Academic job interview guidelines

[I and my colleague Michael Gamer, then an assistant profession at Penn, wrote this handout a number of years ago (mid-90s) for graduate students in English literature entering the academic job market.  It is broadly applicable across humanities disciplines.]

Michael Gamer and Anne K. Krook
Job-Interviewing Handout

A. Sources.

    Much of this information has come to me from my colleague Anne Krook. If you have suggestions about this material–particularly what might be added or corrected–please let me know.

B. Your Audience and the Question of Time.

      Your interviewers will likely be the chair of the department, the chair of the hiring committee and its other 2-3 members, and perhaps some other faculty who either happen to be at your discipline’s hiring convention or who happen to work in areas similar to your own. I have had interviews where there were over ten people in the room, and I have had one-on-one interviews. Both are comparatively rare, and 4-7 people is usually what you can expect. Most interviews run 30-45 minutes, but a few may be as short as 20 or as long as 75 minutes. Committees often aim to be mixed in gender and in faculty rank. This means that many times, with a little homework, you can make educated guesses about who will be interviewing you before you walk into the interview.

It’s likely, however, that not all of the people who read your letter, CV, writing sample, and dossier will be at the interview. It’s also very likely that at least some of the interviewers will not have had time to read your material carefully. You will need, therefore, to convey a good deal of information about your work quickly, clearly, and efficiently. This is most important in the case of Question #1.

Remember that as much as you want them to like you, they want you to like them as well. Job searches are expensive and time-consuming, and given the economy, a lot of schools are going to be making very few appointments for a while, so it’s in their interest to find someone with whom they will be happy and who will be happy with them.

C. Basic Interview Guidelines.

            1. Do not lie.
      Present yourself in the best light possible, of course, but do not lie.  if asked whether your theory of world reading might apply to the audience of Barchester Towers and you’ve never read it, either say so gracefully or redirect the question, but avoid pretending that unfamiliar material is under your control; an underfed Trollopist wlll eat you.

2. Never badmouth another job-seeker or your own department, as it will be perceived as a bad omen of your future habits as a colleague.

      3. Answer short rather than long. Most candidates do themselves in by not knowing when to stop. Remember: they can always ask follow-up questions if they want to know more.

4. Do not be arrogant or condescending. Remember: the opposite of “polite” is not “smart.”

5. Anticipate questions and practice answers. If you can, have a mock interview.

D. The Mix of Questions.

    In general, you can expect research institutions to more of the interview asking you about your research. A state university with a diverse and international student body like UVA will likely see itself as having a somewhat different mission than a satellite campus of a smaller state university with a local clientele like Central Michigan University. Often, the department chair will explain to you (if the job description hasn’t already) how many and what kind of courses the successful candidate will teach; this should give you a fair idea of where the interview will lean. A small college with a 3/4 load will likely be more interested in your teaching than a small college with a 2/2 load.

E. Basic Interview Questions about Your Work and Research.

      1. Please summarize your dissertation project.

        While the question is not always put this baldly, you will be asked to map out the contours of your dissertation and to frame its key questions in a way that will be interesting to a non-specialist audience. You may be asked particular questions about your dissertation, or asked to explain certain parts of your job letter or your dissertation description. Whatever you do, don’t ramble on; you need to give them time to ask you questions about subjects that they find interesting. It may help to write a sample answer of around 300-400 words in your speaking voice, so that you can present your work in a couple of minutes. Although obviously you will not want to adopt a teacherly tone, it may help to think of your job as one of teaching your dissertation, since you will be likely dealing with an audience with other specialties who already likes your work and wants to like it more. Ideally, the formality of this question will evaporate, and a real conversation about your work will supplant it. That is your goal.

Be prepared for some version of the “Why would anyone want to do that?” question, or for the “Why don’t you do X instead?” tone, though not so baldly put.

2. What will your next major project be?

3. How do your research and your teaching influence each other?

4. What theorists have you found most useful in formulating your dissertation project?

5. What critical approaches do you find most persuasive? How do they translate into your teaching?

6. What would you hope that a non-specialist reader of your dissertation would take away from it?

7. Where do your place yourself in relation to other writers who work in [the your dissertation field]?

8. [They may describe their library, and then ask] Could you conduct research from our library?

