March 7, 2012

Academic Positions: The Application and Interview

By L. W. Hurtado, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh

In what follows I have attempted to give some basic information and advice intended for the person who has recently finished graduate work and is seeking a junior-level academic position in a Humanities discipline (I can claim no experience with other academic subject areas). These remarks are based on experience as applicant and as a member of the evaluation/hiring committee at academic institutions in North American and UK settings. I do not pretend that following the advice given here will give the applicant an “edge”, much less an “inside track” for positions. My intentions rather are to assist applicants to understand a little better what all is involved in evaluating applicants for a position, and perhaps to help applicants prepare themselves better to participate in the application and interview processes. This is only an introduction. Applicants are encouraged to compare notes with sympathetic holders of academic positions in order to gain a certain breadth of perspective and advice.1

General Remarks

l. Understand that the people evaluating and interviewing applicants will be fellow academics (usually a committee from the department in question), whose primary training and interests are in the academic field. They are not trained in “personnel” matters, and must take time from their preferred pursuits to engage in the hiring process. You have the primary responsibility to present yourself well, so try to make their work as easy as you can by supplying needed information before being asked for it and by being forthcoming and cordial at all stages of the application process.

2. Recognize that nowadays institutions will receive many more applications than a committee will want to handle, and that the committee will look for any reason to cull out applications so that an initial “short list” can be prepared for more thorough examination. At the first stage, therefore, you must try to avoid getting culled out, so insure that your application and all supporting documents arrive promptly and in good condition. (See also The Academic Résumé: Some Recommendations.)

3. If there is a first-stage culling, the committee will re-read even more critically each application still under consideration and all supporting documents. Committee members may at this stage examine some publications of applicants, if available. (I recommend sending samples of your recent publications (only one or maybe two), if you have some, along with your résumé to save the committee members looking them up. If you have no publications yet, you may consider sending a sample of unpublished research, e.g., a conference paper or thesis chapter, but only if it is very strong and likely to help.) After considering applicants on this initial short list, a revised short list may be drawn up, containing perhaps three to six names.

4. In the UK,at this point letters of reference will be invited for the short-listed applicants. In both North America and the UK committee may contact references personally or by phone to get fuller information and insight on the more impressive applicants. The committee is usually looking for several strengths: (a) a scholarly and research ability; (b) aptitude for teaching (often with emphasis on undergraduate teaching, especially in the case of junior positions), involving good communicative abilities, social skills, ability to organize and explain technical material, and ability to evaluate student work; (c) “collegiality” (they will have to live with the person hired after all, perhaps for a long time in the case of a “tenure-stream” appointment!). Because budgets often allow the department to bring to the campus only a few applicants (often only two or three in North America, perhaps three to five in the UK), and because it is sometimes difficult to tell much about the personal qualities of applicants on the basis of their dossiers alone, understand that either being known (favorably!) to members of the committee or having a strongly favorable reference from one or more persons known and respected by committee members can be of great advantage.

5. I recommend, therefore, that, certainly by the later stages of your Ph.D. program, you “circulate” at academic society meetings, perhaps presenting papers and participating in discussions. This will give another view of academics at work and an opportunity for you to get known for your own research interests and abilities. And during your graduate work you should consider opportunities to publish some of your work.2 In addition to doing as well as you can academically and trying to get your research published as soon as possible, you should also consider accepting opportunities to do some instruction or teaching assistance, both to gain some experience and to establish some basis for references to estimate accurately your promise in this area. (Obviously, finishing the graduate research comes first in priorities, so use good judgement, but if limited teaching experience can be included in your graduate “career” without unduly prolonging completion of your degree I recommend it.)

6. Further, quite frankly, give attention to developing “social skills”, for I have known some very bright and promising researchers who have failed to obtain or keep positions because they did not have the promise of getting on well with students or perhaps with colleagues. Beware! Secluding yourself in a library and working exclusively with ideas, written arguments and theoretical concepts will not necessarily prepare you for the very human world of academic life.

The Interview

In the present North American scene, applicants may be interviewed in two basic settings. (1) Some institutions will ask applicants to appear for preliminary interviews at annual meetings of relevant academic societies (esp. in the U.S.), to allow the employer to see a number of applicants without having to bring them to the campus. (2) There is also the more familiar interview which is a part of an invited visit to the campus. The latter type of interview will normally be much more extensive than the former type, involving the whole committee and perhaps other members of the department as well, and often involving two or more sessions. The person interviewed may also be invited to present a lecture and/or paper during the visit, so that the department can get some direct sense of the applicant’s communicative ability and of how the applicant handles a formal presentation. (If you are invited to a formal interview, and are not asked to give a lecture or paper, I recommend that you offer to give one or both. The offer communicates a proper confidence in yourself, and, if your offer is accepted and you perform well, may give you a significant “edge”.) Normally, only one to three applicants will be invited to the campus for a formal interview (and normally one at a time in the North American setting), so the invitation means that you are on the final list and stand a good chance of being offered a job. In the UK the short-list will all be invited for presentations and interviews on the same day(s). The interview can be crucial, either turning undecided committee members toward you or the opposite. There are some things you can do to prepare yourself to handle the interview well.

1. Find out as much as you can about the school, department, programs, and the department members. This way you can ask more intelligent questions and show that you are serious about the job and capable of preparing properly for an interview. Also, it is frankly a little complimentary to the department to find that you are informed about their programs and people, and that can’t hurt!

