Navigating the Campus Interview

So, you are on the academic job market and you scored the coveted campus interview. Congratulations! You definitely deserve to take a minute to celebrate this career victory. However, once that excitement wanes, anxiety may start to settle in as you contemplate how to prepare for an interview that can last between 2 to 4 days.

Many junior faculty on the job market ask me about how to prepare for campus interviews and what do expect. Concerns range from the academic (How to I prepare for my research presentation? How do I promote an image of being an independent investigator?) to social (How formal should I plan to dress? Should I drink alcohol when offered them at dinners?). If you are on the job market and need a tutorial on navigating the campus interview, here is some advice for you.

The campus visit is a marathon, not a sprint.

Whereas most non-academic interviews last an hour or two, the academic campus interview will usually take place over the course of 2-3 days. Understand that departments will invest a significant amount of resources to your campus visit, including round-trip airfare, hotel stays, and meals. Also understand that they are searching for a candidate who will make tenure in 6-7 years, so they want to know what kind of colleague you will be. Hence, they will most likely pack your visit with back-to-back meetings, presentations, and social events. It is not uncommon for a single day during the campus visit for you to be interviewing from 8am until 9pm or later at night. You will be tired physically and emotionally.

I find this to be one of the more frustrating aspects of the campus visit, because candidates are so busy that I question how much they remember or take in from the visit. As a former faculty search chair, I tried to ameliorate this by organizing small group meetings with faculty and students so I can schedule fewer, more productive meetings. I also made sure that there was scheduled time for the candidate to see several communities in the local area, so they also could make a more informed decision about where they may live. Candidates provided feedback about how much they enjoyed this approach to scheduling, rather than a dozen 15 minute meetings with individual faculty meetings and little exposure to off-campus life that is more commonplace.

Regardless, here are some tips to help you get through it:

  • Make sure you are provided a schedule before you arrive to campus.

  • Don't get stressed or offended if your schedule gets altered during the visit. Deans' schedules change. Unexpected opportunities arise to meet people who are not on your schedule.

  • Know that it is okay to ask for some downtime if you think it is needed. For instance, it's okay to ask the search chair when planning your visit to build in a 30 minute block before your job talk for final preparations.

  • If you are requested to give both a teaching and research presentation, try to make the teaching presentation on a topic related to your research, so that there is less last-minute prep.

There is a flip side to this. I once had a campus interview that was scheduled over three days and two nights, but the faculty only spent 6 hours with me and I ate every meal by myself. This is not desirable, either, and should make you question the social environment of the department.

You need to be prepared. You need to study.

From a search committee's perspective, having a candidate who is too shy or quiet is frustrating. Remember that your personality will be judged as a potential colleague. Also, lack of thoughtful questions from candidates can be interpreted as a lack of interest in the position. Don't let this happen to you. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure you have a list of people whom you will meet with before the campus visit.

  • Before the campus visit, make flash cards of the faculty - study facts about them and try to remember something interesting about each one you will meet.

  • Make sure you know you are familiar with the work of those faculty members who are in your research areas.

  • Prepare questions ahead of time for individuals you are meeting with. Make sure these questions cannot be answered easily by looking up the department's website.

  • Make sure you have questions about living in the local community.

  • Review the job announcement prior to your visit so that you can make sure your communication with individuals you meet with emphasizes the qualifications they are looking for.

  • Do not check any of your clothes or materials when flying to your campus visit.

If you follow these tips, you will have plenty to talk about with individuals you meet with during your campus visit and have everything you need to succeed.

Know that mishaps will happen.

Things sometimes go wrong or become awkward during the campus visit. It is normal. A few examples from my own experiences:

  • I was taking a cross-country flight for an interview that would start as soon as I was picked up from the airport. I was cold on my early-morning flight and asked the flight attendant for a blanket. I woke up an hour later to find that red fuzzies from the blanket had adhered to the top and bottom of my navy suit.

  • During a different campus visit, I was offered a tour of the campus by car from an administrator. When she opened the passenger door, I noticed that there was dried dirt all over the seat as if her dogs were recently in the car. I had to sit on a folder an hope that none of the dirt would transfer to my suit (luckily, it didn't).

  • During dinner on another campus visit, I had the wife of a faculty member ask me about my religious affiliation.

  • As a search chair, I once had a candidate who didn't tell me he was vegan until arriving to campus. This resulted in me having to make several last-minute restaurant reservations so that we could attend more vegan-friendly establishments.

  • As a search chair and candidate, I have also witnessed faculty members ask inappropriate questions during campus interviews (often unknowingly, but nonetheless awkward).

Most mishaps aren't fatal flaws. There are ways to avoid certain awkward situations. For instance, let the search chair know about your dietary restrictions or accommodation needs ahead of time. When offered alcohol during meals, it is okay to accept it or politely decline it. It is NEVER acceptable to drink too much, though - keep it at one drink regardless of what other faculty members do. Ask ahead of time if you have questions about the expectations for your attire at certain events. For instance, if a barbecue dinner is scheduled, it is okay to ask if that is a more casual event, so that you aren't the only one there wearing a suit and praying that you don't get sauce on it. Stay flexible and professional.

Also helpful: plan professional responses to potentially illegal questions or discussions during the campus visit. Oftentimes, questions about your spouse, children, or other background are harmlessly asked. However, they create a lot of awkwardness. Think of responses ahead of time and expect that some of them may be asked.

If you make a blunder, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on. This is also a topic of a prior post: When You Make a Mistake on the Academic Job Market.

Don't forget to assess the social environment at your potential department.

While there is significant focus on assessing the fit between your research and teaching interests with the resources on campus, don't forget that you may be working with this group of people for many years, at least through tenure (hopefully). Therefore, it is important to assess whether you will like working with this group of people. This is often challenging, because everyone is on their best behavior during your campus visit. It may be difficult to identify problems with the department climate.

In most departments, you will find people whom you do not like. You may have a rude audience member at your job talk. You may meet with someone who is trying to sabotage the search, because they want someone else for the position. These are normal and most likely aren't red flags. However, make sure you take careful notice about how the faculty interact with one another. Do you catch people being snarky towards one another? Gossiping behind a colleague's back? Berating colleagues' research agendas? Being extremely cautious when they talk to you about the workplace climate? Do junior faculty members have negative views of senior faculty or report a lack of mentoring opportunities? These MAY be red flags.

Once I went on a campus visit and noticed that the junior faculty making side talk about doing extracurricular activities together outside of the office. At another, I learned that many faculty members lived near one another and hosted regular barbecues together. These indicated to me that the faculty generally got along with one another and had a positive work environment. There were also campus visits where it seemed that the faculty members didn't know one other on a personal level very well. That wasn't as positive.

Not sure how the social climate is? There are a number of professionally-crafted questions you can ask as an assessment, such as:

  • Do faculty ever interact with each other outside of work?

  • What kind of mentoring opportunities are there for junior faculty?

  • What are some of the challenges to working in your department?

  • What activities does the department engage in to facilitate collegiality?

Faculty and administrators may be guarded when answering some of these questions, but you may get a better sense of what the workplace climate is like.

Need help navigating the academic job market? Contact Nicole today and see how she can work with you to get ahead in your search!

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