Job Interview One-On-Ones
January 15, 2008
In the context of tenure-track faculty job searches we’ve previously discussed CVs, the job talk, and the chalk talk. Now let’s talk about a sometimes underappreciated aspect of the job interview: the one-on-one meetings between the candidate and departmental (and possibly extra-departmental) faculty.
These meetings will each last anywhere from 30-60 minutes, with 45 minutes the norm. While the most important goal from the job candidate’s perspective is to demonstrate that she will be a fun, cordial, and interesting colleague, there are a number of possible scenarios for how these meetings play out that can require different tactics (listed in descending order of likelihood):
(1) The faculty member gives you an overview of the research going on in her lab. This overview can involve different degrees of formality, from a mini-seminar with slides displayed on a computer monitor (PhysioProf has a second monitor in his office that is pointed at the chairs where visitors sit, for exactly this purpose), to a more casual conversational narrative. Faculty members also frequently like to show people around their labs.
From the standpoint of the candidate, the key in this scenario is to project understanding of, and interest in, the faculty member’s research program. The best way to do this is to engage the faculty member in interesting discussion by asking questions about what she is talking about. Of course, this is easiest if you do understand what you are being told and do find it interesting. But even if you don’t, you can’t let your lack of interest be apparent. And definitely resist the urge to nudge, or wrest, the conversation back towards you.
(2) The faculty member will just have a casual conversation with you about more general issues such as those relating to the job search–including what other institutions have invited you for interviews, what the department and institution you are visiting is like, common acquaintances, etc.–or even general topics of academic science–grant writing, peer review, dealing with editors at journals, etc.
In this context, the key is two-fold. First, no matter what direction the conversation goes, do not get drawn in to malicious gossip (Yes, some academic scientists love to gossip!) or to bad-mouthing anyone. Second, to the extent that you are discussing your job search, make it clear (if you can truthfully) that you have been invited to interview at multiple institutions, at least some of which are at a reputational level equal to or greater than where you are visiting.
In relation to the former, there is basically no potential upside for you as the applicant to gossip, and only possible downside. Let’s face it, someone who is willing to gossip with you, is also going to be willing to gossip about you: “You wouldn’t believe what Dr. Snooty’s post-doc said about Dr. So-and-so when she interviewed here! Can you believe it!?” Not good.
In relation to the latter, it is human nature to find attractive that which attracts others. And, complementarily, to be repelled by that to which repels others. You’ve gotta exploit the first and avoid the second. If you have interviews at other institutions, don’t be shy about disclosing which ones; there is absolutely no reason to keep it a secret. If this is your only interview, you’ll have to try to finesse the answer without being untruthful.
(3) The faculty member missed your job talk and asks you to “go through it with me on your laptop”. Honestly, this just totally fucking sucks. You have already given your job talk, maybe a chalk talk, and listened to a bunch of pompous blowhards go on about their groundbreaking research at length. You are exhausted, it’s 5:30PM, and you want nothing more than a stiff drink and something to eat. And this asshole just casually asks you to give your entire job talk again, except you have to fit it into 30-45 minutes instead of an hour. And, of course, because it is just the two of you, there is going to be a ceaseless stream of comments, questions, and requests for clarification.
OK. Here’s what you do: Tell the faculty member that she is an inconsiderate asshole, and you have no intention of going through your entire job talk again just for her. Hah, hah. Just kidding. I think at this point you know exactly what you have to do, so just do it. Being prepared in advance to present an abbreviated, but still coherent, version of your job talk would obviously help.
(4) The faculty member has already decided that she really wants you to get the position over the other candidates. She spends the meeting telling you what she thinks is the right strategy for you to employ to get the position. If the meeting is before the job talk and/or chalk talk, she might tell you how to couch or aim your presentation(s). She might also tell you what kinds of things to say to other members of the department when you meet with them.
This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, and it can be hard to tell which is which. This person is most likely to be a junior faculty member, and it is difficult to know if she has any influence and is respected by her colleagues, as well as if she really understands departmental politics well enough to be giving you useful advice. So listen to what she has to say, give it some thought, and if her suggestions sound reasonable and are not extreme in any way, then it might be worth taking some of them.
(5) The faculty member has a bug up her ass about some aspect of either your job talk, your chalk talk, or even some feature of your CV. This can range in intensity from a few mildly annoying questions to truly demented meeting-long perseveration on some point. These are your most dangerous one-on-one meetings, because you really don’t know what is up with this person. Is she a crank whose opinion is ignored by her colleagues? Is she powerful and has it in for you, favoring some other candidate? Does she actually like you, but is just a weirdo?
These types can keep pressing you on some obscurity of your data and how it relates to some other obscure crap. Or they can keep asserting that something that you propose to do isn’t likely to work. PhysioProf’s own research is quite interdisciplinary, and he has published in a fair number of pretty distinct subfields within the broader field. This one nutjob interviewer just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I would be a member of multiple scientific societies, each embracing a different one of those subfields.
He spent half of our meeting at my first visit harping on this: “Why are you a member of this society? Shouldn’t you just be a member of that other society? What contributions have you made to this subfield?” When I came back for a second interview visit, at my meeting with him he started in on the same shit. Needless to say, you just gotta take that kind of garbage in stride.
(As far as why he was doing this, I found out later that decades earlier he had been in a race to some big experimental prize in the particular subfield he was focusing, and he lost to people who were not really from that subfield but who had used an interdisciplinary approach based on techniques from outside the subfield to beat his sorry ass, thus transforming him into an anti-interdisciplinary cranky kook who subsequently never published anything important. Maybe, a post on disciplinary, interdisciplinary, anti-disciplinary, and anti-interdisciplinary attitudes would interesting, including the diverse institutional structures that arise out of those attitudes. If you don’t see a post on that within a couple weeks, and anyone’s interested, please remind me, either here or at PhysioProf.)