The Community-College Interview: What Not to Do

by Rob Jenkins
Monday, February 11, 2008
Chronicle of Higher Education

The Two-Year Track: Advice on careers at community colleges

Speaking as someone who has interviewed literally scores of candidates for teaching positions at two-year colleges, and who will be interviewing 10 or 12 more over the next few weeks, I would just like to say:

Please, shoot me now.

Of course, I'm kidding -- kind of. But community-college professors who, like me, have sat on search committee after search committee, year after year, know exactly what I'm talking about.

We all understand how important it is to serve. We recognize the opportunity it presents to have a say in the direction of the department. None of that changes the fact that it's basically a tiresome, tedious, thankless job.

However, this column is not for the jaded tenured professors out there nodding their heads in agreement. Nor is it for those who, perversely, enjoy serving on search committees and are even now composing indignant e-mail rejoinders in their heads.

No, this column is for all you bright-eyed, idealistic job seekers, most likely young and fresh out of graduate school, who will be sitting down across from us in a few weeks, totally oblivious to our cynicism. You probably don't realize that, after the third or fourth interview, you all start to sound alike. You probably don't know that, even as we stare at you over the conference table, we're actually wishing we were somewhere else, such as a dentist's office or a branch location of the Internal Revenue Service.

What I'm offering you, the candidate, in this column is an opportunity to stand out from the crowd, not based on anything you do but on what you shouldn't do.

Heck, you already know what to do -- how to dress, how to speak to the various people you meet, how to answer the important questions (what are your key weaknesses, anyway?), even how to shake hands. Scores of articles have been written on the subject, including at least one I wrote myself.

Even more important than what you say and how you act, however, may be what you don't say and the behaviors you manage to avoid. I've become increasingly convinced of that as I've watched a parade of clueless job candidates -- all of them neatly groomed, appropriately dressed, well mannered, and painfully earnest -- become sad victims of unwitting self-sabotage.

Here, then, is my list of don'ts for your interview at a community college:

Don't Talk Too Much. One of the worst things you can do as a candidate is spend 20 minutes answering the first question -- which, most likely, was not designed to inspire a 20-minute response. In fact, it's probably one of at least 10 questions the search committee would like to ask during your 60-minute interview. Taking too much time on the first one throws the entire interview off track, thereby irritating committee members -- most of whom will stop listening to your rambling answer after the first five minutes, anyway.

We understand that candidates who give over-long answers usually do so because they're nervous and/or deathly afraid of leaving out something important. (I say usually; some are just long-winded.) But just because we understand doesn't mean our patience and credulity won't be sorely taxed.

The best way to avoid talking too much is to be as prepared as possible. If you have a pretty good idea what you might be asked going into an interview -- and you'll find lists of likely questions in a variety of sources -- you can craft answers in advance that will be responsive, yet to the point.

You'll have, in other words, no need to ramble on. True, your answers may appear a bit rehearsed, but trust me on this: Rehearsed is better than long-winded.

And if you're surprised by a question, or don't know a good answer, the worst thing you can do is attempt to expound at length anyway. You won't be fooling anyone in the room. As professors, we know bloviating when we hear it. So just give the shortest answer possible -- even if it's "That's not something I'm real familiar with at this point" -- and move on. The low marks for that answer will be offset by brownie points for not wasting people's time, trying their patience, and insulting their intelligence.

Don't Forget Where You Are. I know that may sound like strange advice, since you'll spend weeks planning your trip, plotting the college's exact location on the map, and reading about it on the Web. You'll probably also spend a great deal of time studying up on two-year colleges, so that you understand how they differ from four-year, research institutions. (If you haven't, I suggest you spend a few hours browsing "The Two-Year Track" archives.)

Even so, I've found that a distressingly large number of candidates fail to take the most basic steps to familiarize themselves with our college. Or maybe during the interview they suffer a sudden attack of instant-onset amnesia. The most common symptom, among newly minted Ph.D.'s, is a tendency to launch into a protracted exegesis of their dissertation and discussion of research interests.

Look, the fact that you wrote a dissertation is probably, in the eyes of most committee members, a plus. But beyond that -- and I don't mean this unkindly -- we don't care. Two-year colleges are teaching institutions, plain and simple. And as search-committee members, we're looking for the best teachers (and best colleagues) we can find who meet the minimum job requirements -- usually, a master's degree with 18 graduate semester hours in the teaching discipline.

It's not that we're averse to hiring Ph.D.'s, or to having colleagues who like to do research. We just regard any time you spend talking about those things during your interview as time you could have spent talking about your teaching, or time we could have spent taking a much-needed bathroom break.

Don't Patronize Your Interviewers. Some of you are probably wondering to yourselves, "Who would do that?" The answer is, a lot of candidates.

Let's be honest. Statistically speaking, most of you applied for faculty positions at community colleges because the academic market is tough and you need a job. Teaching at a two-year college probably isn't your first choice.

If you actually get the job, you may well find that you enjoy the environment. But you aren't thinking about that during the interview. You're just thinking about making a decent living and having affordable health insurance.

More to the point, your decision to apply to two-year colleges may not have sat too well with your dissertation adviser, or been popular with the other graduate students in your program. Maybe they told you that you were "selling yourself short" or "casting your pearls before swine." Unfortunately, their negative attitude toward community colleges may well have rubbed off on you.

If so, that's likely to become apparent at some point during the interview, unless you will yourself to avoid it. So be careful what you say and how you say it. Don't drop names of prominent people in your field whom you've met at conferences. Don't ramble on about all the millions of dollars your university invests in your discipline. Resist the urge to make lofty pronouncements about your specialty, assuming that because committee members are "just" community-college professors, they don't know as much about the field as you do. (Hint: Many of them do.)

You should even watch your body language. Don't react with surprise and dismay -- or outright disgust -- when confronted with the realities of academic life at a two-year college: a teaching load of five courses a semester, no research assistants, minuscule travel budgets. If you've done your homework, you will know those things already.

The bottom line is, if you look down on community colleges and don't really want to teach here, why interview? And if the answer is "because I need the job," then, at the very least, don't let your condescension become visible. And if you do, don't be surprised when the search committee regards you as someone without whom their institution would get along just fine.

If, on the other hand, you manage to avoid talking yourself out of consideration, if you remember where you are, and if you at least feign respect for committee members, you might just survive this whole community-college interview thing.

More important, those of us sitting across the table from you might just survive it, too.


Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.