What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Academic Job Interview, Part III: The Campus Interview

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This post offers advice on getting an academic job interview.

If you’re still reading these posts after part one (getting the interview) and part two (the phone interview), then chances are that you’re (at least) hopeful that you’ll get an on-campus interview. The campus interview is where you’ll have a chance to shine (or crash and burn), a chance to kick the tires on the institution and your potential colleagues, and check out the surrounding area. All three are important, so please don’t think that the interview process is all about you impressing them. They need to show you something, too. I know that this is pretty difficult advice when you don’t have any current offers and imposter syndrome has you convinced that you’ll never get one. However, it’s important that you interview your potential employer with the same vigor that they will interview you. It shows that you’re interested, and will enable an informed decision when the time comes.

Setting up the campus interview

When the time comes, the search chair (or possibly the department chair) will reach out to you to invite you to the interview. This usually will be in the form of a phone call but could be an email if you or the person contacting you are travelling. Don’t read anything into either method of contact. Next, someone (probably an administrative person) will reach out to you to make arrangements. Some thoughts on that process:

  • The interview has already begun. If you’re difficult, or rude to the administrative person, slow to respond, or a diva, you will begin to make a poor impression. This is especially true of how you treat the administrative person. He/she may become a colleague in the near future, so lay a good foundation. Be nice.
  • The university may book all of your travel, and you may only be responsible for telling them when you’re available. However, it’s not unusual for a university to ask you to book your travel and submit for reimbursement. This is where having some room on a credit card may be crucial, as those flights aren’t cheap and can add up if a few schools ask you to book your own flight. Have a plan for this if it comes up. At a minimum, you’ll have to pay for incidentals (eg, baggage fees, parking, maybe taxis). When you’re a broke doctoral student, several $25 bag fees can be brutal.
  • Try to be flexible when booking travel, but don’t put yourself in a bad situation. I once booked interviews back-to-back, where I returned from the west coast on Sunday night, only to leave for the east coast on Monday morning. I don’t recommend this to anyone. It’s a good idea to give yourself a few days to catch up on your work, reboot, etc. between interviews, even if it means pushing the next one back a week. Again, try to be accommodating but fair to yourself. Tired people interview poorly.
The campus interview

When the big day comes, try to get a good night of sleep (good luck), try to get some breakfast in, leave for the airport in plenty of time, and pack well. Some specific advice once you arrive:

  • Dress professionally and conservatively. Some people will tell you to be yourself, but if yourself is trendy, casual, and/or provocative, yourself might turn off people who might offer you a job. I’m not saying that you can’t express your sense of style, just remember that you’re going to meet with people from many walks of life, generations, and backgrounds who might pre-judge you on your attire. I advise playing it safe.
  • Be prepared to say the same thing over and over again. Have a thirty-second, two-minute, and ten-minute version of your teaching/service/research philosophies prepared. The former is good for those brief interactions (think elevator rides), the slightly longer is good for group meetings (like lunches or meetings with students), and the long version is good for one-on-one interviews. Polish these so you can be consistent.
  • Meetings that you should expect:
    • The research talk – You’ll be expected to present your current and future research. Err on the side of fewer slides than you think you’ll need. Be sure to tie it to funding opportunities if the position has a funding expectation.
    • The teaching talk – At a teaching intensive institution, you might be expected to give a guest lecture. Take this very seriously and prepare just as thoroughly as you would a research talk. This is your chance to put your teaching statement into action, so be consistent with what you said you believe in doing.
    • The search committee – Easily the most intense. Usually an hour long. There may be two of these during a two-day visit, one at the beginning and one at the end. Have your ten-minute teaching/service/research talks ready for this group. Have good questions about the expectations for the position and the resources available at the university ready for this group.
    • The department chair – A chance to meet your future boss and gauge leadership style. Asking about his/her leadership style, his/her vision for the department, and his/her expectations for the faculty is a good idea.
    • Departmental faculty – In a small department, it may be all of those that are available. In a large department, it may be those who are available or who have similar interests. You may also meet with other faculty in the university who the search committee thinks might become your collaborators.
    • Students/trainees – If the department has a teaching mission, you might be asked to meet with students. They can be an invaluable source of information since they’re less likely to be motivated to keep a shiny veneer on things. It might also give you an insight into the quality of students you’ll be working with in the department.
    • The dean – This meeting doesn’t always happen in bigger places but can be a good chance to impress the person who will make the final decision. In a lot of universities, the search committee presents 2-3 candidates that they find acceptable, and the dean makes the final decision. Take your time with the dean to make a strong case for why your teaching/service/research/personality would be a good fit for the college.
    • Other administrators – You might be asked to meet with other administrators (eg, associate deans, research office directors) as well. Treat these like you do the meeting with the dean, as they often carry considerable influence with the dean. They are also great sources of information about the resources available to you, such as mentoring, teaching resources, and grant preparation support.
    • Meals – They will have to feed you regularly, potentially more regularly than you’re used to eating. Often, you’ll eat with faculty, students, or administrative staff. Meals are a landmine waiting to happen. This is where you might let your guard down and say something stupid and/or off-putting. I would strongly suggest using this time to ask questions about the university, the city, and the work that they do. Have a few go-to stories about yourself that are illustrative of characteristics that you’re interested in portraying. For example, I am very proud of my working class, blue collar, first-generation-college roots. That said, I have a few stories ready about how I struggled to navigate college as a first-generation student, and how it helps me empathize with other first-generation students. Those stories have played well at state schools that serve a lot of first-generation students. Regardless of how you want to present yourself, have something prepared.
    • A tour of the town/city – This might be conducted by a realtor or a faculty member. It’s a great time to ask about the place you might wind up living.
  • Meetings you should request – In addition to the ones that the search committee will schedule for you, you’ll likely be asked if there is anyone else you’d like to meet with. You should definitely have some answers:
    • Any of those meetings above that your hosts don’t automatically schedule.
    • Someone in the research office for the college and the office of sponsored programs for the university – These are the offices that will work with you to submit grants. They should be able to give you an idea of how much ease or trouble you’ll encounter in the grant-getting process. Have a list of questions about resources that you will have access to as a faculty member.
    • Directors of centers that you might like to join – Many universities have research/outreach centers that can provide resources to help you do your job and connections to like-minded colleagues you can work with. Meeting with the directors can give you a good feel on how welcomed you and your work will be within the centers.
    • Faculty/staff outside the department that do similar work – Do your homework and find others at the university who publish something in your area of scholarship. Note that I did not say, “people who list similar interests on their profile.” If they’re not producing scholarship of some sort, they’re going to be of limited usefulness as a colleague. This isn’t to say that they have to be churning out peer-reviewed articles. Colleagues who work in the practice space might be well connected and very active in producing white papers, policy briefs, etc. that are more relevant to the practice world. But if they’re not producing anything, be wary.
  • General thoughts:
    • Bring a snack and some water in your bag if you can. No one wants to see you get hangry because you don’t get to eat until after your lunch talk.
    • Pay attention to the overall mood of the faculty and staff. If everyone is hopeful about the direction of the department/college/university, that is a good sign. If they’re all nervous or depressed sounding, this can be a red flag. I once got a bad vibe during an interview, just to learn after my visit that all state employees (including university employees) were about to get a two-day unpaid furlough from the governor.
    • Be pleasant and friendly, but avoid making jokes. Not everyone will share your sense of humor regardless of what it is. I once torpedoed an interview with an off-the-cuff joke that I thought was totally safe. I recovered, but it resonated with enough folks that an associate dean brought it up with one of my references. I was not offered the job.
    • Ask questions of everyone. Have a mental list of things you want to know and ask everyone who should have knowledge of such things. Not asking questions suggests that you’re not interested. It also leads you to assume things. Assuming things can affect your negotiations in a very negative way.

In the next and final post, I’ll talk about what to expect after the interview and the negotiation process. The time after interviews are over is an excellent time to plan a few days in the mountains, the beach, or anyplace else that will take your mind off things for a few days. Just make sure you have phone and internet access because job offers can come at some strange times and in many forms.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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