Surviving Academic Interviews

Which Jobs To Apply For

There’s no rule for how many academics jobs you should apply for, but since the process is often quite detailed and exhausting, keep the following things in mind:

1) Is this in a place — or somewhat near a place — you could see yourself living?

2) Is the job permanent? If not, is the term position for 3 years, at least?

3) Would you be comfortable teaching several courses within this department?

4) What’s the teaching load? *

* You can find this out with many schools by looking at their current course schedule, and seeing how many classes each faculty member is teaching.

5) Does their collective agreement list salaries? If so, are they reasonable?

6) Do the specialties listed in the job ad make you excited, or hesitant?

You can certainly apply for jobs that don’t seem tailor-made to your training. Ultimately, the hiring committee will decide if you’re a good fit. And I think it’s good to sometimes apply for an odd job that you’re not quite sure about. You never know — it could work out! But considering the effort required, the jobs you apply for should primarily connect with topics you’d be comfortable teaching.

How Do I Know If I’m Qualified?

This is often a grey area. Someone who studies video games might apply for a job in English literature. Someone who teaches women’s and gender studies could also apply for a job in history or sociology. Your exact training is less important than your general familiarity with what the job seems to be focused on. Some questions to ask might be:

1) Have I taught more than one course in these areas?

2) Have I presented at conferences, or published, on these topics?

3) Are these ideas and practices that often show up in my work?

4) Do I have something specific to contribute to this program/department?

Some will say that if a department is hiring in LGBTQ Studies, for example, that means you need to have published — or at least be working on — a book that connects with the topic. But that’s not necessarily so. You might approach this topic from a variety of ways — through art or creative writing, through qualitative research, through archival work, through activism. Similarly, a position in medieval literature will draw people who’ve published work on Old English or Chaucer. But if you’ve written on medievalism in Game of Thrones, or digital gaming, or comics, you might still be a really compelling applicant. So long as you’re comfortable teaching the courses that this sort of job will require (e.g., a literary survey from 1000–1700 CE).

If the job looks appealing, and you’ve got the energy — then go for it.

What’s Involved in an Application?

Increasingly, schools are asking for much larger and more detailed applications — even for jobs that aren’t permanent. Even for sessional contracts. It’s an infuriating trend — designed to exhaust both applicants and committees — but since these files are gathered by HR departments, you need to ensure that you include everything (incomplete files will often be rejected). Every department will want something slightly different, but in general, applications tend to include the following:

1) A cover letter detailing your experience, teaching history, and areas of expertise.

2) A resume (or CV) that lists courses taught, conferences attended, publications.

3) A “dossier” which includes syllabi, evaluations, and a description of teaching practice.

4) A list of references.

The Cover Letter

This is probably the most significant element of the application. Certainly it’s the part that a committee is likely to read closely. This should describe, briefly, your research and teaching interests. Try to connect this material to the school where you’re applying (e.g., link your survey course with theirs). You can’t include everything in this letter — it should be no more than 2 pages — so select experience that applies directly to this position.

The CV

This should be organized by date, and divided into headings (teaching, conferences, publications, reviews, university service, community experience). Include contact information as well.

The Dossier

Your description of teaching practice — or teaching statement — should be a brief analysis and synopsis of your teaching experience. No more than 2 pages. Avoid talking about philosophies, and think instead about how you practice what you believe in. Describe assignments, learning tools, class discussions, moments in a course that really worked, and an example of how you responded to something that didn’t work. Include syllabi for classes that correspond to the school’s course offerings, and pitch a version of some of their courses. Be sure to include examples of how you’d teach their general-education/service classes, like their first-year course, or their survey course.

References

Some jobs will only ask for contact information, and your references won’t hear anything unless you’ve been shortlisted. Others will want a reference letter. If the job requires a letter, be sure to give your referees 2–4 weeks advance notice. Send them the job description, and let them know what points would be useful to include in their letter. If a potential referee seems hesitant — ask someone else. This may be a sign that they’re overwhelmed, or that they don’t feel they can write you the best reference. Approach referees who are familiar with your current work. One of your referees should be able to discuss your teaching, so you should ask them even further in advance, to arrange a class visit.

