The academic job interview: a mishmash of small but important things

It’s the time of year when academic job-seekers are getting ready for the fall interview season. When I was first on the job market some years ago, I was the fortunate recipient of lots of very good advice on the big things — how to write a research statement, how to prepare a job talk, etc. A lot of these issues are discussed in organized guides and publications, and it also tends to be the main focus of most mentors’ guidance (as it should be).

But I also discovered that there are a lot of smaller things that were passed along to me from mentors and peers in more piecemeal fashion, or in some cases that I figured out for myself. So on the way home from one of my interviews, I sat down and compiled a list that I could pass along to my friends. My goal wasn’t to be complete or organized, but rather to fill in the gaps with some smaller but still-important things a first-time interviewee would need to know.

I wrote the list in a light tone, and didn’t figure it would go very far. So last year I was amused and a little surprised to discover, as we were interviewing for a position in our department, that one of our interviewees had gotten his hands on my list. He fessed up right away, and we laughed about it. But I realized that maybe my list could help other people. (He got the job, by the way.)

So here is my mishmash of small but hopefully helpful advice. These notes reflect my experiences interviewing for R1-type jobs in psychology departments — other kinds of institutions and other fields may vary. I’ve added a bit to it since I first wrote it (having been on 5 search committees now) and made some minor changes. Feel free to add to it — or disagree — in the comments.

Before the interview

Get in the right mindset. Although the whole process is overtly about evaluating you, that’s not the only thing it’s about. You are being flown out to meet a bunch of people who are interested and excited about you and your work. You are going to meet some new colleagues in your field. You will get to talk about the work that you’ve made the focus of your blood, sweat, and tears, and you will hear the ideas and reactions of a bunch of very smart people. You will learn about what people in your field are doing somewhere else. In short: the interview may sometimes  be nerve-wracking, but it can also be a lot of fun. Try to roll with it.

You will have a contact person on the faculty — probably the search committee chair or a member of the committee. Use that person as a resource. Some good things to ask in advance:

  • How long is the job talk (talk itself and time for questions)?
  • Are there any other talks besides the main job talk? (like a brownbag, chalk talk, etc.)
  • What are the norms for talks? Do people usually hold questions to the end, or should I expect to be interrupted? If there is a second talk, what is its purpose?
  • What kinds of items will be on my itinerary? Besides the job talk and one-on-one meetings, there might be a second talk, a lunch or group meeting with grad students, group meetings with the search committee or some other group, etc.
  • What is the search committee or department looking for from this search (besides the obvious)? Was there anything particular about my record that made me a good match?
  • Bring up any special tech needs for your talk. (You may be referred to a tech support person.)

Attire: the summer before I applied for jobs I realized I had no idea how to dress myself for an interview. Fortunately, I had some more style-conscious friends who helped me. Men: First, start shopping now. It might take a while, and you won’t have time after you get called for the interview. This is all clothing that you will need again and again as a grown-up, so when figuring out your budget, try to stretch yourself if you can — think of this as an investment. As far as specifics, your best bet is to wear a solid-color navy or dark gray suit for the day you give your main job talk. If it’s a two-day interview, wear a relatively muted sportcoat and slacks on the other day. On both days wear a white or blue dress shirt. Reasonable tie. Black lace-up dress shoes and a black belt. (BTW, there is a lot more tolerance for breaking these rules in academia than if, say, you were a banker. I certainly wouldn’t say that you need to dress this way to get a job. What I’m describing is safe and traditional, which means that your attire won’t get in the way of the other messages you are trying to send.) Women: the rules are more fickle and variable, and I know better than to try to help you with clothing advice. If someone has some good links or advice that I can pass along, let me know.

