The Media Studies Job Market, 9b: The Campus Interview
With pilot season behind us, it’s time to return to the job market posts. And I begin with a Tale of Two Interviews.
As an intro to discussing interviews, let me share these stories – a good one, and a bad one (they’re also my first and the second respectively – I thought my later ones would be less helpful for ABD readers). I’ll list lessons from them, along with some general points, at the end. But I want to share the stories, since my sense is that most people hear about “the job talk” and little more, thereby focusing all their energy on a small (albeit vital) part of the visit. More after the fold …
The Good One
My first job interview ever was at Berkeley. I got into Oakland airport late afternoon, got the shuttle to the hotel where Patty Hearst was a hostage, and then was picked up for dinner by a committee member. Nice meal, with just the two of us. A bit of work-talk, but mostly a lot of friendly chit chat about all sorts of things. We got along really well, and so I went back to the hotel feeling good. But I also felt terrified: she hadn’t grilled me with hard questions, and I’d been expecting them. Would tomorrow be the day? I didn’t sleep well.
Early the next day (I arose on Eastern time), after sitting fidgeting with my notes for my talk for about an hour, I put on my blazer and went to meet the same committee member for breakfast. I was then shuttled from office to office, meeting different people, working up to the Dean. The Dean was an imposing figure (if by title alone), yet we chatted about English football and comedy, and did a whole lot of laughing.
I had no job talk per se, since this was a lecturer position. Instead, I had to teach one of a committee member’s classes, with the committee in attendance. This is a weird beast, since on one hand, I’m a believer in chemistry in performance, and this audience was new to me, but had expectations of this space. That said, I’d tried to tailor my topic to what they were doing in the course, not too much since that wasn’t possible, but at least with some nominal shout-outs, which they seemed to appreciate at the time. On the other hand, there were five committee members sitting in the class, clearly spooking the students a bit, making them self-conscious about their questions to me, and hence somewhat killing the “so, do you have any questions?” component, and making me work that component a little harder. It spooked me too, since I struggled to know which audience to talk to, the professors at the sides of the classroom, or the students. But I think it went well, nevertheless.
I was toured around the campus after, introduced to the media librarian (who, I might note, is an absolute god of his craft), shown the Free Speech Café (nice to see all those sixties radicals got a latte bar named after them, eh?), introduced to a few more people, and then was deposited back at the hotel, where I fidgeted around some more, restless, till I was picked up about an hour or so later for dinner. The committee and I had a lovely meal, and again it was pleasant conversation. As we got up to the leave the table, I remember remarking to them that everyone had been so nice, and nobody had been really intense and gruff with questioning. One answered, “well if we treated you that way, why would you want to come?”, which I thought was a lovely answer, and off I went home, with the promise of hearing from the committee when they made their decision.
Maybe two weeks later, I had an answer, and got the job. Wuhoo!
The Bad One
University of Bad Job Interview (Hereafter, BJIU) called me when I was in Berkeley, during my first year, asking me to come to a job interview. The next week. Indeed, the dept head had taken the liberty of reserving me a ticket, which she claimed I could change if I wanted, but made it clear I couldn’t really. President’s Day weekend was in between, and my girlfriend (now Mrs. Extratextuals), who was living in New York, and I were going to meet in DC for the weekend. So our trip ended up kind of sucky – with me agonizing over a job talk (my first one, no less!). I also ping-ponged from Berkeley to DC to Berkeley back to the East Coast.
The flight the dept head had booked was awful. I left San Francisco at about 11.30pm, arrived in Chicago in the early, early hours of the morning, then had a two hour layover there before continuing to an airport an hour’s drive from BJIU. Nervous energy + redeye flights + two hour layover when you can’t sleep for fear of missing second flight = no sleep. The dept chair and the very lovely dept member who she had sent to pick me up both insisted I could sleep in the car, but I knew I couldn’t. Besides, what if I drooled, snored, or talked in my sleep?
We arrived at BJIU, where I’d been told clearly by the dept chair that I’d be allowed a few hours to sleep, then have a late lunch with two dept members, a meeting with the grad and undergrad committees solely to discuss what I could teach, a break, dinner, and then they’d work me harder the next day. Ha.
Instead, the hotel didn’t have my room ready, and the only two chairs in the lobby were taken. The person who picked me up apologized, but needed to leave to teach a class, so I was left alone to wonder the area. And it was snowing. Eventually I got into my room, got an hour’s sleep, and then it was lunchtime. Nice people, understanding of my situation. Then off to the meeting. Myself and most of the whole friggin’ department, each of whom had one, pre-arranged question. A few were about teaching, but most aimed to grill me on the finer points of my dissertation and subsequent research. With even two hours of sleep in me, maybe I could’ve handled that, but ninety minutes of being beaten around by a team of fifteen or so was sheer abuse, and I’m sure my candidacy was dead in the water by the end of that meeting.