How Do I Research the School Where I’m Applying?

Applicants are expected to know a great deal about departments and programs they’ve never experienced first-hand. And university websites are notorious for their poor design, confusing language, and dead links. You need to be a bit of a detective:

1) Visit faculty profiles to see what people are teaching and working on.

2) Read the departmental handbook — this should be online.

3) Read both the course catalogue and the list of current courses.

4) Check out events in the department that you might discuss.

5) Check out university-wide events, speaker series, etc.

6) Research the town — is their civic programming that appeals?

7) Read the school’s mission statement/strategic plan.

This is a lot of information. The best you can do is assemble a list of highlights for each school, with reminders about how big programs work. These notes will come in very handy if you’re offered an interview. How do you know when you’re done researching? Your brain will tell you. It’s impossible to memorize every detail about a school. Just concentrate on the programs/initiatives that would make you want to work there, and areas where your specific expertise might contribute.

Timeline for Reviewing Applications

Academia used to follow a Fall Hiring pattern, with jobs appearing in late-August throughout the Fall season. Now jobs are often posted year-round, so check job sites semi-regularly, since new posts are always appearing. If we use the Fall model, then a job will probably appear around August/September, and the posting will remain active until November. Some jobs have earlier closing dates. If a job has an extremely early closing date — say, two weeks from the initial posting — this often signals an internal candidate. A department may be posting with a very short window to comply with regulations around external hiring, but the window itself isn’t long enough to guarantee a lot of applicants. This isn’t always the case, but if a job ad closes less than a month from being posted, you’re right to be suspicious.

Once the ad closes (e.g., in November), a valiant program assistant will organize all the files sent by HR, and then the committee will review them — often online. This could take a month or two, which pushes everything into the new year. The committee might meet in January/February to create a long-list of 10–12 candidates, and then schedule Zoom interviews. So that’s when you’re likely to hear about a preliminary interview. Campus interviews (for the top 3 candidates) will then be scheduled for March/April. So it could take up to 7 months — from the time of your application — to hear whether you’ve received a campus interview. This is a long process, full of twists and interruptions. Hiring committees might comprise 6–10 individuals, and this poses many scheduling issues. It can also take a long time to schedule meetings with deans and other administration. So once you’ve sent in that application — try not to think about it for a while.

Committees can also take up to a month — possibly more — to arrive at their top candidate. So even after you’ve interviewed, there’s a waiting period. They can’t release any news until the top candidate has either accepted, or rejected, an offer. So you won’t hear until the last possible moment. Avoid hovering near the phone or refreshing email. It’s an awful period of uncertainty, but you can’t make it go any faster. This is also a specifically North American model of hiring. U.K. schools follow a much shorter timeline — you could hear back within weeks of applying, and if you’re granted an interview, you’ll likely hear back on the same day or a few days later.

Strategies for a Zoom/Skype Interview

This is a BIG accomplishment. But what’s next?

A preliminary interview is around 20 minutes. If the interview stretches longer, it isn’t because of a magical rapport you’ve struck up with the committee — it’s because they’re asking too many questions, or maybe your answers are bit too granular in detail. Try to keep things to that 20-minute window.

Print up the notes you made while applying for the job. Organize them with bold headings — when you glance quickly at the paper, you want to be able to quickly find what you’re looking for. Use a larger font. If you can’t fit everything — good. Too many notes will be overwhelming. Instead, organize them into a few relevant categories: courses they’d want you to teach, basic requirements for their undergrad/grad programs, your current teaching and research that fits with their department. Don’t worry if you get a name or an acronym wrong. The committee will appreciate that you’ve made an effort to familiarize yourself with some of their programs and policies.

Here is a list of questions you’re likely to get:

1) Can you tell us a bit about your current research and teaching?

Be brief. Use a few concrete examples.

2) How would you teach X course in our program?

Refer to a syllabus. Don’t list everything — summarize the course briefly and note a concrete assignment (and why it’s useful).

3) Can you tell us about a teaching success and failure?

Don’t improvise. Use 1 concrete success example (saying why it was successful), and 1 moment of failure that you managed to turn around — or at least learn from.

4) Can you talk about your service experience?

