The On-Campus Interview

The on-campus interview is an intense ritual associated with a shrinking sector of higher education employment: the tenure-stream faculty position. The basic premise is that the chance of lifetime employment and the job’s intensive research and/or teaching commitments require a lot more due diligence than a close reading of documents can make possible. So, then, after you’ve made it through the first cut, then the Skype, phone, or conference interview, you get asked to travel to someplace, stay in a hotel, and basically spend 36-48 hours meeting and greeting dozens of stakeholders.

[My thoughts on the actual job talk, or formal presentation of your research, are right here].

Some thoughts on how to succeed when you’re on the campus. Thanks to FB and Twitter for the help and some of the words here (and more particularly, Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Martha Jones, Leah Van Wey, Susan Smulyan, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Serena Zabin, Matt Basso, Leticia Alvarado, Theresa Warburton, Dixa Ramirez, Elliot Young, Elisabeth Mills, and @Grrl_Herstorian).

Before

1. Skill-building starts early. Long before you even apply for a job, serve your department however you can during whatever searches are ongoing. Study the itinerary. Shuttle someone between meetings. Ask and answer questions. Attend meals. Go to the talk. Most importantly, talk to faculty about what they are evaluating and find out what conclusions they’ve drawn from the visit.

2. Bring lots of power bars or something to eat in the bathroom after you don’t get to eat at lunch because you are talking. Or dinner. Or anywhere. [This recommendation actually came from several people!] You might also be sure to pack Kleenex, breath mints, deodorant, and any necessary medications, including things like pain meds.

3. Pack carefully. Bring smart, sensible shoes. Be prepared to walk a lot, and know that sometimes that’s a test of how you will fit in. Bring clean clothes and that you feel good in but that are also legible as professional gear, even if you define that category broadly. Bring a larger bag than usual and include another pair of shoes to switch into/out of at various points whenever necessary. Imagine (thinking about #2 above) that you will leave your hotel room at 8am and not return until 10pm.

4. Study up. Search out the people named on your itinerary and know at least one thing about each person you will meet. Study the department that is bringing you to campus. Imagine you are writing a book about it, that you need to know where it came from, how it’s configuration emerged, how it works – or doesn’t. Make a “cheat sheet” of the research or the teaching of everyone on your itinerary – and ask for those names in advance of your arrival. Review it before you sit down with new people if you can so that you can ask about their work and speak knowledgeably about how you might build on what is already happening in the department.

5. Practice your response to questions about your spouse/partner and children. Become familiar with the list of questions people are not legally allowed to ask you.

6. Also, think hard about why you are interested in joining *that* college or university in *that* town or city. Be prepared to explain why you are interested, so that you can signal your seriousness and your commitment. Manifest a sincere interest in the people, the place, and the institution.

7. Be extremely clear about food preferences/allergies as soon as possible,

8. Ask for any changes to itinerary before you get to campus, but make decisions on the ground about what you need to know. If there are faculty who work in your area but aren’t in the department, ask if you can have a few minutes time with them. If necessary, ask for a meeting with faculty of color or women. Ask if there is a POC network or WOC community or some other group on campus with which you might become affiliated and with whom you might meet while on campus. Ask to meet with undergraduate or graduate students so that you can get a sense for real interest in your area of expertise, and for an inside look at their program and how it really works from the students’ perspective. Ask to meet with women of various ranks so you can discuss mentoring, promotion, support structures, along with other important details, for female faculty. You can thus get a sense if women are not just tenured, but are promoted and stay long term.

9. Get used to small talk. Fortunately, academe is like baseball and small talk can be learned. Browsing The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed (likely free through your library) can give you suitable topics. And then practice making professional small talk at every department mixer, reception. It gets easier. [Though never, perhaps, exciting].

10. If you are on campus at a teaching-focused place, get ready to talk about teaching. “You need to show,” one scholar at small liberal arts college writes, “that you know how to pivot away from the R-1 where you got your training.” Another scholar recommends that you read this piece and this piece. Also, my own thoughts on building a teaching portfolio while still a graduate student are right here.

