Thoughts from the Other Side of the Table on Job Interviews

We're in the midst of a candidate search, which is my first time having any real say in the process from this end. I served on committees as a grad representative and helped in the hiring for a couple of visiting positions, but this feels markedly different. Sitting here in the midst of it, I'm realizing there are a few things that I look for in the job search and some things I'm looking for in candidates.

On the job search side, the big thing I'm realizing is that I want what I perceive to be fairness to candidates. I want them to go through roughly the same experiences in roughly the same order. For example. I mentioned in a previous post that I had some problems with the search committee's view of a teaching demonstration (which, by implication, means I also had some problems with the teaching demonstration). And to their credit, the candidate did exactly what I'd wanted - in the interview, which came after the teaching demonstration, the first thing they mentioned was the lecture and what their intention was. They also copped to what got away from them, and how they'd change things. It didn't completely dispel my doubts, but it certainly lessened them (and I realize some people think this is probably a no-no, but I, at least, would like to see it). But at least one of our later candidates won't get that chance as the teaching demonstration is the last thing they're doing.

With teaching schedules being what they are, and the strange nature of arranging candidate visits being what they are, getting that level of order can be a problem. But I would prefer it because I'll admit that I've got a series of questions that I want answered from every candidate. Obviously, I want to know how they're going to address some things that I know matter to me, but it is also because I want as much of a chance to see how they compare to each other.

I'd also like to see a bit more formality on the side of the interviewer. I'm realizing how little I recall about my own interview here as we go through this process. But I'm finding myself frustrated with the department as there is a hesitancy about planning little details. For example, there seems to be a steadfast refusal to reserve a room for the candidate interviews, which leaves us wandering, looking for an available room (and often that room winds up being a disheveled class room). I've mentioned to the search chair that I think leaving this to chance makes us look disorganized (which, evidently, we are). I've done job interviews before where the committee didn't even get me an itinerary until I was checking into a hotel, and that level of disorganization (and I'll also say lack of consideration) made me immediately lose a lot of interest in the position.

One other way this has expressed itself in our search is where the candidates are doing their presentations. Now it seems to me that we've written a very well-defined job description, and so we'd not only want to see a teaching demonstration that addresses those things, but that we'd make sure that such a lecture was being put into classes where they'd make the most sense. Instead, we've got candidates teaching to a wide variety of classes that may or may not relate to the area for this hire at all. Again I tried to express this to the search chair - and in this case, I was met with some interesting considerations that (while I don't agree with) I can at least see the point of. But I do wonder how it is being perceived by the job candidates.

Where I'm surprised though is in the margins of what I'm looking for in a candidate. Part of what I try to do with questioning candidates is to see how much of themselves they let come out. I don't trust perfect fits to everything, so anytime I see someone who loves everything we're doing, who'd suggest nothing different, who finds the university perfect, loves the area, wants the courses, etc. I'm immediately suspicious. I want a colleague who will push me (and some of those other things) a bit.

All the usual things apply, in addition. I want a candidate with ideas, who can convey them to a variety of people, and who relates well with us. Too much reserve on the part of a candidate seems dangerous to me because I, like probably every person out there, thinks I'm easy to get along with. And as a department goes, I can guarantee we're laid back. That part probably isn't surprising. But I'm also realizing that I'm looking for youth with this position, which I hadn't recognized previously.

Maybe that isn't so surprising either, but I think the reasons are worth noting. I'm currently the youngest person (by quite a margin) in the department. I'm also the newest hire. One of the things I've noticed - subtly and unintentionally - with my colleagues so far in this process is that when the candidate is their age, I'm still the kid of the department even though I advise more students, teach a wider range of classes, etc. than the rest. Even the potential hire gets into the act. I don't mean to imply that I want someone to have to pay their dues and do lots of work and toady to me. I just mean that I don't intend to pay extra dues. There is, to me at least, a palpable sense of a not-quite-Old Boys network here, and I don't feel any need to add to that with our hire. Nor do I want one more "elder to respect" in this process.

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8 Responses to “Thoughts from the Other Side of the Table on Job Interviews”
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Susan said...

Your reflections on institutional culture around interviews are fascinating. Sometimes I think that depts forget that they might have to convince someone to come. But amazingly stupid for a candidate to patronize (even subtly) a member of the search committee.

February 9, 2008 at 3:28 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I don't think the candidate in question was doing anything to patronize me; I think that particular observation is more my reaction to a group of people who are all older than me doing what is more or less socially normal. I'd be lying, for example, if I said that when confronted with people in my age group, I didn't give them more attention and inclusion than someone younger (and often, than those who are older).

To me, the implication is two-fold: first, there are things that I'd not realized trump rank and years of experience in academia. I've no idea why it never occurred to me before as it seems like it should have been obvious really. Academia isn't that different from other areas of the world where all sorts of things come together to determine social status. Second, it means there's often a more interesting dynamic to searches than I ever thought about (though again, I should have).

From the candidate's standpoint - if it was intentional - I'm probably the safest one to antagonize, since I'm untenured and the newest person in the department. It would be an interesting (and Machiavellian) strategy though to try and figure each committee member's particular criteria of interest and how best to play to them (or to play them off each other).

