Campus Interview Experience, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about my experience of making it to the interview stage for a tenure-track job at a small university in the American South. Today I’ve written about the actual campus visit. It took place over a period of 3 days at the beginning of April. A week ago I found out I was not selected for the position, but I gained a whole bunch of experience and insight, which I hope will be helpful to those entering the academic job market. I welcome any thoughts and insights from others! A fair warning, this post is long. In my last entry I left off where I had to get ready to fly across the country for my interview. I’ll start this entry from the moment I landed.

DAY ONE

 As soon as my plane landed I had to be in interview mode. My undergrad professor warned me that the campus interview would be “gruelling” because from the moment of airport pick-up, I’d be judged. An invitation for a campus interview means the department already thinks you’re employable based on your scholarship. Now they want to see how you’ll mesh with the culture of the department, university, and surrounding area. Not only is it gruelling for you, it’s gruelling for the department. The day before, Candidate #1 had left and two days after my interview Candidate #3 would arrive.

My plane landed around 5.30 in the afternoon and the department’s head of graduate studies (one of the members of the search committee), who I’ll refer to as Prof A, picked me up to take me to my hotel for check-in. This part of the campus interview is tricky because I was not entirely sure if I should be in interview mode or social mode.

Once I had checked into my hotel and dropped off my suitcase, we went to a local restaurant for dinner where another member of the faculty (Prof B) waited for us. The food was a mixture of Southern and Cajun. They were both very friendly and Prof A ordered fried alligator as an appetizer and insisted I try it. I didn’t want to appear rude, so I did. A friend of mine later suggested to me that this could have been a test. Since I’ve read several articles, such as this one from The Chronicle, that suggested that candidates were rejected because of very minute personality reasons (such as being too smiley, too serious, etc.) it could be true.

Dinner itself was actually a lot of fun. Both professors were really friendly and they provided a lot of information about the area and the university. They both love working in the department and find it to be a very collegiate environment. A fun tidbit they mentioned was that the area had been featured on an episode of the show House Hunters earlier in the year (I’m still looking for the rerun), which caused the conversation to descend into HGTV programing. After a while the conversation took a bit of a turn when they asked me, “So what questions do you have about the university and town?” Prof A said he’d be out of town the next day for a conference so as a member of the selection committee, this was his only chance to meet me. I realised then that despite the social nature of dinner, it was still an interview. So, keep this in mind, job seekers – it’s always an interview. However, the more informal environment gave me an excellent opportunity to ask numerous questions, which they responded to a bit more candidly than they might have otherwise.

Dinner lasted for about an hour and a half until Prof B said he had to go home. It wasn’t too late so Prof A offered to show me around the town a bit and take me to a nice coffee shop for dessert. Once at the coffee shop, Prof A began telling me about some research projects he had in production, which led to a bit of banter about archival successes and pitfalls. At one point he commented that he was speaking much more than me, which had me think “Oh no!” I’m naturally quite extroverted so I am usually pretty talkative but in this environment I was not sure how formal vs. informal to be, so I decided to stay slightly on the more reserved side.

Overall, though, the first evening was really pleasant and even a bit of fun. It’s always nice to chat with professors in an informal environment and I found out a lot of great information about the town and university.

 

DAY TWO

 This was the big day. My undergrad professor was right: it was no less than gruelling. I don’t mean to say it was difficult or unpleasant – the complete opposite! It was very busy, very long, and I was exhausted at the end of the day. I had a bit of jet-lag from my recent trip to the UK and Israel, which did not help matters. Every moment of my day was scheduled out and hats off to the department for their impeccable organization – we kept to the schedule down to the minute. So I’ll go ahead and run this down based on my schedule.

8.30: The department chair, Prof C, picked me up at my hotel to take me to the university. She was a very kind, warm woman who was born and raised in that area of the country so she gave me a lot of great pieces of information about the local culture and pointed out areas of the town in daylight along the way to the university.

9.00: My first appointment of the day was an interview with the Provost. I was nervous going in and the reason for this is because I still felt a bit like a student playing “adult”. Did this show? I have no idea. I’ve been told I’m both simultaneously excellent at hiding nervousness but that I also have a terrible poker face. This was the moment that the reality of the campus interview hit me. I was not just here to make a good impression to fellow academics. I was also here to prove to the university administration that I was worthy of walking into a tenure-track position. [Note: We are all worthy of this, you guys, but that doesn’t make the reality less intimidating for a first interview.]

