6 Things To Do During A Faculty Interview

Happy Fall!! It has been so long since I wrote a blog post. Just like you, these last two years have been full of twists and turns. I ended a job, started a new job, moved to a different state, and became a dog mom. But I am back and better than ever. As some of you may know, I recently started a position as an Assistant Professor at Ohio State and I am elated to share my journey so far with you all.

This post is the start of a series titled “Thriving and Failing As A Professor” which will focus on all things academia, from interviewing potential PhD students to writing your first proposal and everything in between. Fair warning, I am not an expert and I strongly believe that seeking advice from mentors and advisors is important for anyone applying to faculty positions.  So here we go.

Faculty interviews are very different than any other interview I have been on. There is so much preparation before the interview and if you have more than one, it is extremely time consuming. First….it is two full days of meetings where your day begins at 8AM and ends at 8PM. And even for me it is too much talking (my husband has given me the nickname “motor mouth”). Second, they are stressful…. for most institutions you have two presentations (a vision talk aka who do you want to be and a seminar aka who are you now). And to be honest there is little room for error (especially for minorities). Below you will find few tips that I learned along the way:

1. Do Your Homework!!!

The one thing I learned as a PhD student was that Professors are extremely proud people and as a new faculty member, I completely understand why. There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into building a career in academia. You are essentially the CEO of a small company. Therefore, there is nothing more insulting than a potential candidate that does not know anything about your research or area of expertise. So, my first piece of advice is to DO YOUR HOMEWORK. And yes, I know what you are thinking, “it is impossible to learn and memorize the research area of every professor in a department” and you are absolutely correct…you cannot.  A trick is to play close attention to the people on your schedule and the people whose research is closely related to yours. If you have not received your schedule at least a week before your visit, send a quick email to the coordinator. A second piece of advice is to read their last 2-3 papers because in most cases, online bios are outdated and sometimes don’t reflect their present interest. Be strategic. If there is space for potential collaborations make sure to discuss this in your one-on-one meeting. For women and minorities, it is important to review the trajectory and success of other women and other minorities in the department. One thing I did was compare the title of a faculty member to the number of years they had been there. For example, if a minority faculty member has been in a department for 15 years and is only an Associate Professor that may be a red flag and is something you should ask the Department Chair about during your interview. Or better yet, ask to meet with that person one-on-one. 

Once you have your schedule, it is helpful to share it with your PhD/Post-Doc advisor to learn more about the people you are meeting with. Before my interview, my advisor and I would sit down to discuss the different people. Are they friendly? Rude? Sexist? Helpful? Racist? How are they viewed in their field, both professionally and personally? These are the things you want to know before you go. Remember, the more prepared you are, the better the interview will be. 

Beyond faculty members, it is also important to know things about the department and university especially if you are meeting with anyone in the administration. Knowing things such as facilities, research and teaching initiatives, and any other recent developments shows that you are both prepared and interested in becoming a member of that department. Discuss how your own professional and personal goals align with the universities. Which leads me to my next point…

2. You Have Power So Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

One piece of advice that I received from a mentor was that I was interviewing them just as much as they were interviewing me. And now that I am on the other side…. I know this is true. Doing your homework beforehand also benefits you because it prepares you to ask questions about things that are important to your success. You have a lot of control over your schedule. If there is a specific person that you identify with whether it is based on gender, sex, race, research area, geographic location, parenthood, career level etc. make sure to ask the coordinator to add them to your schedule. If they are unavailable, ask for a phone call or a virtual meeting before your interview. This is even more important for women and minorities. In my experience, of all of the departments I interviewed with only one department had a black faculty member which meant that I had to reach out to black and brown faculty members in other departments to learn more about the experiences of minorities and I was happy that I did because I learned a lot. If you are not comfortable being direct a good starter question for a non-tenured professor (Asst. Professor)  is “Now that you have been here X number of years, do you see yourself building a career at insert institution name”. And if they are post-tenure “I see you have had a successful career at insert institution name, how has the department or college contributed to your success”. These questions help you gage if the person you are talking to is open to being honest and often lead to all the answers you are seeking. If they elaborate, it is more than likely ok to proceed with more direct questions. Always assure the person that anything they say is confidential. In my experience, I never met with someone who was not willing to be honest, and I asked very tough questions.  I remember asking the first question to a new professor and their answer was…I do not like it here and I want to leave which allowed me to have a deeper and more insightful conversation with them about their experiences. Ask to meet with current graduate students and post-docs. No one knows a department better than the students. Mainly because they interface with so many people throughout the day and can provide valuable insight into the environment.

