Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interviewing Info III

Here are some more random thoughts about interviewing for a faculty position, based on questions from readers. I was hoping for some really strange questions, but I don't mind discussing some of the classic ones:

What should you wear to an interview for a faculty position?


The answer to this will certainly vary depending on the specific field. There may be some fields in which suit-like garb is the norm, and others in which a person wearing a suit will seem bizarrely dressed. I have three things to say on the issue of Interview Attire:

1. Look around your own department and at conferences and see what faculty wear when they need to look particularly professional. If you were alert to this issue during any faculty searches conducted while you were a grad student or postdoc, perhaps you have an idea what interviewees in your field typically wear.

2. If you're going to dress up a bit, at least wear something nice and comfortable. I remember one interviewee whose heels were bleeding profusely into her nice new shoes during her interview. I discreetly asked her if she wanted a bandage or if there was something else I could do to help her, but she refused all assistance and said it didn't hurt. There is no way that did not hurt. My advice: Try not to acquire physical scars from interviews.

3. Others may disagree, but I think that unless you wear something wildly inappropriate, what you wear does not matter much. If you dress slightly more formally or informally than is typical, this isn't going to detract from your awesome interview talk and the strong positive impression you make with your energy and your ideas for cutting-edge research. Even so, although you should explore new frontiers in research, it might not be a good idea to explore new frontiers in interview attire -- there are probably sartorial limits that aren't worth pushing past in the interview, but, although I shall avoid defining these limits, I will say that I think there is a broad region of acceptable attire. I have seen successful candidates, male and female, interview in suits and in jeans-and-nice-shirt. It didn't matter.

Summary: Wear something that is professional-looking within the norms of your field but that also makes you feel confident and comfortable.

Can you push the start-date back for starting a faculty position?

This is of course not an interview issue but, like salary and start-up, a once-you-get-an-offer issue. You may have other alluring opportunities, such as a postdoc you want to do to help launch your subsequent faculty career, and it might be in everyone's interest that you have this experience. Or, it might be essential to the department that you start as soon as possible.

If this issue comes up during an interview, you can be open about your options, but these types of conversations shouldn't really take place in detail until you get an offer and start negotiating. Your getting an offer or not should not depend on whether you can start by a certain date.

If the department insists that you start by a certain date, you can take it or leave it. If the department is more flexible, that's great. Either way, this is a post-interview issue.

Most departments with which I have been associated have been very flexible about start dates. If a candidate has an opportunity that will help them launch their research program once they arrive, that's seen as a good thing and the faculty and administration are supportive of this.

Should you mention marital status and/or kids in an interview?

Much has been written about this, here and elsewhere. In fact, there was something about it in The Chronicle of Higher Education just this week. A decade ago, the answer was a definite No. It is illegal for you to be asked, and there was no benefit (and perhaps even a penalty) for mentioning such things, especially for women.

Today the answer is still No, but there is a but.. You don't have to mention anything about this and you still can't be asked, but in some cases universities are trying to be proactive (in a good way) to increase their chances of getting their top choices in searches.

How do you know if you are interviewing at a university that wants to help new faculty with families, e.g. by helping spouses find jobs (academic or not) and parents find daycare? Universities that want to help, not penalize, candidates whose job decisions involve (or may eventually involve) family issues may schedule a meeting between the candidate and a human resources counselor who provides the same information to all candidates (so the candidate doesn't have to reveal any personal information). Or you may find some information online about a university's policies about hiring academic couples or the availability of daycare on or near campus, so you get the information you need but don't have to ask anyone during your interview. You may also feel comfortable talking to certain faculty who have dealt with similar issues.

Whatever the case, you don't have to mention anything about your personal situation during your interview. It is not lying and it is not being unfair to the department to mention Dr. Spouse only once you get an offer.

If you want to talk freely about all this during your interview, you can do that. I don't mind being asked for advice about these kinds of issues by interviewees, although I prefer if those kinds of conversations happen after we have talked about Science and other research-related issues for a while first. Whatever your priorities are re. career and family, you are being evaluated for your research and teaching potential.


Tomorrow's topic: During a search, how do faculty decide which candidate they prefer? I will describe my personal approach to this.