List a few committees you’ve served on and why they’re important. Note an example of community service, or an event beyond the university.

5) Why do you want to work here?

This is a trick question — you want to work here because you want a job. They know this, but they want to hear specific details about their school/town. Provide a few examples of what makes the job attractive/a good fit, and also what you’ll contribute.

6) Do you have any questions for us?

This is very important and also very difficult to answer. Prepare some specific questions about their programs. Don’t ask something off-the-cuff. Don’t ask about salaries, tenure expectations, or anything regarding the job status. You might ask where they see the department in 5 years, why they decided to post this particular job, or what they each enjoy most about teaching at the institution. Stay away from politics. You can save more hard-hitting questions for the campus interview.

Things like what outfit to wear, eye contact, tone of voice — these are up to you. I don’t think there’s any one way to present yourself. Wear something that doesn’t make you want to immediately tear it off your body. You want to strike a balance between being yourself — they’re hiring you after all — and being professional. Keep in mind that screens tend to dampen our energy, so you might have to make an extra effort to appear engaged. This can be exhausting, so save it for moments that seem particularly important. If your dog/cat appears — that’s life. Most committees take it in stride. If they seem very inflexible, or judgmental of your surroundings — that’s a red flag, so don’t ignore it.

You can send a brief email thanking them for the interview, but it’s not required. Don’t contact anyone for information. It’s just a waiting game.

Strategies for a Campus Interview

Landing a campus interview means you have a 33.3% chance of getting the job. Everyone is usually on equal footing. If they’re interviewing you, it means they think you’re qualified and capable of handling the position. They’re likely very impressed by you. So take a moment to pat yourself on the back.

Take a moment. I’ll wait.

You usually have about a month to prepare for the campus interview. Don’t try to absorb endless amounts of information about the school. Use this time to work on engaging research and teaching presentations, and to firm up the notes you already have.

All campus interviews are different, but most consist of:

1) A “job talk,” which often includes a mix of teaching and research.

2) A teaching demonstration (sometimes).

3) A formal interview.

4) A meeting with the dean.

5) A meet-and-greet

6) A dinner

Those last two elements likely won’t be present for online interviews, though a Zoom Q&A session is certainly common. Some interviews are compressed into a few hours. Some last all day, or multiple days (less common). You’ll receive a schedule.

The Job Talk

This is a presentation that incorporates elements of your research, teaching, and a bit of biography. It often focuses on a project you’re working on, and you can divide the discussion into 1) significance of the research, and 2) how you incorporate the research into your teaching. This might look different for, say, a job in creative writing, but generally a job talk is a précis of you as a teacher and scholar. The talk portion is usually around 40 minutes, with 20 minutes left for questions. Look carefully at the schedule — they’re fitting a lot of events into this day, so going over-time will throw everything off. Plus, you want to be succinct. Use visual aids like slides and clips, but don’t just read the slides. Incorporate a bit of your teaching style into the presentation — what you’d normally do in a classroom. Ask some questions to make it more interactive. Activities are good as well — getting the room to analyze a text, or polling them about a particular topic. Anything other than reading an essay. If you play a video, be sure to use captions, and also magnify your text. You can distribute notes for the job talk in magnified font (an access copy) as well.

The Teaching Demonstration

You’ll be asked to prepare a short lesson — usually no more than 20 minutes. It may be on a set topic, or you may have freedom. Choose something that you’ve done many times before, successfully, and key this lesson to a class you’d teach for them (e.g., a first-year general ed course). Try to make it interactive. It’s possible that committee members will “pretend to be students.” This is, frankly, a pedagogically dubious and potentially offensive practice, but it still happens. If they do this, respond patiently to their questions, which may be designed to needle you. Leave time for a question period. Be sure to bring the lesson with you on multiple media — Google slides, an emailed copy, even a USB copy, just to be sure. Have a backup activity if the technology fails. They’ll be most concerned with how you respond to the challenge.

