Think Like a Colleague

To succeed in job interviews, especially during the economic downturn, grad students need to shift mindsets, write Cheryl Reed and Dawn M. Formo.
August 17, 2011

Most of us have been rewarded in grad seminars for our ability to contest existing ways of seeing, for engaging in duels of wit, for questioning motives, critiquing consensus, exposing logical flaws, and unmasking hidden ideologies. That's the world of pure ideas, and it’s invigorating. It’s only natural to let those years of immersion in an adversarial universe flow into your job search, and to place yourself at its center. That’s also the quickest way to self-sabotage. The job interview is not a debate or a defense. It’s an attempt to connect.

The project of the job interview is inherently collaborative. Yes, of course the members of your search committee are delighted that you can argue, question, expose and unmask. But we're not your dissertation defense committee. We are a hiring committee: a collective of overworked people who are trying to see if your temperament, expertise, and training are a good match for us, for our students, our department, our course offerings, our campus, our budget. So, the pressing question for us is this: Are we talking with a potential colleague here?

Whatever personalities or politics or disciplinary concerns are brought to bear, the whole point of a job interview is to fill the position — not to assess whether applicants are thinking critically. There are students to teach, budgets to crunch, research to be done, committees on which to serve. We want to find out what we can accomplish together despite differences, dilemmas, issues, and social structures that may well need to change. Which candidate can partner most fluidly with us?

If this sounds too kumbaya for the academic job search, think about it this way: the interview is not so much about you as it is about the position. Picture yourself in a departmental meeting. We're hashing out ways to cut (text)book costs, develop the curriculum, boost student outreach, implement service projects, try out new research or pedagogies. The focus is not "I," but rather "we." So, instead of thinking in dissertation defense terms about "what I have done, thought, and said," focus on methodologies that worked in your classroom, students who achieved awards or jobs or stayed in school through your coaching, research projects that you were excited to be part of. This is a subtle shift that can take you from building a case for yourself to engaging in an interesting strategy session about real concerns with potential colleagues.

Remember the Twinkie Failure Testing spoof that circulated on the Internet a few years back? Twinkies were (ostensibly) tossed from buildings, heated, frozen, irradiated, immersed, and exposed, all to assess their inherent qualities. The focus was on the Twinkie and how it respondednot the “researchers.” But we all knew that those Twinkies didn’t test themselves. In the job interview, you are not the Twinkie. Methodologies, pedagogies, research projects, grants, and budgets are. You are the insider who can talk enthusiastically about their responses to your interventions.

As a grad student, you are already a valuable part of our community. You’ve taught, published, given talks, perhaps even participated in shared governance. You’re aware of different pedagogies, textbooks, and online resources. You’ve worked with different types of students, and seen the impact of budget cuts on the classroom, research, and student support. All of these things are going on at the campuses where you’re applying. Tell us about it.

The current economic downswing makes this focus more crucial than before. The budget crunch is affecting more than just the number of jobs. It’s affecting needs, expectations, and the way you should present yourself in applications and interviews.

First, many colleges have had hiring freezes in place for several years. The remaining staff and faculty have taken on extra work, with fewer resources, to do the same job. When money becomes available to hire new faculty, your candidacy will be a huge relief. The more you know about the day-to-day operation of a campus, and real-life student populations, the better. Tell us about any work outside your everyday grad experience: adjunct instructor, tutor, adviser, volunteer at a nonprofit or high school, journal editor, conference organizer, test reader. The more you jump into our shoes, the more savvy you’ll be in your interviews, and the easier it will be for us to imagine you as a colleague.

Second, many campuses have refocused on "Basic Skills" or general education offerings, with the one-of-a-kind, specialty-driven courses offered once in a while or not at all. Our pressing need may well be for someone who can gladly and competently teach the basics (and, in universities, still pursue original research with minimal funding). So, talk intelligently about your grad research, but focus on showing how you brought your own personal flair to the standard activities expected of all grad students. What did you make of the standard coursework, the top-down rubrics, the department-mandated assignments? Can you make the conventional fare innovative?

Finally, many colleges are facing a Kafkaesque reassessment of priorities — not just temporary belt-tightening. Programs and methods are being rethought, retooled, re-imagined, or even done away with. Online resources are being reframed as "green" and cost-saving, instead of specialty niches for the tech-savvy. Tutoring and other student services are being reassessed from top to bottom. We are outsourcing things that we used to do ourselves, and in-sourcing things we used to outsource. How we teach developmental students or collaborate with high schools is wide open for experimental approaches — as are ways to save students money. We are driven by notions of retention and persistence. Both inside and outside of the academy, the economic downturn has us asking the big questions: "What’s really important? What’s our purpose here? What can we do?" And here you are, hoping to become the most junior colleague in an institution in flux. You’ll want to show you are ready to step into a full-tilt, "energetic" schedule and perform well, amidst changing and often frustrating demands. Show how you fit in to this campus, these course offerings, this budget crisis, this workload, this group of colleagues, this particular student demographic.

Bottom line: We’re looking for colleagues. We’re looking for people who can make it work, right here, right now, right in the middle of all the changes and challenges we face. We need you, and when we score the money to hire someone, we devoutly want you to be that for us. Introduce us to our new colleague.


Cheryl Reed, who teaches at San Diego Miramar College, and Dawn M. Formo, who teaches at California State University at San Marcos, are the co-authors of Job Search in Academe: How to Get the Position You Deserve (Stylus).


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