Tentative topic for Friday: Once you've got a tenure-track or tenured position, what are some of the issues related to searching for and interviewing for other academic positions at another institution?


28 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the thread of whether or not to mention your family status, many fields are small enough that someone in the dept you are interviewing in may already know your answers to some of their (un-askable) questions about partners, families, etc. If this is the case for you, you may be better off dealing with it head on with the appropriate person. For example, if your partner already has a viable option in the area and thus you've already resolved the two-body problem, you may improve your odds or at least allay fears by saying so. That was definitely true in my case, as I learned much later.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying these posts. Please keep them coming. I wish this (or any) advice had been around when I was looking for my first faculty position. For those in biosciences there is a great book by Barker called At the Helm (a laboratory navigator) which deals with some of these issues at the beginning of the book. Again, I only read this *after* becoming a PI. If only...

Anonymous said...

This is great advice and I particularly look forward to tomorrow's topic. I hope next week there will be a post or two about students interviewing for grad school. Should you bring your laptop with you on the interview in case you want to show an experiment or data, etc... Some ideas for questions to ask, which questions are best suited to potential advisors and which to save for the prof's current students/postdocs. And then latter, when all the interviews have finished and the time comes for deciding which offer to take - what are some tips on making the decision and what is the best way to graciously decline an offer? I love your blog!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these posts. Just wanted to register interest in Friday's tentative topic. e.g., If I have a tenure-track position now, but would like to move elsewhere, is it better to look pre- or post-tenure? Does this decision interact with whether I'm looking to move "up" or "down" in terms of departmental reputation?

John V said...

Attire - I find dressing at the respectable end of the range of dress gives one more credibility. Not with everyone, but with administrators and clerical support, and some scientists viewing from a distance. Not necessary, but why not get every edge available?

Start-up date, family details, start-up - Hiring faculty is such a multi-faceted challenge that any indication the deal can close will generate support on the faculty. Not revealing family details until negotiation is certainly legal, but there aren't as many secrets in the world as some suppose.

The same applies to springing large start-up demands or requests for long delays in starting.

No need to be modest in demands, however, there is also no need to waste everyone's time when there is no chance, and it is more likely that judicious and timely raising of serious issues can get the issues resolved. Spousal jobs, daycare slots, salary, level of appointment - all require groundwork and some are not continuously available.

There is a reason Deans generally try to assess demands, impediments, and motivation for taking the job in their initial meeting.

Anonymous said...

I've been lurking this blog for a while and I think it's worth dropping out of lurk to note something about "illegal" questions.

There are no "discrimination" police. Discrimination is a civil, not criminal, matter meaning if you want to pursue an employer for asking an illegal question, you have to get a lawyer and sue them.

If you are asked an illegal question, and you don't get a job offer, you can use that question as evidence that discrimination was the reason. It is highly unlikely that you will even find a lawyer to take your case on the basis of one question, such as "are you married" or "are you planning to have kids." It's easy for a university to defend their decision (that they didn't offer you a job) by citing any number of legitimate (even if untrue) reasons, such as, research incompatibility (instead of discrimination.)

If you find that the employer has a pattern of discrimination (e.g. several professions, the dept. Chair and the Dean overtly expressed hostility,) that is something a lawyer might pursue, but one question or comment won't be the basis of a successful civil action.

In my possibly outdated experience, institutions advertised in targeted "women's" publications and made contact with (such as at professional meetings) women in order to comply with the law. That's really all they have to do to prove that their jobs are "available" to women. They don't have to actually ever hire a woman.

I am speaking generally here, to give perspective on where an interviewee stands when asked a particular question. As this is the internet, I won't be surprised if a commenter (passionately) presents a (seemingly) glaring counterexample.

As a practical matter, if you are asked, for example, "do you have a spouse," you have to decide if answering the question or a deft avoidance is best for what you want out of the interview. Saying, "that's an illegal question" may give the impression that you are not collegial.

The interviewer has put you on the spot and it is your clever mental agility, not the law, which is going to get you out. I recommend using humor, though I was never any good at that.

I also would like to echo a previous commenter who said that in a small field, it may be well known that you have a two-body "problem" and figure that there is no point in offering you a job because your spouse (who has tenure, perhaps) will not move. In that case, it may be the best strategy to address that proactively.


