#Dispatches From the Front, What Candidates Are Doing Wrong, Part II of III: “We’re Human!”

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

Last week we put out the question: “Search committee members–what mistakes do you see candidates make? What do you wish they would understand and do better?”

And wow, did that strike a nerve. Previous weeks have gotten 5 to 7 responses. That question got….. 56 replies.

And they were LONG. And DETAILED. And AGGRAVATED. The reactions were so intense and so detailed that we actually recorded a special episode of the podcast to address them! It came out last Tuesday, Jan 28; find it here.

So today I present to you Part II of III: “We’re Human!!” It’s about the [need for!] interpersonal connections in the Interview and Campus Visit

Part III will follow next week: “Don’t Forget the Basics: The Low-Hanging Fruit of the Job Search”

Be sure and revisit last week’s: “Do Your Homework, Please. PLEASE.”

In the meantime, we will be continuing weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.


This week we talk about the second most commonly mentioned frustration-slash-advice from current search committee members: that you remember that they are human, and need firm evidence that you are too, and that you can handle the interpersonal requirements not just of the interview process, but also the job itself.

Remember, the tenure track job is quite intimate–you are cheek-by-jowl with your colleagues in the department, and serving on multiple committees together, week after week, year after year. It’s vital you show an ability to engage at the individual, personal level – and not just the abstract intellectual level.

We mostly care that you’re tenureable and won’t be an asshole at faculty meetings, committees, etc. We care that you are able to present your research but we don’t actually keep up on each others’ research regularly. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **White cis heterosexual woman, 1st gen )

People who drop down your list on the interview day do not research the place they intend to work. Take some time to research the university and your prospective colleagues. Some people ignore instructions re a presentation topic and talk about their research. Talk about your research when invited- there will most certainly be space to do that. Sometimes interview candidates are given a tour or lunch by prospective colleagues. Talk to them. Show interest in them even if you are nervous / feel uncomfortable.  (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **Woman)

Remember that when you are on the campus visit, nobody likely remembers what you wrote in the cover letter! You actually have to deliver the same information over and over to different colleagues you meet. Of course you’ll individualize it to engage with each person’s individual interests or focus, but you have to remind them, in a collegial and conversational way, over and over.

Our department hired several TT faculty the year after I was hired. When I was on the market I kind of assumed that when I had individual meetings with faculty in the department (not specifically on the search committee) that they had done their homework on me and knew about my background and research – after all they brought me all the way there! However, that year we had almost a dozen candidates coming to campus and I was totally overwhelmed with my new job. Being on the other side of the table, my advice would be to have your “stump speech” ready and be unashamed in repeating it and telling people who you are when you meet. When candidates did that for me it would help me remember something about them and then we’d have productive conversations. But for those that didn’t I spent part of my time going through multiple applications in my brain trying to remember who this person was.  (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **white, female)

Remember that you are being interviewed precisely because the department doesn’t have anyone who specializes in your field. You have to figure out ways to connect your work to that of various members of the interviewing department. Your job talk needs to start with a clear demonstration of the intervention you are making, framed in a way that people who work in very different fields will be able to grasp. Remember too that some of the questions you get will come from people who support your candidacy and who want to give you easy ways to score points. Don’t just refer them back to your file (remember that they may be trying to draw out information that other department members who have not actually read the file need to see). (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **I’m a historian I teach at a large/ leading Canadian research/ doctoral institution (equivalent to R1). 57, white, non-binary/AFAB, queer, married. First generation academic.)

A common and understandable error is to cater to the most senior members of the department. They might be the most famous and you might assume they have the most sway. But actually, in a lot of departments (most, in my experience), the process is pretty democratic, and votes are votes. So, don’t ever ignore or dismiss the junior faculty and even the grad student representative. Every person you meet is important, even (and this is advice from me, Karen: the administrative support people, who may play quite a role in influencing faculty in the short term, OR making your life easy/miserable in the longer term if you get the job).

Pieces of Advice: 1. There is a lot of bias in a search because it depends on a lot of things YOU as the candidate have nothing to do with. 2. It is often not only about you but who competes with you. 3. If you are applying to an area studies discipline (Asia, Latin America, Africa) note that there is often the idea of authenticity and identity hiring, in particular in the Northeast and on the West Coast. However, this is often more the case in small private liberal arts colleges than in state schools. R1 and R2 are interested in your research and the longer you are away from your PhD completion date and you have not published enough you do not have a chance to even be considered seriously. 3. Always have some good questions for the search committee. — What candidates should do differently? Do not try to only impress the most senior members of the search committee but treat all members equally and do your research about them! (**Assistant Professor of History, White, Female, single, Not an American Citizen (came to US to purse PhD).

The commenter above actually raises another point that is worth noting– the people you meet are often from a range of different national/cultural backgrounds. While you cannot necessarily predict how or if that matters, do take a moment to give it some consideration.

If members of the search committee are from outside the US (born and raised n another country but live and work in the US) be aware that their standards might be different and that they do not fall for flattering and other fake things that are common in the US to make people feel important. They may find these approaches not adequate! (**Assistant Professor of History, White, Female, single, Not an American Citizen (came to US to purse PhD)

The issue of pandering to senior members was mentioned twice! So don’t do it! And also remember, as the commenter below states, NEVER FORGET that the questions you ask are part of the interview process! Your QUESTIONS also demonstrate how much you are able to relate to the concerns that prevail on that campus and department.

