Note: two updates!
Although it's obviously not APA interview time yet, Helen De Cruz and I have chosen to forge ahead with our Job Market Boot Camp with a co-post on APA interviews. This post will be split into two parts: Part 1 by Helen, and Part 2 by me. Hope you all find it helpful!
Part 1, by Helen De Cruz
The first-round APA interview
The authors of this joint post have had a fair number of Skype and onsite APA first-round interviews between them. This post will be about first-round interviews, especially in the American market. We'll look at key features of the successful first-round interview, and then look in more detail at the nuts and bolts of interviewing in person (as compared to Skype, which will be covered in a later Boot Camp post). While the number of first-round APA interviews is diminishing, there are still schools who prefer to do it this way, and we also hope some of the advice offered here can be transferred to other contexts.
Brush up on those thespian qualities
The interview is a performance - be prepared and practice (in front of a mirror, your spouse, your cat). In space of less than 30 minutes, you have to come across as a potential colleague. Without practice, this is almost impossible to pull off unless you can think quickly and coherently under enormous stress.
Practice saying your answers out loud, preferably to someone else. A colleague in your field could give you feedback of what went right or wrong so that is the ideal situation, but if not possible, rehearsing aloud to anyone (even your cat) would be giving you more of a sense of what it feels like to say those answers to someone else. If no living being is available, the mirror is still an option. You need some mock questions to rehearse. You don't know what they will ask, of course, but to some extent questions will be predictable, e.g., why are you interested in this position, what teaching experience you have, your research plans over he next years, how would you teach intro to philosophy (in our experience, something small liberal arts colleges are keen to learn), some specific questions on the writing sample, the inevitable "any questions for us" (more on this below).
How to appear professional and confident: Concision, Commitment, and Concreteness
You need to come across as a potential colleague: professional, knowledgeable, collegial. Here are the three features to help you accomplish this:
Concision: Many job candidates are insecure and keep on talking (rambling even), until stopped by a SC member, which is embarrassing. Common advice for job interviews is to speak for about 2 minutes when answering a question. You can use rehearsed answers for this (see above), and it is perfectly fine to think a moment to collect your thoughts to think what is important to say. Resist the urge to go into irrelevant detail. Wrap up your answer by a clear concluding sentence, so they know they can move on.
Commitment: Many job candidates are afraid their answers are not to the liking of the SC, and in wanting to please everyone, they hedge their claims. For instance:
- How would you teach an intro to philosophy course?
- Hedged Answer: Well, I've taught the intro last year, and you know, there are lots of approaches that work for different people. There are Problem-Based, Historical or Figure-Based philosophy courses, and I've known fantastic historical and figure-based philosophy courses, but personally, I've found the problem-based works best because we can then focus on specific problems and this is more memorable. Of course, I'd be happy to teach in any other way if required.
- Committed answer: I've taught intro to philosophy last year to majors in business and computer science, and given that they work in a problem-focused way, I've chosen a problem-based approach, centered around a few select topics in philosophy of mind, ethics, and epistemology. For example, we looked at Plato's argument for innate knowledge and compared this to contemporary nativist science-informed arguments by Fodor and Stitch, and we used primary texts that we read in-depth. As a result, students got a sense of how philosophers work and what kinds of questions they address.
The committed answer is better because the candidate provides a motivation for her answer, and gives a sense of how she works rather than trying to please everyone.
Concreteness: The example above also illustrates another good feature of the first-round interview. Even though it's ultra-short, you have the time to provide a concrete, meaty example that makes vivid how your research and teaching work. It's hard to recall concrete examples like these on the spot, especially if you've taught a number of years, so it is advisable to think of some examples beforehand.
In every answer, keep in mind your aim
Just like in chess, it is important to always keep the endgame in mind (to checkmate the king) your answers ultimately serve one aim: to net the job. So your answers should be functional in that respect. Try to give answers that give them more reasons to hire you. For instance, when asked why you are interested in the position, you should not just tell them what you like about their department, but especially how you provide a good fit with the department. Of course not by saying "I'm a good fit", but "I've seen that the University of X caps class sizes and has small-scale seminars. I have experience teaching in this format, and I find it a very rewarding way of teaching."
