Showing Your Best Self in the Campus Interview

Every time I’ve served on a faculty search committee — five so far — we’ve invited three or four candidates to the campus for two-day visits. Each of those searches resulted in one of two clear outcomes: an obvious front-runner or a failed search. How the candidates came across in person was the determining factor.

As search-committee members, we read all sorts of self-promotional cover letters and glowing recommendations from strangers — and take them with a grain of salt. But our in-person interactions with candidates? Those we take at face value. What you say and do won’t be debated or understood from multiple perspectives. The person you present during your visit to our campus is the person the committee will assume you to be.

So here — in the finale of a three-part series on the tenure-track job market — I want to stress the importance of the campus visit (for those lucky enough to get that far in the hiring process). Allow me to offer advice on how to ensure you present your best, and most authentic, self.

The job talk. Candidates usually worry the most about this aspect of a campus visit, and rightfully so. The job talk is perhaps the most important hour of your 48-hour visit. Even at my small teaching-focused college, candidates’ job talks are given significant consideration in the hiring decision.

The goal of a job talk, from the applicant’s perspective, should be to communicate the necessity and value of your research agenda. From the search committee’s perspective, the goal is to assess a candidate’s capacity to enhance the research repertoire of the department and the institution. In other words, we are figuring out if you can accomplish with us what your research statement says you will accomplish. And if you do accomplish it, will anyone care?

That may sound harsh but, truly, some of the worst job talks I’ve witnessed are ones in which the candidate’s primary research area seems inconsequential. I am left thinking, “Why would you spend your time researching and writing about this?” But consider: The problem may not be your topic at all, but the way you are presenting it. To avoid being that candidate, follow these tips:

  • Be certain that your talk clearly communicates the importance of your research agenda. Begin with a statement of a problem that your research seeks to confront, or a gap in the field that your work could fill. Imagine someone asking you, “Why do we need this book/study?” Answer that question within the first five minutes of your talk.
  • Organize your presentation so that by the end of it, you’ve demonstrated how your research will solve that problem or fill that gap. To do so, your talk must have the appropriate scope. Don’t propose to solve a problem it will take 40 years to solve. Focus your talk on a step in the problem-solving process, noting your methodology and highlighting how the outcome of your work gets the field closer to new understandings.
  • Similarly, follow disciplinary conventions in your job talk. Think about how people present papers at the top conference in your field and use that as your template: If it’s common to use PowerPoint in a conference presentation, do so in your job talk. If scholars rely heavily on handouts for visual data, be sure to have handouts on a table by the door. This is not the time to wow the committee with your eccentricity; this is the time to present yourself as a credible scholar in the field.
  • Finally, attend to the logistics. When you go over time in your talk, you force us to cut you off so that we may ask questions, and that’s annoying. Also irritating: the candidate whose slides contain blurry, tiny images and/or an overwhelming amount of text. And perhaps the most offensive candidate: the one who clearly didn’t practice the talk and is relying on charm to captivate the audience.

Of course, even following all of that advice won’t help you overcome a lack of content knowledge. Search committees include faculty members from all ranks and many disciplines — meaning that someone in the audience is likely to be deeply familiar with the research you cite and/or with your research methods. Be prepared for questions that challenge you to discuss micro aspects of your research that you may have long stopped thinking about.

The teaching demonstration. Not all campus visits include a teaching demo, but if yours does, it’s a safe bet that the search committee cares deeply about the quality of your teaching. It’s not easy to plop a guest instructor into an ongoing course, and it’s perhaps even more difficult to get random students to show up for a mock class at 4 p.m.

So if the search committee has gone through the hassle of finding a course in which you (and the other candidates) can guest lecture, please be sure to put your best pedagogical foot forward. Even if you have very little teaching experience, you can get through a course meeting if you attend to the following:

  • Students must be able to imagine you as their professor. As such, you need to follow the pedagogical tendencies of the department and the institution. If most faculty members on the campus lecture, you need to lecture. If the institution has lots of discussion-based courses, build your demo around that. Students are often less forgiving of candidate missteps than the search committee as they have little knowledge about you, the job search, or the difficulties of teaching. All they know is that their class continues to be disrupted by guest lecturers who may or may not do a good job.
  • At some point in your teaching demo, even if you are mostly lecturing, you need to interact with the students. That can be as simple as asking them questions, requesting volunteers to pass out papers, or doing a quick think-pair-share. Be sure to ask students their names before they speak and, if you can pull it off, use their names in examples or refer to them later by name. Students notice such small acts and will mention them on your evaluations.
  • The teaching demo is not just about your instructional practices. It is also about your assessment methods. It’s wise to begin the demo with a quick formative assessment to gauge students’ existing knowledge about a topic. That will give you a good starting point for the lesson. About halfway through the class, check in to see if they are following along. Most important, end the class with a summative assessment that demonstrates growth in students’ learning. The most successful and easiest way to do that would be to use audience-response systems, also known as “clickers.” If such technology isn’t available, ask students to write a one-minute paper or have them explain the “muddiest point” of your lesson on index cards.

The best advice I can give to candidates preparing for a teaching demonstration is to take it as seriously as you take the job talk. Do a little research on the course (request the syllabus and recent readings), write a lesson plan, and practice. Even if the institution is not teaching-focused, an engaging demo can leverage you above other candidates who read from PowerPoint slides.

The meetings. Between the job talk, teaching demo, and meals will be a series of meetings. You will meet with professors (some of whom may not be on the search committee), department staff members, students, and, depending on the size of the institution, the dean or the provost. These sessions are probably the aspect of a campus visit for which it’s most difficult to prepare. In my experience, the content of the various meetings is rarely coordinated by the search committee. They are simply an opportunity for people to get to know you more personally.

The best way to prepare is to do your homework on the search committee and the department. Come prepared with questions, but let the people you’re meeting with take the lead. Endeavor to have relaxed conversations. Answer questions honestly and humbly. Be personable, confident, and enthusiastic about the position and the place.

In fact, consider the entire campus visit an opportunity to meet new people and expand your professional network.

The most important advice I can give on this front: Be yourself. Represent your skills, interests, and person accurately. Despite the high stakes, it won’t serve your interests to oversell yourself by being arrogant, or undersell yourself by being too complimentary. Campus visits are incredibly time-consuming so be gracious to the search committee and go with the flow.

Without knowing candidates’ preferences, we do our best to arrange a schedule in which you get breaks, food, sleep, and downtime. Most hiring committees will send you the itinerary prior to your visit. If you notice that the schedule doesn’t align with your personal needs (e.g., dietary, medical, etc.), immediately contact the chair and request minor changes, being sure to provide a rationale. Speaking up early gives the committee more time to make changes and ensures that you won’t unknowingly communicate your irritation during your actual interview.

At the end of the day, our first priority in any search is the well-being of the institution. The campus interview helps us decide if you will contribute to that well-being or detract from it.

Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College who writes regularly for The Chronicle about early-career issues in academe. Read her previous columns here .

Read other items in this The Early-Career Scholar package.

Manya Whitaker is an associate professor of education at Colorado College and chair of its education department. She writes regularly for The Chronicle about early-career issues in academe.

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