anything as much as you'd expected to. Also, think hard about how you will answer questions such as "What makes you stand out as a teacher?" and "What will be the next direction of your research?" The answers you give should be memorable.

Julie: On the other hand, don't become so preoccupied with impressing the interviewers that you forget to try to establish rapport with them. The feedback we get from candidates and faculty members is that convention interviewing is hectic, and often stressful for all parties. Interviewers may be tired to start out with, and interviewing a steady stream of candidates can be exhausting. Try to react to the interviewers in a human way. This can include offering to wait a minute if it looks as if someone is rushing to begin your interview, introducing yourself as if you're happy to meet the interviewers, asking questions before you're asked whether you have any, and reacting positively to what the interviewers have to say.

Mary: Before you know it, your convention interview will be winding down. If your interviewers ask whether you have any questions, be sure to have one and ask it. If they don't talk about the next stage of their interview process, ask. It's quite appropriate to say something like, "Will you be contacting people you interviewed here in the next few weeks?" To make a graceful exit, express your interest in the position, shake hands with each interviewer, thank them, and indicate that you enjoyed meeting them.

Julie: We hope this is at least somewhat true. If you're prepared, yet stay flexible about the unexpected events a convention can bring, you can enjoy the challenge of presenting your work to a new audience and meeting people who may become your new colleagues.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.

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