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Nov 02 2013

Wondering how to get an academic job?

Show interest in the local area, no matter how barren

Here’s a four-page comic book guide to the process. It’s very useful and very accurate, although it does leave out the essential tip I discovered when I was going through a long chain of interviews: write down a reminder in your hotel room that says where you are and what university you are at. It’s really awful when you forget exactly where you are and confuse your interview site with their bitter academic rivals.

Step four, though, also made me wonder if this guide was written for all the candidates we’ll be interviewing in Morris.

(Speaking of which, I’m on the search committee for a new position in statistics/computer science, in which we hope to also snare someone with an interest in bioinformatics. Watch for it if you think you fit that description. Remember to say nice things about your long, long drive through the snow-covered cornfields to reach the interview, and make flattering compliments about our delightful grain elevators.)

30 comments

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  1. 1
    hopeleith

    “right down a reminder”? oh dear PZ

  2. 2
    chigau (違う)

    Those things in the picture are not grain elevators.
    You still have grain elevators?

  3. 3
    cswella

    @hopeleith:

    He means right-handed people, lefties don’t have a chance in academics.

  4. 4
    carlie

    Yes to everything.

    It’s really awful when you forget exactly where you are and confuse your interview site with their bitter academic rivals.

    Not just knowing where you’re at, but the basic info about the school itself. There’s little that’s more discouraging than having a candidate sitting across from you talking about how their research is entirely dependent on having a cadre of graduate students and how much they’re looking forward to hosting postdocs when your school doesn’t have any graduate programs. Sitting there watching one of the three chances you have to get a decent colleague evaporate before your eyes is not a happy experience. I hadn’t thought before that this may be a result of confusing the colleges rather than just not knowing to begin with, but some of the shocked looks on people’s faces as we walk around campus seem to indicate that they didn’t even realize that one of the colleges they were applying to was so small, not just that they forgot which one they were flying to that day.

  5. 5
    noodle

    At the very least, take a look at some student in the front row wearing a college sweatshirt, in case you get stage fright and blank out on the school name during your talk. (Seen it happen many times)

  6. 6
    PZ Myers

    I researched every place I interviewed at. I specifically looked up potential colleagues so I’d have an idea of what kind of related research opportunities would be available. I knew ‘em inside out.

    But there was one two week period where I had about 7 interviews. I’d fly out, fly back to my home airport, and immediately get in line for the next flight out. There was one interview where I was so tired that I lost track of which midwestern college I was at, and I started asking at the interview dinner about Dr So-and-so…who was at a completely different university. Not good. After that I laid out a reminder about what I’d considered important about the place in my research, and had it to read first thing in the morning.

    Another factor was the constant bouncing about in different time zones. I hadn’t a clue about what hour it was, so sometimes that dinner felt like a midnight snack.

  7. 7
    carlie

    I’d also expand on the “find out what job needs done and no one will do” angle: find out about how their departments operate and what kind of faculty governance system they have, especially if it’s a smaller place, especially if you are a new grad or postdoc. Someone who can answer “how do you see yourself fitting in and contributing to our department” with “Since I’ve supervised some student research, I’d like to work with the person who assigns lab rotations if they need help” or “I know I’d be developing a few of my own classes, so if a slot is open I’d like to be on the college-wide curriculum committee to learn how to formulate my contributions to the program” will be met with tears of gratitude that you are, indeed, possibly someone who Gets It, and who will not be thrown into discombobulation at discovering the dark side of academia. Just don’t be too specific, or at least list a couple of options, for fear of stepping on the toes of the curmudgeon who has had that committee assignment for 30 years and will not give it up.

  8. 8
    carlie

    But there was one two week period where I had about 7 interviews.

    Holy crap. Talk about brutal! That’s stress and sleep deprivation on a massive scale.

  9. 9
    PZ Myers

    But it’s a good problem to have!

  10. 10
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    It’s really awful when you forget exactly where you are and confuse your interview site with their bitter academic rivals.

    This is true in any field. One of my friends screwed up an interview with Fish & Wildlife because the first question the hiring official asked was, “What is the mission of the US Fish and Wildlife Service?” He answered with a quote from the NPS’ Organic Act. Right Department, wrong Agency.

  11. 11
    Trebuchet

    …write down a reminder in your hotel room that says where you are…

    A little off topic reminiscing: About fifty years ago — almost exactly fifty years, now that I think about it — I was on a stage in Montana with President John F Kennedy. I was in my high school band — one of three on the stage — and we played “Hail to the Chief”. When JFK started his speech, he said “I’m very proud to be here today in…” (long pause while he looked at his notes) “Billings”. It was about his third stop of the day and he literally had no idea where he was.

    He also looked very, very tired.

  12. 12
    larrylyons

    that brings back nightmares of my rather limited academic career. The interviews were nightmarish and brutal. The worst question was when some older faculty member grilled me about some point in Fraudian, sorry Freudian, Psychology, which I was essentially clueless on. The only thing I could remember about it was that the whole issue was discredited years before. On the plus side is was a great campus in Oregon.

  13. 13
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    since your personal interests include not being anywhere near a theater, opera house, symphony or having an escalator in town.

    It’s like she knows me!