Travel

For the plane ride, resist the urge to wear sweatpants and sneakers. Even if you are carrying your luggage on board and taking a taxi straight to your hotel without meeting with anybody, you never know – the plane could be crowded, and they could make you check your luggage. And then lose it. Or you could get delayed and then have to go straight from the plane to your first meeting. Don’t wear your interview clothes on the plane unless you are scheduled to be interviewing the same day you arrive, but do wear something that won’t make you look like a jackass if it ends up being the only thing you’ve got.

If you’re crossing time zones, plan ahead. I found that depriving myself of sleep the day before I left California, on the hopes that I’d be tired enough to fall asleep at a normal East Coast time, was counterproductive. I did better just grabbing as much sleep as I could whenever I could. Your body may work differently, but whatever the case is, know yourself and be planful.

Meetings

The meetings, and in fact the whole interview ordeal, are a two-way street. Your interviewers know there’s a chance that they’ll end up offering you the job, so if they’re smart they want to make a good impression and be in a position to recruit you if things go that way. Be humble — if you act like you’ve already got the job, you probably won’t get it. But definitely use the opportunity to gather information and learn about the people and place you’re interviewing with.

Just because a question is uncomfortable, inappropriate, or even illegal, doesn’t mean it won’t be asked. Be prepared. It’s very hard to read the intent behind inappropriate questions: for example, “Do you have kids?” could be because they think parents are less productive (bad), more stable (good), or because they want to know if they should tell you how awesome the local school system is (innocuous). As best as you can, anticipate which questions you’ll answer and which ones you’ll try to avoid, and plan ahead. If you don’t want to talk about your partner status, family plans, political affiliations, other interviews you’ve been on, or your real opinion of that notorious asshole in your home department, have a tactful, neutral, and well-rehearsed answer at your fingertips so you won’t hem and haw.

The above notwithstanding, if you introduce personal information — talking about your kids or your partner or whatever — it becomes fair game. And it will get spread around.

Go to the bathroom every chance you get. You might fall behind and get rushed from meeting to meeting, and you never know when you’ll get another opportunity.

You may be surprised how much of your time is spent being asked to ask questions. In my experience, people wanting to grill me about my research were in a small minority (though there were always some of them). Most people opened with, “So, what can I tell you about the department/university/city?” Have lots of questions ready. These serve multiple purposes. Most obviously, your interviewers want to help recruit you by providing whatever information you need. Less obviously, people will read into your questions and try to infer what you are interested in, what your motivations are, whether you’re really enthusiastic about the job, etc.

It’s okay to ask the same questions of multiple people, because (a) they aren’t going to compare notes, (b) they wouldn’t care if they did, and (c) it can be very informative to see whether you get the same or different answers.

I always asked for a preliminary itinerary a couple of days before I went. I then went to the department website, and after reading up about everybody I was going to meet with, I cut the shortish descriptions of everybody’s research interests and pasted them in to create my own annotated itinerary. (I also printed an original that I kept on top, so if someone wanted to look at my schedule to see where my next meeting was, they wouldn’t see the copy with my notes.) This was very valuable as a reminder for starting conversations with people outside my area whose research I wasn’t intimately familiar with. “So, you do work on reading comprehension. What are you working on these days?” Most people like to talk about their research, and since publications lag a few years behind what people are working on you’ve usually got a good pretext to be asking. So it’s an easy way to strike up a conversation. Plus, if you relax a little and show genuine interest, you may actually learn some things and have some fun conversations. (If you don’t have any genuine interest, why are you applying for a job in academia?)

Aside from asking about people’s research, good questions are…

  • What are the students like here?
  • (Older faculty) How has the department changed since you’ve been here?
  • (Younger and mid-career faculty) What was the tenure process like for you?
  • How much do people collaborate here?
  • How is the [insert resource you need for your research -- subject pool, fMRI facility, whatever]?
  • What new directions or initiatives is the area/department/university moving toward right now?
  • What’s your favorite thing about living in this town? What do people do for fun around here?