Thank you for this blog, FSP. You are doing a true service to the community.


- OutofthePipeline

mathgirl said...

I also vote for Friday's tentative topic!

I'm in the middle of moving between two tenure-tracks positions, but this may not be the end of the movings, due to a 2-body problem.

Anonymous said...

Just a note to observe that in many European countries it is still perfectly legal to ask about age, marital status, number of children, etc.

Alex said...

And I also vote for Friday's tentative topic! Being at a school in monetary Armageddon, I could use a few job search tips.

Personal questions can be perversely tricky with friendly people trying to do good, rather than evil people trying to dig dirt. If, for instance, you fly into town Sunday afternoon for an interview Monday, and a nice person from the department offers to pick you up from the airport and take you to lunch and show you the locale, in the course of chatting about stuff it's quite possible that personal stuff will come up. A nice person from the department that hired me drove me around the area, talked about how nice it is to live her, talked about science and teaching, and in the course of something or other along those lines I mentioned that my wife works in a bookstore. A seemingly innocuous thing that can come up when driving about a nice locale and talking about the neighborhood and things to do and books you read.

But having read more about these things, now I realize that something as simple as that can be a minefield. He never asked me for information, but in an informal chat it just came up. If a person wanted to conceal such info, I can see how such an informal chat might be awkward.

Kevin said...

I have probably asked faculty interviewees "illegal" questions in an attempt to be helpful. For example, one of our big challenges in hiring is the high cost of housing in our area, so I often talk briefly about real estate and school districts. I offer to go into more detail about daycare and local schools if candidates are interested (which is generally only the case if they have kids of appropriate ages). This is, of course, in addition to discussion to see whether the candidate is a good research and teaching fit.

I would suggest that interviewees for small departments *do* disclose any possibility of a delayed start, particularly when the discussion of "what will you teach" is done. If you say you will teach class "x" starting in Fall 2010, then later decide not to come until Jan 2011, the department may be left with a scheduled class that they cannot teach. Of course, if you have not said you will teach anything for the first year, then delaying your arrival by a year just indicates a lack of interest in the job, rather than a crisis for the department.

In big departments, covering classes is less of a problem, so delayed start is more commonly accepted.

It is a perfectly valid question for an employer to ask "when can you start?" and a dishonest or vague answer is not acceptable.

On the matter of attire---here in California the range tends to be more casual. Clean t-shirt and jeans is the low end, buttoned shirt and slacks standard, jacket and tie unusual but ok. Men should avoid 3-piece suits (only lawyers wear them here, and then only when they are trying to intimidate). You also don't want to look like a missionary trying to convert people to your religion (the main suits seen on campus, other than campus administrators).

Women do tend to dress a little more formally than men, but overdoing it is a bad idea. In California, formal attire in women is much more common in the secretarial ranks than the academic ranks.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add another perspective on the dual-career issue. If you happen to know that you are interviewing at a place that is particularly friendly to couples or women, it may actually behoove you to bring up the issue sooner rather than later. The sooner an institution is aware of an issue, the more time they have to try to accommodate a spouse.

unlikelygrad said...

Personal questions can be perversely tricky with friendly people trying to do good, rather than evil people trying to dig dirt.

Yes, especially since it isn't immediately obvious whether you have a good or evil on the other end...

When my sister was on the TT market, she said none of the official interviewers asked her illegal questions. But there were a couple of schools where it was clear that the department had said to a faculty member or grad student, "Take this chick out to lunch and find out everything you can about her age and family situation." I don't know if any of these schools ever made her offers. (She did mention running into age-ism, since she was pushing 40 at the time, but I'm not sure how this correlates with the lunch grilling.)

Just curious if any FSP readers have ever been in departments that do this.

EliRabett said...

Dress up. You are going to see the Dean at a minimum and probably the Provost.

STP said...

When I interviewed for my current job (SLAC-TT), I was very careful to make no comment about my family status. I was single, but I didn't think it was appropriate. Later I learned that some members of the department assumed I was a lesbian because I didn't talk openly about my status, and they assumed I was afraid of being discriminated against.

Being on the other side, I find it nice when candidates do reveal some family information. (Though I find it very off-putting to include that in a CV.) We are located in a small town, and have very real problems with finding jobs for spouses, but our institution has connections that can make it happen. We do also like to provide candidates with useful information about the community, and what information is most useful usually varies with family status.

