Your First Academic Job -- II
William Helmreich explains how to excel in an interview.
In a previous piece, I focused on how to become a finalist for an opening. Today I look at how to excel in the interview.
If you get an interview, then you’ve vaulted from one out of 100-200 to a select group of 5-7. Now the competition is much stiffer even as the odds become far better. Here are some critical suggestions and guidelines:
1. Attire. Dress professionally. It’s expected since it’s a job interview. If you feel "that’s just not me," then at least wear something between casual and professional. Remember that you’ll also be meeting with a dean and possibly even a provost, whose ideas about how to dress are different from those of many faculty members. That said, what to wear does depend, in some cases, on where you’re applying, and you have to determine that.
2. Arriving for the interview. First, ask to use the restroom. You need to check out your appearance. It’s a small, yet crucial detail. I know a fellow who believes it cost him a job. He’d had a piece of cake and a cup of coffee before his interview. When he got there he was ushered in to meet the search committee. He thought it went fine, though he felt some unease in the room. As he left he went to the restroom and discovered, to his horror, that there was chocolate around his mouth. "And they looked at me for an hour without saying a word. But what must they have thought?" he groaned. He didn’t get the job.
3. Discussing your research. The time to do this is during the formal interview with the committee. But be concise. Remember that they will be looking to see if you’re too long-winded. This may give the impression that you lack focus and organization. The question about your long-term interests is very important and they’re likely to ask it: "Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?" They’re thinking of a possible 10- to 20-year commitment. Project that you’re a straight-shooter, but don’t do it to the point where honesty becomes synonymous with abrasiveness.
4. Social situations. At lunch, or other social opportunities, focus on the research your interviewers are doing rather than your own if the conversation is an academic one. If it’s personal, give them some idea of your interests and background, but try to quickly shift the conversation to their lives. It shows interest in others and also lessens the risk that something about your personal life might turn them off. In general, understand that most people, alas, would rather talk about what they’re doing, be it their work or pleasure, than what you’re doing. That’s life.
5. Personality. In general, being personable is critical. Of course, being intellectually qualified comes first. But then, once you’ve met the standard in that area, what you’re like as a human being becomes crucial. Remember that an academic job is a lifetime gig. No one wants to give tenure to a jerk. If you come across in any way as nasty, conceited, inflexible, weird, in short, "difficult," as they say euphemistically, you’re not going to be hired, no matter how smart or productive you are. Why? Because departments are terrified that they’ll give someone tenure and then be stuck with a person they hate. In short, they don’t want to be wrong about this decision. A sense of humor is always helpful. If you don’t have one, develop one. You want them to say later that they really enjoyed meeting you.
6. The job talk. Assume that most of your audience hasn’t read the articles or papers you’ve sent them. Thus you should play it really safe and discuss something that even people who are completely out of your area will understand. At the same time you should also present some advanced stuff so that no one will say your talk was simplistic. Keep track of your time limit. By this time of the day the search committee is getting tired in general and some of them won’t have the patience to listen for very long. Using PowerPoint is fine. It gives people something to look at. Make sure to allow lots of time for questions because that’s what they’ll most enjoy doing and you certainly don’t want them to think you’re afraid of being stumped, even if you are!
If they’re critical of what you say, don’t be defensive. Acknowledge the possible validity of their comments and then try to respond as best as you can. Never knock a person’s question. Saying: "I’m glad you asked that," or "That’s an interesting point" is a good way to respond. Remember that if you in any way embarrass a questioner, you’re probably finished. They’ll not only be annoyed; they’ll lobby against you.
After the Interview:
Be sure to follow up with a with a nice thank-you letter telling them how much you enjoyed the day, how much you liked the department, and reiterating your interest in coming. Do it a few days later, while their memory of who you are is still fresh. Of course they’ll see it as an effort to land the position, but they still want to hear it. Think of how uninterested you’ll look if you don’t send a letter.
If you receive an offer, don’t be afraid to ask for more money, no matter how good you think the offer is. They have no idea that you think it’s a great deal and you shouldn’t tell them. No offer was ever rescinded, as far as I know, because someone asked for more; at that stage, you already have the job. More than likely, they’ll respect you for it. Be careful with joint appointments. They can make you more attractive to the college, but you need to know the exact deal upfront.
Finally, even if you don’t get an offer, it’s not necessarily over. Their first choice may have a change of heart and that may result in the committee turning to you.
These ideas, some of them counterintuitive, apply to most, but not all, situations. You must be ready to adapt them to the specific institution. And above all, keep in mind, that the market is very competitive. That’s not surprising when you consider that there are very few jobs that are guaranteed for life, provided you do reasonably well at them for five or seven years.
William Helmreich is professor of sociology at City College of the City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center and deputy chairman at City College. He is the author or editor of 14 books, including What Was I Thinking?: The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them (Rowman & Littlefield/Taylor Trade). Helmreich’s latest book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, will be released this fall by Princeton University Press.
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