Preparing For An Academic Interview

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When interviewing for a faculty position there are four topics that will inevitably arise. You may be instructed ahead of time to address them as part of your formal presentation, or they may be asked during a question and answer period, but they represent the things about which a department seeking to hire is most concerned. While there are many other questions that can and will be asked, it is unlikely that an interview will be brought to a close, until these four questions are raised. Thus, preparation is required for the following:

1) what type of research will you do?

2) with whom will you do this work?

3) where will you get money do to this work? and

4) what classes would you teach.

Each of these topics require an investigation into existing resources and structures and demand that you present yourself in a way that simultaneously highlights new things that you can bring to the hiring institution, while not being too far outside of the Department’s core mission and competencies. Striking this balance is not easy and can be extremely time consuming. Firstly, see if the Department has a mission statement. If there is not one readily available on the website, do not be shy in asking if there is one and if you can obtain a copy of it prior to the interview. If a mission statement does not exist, there may be archived newsletters. At a minimum, the text on the Department’s website should give an indication of how the Department would like to be perceived. When possible try to emphasize these themes and aspirations in your own presentation.

If your research aligns well with the Department’s existing strengths, you will need to speak about what is new and different about your work so that it will be seen as further enhancing existing excellence. If your research is quite different, you must make the case for its relevance either as an important emerging field or as a means to unify various aspects of the current faculty. To do this effectively requires investigating the existing faculty members, their research, and their recent publications. Finally, when possible, it is always impressive to tie your proposed research into curricular development.

While universities tend to be comprised of a collection of highly independent individuals doing fairly isolated work, they are at the end of the day very small communities in which collegiality is extremely important. Thus, showing a willingness and interest in collaborating with others will demonstrate a certain amount of goodwill and investment that you are inclined to make for the betterment of the institution and your new colleagues. Candidates who do not address this topic effectively are often considered arrogant and incapable of playing well with others. To propose that you might collaborate with someone currently on staff does not imply a commitment to do so on either your side or theirs. In fact, in most cases you will never have met the person. However you can mention that you have read their research and think there could be a highly synergistic opportunity by collaborating with them. Best to think of two or three people and projects to show both your potential breadth in research and a certain level of openness.

Increasingly funding is an issue, even for those in the social sciences and humanities. Thus, it is imperative to spend time on-line getting to know the local, regional, and national funding agencies, their programmes, and their eligibility criteria. Namely, you do not want to be proposing that you will apply for a certain programme that is no longer being offered or one for which you are not eligible. Ideally the topics proposed would have at least one collaborator from the hiring department and a clear funding programme for which the scope of the work is commensurate with the available funding.

The final topic relates to the classes that you propose to teach. This is also a bit of a tricky issue, as you want to appear very flexible and willing to pitch in wherever needed, but you also do not want to be stuck teaching a disproportionate percentage of courses that no one else wants (e.g. first year survey courses with 300 students). Again, go to the published information on existing courses and think about which ones you would most want to teach, those that you could teach, and those for which you do not have an adequate background. Also think about two or three new courses that you might develop at the master’s level that are not currently being offered. On this last point you should clarify that these could be developed over the next two to three years (unless you have already taught them at a previous institution). Where possible, try to tie these courses into your proposed research topics.

Other suggestions for further preparation for academic interviews will be included in future columns.

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