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How to get a faculty job in 20 not-so-easy steps

Today’s post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who submitted this in response to a Twitter conversation today that began with a discussion of the recent spate of “Don’t get a PhD!” essays by tenured faculty inspired by the poor job market. I lamented that the process of getting hired isn’t necessarily transparent, for a host of reasons (i.e., how many jobs a person applies for, gets interviewed for, and ultimately offered). Our guest blogger obligingly supplied this hilarious post for your reading pleasure and general edification. I’ll be following up soon with my thoughts on the “Don’t get a PhD!” essays, and in the meantime, feel free to share your application-to-interview-to-hire ratio in the comments. Some of us stubbornly working towards a PhD would love a better sense of what’s typical.

So they’ve called you and scheduled an interview. Congratulations! Get ready for a couple of days of fun with your prospective new faculty. This could be the start of a whole new chapter in your professional career.

1. The Golden Rule of Interviewing: The time to decide if you want the job, is after they offer you the job. The advice below is designed to help you get the job in the first place.

2. When you schedule the interview, tell them how delighted you are and how much you are looking forward to this. They are putting themselves out there by inviting you, and they don’t want to be rejected any more than you do.

3. What to pack? Advice: 1. Better to overdress than underdress; and 2. You want them to remember YOU, not your clothes. Wear something formal but forgettable.

4. Don’t forget to show interest in the local area. It’s effective to wax ebullient about how you view moving to rural Minnesota as a dream-come-true since your personal interests include not being anywhere near a theater, operahouse, symphony or having an escalator in town*.

5. Wear a catheter. Your interview will consist of 1-2 days of 20-minute meetings scheduled back-to-back with absolutely anybody they could cram onto your schedule. There will be no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, and no insulin injections. This is exacerbated by the fact that every single one of the people you meet will want to take the 20-minutes as their coffee break**. In the end, most of the interview will be a blur, except that you will be able to find the coffee cart from any point on campus blindfolded.

6. Point 5 above reminds the author to tell you Not To Wear Heels. Heels make everyone uncomfortable in a scientific setting and I don’t know why. It’s just part of that vast incomprehensible world of feminine frivolity from which we are excluded when we gaze through that first microscope. The author is not sure whether this is good or bad.

7. Never underestimate just how freaking weird these 20-minute meetings can be. Sometimes you will be compulsively talked at as you walk in the door, through the meeting, and you will shut the door on someone still talking as you leave. Sometimes you will share a stony silence with your host for 20 minutes. Many times you will be marched through laboratories, presumably to ogle shiny machines. Ogle them. Ogle them like it is the last glimpse of human civilization you will ever get. The sorry soul who is your tour guide traded her youth and health to become chained to that beeping machine, and is it so much to ask of someone to witness this reality***?

8. People will ask you personal questions. Including questions that are illegal to ask during interviews. Stuff like: “Are you married or are you a lesbian?”, “Do you plan on having children?” and “Would you move here if we offered you the job?” and stuff that’s a lot more crazy than that. The author is telling you now so you won’t be surprised.

9. When people ask you illegal questions, you are not obligated to answer truthfully. Well, that’s the anonymous author’s position anyway. Responses like: “I’m celibate and I’m sterile” and “All my crap is in a moving van on its way here right now” are no harm no foul as far as the author is concerned. I recommend that you don’t get miffy. Nurse your wound and complain about these illegal questions on a blog anonymously many years later after you’ve had the sweet sweet revenge of living well.

10. Play up the young, fresh and cheerful angle. Universities need infusions of optimism more than they need overhead, if you want to know the truth. Academics are such endlessly relentless complainers that you can often distinguish yourself conspicuously just by intimating something (anything) hopeful and positive. Sincerity optional.

11. Here’s the Secret Key to Everything: In every department there’s one dismal job that everyone has been avoiding for years. It could be anything. It could be offering a required course, it could be leading an alumni field trip, it could be writing the annual newsletter — anything. If you can figure out what this job is, and state forcefully that you want to do it, the position is pretty much yours right there. Not only do you not mind teaching “Science 101 for the Declaredly Uninterested”, all the events of your life have been catapulting you towards doing it. You will never feel fulfilled until you can put on your C.V. that you negotiated putting a vending machine in the department’s front office. You get the idea.

12. The Seminar. News flash: none of these people have read any of your papers and maybe two of them have read your application and recommendation letters. Everyone will make their decision based on your seminar. Honestly, at the end of 35 years, the success of your whole career comes down a few one-hour seminars. So make it good. No pressure, though.

13. After your seminar you will be taken to the Interview Dinner. This will take place at a fancy restaurant with a hybridized group of the faculty most interested in your subject area and the faculty most interested in a free meal. A high degree of overlap between the two groups bodes well for your chances of being hired.

14. Order something simple for dinner. The author always goes with scallops because they seem classy, taste good and come in bite-size pieces. It’s hard to pontificate about the future of science while gumming a fistful of baby-back ribs or while standing to gain leverage over a rack of lamb.