The Provost was a very nice man who had been in his position since the 1980s. He had a copy of my CV and gave me the lowdown of how the university was structured, the make up of the student body, the university’s reputation in the STEM fields (very high), and the collegiality of the faculty. He also gave me a blunt description of the region’s culture.

“So, you’re from Los Angeles and just finished a your Ph.D. in London”, he said as he glanced over my CV. This was not a question.

“Yes, that’s right”, I said.

“Have you been to XX before?” I explained that I had been to the South several years ago and that I had been to this state once before but only very briefly.

“Well, it’s a very tight-knit community. People know each other, people support each other. They’re very proud of the university here. They’re also a no-nonsense group of people. I imagine it’ll be different than what you’re used to. This is Trump Country”.

He was not the first person, nor the last, to tell me this at my campus interview. Part of the point of a campus interview is to assess how well you’ll fit in with the department/campus/local culture so all of this is, in a way, a test. The interview then moved onto the questions stage. This is important – make sure to have a LOT of questions ready for the people interviewing you. I had made a list of questions but in the spur of the moment I completely blanked. It took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts, but then I eased into questions about the university, which he answered very kindly.

“So what else do you want to ask me?” he said after I’d asked several questions about curriculum, administration, and faculty/student support. At this point I felt tapped out but I tried to hide it.

“I had another question but I’m afraid it’s just escaped me”.

“You were about to ask me the tenure process, right?” Oh god. Of course. How could I forget the most basic yet important question at a campus interview?!

“Yes, I was!” I said.

“Good. I’ll explain it to you.”

Tenure at this particular university, he explained, is a process that takes place over the first several years of employment. You apply for tenure after about 3 years of being on staff – approximately the amount of time it would take to publish your first book (or maybe several of articles in some very high ranking journals). You apply and are supported by your department. The university then assesses your application and makes the decision. Most will get tenure if they’ve published and done application process correctly. However, if you are denied tenure, he warned, “there is very little chance for movement”. AKA, you probably will not be able to stay. After he finished explaining the process to me it was time to move on. My schedule had allotted 15 minutes to make it to my next appointment.

9.45: I was met outside the Provost’s office by Prof D, another member of the search committee. I liked him immediately. He had a soft-spoken demeanour and was dressed very casually. To save time, Prof D drove me across campus to the Arts and Sciences building so I could meet with the Dean. He warned me that the Dean was very nice but extremely reserved, having lived in Britain for many years. “Great”, I thought, “I can work with that”. Like the Provost, the Dean greeted me kindly and had a copy of my CV in front of him. As soon as I said down, he greeted me with, “So instead of me asking you questions, I want to you ask me questions first”. Then he sat back and waited.

At this point, I had relaxed a bit more and so the questions I had prepared began to come back to me. (This time I made sure to ask about tenure.) The university, while it had a strong research profile, was very focused on teaching so I concentrated a lot of my questions about student resources and accommodations.

After about 15 or 20 minutes, he asked me some questions. What surprised me at first was that he said he didn’t want to ask about my research and instead asked me about my involvement with one of the historical associations in London and about a very specific lecture I have listed on my CV from my time as a Teaching Assistant during my MA. I won’t lie – this threw me. One of the last things I expected was to be asked about a one-off lecture I wrote and delivered in 2009. However, it was fun to talk about that lecture because no one had ever asked me about it before. The interview then finished with a chat about Brexit because he was very curious to know my perspective since I lived in London at the time of the referendum results. This conversation was cut short because the time was 10.45 and my next interview was in 15 minutes.

What to take away from this? Be prepared for them to ask you ANYTHING. They’ll have your CV and they will have researched you just as much as you (hopefully) have researched them. Anything is up for grabs in the interviews.

