It is the season of Interviews in academia. Some of my former students and postdocs are on the interview trail (some with success already; very exciting), and I have recently received several requests for a post on the topic of interviewing for a faculty position.
It's been a long time since I experienced an entry-level type interview for a faculty position as an interviewee, and all my recent experiences with interviews involve my being on The Other Side as a professor, although I have gleaned bits of information from grad students and postdocs who have participated in interviews. My opinions are of course limited by my experiences and by the conventions of my academic field and academic homes, but I trust that commenters can supplement the information and views I provide to give a more complete picture of the Interview process.
Topics were selected based on specific questions in the e-mails I received recently. Today I will start with the following, with more to come in the near future:
What do you say/ask as an interviewee when you meet with the students?
Background information: Many interviews involve a meeting, perhaps over lunch, between the candidate and graduate and/or undergraduate students. These students may be selected specifically to meet with the candidate or there may be an open invitation for any student to stop by at a certain time and meet the candidate. If such an event is not on the interview schedule, perhaps there will be some other chance for talking with students in smaller groups or individually.
If there is no scheduled interaction with students, this might tell you something about a department's culture/priorities and that may or may not be useful information. I had a few interviews that seemed to lack a scheduled meeting with students, so in each case I asked about it. Sometimes the answer was "There's no time for that" and sometimes it was "We can arrange that; thanks for mentioning it."
If there is an organized meeting with students, chances are they have a set of questions that they ask each candidate.
Some of the general questions are quite predictable: What courses will you teach? Do you want to advise a lot of students or have a small group? In some science/engineering fields at a university, a typical question is whether you will be setting up a lab. And some students may ask: Why do you want this job? Why do you want to come here?
At most of the universities with which I have been associated, grad students have been involved to some extent in searches/interviews. In many cases, the top choice of the grad student population as a whole has coincided with the majority view of the faculty, but in some cases it hasn't.
When there is a discrepancy between faculty and grad opinion, a possible reason is that a candidate was patronizing to the grad students. In general, I have found that grad students as a group are very hostile about the prospect of hiring a candidate, however awesome as a researcher, who is condescending and/or visibly bored/uninterested in talking with students. When you are interviewing, even if you are concerned that your extreme youth (or, at least, youthful appearance) might make you seem like a student yourself and you want to take steps to distinguish yourself from the students, an extremely bad strategy is to be patronizing.
The candidate can also ask the students questions. It is good to have thought about some of these, in case there is a lull in the conversation (general advice that also applies to other parts of the interview process). These questions don't all have to be about the department and faculty; grad students are scholars who may be working on interesting things. Don't spend the whole meeting having a detailed conversation with a few students who happen to know something about your specific field of expertise, but perhaps you can have a general conversation about research topics of mutual interest. What is exciting in the field? What kinds of careers do the students want to have? Do they feel well prepared?
There are also things a candidate should not ask students. It is certainly legitimate to ask the students some general questions about the culture of the department, e.g. what do the students consider to be important issues in the department and university in terms of faculty-grad interactions? Or, what are their views on the position for which you are interviewing? This should not, however, devolve into digging for departmental gossip about who hates whom and who is a colossal jerk and who is insane. Keep the tone professional even if you want to know these things.
The meeting with the grad student can be one of the more interesting and enjoyable parts of the interview. Perhaps the grad students have a vote in the decision and perhaps they don't, but either way they are typically very interested in being involved in the process, are sincerely interested in meeting you, and can give you a good general sense for the department culture and atmosphere.
The best preparation is to participate in some of these meet-the-candidate sessions as a graduate student and get an idea for what these are like, or, if that's not possible to do before you have an interview of your own, you can ask someone who has been to a recent interview for additional examples of questions that may be specific to your field. And possibly there will be some additional useful suggestions in the comments to this post..
6 months ago