  14. 14
    Zeno

    There’s little that’s more discouraging than having a candidate sitting across from you talking about how their research is entirely dependent on having a cadre of graduate students and how much they’re looking forward to hosting postdocs when your school doesn’t have any graduate programs.

    Amazingly enough, this occurs even at community colleges. It’s also a mistake on our part, of course, when we invite a research-oriented candidate to an interview at our two-year school. We should have picked up on that from the application and screened the applicant out. We don’t have juniors and seniors, let alone grad students eager to advance a new professor’s research agenda! (And the teaching demo at the interview is vital, not incidental!)

  15. 15
    Rey Fox

    But it’s a good problem to have!

    We must be in different situations. I’ve interviewed for 11 jobs this year, and it hasn’t been a good problem for me.

  16. 16
    Rey Fox

    My latest interview was with folks in a town somewhere in PZ Land, so that picture up there certainly pings my recognition.

    I’m not applying for academic jobs, but I just got a pretty-much useless advanced degree.

  17. 17
    Larry

    None of this is unique to the academic world. It is always a good idea to know something about the university or business you’re interviewing with. Being able to intelligently discuss the firm’s business and products demonstrates an interest in what they do. Sure, it may only be a cover to get your foot in the door, but if you can fake sincerity, the rest is easy.

  18. 18
    michaelvieths

    There’s a Biomedical Informatics and Computational Biology program based out of the Rochester campus of the U of MN and colocated with the Twin Cities campus (I’m graduating from that program with an MS after this semester). The DGS (Claudia Neuhauser) may be able to point you to some candidates.

  19. 19
    brucegee1962

    I’m a veteran of many, many interviews in the middle of nowhere. For those of you in similar situations, here’s the all-purpose answer that eventually, I suspect, may have helped get me a job at a local or community college:

    “It’s occurred to me that if (Big State University) were to close tomorrow, all the students would be able to apply and go to somewhere else by next week. But if (School I was applying to at the moment) were to close, most of these students wouldn’t have any other options for higher education. So which place is more important?”

    I figured many of my interviewers might be having questions about how they themselves ended up there. So if I made them feel good about themselves, maybe they’d feel good about me.

  20. 20
    Rich Woods

    I think I now understand more about what some of my colleagues have said to me. I think I now understand more about the importance of vicodin and Thunderbird.

  21. 21
    iknklast

    PZ, I think #4 was written with my job in mind. Only they forgot to add, and that you want to be as close as possible to religious right tea party wingnuts so your brain will explode quickly when it’s your time to go.

  22. 22
    Kristjan Wager

    One of my friends screwed up an interview with Fish & Wildlife because the first question the hiring official asked was, “What is the mission of the US Fish and Wildlife Service?”

    You’d think the hiring official would know this, wouldn’t you?

  23. 23
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Kristjan Wager:

    You’d think the hiring official would know this, wouldn’t you?

    Of course the hiring official knew this. Asking a prospective hire a question that tells the interviewer if the person understands the mission of the federal agency they are trying to get a job with makes sense. When I got a phone interview with different national parks when I was trying to get a full time permanent position, I made damned sure that I not only knew the NPS mission, but also the reason that particular unit was a part of the system. D screwed up by not knowing the reason the hiring agency existed and then exacerbated it by quoting the mission of a different agency.

  24. 24
    Reginald Selkirk

    since your personal interests include not being anywhere near a theater, opera house, symphony or having an escalator in town.

    This reminds me of a funny bit in one of Bill Bryson’s books, The Lost Continent. He describes his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, which he considered to be a robust metropolis. In the Spring, when all the high school athletes and their families came in from the small towns for sports championships, he would hang around downtown Des Moines and offer to instruct the rubes in the use of escalators.

  25. 25
    neuroturtle

    Timely! I’m in the process of applying to lots of these. If UMM calls me back, I’ll know just what to say!

  26. 26
    carlie

    Reginald – I went to college in a town so small I was surprised it was able to sustain itself, but it was the place that all the high school kids came to from the smaller towns up to 45 minutes or so around to get a taste of the “big city”. The preferred activity was to cruise around the square. Literally. There was a town square, and they would all drive around it all night.

  27. 27
    carlie

    (I have since broadened my horizons such that I completely understand their perspective)

  28. 28
    michaelbusch

    PZ:

    (Speaking of which, I’m on the search committee for a new position in statistics/computer science, in which we hope to also snare someone with an interest in bioinformatics. Watch for it if you think you fit that description.

    I obviously don’t, but a friend of mine, Emma Goldberg, might know some people who would be interested in the job. She’s just started at the U’s St. Paul campus: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~eeg/home.html

  29. 29
    futurechemist

    It’s all good advice, but I’d love to know how to get the interviews in the first place. Over the past 2 years I’ve applied to about 45 academic tenure-track jobs and only gotten a single on-campus interview. I’ve had colleagues check my application materials which they say are very well written, I’m applying to positions within my field of expertise and narrowly targeted to a specific type of university, and 7 phone interviews I had seemed to go well. It gets very disheartening at times.

  30. 30
    mothra

    How will the ‘stealth’ Intelligent Design candidates be uncovered in the interview process? They seem to lurk in engineering, bio-chemistry and computer science departments.

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