20 Questions–Job Interview, or First Date?

We are now in the peak of job season. Depending upon your branch, applications may have been due as early as October 1. Big deadlines are November 1, November 15, and December 1.  Still, you should basically be done applying now—see an earlier post suggesting hiring committee members are people, not robots, who will want to start reading whenever they can.

The purpose of this post is to discuss how to prepare for the “next round,” which is a Skype or in-person interview, starting at any time from November 15 through the JMM. Basically, it’s like a first date. A first date that (for tenure-tracks) could lead to a “till death do us part” proposal. Lucky for me, I love first dates. Truly, I do. Also lucky for me, I’ve had about 50 academic first dates. Now that I think I’ve found College Right, let me give some “dating” tips.

Personal photo, JMM Employment Center of 2014. My first “first date”.

Note that this next round does not typically happen for research postdocs. This is more for tenure-tracks, and maybe teaching postdocs. Of course, others’ comments or perspectives (especially if different from mine) are welcome!

This is a modern age. Before you meet any date, you Google them.

Do your research. We’re talking about a job that could see you through to retirement. Topics you should look into (but not necessarily bring up in the interview):

  • Endowment. You’re going to have to hunt for this info because especially if it’s unflattering colleges will do anything to hide it. But with enrollments decreasing across the nation and an increasing number of colleges struggling financially, you want to know the school is going to stay in business and that your job will be secure (even after tenure). Look at the entire state’s education budget; many states (like Georgia and Illinois to name places I’ve lived) offer scholarship money to in-state students staying in-state for college, public or private. That pool of money goes away, and all colleges in said-state will be hurting.
  • Size and age of the faculty. Is there a lot of “young blood”? How many potential colleagues have been there longer than you’ve been alive? Is your line to replace someone, or to start a new line? Which branches dominate–are there 8 topologists and only 2 number theorists?
  • What’s the overall “pedigree” of the department? Are there any lecturers/instructors? If so, are they equal or greater in number to the tenure-tracks? Where do people seem to get their degrees? Is the college hiring its own alums for (lecturer) positions? Are there “cliques” of certain Ivy League or certain state schools?
  • If your interview is for a post-doc, hunt for where your predecessors came from and went next. Do the postdocs end up at the type of institution that’d make you happy? Do they have to leave academia? Does it seem like the postdocs are paired with a research mentor in the department (look very closely at C.V.s for this), or are you going to have to find your own? Do the postdocs get to teach across the curriculum, or mostly 100/200 levels?

This is the dating equivalent of making sure the date has no prior convictions for stalking, that their social media accounts don’t sound any alarms, etc.

In any interview (date), you will be allowed a chance to ask questions. But what do you ask? Well, remember the goal: to measure compatibility. You know why you’re ”on the market” (coincidental phrasing? Who knows?). But why are they on the market, especially if they’re so perfect? Why do they have this opening right now? What do you all have in common, and where might you disagree? Over the years will you make each other better, or will this relationship come to an ugly end? Just like you don’t want to be stuck in a loveless relationship because you fear it’s better than being alone, you don’t want to be stuck in a job you don’t like just because it happens to be in academia.

So here are some questions you can ask:

  • What are the trends? This is very open-ended. Ask how the department has changed in the last 5-10 years. The number of majors, or the concentrations of the majors. The number of students doing honors projects. The number of students going to graduate school, getting into REUs, doing internships.
  • How active is the math club? How often do students and faculty interact with one another? Are there community outreach events like math circles? Do they have AWM branches, or actuarial clubs?
  • What’s the travel situation? (Do this as discretely and subtly as possible.) You want to figure out (a) how much money there is (b) who gets the money (pre-tenured faculty, undergraduates, etc.) (c) how often the average department member gets to leave the bubble that is campus (d) what local connections and seminar swaps there are.
  • ALWAYS ask for the timeframe. When will you expect to hear from them again? (Note: that also signals the end of the interview.)

These are like the “What’s your favorite book?” or “What’s your favorite place to travel?” questions. You can probably guess the answers if you’ve done enough research beforehand, but it still could lead to interesting conversations and could help you gauge if there will be another meeting.

Here we start to get politically incorrect. Even during a first-date there is someone more “in control” of the conversation and situation. In this job scenario, it’s the interviewers. There are a lot more people interested in them than there are interested in you, everyone knows it, and so as the people dangling the carrot of employment (something you lack but desperately want), the interviewers are in the driver’s seat. They will ask you a LOT of questions. You should have answers at the ready to the “standards,” including:

  • What drew you to our school?
  • What courses that we offer do you think you could teach? Are there any courses we don’t currently offer you’d like to help create?
  • What is your biggest success in the classroom? Your biggest failure?
  • What can you do to help increase diversity in our major?
  • What is your current research plan? How many projects do you have going, and how do you typically work with collaborators? What projects do you have that are student accessible?
  • Are you aware of any local conferences in the area? Do you have demands in terms of resources like computers or software packages?

Again with the parallel: you should be prepared to answer “What about my profile made you swipe right?” or “Do you consider yourself high maintenance?”