15. Don’t drink at the Interview Dinner. Your hosts will. They will drink like men who’ve been stuck in the Sahara Desert for ten years. This is because the fancy dinner will be at the university’s expense. Years of pent up anguish suffered at the cold sinewy hand of the administration can be soothed by about $30 of Sauvingnon with astonishing efficiency. It’s actually a good deal for the alumni.

16. Don’t get into a car with any of your hosts after the Interview Dinner. See point 15 above. Chirp happily about how there’s nothing like a good long walk in the forty-below to ruminate over all the fascinating science to which you’ve been exposed that day.

17. Bring bubble bath. After the dinner, you will get so damn depressed you won’t know what hit you. Everything you worked so hard for and sacrificed so much for — your deep and raw need for acknowledgment – everything just played itself out in a single hour of seminar theater followed by a cold plate of scallops and a weak iced tea. When you get back to your hotel room, the existential emptiness of it all will hit you like an 18-wheeler descending Donner Pass. A long bubble bath and a DVD of old Jackass episodes is the only constructive way to deal with this.

18. If they are going to offer you the job, you’ll know. You’ll just know. It’s like meeting your soulmate for the first time. Except your soulmate won’t ask you to attend weekly meetings for the next 10 years during which your senior colleagues will complain bitterly about things that happened before you were born.

19. The time after the interview is like a break-up. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t stalk the department on FB and try to figure out who else is interviewing. Move on with your life. Do your best to forgive and forget. Then if you ever hear from them again, it will be a pleasant surprise.

20. Repeat as necessary.

Footnotes

*The anonymous author can say this because she grew up in rural Minnesota and she loves it there, even though she was 12 when she first visited a building with more than three floors.

**In the good old days (when the anonymous author was young and innocent) the 20 minutes could be used as a smoke-break. Many a hypothesis was expounded by the author’s shivering frame while Professor Marlboro Man got his fix.

***Maybe the anonymous author runs a lab.

About the author: The author anonymously lives in Hawaii and she’s published a bazillion papers though none of them in Nature anyway. Her dad says, “honey, I love you but you should probably stop trying to be funny and go back to work”. He’s been saying that since she was in second grade.

Categories: Academia Guest Posts

Tagged as:

Jacquelyn Gill

45 replies

  1. Ah, so you’re the other one who came out of a small town in MN and wound up getting a PhD. (I’m from North Branch, MN). I just started interviewing for Lecturer positions in SoCal. My first? UCSD. It went horribly. One of the panelists actually started ridiculing my teaching methods (e.g. “What, you would have the students write papers?!” Students can’t write papers!” Gee, I wonder why…). The only time they seemed happy with me was when I promised I would do multiple choice exams with no short answers. The chair was supportive but I left the interview after only 34 minutes (this included a teaching demo). This post made me feel better about my first interview, so, thank you.

    Like

  2. I will never forget an interview I had when I had come right out of the field (grad school) and had to borrow clothes from a friend. The shoes were a really bad idea – even though they weren’t high heels I had never worn them before and by the end of the first day my heels were blistered and bleeding. The next day I could barely walk and was in extreme pain even with the bandaids stuck over the blisters. The only alternative I had was sneakers so I suffered through day 2.

    Like

  3. Thank you, anonymous author. You have provided a critically needed barrell of laughs for the desperately-in-need-of-bubble-bath period following my first ever faculty interview. You are well and entirely spot on in every particular.

    Like

  4. In response to the blog host, I have a PhD and out of five fellowship applications I was offered two.
    Of the lectureships I have applied to I have not made it to interview either time!

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  5. Absolutely hilarious blog! I just went through the whole application-interview-the end less wait, and this blog completely resonates with my experience so far.

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  6. This article was amazing. I am currently applying for my first faculty position. How long does it typically take for a hiring committee to make it’s final decision?

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    1. It can vary a lot, depending on weather delays, things not getting together before winter break, negotiations falling through with one set of candidates and needing to bring in a second set of candidates. In my department, we started interviews on a search before winter break, but we haven’t made a final decision yet for various reasons. A search I was involved with in graduate school took months because one faculty candidate was in negotiations for a really long time (spousal hire) and the ended up going elsewhere, so we had to bring in more people. So, even if you interviewed, or weren’t even brought in on the first round, you can still be in the running!

      Like

      1. Follow-up question:
        After the on campus interview/lecture is it typically pretty quick or does that too take several weeks in many cases?

        Like

  7. Back in the 1970s the rule for an IBM interview was to order wine with dinner. Your hosts, as per company policy, could not order wine themselves, but if their guest ordered some, they could all join in. It was a great way to score some brownie points.

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  8. #17. So needed this heads-up before. I wondered if I was supposed to leave the interview feeling like shit. (On the bright side, they hired no one, so eh…)

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  10. Very entertaining and useful advice that I haven’t heard before (and that’s saying something as I’ve attended many a how-to-get-a-job talks)! I really wish though that someone would post something on how to GET the interview in the first place. Having served on a search committee as the grad student rep, I know the hardest thin is getting on that “short list” from 200-300 applicants :(.

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  11. If they are going to offer you the job, you’ll know.