In most cases your last interview will be with the Department Chair. This is the time to dig deeper into any concerns you have or things you learned from current faculty members. But make sure not to give names or any other identifying information. This is also an important time to ask about the timeline such as when you should expect to hear from them or if you are extended an offer, is it possible to come for a second visit before making a final decision. Also ask about teaching/service responsibilities? Are you required to teach every semester? Serve on committees? 

If you are meeting with the Dean For Faculty Affairs (or an equivalent) this is a good time to ask about spousal hiring, in case your spouse will need a job or the rules around maternity/paternity leave. As a rule of dumb….if it is important to you….ask it!

3. Pay Attention To Facilities

As an experimentalist, a lot of my research depends on user facilities. During the interview, most departments will schedule tours of all the facilities that are related to your research area. For most universities, these facilities are meant to be accessible to all faculty members, but that is not always the case. Make sure to ask about procedures and policies for using these different facilities. Does an instrument belong a single Principal Investigator? Is there a fee associated with it? How much? Training costs? Because if it is, you will need to include this in your start-up package. In my experience if a facility is industry/government focused, academic research will be a small priority. It is also good idea to ask current professors if they use any of the facilities and what the process is like because in most cases this will also be your experience. Make sure to ask about lab and office space. You want to make sure that they have a place for you if you decide to come there. 

4. Write Down Everything

During an interview you are receiving tons of information and it will be very difficult to remember every detail. It is important to take notes during every one-on-one meeting in case you want to follow-up with a Professor/Department Chair on something you discussed. Having these notes also helps you when you are comparing schools in order to make a final decision. Put a star by things that are very important to you because more than likely these things will help you make the best decision.

Do not pretend to be someone else because you feel it will make you a more ideal candidate.

5. BE YOU!

This is the best advice I was given. You want to make sure that the department and university accept you for who you are and that your voice is valued. Because hopefully, this will the place that you build a successful career. Do not pretend to be someone else because you feel it will make you a more ideal candidate. Always remember, you can only pretend for so long. For some of us, research is not the most important thing about being a faculty member. We value the teaching and mentoring aspect of the job, and it is important that you express that in your interview. For me, I included Teaching and Service in my Vision Talk. I made sure to discuss how my goals in these areas aligned with initiatives within the university and beyond.  

6. Environment Matters

            I know the faculty job search is tough and landing an interview is even tougher. And we have all heard the stories of people interviewing for 2-3 years before they actually get a position. But do not be so excited that you overlook red flags or ignore interdepartmental conflicts. When you are interviewing pay close attention to how faculty members interact and collaborate. Is it competitive? Do older faculty mentor younger faculty or are they seen as a threat? Always remember, desperate people do desperate things and make terrible decisions. Do faculty members get together after work? What’s the support structure like for mothers/fathers?

Faculty interviews can be nerve-wrecking. I used to listen to my favorite hype song at the beginning of each day (aka “Brown Skin Girl” by Beyonce and Wizkid) to prepare myself for the day. I know it can feel overwhelming at time but remember you are the best and you deserve success. On the department side there is a lot of preparation that goes into an interview, and most are very excited to be hosting you as a potential candidate. In other words, you have more control than you think. Feel free to drop any questions or comments below.

From Aeriel, With Love 

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