In the preparation phase, it is good to be a perfectionist. Not in the interview phase. If something goes wrong, accept it. If you're late to the university, whether through your own fault or circumstances beyond your control, stay calm. You'll get there eventually, and getting stressed out won't help. If you appear in casual clothes because your luggage has gotten lost, apologize to each person you meet with and to your audience, letting them know in one sentence what happened, then proceed confidently. What's less important than actually wearing the formal clothes is communicating that you sincerely tried to. While you can be a maverick in your research, don't flout convention unnecessarily in other areas.
You should always appear confident, making sure that you know the difference between confidence and arrogance. Even at institutions famous for their arrogance, they do not like arrogant visitors. Here are some sample exchanges:
Question: "Why did you do X in such-and-such a manner?"
Bad answer: "Uh."
Confident answer: "For reasons A, B, and C... Although if I'd realized when I'd started that Y, I would have considered Z instead. I'd definitely have used Z if I had more memory."
Arrogant answer: "Any other approach would be really stupid."
Comment: "Your thesis seems like it's just a hack."
Bad answer: "Uh."
Confident answer: "I don't think it's a hack. The way I see it is blah blah blah. It is true, however, that it's less theoretical than some of the work that's been done, such as So-and-So's. Let me describe some research I'm planning to do on top of this (or that I did for my master's thesis)."
Arrogant answer: "No, this isn't just a hack. It's the most important thesis in architecture in recent years."
Question: "Are you aware of So-and-So's related work on blah blah blah?"
Bad answer: "Oh no! Uh-oh."
Confident answer: "No, I'm not. That sounds really interesting. I'll look into it. Could you give me a reference? Thanks for pointing me to it."
Arrogant answer: "I don't know the work, so it must not be relevant."
Meetings with Faculty Members
I felt that senior faculty members (those with tenure) used meetings to judge me or to sell the department, while junior faculty members, who had recently been on the job market themselves, tried to put me at ease and invited me to ask them questions about the department. A question I asked all junior faculty was what hours they worked. I ruled out one research university when a professor answered, "This week I've been getting up at 6:30 [a.m.] and going home at 2 a.m., but this is an unusually tough week. Normally, I go home at 1 a.m." Some other questions I liked to ask were:
- In the past few years, how many people have been denied tenure?
- Which colleges are most like yours? (This was helpful when visiting a college I didn't have a feel for. Note that they'll usually describe themselves as being comparable to a place that outsiders consider better.)
- What are the worst aspects of the college?
- What's expected of a junior faculty member?
- Where else did you consider working? Why did you choose this institution?
- How is the department governed?
- How much time to people spend on teaching?
One professor at a college I visited told a story from his job search about an exchange he had with a very senior professor:
Candidate: "I've heard that junior faculty members here have no power, and the department is run in an autocratic manner."
Senior professor (angrily): "Who told you that?"
The candidate refused to answer the question, despite the professor's insistence. Later in the discussion, the professor untensed, smiled, and said, "I've figured out who must have told you that." The candidate wisely concluded that this was a department to avoid.
One interesting thing I noticed was that whenever I asked a male faculty member what percentage of the students in the department were female, his off-the-top-of-his-head estimate was always much higher than the actual number I found out later from the person who had the statistics. I'd be curious if other people have had the same experience. I'm afraid I was a little undiplomatic on this subject. When a professor told me that they'd been trying to get more female students in the department, I had the temerity to ask what they were trying, putting him in the awkward position of admitting that they hadn't actually done anything.
Don't ask questions that you don't want the answer to. When I met with a female professor in another department I visited and discussed the environment for women in the computer science department, all of whose professors were male, she told me that one of the professors (not the department head) sometimes behaved offensively. I asked who, and she said she was willing to answer but that I should first be sure that I really wanted to know. Especially since it was a small department and I'd have to interact with everyone, I realized that no, I didn't want to know. I soon found out anyway from a student who told me about some crude behavior in the classroom.
At the end of the day, the department head asked me if I had any advice on how to make the department more hospitable to women. I don't know if it was politic, but I relayed the story to him, without using any names. He was surprised by the story and tried to get me to tell him who the professor was, which I wouldn't. He indicated that it was the sort of behavior that he didn't consider acceptable and would do something about if it was brought to his attention, which was good for me to find out.
Ellen Spertus is associate professor of computer science at Mills College.