    I disagree with this, too. While it can be obvious when you are *not* going to get an offer, even if you really think you nailed it, and everyone is talking to you like you are gonna get an offer–and they even *believe* it at the time–the real decision-making doesn’t occur until after all the interviewing is over. And at that time, considerations beyond how much everyone liked you and your visit come into play.

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  12. Great advice! I cannot emphasize enough how important comfortable shoes (and other clothing) are.

    You don’t even have to drink all of the one drink.

    I always let candidates take potty breaks on my watch. Beats getting coffee and making conversation. Unless it’s a position I really care about. Then they actually have to talk to me.

    Like

  13. “8. People will ask you personal questions. Including questions that are illegal to ask during interviews. Stuff like: “Are you married or are you a lesbian?”, “Do you plan on having children?” and “Would you move here if we offered you the job?” and stuff that’s a lot more crazy than that. The author is telling you now so you won’t be surprised.”

    Really?? We have an HR AND an “Equity Officer” in on all such interviews, to ensure questions like that can’t get asked.

    Like

    1. “We have an HR AND an “Equity Officer” in on all such interviews, to ensure questions like that can’t get asked.”

      In my experience, you’re unusual. And even if HR or other similar officials are present at the “official” interview (where the candidate is grilled in private by the search committee), I’m guessing they’re not present at the one-on-one meetings that comprise the bulk of the visit, during which time such illegal questions often get asked (sometimes by people who are just making conversation and don’t realize that “Are you married?” isn’t really something you should ask a job candidate, even if your one-on-one meet & greet isn’t “formally” part of the interview)

      Like

  14. You people sure are worried about getting your one free drink on, aren’t you? I’ll have you know that the anonymous author weighs almost 25 kg soaking wet and tends to black out with alcohol poisoning after one drink, which motivates her motherly advice. The Prime Directive of Interviewing is Make sure you are way more sober than your hosts at all times. The commenters are correct though, in suggesting that at many Interview Dinners you can be pretty darn sloshed without violating the above.

    Like

  15. Very well done. I’ve been a prof at a research university for 17 years and have graduated 13 doctoral students, 3 of whom are on the market now. I’m sending your post to each of them.

    My only quibble is with #18. I’ve had 8 interviews over the years and 3 offers. I’ve only once guessed correctly by the end of my visit (and that one had the post-seminar dinner that began with one of my hosts saying, “I really enjoyed your talk, but you realize you have no chance of getting this job, so let’s get drunk and have fun tonight.”).

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  16. fantastic post! I’ve been on the market and on the search committee. this is fantastic advice, though I do recommend a drink with dinner if you normally drink. Either way is not a big deal, but if you have a drink then it gives us faculty a reason to order another bottle of wine.

    Like

  17. Still a grad student, but as a caveat to number 3, make sure you are at least somewhat comfortable in your formal clothes, and more importantly, that they fit. Wondering if the speaker’s button is going to fly off their pants at any second really distracts from the talk.

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  18. Great post – thanks anonymous! I definitely had one drink during dinner on the interview, and would encourage others to do so if that is what they’d normally do on a night out with colleagues. I think that the secret is making the interview committee feel at ease and comfortable with you (they may also be a bit nervous during the process). To shed a bit of light on all of the doom and gloom stories about getting jobs… I am <35 and have one short post-doc under my belt. I applied for one tenure-track Assistant Professor position, was interviewed for that position, and was offered the job. I accepted. Sometimes I wonder if it was just dumb luck; I also often wonder if I should have played the field a bit more. It is not an R1 position, but in the end I have a job that I love (most days)!

    Like

  19. Just accepted my first faculty position, and I have to say: Good advice! And mostly in accordance with my own experience and reccomendations. Except point 15. Have 1 drink. Preferrably a wine that pairs with your dinner. Depending on the department, beer, or even a highball can be acceptable. Have 1 drink unless it offends your personal beliefs. Have 1 drink to show that you are a polite, sociable type. Have only 1 drink. Remember, this is still the interview.
    Be prepared to give consistent answers. Every interaction you have with the faculty from initial application until the offer is made is part of the “interview.”
    If they want you, you’ll know. When they make the offer, then it’s time to decide whether you want the job. Take the offer home to discuss with your spouse/significant other/mull it over. Even if everyone knows the answer is going to be yes. This gives you some ability to negotiate.
    Negotiate! If they want you, they’ll bend a little to get you, even at a College/University where salaries are fixed on a grid (in my case it manifested as a couple extra rungs on the “experience grid” and added funds in the “moving allowance”).
    The department chair is your friend. In my case, so was the HR rep. The Dean might be, but senior admin (esp the VP’s) almost never are. Have your chair and the HR rep work on your behalf, they know the system.
    Depending on the college/university you may have to put research aside for a year, or a couple, to develop your teaching. Or vica versa. Know which it is going to be BEFORE you accept. Preferrably before you interview.

    Like

  20. “Sometimes you will be compulsively talked at as you walk in the door, through the meeting, and you will shut the door on someone still talking as you leave. Sometimes you will share a stony silence with your host for 20 minutes.”

    *Sooooo* true… 🙂

    (Actually, the whole thing is true!)

    Like

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