Making the Most of Your Campus Interview

February 19, 1999

Question: I've been notified by a good department that one of their finalists has withdrawn and that they'd like me to come for an overnight and all-day campus visit. They want me to give a talk and teach a class. It's close enough that I'll be able to get there by car, so transportation isn't an issue. Where do I start, and what do I do when I get there?

Mary: First, congratulations! As you prepare, keep the big picture in mind. Someone is seriously interested in you for a job you want. Also congratulate yourself for any advance preparation you've already done. Whether that's a lot or a little, at this moment it's your working capital, so plan a strategy to make the most of what you have, rather than scrambling to develop too much new material.

Julie: Hopefully you have been practicing your talk. Go over it again, making sure that even though it's prepared, it does not sound canned. Anticipate the kinds of questions it might elicit, and think about how you'll answer them. Familiarizing yourself with the faculty and their research areas and courses offered may help you anticipate what you might be asked.

Mary: If you need anything for your talk such as slides, transparencies, or handouts, take care of those first so that you don't risk rushing around at the last moment trying to locate or reproduce a missing slide. If, in your surprise at being invited for a campus visit, you didn't review your audiovisual requirements with the hiring department, feel free to call back and make sure they know what you need and can provide it. Also, gather up anything you want to take, such as extra copies of your C.V., sample syllabi, and reprints of your articles.

If you can't find an item easily, ask yourself if it's crucial before you invest much precious time in searching for it. Remind yourself that the success of your visit will hinge on your rapport and clear communication with the people you meet. A sense of humor and a sense of proportion will help you as much while you're preparing to visit the campus as they will when you get there.

Julie: Try to take a few minutes to check out the department's Web site to see what you can learn about the faculty. Develop an understanding of individual areas of expertise as well as courses offered by the department and any special interdisciplinary programs. Think about where your teaching would fit in the department's course offerings.

Mary: Be able to talk about new courses you could teach, but also discuss how you'd tackle the introductory courses often given to new faculty members. Think of things you've already done in your teaching that worked well, so that you can use these as examples to demonstrate your enthusiasm for and competence at teaching. Also think about questions you might want to ask department members about their own teaching and students, so that you're prepared to have a two-way conversation.

Julie: What should you do when you get there? Be yourself. Think of yourself as a potential colleague with much to offer as well as much to learn. That way you will be interesting to others and they will be able to assess that intangible criterion called "fit", which is based, not only on your credentials, but also on their assessment of what kind of colleague/mentor/advisor you will be. "Fit" will be most important to the department interviewing you. You also need to be able to interact with students, faculty members from other departments, and administrators such as deans or provosts.

Mary: In the blur of people, it may be hard to remember who is whom, and you may be tempted to focus your attention on the person you perceive as the most important in the selection process. In reality, however, you won't know the exact weight of everyone's input. The safest thing is to assume that everyone you meet in the course of the search, from the moment you park your car (or, in the case of many interviews, are picked up at the airport) is critical to the decision to hire you. Try to establish rapport with everybody you meet, address your conversation to every member of a group, and show interest in what each person you speak with is doing.

Julie: Your talk is very important. In some major research institutions, you won't teach a class during a campus interview. However, your talk will be the basis for evaluating how you teach. Whatever the situation, it needs to be interesting. Within the first five or 10 minutes you must communicate why your research area is very important and get the listeners excited. How you handle questions is also critical. You must show that you can generate and maintain interest and that you are able to think on your feet.

Mary: Arouse interest within the first five or 10 minutes? I think five minutes is a lot. Most of your listeners will already have started to make up their mind. If people initially decide they aren't very interested in you, they may then listen less carefully than if they see you as a strong candidate. This is true throughout your day. As you meet new people, concentrate first on trying to get them to engage with you. You can do this by being succinctly interesting, by looking people in the eye when you meet them, by asking them questions, and through postures and gestures that convey your own enthusiasm and energy.

Julie: This will require a lot of energy. The typical campus visit consists of back-to-back interviews, with both groups and individuals, presentations or other performances, "informal conversations," and social events where food and drink are served. Many candidates find the social events challenging because they appear to be relaxed and informal, and yet obviously the candidate is still under scrutiny.

Mary: In these informal settings, use common sense and follow your hosts' lead. Drink lightly, if at all, choose the least-messy food alternatives, and observe all the basic civilities. Don't attempt a hard sell of your research with someone who wants to chat about the local housing market. However, when you do have a chance to introduce your professional interests and accomplishments in a natural manner, take advantage of it. Social settings may lead to more questions about your personal life, so think ahead about how you want to handle these if they arise. (For more on this topic, see "How to Handle Difficult Interview Questions".)

Julie: After all the superhuman things we've suggested you do, this next piece of advice might sound counterintuitive but take every opportunity to enjoy the visit. All else being equal, your hosts will want to select someone who seems to enjoy talking to them and who seems to feel comfortable at their institution.

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.