The Formal Interview

This usually lasts about an hour, and will comprise a list of set questions — possible 20 or so. Keep your answers succinct. Give concrete examples. Refer to notes about the department and university. Resist the urge to be likeable. They want you to be engaging, professional, informed — but you don’t need to be deferential or sweet. Just be the expert that you are. There will always be a difficult committee member. Maybe they don’t believe in your research. Maybe they don’t want to be there, or they have their own idea of who should be hired (or don’t believe in the position at all). Whatever the case, you have to deal gracefully with this person. Don’t take the bait. Respond calmly, even if they’re being rude or provocative. Try not to let them corner you. Academics can be bullies and there’s no way around it. If a question seems unfamiliar, bring it back to something you know — e.g., “I hadn’t thought about that particular text, but it’s similar to X Text, so here’s how I’d teach that.” If a question seems like it has many parts, you can pause to write down notes. If you legitimately don’t understand what they’re asking, you can say: can you rephrase that or could you possibly come at this from a different angle? It’s fine to pause and consider each question. Start a timer in your head — if you’ve been answering a single question for more than 5 minutes, it’s time to move on. Don’t try to control your body language. If you need to look away in order to process — do that. You can even tell them: this helps me think. If you need something to fiddle with — go ahead. Whatever will help you compose the most coherent answers. Many academics have issues with social anxiety, so they should understand. Just remember not to cut someone off while they’re speaking, and wait for them to finish their thought.

A Meeting With the Dean

This is often a mysterious process. It usually lasts about 30–40 minutes, and the dean will know a few details about you, but not a lot. So be prepared to summarize your career again. Deans are interested in big-picture issues. You can talk about mission statements, strategic plans, and future directions for the faculty. They likely won’t be an expert in your field — and certainly not in your sub-field — so find ways to make what you do accessible and engaging. You’re using your teaching skills here. You can ask about salary, benefits, and tenure requirements, but — I’d suggest reading the room. Some deans will volunteer all of this information, while others won’t. It’s best to stay focused on the faculty and the university as a whole, and where you see yourself fitting in. Use this time to establish how you see yourself contributing to the school.

Meet and Greet

This likely won’t happen, but if it does happen online — just take this opportunity to learn what people are doing, and how it connects with your own skillset. You can also ask questions that are specific to the city — neighborhoods, child-care, events, queer-friendly spaces.

Dinner

Again, this won’t be happening for a while. But if/when it resumes: this is a toss-up for many people. Some academics thrive in this social sphere, and others find it incredibly draining. You can make some gentle requests — e.g., a space that’s quiet. You don’t have to drink alcohol, and shouldn’t be pressured to. Eat something bland that won’t make your brain shut off, or give you stomach issues. Try to focus on one conversation at a time. If you feel yourself fading, you can always say, I’m a bit tired, but also really interested in this, so give me a second to consider your question. Use bathroom breaks as an excuse to have some alone time, or text a partner/friend. You won’t be able to understand everything the hosts are talking about — it will be departmental lore, coded references, even blood feuds. All you can do is bring the conversation back to familiar ground. They don’t need you to demonstrate research prowess here — they just want to see what it’s like to hang out with you. Be yourself and drink lots of water.

Things You Can Ask

You’re allowed to ask about things that would impact your experience of living and working in this space. You might ask about the experiences of BIPOC or LGBTQ scholars at the university, for example. You can ask about the school’s concrete commitments to diversity, its future hiring plans, how it’s recruiting a broad range of students. If you’re able to speak with a recent hire, you can ask them about their experiences (and they’re the best person to ask about tenure issues). You can also ask, broadly, what people like about working there. Really specific things — e.g., dental insurance, pensions — are best left to a chat with HR. But you can ask about the strength of their union or faculty association. You can ask about the experiences of disabled faculty/students and how accessible the campus is.

Things They Can’t Ask

Your sexual orientation. Your gender identity. Your faith. Your relationship or marital status. Your economic background. Whether or not you have a disability. Whether or not you are neurodivergent. Why you want to leave a current position (or why you left a previous position).

These guidelines don’t fit every interview, but I hope they help!

And remember — not being selected for an interview is not a measure of your worth as a scholar, or a person. It’s simply a reflection of the oppressive market, and has nothing to do with your potential or expertise. You have something unique to offer. You deserve a stable job with benefits. Trust in everything you know. You’re more than a job or a CV.

teaches creative writing, literature, queer stuff. writes books about knights, vampires, and salamanders. he/they