Questions you might get asked…

  • What was your talk about? (from people who missed it)
  • What is your research about? (have a well-rehearsed 2-minute version that’s intelligible to people outside your area)
  • Where do you see your research going in the next few years?
  • What will your first grant application be?
  • What traditions or older theories is your research grounded in? (Older faculty often have the impression – perhaps accurately – that lots of new research reinvents the wheel. Know what wheels you are reinventing.)
  • I was really interested in your talk on life stories and social identity, because I do work on rodent sexual response cycles and I think there are lots of interesting possibilities for collaboration. What do you think?
  • What courses would you teach? What is special about your approach to teaching them?
  • What do you do for fun?

If you’re a caffeine addict like me, drink some of that awful hotel-room coffee in your room before you head out. Hopefully you’ll get coffee at breakfast, but if something goes awry, you may not get another chance before the caffeine headache sets in.

Hopefully they’ll schedule a lunch or meeting with grad students. If not, ask for one. You’ll want to gauge what the students are like. And grad students are the best source for dirt in the department. You often need to do very little digging – they’ll volunteer it. (If the department interviewing you is savvy, they will also pay attention to the grad students’ impressions of you. If a candidate sucks up to faculty but is disdainful toward grad students, that can say a lot.)

The job talk

[The content of the job talk itself is one of those "big things" where there's oodles of advice out there, so I won't directly cover it here. Instead I'll mention some related issues...]

If you had any control over it, you’d want to do your talk early in the first day, when you’re still fresh and when people can ask you followup questions in meetings. But you won’t have any control over it, so never mind.

Be paranoid about your talk. Bring your own laptop if you can; bring a USB drive; burn the talk on a CD; upload it to a hidden link on a Web site or FTP account.

It’s hard to sustain energy throughout a 45-minute talk, especially when it’s embedded in an interview process that consists of two nonstop 15-hour days. Write “BE ENERGETIC” in big words halfway through your talk notes.

If you are supposed to give two talks and they tell you the second talk is “informal,” don’t let your guard down. The format may or may not be different, but you need to know your stuff inside and out and prepare just as thoroughly as for your primary talk.

In a more interactive talk format (like a brownbag) or with a department where the norm is to interrupt with questions, it is your job to control the room. The most common mistake I’ve seen in these situations is the speaker being too accommodating and letting tangential conversations drag on and eat up time. Answer questions and let truly interesting discussions roll for a little bit, but when the time comes to move on, be polite but firm and move on.

During your talk, address every major point to one real, actual person in the audience. Most people make superficial “scanning eye contact” rather than really connecting with people. Just make sure that you switch people regularly so you don’t make someone uncomfortable.

The Q&A can be very important. There’s an old PR chestnut: “Answer the question you wish you were asked.” This is in the ballpark but the real story is more nuanced than that. During a job talk, you need to be responsive to the substance of a question or else you’ll look evasive. Where you have wiggle room — where the advice applies — is in how you (re)frame the question, what angle you take on it, which piece of it you pick up and run with.

You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em. Sometimes, in the face of a critical question or comment, you need to stand up for your research (because your data aren’t going to defend themselves). And sometimes you are better off looking for common ground on small- to moderate-sized weaknesses that you have carefully thought about before. When done right (and not too much), this can turn a weakness of the research into a strength of the candidate: “You know, I’ve worried about that confound myself. So I’ve been planning a followup study where I…” Look at you! Thoughtful, self-critical, gracious! And old Professor Crank, who thought he nailed you, merely stumbled on something you’d already thought through and written into your next grant application!

That being said, you will bury yourself if you go to either extreme — either to be too defensive or to too-easily agree with all criticisms. Work on this in your practice job talks. Tell your practice audience not to “break character” until they put you through some real questions, and make clear that in addition to the talk itself, you want feedback on how you handle the Q&A.

