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Academic "Job Talk" advice
January 10, 2008 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Advice on Academic Job Talk Visits by Siva Vaidhyanathan.
posted by mattbucher (33 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am an academic who just recently went through the same process and I agree with everything he said. Great link, thanks.
posted by bove at 2:49 PM on January 10, 2008


Ugh. I'll be going through this process very shortly. I am equally excited and terrified by the prospect. Thanks for the link.
posted by Rangeboy at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2008


So how much of this is applicable to people doing postdoc job talks in the sciences? (Asks someone who will soon be doing that.)

Be especially nice to the secretaries and staff. Thank them for making all your arrangements. Good mojo from them can mean a lot.

I can't believe there are people who still don't know this. But there are. At the grad student level, the secretary who handles the interview candidates in my department is invited to give her perspective before admissions decisions are made. I think that torpedoed the chances of one guy who was a real ass to her.
posted by grouse at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow. Timely. mattbucher get out of my (seriously stress-addled) head.

Oh, and thanks.
posted by felix betachat at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2008


17) If you're at dinner with potential colleagues at an academic job talk, share a dessert with the person next to you. Make sure the dessert is square or otherwise easily perforated into two clean pieces. As you begin eating the dessert, each attacking the pastry from your own position, be careful to note the speed and approach of your dessert colleague. If your cakemate speeds up, speed up slightly but not so much to make your change apparent. If they place their fork down to speak, eat a small piece from their side while they can't notice. Nearing the end of the dessert it should be obvious to only yourself that you have had slightly more cake. That satisfaction will empower a glow that only you will feel. Neither of you should encroach the piece of dessert that denotes the dividing line between the two halves.

When the check comes, spend fifteen minutes getting the waitress to move the alcohol to a different bill and wave your tax exemption form at her for the rest.
posted by neustile at 3:16 PM on January 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


what the heck is gradual school.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:40 PM on January 10, 2008


I've suffered through nineteen- NINETEEN- interviews for tenure-track or limited term academic positions over the years. I've also been on the other side of the table six times. And I have to agree with most of these recommendations, except for one: The research presentation (the "job talk" part of the interview) is BY FAR the most important part of it. "Dinner" is relevant of course, but most of the hiring department won't be at dinner; in fact the chair will be running around like a beheaded chicken trying to get people to volunteer for dinner hosting, and nobody will dine with all of the candidates. One on one meetings are important, but again, many, perhaps most, of the faculty members will have neither the time nor the desire to meet with candidates. Many of the faculty won't even read your CV. What will happen is that your presentation will be packed, and it is on the basis of your presentation that the hiring decision will be made. That's been my experience on the hiring end of things and it helps explain why I did so poorly on the job market as an applicant: I had a terrific CV and a PhD from an elite program, but I had a horrible job talk. Horrible.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:43 PM on January 10, 2008


what the heck is gradual school.

A series of Reader's Digest-quality jokes, if the search results are any indication.
posted by cortex at 3:48 PM on January 10, 2008


1) They are never fun. Never.

I've been on both sides of the job talk process, and I just can't agree with that statement. They aren't always fun, but they can be.
posted by langedon at 3:56 PM on January 10, 2008


When I got my first ful-time job, the chairman drove me all about the cam-pus, clearly proud of his school. He asked if I would like to see the library. I said, No thanks. See one you've seen them all. He thought I was joking. I was not. But I did get the job.
posted by Postroad at 4:01 PM on January 10, 2008


Also, I agree with ethnomethodologist about the pivotal role of the research presentation.
posted by langedon at 4:10 PM on January 10, 2008


The presentation is very important, but if you're a sphincter, the presentation won't save you. I remember being snubbed by visiting applicants in really weird ways, and what they didn't realize was that the job search committee members had as much sway as the assistant chair they were kissing up to.

I got hired because their initial search got hosed and it was late in the season. Some factors are outside your control.

Also, it should be noted that you are going through this ritualistic hazing for a $48k job (in the humanities). If you have kids that salary will qualify them for the free school lunch program. It's unfortunate that the nature of academic jobs and geography make it so difficult to move from one program to another, leads to this intensive search process.
posted by mecran01 at 4:16 PM on January 10, 2008


He asked if I would like to see the library. I said, No thanks. See one you've seen them all.

I have to disagree with that.
posted by grouse at 4:17 PM on January 10, 2008


"which leads to this intensive search process." I sometimes envy those who change jobs every four years, but there is something to be said for stability, especially with a depression looming over the horizon.
posted by mecran01 at 4:21 PM on January 10, 2008


Half of what they want to know is whether they would really get you if they offered you the job. Seriously. They will be nervous about someone from the Big City coming to scope out their grubby little upstate town.