11.00: The time had come for me to see the history department. The first thing that struck me was how welcoming the whole place felt. Every member of faculty I met stressed that there were “no politics” in the department and that everyone genuinely liked each other. We’ve all heard horror stories about departments that don’t get along, so this was heartening. I had an interview scheduled with a professor, Prof E, who had just been hired the year before to add a new area of study in which they wanted the new hire to contribute. I had only found this out a few days before my interview so I was less prepared for this, especially since the field of study was pretty far out of my area of expertise. Prof E had some good insight into the university and town, especially as someone new to the area. We went over my CV a bit and I stressed that although I was not familiar with this field, I could learn quickly. Another lesson to be learned: be prepared to be flexible.

11.30: This was my final official interview of the day. I say “official” because – remember – every moment of the visit is technically an interview. This was with the department chair, Prof C. She gave me the most information she could about the department in terms of student body, student resources and opportunities, faculty support and funding, requirements for tenure, teaching load (4:4), pastoral duties, and pastoral/teaching negotiations (could bring teaching down to 4:3). I won’t belabour this interview, because it was very similar to those with the Provost and Dean.

12:00. LUNCH! At this point I was very relieved for a food break, especially since I did not have much breakfast. I had lunch with Profs B and D and the chair of the search committee, Prof F. I was pleased to finally meet her because she had been so friendly in our email communication. We had lunch on campus and this was a chance to be a bit more casual. The conversation was pretty light and we talked about our research interests. This was the first time anyone asked me specifically about my research, so I was glad for the chance to answer a few informal questions.

1.30: After our lunch, I was scheduled an hour “private quiet time” in the conference room. This is important. When they give you down time, take it. Fuelled by lunch, I was ready to sit and gather my thoughts a bit especially since my research presentation was next on the agenda. I spent my time in the conference room texting some friends and family about how the experience was so far and I prepped for my presentation.

2.30: In the UK, I’ve watched job presentations that lasted 15 minutes. Mine was scheduled for an hour. I decided have it last 45 minutes to allow time for a Q&A. I’m lucky in that I’m not afraid of public speaking so I decided to treat this like a longer conference presentation. My presentation was open to the whole department, but only 6 people showed up: the department chair, two members of the search committee, another professor, and two MA students. I made a simple PowerPoint that outlined my dissertation research, plans to turn it into a book, and two future projects with outlines of necessary archives and research funding. A couple of weeks before this interview, I had applied for a job that asked for a very detailed 5-year research plan. It was very difficult create a long-term research plan, but having all of that information meticulously outlined really helped me put together a solid research presentation. I did not have a whole lot of time to rehearse, so to me my presentation felt a bit unpolished but Prof F told me after that she was quite impressed with how confident I spoke. After I finished speaking, I fielded a few questions, and then my presentation was done. I desperately wanted a nap.

3.30: No campus interview is complete without a campus tour. One of the MA students who came to my presentation was given the job of taking me around campus. There was some construction going on so he drove me around in his car. This was a relief because I decided that a long day of interviews was the perfect day to wear a new pair of heels. (Ladies, gents and everyone in between, don’t wear heals to a campus interview. I still have the blisters.) The student was really friendly and researching an interesting dissertation about heavy metal so we spoke about music history for quite a while. At the end of the campus tour, he took me back to my hotel where I had the chance to relax for 2 hours until the next activity.

6.30: Prof G, who I had not yet met, picked me up. I had just spent two hours lying down at my hotel completely exhausted but the day was not done. My campus visit happened to coincide with the department’s Phi Alpha Theta induction banquet. For those who haven’t heard of it, Phi Alpha Theta is the history honour’s society in America. The event was catered and they brought in a speaker who presented some fascinating research about Japanese internment camps and how we can use history to teach about the current administration. Even though I was exhausted, this was my favourite part of the day. I was able to relax and chat with undergraduate students and one of the professors (Prof H) on a totally casual basis. Well, mostly casual. Remember, it’s still an interview.

9.30: I arrived back at my hotel completely spent. Before going to bed I called a couple of friends to tell them about my day and watched a little TV before passing out at around 11.30. There was still a little more interview to go!

 

DAY THREE

This was the final day of the campus interview and it was much shorter – just a half day. I woke up early, packed my things, and checked out of the hotel with just enough time to grab a coffee at the hotel Starbucks.

