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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Interviewing at the AALS Recruitment Conference: A Newbie's Perspective

Continuing on my recent posts of what I learned during my first tour of duty on my school's appointments committee, I'd like to offer a few comments on some of the mistakes I observed candidates making during their interviews in D.C.

1) We want you to want us -- Call us insecure and shallow, but we want to hire someone who is excited at the thought of joining our faculty.  When you give off the vibe of "Well I'm talking to you today because I was already going to be here in D.C. and I had some time available, but boy I hope one of my preferred schools come through," we'll pick up on that and likely cease all consideration of your candidacy.  Of course, from our perspective, such an attitude is very helpful -- it makes the decision that much easier about who to invite for callbacks, and we don't want to hire anyone who doesn't really want to be here.  Thus, we appreciate you telegraphing your preferences to us so early in the process.  For the candidate, however, it can be quite costly.  After all, your dance card may be completely full at AALS, but you do not know which schools (if any!) are going to make you an offer.  We might have been your best (or only) bet.  

So how do you show your interest?  Well, beyond simply appearing happy to be in the room with us, you should do at least minimal research on our school so that you can talk about our program in a more informed way and, at the same time, ask more meaningful questions (and you should ask us questions -- the failure to do so can come across as a lack of interest).  How can you show your disinterest?  By arriving late and not apologizing (we understand the nature of the conference and the delays it can cause), by requesting to leave early because "I'm really excited about this next school, and I don't want to be late," or by asking questions like "So what city is the University of Tennessee in?"  These are extreme (and admitedly made-up) examples, but not that far removed from things I have witnessed and heard about from friends who have served on their school's appointments committee.

2) Know why we are talking to you -- I don't know about other schools, but we primarily hire by subject area.  Thus, when you come into our AALS suite, it is primarily because we think you are a strong contender to teach X at our school.  It is your job to find out what X is PRIOR to the conference.  Ideally, we should tell you what X is when we call and set up the D.C. interview; however, if we fail to do so (and it happens), please ask.  One of the first questions we ask is "What would you consider to be your ideal teaching package?  Please list four courses."  If X is not in that list, you are likely done.  We may ask, "Well, what about X?"  And you can respond quite favorably to X; however, the fact that you didn't list it upfront will likely introduce enough insecurity as to your commitment to teaching X that your journey is over.  I can see the comments to this posting now -- "Well that's just ridiculous!!!"  Maybe so, but I've seen it happen enough that I feel comfortable throwing it out there as advice to future candidates.

3) If we are in the room with you, you need for us to like you -- Some candidates make the mistake of turning their D.C. interview into a conversation with a select member of the committee.  Now, maybe it was that member who engaged you in this dialogue that lead to a 30 minute one-on-one discussion; however, make sure you are talking to everyone in the room.  If the school paid to fly that person to D.C. to sit and interview candidates, then the school is going to be listening to what that person has to say.  Thus, candidates need to cast a wide net over the room, engaging as many folks as possible.  The University of Tennessee, for example, sends a student representative to D.C.  Once interviews are complete, we very much value that student's opinion (the same student also reports at the eventual hiring meeting to the full faculty); thus, it could be a costly mistake to dismiss that member of our committee as "a mere student with no authority."

4) Failing to get a callback often has little to do with your performance -- I have listed the above as examples of things that can hurt you.  The truth is, however, that most candidates give very engaging, thought-provoking interviews.  In fact, I had many candidates reach out to me after the conference, asking "I was surprised I didn't get a callback -- I thought the interview went very well!"  And I responded that the interview did go well!  The main reasons someone wouldn't get a callback was either because there were others in the pool who had more experience in some area (teaching, scholarship, etc) or they weren't quite the curricular fit we were looking for.  Thus, despite what I'm saying above, one shouldn't think the failure to get a callback invitation is any indication on how well one did at the interview in D.C.

As always, I value your comments on the subjects raised in this posting.

Posted by Michael J. Higdon on December 25, 2012 at 05:31 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I want to agree with the advice in the "we want you to want us" paragraph, but I disagree, at least somewhat. This whole interviewing process is a lot like dating. If you come across as too desperate, the school (and your date) is unlikely to like you. Even if you aren't "desperate," I think that letting the school know that they are your number one choice can sometimes have negative consequences as the school goes after a stretch candidate and keeps you in their back pocket as back up. I wish schools paid attention greater attention to those who have a specific and serious interest in the school, but I have not seen it actually happen.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 26, 2012 11:53:42 AM

"Know why we are talking to you -- I don't know about other schools, but we primarily hire by subject area. Thus, when you come into our AALS suite, it is primarily because we think you are a strong contender to teach X at our school. It is your job to find out what X is PRIOR to the conference."