There is delicate balance between knowing the backgrounds and research interests of the search committee members and relentless pandering to one or two members.  You never know who is carrying the influence in the room. Be knowledgeable and respectful of each person’s domain. Also pandering seems a tad desperate. There are also a few candidates that don’t realize that the on site interview is a date in which the candidate needs to ask hard questions and be conscious of their own capacity to be content in a teaching (vs. research institution for example).  We want them to ask good questions to the get the info they need to be happy here and fit in well.  The cultural ‘fit’ is another area where some candidates are struggling.  We are a very diverse institution in terms of student body but not as much as faculty and administration as we should be.  (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **Black female over 50 came to tenure track position after 8 years teaching as a lecturer.  I am also divorced from an tenured faculty member (turned administrator) at another institution.)

Again: attend to the questions you plan to ask. They matter intensely! For more on this, read Kel’s blog post: The Question Is Not the Question.

Have good, specific questions for every person you meet, even if you just get 10 minutes with them walking to your next meeting. This is critical to showing you’re interested, you “get” the campus community, and you’d be a good colleague. Even if they’re not on the search committee or in your research area, they may have a vote. And they will have opinions about you as a future colleague. Have something to ask about their work, about teaching, about how the department or grad program is run. Don’t make them carry the conversation at meals and meet-n-greets. (This also buys you time to eat while they’re answering your questions). We interview a surprising number of candidates at every level of experience, from ABD to Asst Prof, who give a great job talk but are effectively passengers along for the ride for the rest of their visit, or who can only keep up a conversation with the faculty who work in their area. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **39yo white cisgender woman)

Once you’ve established a good rapport with individuals, and particularly over the second day meals, it’s ok to show yourself as a person, including good films you’ve seen recently, or even, as the person below says, what shows to binge on Netflix. Do you lead with this? No. But do you add it in over lunch or dinner–yes!

At a mid-sized, teaching intensive college, we’re hiring a colleague, not a set of publications. We want to see the range of who you are, both in teaching and personality. We talk abt what to binge on Netflix/what novels to read next at the copier, not our submissions to College English. That being said, we’re (mostly) still engaged in scholarship post tenure, so teaching intensive no longer (if ever) means that scholarship disappears. We tend to be “summer scholars,” working on projects in the “off season,” so to speak. (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **White teacher of English from a working-class background. )

This detailed and exhaustive response touches on last week’s theme of “doing your homework,” this week’s theme of interpersonal connections, AND next week’s theme of basic job application common sense. It includes a reminder about meals: they split the difference between targeted queries and relaxed chatting. They are hard! But as the commenter below says, “We want to come to your office on Thursday afternoon and just shoot the shit for 45 min. We are looking for someone to do that with AS WELL AS do scholarly things with.” I suggest you maybe even print out this response and refer to it often!

1. Research the program/college/univ. you are applying to. We can tell, via your materials, if you don’t do this.

2. Provide only what is asked for, show evidence of your claims, and adhere to page limits.

3. Upload all documents in PDF (NOT WORD OR ANYTHING ELSE… PDF only. end of conversation).

4. Read the call and tell us why you are a good candidate using the call language (this helps us when we are on packet 134 of 278).

5. Pay attention to time when on phone/zoom/skype. “Hi Carlos, we have 30 min and 6 questions to ask you, are you ready? GREAT!” <— do the math and stay on track. Also, have some ?s for the committee.

6. Campus interviews are long and grueling, be prepared to smile and be friendly all day long. Those of us who remember being on the market understand and remember, some have forgotten (How on earth could you ever forget that day).

7. Teaching Demo/Research Talk – be ready for students being awkward, technology to break, the power to go out, or it just not go like you had imagined. Be flexible, be engaging, and show us you can think on your feet. End with us wanting more!

8. Honestly, if you are on campus, we think you are a good fit academically, now we are checking to see if you can be social and be a good/helpful co-worker (There is a lot to do and we need help). We want to come to your office on Thursday afternoon and just shoot the shit for 45 min. We are looking for someone to do that with AS WELL AS do scholarly things with. We are human (well, most of us).

9. Meals are part of the interview process.

(*Assistant Professor, STEM: Psychology  **One of the smaller Cal Campuses (<10,000 students): 40 year old, gay, white, male. First gen college graduate, partnered with another academic [he’s at a private R1 two hours away… he commutes 4 hours a day, yay…]).

To sum up, candidates, especially very junior ones, tend to misunderstand the point of a campus visit. It’s not to prove your intellectual worthiness. That is already “asked and answered” by your paper application and perhaps your preliminary interview. At the campus visit, they are testing for fit and collegiality. They want to know they can work with you in meetings, count on you for reasonable and respectful dialogue, and maybe even hang with you for lunch or dinner (or at minimum, the annual departmental welcome reception). So, as frustrating as it is – and yes, with the recognition that this does lend itself to bias and discrimination, since we tend to ‘like’ those who most look and act like us – likeability does matter.

If you get as far as the campus visit, at that point we are really looking for whether you are someone we want as a colleague.  Do your homework. Show us what a great colleague you will be. Small things matter, like manners and demeanor. Follow up afterwards with the people you met and thank them.  A campus visit should be a full on charm offensive. Win us over. Make us fall in love with you. This is your chance to shine and display your very best you. At this point, the job is yours to lose and the most likeable person tends to win, so make sure that’s you as authentically as possible.  If you’ve made it this far, you should be confident but avoid being seen as arrogant at all costs. (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **45 white female married to a male)


Thanks to all our respondents! While we will share more responses from this question next week, we also have a new Dispatches Question for you:

I have a toxic advisor/PI. I feel trapped by circumstance and finances. What have other grad students, postdocs, or new PhDs done to manage or escape?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!

#Dispatches From the Front, What Candidates Are Doing Wrong, Part II of III: “We’re Human!”