2. In keeping with the above, if you are unfamiliar with the work of the department members (for example, if they are outside your own area), do a crash reading of some of the publications of the senior department members. Again, you may be asked what you know of the work of the department members, and it will make a better impression if you have at least a limited acquaintance with their research interests.

3. There is no way to predict exactly the format of the interview. You may be interviewed solely by the committee as a whole, and/or in the North American setting you may be interviewed by committee/department members individually. The whole process can be quite demanding physically and mentally, so come rested and alert!

4. You may be asked about lots of things in addition to your own professional and personal background, e.g., your ideas about student evaluation, or about a good introductory course in your field, or what you might do with a seminar, or your own longer term research/publication plans, or your view of where your area is headed over the next decade or so. In short, as you look ahead to applying for positions, give some thought to the “larger picture”, if you have time, so that you are prepared for such questions. (The questions you are asked will tell as much about the department/college as your answers will about you! Listen carefully.)

5. The committee may very well be interested in how you would fit into their institutional context. Thus, a department in a public university or other non-confessional school may want to know how you see your role in such a setting as a teacher in Religion, and how comfortable you think you would be in such a setting and why. Or, a seminary/theological college committee may want to know how you relate yourself to the preparation of ordinands for church ministry. A confessional college/university may want to know how comfortable you feel with their particular emphasis and whether you understand it properly. Again, research on the institution before the interview will be very helpful.

6. At some point you will probably be asked what questions you have for the committee. It may well be that you will have had discussions with the Search Committee Chair, Department Head/Chair, or Dean prior to the committee interview, and will have had the chance to ask any questions then. If not, however, and you are asked for your questions at the beginning of the interview, suggest that you defer them until the committee has dealt with its concerns first. Then, when the committee is relatively finished with its questions, present yours. If you are not invited to ask questions, before the interview is concluded you should ask to present your questions. But be sensitive to the situation. In the UK setting all short-listed applicants are interviewed usually on the same day, so the committee has to move along. In the North American setting normally applicants will come to the campus one at a time, so there will be more time given to each applicant and you can take more time for your questions.

The first things to ask about are matters about the department, its programs, curriculum, aims, plans, etc., where these matters have not already been covered by any orientation given you by the committee or its chair. Ask about the emphasis in the department on such things as teaching or research, and what interest and support there is for junior faculty members getting ahead with their research and publishing aims. If the position is “tenure-stream” (North America), ask about the time frame and basic procedures for tenure consideration and promotion, e.g., criteria and weighting of criteria. Ask about the department members and their specializations (although it will look good to know about at least some department members already). Ask about relevant supporting programs and departments, e.g., classics, history, or social science departments, depending on your own interests. In a well conducted campus visit, either the committee or the department head will explain such things as salary, benefits, moving allowance, etc. Wait, for this information may not be given early in the visit. But, before you leave the campus be sure to get this sort of information, probably best sought from the department head privately if the information is not volunteered. In the UK, the salary range will usually be indicated in the advertisement. Intelligent questions make a good impression, so be prepared to offer a few, but no more than necessary. With individual faculty members you can ask their impressions of the department as well as questions about recent publications, etc. In short, be prepared to make the visit a two-way conversation, with you playing an active and intelligent role.

7. In North America, you will probably not be told of the department’s disposition toward you until after you have left the campus and all applicants have been interviewed (which can take a few weeks). In the UK the committee will usually try to decide immediately after concluding interviews, which can be on the same day. So in the UK the successful applicant may well be offered the job shortly after the interviews. If you’re offered the job you should be prepared to indicate your response within a few days at the most. You can negotiate any points that were not clear or were not fully satisfactory, such as salary. All the terms of the job should be put into writing, either in the letter of offer or in a memorandum of understanding (salary, basic description of duties, course load, moving allowance, etc.). You can at this point also ask for a copy of the faculty handbook, contract, or whatever document governs the relationship of the faculty member to the institution. Be business-like but don’t antagonize.

1  For a survey of hiring practices at many U.S. universities, in another field but with probable relevance for many other disciplines also, see R. Carson and P. Navarro, “A Seller’s (& Buyer’s) Guide to the Job Market for Beginning Academic Economists,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 2/2(1988), 137-48. For a more extensive introduction to seeking an academic position, especially in North America, see now Mary Morris Heiberger, Julia Miller Vick, The Academic Job Search Handbook (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
2  Students in the Humanities often do not consider attempting to publish until after the Ph.D. (and sometimes have been advised not to try to publish anything until completion of the Ph.D.). This is a mistake as a general policy. If you develop something that is a contribution to the discussion in a subject, ask your advisor’s help in revising it for publication. And, depending on the extent of the advisor’s contribution, you should acknowledge this help in a reference note, or perhaps invite the advisor to be listed as second author. For a good introduction to writing and publishing, see Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors (rev.ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Larry Hurtado is a scholar of early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at The University of Edinburgh. He was Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins until his retirement in August 2010.


1 reply to “Academic Positions: The Application and Interview

  1. Don

    I’m a bit late, but anyhow let me comment. That’s a great essay! Thanks for this. Still, I don’t understand the actual *interview process*! If I’m invited to give a presentation (20 min + questions) where all the faculty are invited; and then I have a separate “interview”, what does this latter interview consists in? Should I prepare a presentation also for this latter interview? Or does it consist only with questions and answers?


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