Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to mess up a job interview

In a couple of weeks, my School will be holding a workshop for graduate students on academic job interviews. It will involve a mock interview, for which we are currently preparing a kind of script, with a mix of "good" and "bad" responses.  In this country, we are usually pretty hamstrung in the questions we can ask, which are usually supposed to be the same for each candidate.

In a nutshell, the questions would normally be something like this:



·       Why should we hire you? i.e. what’s distinctive about you and why are you a good fit for this job? (code for "how will you fit in with us?")
·       Tell us about your current and future research plans?
·       Tell us about your teaching philosophy – and give an example of how you handle difficult situations.
·       What kind of graduate supervisor will you be? This is especially hard for recent graduates...
·       This job involves a fair amount of administration (i.e. convening a large first-year subject). How will you balance the demands of teaching and research?
·       What kind of courses would you like to teach?
·       Do you have any questions for us?

From your experience, on either side of the interview table, what are the most common pitfalls for job candidates in this situation? What kinds of answers work best? What are the golden rules of academic job interviewing? We have a very talented person who will be the "candidate" in this interview, but it would be great to have some specific examples. Any suggestions and advice are welcome. And then I'll undertake to post an account of the session, with the advice from our expert.

5 comments:

Elsewhere007 said...

I've always seen job interviews basically as an opportunity to check for madness and personality disorders, because usually there is a preferred candidate. (Mind you, when I said this to my current HR manager, she looked askance, because none of this fits in with her principles of equity and 'strength-based' outlook.)

Sometimes interviews also flush out the talents of another candidate who could then be employed on a p/t or other basis. But I'm sure you know all this.

What's always been particularly disappointing for me as an interviewer is when a candidate (often internal) underplays themselves and you don't want to appear too 'inequitable' and preferential by trying to prod them into saying more about their talents and skills that other members of the panel may not know.

I think the hypothetical question of old (don't know if it's still in favour) is bodgy and tests only one's ability to do hypotheticals...as with IQ tests. Some people (like me) are naturally good at interviews, hypotheticals, tests, etc, but it doesn't necessarily mean we're the best candidate for the job.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie, I can only speak from limited interviewing experience, but I find asking the candidate to summarise their experience so far and how it brings them to apply for the job often the most revealing question, and the most helpful for getting their measure. It sorts the interviewees who have really thought about the job, and their resume, from those who have expected it to say everything for them. It's also a great test of how well the candidate can organise their thoughts, and provide complex information succinctly. (It's amazing how many can't!) Delia

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

It's very tough because you are constrained by those questions. My own philosophy in an interview is to be polite, put candidates at ease, but also show them that you take them very seriously by pushing at their project's ambitions, its placement within a wider field, and so on. And if someone is underselling him/herself, tell them so, so that they can rise to the occasion. Academics tend to be modest, and too much modesty can make an interview not work well.

My advice for graduate students is to take the initiative, realize that the people interviewing you are not experts in the genre, and don't be afraid to steer conversation. I also warn them that the onus may well be on them to make everyone in the room comfortable (shouldn't work this way but often does; not every academic has good social skills). Finally, keep in mind that you are selling yourself as a good colleague, as someone that the people in the room will enjoy spending more time with.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the standard questions about teaching and research, we often ask candidates to prepare in advance outlines for two courses they'd like to teach - one at a low undergraduate level and one at a higher fourth or fifth year level. I find these documents are amazingly telling as to whether or not the candidate really knows their field, both in research and teaching, and whether you'd want them as a colleague. A good candidate will have read up our university's teaching policy and tailored the outline to suit, they will have selected textbooks based on both the appropriate critical stance for the discipline, and on the pragmatic fact of the availability and price of the books, and will generally look professional and able to step straight into our department at a moment's notice.
We run seminars for our grad students on this sort of thing, and I think it makes a difference, because it is amazing how clueless some of them otherwise would be about the reality of academic jobs.
Cheers,
Simone

Meredith said...

I think those questions are very fair and open-ended. I was asked once in an interview why my discipline was important (the whole discipline, not just my part in it!), and it threw me completely. I suppose you could put something like that in, just to 'warn' the interviewees that some horrid questions are out there.