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Congratulations: You have a Phone Interview at a Teaching Institution (Biology)

December 18, 2013

This is a new topic for me at this blog: The Academic Job Search.

A friend of mine (Matt Persons) once referred to the Academic Job Search as a “cruel war of attrition” after a mutual friend of ours dropped out of the job search after 10 years of post-docs and numerous interviews with no offers.

There are a few good sites that talk about the job search at primarily teaching institutions and at big research institutions but neither of them talk about the phone interview. There may be a site out there that does and I have just not seen it. I only have a limited amount of time to search the web. That said, those posts are good and informative but they are two people’s opinions, based on their experiences, and should be taken as such. As a result, I issue this disclaimer: the following advice is based on my experience as a former (and probably future) job candidate as well as a fairly experience search committee member. I have served on nine search committees in the 13.5 years I have been at my current, liberal arts institution (seems ridiculous) so I think I have some insight and I hope you find this a useful post.

Some context. I teach at a liberal arts college that is exclusively undergraduate. No graduate students. No teaching assistants. If it gets done, you are going to do it. You teach. You mentor undergraduate research. You advise undergraduates. You serve on committees and serve the community. You must publish but the bar on that front is low relative to other, larger, more research-intensive institutions. That said, our institution values good teaching. Teaching informed by current best practices. And you will be gone if a group of six of your peer faculty feel you are not performing on that front. In addition, it is a place that would rather make do with a visiting assistant professor for three years while we continue to look for the right person for a particular position. Therefore, FIT (an amorphous term that will hopefully be more clear later) is really important.

THE PHONE INTERVIEW

The phone interview is an awkward situation. You are sitting somewhere (possibly your office; possibly your major professor’s office where you have returned after a year because you came back for your spouse’s graduation) and a group of people you have never spoken to or met before are going to call you and ask you a series of questions over a 30-60 minute period and your performance will determine whether you get an on-campus interview. No pressure. OK; lots of pressure.edna-mode

But, as Edna “E” Mode says, “Luck favors the prepared.”

So the key here is, be prepared.

Location.

Choose a place to conduct the phone interview that is quiet, has a good phone connection and will be free from interruption for the duration of the interview. If you are in a place that is comfortable for you, you will be more comfortable and you will answer questions more easily and be able to think more quickly and creatively (see the final point of this post).

Try to get a feel for what the institution and department value prior to the interview

Universities and colleges have web sites and these are really useful. Often, there will be a mission statement, learning goals, educational outcomes, etc., that hope to communicate to prospective students what the institution is all about. In the case of my own institution, the “mission statement” does not seem as applicable to my department as I wish it was but if you look at our departmental web page, I think it becomes clear what we are about: a broad-based biology education in the liberal arts sense that has, at its pedagogical core, undergraduate research. Keep in mind that the search committee is going to be largely made up of people from that department so you probably need to be prepared for questions applicable to the department as much or more than the broader institution. If the place values teaching, be prepared for one or more questions about teaching philosophy or teaching practice. I suspect search committees are more interested in things you have done in teaching rather than abstract outlines of your philosophy. So, state the philosophy (an elevator pitch of your philosophy; see this for some info on teaching philosophies) then provide a good, concrete example of something you have done that represents this philosophy. The phone interview is when the search committee is looking for glimmers that you can do the job for which your are applying, Give them more than a glimmer, but don’t ramble on. So, practice a few of these and pull out the one that seems most apt based on what has happened in the phone interview up to that point. If UR is important, have a few elevator speeches about students you have mentored and how that changed that student’s life and pull that out as appropriate. You can practice all these things beforehand.

You are applying for a job in a department, but you are being employed by a college or university.

Know what other responsibilities you will have at the institution. Here are some givens: advising students, serving on committees. Other things that might be on your plate are serving on the occasional task force that could particularly utilize your expertise, serving as a faculty adviser to a student organization, serving as an evaluator on internal grant programs for your fellow faculty or students, etc. This is in addition to your normal, departmental teaching duties and continuing your research program. Beyond your departmental teaching, members of your department might contribute to the institution’s general education/core curriculum. Look at that curriculum and see if there are courses that are taught by members of the department. What courses offered could you contribute to and what new courses might you develop along the same lines as those already on the books? Once again, you can prepare for this line of questioning. It took me less than 5 minutes to find that Grinnell does not have a core curriculum but instead has an introductory tutorial followed by individualized plans of study overseen by academic advisers and that Oberlin has majors with a requirement that all students take at least 2 courses in each of the three intellectual division of the college. I would spend more than 5 minutes gaining more information about the academic programs at the college level. If they ask you about the core curriculum and you need them to explain what that is, that is probably not a good sign.

Be familiar with the departmental majors and how the position you are applying for fits in.