You know that crackpot in your own department? The one who always asks the bizarre questions and makes everyone roll their eyes and temporarily vow to lobby against the tenure system? During the Q&A, remind yourself that every department has somebody like that. Just don’t let it show that you realize this (and never let yourself be too certain that you’ve identified the local crackpot). You will earn sympathy points merely by being asked The Crackpot Question. You’ll earn double points if you earnestly try to answer it. You will earn super magic bonus points if nobody in the room understands the question but the crackpot smiles and nods as if you have satisfied him or her with your answer.

It seems like a good idea to intentionally leave some issues unaddressed in your talk, so people can ask you about them. But this is hard to do right. Too big of a hole, and you damage your talk. Too small, and you might spend inordinate amounts of time preparing for a question that’ll never come. That said, you will be forced to do this, because you will never be able to cover everything in your prepared talk.

For obvious followup issues where a visual aid would be helpful, have extra slides prepared that address major points you can’t cover in your talk but that are likely to come up in Q&A. But don’t do this too much, or else you’ll look too slick.

Starting a response with “That’s an excellent question” is an overused strategy. Show, don’t tell. If it really is an excellent question, let that come across in the way you enthusiastically respond to the question.

Dinners

Go ahead, order an appetizer and an entree. Tonight you are not a starving grad student.

Know how much alcohol you can ordinarily handle while staying in control. (Ask your friends to verify your figures.) Then make sure you drink less than that at dinner. You’ll be tired, hungry, dehydrated, and wound up. Your hosts will be well-rested and eager to run up the dean’s expense account. Don’t feel the need to keep up with them.

Dinner is not time to relax and let your guard down. Dinner is time to look like you’ve relaxed and let your guard down. By all means have fun, but don’t forget that you’re still on an interview.

After the interview

Writing thank-you notes to everybody you met with is a big effort but important. Before you write a note, pause for a moment and summon up an actual episodic memory of your encounter with the person you are writing to. Your goal is to channel authentic feelings of gratitude, and reflecting on specifics will help. Then, when you’re ready, follow the Miss Manners template:

  • Part 1: Thank them for meeting with you. (“Thank you for taking the time to meet with you during my visit to the University of Wherever.”)
  • Part 2: Reference something particular about your meeting with that person, hopefully something that you sincerely appreciate. (“I was very interested to hear about the study you’ve been running on rodent sexual response cycles.”)
  • Part 3: Express positive affect and hope for nonspecific future contact. (“I really enjoyed our meeting, and I hope we have a chance to talk again sometime soon.”)

If you are thoughtful about it, you’ll be surprised at how long it takes you to write twenty of those three-sentence notes per interview (and longer notes should be written for people you had a particular connection with, or for people who put extra time and effort into your visit like the search committee chair). Give yourself at least half a day.

Just don’t ask me how

There has been lots of blog activity over a NY Times op-ed by Mark Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia. Right now it’s the most-emailed story at the Times. In it, Taylor proposes abolishing the modern university. From his mixed bag of arguments:

  • graduate education prepares students for jobs that don’t exist
  • academic scholarship is too specialized and divorced from real-world problems
  • faculty create clones of themselves instead of true scholars
  • grad school exploits people to provide cheap labor for undergrad education
  • traditional disciplines need to be replaced with interdisciplinary thematic ceters
  • tenure protects unproductive people and inhibits change
  • etc.

I wish I could say that any of this was new, but this is the same stuff I’ve been hearing about higher education since I was in college, and I know that pretty much all of it has been around a lot longer than that. Some of it has some traction, some of it doesn’t. Taylor doesn’t come up with any new or interesting solutions. (He proposes to train grad students for non-academic careers; but he doesn’t say how. Abolish tenure: but he makes no attempt to quantify the benefits of tenure, such as the freedom to define hard problems and take risks to solve them. Etc.)

