Advice on Arts focused Academic Job Interviews

Every Winter I am asked for advice on the academic job interview process from friends, adjuncts in my department, former students, etc. I have coached a number of them through the process and on to their first jobs. In the process I have put together a list of  advice.

Whenever I am asked, I never remember them all at once. And I seem to be asked more and more, so I am writing them all down here, to refer people to.

I should emphasize, that these are just opinions, not hard facts. Every situation is different. And this is primarily based off of experience in arts focused searches.

Advice on Academic Job Interviews

1. You should ask the department administrator or search chair (whomever your contact person is) for the names of the people who will be interviewing you. This is an ok question. Research their research. It might give you a sense of what they will ask. If you think it is relevant, and doesn’t look too sycophantish, you may refer to their research in the interview process.

2. The whole day of an on campus interview is an interview. Though it may seem purely a formality or informational when you meet the Dean or Provost, that is part of the interview; she may be sizing you up to see how you will do in your tenure process, or just getting a sense of whether you will fit in the school’s culture, or the makeup of that particular department. When you are having lunch with the members of the department it is part of the interview; that is where you prove that you are a nice person, and can have a relaxed and collegial conversation that IS NOT about work — do not talk about work, or yourself at the lunch/dinner. At all. And, when you are walking with the department chair, or search chair from the meeting with the Dean, to lunch with the department, that is part of the interview too. Is the chair silent? Is he chatty? How do you respond to his personality, during those five minutes walking across the campus quad, or walking down hallways. Explicitly or not, this will all be evaluated.

3. Identify what you want the committee to know about you. What are the key points you want to get across. These are your talking points. You should be presenting these points, ideas, feelings, emotions, etc on all levels, from answering questions, to your body language.

4. Don’t necessarily answer their questions directly. Use their questions do deliver your talking points.

5. Expect certain standard questions. Here are a few common questions:

  • Expect a question about your field. “So what is New Media?” or “How do you define Journalism in the blogging age” or “How do you define the difference between art and design”
  • Expect questions about what you do, how you define your practice, what your 5 year research plan is. This is your chance to really go off on your talking points about your work, and what you *have* done, and what you are planning on doing. Prove that you will hit the ground running, and become more and more productive. Prove that getting tenure will NOT be a problem.
  • Describe a conflict with a student or colleague, and how you resolved it. This is a trick question: this is the collegiality question, so DO NOT pick a peer/colleague. Pick a conflict with a student, and choose something that isn’t just about a disagreement over a grade, or a straight up conflict. Choose something that is not confrontational, and required true pedagogical creativity on your part to resolve it. And choose something that resolved REALLY WELL. Some good examples include any instance of working one on one with a student that turned a conflict student into a star student, helping students overcome their phobias, their disabilities, and their prejudices, or other feel good resolutions. DO NOT talk about when students come to you demanding their grades be changed and how you say no, and then go to the chair, etc… Prove you do not create problems, and that you can diffuse problems by yourself in a way that leads to a better classroom.
  • Expect questions about teaching. What is your experience, what you can teach, teaching theory, etc. Again, hit your talking pionts. You may be applying for a job just outside your degree or your experience (a New Media artist applying for a Design job, or a Film maker applying for a video job) so this may be where you subtly or obviously point out that you are totally capable of doing the job.
  • Expect a question about the difference between where you are coming from and their department. This could have many many permutations, but usually it is  about context. A shift from art school to small liberal arts college. From a big public university to small private school. From a non-denominational to a religious focused school. Or vice-versa.

6. Expect to be asked if you have questions for them. Always have at least two questions for them. These questions should show that you have done research on the department and the school. These should be questions you want to know the answers to, but more importantly, they should prove that you know where the important questions are to be asked. This could be a question about their current curriculum, where their students end up (grad school, working in the field, working at the mall), the role or interrelationships of different departments or degrees in the program, etc.

7. Generally, you don’t want to ask about teaching load, responsibilities, research support, etc, in the phone interview. You can ask these questions in the on campus interview, but only in very careful ways. You can ask an open ended question about how the school supports research, and how much of a focus it is. This may or may not lead to a discussion of what kind of annual travel funding, annual research funding, or one-time new-hire research start-up you may or may not get. But don’t push it too much. Most of the time, the department decides they want you, and then you get to fight over the details with a Dean or Provost.

8. Most importantly: it is all about fit. Do you and your research fit with what the department needs are. Can you teach the classes they need taught? Is your research in line with what they feel will benefit the overall research climate of the department. Is your professional profile high enough to be competitive within the institution, especially when it comes to tenure? Is your professional profile too high such that the committee is either threatened by your achievements, or is afraid you will not stay long at their institution? Will you be able to handle the students and their specific demands or requirements they bring to the classroom — this will a very broad range of specific needs that will be different in every case, from a small Community College to an Ivy League University.

9. Aim for a conversational tone in your interview. If you can make it become as if you are just in a faculty meeting where you are discussing curriculum and the future of the department, you have proven that you fit in all of the above ways. Watch for pronouns. If someone switches into the plural “we” and is including you in that, it is a sign. While this is a rare occurrence, in a sense, it should be your hypothetical goal to focus on. Make them feel like you are really part of them already.

10. On the flip side, do not change who you are and what you do just to fit in. You are who you are. Stay true to that. If you turn yourself into someone else, they are going to figure it out. If they don’t figure it out during the interview process (which they probably will), it will become apparent over your next 3 or 5 or 7 years in the department. If you are a Photographer, and you manage to convince the department that you are a Video artist, you are going to end up having to teach courses that probably don’t interest you as much as they should, and more importantly, you are going to be evaluated based off of your Video art… but you are a Photographer, and you don’t really make Video art… See the problem here? Stay true to yourself, and your practice, it will make you happier in the job, and will make the job happier with you.