Just landed your first interview for a faculty position? Autumn is the peak season for academic job hunting, so you still have plenty of time to get prepared. Here I offer 10 pointers for how to be successful in that entry-level faculty interview. As a senior academic who has worked at several major research universities and a private teaching university, I have been hired, promoted, tenured. I have served on numerous search committees. These pointers are intended to help you find the right workplace. Although my academic job experience is mostly in the sciences, this advice applies to other disciplines, too.
- Know your audience. When you get the call for an academic interview, be sure to ask the names of the chair and members of the search committee. Ask where they are employed, too, as they may not all be in academia or your discipline. Some committee members may come from industry or the nonprofit sector. Others might be academics tapped from outside the hiring department who have been selected because they want to collaborate with a new faculty hire. Knowing your audience and their decision-making limits about hiring for the job is vital. The search committee is only charged with making recommendations—they do not make the final selection, negotiate terms of hire, determine the salary or provide the offer letter.
- Learn more about each search committee member. Find out what each committee member teaches and what their specific research areas are. Then turn to your favorite academic database to learn more. (I prefer the Web of Science for research, as it provides more authentic knowledge than others.) Seek out thoughtful basics about each person’s background: What are their research contributions and their policy relevance? What are their most highly cited papers, and what journals published them? Who are their co-authors, if any, and where do they work? Do they have funding resources, and if so, what are they? And a key question: Who on the search committee has cited your publications?
- Find the overlap between their interests and yours. At this point, if you have publications or manuscripts in review, prepare succinct one-line statements about how your work overlaps with their interests. Also find out if you have cited the work of anyone serving on your search committee. Be prepared to discuss their teaching and research interests while being interviewed. That shows respect for the scholarship of others. Doing so is golden for succeeding once you are inside the academic workplace.
- Read the faculty handbook. Learn the academic backgrounds of senior administrators, especially those of the provost and the provost’s staff. No two institutions are alike in governance. Granular details on tenure, sabbaticals, retirement policy and academic misconduct can be found in the handbook, and they offer insights into the institution’s academic culture, unbidden and unasked. Key question: Does this institution still offer tenure lines to its newly hired faculty? Sadly, some cannot.
Related to that question is the matter of adjuncts. How many adjuncts has the institution hired relative to tenure-line faculty? How does it treat adjuncts? A two-tier caste system for tenure-track faculty members and adjuncts signals a privilege gap. That gap should be a red flag, because students can and do exploit adjunct faculty such that the academic institution’s ranking spirals downward over time. Some faculty members have power while others have none. Worse yet, this two-tier caste system opens the door for institutionalized bigotry.
You should consider other practical questions: How long must a new hire work to become vested for retirement? How often is a sabbatical given? These and other cultural norms can be found in the faculty handbook.
- Identify yourself with a one-liner. First impressions stick. Use that one-line statement to introduce yourself. You could choose perhaps a quote, a question or even a nickname. This one-liner helps everyone identify and remember your value proposition, which is what you bring to this job if hired. Think of three examples from your background that support your choice. One candidate identified as “Mars mission” and another said “Futurist.” Mine? A journalist once dubbed me the “chief pine nut” because I wrote a textbook on plant reproductive biology, and that stuck.
- Be knowledgeable about research funding. Search committees and the university all want a new faculty hire who brings research support. However, many early-stage hires have not yet been funded. If that’s the case with you, then offer a precise knowledge of grant programs and their upcoming deadlines in philanthropic and government organizations and what funding you plan to pursue. For example, “The NIH, NINDS just released an R21 call looking for new chemical threats; the proposal is due April 3, 2024.” Ask whether, hypothetically speaking, a new hire can submit grant proposals before going on the payroll or arriving on the campus. Be sure to choose grant programs that support jobs for undergraduates and graduate students alike. Some of my best researchers have been undergraduates.