I walked out hoarse, clearly getting a bad cold. Over dinner, I continued to lose my voice even more so. I got about three hours sleep that night, between the cold, the absurdly high temperature in my room which dried me out completely, and the second guessing of every question. I woke up unable to speak. After tea, I had my voice back, but in a croaky, unpleasant way. And I had an upset stomach now, which haunted me for the rest of my trip.
For my job talk, they were supposed to record it so that others who weren’t there could see it afterwards. Then one of the profs told me he forgot to record it. Nobody seemed all that worried. Over dinner, the same prof asked my age. At the time I was 29, and was very self-conscious about not seeming “too young.” Usually my balding did the trick, but not here. A colleague told him he wasn’t allowed to ask. He didn’t care. I had to answer, and all had tell-tale “ahhhhhh” looks to share amongst themselves. Not good.
The Dean interview was categorically bizarre. She had a desk on one side of the office, and a round table on the other. She pointed me to the latter, was about to sit down and join me, but then worriedly retreated to the desk, where she picked up a small sushi plate full of tiny porcelain animals. She brought this prop/totem back to the table, placed it down gingerly, and for the rest of our interview, I awaited in horror some silly “so, which animal would you be?” question … though it never came. To this day, I still have no fucking clue what those animals were doing there.
Meeting with the grad students was painful too. It was so very obvious that one of them didn’t like my research specialty, didn’t see what it would offer her, and thus she sat at breakfast with a permanent scowl on her face, asking me stupid questions. It was also simply hard to work out how to play it. I was their age or younger, and only one year out of my Ph.D. Yet I’d need to be a faculty member and advise them. So part of me wanted to just be one of the group, part of me wanted to assert some sense of having something to offer them. Both parts likely failed, especially since Scowly wanted it that way.
Eventually, on the last morning, I woke up with absolutely no voice. To check out of the hotel (at 5am, since BJIU’s excellent scheduling had once more got me on a crazy flight home), I had to bang on the counter to get someone’s attention since I was so completely voiceless. An old woman on the flight home kept wanting to talk and thought I was rude when I would only whisper answers.
While there, people were nice enough in the meals, but seemed to want to break my legs in the interviews. A few welcome exceptions. One of them wasn’t on the committee, and as a tenure-track faculty member clearly wasn’t even meant to talk to me (which was bizarre in and of itself). S/he was super-excited by my job talk, though, and asked if we could have coffee during my one break. Sure. So we did. Neat discussion, and s/he was all full of promises to lobby on my behalf, and full of thoughts of potential collaboration. When I emailed her/him later, s/he never replied. To this day. Maybe the porcelain animals ate her/him?
Someone let it slip while I was there that I was the first candidate being interviewed for one position, but that after me the dept was shifting to the three candidates for their second position. Spring Break and three candidate visits intervened, so I knew that by the time the next two people for my position turned up, I’d be long since forgotten. Sure enough, when, about 10 weeks later, the dept head called me to give me the news, she prefaced her comments by apologizing since she knew that I had a spouse at the town/city of BJIU and that I was hoping to be there; I had to tell her I wasn’t even married. Ouch.
Comments and Lessons
1. It’s a marathon. As said, I tell these stories partly to remind candidates that campus visits are marathons. The Berkeley one was quite short, but even then it was much more than just a talk. Your first urge will be to put all your energy into the job talk, thinking that this is the centerpiece of the visit. Granted, it’s very important. But at BJIU my job talk was okay, I think (not great at all, but not bad per se). Yet I was destroyed by not being ready for everything else. I wasn’t ready for the physical endurance test that an interview is. I didn’t have enough hot drinks and cough sweets on hand in between meetings. I let someone take up my sole rest time that I really, really needed. And I wasn’t ready for the questions to come my way hard, fast, and furious before the job talk. Realize that you are “on” from the second you step off the plane to the second you’re back on it, with sleep your only escape. And realize that you can die just as easily outside of the job talk, so be ready for the whole visit.