But again, I don't think any of our candidates - or the members of the search committee - are doing any of those things consciously (if at all).

February 9, 2008 at 6:17 PM
Rebecca said...

Question: Are you looking for someone younger age-wise or younger experience-post-degree-wise? I'm in my 40s band just doing my PhD, but have far less experience in an academic role than the average person my age. I have other experience, but that may or may not apply to any given academic position. For example, I have no experience advising... So I'm curious as to whether it is actually youth you are looking for or 'career youth'....

February 9, 2008 at 7:01 PM
Belle said...

I'm finding, on our committee, that while the language is there for younger (experience wise, not necessarily in years) new hires, they keep wanting years of experience. I find that really confusing. If we're not going to seriously consider a star ABD, why did we say we would?

I'm also concerned about the teaching demos. I don't want to make a candidate come in and do an entire class (75 minutes) that is completely out of their field, or completely beyond what the students are doing. I'd rather we did it the way they did when I was interviewed: a teaching demo on subject of my choice, with faculty and students in attendance in a non-class setting. Yes it was terrifying, but it beat the pants off the other kinds I'd done: taking over a class for an entire session.

February 9, 2008 at 7:56 PM
Dr. Crazy said...

I know what you mean when you say, "There is, to me at least, a palpable sense of a not-quite-Old Boys network here, and I don't feel any need to add to that with our hire. Nor do I want one more "elder to respect" in this process."

A handful of hires have been made since I arrived at my job, and BFF and I often joke that everybody clearly thinks some of them have been around longer than either of us have. It's annoying. It's not something that has any influence over the real day-to-day stuff in my department, but I do get the feeling that at some point I'm going to have to remind the powers in charge that, indeed, I've got seniority and so thus am in line for an office with a window before some others :)

I don't think it's conscious or malicious at all, but that doesn't make it any less irritating :)

February 9, 2008 at 8:09 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

First, apologies to any of you who were trying to read the blog as I've been tinkering tonight. Good comments, all; some specific thoughts.

Rebecca: actually, 40 doesn't seem far from my age. But really I mean both experience and youth in the most general way. Age might actually not even be the right way to frame it, but it seems the closest. Here, I carry all the social markers of someone young - I'm unmarried, I don't own a house, I've got mountains of student loan debt, etc, etc. So I'm looking for someone who doesn't, however inadvertently, push me to the departmental margins by simple virtue of clicking better with the older faculty.

Unlike Belle's example, we're a little schizophrenic in what our position is looking for. Our school pays atrociously, for one thing, and we have a high teaching load. We tend to hire late in the process. All of those things tend to push us towards younger hires. But we're in an area where most applicants apply because they're interested in getting back close to family (which seems to make the skew older). There was also an odd moment (I can't recall if I mentioned) where one member of the search committee commented they wouldn't hire anyone with more publications than they had (they have, I believe, three).

Some university climates - and maybe this is also the case with the original Dr. C's school - tend to favor older hires and faculty. Ours, for example, is dominated by mid- to late-career academics with families. Part of how that's fed in for me is that there is a very small peer group at the university for me to latch onto. And so that's also part of why - and part of what - I'm looking for with the hire.

February 9, 2008 at 10:05 PM
Ewan said...

It would be an interesting (and Machiavellian) strategy though to try and figure each committee member's particular criteria of interest and how best to play to them (or to play them off each other).

Hardly unusual, nor especially convoluted, I would have thought. Certainly on recent interviews I've met with a wide range of faculty: I think that choosing to emphasise different parts of my interest/experience to different audiences (even if said audiences are single people) is both appropriate and helpful, as it allows for a complete(r) picture of me to come across.

I honestly also think that any sense of what individuals may have as their exclusion or inclusion criteria can be invaluable,and having obtained such a sense it would seen very odd not to act on it.

[From the candidate's side, the level of formality to project is a really really tough question. The common advice is that it is better to err on the side of formality/reserve, which is probably good given my natural tendency to extreme informality and bluntness (!), but even down to 'how many times should I refuse this glass of wine?', the stress level in trying to hit the right note can be high. "Just be yourself" - well, yes, but then we're back to the first topic: is the 'oneself' that I wish to show to a hypothetical stodgy Dean the same as that I wish to display on the organised bar trip with untenured faculty? Umm.. no :).]

February 9, 2008 at 10:11 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Ewan, you raise some good points. Certainly there is an element of trying to ensure you understand everyone's needs. What I intended "Machiavellian" to refer to was to the possibility of playing those needs off each other.

I do think the "different self for different people" idea - that the version of yourself you want to project to the Dean versus to members of the committee - is a slippery slope, though. Certainly, you want to talk about different things - and you should expect to. But I don't know that it should go so far as projecting a different image to them than to the committee.

It's a tough line to tow, and I don't yet know how to express the best way to handle it. I always wrestle with this in interviews (and I think most people do, too), and I always go back to the advice I was given coming out of grad school: you want them to hire you, not the you you'd play on a first date.

February 10, 2008 at 11:16 AM