Monday, January 25, 2010

Views on Interviews

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..


Alex said...

Grad students aren't the only students, you know. One of my interviews was with a department that had separate interview slots arranged with grad students and undergrads. I was impressed that the department actually cared enough about undergrads to schedule that activity.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

I agree that the grad student interview is very important. In my department, we have the students present their recommendations at our faculty hiring meeting, and it's not unusual for their comments to be influential.

A tip for candidates to do well in the grad student interview: The grad students will be fishing for information on your advising style. You want to come off as someone that the students would enjoy having as an advisor. I've seen some candidates who have been severely criticized, because they sounded to the students like they would be a terrible advisor (e.g., treating their students as servants/employees, or haven't thought about advising at all).

A tip to schools: If you don't have candidates interview with the grad students, you should. As a candidate on the interview market, there were a few schools that didn't set up an interview with grad students, and I thought less of them for that. I felt that my interviews with the students were very helpful for gauging the tenor and atmosphere of the school. I also felt it was a bad sign if the department didn't have the grad students interview all candidates: it made me wonder whether the department listened closely to its grad students and truly valued their input.

SLAC Alumna said...

My two cents:

When I was an upperclassman at a generic SLAC, I was asked (with a couple other students) to take some prospective candidates to lunch as part of the interview process. One question I made sure to ask was why the candidates wanted to come to a small, teaching-oriented college with no graduate students; did they really want to teach, or were they just applying for any job they could? The candidate who answered with the latter was not high on our list, and not on the professors' list either.

I certainly understand the need to apply to every job that comes up, but would it have been too hard to bs a response about the importance of teaching undergrads?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In medical schools, it is extremely rare--in fact, I don't think I've ever heard of it happening--for trainees to participate in the interview process for faculty job candidates at all, let alone to serve as members of a search committee (which I understand does occur in undergraduate departments).

Anonymous said...

Our department just finished one of these faculty searches and the grad students had the opportunity to have lunch and interact with the candidates. As a grad student, I found this very boring, but I did attend all of the lunches because there is NO WAY I will ever turn down pizza. I often had 3 or 4 slices, then politely excused myself from the meeting. As a grad student, do I care who the faculty chose to hire? I will be off doing my own thing as soon as the new prof really gets sets up.

Female Science Professor said...

Alex, I do know. That's why I wrote: Many interviews involve a meeting, perhaps over lunch, between the candidate and graduate and/or undergraduate students.

Jane said...

I agree with SLAC Alumna. We just finished interviews at my women's SLAC and one of our major questions was "why women's education?" (Interviewing one of our own alumna posed a bit of a problem for our standard question list.)
We also ask about hobbies outside of . Our student committee is mostly seniors, but it's a close-knit department and we care about the consequences for the younger students.

neurowoman said...

I have been the interviewee on quite a few of these, and they are always super awkward. The key is to get the students started talking. I try to focus on the science, rather than anything particular about the job. Students are bound to know relatively little about the latter. I go around the table & have people introduce themselves & say what they work on & who they are working with. I ask them questions about their projects. Finally when they are loosened up a bit, I ask what they do for fun! Tells you something about the lifestyle of the area, the sociability of the department. They have never asked me interview type questions (like, why do you want this job).

One word of advice: DON'T ask the students if they realize how sucky the job market is for academic positions and do they realize they should be training for altenative careers and haven't their advisors told them that already...? Public service maybe, but you'll come off as a negative nelly.

Also, as a woman interviewee be prepared for female students to ask you about your personal life (like, do you have kids? when's the best time to start a family?), things committee members shouldn't. They are generally unaware that these are no-no questions are are just generally interested in advice.

Female Science Professor said...

When I was an undergrad, I was part of a small group of students who met with faculty candidates. Our group, which was composed only of female students, asked all candidates a general question about what they thought about issues involving encouraging female students to pursue careers in science. Most gave thoughtful answers, but one replied that he liked women and had even married one, ha ha ha. I think he was just a very awkward person and wasn't trying to be a jerk, but it would have been better if he'd said that he'd never thought about it (and then gave an attempt at a sincere answer) rather than making a lame joke (with no further comments). As students, we were just looking to have a thoughtful conversation with the candidates, not grill them, but we figured that if a candidate was difficult to talk to (even accounting for the stress of the interview), they might not be the best candidate for our SLAC.

I don't think it's quite fair to assume that someone who is applying for every job available is necessarily going to be a bad fit for a job. Someone who only wants to be at a research university shouldn't apply for jobs at small colleges, but there are some people who might be happy at either and are exploring the various options.

qaz said...