2. It’s social. You can also succeed just as easily outside of the job talk if you’re ready for it. Remember that these people want someone they can live with. This isn’t a summer job, where you all only have to stomach each other for three months if you don’t like each other, so everyone involved will really want to hire someone with whom they want to spend time. I like to think that if you’re really nice in an easy-going, genuine way, you can beat at least one of your competitors without even taking intellectual performance into account. All these social encounters that happen before your talk can be especially important, as you can set the frame, with some people therefore wanting you to be good and taking a forgiving approach to the talk, or, if you screw up socially, with others determined to dislike what they hear. But framing for the job talk aside, a lot of a campus visit is eating, chatting, and being a decent human being. If you’re not as prepared for that as for the other parts, you’re dead. Do whatever you need to cheer yourself up, in other words – eat a happy breakfast, play inspirational music your first morning, or whatever. Just be your best self.
3. Everyone matters. My talk at Berkeley went well, and I got compliments from the committee. But the students were apparently especially enthused. They appreciated me catering the class to them, when apparently none of my competitors did, which they later spoke of to their professor as respect. The media librarian and I got along really well, and he too passed on his review to the committee. In other words, I was scoring points with people who certainly didn’t have votes, but who helped those with votes make up their minds. So be nice to everyone. I’ve heard of some candidates who know which are the committee members, or which are the tenured faculty (since non-tenured faculty don’t vote on personnel issues at some universities, fyi) and they treat those who aren’t official voters poorly, or not as well as others; this inevitably backfires, since the committee are told about it, and it makes you look bad. As it should. Don’t be a jerk, to anyone.
4. Interviews are full of “spoilers.” Early on, you’ll realize that a lot of people are going to ask you the same questions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll all share answers later, so be prepared to repeat central things about yourself. And they’ll often ask you about your research, making you wonder how much of your job talk you should “spoil” by telling them in advance. My personal answer to this issue is to be strategic: assume that unless they tell you they can’t attend your talk, they’ll see it, and thus you should use your scant time with people outside the job talk to discuss your other work, and to contextualize the larger project. I only know of a few departments in which everyone reads the candidate’s CV and writing sample; usually, by contrast, a small group (the committee) know the full you, and everyone else will only know what you tell them in the job talk or in the one on one interviews. So make sure you tell them more in those interviews. As for the incessant repetition of the same answers, so be it, and be prepared for it. Or, prove that you know a bit about the dept, and try to answer in ways that make sense for the person asking you.
5. You have planning rights. You are always within your right to say that a specific time is bad for a campus interview. You should try to be accommodating, yes, but committees nearly always have other slots, or should. So if it’s really bad timing, you can say so.
6. Rest and sleep. Nyquil: use it. Every night. You can’t afford not to sleep. Make yourself sleep. Similarly, look at your schedule, know when you’ll have a break, and be ready to use it. These things can be remarkably tiring. They can at times be physically taxing, with lots of walking around, and with your larynx always at work. But they are also psychologically taxing, as you’re not only trying to read everyone you’re talking to; you’re also trying to decide if you actually like the place yourself. I know of nothing more absolutely tiring than the academic job interview. Your mind moves at about ten times normal pace, which takes its toll quickly, and those little 15 minute segments when you’re allowed to sit alone in between meetings are golden, so take them.
7. Know your schedule. Get a schedule of the visit beforehand. Some places are really bad about this, but gently pushing them is wise. You shouldn’t be blindsided as was I in BJIU; you should know what’s coming up. If you’re vegetarian, let the committee know beforehand, rather than end up in a chop house for dinner eating the side salad. Etc. They may also ask if there are other things you want to do while there. Always ask for a little time to explore the town if you can. They will only be impressed by this, and it’s wise for you. You’ll likely be so swept up by “do they like me? Do they like me?” thoughts for most of the interview, along with the stress that goes with that, but an hour to look at neighborhoods, the main street, or whatever can help shift you to “do I like this place?” which in turn will make you feel a little less under the microscope for a while. (Don’t overdo this, though: the committee isn’t likely to be fond of paying for your holiday, so don’t ask for a full day or anything like that).
8. Give a fantastic job talk, and nail the questions. As a corollary of the above point, make sure you know the parameters for the talk. Know exactly how long you should speak, and how long you’ll have for questions. Ask around, if possible, to find out what the department’s job talk culture is like – some don’t ask many questions, some come alive during the questions, etc.
As for the talk itself, first off, prepare. Really know it. The department use this to see how you’ll perform at conferences, how you’ll do in front of students, and how you hold up under pressure, so a bad performance is decimating. On the other hand, kicking ass here can send shockwaves around the department. So don’t take it lightly, and don’t be a goof and prepare it last minute. Start early, so that it’s second nature when you go. Don’t wait till you get the invitation, either: know what you’ll talk about now, plan out some details, and then adapt to time length later. That preparation is all the more important if you’re an ABD: departments will be keen to see signs of confidence in your academic skin, so make sure you have it.
