Tips for On-Campus Interviews

By Dr. Eliza Ferguson, Assistant Professor of History, University of New Mexico and Veteran of the Job Market

Part One: Before You Go

1. Scheduling the visit. Whenever possible, schedule the visit for your convenience. If you have multiple trips, give yourself time to recover between each one, and try to put them in the order that seems best to you. (Think about this: maybe you'd like your first trip to be to a school that isn't so high-powered, as a warm-up, or maybe you'd like to go to your top choice first, so that you'll be fresh and full of energy.) You can also consider combining two trips into one, if the schools are relatively close together. This can be advantageous if you are traveling to a different time zone. Of course, doubling up means that you will have to reveal to everyone where you are interviewing, but it's not a bad thing to make it known that you are in demand. Schools can also save money if they split costs.

2. Booking the trip. If you have a choice, get the school to book the trip for you. That way, you won't have to wait to be reimbursed (which can take a long time and possibly cause you to rack up some credit card fees). Plus, the school is more likely than you are to use a travel agent, which means that if the trip needs be rescheduled because of bad weather (or cancelled) you are not left holding the bag.

3. Things to ask about in advance. Ask lots of questions about exactly what kind of events you will participate in, who your audience will be, and whom you will meet. (The really organized schools will give you a detailed schedule before you arrive.) Be aware that "job talk" doesn't mean the same thing at every school. Be sure to clarify if it is a presentation of your research aimed at a professional academic audience, like a conference paper, or a presentation of your research aimed at undergraduates. And if you have to do a sample class, find out as much as possible about the course and the professor's expectations. It can be a huge burden to prepare new lectures on different topics for different schools, so get an early start! Also, exchange cell phone numbers with the chair of the search committee in case of disaster.

4. Practice, practice, practice. Perform your job talk (and sample class) over and over again. The more extemporaneous you can be, the better . . . but a beautifully read paper is better than a sloppy extemporaneous presentation. If you are using PowerPoint, or any other kind of media, bring back-up copies in multiple formats (on CD as well as a memory stick as well as printed out on paper or on transparencies), AND e-mail it to yourself at all your e-mail accounts. Do this with your job talk notes, too. Although you should find out in advance what technology will be available to you during your presentations, you should also be prepared for it not to work once you get there, and to perform without it.

5. Read up on the faculty and the school. Good websites have everything you need to do this. Print out the faculty and administrator bios (hopefully with pictures), requirements for the major, course descriptions, the mission statement for the school. Read up on the latest news for big fundraising initiatives, sports triumphs, whatever seems interesting and unique about the place. This makes good reading for the plane, and it can help you have stuff to chat about when you meet people.

6. Prepare your wardrobe. Seriously! Make sure your suits fit and that they are clean, pressed, and ready to go. (Pack them in dry cleaning bags to prevent wrinkles.) Shine your shoes (and make sure they are comfortable enough to wear all day). Make sure you'll still look OK if you take off your jacket (iron that shirt all over; be sure you have the correct underpinnings, as my grandma would say). Bring the appropriate coat, umbrella, or other equipment you might need for the weather (check the forecast before you pack). And I did say "suits." You can't go wrong in a suit, but don't look like a banker. Separates are also great. Plus, you should bring along a nice sweater or something to change into if you know you'll have an informal dinner. If you have an afternoon of driving around and seeing the sights, you should still look professional. Also, a briefcase or handbag large enough to hold your lecture notes, water bottle, cough drops, and so on is essential, but don't plan on dragging your laptop around all day—it's too heavy!

7. Prepare your support system. Bring your cell phone (but don't leave it on during your interview) and have lots of friends ready to hear all about your ordeal. Bring sleeping pills, your i-Pod, or whatever else you might need to get through the night. Don't forget the Visine and the Advil.

8. Is there anything your future colleagues need to know about you? For example, if you are a vegetarian, or perhaps violently allergic to cats, or have any sort of special requirements, it is so much better for you to tell the chair of the search committee about it before you arrive so that they can accommodate you.

Part Two: On Campus.

1. Brace yourself! You are being interviewed every single minute of your visit, even if someone says something like, "Oh, relax! The hard part is over!" Of course, you should give the impression that you are in fact relaxed and enjoying yourself, and you want nothing more in this world than to get this job and spend the rest of your life working with these people. Really. And it might actually happen that way.

2. Weird questions. Sooner or later, somebody (or somebody's spouse, mother, etc.) will ask you things they are not supposed to ask, like whether or not you are married, or if you have kids. Decide in advance what answers you want to give. Neutral answers are probably most advisable, such as: "I wasn't aware that this was a joint appointment, har, har!" Or, "My schnauzer and I are ready to move anywhere for a great job." Of course, if you think the truth is to your advantage, then tell everyone that yes, you'd love to move to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere because you think it's the perfect place to raise your kids, or by the way, you're married to a novelist who can do her work anywhere.

3. Hostile questions. You might get these after your job talk. Hopefully you have presented your work at enough conferences that you know where the controversial or weak parts of your project might be, so that you will have good answers ready. If worse comes to worse, you can just say, "Thank you. I'll think about that. Now let me tell you something entirely different about how great my work is." In other words, say something to acknowledge Professor Blowhard, and change the subject. Maybe he actually is a jerk, or maybe he really doesn't like you. Either way, you can't make him happy, so you should say something that could impress the people who actually are on your side.

4. Administrators. Good ones will have their routine worked out, and will deliver the information you need without playing Twenty Questions. Stuff you need to learn from these people: the salary range, benefits, possibilities for research funding, possibilities for going on leave to do research, expectations for tenure, what kinds of classes you'd be expected to teach—all the technical details. Do NOT try to negotiate in any way! But do ask the chair what the timeframe is for their decision, and if you already have an offer (and a deadline for your decision) you should definitely tell the chair. In my opinion, it is not only cruel but unprofessional when schools refuse to communicate with candidates about their hiring decisions. So whenever you need to know what your status is after your visit, just send a neutral little e-mail to the chair and ask.

5. Chat. Yes, it's OK to talk about things that are not directly tied to being a history professor (travel, hobbies, pets). But do not say anything negative about anyone, especially if you get sucked into playing the name game. And if something seems controversial in the department or at the school, do not pick sides. It's always a great idea to ask questions with a positive spin, like what people like best about their department or school, or living in their town.

6. Meals. Miss Manners rules this one. Follow the lead of your host/ess when ordering in a restaurant: don't order extras like appetizers, desserts, and alcohol unless they do, too. Don't order the most expensive thing, either. If everyone else is having a drink, they will probably feel better if you have one, too, but DO NOT GET DRUNK, EVEN IF THE ENTIRE SEARCH COMMITTEE DOES!

7. Don't believe anything that anybody says. People (even the chair of the department or of the search committee) may tell you that you are the top candidate for the job! They may talk to you about how they will help you find a place to live, and all the fun things you'll do together when you move! They may tell you your work is important and brilliant, and that you deserve a job like this one, at Spiffy Top Research U! I heard all these things at schools where I did not get an offer. And by the same token, one department chair gave me a big speech on the way to the airport about how I shouldn't take it personally if I wasn't the top candidate, but it turned out that I was. So, enjoy the praise while it lasts, but know that it means absolutely nothing until or unless you get an offer.