I have seen no evidence of hiring discrimination based on family status at my institution, so do not always assume information of that type will be used against you. It will depend on the institution and the department.

Anonymous said...

I read "martial status" accidentally. Does it help if I have a brown belt, or does it hurt that I don't have the black belt?

More seriously, thank you!

Anonymous said...

regarding the question of whether to disclose marital/family status: I've encountered somewhat of a different problem. My husband is a blue-collar worker, he doesn't have a college degree. (he went to college but dropped out to be a self-employed tradesman.) I've been on TT job interviews where I was asked - informally during the lunch - if I'm married and if so what does my husband do. If you think it's detrimental to disclose that your spouse is also an academic because this signifieds you have a two-body problem, I think it's possible I got discriminated against because I'm married to a blue-collar worker (elitism/snobbism). They looked uncomfortable or unable to comprehend, when I told them what my husband does. (imagine if your interviewers asked and you said your husband works as a janitor for example). And then there were no further interest along those lines.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, almost everyone I spoke to during my first interviews asked whether I have children. Of course they all knew they weren't supposed to ask. "I don't have to answer that" didn't seem like an acceptable answer. With the exception of one jerk, they asked with the intention of telling me how family-friendly the department is, how good the area schools are, etc. I was surprised by how up-front everyone was in asking. But I decided that if my having a child is going to be an issue for them that I don't want to work there anyway.

As for dress, I would err on the side of formality. A casual suit is never going to hurt your chances. But jeans? And comfortable shoes are a must. My interviews involved a lot of walking between appointments.

female Science Professor said...

You don't have to say "You can't ask me that" or "I don't have to answer that". You can say something like: "Actually, I'd rather talk about ..." and then change the subject to your research or their research or ask a question about the department. Or you can answer the question if you want to.

I had some success with that approach. Also, way back when, if asked about my family situation a lot at an interview, I would say to the chair or dean (in a calm, non-confrontational way): "Four (or 2 or 8) faculty have asked me whether I am married or have children. Is this an important issue?". They always hasten to say no, of course not.

My husband had some of the same issues when interviewing. Most people knew he was married to me and that I already had a faculty position elsewhere. When asked "What's your wife going to do if you get offered this job?", he'd say "I don't know" (which was quite true) and "I'd like to be considered based on my research and what I would bring to this department".

Saying these things didn't stop either one of us from getting offers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon at 7:32 pm. I am married to a blue collar worker. I have also experienced the strange pause that happens when someone asks me what my husband does...is it best to say something like "well he's not an academic...." and then trail off to begin a new conversation?

Alex said...

I have sort of the opposite problem of the anon whose spouse is a blue collar worker. Nobody looks at me weird (I'm male, so I guess it's natural to them that my wife makes less money than me and isn't in a high-powered job) but sometimes people comment on how "easy" my life must be because my wife isn't a high-powered professional and works part-time jobs. (Note that she often works *multiple* part time jobs.)

Sure, I don't have a 2-body job search problem, but my wife's hours are still weird (and long), the pay is low, and she has struggled to find something where she can be successful and feel good about it. Yet people whose spouses make more than mine, and whose hours may be long but are at least in a normal work week, are telling me that my life must be easy.

I don't judge high-powered professional couples trying to balance work and family, but the conceit that their lives are uniquely difficult and challenging can be grating. I invite them to try to pay their mortgage on our income, manage their different work schedules while having only one car between them, and balance their family lives with a work schedule that, until recently, required working extra hours during the holiday season. I know their lives are hard, but there's no need to go around telling the rest of us that we have it easy.

Anonymous said...

I once saw marital status and number of children listed on the candidate's CV! I thought this was incredibly weird - I hope it is incredibly weird!

Anonymous said...

"It is a perfectly valid question for an employer to ask "when can you start?" and a dishonest or vague answer is not acceptable."

I agree that this is a legit question, but only asked, say, in Feb or March when the employer is hoping for you to start at least by September. It is a question that puts pressure on the candidate to say, yes, I can start soon. However, if it is very late in the game, and the candidate has taken a temporary job, then the employer should be more understanding about demanding a particular start date. Also, if the employer is not willing to pay moving expenses, then they should be more flexible on the candidate since it may involve the candidate breaking a lease, etc, which could be expensive.