I think this is a little unfair. How is a candidate supposed to know that he is being considered for a particular subject, as opposed to being a "best athlete"? He could ask, but this risks alienating the recruiting committee member. When I was on the market, I generally asked what classes I would teach, or asked why a particular school was interested in a tax person, (e.g., "Do you have an upcoming retirement?"). This yielded helpful responses in most cases, but in some circumstances, I could tell that the committee member was slightly insulted. In fact, on one occasion, I received a gentle scolding -- their school, I was instructed, did best athlete hiring, not subject matter hiring.

I think a candidate thus faces a small risk in assuming that the school is hiring for a particular subject matter. Because elite schools favor best-athlete hiring and because most schools want to be like elite schools, one might want to be cautious in assuming that the school she is interviewing with has a specific slot in mind. (Whether the non-elite schools' aspirations are appropriate in this regard is a whole different subject, of course.)

More generally, it seems a bit cruel to fault a candidate for not having enough inside information about the school with which she is interviewing. From a candidate's perspective, the process is already opaque. And although I think you can certainly fault a candidate for being too disinterested, his or her not knowing exactly what you are hiring for seems a bit harsh.

In any event, I did want to throw those comments in the mix, since you've actively solicited comments to your great set of posts.

Posted by: andy | Dec 27, 2012 2:15:39 AM

Andy, I agree and I almost made note of that in the original posting. That is, however, why I specified that this comment came out of my own experience -- at a school that does hire mainly on the basis of subject area. If a school is hiring "the best athlete," then my advice wouldn't necessarily hold (although even when talking to a "best athlete" candidate, the school might still be viewing you as someone who would primarily teach X, and it would be great if you and the committee were on the same page). One thing to ask (and as with most questions like this, I would direct them to the member of the committee who has been assigned to you) is whether you are being pursued primarily because of subject area or if the school has more flexible hiring criteria. I don't see how that question can offend. You can also look to see if the school issued a hiring announcement for that particular year -- it could be that the announcement lists the areas in which they are most interested in hiring.

And the first commenter also has a good point, we certainly want to feel like you want us, but we don't want to get the impression that we're essentially your only option. Appearing "in demand" and somewhat open to where you end up (but, again, still interested in us), will usually make you a more desirable candidate.

Posted by: Michael J. Higdon | Dec 27, 2012 9:41:56 AM

I'm on the market for the first time this year, and it looks like I'll be on the market again next year (like many others, I know). Part of my difficulty this year, I think, is that I write primarily in Field A, but most schools were looking at me as a candidate to teach a different (but complementary) core course in Field B. I felt that my interviews generally went very well and, as I had been led to expect, they focused mainly on my scholarship. In hindsight, I think that because the discussion was focused on my scholarship in Field A, I failed to persuade committees that I could and would want to teach in Field B. This is unfortunate--I really do want to teach in Field B, and I have the experience and interest necessary to do a good job.

Clearly, some of the problem lies with me. I should have been more conscientious about conveying my sincere interest in and capacity for teaching in Field B. But I think another part of the problem is the recent shift in committee expectations regarding candidates' publication records. Less than a decade ago, it was expected that you would go on the market with maybe one publication. With such a light publication record, it would be easier for a candidate to convince committees that he or she could teach a variety of courses. Now candidates are expected to have a minimum of two publications (and preferably more), plus a job talk paper. And the conventional wisdom is that candidates should really be writing in just one field. On the upside, this means candidates will have exhibited real scholarly talent (as opposed to just potential). On the downside, committing to one field in this way makes it harder for candidates to demonstrate that they are willing and able to teach in other fields.

Perhaps this requires a shift in how interviews are conducted. Candidates need to affirmatively demonstrate that they can teach in areas aside from that in which they write. After all, the reality is that all scholars teach in fields aside from just those in which they write. But committees should similarly be aware of these realities and try not to jump to the conclusion that if a candidate writes in Field A, he or she cannot or will not want to teach in Field B.

Posted by: pleepleus | Dec 27, 2012 10:33:41 AM

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