Never go over time. My experience is that most departments want to ask questions. When you go over, you deny them their question time. And thus whoever doesn’t get to ask you a question will be especially peeved that you rambled on. Be prepared to cut five minutes off, too, since you’ll likely begin late for one reason or another, but the chair may not factor that in when timing you.
And be ready for questions. It’s common for candidates to feel great relief after the talk is over, but the talk is only part of what’s going on. You’re also being tested for how you act on your feet. Know that the question period after a job talk is often one of the very few spaces in which dept members see each other at work as intellectuals, so it can at times be a space for proving their mettle to one another. Questions can be hard, and since you’re likely delivering to an audience that’s much wider than your own sub-field, questions may come from odd (to you) directions. Do a practice job talk if your current dept lets you, and ask people to fire tough questions at you. Be ready to discuss methods, since someone always asks about methods. Know what research paradigms will be represented in the room, and hence what kinds of questions to expect (a dept with a lot of political economists will likely produce a question about institutional power, for instance, to offer a no-brainer).
Be ready physically, too. When you finish, drink something. Reset yourself quickly. Don’t slack off. Stay standing and alert. And the more you practiced your talk, the more you’ll be ready for what comes next too. Don’t just be scared, either: realize that questions allow you to discuss aspects of the project that you couldn’t fit into the narrow time given to you for your talk. Don’t be a politician and answer a question against itself, but do have material up your sleeve. Also, don’t jump out of the gates – have a pen and paper, write notes as a faculty member questions you, don’t cut him/her off, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. If they only get one question each, and you cut their question off, misinterpret it, or mess it up, you’re obviously not helping yourself. Stay upbeat, though, and even if you’re feeling like a punching bag, don’t show it.
9. Deans are odd. Not all of them, granted. But bear in mind that most Deans go through a huge number of applicants in a year. And they have many other things to do. So Deans are often the chit-chatters. One of my Dean interviews began with the Dean’s impassioned defense of Family Guy as wonderful. I describe two others above. Another was all about how crappy the market is. Deans tend to pick a topic at random and run with it. Mrs. Extratextuals was once asked about horse-racing for 15 mins when she noted she was from Kentucky. And yet these folk matter. So humor the crazy talk, be ready for the ride, and be ready to sound very smart about what you do when the crazy talk inevitably ends for a minute or two of sobriety.
10. Be ready with questions. After seven interviews in one year (I told you she was the smart one!), Mrs. Extratextuals noted to me that she preferred one-on-one meetings with older faculty members, since they tended overwhelmingly to ask questions, whereas younger folk overwhelmingly tend to offer you the chance to ask them questions. It’s likely because the younger ones remember the experience of newness, and the sheer terror of interviews, so they want to help you be at ease. However, being asked a question is often easier than being asked for the 25th time in a day if you have any questions. Believe me, you will get that question a lot. So be prepared with some questions, but know that your questions will be read and interpreted just as answers would be.
- Don’t ask about the salary – that’s the discussion for the Chair if you get the offer. But you can ask how and if salaries rise in the dept. Some universities have great merit pay systems, some give an automatic incremental each year, some have nothing.
- Ask about summer teaching – are you expected to do it? are you able to do it?
- Ask young faculty about their experiences of the tenure system, though watch your tone – you don’t want them reporting back that you seemed terrified of the system.
- Ask younger faculty about inclusion in the dept, service responsibilities, etc.
- Be very, very careful asking about spousal or partner hiring, as that’s usually for the Chair after you get the offer. Such a question risks translating as “Hi, I might be very hard to hire, and your dept might end up failing the hire because of me,” so it’s best to avoid it completely.
- Ask what they’re working on. This might give your voice a rest, or it might offer you chances to connect with them on side interests, or simply for you to prove that you’re able to think meaningfully about other people’s topics too.
- Ask questions about the town, housing prices, etc. Be careful not to sound arrogant, as though you assume you already have the job, or haughty as though you’re evaluating whether or not to take it, but if you give the impression of really being interested in the town, this might allay fears that you don’t really want to come (which many schools have), and they’re questions that will really help you if you get two or more offers.
- Ask about the types of students, demographics, etc.
- Ask what conference, travel, and research funding is like.
11. Don’t Play Favorites. You may bond really closely to someone while there, which is great, but don’t overdo it. Remember that s/he may not be well liked in the dept, may belong to a faction, etc., and all of a sudden you’ll be seen as someone who is going to fall into “that” camp/group/faction/way of being. Keep level headed too. Some dept members may love you but have very little to do with the decision making process. Others may be absolutely charming, but may merely be giving you the same charm they give every candidate. Don’t let any of it go to your head, in other words, but also don’t let yourself think that one vote has you the job, and be sure to talk to everyone you can.