CPP - I don't know about other schools, but at our BigStateU Medical School (admittedly a basic science department) it is standard to have the visiting candidate meet students (graduate students in the program and sometimes a postdoc or two) for lunch after their talk. Although students don't have an official vote, I can tell you for a fact that the opinions of the students get communicated to the faculty meeting (generally via their advisors).

When I interviewed for faculty jobs at similar departments (admittedly several years ago), I met with graduate students in every case.

And anonymous @ 7:37 am - if you are serious about being in the academic world, you want to take every opportunity to meet and interact with faculty in related fields (if they're interviewing in your department, they're in a related field - you can use that to define "related"). That kind of networking is a key part of the game. It's foolish to ignore.

Alex said...

Doh! Me reading comprehenzhun not much good.

Anonymous said...

When I interviewed last year for jobs at Med Schools, it worked a bit differently than you outline in your post. I did have lunch with the students and postdocs together, but they *never* asked me questions like, "What courses will you teach?" etc. Mainly, I used this as a time to find out more about the grad program - Do you guys have to take a comprehensive exam? How does that work? How many rotations do you do and how long are they? This gave us something to talk about, and it was useful stuff for me to understand.

One awkward thing - I was relatively young in today's terms when I interviewed for jobs, and some of the postdocs in these lunch meetings were significantly older than I. More than once I was politely asked how old I was. More than once, they exchanged aggravated eye-rolls with one another when I answered them. I'm not sure if there's any good way to handle this...the flip side of this, is that often these lunch meetings evolved into them asking *me* for career advice, which was kinda weird. For example, they wanted to know when I started applying for Grant X, etc.

Kim said...

My experience interviewing at (and being on interview committees for) SLACs was like FSP's: undergrads wanted to have interesting conversations. They wanted a professor who could interact comfortably with them, and who seemed interesting, and who seemed like a good teaching and a supportive advisor. And they wanted to feel like they could become involved in the way-cool cutting-edge research that the new professor was going to do.

Kim said...

About the question about whether the candidate wanted to teach at a SLAC: based on my experience, a candidate for a tenure-track job at a SLAC has to convince the committee (including the students) that he or she really wants to teach and work with undergrads. One of the big fears is that a new hire won't care about teaching, or won't teach well, or will focus on research to the detriment of teaching, or will leave to go to a research university at the first opportunity. So although the question might not be fair (candidates shouldn't have to make a personal commitment to a certain kind of institution before ever spending time at one), odds are that a job candidate at a SLAC will be asked something like that.

I suspect that's one reason why SLAC alums are rumored to be at an advantage applying for SLAC jobs: they're able to talk about how wonderful SLACs are, and the search committee (especially the students) often wants to hear that.

Kevin said...

"some of the postdocs in these lunch meetings were significantly older than I."

Get used to it. I've been a professor for 28 years, and our department has two grad students older than me, plus several more in the their late 40s. Re-entry students are becoming more common, as people who have had a financially successful but unrewarding career go back to school to do something meaningful with their lives.

Genomic Repairman said...

At my R1 students go to the seminar and do eat lunch or go to dinner with candidate, even in the case of our chair search right now. Our PI's solicit our opinions on the candidate and report it to the selection committee. Now whether it is taken to heart or falls on deaf ears is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

we have the candidates meet with our (smartest) student. reason: we are a R1 U, relatively low ranking, and we want to be better. We are trying to hire people slightly above our range. We lure them here with goodies (rather, we did when we had cash) and by showing them that the students aren't that bad....

Anonymous said...

So timely... I am working on an the evaluation form for a candidate I had lunch with recently (I'm a grad student). I've been to a few of our dept's faculty meetings, and when candidates are discussed the impressions of graduate students are often brought up (especially when they are positive). So grad student lunches can matter, at least here.

Anonymous said...

We had a faculty search last spring, and I (a grad student) went to all the interviewees' lunches. One good question that several of the interviewees asked was how financially well-supported we were as grad students (as a group). This gave the interviewees an idea of how many grad students they'd realistically be able to advise and how much support they'd have to come up with in grant money (as opposed to departmental teaching assistantships or fellowships).

One question that a couple of interviewees asked that impressed me was along the lines of 'what is missing from your department from the grad student viewpoint?' or 'what do you grad students want that isn't provided?' As grad students, we rarely or never get asked that question by faculty, and seeing an interviewee write down our answers was a good indication that this was a person who was going to listen to -- and perhaps advocate for -- grad students.

Additionally, the realization that many grad students in our program shared the same answers (a quantitative course tailored to our field, and available funding for traveling to conferences) allowed us as a group to approach the current faculty to start figuring out how to get these things. We may not have realized our common wants without these faculty interviews.

unexplained said...

Thanks for this post, and thanks to all the commenters! I've got 4 interviews in the next 4 weeks, and all of this has been very helpful.