Campus visits: what to expect
Campus visits can be nerve-wracking, here are some tips
A couple of years ago, right when we were first starting to hear about COVID in China, I was preparing for campus visits. I did 6 interviews in approximately 3 weeks, traveling to 5 states all around the US. I’m not going to lie, it was very stressful. I literally started getting some grey hair during that time (and I know other people who had the same experience). However, I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience. I had been preparing for 5 years and this was the moment to show it. A couple of professors in my department advised me to “enjoy the attention”, “you’ll be like a Hollywood actress, everyone drives you around, takes you out for meals, and really wants to listen to you”. I’m not a fan of attention, so I wasn’t really looking forward to it. But, to tell you the truth, the stressful part was the anticipation of each interview. The actual day of each visit was good, exhausting, but a good experience.
Statistically speaking the odds were on my side. On average, universities invite 3 people, so I was guessing I would get rejected two out of every three interviews. Obviously, this is not always the case, I have friends who had just one and got it or vice versa. But in my case, the math kind of applied. I got two offers, which gave me the leverage to negotiate. I also had to withdraw from one of the processes, which brings me to my first point.
- Timing: some universities will let you choose a date. If things went well and you have multiple campus interviews, you will need to coordinate dates. When possible, try to schedule first the interview you are least interested in. The stakes will be lower and it will allow you to practice. Timing is also important for estimating when you should be hearing about an offer. In an ideal world, you get multiple offers at the same time. However, this is not entirely within your control, so don’t obsess about it because there is not much you can do.
- Coordination: if you have to fly to multiple interviews, you can fly from one interview to another (just tell them the airports where you need to fly from and to), but plan a free day in between the two interviews. Campus visits are intense and you will need some time to rest. Also, flights get canceled and you don’t want to stress about not making it to one of your interviews. This happened to me, a storm hit the city where I had a layover, and I got stuck for an extra night. That buffer day allowed me to arrive at my next interview right on time. Make sure you pack for both consecutive interviews. Having the second suitcase ready proofed really handy. I literally went home from the airport, showered, got the new suitcase, and took the train to go for dinner with the search committee of my third campus interview.
- Teaching demo: ideally you can reuse your teaching demo for multiple visits. In the real world, they can ask you to follow the syllabus and you’ll have to teach very different classes, which takes time. If you are still working on your dissertation, you can count on zero time to make some progress on that end, so plan accordingly. For the class, prepare whatever materials you need in advance. You can then ask the visit organizer to make copies for however many students you have in the class. One thing I did was give a piece of paper to each student and ask them to write their name on it so that I could call them by their names. I should say that the exact same class (that I taught three times) went great in some places and went not so great in other places. You’ve probably had this experience before. I actually liked teaching these classes, it really gives you an idea of the type of student you would be working within that institution. I’m guessing this year many teaching demos will be online (even if your campus visit is in person, classes might be happening online). This will be harder in terms of connecting with the students, but you might find these tips useful. Make sure you include some sort of interaction between students (breakout rooms, a google doc, etc.). Also, ask about camera policies or other details you might need to prepare your class.
- Job talk: here is where you present your research (dissertation if you are finishing up your Ph.D.). This presentation should be accessible to a wide range of people outside of your field. Make sure you also talk about what comes next. It is important to have ideas for your next project, this shows the search committee that you are tenurable. You need to practice this presentation two million times until you can recite it by heart, but sounding natural. The chapter on presentations from The Writing Workshop offers great advice on how to make your presentation engaging. You usually have a few minutes alone before the presentation in order to get ready. I would advise you to refrain from checking your phone during that time. I made this mistake and 5 minutes before giving my last presentation, I saw an email with an offer from my current job (to be accurate, the provost wanted to talk to me, but I knew what that meant). I got really excited and it was probably my best job talk, but imagine the email had been bad news. You want to have your mind as fresh as possible. Despite the repetitiveness of this part of the interviews, I enjoyed job talks because they give you an idea about the intellectual environment you would be surrounded by. Even if people in that department work on areas completely different from yours, I noticed differences in the type of questions I was getting from the professors. Some were exclusively interested in what I was going to do in the class, but others were really interested in the topic. This is great information for you, do you want to be in a place focused on teaching or do you want more time for your research?