Any questions for us?
This provides an opportunity to further illustrate your fit to the position. Do not use this space to ask when you will hear back, it makes you look desperate. Do not ask questions that might make the SC members feel uncomfortable, and do not go on and on with a super-long question. It should thus be a brief question that illustrates you did your homework on the department. For instance "Could you tell me a bit more about [society or joint project between philosophers and say, the neuroscience department] that I found out about on your website?" is usually a safe question, although one of us had a not so good moment here when one of the SC replied "Well, that project is defunct. We haven't had any funding, and we've been unable to do anything with this project, for one thing, using the MRI machine has become more expensive, so we'd need to apply for new funding to start this up again."
The APA setting
While for philosophy conference interviews are slowly petering out, we have heard this is not the case for other disciplines. APA interviews for tenure track positions take place at the Eastern APA meeting in winter. This used to be between Christmas and New Year, but this has now been moved. There are two types of interviews: one type is at a conference table in a ballroom, the other in a hotel suite (no longer, thankfully, in a non-suite hotelroom), all depending on the school’s resources. Also an improvement is that the interview-after-the-interview at the so-called Smoker (reception) is disappearing. Whatever the setting, it is still very stressful and awkward – definitely a big difference between the conference interview and the skype interview.
Part 2, by Marcus Arvan
I agree with just about everything Helen wrote above, and mostly would just like to make a few points of emphasis.
- Practice a lot. Some of us don't like to practice, and think we come off better "winging it." I used to think this. Maybe you do in some circumstances, but interviews are not most circumstances. They are usually stressful, and you will be competing against people who have practiced a lot--people who, because they have practiced so much, will come off very put together and professional. Don't discount that one of the things a committee is probably looking for is conscientiousness itself--someone who obviously "put the time in" to have strong, concise, well-thought-out answers that address the job in question. My wife and I practiced in our living room, while on walks, while I took a shower, etc. The more prepared you are, the better.
- Practice with someone. Some of us are embarrassed to do mock job-interviews. I am. But my wife forced me to do them with her, over and over again, and I am incredibly thankful to her for that. Practicing with someone has a number of benefits. First, it puts you under a spotlight. There's nothing like having to answer questions looking at someone, especially if they simulate the kinds of personalities you might encounter (my wife made ambiguous faces, etc., to try to throw me off, so my performance wouldn't be affected by how I felt the interview was going). Second, other people can spot features of your performance that you might not. For instance, my wife and many other people--including my grad school advisors--have told me I "make faces" when thinking and speaking, faces that seem to disclose my inner emotions but which in reality are misleading (I tend to frown when thinking, which I've been told makes me look irritated or angry). My wife helped me practice on this a lot, and I think it was incredibly helpful.
- Know the job and department inside and out: Generally speaking, people like it when you care about things they care about. For each of my interviews last year, I knew the university's mission statement and goals, departmental mission and goals, their course offerings, the courses their job ad indicates you are likely to teach, and so on. The more you know about the job, and the more you tailor your answers to it--showing how your teaching and research address the institution's and department's goals, etc., the better. Not only that: you need to be aware of the kind of school you are applying to. Research schools are looking for researchers, not teachers--and in my experience most of your interview time for these will be spent on research. SLACs are a bit more hard to parse, but you can usually get how research-focused they are by examining their website. Some SLACs have pretty large philosophy departments with well-published faculty. Others don't even have a philosophy department. And, in my experience, these differences matter. For the former types of SLACs, questions were all over the map: some interviews focused a surprising amount on research, and some hardly at all. But, at the latter SLACs--ones who clearly did not focus on research--some of my interviews were entirely on teaching. So, again, you had better know your stuff: know the courses they offer, how you might teach them, etc.
