Advice for Academic Job-Seekers

Next week religious studies scholars from around the world will gather in San Diego for the yearly meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Many people will be involved in job interviews, both interviewing candidates and being interviewed for jobs.

This can be an exhausting and bewildering experience for job-seekers. Our Ph.D. programs don’t do much to help us face these situations, but here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the last decade of being on hiring committees and going through interviews myself.

First, focus on enjoying the conversation and not on passing the test. A job interview is not a doctoral comprehensive exam. Don’t stress about making sure you know the answer to every question that might come up. Preparing as if it were an exam will make you anxious, perhaps defensive, and will prevent you from enjoying the conversation. Getting to the interview stage of a search process indicates that the committee has seen your application materials and wants to interview you (probably along with 10-12 other people) out of the 100-150 other applicants. They know you know your stuff and they assume that there are probably areas outside of your expertise where you’re not as sharp as you’d like to be.

While you may be worried about having your ignorance exposed, committee members are interested in finding out if you’d be a good colleague and whether they can feel confident that you’ll act like a normal human if they put you in front of students in a classroom. So, relax and enjoy the conversation.

Second, reveal how you think along with what you think. I was once involved in an interview process where a candidate answered a question by introducing the complexities of the larger issue, how he weighed them, and then how he would go about answering the specific questions. His response led to quite a vigorous discussion among the rest of us and we almost forgot we were in an interview situation. But after several other straightforward and rather boring interviews, we so enjoyed getting past preliminary niceties and engaging in discussion over a complicated and pressing issue. We sort of forgot ourselves and later reflected on how the candidate participated as if he were already one of our colleagues. A few may have disagreed with his ultimate conclusion, but we all gained respect for how he thought about it.

Third, ask informed questions about the institution. As this article indicates, asking about matters that are found on the institution’s website indicates laziness and lack of interest. Do your homework on the institution and then ask about the ethos of the department. Do they feel supported by the administration? How is the relationship of the department to other academic units at the institution? What about relationships with the institution’s constituency? Are faculty expected to help promote the school and in what ways? In what ways does the school encourage faculty research? What do faculty enjoy about the institution? These are questions that may generate good discussion and create opportunities for follow-up questions, allowing you not only to learn about the institution but also demonstrate your curiosity.

Fourth, ask personal questions of the interviewers. It’s likely that those interviewing at academic conferences are scholars and not administrators. Or, they’re scholars who have been drawn into administration over the years and yearn to get back to their research agenda. Inquire about their interests and ask good follow-up questions. Be interested in them as people and enjoy that conversation. This is the human element that makes a lasting impression when interviewers return home to put together notes from the interview process.

In an interview process about a decade ago, a colleague made a remark that I’ve never forgotten. His basic rule at the interview stage is to determine whether or not this person is the one he wants to run into at 8:00 a.m. each day for the next fifteen years. Something to keep in mind for those anticipating job interviews.

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One response to “Advice for Academic Job-Seekers

  • haeykinah

    Put things in perspective, it’s a good thing to relax. don’t fail before the interview. I also find my self with that fear at times. I would then say, “if I failed as a human,I’ll try again”. GOOD WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT. The Elohim bless you. A Jamaican word, “respect”.

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