- Interviews: you will have interviews with the provost/dean, the search committee, and sometimes with the chair and students. Some of the questions will be repetitive from your Zoom interview but remember you are not expected to give a different answer. Search committee members have reviewed tons of applications and might not remember all your details. The interview with the Dean/Provost can go in many different directions. Some will just talk to you about the university, some will ask general questions. I don’t feel you need to prepare anything extra for this part. The only question that caught me by surprise was “What can you tell me about the school?” The dean had asked me what I knew about the department and about the university, but I didn’t know anything about the school (and she expected it, she warned me before asking the question that it was ok if I didn’t know the answer).
- Meals: meals are interviews, do not forget it. It’s an opportunity for the committee to get to know you in a less formal way, see whether you would be a good colleague or someone who would stay in that position. But don’t forget it is also your opportunity to ask about what’s it like to live and work there. Prepare questions that show your interest both in the position (what kind of funding opportunities do you have? how does collaboration with students work? are there mentorship programs for new faculty? etc.) and the area (where do professors usually live? what do you do outside work? etc.). I wouldn’t order any alcohol even if other people do. You want to be as fresh as possible both that day and the following.
- Personality: this post was actually a request from a friend who now has campus visits and he specifically asked about the role of personality. I would say it plays an important role, but I’m not sure there is much you can do about it :-) Humans are very good a picking when someone is not being authentic, so if you think “there’s something wrong” with your personality and try to change it, it’s going to show, and it won’t be good.
- Other candidates: there is absolutely no point in trying to know who the other candidates are. I cannot think of a single reason why that information would help you. Academic profiles are so specific that there is very little you can change. You cannot change your publications or your research. You can definitely present it in different ways, but that depends on knowing what the search committee is looking for, not on who the rest of the candidates are. In a couple of my campus visits, I knew who the rest of the candidates were. In one, it was another student from my department, and through another colleague, I found out who the third candidate was. I coordinated with my friend so that I would do the interview first and I would be able to give her all the information. I actually wanted her to get the job, I was using this interview as practice. Looking at our CVs, we were both stronger than the other candidate. Wanna guess who got the job? The third candidate. The search committee saw that the third candidate was way more likely to stay in that position than either my friend or me. On another campus, I was the last candidate interviewed. Three people, two graduate students, and one professor told me or my advisor that I was the best candidate. I didn’t get that one either. My point is that you never know what they are looking for. Even when you know, there is very little you can change.
Looking back, I think one of the things I got wrong was that it was all about them and I had no say. I would encourage you to go into an interview, well prepared, but also curious about how it would be like to work there. Do you think you would get along with those people? What impression did you get from the students? Do you sense there is a good environment? What kind of resources will you get if you are there? These are all questions I was not thinking of because I was too focused on getting a job, any job. I think I didn’t feel like I was entitled to ask those questions. I now see how wrong I was. At the end of one of my campus visits, I started talking to the Uber driver. I asked him whether he was ubering full-time or part-time. He told me he had a full-time job, but he had been there “for only two years” and didn’t have many friends, so he liked to keep himself busy. I pictured myself in that town and I literally started crying on the back seat of that Uber. I think that, even if that would have been my only offer, I wouldn’t have accepted it. Obviously, it’s very easy for me to say this now, when I had two offers, and one of them was in my dream city. However, I think more and more people are leaving academia and finding very interesting opportunities. Campus visits are two-way, the search committee gets to know you, but you get to know them as well. It is important to go with an open mind and have priorities more or less clear. In my case, I was considering three points: 1. Location, 2. Type of job (tenure or non-tenure track), and 3. Type of institution (R1/Ivy League, SLAC, R2, etc.), in roughly that order. Location is very important for me, I like cities and the social and cultural opportunities they offer. The type of institution might be more important for you. Maybe you want to be in an R1 institution where research is the focus. Maybe you want to live in a house and…let me tell you that working for a public university in NYC, you won’t be able to get that pretty house you would be able to afford if you were a professor in the Midwest. But maybe you are really determined to stay in academia and are willing to accept a not-so-ideal job temporarily, as a stepping stone to your dream position. Try to think about your priorities before doing the interviews, it will guide the type of questions you ask them and what information you should pay attention to. Let me know if you have other questions and good luck! 💪