Preparing for Campus Interviews

January 17, 2003

Question: I've been invited for a campus interview. I've started preparing my answers to potential questions and I've had a mock interview, but I know there's a lot more involved in the campus visit than the questions themselves. What should I expect and how should I prepare?

Answer: First of all, congratulations on landing a campus interview. It's natural to approach such an interview with some anxiety. The best way to alleviate the stress is to prepare thoughtfully and practice presenting yourself, so you're on the right track.

At this stage, typically, the members of the search committee are looking for reasons to hire you; they want you to succeed. The campus visit is your opportunity to articulate how well you fit the position and to explore how well it fits you. Keep in mind that while you may feel that they are scrutinizing you (and they are) you also should look and listen carefully to determine whether this is a position that is a good professional step for you.

Campus visits are generally one to two days long. Your time on campus can be a rigorous, intense, and exhausting experience. You should expect to meet with faculty members, administrators, and students. As you think about your efforts to present yourself in the most favorable light, remember that you are always "on." Beware of alcohol or other factors that may encourage confessional impulses. Be careful not to discuss departmental politics, your perceived inadequacies, or other inappropriate topics.

There are some important questions you should ask of your interviewers before your visit: With whom will you be meeting? What is the schedule for your visit (and will there be a short break before your presentation to allow you to prepare)? Who will be your audience for your talk or teaching demonstration? What social events or meals will you be attending? Be certain to clarify the logistics. Who will make arrangements for your travel and accommodations? Will the department cover your expenses?

It is important to be ready for the unexpected. One graduate student, upon her arrival the day before her interview, was invited to an impromptu dinner with the search committee that night. She had brought only one suit, and she had to dash out to the mall to get a second outfit. The next morning, as rain began to fall, she also realized that she was without an umbrella. She suggested that all those on the job market should bring an extra outfit to the campus visit and be prepared for inclement weather.

Besides your interview clothes, you'll need to bring along a lot of documents. Remember to take extra copies of your CV and cover letter. You'll also want to bring copies of your dissertation abstract, syllabi, a dissertation chapter or writing sample, and any materials for your presentation (notes, slides, or handouts). Carry all of your important materials on the plane with you.

It's critical, before your interview, to take time to do some research that will allow you to tailor your responses. Many search-committee members mention that candidates don't often seem to know much about the institution or the department. Be sure to review the college's catalogs, brochures, and Web site. Talk with friends, colleagues, and advisers to learn as much as possible about the place and the people there. What are the research interests of the faculty members? Think about how your research might intersect with theirs, and about the possibilities for collaboration. Think about ways in which your teaching might complement the course offerings. In addition to the search committee, be prepared for conversations with campus administrators such as deans. Be ready to discuss broader institutional issues and the ways in which you might contribute as a good citizen.

As you prepare your answers to typical interview questions, consider the talking points you want to convey. Be sure to share your talking points, even if your interviewers don't directly ask questions to elicit them. Be ready to offer 1-, 3-, and 10-minute versions of your research. Tailor these descriptions to both specialists and nonspecialists in your field. Be ready to discuss your future research interests, your teaching abilities, interests and philosophy, and your interest in this department and institution.

The best interviews are dialogues, so strive to engage people. Remember to prepare some thoughtful questions. Through all of your conversations during the visit, you may be uncomfortable repeating yourself but remember you're meeting each of these people for the first time. You need to avoid the broken-record syndrome and renew your enthusiasm for your work with each meeting. This is especially important as you prepare for one of the most crucial points in your visit -- the job talk.

Some people are so worried about the job talk that they procrastinate and then panic when they realize how much energy it requires to prepare one. Others assume they can "wing it" because they've talked about their work before. Neither of these "strategies" will result in a professional, polished, confident presentation. Once again, thoughtful preparation and practice are the keys to giving an excellent presentation.

Even before thinking about your own talk, make an effort to attend the job talks of candidates for other academic positions. Find out about seminars in your own department, or in other departments or universities. Observe the style and structure of other peoples' talks, and pay attention to the dynamics during and after the Q&A period. Then incorporate the successful strategies into your own presentation style, and avoid the ineffective ones that you noticed in others and that you might need to work on yourself.

The second thing to do before preparing the actual talk (besides cleaning your apartment and hosting a dinner for 12), is to consider the expectations of your hosts. Who will be in the audience? What range of specialties will your listeners have, and how familiar will they be with the fundamental underpinnings of your own specialty? Should this be a strictly research-based presentation or will this talk double as a teaching demonstration? You should feel free to talk with the head of the search committee to find out more details about how to pitch your talk. If you are unable to gauge the audience before your visit, a good rule of thumb is to gear the talk toward the nonspecialist who is nevertheless familiar with the general field.

Your final step before crafting the actual presentation is to consider the structure of the talk. One effective strategy is to "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em." This model often works very well in cases where repetition and giving away the punch line are necessary to ensure that the audience will be able to understand the whole story. Another method is to present your work like a detective story: Establish your original motivations, explain how you developed and explored interesting questions, reveal how key findings led you along a particular path, and end with your conclusions set into the context of their significance to the field.

After you've completed all these preparatory steps, you'll still have an hour or two before the plane leaves to actually create the talk, right? Try not to fall into this trap either. It's essential that you practice your talk several times with different audiences. Many departments arrange special practice talks so that you can get feedback from your colleagues. Take these practices seriously and try to observe the points where audience members look bored or confused. Don't worry about the graduate students who fall asleep (you remember what it's like). Pay keen attention to the questions you are asked because they may reveal a hole in your logic or a fundamental misunderstanding that you can repair before giving your real job talk. Finally (and this is the hard part) ask for honest, constructive criticism.

In addition to the job talk, some candidates, especially for jobs at liberal-arts colleges, are asked to prepare a lesson and deliver it as a guest lecturer before a class. You will have to integrate your lecture into the overall scheme of the course in order to woo the students and wow the faculty. So, find out ahead of time: Will you be asked to deliver a lecture or lead a discussion? What text is being used? What will the students have covered in the classes preceding yours? Will the instructor dictate the topic, or are you free to create your own?

Prepare your materials (handouts, slides, etc.) and develop some discussion questions, as you would normally. Practicing the teaching demonstration can help get the kinks out, but in the end, rely on your confidence in your teaching experience and your comfort with your own style.

Throughout your campus visit, it will be important to market yourself confidently by discussing the value you would bring to the position: your research and expertise in your specialty, your pedagogical strengths, your service record. Remember that you are a potential colleague. You must eliminate the subordinate graduate student from your attitude and project an air of confidence. Good luck, and don't forget your umbrella.


Kimberly DelGizzo and Laura Malisheski are guest writers this month, filling in for our usual Career Talk columnists, Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick. DelGizzo is associate director for Ph.D. advising at Harvard University's career-services office, while Malisheski is assistant director.