9. When will you get your degree (be absolutely specific and positive)?

F. Sample Questions about Teaching.

      For all the course questions below, it may help to draw up sample syllabi in advance. In general, it may help to think of what way that you are most comfortable organizing courses intellectually. At the very least, you should be able to explain not only what texts you’d choose but also what general principles you’d use to organize the course (chronological? generic? theoretical? combination?), whether you prefer essays or exams, etc. You also may want to map out what kind of work you ultimately want your students to be able to do and what kinds of assignments you will give in order to teach them the skills that will produce that work. When you answer questions about upper-division coures, don’t hesitate first to ask what preparation the students taking that class would normally have: one or two semesters of composition, a literature survey, etc. Again, a look in the undergraduate catalogue will tell you much, and enable you to handle the question more quickly and impressively. Bear in mind, however, that while a department may want you to teach courses on the books that have not been taught in a while, they likely are also looking for someone who can enrich their curriculum.

In general, I find it also important to present oneself as being aware that departments need students, and that departments therefore need to hire faculty who can draw interested students into their classrooms. Consequently, I usually find it useful when I begin to answer a question about a course to describe the course rubric first, making it clear that practical things like enrollments and accessibility matter to me. I then usually describe what kinds of basic theoretical questions that my course rubric will enable me to ask students. If you pitched a senior seminar called “Romantic Ruins,” for example, how does that title immediately make certain basic questions (about the relation between poetic and historical notions of imagination, for example) inevitable? Does the course allow you to short-circuit certain inevitable traps into which students fall? Is there a text that all of the interview committee are likely to know that you can use in a sentence or two to demonstrate what you will do with texts in the course?

I try to cover these issues in under a minute; only then do I describe some of the other texts for the course, giving most of my attention to how they interact with one another within the logic of the course.

Some Questions:

      1. How would you organize a freshman composition course?

2. Introductory courses for non-majors: How would you teach a Beowulf to Milton? The Novel? Dryden to Yeats? Colonial to Civil War? Civil War to WWII survey course? US Literature or Literature of the Americas? World Cinema?

        You will probably only be asked about the survey course closest to the job for which you have applied, though some schools, especially smaller ones, will need and expect you to cover a range of survey courses.

3. If you could teach any course you wanted, what would it be? What would you teach next if you could teach two of them?

4. How would you organize an upper division course in your field?

5. How would you organize a senior seminar in your field?

6. How would you organize a graduate course in your field?

7. How do your research and your teaching influence each other?

8. What critical approaches do you find most persuasive? How do they translate into your teaching?

9. What kinds of essays do you want your students to write?

10. How do reading and writing interact in your classroom?

11. How do you feel about teaching composition?

12. How do you teach composition?

13. How do you know you’ve been successful in teaching composition?

14. What interdisciplinary courses could you teach?

15. How would you teach a major work in your field? (They may name one)

G. Other Kinds of Questions.

      1. Do you have any questions for us?

        First part of your answer: “Yes.” On one hand, this can be a way of a committee letting you know that they’re done interviewing you, so it would be good to address this question quickly. And with so much information on the web, it’s harder these days to come up with a really good question — something that shows you’re already thinking about this particular institution and are excited by the prospect of working there. Still, here are some common questions you might tailor to your own needs: Where the school draws its students from (commuter/resident? in/out of state? traditional age/returning student?); What challenges the department sees itself facing now; what the students’ greatest strengths are; How has the department changed in the last 5-10 years. Or, along different lines: What is school’s relation to externships/international study; school’s realtionships to the community. In general the question should show that you have thought carefully about the school (i.e., checked the undergraduate catalogue) and are interested enough in it to inform yourself about it.

2. What do you do when you’re not working? [the modern equivalent of “what are your hobbies?”]

3. [well-meant-but-thoughtless, instrusive, boorish, or illegal questions or remarks]

        How you handle these depends on the nature of the comment or question and on the tenor of the interview thus far as a whole. Well-meant-but-thoughtless remarks are fairly easy to ignore or deflect with a vague comment. Sample response to “Nice suit!” (someone did say this to me): vaguely friendly smile and “oh, thanks!” Current tough and perhaps illegal question: “would you be moving with anyone who would need help looking for a job?” Depending on how this question is phrased, it can be either illegal nosiness (e.g. trying to find out whether you have an legal spouse of the appropriate gender) or a polite invitation to discuss the issue if you want or need to. In general, though, this issue should be left to job-seekers to raise, and I the most appropriate time to do so is at the campus interview, or after you’ve been offered the job. Truly ghastly, illegal questions are rare; thoughtlessness is much more common.

4. [Snide asides (as opposed to critical but professional questions) directed at you; at other interviewers; at other critics; at other candidates]

      Whenever possible, politely ignore but don’t engage these.