Passing the Interview Test

I often refer readers here to the wise counsel of Claire Potter, who blogs as Tenured Radical. Professor Potter is one of the most astute and level-headed of the commentators on higher education, and it is generally worth thinking carefully about what she has to say, as she plainly has already thought carefully before saying it.

A recent post on Tenured Radical titled, “Tell Us About Your Dissertation: and Other Commonly Fumbled Interview Questions” contains her usual dose of smart and useful advice to job candidates about handling conference interviews.

The core of her advice is that job candidate should be comfortable discussing their work as scholars and teachers at various levels of generality. In a short conference interview, an in-depth précis of one’s dissertation is not going to be the right strategy, as it will leave little time for other questions. Similarly, vague, too-brief answers imply that a candidate is not truly engaged with his or her work. Thus, it’s worth practicing talking about your work with your colleagues and professors to find ways to discuss it at various lengths and for various audiences.

I want to shift a bit to the on-campus portion of the interview. There are numerous threads in The Chronicle’s Forums asking about how to speak to the dean, vice president for academic affairs, or president during an on-campus interview. This portion of the campus interview is potentially odd and certainly fraught with peril, so it’s worth having some idea of what may happen. On our campus, the president and I both interview candidates—even if we’re not here, we’ll talk to them by phone before final hiring decisions are made.

Here is what I want to know from a conversation with a candidate:

1. Does this person understand the type of institution we are, and have a reasonable idea of how a career would work here?

2. Does he or she show a genuine interest in the position? Is there evidence in the conversation of time spent on our Web site or reading our print documents?

3. Does the candidate have interesting ways of talking about her or his work? My background is in English—when we have candidates for jobs in my discipline, obviously, I can talk to them about their work in a very different way from the way I speak to scientists. But scientists who can explain to me, in basic terms, what their work is about have a tremendous edge.

4. Does the candidate have good questions to ask me? I don’t care if they’re trite or basic (“what is your tenure policy?”), but I am positively impressed when they show that the candidate has actually considered working here and is asking questions that show engagement with the potential professional issues of our job.

During these meetings, I do indeed also work to “sell” the institution. I talk about our financial situation, discuss salary in general terms, give my take on the atmosphere in the particular school or program, and that kind of thing. But what I really want to know is that the candidate is serious about the job, can talk about his or her work in a way that implies success in the classroom, and appears likely to make a positive contribution to the campus.

Ultimately, in my experience, my interviews, and those of the president, with candidates on campus tend to be a kind of check or verification of the more detailed conversations they have with the search committee and others. When we are deciding on an offer, we get together and compare notes, and discuss concerns. Almost always, I forward the committee’s recommendation to the president, but if the committee has reservations, we probe those in the context of my conversation with the candidate, and decide how much weight to give them.

Because I’m not an expert in most of the disciplines in which we hire, I’m looking for something a little different when I speak to candidates. Candidates who demonstrate engagement with their work, clarity in discussing it, and plausible interest in our job pass my basic test. The details and the meaty decision are primarily up to the committee.

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