During

1. “Breathe. Smile,” one scholar reminds us. “I didn’t believe this when my committee said it to me but, remember you might have fun.”

2. The subtext of your campus visit – beyond the procurement of what you need to know, and beyond the provision of the formal introduction of your research and teaching to various communities – is that you need to convince people that you are a potential colleague and not a graduate student. First names only. And a projection of authority. Sprezzatura, please, and with feeling.

3. Don’t drink more than one drink at dinner. Don’t blow through the budget; watch the table and if everyone skips appetizers and dessert, don’t order one. If the table orders pasta and red sauce and you order Lobster Thermidor, it suggests that you might not care whether anyone else at the table has to cover the difference between what is allowable and reimbursable and what will have to come directly out of someone’s pocket.

4. You will have a meeting with a dean or a chair or both. Find out where the departments fits in the University’s strategic plan. Ask (politely) for the last departmental review, including the department’s own self study and the extra overview report. [This was a somewhat controversial addition to this list, with Kyla Wazana Tompkins and @SethLSanders expressing concern that privacy rules might not allow for any of this to be released. So you might acknowledge that such a release “might, of course, not be possible.” I still think that you could learn a LOT from these documents, so they are worth requesting. And if you get the job, and they haven’t been delivered, repeat the ask].

5. Ask the staff and faculty about the current chair and ask them who the next chair will be.

6. Don’t ask about money or salary ever except for broader questions about research support until you have an offer. Do ask about research funds. You need to know early on.

7. Remember that there are no innocent interactions. Every meeting, every minute spent with someone, and every email exchange is potential conversation topic for the department needs to actually make its decision. Be yourself, but be your best self. This is true even at meetings where someone announces you are off-the-record, or that the meeting is being held in confidence. [As someone who has hosted about two dozen of those meetings in the last five years, I can tell you that I’ve never broken a confidence. I haven’t shared any transcript. But I *have* shared an affective reading of those meetings. And they can be brought into conversations with the dean when they are trying to figure out what it will take to bring someone to campus and whether they can afford it].

8. If this is a tenure-stream position, make sure that you understand every step that leads to the creation of the tenure dossier, and that you also know every hand that touches the dossier and evaluated before tenure is granted. Understand what sort of people in the department are able to help you build that dossier, and think about whether you have the people you need on the ground to put you in the best position. If you don’t see those people, and if you take the job, be prepared to seek help somewhere else in the institution. Ask for a copy of the faculty handbook and/or the department’s governance document.

9. Avoid gossip. Faculty love to gossip. They especially love to collect gossip, and they might try to ask about your advisor, other graduate students, anyone you might know. Nobody is helping when they overshare, when they ask you to breach protocol or confidences or otherwise compromise your peers, faculty or department. Learn the subtle art of demurral.

10. Always make sure to ask to use the restroom. A friend writes, “I have never had bathroom breaks scheduled into a campus itinerary and rarely have been offered, especially being shuttled quickly from meeting to meeting.”

11. Don’t stick to the cheat sheet. A lot of what people do – what they teach or what they research – can’t be discerned online. Ask the people you meet what they are presently writing about, or what classes they are currently planning to teach in the next academic year. Make your conversation forward-focused.

Afterwards

1. Whether you feel more comfortable writing by email or sending notes, do send thank-yous. Do it quickly, though, and be brief and professional.

2. If something strange happens, tell someone about it. Someone puts their hand on your knee? Tell someone about it. Someone makes an off-color joke? Tell someone about it. Tell a dean or tell a chair. In print. It can take years to fix problems, and these kinds of detailed plot points can be very helpful. And then assess the landscape you might be entering, and think about what exactly it will take to change it or to thrive in it. Eyes open, always.

3. Remember as you reflect: you were interviewing them, too, and you can always say no.