Am I the only one who thinks it's ridiculous to write an advice article directed at New York graduate students who are top-of-their-class? C'mon, how many people like that could there possibly be? New Yorkers think the world revolves around them.
posted by proj08 at 4:27 PM on January 10, 2008


As a student, I got to meet a lot of candidates interviewing for creative writing jobs and I have to say the "research" part of their "talk" was nonexistent. It was a lot more about sucking up to the right faculty members and being an all around good guy/gal/team-player.

New Yorkers think the world revolves around them.

Siva teaches at Virginia now, but he specifically mentions he's giving advice to an NYU grad. I do think the issue he mentions speaks more to the problem of smaller, rural schools attracting elite talent.
posted by mattbucher at 4:32 PM on January 10, 2008


'Tis the season. I have my fingers crossed for all my friends out there running the gauntlet.
posted by painquale at 5:25 PM on January 10, 2008


Be especially nice to the secretaries and staff. Thank them for making all your arrangements. Good mojo from them can mean a lot.

I can't believe there are people who still don't know this. But there are.


Yup. I worked as a secretary while I was finishing my MA, and it was amazing to me how many people would be rude to me. I now teach at a college and am unfailingly polite to the secretaries and admin staff--I would be anyway, but having actually been in their shoes, I am extra aware of the large helpings of crap some people dole out to support staff.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:50 PM on January 10, 2008


Currently serving on a hiring committee in the sciences, fairly recently ran this gauntlet myself, so let me use whatever authority that gives me to heartily endorse this list. Except that sometimes it's fun.
posted by escabeche at 5:59 PM on January 10, 2008


One prof told us the story of how he got hired. (Hope I'm not boffing the details too bad here.) --

So much time had passed that he was sure he hadn't gotten an interview. He decided to take off for a developing country (in Africa?). A message finally caught up to him a week before the potential interview. Managing to reply, taking a caravan across the desert back to an airport, etc, etc, he got back to the States with one day to prepare. He pulled up his latest powerpoint and reassured himself it was basically okay. Then, he spent the rest of the day in the library reading as much of the research of other department members as possible. Then, in every interview he had, he turned the discussion to their own research and interests. "I've been really wanting to ask you about ___. It's really interesting. I've been thinking about how that relates to ___, which I found in my own research. What do you think of X in light of Y?"

He got the job, and his theory is that he got it because what they most want to know is how you'll be as a work colleague. Since he managed to have interesting, collegial discussions with the other professors that sparked ideas and the possibility of joint research projects, they saw him fitting in as one of them.
posted by salvia at 6:54 PM on January 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


Be especially nice to the secretaries and staff.
I can't believe there are people who still don't know this. But there are.

When I was a graduate student a department secretary told me (as a young faculty member was leaving the office) "It seems like it takes 6 years to get a Ph.D. and 12 years to get over it."
posted by Killick at 6:59 PM on January 10, 2008


"Am I the only one who thinks it's ridiculous to write an advice article directed at New York graduate students who are top-of-their-class? C'mon, how many people like that could there possibly be? New Yorkers think the world revolves around them."

Actually the advice applies to just about any grad student in the Liberal Arts & Sciences looking for an academic job.
posted by oddman at 7:04 PM on January 10, 2008


Salvia has it. The most important thing you can do before your visit is go down the list of each person you think you might talk to, print out their two or three most recent (or most significant) papers, and have an intelligent question to ask or a comment to make about each one. If candidate A is someone who gives poor talks but is someone I can really work with one-on-one, and candidate B is the reverse, I'm going to fight for candidate A.

A nice side effect is that if you look through all these papers you get something out of the job market process besides a job and an ulcer.
posted by escabeche at 7:07 PM on January 10, 2008


Salvia's point, while good, I just found to be impossible. Some departments were really large, and I wouldn't know which faculty members I would be meeting with until the actual visit. It was impossible for me to have read 50 papers and be able to ask an intelligent question. However, my strategy was related. One of the first questions I would ask was: "Tell me about your most recent research project." People love to talk about themselves, and although it implied that I was familiar with their work, it never forced me to have to remember too much. That question worked like a charm.

Half of what they want to know is whether they would really get you if they offered you the job. Seriously. They will be nervous about someone from the Big City coming to scope out their grubby little upstate town.