Anonymous said...

hi I'm the anon7:32 PM again whose husband is the self-employed tradesman. One reason that I'm disgruntled with academia is precisely because of this elitism and snobbishness toward people who don't have college degrees.

Most of my male faculty colleagues have wives who are not PhDs and who work "lesser" jobs and that is never seen as a minus in fact it is accepted almost expected. The wives even have their own "faculty wives' club" during department social gatherings. my husband of course cannot join their little club, but neither is he accepted by my male colleagues either because he's blue collar. He has never complained to me about it but over the years this has been bothering me more and more to the point that I start to really question if I want to be part of this culture. I'm now actually seriously comtemplating leaving academia and this is one reason. I just don't want to spend so much of my time around people with this kind of attitude.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 1/28/2010 12:37:00 PM

Mentioning marital status, date of birth and number of children is expected in France (for example). The candidate might just have been clueless about the american standards and you should just ignore the information. I'm glad such information is not expected in the US, although as others have mentioned, it might come up in the conversation for good reasons.

I must say I'm appalled that candidates agonize about the issue whether to bring up or not family status during interviews. It really reflect badly on the academic world. I work in industry, in a competitive job requiring a PhD, and the issue never came up (For what it's worth, I'm female, early thirties, married, no child.)

Anonymous said...

Why is disclosing marital status and number of children expected in France? That must mean that it is a significant factor in hiring decisions, no?

I'm conflicted about whether to disclose my marital status and/or number of children. Yes I have been asked about this at interviews. Do male candidates get asked this?? I personally don't think it is EVER appropriate or relevant for a job interview and thus I personally am appalled if I get asked about it and I would want to avoid answering if anything out of principle or because I have a feeling that there is a "right" answer to the question that the interviewer is expecting to hear, and that offends me. Yet if the interviewer asks the question even if it is informally, obviously it is important to them so my avoidance may mean I'm automatically disqualified if I either don't answer of or if I answer but it's the "wrong" answer (i.e. not what the interviewer wants to hear).

Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous of 1/28/2010 06:01:00 PM.

I don't really know why such information is expected in France. I assume it's because France is not as "advanced" in terms of non-discrimination practices as the US. For example, it is well-known that candidates with foreign sounding names or an address in not so nice neighborhoods of a city will be discriminated against in France when their resumes is first examined. Yet, the French government refuses to have any affirmative action programs, because it considers that recording people's ethnicity (for example) is itself discriminatory. Recently, there have been some pilot programs to remove any personal information, including the name, from resumes. This is similar to double-blind reviewing if you will. It has not been widely adopted.

Note that daycare and school for small children is more available and affordable in France than in the US. Thus women leave the workforce less after having kids and I suspect discrimination is not higher than in the US, even with this personal information known to the recruiter.

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, the trick of having grad student(s) take you out to lunch and then ask you all the "illegal" questions in a very casual way is a very common tactic.

Of course this person will report back to the committee/department chair every. single. word.

I'm not sure what to make of places that do this. I tend to think it reflects badly on the school and on the student, so if they don't want me for anything I said honestly in a less-than-honest situation (like for example revealing, however vaguely, that I have had a hard time with some of my advisors at some points in my career), maybe that's the best outcome for everyone?

For example, a student asked me one time if I was happy with all the writing in my last publication. I said well, the whole thing was a compromise between me and my advisor, I didn't win on all points, so no, there are some parts in the final version that are not written the way I would have wanted.

I'm not sure if I should have said that or not, so I wonder if those kinds of things have earned me the label of "combative", or made me look weak? (rather than "confident")?

But if someone tries something similar again, I will be more careful to treat these grad students as what they are: spies.

Kevin said...

"Do male candidates get asked this?"

Yes, definitely. Most of the time interviewers asking about kids or marital status are not looking for ways to disqualify candidates, but are making small talk or are offering information that may be relevant to parents.

Note: parents (particularly parents of young children) make small talk about kids and schools, rather than sports or restaurants. A faculty member who asks "do you have kids?" is asking a standard opening for small talk, not trying to discriminate.