Academic job market campus visits: What to expect, what I wish I knew

It’s campus visit season–both academic job market campus visits, and grad school campus visits–and I am blissfully doing neither of those things. But I know many people who are, which is stirring up strong memories of the whole process. It’s so interesting to have a full 2 day job interview, isn’t it? Maybe interesting isn’t the right word when you’re in it. Nonetheless, now that I’ve had about a year to reflect on academic job talks, campus visits, and the interview process, here’s what I wish I had known to expect. Plus, some advice that works for grad students visiting potential programs, too!

For academic job interviews:

Treat everyone with equal respect: Graduate students, office staff, and non tenure track faculty deserve just as much of your respect and interest as the hiring committee. End of story. I met with grad students at my current position and later overheard one of them saying in the hall “She was so nice! She seemed to really care about how we were doing!” 1) I did, and do, genuinely care about how grad students are doing, and 2) I pity whatever job candidate didn’t come off that way to their future potential students.

Take copious notes: Every break I had, I took a ton of notes. I wrote down people’s names. I wrote what I learned about the campus. Surprisingly, I wrote a lot of notes that said “so-and-so said to ask so-and-so about this.” Many professors wanted to direct me to other professors who would know more about my questions from personal experience. Taking notes reminded me to ask that person later.

Teach something teachable: Some advice on “test teaching” during job interviews–don’t assume the students (or the committee!!) did the readings, if you were asked to assign any. Instead, come in and provide a reasonable, clear lesson (less information is often better than more). Then give students a low-risk, non-embarrassing application activity (group work is best!). I had them watch a short example video and then discuss the theory I taught in groups. It is much easier to ask questions of students who have had some time in groups first, especially when they don’t know you.

Eat well: I will not soon forget the campus visit where I was taken to Panda Express for lunch. I spent the afternoon feeling extremely sleepy from the delicious junk food. A protein and some vegetables are necessary to keep the energy up!

It’s possible to over-train: This one came from my advisor. Don’t practice your job talk 15 times before you go! If the talk is 40 minutes long, practicing too much will just wear you out. Instead, practice a few times and trust that the adrenaline of the day will carry you over the finish line.

The small talk is kind of fun: Listen to a podcast, read The New Yorker, do whatever you have to do on the plane. Faculty are people and they could be your fellow colleagues. Talking about non-academic topics at meals and in transit led to some of my most fun campus visit memories (topics covered included–do you think your phone is eavesdropping on you, what have you watched on Netflix recently, which Office episode is the best, what’s a non-academic hobby you enjoy…).

Illegal questions actually happen: I heard that “illegal questions” (e.g. marital and family status, disclosure of competing job offers) happened, but I didn’t believe it. But they do! I was most frequently asked “Where else have you had a campus interview?” Ummm…what. Why would I answer that. Have some gracious and good-humored answers ready (“Oh, here and there. I feel like a business traveler!”). Assume the asker has positive intent and is bad at small talk.

For grad school campus visits:

Don’t compete: It’s really awkward to go on a visit when you know you might be on the waitlist for the program, or don’t know who they will let in (not all schools do it this way but some do). Nonetheless, avoid mind games–even the subconscious one of talking about your academic accomplishments (I think it’s easy to slip into this because it’s a common ground topic). The committee has read your CV. The other people on the visit with you might soon be your cohort. Try to avoid sizing each other up.

The walls have ears: I heard that if I talked to other grad students they would tell me “the dirt” on their program. Well, guess what? They mostly didn’t. On the other hand, I heard many fellow visitors dish gossip, ask inappropriate questions, and generally say things to current grad students that I bet they thought wouldn’t be repeated. As someone who was just a grad student? It always got repeated.

Happy visit season, everyone. Bring hand sanitizer! And drop any other advice–about packing, coping with the stress–anything! in the comments section.

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