The First-Round Interview Versus the Campus Visit

Question: I am going on my first-ever campus interview soon, and I see that there is an “interview with the search committee” on the itinerary. But I already did an interview with all of the committee members over Skype. Will this next “interview with the search committee” be much different? Are they going to ask me the same questions? Will it be the same people?

That’s a logical question for a first-time candidate, as that sequence of events must seem redundant. But it really isn’t. Everyone knows that a campus interview is a coup that propels you into the next level of the academic-hiring game. A campus visit will involve many things that go well beyond the scope of those quickie, first-round interviews conducted long distance via technology or in person at a scholarly conference.

In a campus visit, you won’t have to deal with the technical problems of a Skype interview or face a screen full committee members who have positioned themselves like a cheerleading pyramid so they can all fit into the camera view. You also won’t have the awkwardness of a conference interview where you are seated in a large expo hall separated from the other 50 hopefuls by a thin translucent blue curtain that is supposed to create an illusion of privacy — or worse, in a hotel room where seating is so limited that either you or a member of the search committee has to sit on the bed.

The campus interview is a whole different stage of the game, and yet there is that seemingly redundant “interview with the search committee” on the itinerary. That is extremely common during campus visits, if not universal. No, the committee members haven’t forgotten that you already did this, and no, they won’t necessarily ask you the same questions — because the functions of the Skype/conference interview and the campus visit are very different.

A first-round interview is best thought of as a screening tool. It’s about ticking certain boxes. By this point, the search committee has already waded through hundreds of applications looking for candidates who meet certain things (those things will of course vary somewhat — depending on the type of institution and the needs of the department — but will generally comprise some of the following: well-written job documents, teaching experience in the requisite areas, research interests that fit departmental needs, and particular experience relevant to the job, like being able to run a lab.) The committee winnows down those many applicants to a “long shortlist” of 12 to 15 people for first-round interviews.

Those interviews are short (some may last as little as 15 minutes) and uniform (the questions tend to be extremely standardized and possibly approved by the institution’s HR department). A Skype or conference interview doesn’t really allow for in-depth substantive engagement between you and your potential colleagues. It exists to check another set of boxes:

  • Can you speak engagingly and coherently about your research and plans for publication?
  • Can you describe your teaching vision and a class you would like to teach without stumbling, meandering, or lapsing into grandiosity?
  • Are you genuinely interested in the position — evidenced by things like your having done homework on the department and asked informed, strategic questions of the interviewers.

So even when the committee is done screening all of the applicants, it is still screening the smaller pool of candidates via the first-round interviews.

The campus visit is where the real interview happens. Your second “interview with the search committee” is the substantive one. It’s not a screening tool. Instead of 15 minutes, this time you will speak with the full committee for an hour or 90 minutes, and that meeting will be just one piece of a long agenda. The search committee already knows you tick all the boxes — that’s why it flew you out. The substance of the questions might overlap with what the committee members already asked you the first time around, but the context and depth will be different.

An important aside about something I’m often asked: If they do repeat a question, you can repeat an answer you gave in the initial interview. Because guess what? They don’t remember the specifics of what you said one or two months earlier. So feel free to discuss the same proposed course or research project that you mentioned before — just offer some additional elaboration.

Here are some things you might be asked during your second interview with the search committee:

  • You have now had a chance to meet the other members of the department, and get to know our institution and our programmatic priorities a bit. How do you see your research fitting in with our trajectory? (Translation: Do you “get” what we’re about, or will you want to march to the beat of your own drum?)
  • Can you think of possible links or collaborations between your research and that of other faculty members here? (Translation: Do you play well with others? Will you play well with us?)
  • You have now had a chance to guest-teach our undergraduates (and/or have a Q&A session with our graduate students). In what ways do you think your teaching or mentorship can speak to them and their priorities? (Translation: Are our students going to be happy with you? Are your teaching evaluations going to be good?)
  • In your job talk you mentioned X as the next phase of your research. What resources would you need for that? Our campus is somewhat limited in A or B. Could your research be scaled in a way that we could support at this campus, and still be successful? (Translation: Is your tenure case going to fall apart because we don’t have the budget to buy the expensive equipment you need?)
  • Tell us about two courses you would develop for us. (Translation: Yes, we know we asked this identical question at the preliminary interview. You can use the same two courses. but this time, can you give us specifics, ideally with prepared syllabi or course descriptions to hand out?)

In my book, my columns, and my blog posts, I stress the importance of the tailoring paragraph — the key paragraph of a cover letter where you explain why you are suited for a particular position. Think of the on-campus interview as the live-action version of the tailoring paragraph. Meaning: In commenting on your vision for your scholarship and pedagogy, you are expected to calibrate and tailor your answer in real time to what you have seen up to that moment on the campus visit.

So go through the visit with that in mind, and look for ways to make connections. For example:

  • That new project a professor mentioned at lunch on telepathy in Fiordland penguins? Maybe it dovetails with a research strand you have recently become interested in on collective unconscious in Tasmanian emus. This is a perfect moment to say that you were very excited to hear about this professor’s research, as you see possibilities for productive overlaps with your own work.
  • Those master’s students who took you on a campus tour and talked about how worried they were about finding jobs after they graduate? Maybe there was an internship program at your alma mater that you could envision replicating here.
  • This is also the moment (especially at public institutions that primarily serve the surrounding population) where you might be asked, flat-out, whether you would be able to develop research projects that are locally based — both to strengthen town-gown relations and to provide students with nearby research opportunities. The answer to that questions is yes (if you want the job). Think about how you might be able to do such research in a way that would also be interesting and meaningful to you — it does not have to be your only project, but you have to be able to say something cogent about it on the spot, if required.

In sum, your campus interview with the search committee will be different from the first go-round. Expect to be screened against general criteria at the preliminary interview, and quizzed far more substantively in the context of the ecology of the campus you are visiting. Keep your eyes open for ways to show that you won’t just be a successful academic — you will also be a successful colleague to this specific group of people.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .

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