The Academic Job Interview Revisited
By Mary Dillon Johnson

Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors

Interview season is upon us, so now is a good time to review the ins and outs of that piece of the hiring process.

The Preparation

You've heard it before, but it's worth hearing again: The first step in preparing for an academic job interview is to do a little research on the institution and, if possible, on the people who will be interviewing you.

At the very least, you need to know whether the institution is a large research university, a selective liberal-arts college that values good teaching, a midsize institution with a heavy teaching load and a mixed student body. With the minimum of research you will avoid the mistakes that come with not knowing your audience. You will be able to lead with your own experiences that match the emphasis of the institution.

In making the case for gathering some advance information, let me share the following incident: A department chairman, talking to a group of graduate students, advised them to do what he noticed that good candidates coming through his department did -- namely to be familiar with the fields or major work of the department's faculty members, and certainly of professors in their particular subfields. He noted that one candidate seemed "manipulative" because he had read the recent publications of everyone on the search committee and managed to "drop" something about each person's work during the interview. Manipulative or not, the chairman said, that candidate was the one who got the job.

The Goal

When you walk into an interview, your goal is to convey an image of yourself as a colleague. After all, a colleague is what your interviewers are looking for.

What that means is for you to express your excitement and enthusiasm for your work, for the work of members of the hiring department, and for the institution. You want to convey the feeling that you are already comfortable as a member of the academic profession.

When I say that to a group of graduate students, someone invariably asks, "How can I show enthusiasm without seeming silly?" I'm not talking about being cheerful (though that's not a bad thing) but about showing how invested you are in your work.

Often the next question is "How can I seem comfortable in this professional role when I still think of myself as a graduate student?" For current graduate students on the academic market, shaking the student identity can be especially challenging.

My advice is to think of yourself in your future role from the time you start applying for jobs, if not sooner. If you are actively engaged in research and teaching and in collaborations with other scholars, it will be easier for you to identify as a colleague. The way you convey your professional comfort in the interview itself is through your discussion of all the things you are doing. You show that you are productive, have had some classroom experience, and have thought about what it means to be a
faculty member.

If your job interviews feel a lot like an exam -- with the interviewers asking the questions and the interviewee giving the often qualified and hesitant answers -- that is a telltale sign of a graduate student who still sees himself as a student.

The other extreme can be just as telling: a job candidate pontificating at great length to the interviewers about how a subject should be taught and what faculty members should do. Keep in mind it's a junior colleague they want.

Demonstrating a generally pleasant manner throughout the interview may help you convey your suitability as a colleague. Yes, faculty members want colleagues who will build up the reputation of their department or attract more students or spark their best work. They also want a nice, maybe funny, person in the office next door. Even at top research universities, where excellence is clearly the main criteria, turning on the charm can't hurt.

The Questions

A graduate student I know, in describing a recent interview, told me how surprised she was to be asked a question about how she would teach the introductory course in her field. I was surprised that she was surprised.

There are some standard questions -- and that is one of them -- that you should anticipate. I am not suggesting that you write out a set of answers, memorize them, and deliver on cue in the interview. I am suggesting that you think about the typical questions and decide what points you want to make, what stories you want to tell. Stories drawn from experience are excellent answers to many questions, and it can be hard to pull up the right one on the spot unless you have thought about it ahead of time.

Generally, common interview questions fall into three subject areas: research, teaching, and what I can best label "general." Use the information you find out about each institution and department as the guide to the questions you anticipate.

For example, if you are interviewing at a foreign-language department, be sure you check the department's course offerings to decide whether to lead with your literary research interests or with your solid experience teaching all levels of the language. Be aware that research universities may also ask some questions about your teaching, and teaching-oriented institutions may ask about your research.

Under the "research" category, "tell us about your dissertation" is a standard question that should never take you by surprise. Be prepared to talk about the work of others in your specific field and compare it with yours. You may well be asked about your next projects.

A few examples of common "teaching" questions: "Tell us about your teaching experience." "How have you used technology in the classroom?" "How do you feel about teaching students of mixed abilities?" You may be asked to talk about your teaching philosophy or to describe a course that you are eager to teach.

Under the "general" category come broad academic questions like "tell us about your long-range plans and commitment to this department," as well as questions about your comfort level in the region or a certain type of institution.

For example, if you are from a major university in a big city and are interviewing at a liberal-arts college in a small town, you should expect to be asked how you feel about such a transition. If you are interviewing at a religious institution, you may get a question about how comfortable you are teaching at such a place -- especially if there is nothing in your vita that shows a connection to that college's particular religious affiliation.

Practical Tips About Your Answers

Give yourself a moment after each question before you answer. Take a breath, collect your thoughts. You want to avoid rushing down a path with an answer, only to find that you didn't want to go there.

At the start of the interview, answer questions with specifics -- a concrete example of a classroom strategy that worked or a course you taught, a specific description of your research focus. Make sure the stories you tell have specific details.

You are most nervous at that point of the interview, and focusing on specifics will ground you. You know about these things; you have experienced them. It's not the time to take flight with generalizations and hypotheticals. Throughout the interview, keep drawing on specifics. They will make every answer more interesting.

That does not mean to avoid "framing" an answer. Some questions really call for you to begin by laying out the principal ideas or goals before you describe particulars. Structure your "tell me about the dissertation" answer by giving an idea of the whole, and perhaps tell the story of how you got interested in the topic before you elaborate on any part.

For the question about how you would teach an introductory course in your field, start with what you want students to learn from the course, and how that determines the curriculum and evaluation, and so on. In short, don't jump right in with a list of texts.

Whenever possible, use the present or past tense when you speak. Talk about what you do and did, not about what you might or would do.

The Telephone Interview

The special challenge of the telephone interview is that you have only your voice to use to convey your collegiality. To help your voice do that work by itself, sit upright, smile, lean forward, and even gesture as you talk into the phone, just as you would in person. You may feel a bit odd, but that activity will energize your voice and make it expressive.

Good luck.

Mary Dillon Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, is director of graduate-career services at Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.