12. The Grad Student Meeting. As noted above, this can be really hard for younger faculty. If you simply try to fit in, they might balk at the idea that “one of them” would be their prof. Instead, then, you might try to build some distance between you and them. But then you risk coming off as a jerk. With age and profile, this is less of a problem. In the meantime, think about how you react as a grad student to visiting faculty – what do you want from them, how do you expect them to act, and what works for you? In point of fact, grad students rarely factor into decision making in a direct fashion, but positive buzz is your friend, so I refer you back to #3.
13. Dress and Behave Properly. Try and find out what the dept’s dress code is like and fit in, or shoot slightly above that. If nobody wears ties, though, be aware that you might be overdoing it with the tie. If makeup is sparse on the first day, be prepared to put on less the next day. Don’t get flirty. Cut down on any fidgety behavior. Don’t drink more than one glass of something at dinner (this can be hard. Often the table will be keen to drink on the university’s dime, but especially with the mental state you’re likely in, you may be a really cheap drunk, and that is not the look you want to convey!). Have comfortable shoes in which you can walk around the campus in whatever weather is there. Job season is Winter, so have warm clothing for cold places. Be practical yet professional.
14. Don’t Sink into the Woodwork. Here’s a situation – a bunch of colleagues who like each other but don’t get many chances to socialize are given a free meal and drinks. They have inside jokes that they tell. Familiarity upon which they build stories. Things on which to update one another. You’re thrown into this situation with most job dinners. So be prepared that conversation may have a motor without you. It’s fine to let this happen for a while, but don’t enjoy the break too much, and don’t sit back for too long. Realize instead that failure to jump in here will make you seem boring and/or distant, whereas a successful job of fitting in will make you seem like part of the department team.
15. Know the Department. You may be looking at your job search in terms of just wanting somewhere to want you. But the hiring department wants someone who really wants to be there. So don’t treat all visits the same. Before going somewhere, I liked to try and read something by everyone in the department, for instance. I also liked to read everything on the department’s website, ask people about the department, and get as much info as I could before going. Not only did that give me a better sense of what to expect, but it gave me a better sense of where I would fit in, and of how to discuss my interests in ways that might connect meaningfully with the other department members. If you’re lucky enough to get a lot of interviews, you might skip this stage, but I’m-Hot-Shit-itis is a bad affliction to suffer from while on the market, and if you catch it, your competition will likely walk away with the job. Departments like the people who are enthusiastic to join them.
16. Discussing your Search. Departments will often ask about your search as a whole. This is rarely an innocent question, since they’ll want to know how competitive it’s going to be to get you, and they might be keen to hear validation of their choice. Therein lies the problem, though, since the two key motivating factors for asking you that question conflict with one another – if you’ve got other interviews, that may worry them, but it also might bring out their competitiveness, and functionally it may speed the search up (most searches are painfully slow, so there’s always room to speed it up. Once a department knows that time matters, it’s sometimes amazing how quickly they can make things happen). The two rules I’d go by are:
- Be free with info regarding your competitiveness at rival/similar institutions, but careful with info regarding your candidacy at much better or worse institutions. On one hand, knowing that you’re up for jobs at top programs can bring out inferiority complexes in middle-rank programs, and they might lose faith in their ability to get you. On the other hand, knowing that you’re a finalist at the State University of Somewhere Odd Sounding isn’t going to impress a committee all that much nor will it make them feel that they need to rush this search. However, knowing that you’re being considered at a rival institution validates their choice and makes you a hot commodity that they feel they can snatch.
- No matter what, make sure you still give the present department plenty of love. If you make them feel like they’re simply one in the mix, or worse yet that they’re a backup, you’ll never get that offer.
If you have no outside interest, it’s up to you whether to broadcast the fact. You could of course be honest and use it to show the department how committed you are to them. You could be vague, using selective truth to tell them you’ve applied to several places. Just don’t sound rejected and dejected.
If you actually have an offer on the plate, we’ll discuss that in my next (and final?) post.
Most of all, go into the interview with a healthy dose of perspective. At the time of the BJIU interview, I had convinced myself I really wanted the job. Then when a year later I got the Fordham job, which put me in the same city as the one-day Mrs. Extratextuals, I realized how utterly miserable life might have been in the town/city of BJIU. It was a bad interview. They probably joke about me. I think they were cruel to me. But the person who got the job is lovely. I’m happy. I believe s/he’s happy and they’re happy. And next time I had an interview, I was Lance Armstrong, ready for the long, grueling journey ahead. No lasting harm done.
Best of luck in your own interview(s).
blank breakTags: job market, media studies