Interview season notes

We had dozens of candidates on campus last year for positions at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, by far the most busy search season I have experienced in my career at any place. Since our college is searching for a new dean, I thought I would make any comments about on-campus interviews for faculty and administrative positions long before we have any dean candidates on campus.1 These are not in any particular order, and they are entirely idiosyncratic to me as an individual faculty member.

  • It is sometimes hard to remember that the issue is not about hiring a candidate who will be repeating the interview performance as the job, but rather trying to make inferences about future performance from all the evidence, including the interview. After you are hired, your main job will not be talking to your new colleagues about your research, though the research-oriented job talk is a natural focus of preparation.2 This is true for whoever makes a hiring decision and everyone on campus who interacts with a candidates, and also inevitably for the candidate. “Be great on the interview!” is about performance. Yes, dress professionally and avoid unforced errors, but people who interact with a candidate can often smell the attributes of a performance. When I interviewed for my current position, I decided that my responsibility during the interview was to provide all the information I could about what I would be like as an academic administrator and colleague. If everyone with input decided I was the right candidate but I really was not, I had very little chance of being successful or satisfied.3
  • The higher the position, the more you need to do research about the place. Part of this is in comparison with candidates for other positions: Of course many candidates for assistant professors do every bit of research they can about the college/university because they need a full-time job and will scramble to do their best. So if for no other reason than because graduate students will have done the research, you need to as well. But there is another reason: the more responsibility the position entails, the less the interview is about your current job and much more about how you look at organizational and other contexts. My automatic question for external candidates for dean and provost positions (and if you are a candidate for the dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, you now know to expect it): What can you tell us about ourselves that we cannot see from the inside?
  • Some interview questions are about the past, and some are about the future — both your future and the institution’s. You do not need to have a pat answer for all questions, and you are almost always allowed to answer a question about the past with an answer to a closely-related question about the future instead. Especially if the question appears to be something like, “how will you weigh in on this internal conflict we’ve had for 15 years,” there is no good answer. So answer an appropriate, closely-related question about the future.
  • There is a difference between being flexible about job opportunities and not having an intellectual identity. On Friday morning, I spoke with ASU doctoral students from a number of programs, and one student applying for jobs asked about the tension between having an academic identity and applying for a range of jobs (especially the range of teaching workloads and research supports). Fortunately, I had opened up with a bad joke comparing academic identities with assembling IKEA furniture, so I could make the following point, I hope clearly: your identity is somewhat modular and will change across a career in response to where you are, your opportunities, and circumstances.4 So, yes, if you take a particular job, you will slowly change in response to wherever you are. But if you are finishing a doctoral program, or just starting a career, you have a current intellectual identity.
  • You will be judged by the questions you ask: they reveal how much you know about the position, about yourself, and about academic environments. So ask thoughtful questions.
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  1. Disclosure: I am not on the search committee. []
  2. If you go for mostly-teaching gigs, remember to prepare for teaching-oriented slots in the interview! []
  3. I already had a tenured, full-professor position at the time. I did not need to be desperate for a full-time job. []
  4. Credit for the IKEA metaphor to Devoney Looser, who was the other speaker Friday. Any awkwardness in the “keep your Allen wrench with you forever” joke belongs to me. []