Do Your Homework

My final year of graduate school, I went on the academic job market. I received four invitations for on-campus interviews [aka flyouts], and I attended each.  Unfortunately, I did not receive a job offer from any of these universities. The following year, the first year of my postdoc at Cornell University, I applied for only two jobs, received a campus interview for one of the jobs (Ohio State), and I landed the job. Very little changed on my CV in terms of publication and presentations between those two years. I had the postdoc and had finished my dissertation the second year, and the first year I was pregnant, so those things could have made a difference in why I got the job offer my second year and I did not my first. But, one significant thing did change over that time – my behavior and preparation – and I believe that is why I got the job the second time around.

photo credit: John-Morgan via photopin cc

photo credit: John-Morgan via photopin cc

The first time I was on the job market, I read over the CVs of people in the department prior to the interview, and I had a generic list of questions that I asked individuals I met with based on their rank. For instance, I asked assistant professors about their experiences on the tenure track, I asked department chairs about their vision of the department, etc. I felt pretty confident going into these interviews – they wanted me! Yet, just because you are a department’s first choice (I was told this by one of the departments) does not mean you are going to get the job. Our job when we are interviewing you is to flatter you and sell ourselves and our location. We are going to make you feel special. However, we are evaluating you from the time you step off of the plane.

As I was preparing for my interview at Ohio State, a colleague of mine who had recently moved from a small liberal arts college to Cornell gave me this advice. Do your homework. Read the scholarly publications of everyone that you are meeting with. Really get to know what they work on, and show genuine interest. When you meet with them, engage in some small talk, but then ask them about their research. Share your thoughts on their research, and show how it connects to your own research.  He shared with me how he had meetings with faculty members, and they would say “Ithaca is a great place to live” and he would respond with “that is great, but actually, I read your paper, and I was really fascinated by XX, and I wanted to ask you about YY.”

I took this advice. Prior to my interview, I read papers by every single person I met with (as long as I could find them) from junior faculty to the dean, and I typed out questions for each of them. I then would pull out my question list (in a portfolio) when I met with someone, and I would remind myself what I was going to ask them about. The faculty were flattered that I had taken the time to read their work, and our conversations were much more substantial than they would have been had I not read their work. If you already have a tenure-track position and are trying to get hired at a more senior level, I think it is smart to read the work of graduate students you meet with as well. I think that this shows the department that you are interested in graduate education and it shows the graduate students that you are going to be a good mentor because you took the time to learn about them. Everyone feels special when someone takes the time to learn about them. No one wants a colleague who is self-centered and inconsiderate.

I often wonder now what would have happened had I done my homework better the first time around. Would I have convinced the associate professor who hadn’t published in a while that I valued his/her opinion by having read his/her work and showed an interest, and gotten a vote from that person when the candidates were discussed? After talking with a department chair of one of the departments that rejected me, I was told that the faculty thought that I flipped my hair too much during my job talk, and basically that they thought I was flighty. The department chair told me that they told the faculty “well, she was pregnant”. These are the kinds of petty things that were discussed, seriously. Perhaps if I had been a little nicer and more complimentary, they would not have trying to find things to criticize. Of course, after hearing what the discussion entailed, I was very happy I did not get that job! Who would want colleagues who pay attention to my hair, rather than my record? All in all, I am very happy about where I landed for my first job, and my postdoc was incredible. I would change nothing about my path. But, I would have liked to have had more job offers and choice of where to go. I think if I would have done my homework that first time around I would have had that.

As a final note, we rarely have candidates in to interview who have “done their homework” and we are all very impressed and flattered when we do. Most of the time, candidates have no idea what kind of work I do when they meet with me. But, they expect me to know exactly what they do.

So, if you go on the market and you want to land the job, do your homework, and realize that showing a genuine interest in your future colleagues can go a long way, even if you do not get the job. These people could eventually be asked to write you letters for tenure, or may be your discussant at a conference – so leave them with a positive impression.

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