From interviewee to interviewer
An unexpected change of mindset 🤯
About a year ago, I was immersed in interviewland. I read the interview chapter on The Professor is In, I got lists of typical questions in academic interviews, more lists for linguistics-related jobs, I created a document with my answers to all those questions, I attended workshops on how to prepare for the skype interview, I did a mock interview organized by my department, I recorded myself, etc. In retrospect, I probably overprepared but, hey, it worked 🤷🏻♀️.
Funnily enough, a few months after I started my current job as an assistant professor, I was asked to participate in a search committee for a visiting lecturer position at my department. And something inside me changed, it was an aha moment. I suddenly understood that I had focused too much on myself while preparing for interviews, and too little on understanding “their problem”.
Let me explain what I mean by “their problem”. When a department opens a new position, it is because “they have a problem” and they need someone to fix “that problem”. The problem could be that they need a person who researches X topic or they need someone to teach Y course, either because none of the faculty members have expertise on that area or simply because they don’t have time to do it. Dr. Karen Kelsky says in her job market workshops: “The interview is not about you, it’s about them”. I didn’t pay that much attention to that sentence, but I now realize it is key. Hopefully this post gives you an advantage.
What the search committee wants to hear is how you are going to fix their problem. In academia, this means showing how you will: teach, research and do service. I will focus on teaching here because my experience as an interviewer has been in that area.
- Come up with a sentence summarizing your approach to teaching (it can be taken from your Teaching Philosophy, yes you can copy it), give them an idea of what you include in the syllabus, give an example of how a typical lesson or class looks like, and give examples of how you assess students' learning. That’s it, you don’t need to read books about 200 types of teaching methodologies (which was what I thought I should do when preparing for interviews).
- How are you going to connect with their students? Students at an ivy-league institution are very different from students at a community college. You will need to show that you understand the student body and that you are able to connect with them. Check out current offerings at the department, are courses focused on getting a job (Business Spanish) or on developing a well-rounded citizen (Islamic Spain through the Colonial Period)? Make sure you understand the focus of the department.
- Please, answer the question you’ve been asked 😃 If they ask you: how does your education and experience prepare you for this job? Talk about your education, talk about your experience and make connections with the position you are interviewing for. This looks painfully obvious, yet none of the people we interviewed gave a good answer: they just enumerated their education (without making connections) or they rambled (more on this in the next section). Make sure you answer the question in a clear and concise manner.
- Don’t tell them your life story. Committee members are busy, be brief, don’t ramble. I am the new assistant professor, not particularly entangled in a sea of commitments yet, I don’t have kids, etc. However, I do have better things to do than listening to somebody’s life in the middle of a work day. My point is, when you ramble, you make them feel as if you are wasting their time, the committee will remember you as the person that rambles and… nobody wants that.
- Don’t repeat over and over that you don’t have experience in something. The committee knows that, they have seen your CV. If you got the interview is because they think you can do it, so just show that you have a plan about how to do it. You can acknowledge that you haven’t done it the past, but continue expressing how excited you are about teaching that course and give details about how you plan to teach it. Something along the lines of: “While I haven’t taught X in the past, I would structure the syllabus… A typical class would include… And X type of project would evaluate students' learning”. This answer shows the committee that you are interested in teaching such a course and you have thought about it.
- Also, don’t overdo the thank-yous and how honored you are for this marvelous opportunity. This goes back to rambling. Be nice: “thank you, it was a pleasure to get to know you better”. Period, short and sweet.
So how do you get to change your mindset without being in a search committee? I have a couple of ideas. First, imagine there is a search in your current department. Go over one of those lists of questions and try to come up with great answers for those questions. You know your department well, you have been there for at least four of five years. You know what the department needs and who would be a good candidate. Think about what the ideal candidate would say.
Second, team up with other people in your cohort who are also going in the job market. Some of you might be competing for the same position. It could easily get awkward and I was scared of what would happen. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with the rest of my cohort and we worked together. We sent each other positions that could be interesting for someone in particular, we reviewed each other’s materials and we even shared interview questions when two of us got a zoom interview or campus visit for the same position (yes, a colleague from my department and I were selected for the same campus visit). Sharing all this information created a support network, much needed for such a difficult moment. Being in the job market is stressful enough, I cannot imagine adding pressure and competitiveness from your colleagues.
Also, don’t worry if you feel you are repeating yourself. I remember before the interviews, I had the impression I needed to come up with something new, something I hadn’t already said in my job materials (cover letter, teaching/research statement). However, keep it mind that the committee goes over a number of applicants and they do not remember details, so be ready to repeat yourself over and over. As Kelskey’s says, you become a political candidate, ready to campaign wherever you go.
To wrap up, interviews are not that different from having a conversation. What do you like when you talk to someone? Do you like when they go on a tangent and don’t get to the point? Committee members are just regular people who need to fix a problem. If they like the way you propose to fix that problem, they will be excited about you (they found a solution!). You have the credentials for the job (otherwise you would not be in the interview). The interview allows them to check whether the paper matches the person and whether you are going to be a nice colleague.