- Determine the institution’s core teaching load. It’s important to find out the course load in the job. If it is 4-4, or four courses taught in fall and four courses taught in spring, that’s a heavy teaching load. A question to ask the search committee is this: How much does the department receive for each credit hour for undergraduates or for a graduate class? Do your math carefully. As a faculty mentor once told me, “Don’t be a lazy person, just think like lazy person.” That says faculty success is linked to multiplier thinking—for every action, try for multiple outcomes. That might mean not teaching a new course before getting tenure. Or it might mean getting students in your classes engaged in your research. Sizing up the core teaching load for the job during the interview is crucial when it comes to choosing the right employer. Be sure to leave the interview with explicit answers.
- Identify the institution’s enrollment trends. Also ask these questions: How many students generally enroll in each class? How many teaching assistants are assigned to each class? Which courses must be taught for meeting degree requirements? How often are these courses are offered? What are their prerequisites? Are these courses taught for more than one degree program? Do students from other departments —or other universities—take these classes?
Also ask how many majors are in the degree program. What are the trends for this major over the past five or 10 years? Some majors are fading while others are soaring. Degree programs can and do fail— and they can also succeed wildly, filling your classroom beyond its seating capacity.
Related to course load and enrollment are budgets. During the interview, be sure to ask about the hiring department’s budget in general terms—how much revenue comes from teaching? How much comes from research overhead? Any endowed funds or endowed chairs in the department? What are the centers and institutes, and do any have sunset clauses?
A note of caution: while asking questions is expected, I have also seen search committees rattled by too-specific budget questions. This is uncomfortable territory, so ask gently. Save budget questions for meetings with the college dean and higher-ups.
- Show your equanimity. Demonstrate your emotional maturity by mentioning co-authors and collaborators and speaking well of your colleagues and your adviser. Note if you have been invited to be part of a cluster hire elsewhere. Those signal good social skills. Drama and personal angst and complaining about the workload are unwelcome in the academic workplace. The best faculty hires are steady, trustworthy colleagues who keep their own counsel, resolve differences at the lowest level possible, avoid outbursts and play for the team.
- Be strategic about personal and money matters. Hold off asking about salary and other funding questions until after you have a hiring offer on paper—yes, paper—from the appointed administrator. Do not mention your personal life or answer any questions related to your children, your partner’s qualifications or your identity politics at the interview. Asking is not legal in any job interview, but nervous candidates often chatter, spilling rivers of personal information. Have no doubt: giving personal information works against you.
Sidestep search committee banter about money, too. Why? Search committees do not cut the deal. Deans or department heads (or department chairs, who are not the same as department heads) are the only ones authorized for money matters. They negotiate with new hires, and they alone write the official hiring-offer letter after all interviews are completed. Only when they enter the picture do salary and start-up funding come into play.
Bonus. Here I offer one last thought: make friends during each interview, no matter how things turn out. Doing so can be as golden as getting hired. Academia is a village, and news travels fast. If all goes well in the first interview, other institutions elsewhere could hear about it and want to interview you.
Also, if this particular job is offered to someone else, don’t fret. Some candidates get multiple offers. And negotiations with a first-choice candidate can fail. For these and other reasons, that job might be yours yet. So let them call you. Don’t ask for updates.
All these pointers are aimed at helping you find the right place, where you can grow and reinvent yourself. Reinvention is what academics do. Today’s scholars rarely work on the same thing for an entire career. I, too, am a new graduate student, having just completed a master’s degree in a new field in 2021, even though my doctorate was awarded decades ago and I landed my first academic job in 1993.
Remember also that each faculty interview is a grand opportunity unto itself to peer inside what’s probably the most opaque workplace in America. Few people get the chance to compare the inner workings of different academic spaces, so learn from each one. Gather new ideas on how to persuade others and how to bloom if hired. Keep carefully detailed notes about each interview. Those notes will guide you as to which academic workplace is right for you. May you have many choices, along with the wisdom to select a workplace where you can grow into your best scholarly self.