- Prepare clear, concise answers in advance: Again, some of us like to "wing it." But I have heard from many people that one of the worst things one can do is ramble--that rambling is the sure sign of a bad interview (making the candidate look unprepared and uncertain). Beyond practicing concision, there is one sure-fire way to ensure that you don't ramble: write out answers to possible questions in bullet-point form, such that if you get a question in the ballpark, your answer goes, "Great question! First,... Second,... Third..." This will help you make your answers direct, well-organized, and concise. And don't worry about your answers sounding "canned." You need to practice not making them sound canned, much as you do as a teacher or paper-presenter. For each interview I prepared for last year, I prepared three separate documents of questions and answers, each of which was 2-3 pages single-spaced: General Questions addressing the university and department; Research Questions; and Teaching Questions.
- Give some thought to the department's situation: This is an interesting tip I learned from the job-market consultant I used. When she helped me prepare for one interview, she looked at the department's website, noted that the philosophy department was tiny, and with no early-career professors, and said, "Either they have trouble keeping people or they haven't hired someone in ages, and this is the first TT line they've had in decades. Either way, they want to hire someone will stay, not jump ship for a better job in a few years." This point turned out to be prescient later on, as (during an on-campus) the dean basically asked me in no uncertain terms whether I would stick around. Again, know the department you are applying to. The kind of person a search-committee is looking for depends on a lot of things, some of which you can spot for yourself if you look closely enough.
- Don't 'be yourself': Although you often hear the saying "just be yourself", there are good reasons to think this is terrible advice for the academic job-market. Your job in the interview is to convince people to hire you, and chances are, if you are a normal human being, there are things about your normal self that are off-putting, frustrating, etc. You need to be your best self at the interview, projecting more calm confidence, and so on, than your normal self may be inclined to.
- Project quiet confidence, not obseqiousness or grandiosity: One of the biggest problems candidates face, or so I've been told, is "coming off like a grad student" or otherwise as someone "not the equal" of the people interviewing you (i.e. as someone desperate to get a job). Remember, people on search committees are looking to hire a peer, a professor. So, you need to act and talk like one--as someone worthy of being hired for the position, not someone desperate to prove you belong. The key seems to be "quiet confidence." Avoid selling yourself short, diminishing your accomplishments, but also avoid over-selling yourself. Just be forthright, explaining your research, teaching, and other things you would bring to the position in a professional, even-handed way. Yes, this is difficult, and yes, it takes practice (a lot of it!). But again, that's what practice is for.
- Use the 'do you have a question for us?' as an opportunity to show knowledge and interest in the department: Ask a question about their ethics institute, ethics bowl team, philosophy club, or anything else the department emphasizes on their website...
- Some interviews will go better than others: No matter how well you prepare, some interviews will go well and some will go badly. There are simply too many variables to account for--off the wall questions, committees who appear disinterested (perhaps because they have already made up their mind who they want to hire), aggressive committee members, or just nerves on your part. Bad interviews, like journal rejections, are an inherent part of the game. I prepared the same way of a bunch of interviews last year, some of which went brilliantly and others that were a total disaster. Be kind to yourself and move on. It's all you can do. Also, don't think that you can tell how well an interview went! During my first year on the market in grad school, I had two interviews early on, one I thought went well and the other I thought was a disaster--yet our placement director heard through the grape vine (so to speak) that the committees judged me the exact opposite way (the interview I thought went well was judged to be a disaster, and the one I thought was a disaster was judged to have gone well). Even last year, I had an interview that I felt sure would lead nowhere turn into an on-campus. So, it's really hard to tell.
I'm probably leaving a few things out, but these are some of the best tips I can think of. If I come up with any more, I'll add an update below. In any case, I hope you all found this post helpful, and I know Helen and I both look forward to questions and discussion!
Updates: a few more tips occurred to me...
- A great tip for avoiding rambling: My wife taught me a brilliant tip on how to avoid the biggest interview pitfall, rambling. The tip was this: each answer you practice should have a beginning, middle, and end, just like a story. Your first sentence or two introduces your rationale for the answer that follows. Then you have a list of, say, three points to make. Then have a planned "wrap-up." Stick to that template and you won't ramble!
- Know who's interviewing you: Sometimes the people who offer you an APA interview will tell you who's going to interview, and sometimes they won't. In any case, find out (politely ask, if you have to), and brush up on the people interviewing you. Sometimes they may even be people from other departments (this happened to me last year. One of my interviews was conducted mainly by people from outside of philosophy!).