There’s nothing quite like a faculty interview to get you tied into knots. The stakes are high, the formats can be awkward, and it’s not really like anything you’ve done before.
So it’s easy to be scared, anxious, worried, nervous, apprehensive—or just plain super-freaked-out. And that’s normal. But it’s a good idea to be some other things, too. Here are some ideas:
Faculty interviews typically happen in two stages: a preliminary interview (20-60 minutes by phone, Skype, or at a conference) and a final interview (1-3 days on campus). Beyond those basics, though, there is a ton of variation from search to search. So the first step to being prepared for your interview is having the logistics nailed down.
For a preliminary interview, ask the person scheduling who will be on the call and when exactly it will be (taking time zones into account). If it’s by phone or Skype, decide on a place to do your interview that is quiet and has a good connection. Then test your technology. Then test it again.
For a campus interview, get as detailed a schedule as you can. Finalize transportation details (e.g., Will they buy the tickets or will you be reimbursed? Will they pick you up at the airport or will you take a shuttle?). Also, find out what sort of technology will be available for research talks or teaching demonstrations. (Will there be a projector? Is there a computer in the room, or will you need to bring a laptop?) And don’t wait until the night before you leave to decide what to wear.
Once you have the logistics figured out, you’ll want to practice. Actually, start practicing right now. Talk to a mentor about what kinds of questions to expect. Then practice answering possible questions—out loud!—even if it’s to yourself as you wash dishes. Do a mock job talk and invite a wide range of people (not just your cats) to attend. The more you practice, the more prepared you’ll feel and be, and the more confident you can be in the interview.
During a faculty interview, you will need to explain your research in ways that make sense to experts in your subfield, faculty from your discipline but outside your specific area, and people entirely outside your discipline. (At many institutions, faculty from other departments and/or students are included in the search process.) And at teaching-focused institutions, especially, interviewers want to know that you will be able to explain complex concepts to diverse audiences.
When you’re feeling uncertain or insecure, it can be tempting to bombard an audience with a bunch of jargon and technical language. It’s an easy way to feel like an expert. But you’ll more effectively engage your listeners with the cool things you work on if you carefully consider your audience, their backgrounds, and their needs before you start talking.
To get ready to do so, you need to practice explaining your research and giving your presentation to people who aren’t experts on your topic. Invite friends or mentors from other research groups or even other departments to attend your mock job talk, and tell them to note anything that doesn’t make sense.
You wouldn’t write your dissertation without including evidence, would you? Well, the same principle applies here. In an interview, you will be making a series of arguments about your experiences and their value. You need evidence to support those arguments, and nothing works like specific examples drawn from your experience. (You could try shouting “I value student-centered learning!” or “I solve research problems creatively!” over and over again. But I wouldn’t recommend it.)
So tell stories. To prepare, brainstorm possible stories you could tell. Was there an in-class activity that worked particularly well for teaching a difficult concept in your field? What was the thorniest problem you faced when doing your dissertation research? Was there a time when something didn’t go quite right in the classroom, and how did you respond? Then practice—out loud!—using those stories to answer possible interview questions. (One useful way to incorporate stories is the Context-Action-Results structure.)
Be Ready for Anything
The thing about an interview is that you never really know what’s going to happen. You can read all about faculty interviews, you can talk to mentors and alumni about their experiences, you can go to public events related to faculty searches in your department—and you should certainly do all of that—but there will still be at least one part of the interview that surprises you.
It might shock you at this point (since I certainly haven’t recommended this before) but the best thing you can do is practice, practice, practice. Invite friends to stump you with difficult, off-the-wall, or even hostile questions. Practice staying calm, positive, and enthusiastic when faced with the unexpected—my suggestion is usually to take a deep breath before reacting, and try to smile.
Derek Attig is the Assistant Dean of Career Development & Professional Development for the Graduate College. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Graduate College.