This is just the previous point made at the departmental level. In addition to courses on the books, be prepared to comment on a few new courses you might propose upon arrival. Keep in mind that you are fitting into an already structured curriculum but you will probably be allowed some latitude to craft courses in your area of specialty. Have some ideas that are compelling.

Be prepared to answer questions that are designed to get a feel for who you are as a person.

There is a long list of questions that search committees are prohibited to ask. However, the search committee wants to get a feel for who you are as a human being. They will be working with you for the next 20-25 years (hopefully). They want a person. They might ask how you interact with students outside of class. They might ask you if there is anything you want them to know about you that was not covered in the previous questions. They might ask you about how you plan to balance the rigors of your job (how you answer this question reveals a lot about who you are as a person). Once again, be prepared for these types of questions. How much do you want to reveal and what types of information do you want to reveal.

I am an avid bicyclist. I make it a point to ride with my local bicycle club which means that on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I need to leave campus by 4:30 in order to make the 5:30 start time. As a result, I don’t make appointments on those days that conflict with this schedule. I balance work and life by blowing off some steam 3 times a week with a community of cyclists, many of whom came to my aid after a serious cycling accident last August. It makes me more relaxed at school and has taught me some important life lessons and even inspired one of the Core Curriculum courses that I teach (a course about food that I thought of while on a 3200-mile, cross-country bicycle ride). If I share this with a search committee, they see that I have balance and health as a priority. I am committed to community outside of school, so I will probably be committed to community at school. I think about teaching and learning even when I am “unwinding” and I can learn from a variety of contexts. I like having fun. I would hope that this is the kind of person they are looking for (I certainly am).

Teaching

Are you an effective teacher? Chances are that you had to provide some evidence of this in your application. Be prepared to speak intelligently about that. Once again, be concrete rather than abstract. Provide examples of how you teach that have been particularly effective. Think about how your previous experience has shaped your teaching and how your teaching has evolved. Every institution has its own teaching culture and search committees are sometimes interested not so much in whether you approach education the way they do but in whether you are capable of learning and growing as a teacher. Once again, rehearse your responses to these types of questions so that it appears that you are thoughtful and informed about teaching.

Challenge

All new jobs come with challenges and everyone has weak spots. Your tendency is going to be to present yourself as great at everything. We all know that is not true. Be prepared with well-thought answers about challenges that might come with the new job, and, at all points in the interview, be prepared to realistically communicate challenges. They are hiring a human, not a robot. They are not expecting you to be perfect and presenting yourself as such might make them wonder what you are hiding. But, as before, be judicious in what you let out there.

I am not good at multitasking. I prefer long periods of time to work and focus on things. As a result, I prefer loading lab teaching onto a single day where I can concentrate on teaching if that can free up an entire day where I can really focus on research. I recognize that I don’t easily shift from one thing to another on a moment-to-moment basis (a potential negative), so I have developed a coping mechanism to overcome that challenge (scheduling that suits my work style). I can then ask if the faculty have some control over when their courses are offered or is this controlled by a more centralized scheduling system (indicating that I know enough about higher education that different institutions do it different ways). Which brings me to…

Be prepared with thoughtful questions of your own for the search committee.

You might ask about teaching load if that has not been covered. You might ask about the informal life of the department (you can ask these questions of them but they cannot ask these types of questions of you). You might ask about lab space or set-up funding. You might ask about the success of graduates if that is not evident from the web site. What you ask says something to the search committee about what YOU value. So have a series of these ready and choose ones that seem prudent given the path that the conversation during the phone interview has taken. You may choose the lab and set-up question over others if it appears that the place is more research-y than you originally thought based on the last 45 minutes of question and answer.

And this brings me to the last piece of advice:

During the interview, be adaptive and fully mentally engaged.

They will ask you a question you did not anticipate. Be comfortable and well-rested enough that you can think quickly. If you need to, take a moment to form a well-reasoned answer to a question rather than stumble forth unprepared. This is an opportunity for the search committee to learn about you but it is your first opportunity to gain first-hand information about them. Note what follow-up questions they ask after the prepared question. What are they searching for? As you learn things at the beginning of the interview, use that knowledge as you proceed through the interview. If you are in fully-engaged learning mode during the interview, the interview should get better the longer you are in it.

As always, realize that you are in the process of creating a narrative and you are the protagonist in that narrative. What do you want that narrative to communicate about you. And the narrative cannot be, “I want this job.” Search committees can smell that like a vulture smells rotting flesh.The narrative is: I am good at my job (teaching and research). I share the same educational values as you. I recognize my own strengths and weaknesses and have adapted to them. I am thoughtful about my disciplinary focus and my teaching. More generally, I am thoughtful about life beyond my discipline. I am a human being. I would like to share in the work you are doing and that possibility energizes me. I FIT your institution, your department. If you don’t fit, you won’t need to take yourself out of contention for the position. They will.

Be honest

Be knowledgeable

Be adaptive

Be enthusiastic

Be human

And…Good luck and happy hunting!

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