You should also be prepared for “inappropriate” questions. The date parallel is obvious: it’s inappropriate questions. Still, in all my time “on the market” I’ve never had a single inappropriate question. Maybe I’m just lucky, because this happens apparently all the time, both in academia as well as outside.

Remember first why they’re asking. No one with half a brain, in our litigious and reactive society, would purposefully do something to flirt with a lawsuit [not that if you’re asked an inappropriate question, you’ll be able to “turn in” the interviewer to anyone resembling an authority figure with power to enforce anything resembling a punishment].

Here’s where we pause on the dating parallel. Mathematicians, and more generally academians, traditionally are people with limited social skills; they may not honestly know what they’re saying is inappropriate and their intent may be to help. That’s by no means an excuse, but even legally, intent is key in determining the severity of the crime. And while some might say “one person doesn’t speak for an entire department,” in all of my academic interviews and in all of the ones I’ve seen literally peripherally while on my own interview, there never has been a one-on-one situation. There’s always at least two people from the interviewing organization present–the other person could pipe up as much as the one speaking with impropriety. If they don’t, then one person IS speaking for the whole department.

Still, here’s yet another thing to keep in mind: the interviewers are offering a job that usually requires setting aside 3 times the starting salary in endowment. A job that, months before you even saw the posting, the department had to make the case for to admin, competing with other departments making similar requests. They are trying to find someone who is going to mesh well with current colleagues and students, and who will work at the college for 30 years. And by the time they meet with you, they have read hundreds of applications and have spent most of their week interviewing others. This is a huge deal for them, and an extremely exhausting and expensive (both in terms of money and man power) expenditure for them.

Back to the parallel. If you have a “deal-breaker,” they want to suss it out now so they can move on down the line. They may want to know if you’re really going to be “into” their (small) town. If they value a certain political or religious point of view, they will want to make sure that your political and religious points of view agree. They may try to determine if you have a two-body problem they are or aren’t willing to help solve, or if you have children whose schedules will interfere with the times you could teach. They may have been “burned” in the past by people leaving for specific non-academic reasons, and will want to make sure you won’t do the same.

Just like with a date, you have options when asked an “inappropriate” question. The first option is to tell them you think the question is inappropriate, makes you uncomfortable, etc. Whether you then choose to answer or not is likely irrelevant, because you’ve probably scared them off (don’t think they haven’t already asked dozens of your “predecessors” the exact same question without issue). And, really: do you want to work someplace/date someone exhibiting this (unrecognized? unchecked?) level of impropriety? If you really think they’re wrong and really want to stand up for what you believe, go for it; but you shouldn’t bank on people wanting to contact you again after you do something like that. If it’s worth fighting for, it’s worth sacrifice. If it’s not worth sacrifice, it’s not worth fighting for. Simple contrapositive. The other option of course, is to not say anything about the offensiveness of the question. Typically, then, you answer it, or maybe just change the subject.

So now it’s time to talk about the end of the “date.” Maybe this is my Southern/Army roots showing, but after any date–regardless of how much you enjoyed it and regardless of whether or not you want a second meeting–you acknowledge the person after you’ve parted company. You thank them at the very least for their time. You say you hope to hear from them again soon (even if it’s a lie. Again, courtesy.) But you don’t nag. Who likes being nagged? So you send the message, and wait. Ball is in their court.

And that’s how you get through first-round interviews.

Again, if there are people with other perspectives (or ones specifically involving R1 postdocs and tenure tracks), please comment. Also, let us at PhD+e know if you’d like more market posts.

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One Response to 20 Questions–Job Interview, or First Date?

  1. Becca says:

    Thanks for the post!

    I have a few places where I have had slightly different experiences. I also have a few questions.

    I’ve done a Skype interview for a research postdoc. It was a (relatively) small department where I had not direct contacts, and I think they wanted to meet some (all?) of us before making a decision.

    How do you ask about travel subtlety? The questions you list are exactly the questions I would ask (except for the third I might say something like “is there money for my REU students to travel?”)

    Also, you emphasized that you’ve never seen someone in an interview that wasn’t one-on-one, but I’ve had at least three interviews that were with only one interviewer, for various reasons (which they always seem to tell me and apologize for). And although I know the focus of this post was first-round interviews, it’s definitely true that I have had plenty of one-on-one time in on-campus interviews and have been asked “inappropriate” questions during those (and once I was told to stop the interviewer if they asked anything inappropriate because they weren’t familiar with “the rules.”) So that is another place where one person could say something inappropriate without being checked.

    I would also like to echo this idea of schools not taking you seriously because they’ve been “burned” in the past (by certain factors that may seem to be relevant to you). If you are coming from a background of research universities, you should be prepared to convince an interviewer of your genuine interest in working at a liberal arts institution (and if you aren’t genuinely interested, you should reconsider applying in the first place, unless you are ready to lie in the interview and take a job you aren’t interested in). You should be able to make a case that you could live (and get research done) in an isolated area. But, do note, that if you make it to the first round interview, someone in the department wants you to make this case.

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