Plenty of bloggers are posting takedowns. Among the good ones…

Chris Kielty on Savage Minds notes that many of the practices and structures that Taylor attacks (like departments and tenure) protect what is valuable about universities. Abolishing them will just make things worse:

Administrators across the country love it when stooges like Taylor say this kind of shit, because it gives them the right and high horse upon which to justify the destruction of academic job security, autonomous decision making by faculty and the definition of what counts as a timely or important problem by the people who actually have to do the work. And I suspect I hardly need to tell anyone that it isn’t places like UCLA or Columbia that will suffer even if his suggestions are taken seriously, but those underfunded state schools looking for any excuse to expand the number of adjuncts, diminish the autonomy of faculty, exploit graduate students even further (by claiming that they need to “expand their skills”), and so on.

Scott Sommers says that the problem isn’t that grad students are too specialized to have marketable skills — it’s that most of the jobs where they can apply their skills are less interesting than academia:

All the “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems” decried by Dr. Taylor is really made up of highly valuable skills…

The problem isn’t the usefulness of these techniques, nor even the employablity of these skills outside the university. The problem is that no one trained in these skills really wants to apply them to anything but academic problems. I have personal experience with this. Before teaching English, I worked for a marketing research firm in Canada. While all this was long ago, I retain one especially vivid memory. My supervisor, who holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and I were hunched over a table examining cross tabs of a survey of attitudes toward Canadian hi-tech companies. I remember her commenting on the wide fluctuation in perceptions of excellence we had obtained across the spectrum of surveyed companies surveyed. Her response to this? “Isn’t this interesting!” No, it isn’t and it wasn’t then, even though it was really one of the more interesting problems our firm worked on. And I suspect even my boss thought so, since she now works in academia.

Matt Welsh points out that Taylor’s critique doesn’t apply nearly as well to the sciences:

What he really means is that in the areas of “religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy” (the author’s all-encompassing list of the realms of human thought that apparently really matter) it is damned hard to get a decent job after graduate school, and I agree. But this has little to do with the situation in the sciences and engineering, where graduate students go on to a wide range of careers in industry, government, military, and, yes, academia.

The real world of Wall Street

People often contrast “the real world” against the world of academia. (The conjunction of “real world” and “academia” gets over a million hits on Google. I assume that only a tiny fraction refer to humanities dissertations about the MTV show.)  The idea is that we live in a world of ideas, protected from reality. We traffic in fuzzy abstractions, and the things we do are only tenuously connected to anything of tangible value to the world that most people live and work in.

I happen to think that’s not a very accurate view of academic psychology. But it has occurred to me that the indictment against the ivory tower seems to apply quite well to the supposedly real world of Wall Street finance over the last couple of decades.

That observation jumped out at me reading Wired‘s March cover story on quantitative finance. The article focuses on a statistician, David Li, who chose Wall Street over academia. Li came up with new a way to calculate the probability that a bundle of securities would all default at once. Previously, this had been done by looking at the historical performance of similar securities, which meant that new types of securities could not be priced with much confidence. Li’s approach bypassed the historical approach and quickly became the de facto standard on Wall Street:

As a result, just about anything could be bundled and turned into a triple-A bond—corporate bonds, bank loans, mortgage-backed securities, whatever you liked. The consequent pools were often known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. You could tranche that pool and create a triple-A security even if none of the components were themselves triple-A. You could even take lower-rated tranches of other CDOs, put them in a pool, and tranche them—an instrument known as a CDO-squared, which at that point was so far removed from any actual underlying bond or loan or mortgage that no one really had a clue what it included. [emphasis added]

As other observers have pointed out before, a major problem with the derivatives market was that it was so far removed from the actual value of whatever the derivatives were derived from — mortgaged houses, the capital and products of a corporation, etc. Wall Street, in other words, was trading abstractions without really thinking about their relationship to the real world. Sound familiar?

And what’s especially interesting about the Wired article is who it credits for sounding the alarm bells (which were ignored by Wall Street for a decade). It was a bunch of academics:

Investment banks would regularly phone Stanford’s Duffie and ask him to come in and talk to them about exactly what Li’s copula was. Every time, he would warn them that it was not suitable for use in risk management or valuation.

Real world, indeed.