This was also quite true in my field (business). Smaller schools can't bring as many people out on recruiting visits and so a large part of the visit is trying to determine if you are likely to accept the job, if offered. They were very concerned that they would make an offer to their top candidate, who would then reject it, and by that point their other 1 or 2 people that they had flown out would have already accepted other positions.
posted by bove at 7:56 PM on January 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Be especially nice to the secretaries and staff.
I can't believe there are people who still don't know this. But there are.


I'd add to this: be nice to everybody you meet. You never know who's somebody's cousin or brother-in-law, especially in a small town!

At one university where I worked for a couple of years, the faculty had a connection to the staff at the bed-and-breakfast where candidates would stay. Apparently there have been cases where the candidate was smart enough to make nice with the department secretary, but really rude to the folks at the hotel, and needless to say, they didn't get the job.
posted by otherthings_ at 10:56 PM on January 10, 2008


Good advice all around!!

#1: Well, hardly ever! (So give three cheers and one cheer more...)

#6: This isn't quite right, at least in my field. A more accurate rule would be to dress one step more conservatively and stodgily than your professors do when they teach. If you show up to a computer science faculty interview dressed too conservatively, many people will react badly, thinking that you're out of sync with their academic culture.

#9: "Their number-one concern will be whether they like you. They already have opinions about your scholarship." Careful. Yes, you need to get people to like you, but I've seen more than one likable faculty candidate shot down because the interview raised questions about their scholarship. Some faculty will have opinions about your research beforehand, but not all, and you can easily erode existing opinions by being defensive or evasive.

#13: ...and very little alcohol!

I agree with ethnomethodologist about the importance of the research presentation, but my interview experience (on both sides) is the opposite of his. It's very common for faculty to miss a candidate's job and then ask for the five-minute version in their one-on-one meeting. Those five-minute microtalks, and the discussions that follow, are at least as important as the official job talk.

Even at my big school (in a "grubby little upstate midwest town") we get nervous about whether candidates are likely to accept our offer, because many of them don't. Making offers burns political capital with the higher-level administration, especially if they're rejected.
posted by erniepan at 11:40 PM on January 10, 2008


I had a dream last night where I was sitting in a bar, deciding whether I should go back to school to continue my psychology education. (I've got a B.S. already.) I decided against it, but what was cool was that the bar gave everyone who walked in a free beer. And they made these really delicious, super thick Italian sodas. Raspberry I think.
posted by wastelands at 6:37 AM on January 11, 2008


Tons of good advice here, some things I'd add (from a computer science perspective): posted by jasonhong at 8:46 AM on January 11, 2008


Can I flag this for 2 years from now?
posted by k8t at 8:48 AM on January 11, 2008


Good luck Rangeboy and felix betachat. I'm there too, prepping for it as we speak.

I'll just say that once I had a meeting with a dean where he did nothing but make pseudo-casual small talk, while watching me like a hawk. He mentioned nothing about the position, and looked at me quizzically when I tried to talk about it. It was terribly disconcerting. Then he offered me a piece of candy from a jar on his desk, and I had this sinking feeling that the way I responded would somehow determine whether or not I got the offer.

Meanwhile, the rest of the interview mostly consisted of the rest of the search committee trying to coach me for that meeting, saying "We don't have any power of this. He has complete veto power over our recommendation." and "He's a shrewd judge of character. Don't try to sell yourself when you're in there, because he'll see through it."

Needless to say, I didn't get the job (they canceled the search).
posted by umbú at 12:28 PM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


umbú wrote: I'll just say that once I had a meeting with a dean where he did nothing but make pseudo-casual small talk, while watching me like a hawk. He mentioned nothing about the position, and looked at me quizzically when I tried to talk about it. It was terribly disconcerting. Then he offered me a piece of candy from a jar on his desk, and I had this sinking feeling that the way I responded would somehow determine whether or not I got the offer.

Oh good Lord, that sounds like something out of a movie. I would just be sweating in that situation--or else I would want to laugh my head off. Can you imagine having this person as your dean, anyway? Yuck.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:39 PM on January 11, 2008


umbú, that sounds like a scene from a Wes Anderson film about academia.

I'm imagining Bill Murray offering you the candy.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:16 PM on January 12, 2008


Seems like every faculty interview is at least a bit different, but this is good general advice.

If you're in the hard sciences or engineering, don't be afraid to essentially ask if they can afford the startup you need in the phone interview or ahead of time. There's really no sense is wasting the time for an interview to find out that there's no way for you to succeed in the position they might offer....
posted by JMOZ at 1:00 PM on January 15, 2008


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