8.45: Prof H, who I met the night before at the Phi Alpha Theta induction banquet, picked me up to give me a tour of the town. This does not happen at all US campus interviews. It is more common for university jobs in smaller towns. This town was very interesting in that it was a mix of Cajun country, old Southern charm, and industry. Prof H told me to sit back and relax and let her do all the talking because she figured that I had done more than my fair share so I welcomed the chance to be expected to be quiet. She pointed out local museums, popular bars, a health spa, shopping, the neighbourhood where many professors live, and gave me a tour of the downtown. Having been at the university for over 10 years and very active in the community, she was very knowledgeable about the area. I recognised the area where I had dinner and coffee my first night and began to feel a bit more oriented. The town was small so the tour took less than an hour.

9.45: We arrived back at the department and once again I was scheduled an hour to myself, which I used to finish prepping for my teaching presentation.

11.00: The teaching presentation was the final part of my interview. Originally I was scheduled to teach for 45 – 55 minutes, but because of limited flights back to Los Angeles that afternoon my talk had to be cut down to 40 minutes. All three of us candidates were asked to prepare a 45-minute lesson on any aspect of the American Revolution for undergraduate students. This was a bit tricky because I was unsure of my audience. Would I be teaching just to the faculty or to the students? It turns out, both. I essentially took over a Friday morning undergraduate US history class and several members of faculty, including the department chair and two members of the search committee, came to watch. I have a lot of teaching experience and I feel comfortable in front the classroom so this is where I felt the most at ease. This presentation was challenging, however, because naturally I had no idea who the students were and I did not know the classroom’s culture. I therefore encouraged a lot of student participation and asked each student who contributed to tell me their name so I could get to know them a little. Overall, my teaching presentation flew by and before I knew it my time was up. I thanked the students for coming to class and I thanked the professor letting me take over for the morning. Then it was time for me to say thank you to the different members of faculty before I was taken to the airport.

And just like that, my interview was complete.

I arrived back in Los Angeles late that afternoon and went out to dinner with my friend. I was still a bit jet-lagged from my recent trip to London and I was absolutely exhausted from the campus interview. I went home, sent each professor I met a thank you email, and went to bed. Over the next three days I pretty much just slept.

As I said before, I ultimately did not get this job. I was notified by a general HR form email, which surprised me a little. I assumed the search committee would notify me directly either way. One of my friends said universities often send generic HR emails to avoid the appearance of bias in case their first-choice candidate declines the job. I was a bit disappointed but above everything else I was extremely grateful for the opportunity because at the very least it was a valuable learning experience.

There are some things to take away from this experience and looking back I can wager some guesses as to why I was not chosen for the job. After I sent my supervisor an email describing the campus interview experience he said, “The campus visit is one of the most fascinating events, at an anthropological level, in US academic life”. He went on to explain that getting chosen for a campus interview means they’ve already decided you’re a desirable employee based on your scholarship and now they want to see how you’ll fit into the culture. Even if you don’t get offered the job, remember that the university valued you, your research, and your time. The reasons why one might not get chosen are infinite. It could be that the candidate was not prepared at all, that they were rude, that their research did not quite fit into what the department was looking for, or it could be something completely arbitrary and out of your control.

Although I was excited for the opportunity, I was also a little nervous and apprehensive going in. I had no idea what to expect and the idea of possibly picking up and moving to another state just a few months after arriving in LA felt daunting. I also was, and still am, absolutely exhausted from submitting my PhD, having my viva, and moving back home from across the world. It is possible that no matter how much I thought I appeared professional, friendly and confident that some of this nervousness/exhaustion showed through. Maybe I was a bit too reserved. It’s also possible that they wanted the candidate to have more of a research focus in their new field of study. Perhaps some of the students did not gel with my teaching style. The list could be endless.

However, the whole experience was extremely positive and I know that whomever they’ve chosen will be very happy in the department. Everyone was extremely friendly, personable and totally genuine. I learned an amazing amount of what a campus visit entails and I know that given this experience I’ll be much more confident and prepared for the next one.

To those who read this, keep in mind that this only reflects my own personal experience. Everyone’s campus visit is unique, but I think it’s safe to say that they are all a lot of hard work. I hope these two posts will prove useful to those on the academic job market. Good luck, everyone!

About Rebecca Simon

A California-girl based in London working on a PhD in early modern Atlantic history at King's College London: piracy, executions, British law. https://twitter.com/beckalex
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