The Broad Perspective: Challenges of the Campus Visit, from the Academic Job Search Handbook
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002; pp. 154-60)
By the time a department invites three to five candidates for an all-day visit, it has determined that all are in some sense competent. During the interview day the search committee tries to assess such intangibles as "potential," "fit," and "tenurability." On campus, it is as important to be prepared to be convincing and concise as it is at a conference. In addition, the abilities to respond flexibly to the requirements of unpredictable situations, to talk comfortably with others in informal, unstructured meetings, and to convey interest in the institution to which you're applying will help you land the job.
As institutions increasingly view tenure-track hires as major financial investments, campus visits for these positions have become longer, sometimes extending to three days. While the minimum requirements of a campus interview are usually a presentation to faculty and an interview with several faculty members, a visit might also involve teaching at least one class, one to several group faculty interviews, meetings with graduate and undergraduate students, several individual meetings, meals, a reception, and entertainment.
You may meet individuals ranging from a dean to a junior representing the departmental majors club, from genuinely stimulating potential colleagues to the curmudgeon who makes it his or her business to ask all speakers to relate their presentations to the curmudgeon's own field of thirty-year-old research. Flexibility and a sense of humor will serve you well. Be prepared for potentially problematic aspects of the visit.
The Presentation And Its Question Session
The importance of an excellent seminar, also called a job talk, can hardly be overemphasized. An outstanding seminar can make up for many other shortcomings, but a poor seminar is seldom forgiven. The seminar is used as an opportunity to assess a candidate's research; how he or she handles questions and thinks on his or her feet; how he or she performs in the classroom; and even whether he or she has a sense of humor and a stage presence that suggest he or she will be successful at conferences, in the classroom, and in other professional forums. Pay particular attention to giving the context and motivation for your research. Within the first five minutes you should convince your audience that your work is important.
In the question period following a presentation, you may receive questions that leave you at a loss, point to a weakness in your work, or are challenging to the point of hostility. Stay calm and don't let yourself be put on the defensive. Be confident enough to admit that you don't know something. Respond to even unreasonable questions reasonably. Be prepared to venture reasonable hypotheses. Practice in advance how you might respond to even the most off-the-wall questions about your presentation.
The Teaching Demonstration
In many cases you will be asked either to teach an actual class or to give a teaching demonstration. This is particularly common at community colleges, but certainly not limited to them. When the interview is scheduled, find out who will be part of the teaching demonstration. If it will be stu-dents in an actual class, find out what they have been studying. If it will be a group of faculty and/or students convened to watch your demonstration, plan to treat those people exactly as you would if they were class members. Plan to stay close to the teaching style that works best for you. If you normally give dynamic lectures, don't use the campus visit to experiment with small group work. If you shine at creating class discussions, plan an interactive session. If the group is small enough and time permits, feel free to ask everyone to introduce themselves to you before you begin.
The Broken Record Syndrome
You may meet many people throughout the day without having a very clear idea of who is critical to the decision to hire you. Simultaneously you may begin to tire of hearing yourself discuss the same subjects over and over. It's extremely important that you be enthusiastic about these topics with each new person that you meet. Everyone who meets you will want to form his or her own impression of you. So tell your story again to each new person with as much zest and interest as if it were for the first time.
Social occasions are usually part of a day-long visit. Realize that they are also part of the screening process. Follow your hosts' lead in deciding how much to talk shop and how much to talk about topics of general interest. It is a good idea, however, to seize every reasonable opportunity to discuss your work and your field. You can also appropriately ask questions during these times. Your hosts will appreciate it if you make yourself good company: ask questions of others; initiate conversation; laugh at other people's jokes; and display an interest in the people you are with.
If you have no personal objection to doing so, drink if others do, but don't drink enough to affect your behavior. Alcohol and interviewing can be a risky combination. One compromise is to have a glass of what is offered, but to drink only part of it. Particularly beware of "confessional" impulses. However friendly your hosts, do not confide that you are here just for practice, that you can't wait to put distance between yourself and your advisor, or any other statement that later you are almost sure to regret having made.
It is easier to handle these occasions if you are very outgoing than if you are shy, but shy people can convey their interest and intelligence through active questioning and perceptive listening. You must push yourself to be an active participant in the occasion. It is better to risk some less-than-perfect remarks and come across as an individual rather than as a quiet, inoffensive presence, so bland that no one is sure what you are like or what you really think.
Your Opportunity To Learn About The Institution
Interviewing is a two-way process. Even as others are assessing your candidacy for the position, you have an opportunity to learn about the institution and to decide whether or not you want to work there. Both schools and departments have their own institutional cultures. You are most likely to thrive in a department and school in which there is a reasonable measure of fit between you and the others who work and study there. Take advantage of your time on campus to learn everything you can.
Location And Physical Setting
Gauge your own reaction to the appearance of the campus. Does it strike you as lively and inviting? Or do you feel that it is impersonal? In the middle of nowhere? Impossibly urban and congested? It's unlikely that you would choose a job entirely based on its physical setting and appearance, but it is important to be able to visualize yourself as at least reasonably comfortable going to work there every day. Look carefully at the physical plant itself, particularly the part of it where you would be working. Do offices and research facilities appear adequate? If laboratory or computer facilities are particularly important in your work, your hosts will be likely to offer you a tour or demonstration of them. If they do not, however, and such facilities are important to you, ask.
Probably the single most important thing you will learn on a campus visit is what the members of the department are like. These are the people with whom you will interact on a daily basis, who will be available for discussion of ideas, and who will ultimately evaluate your performance. Will you be glad to be part of this group? It is certainly important to keep an open mind and to remember that first impressions are necessarily somewhat superficial. Nevertheless, your reactions to these individuals are some of the most important data you can gather during your visit.
Pay attention to how people appear to relate to each other. Does the departmental atmosphere appear lively and collegial? Extremely hierarchical? Are there obvious divisions between competing factions? Do people appear enthusiastic about where they are and what they are doing, or is there a pervasive sense of cynicism and discouragement?
If you are particularly interested in teaching and your visit does not include any planned meetings with students, ask faculty members to describe both students and classes. If your visit includes any free time, you may want to spend it at the student union or other campus gathering place. Listen to what students say to each other. Introduce yourself and ask them questions. Pick up copies of the student paper and of any other student-produced publications. They will give you a feel for current campus issues.
At a university, probably you will feel you work in your department and your school more than at the institution as a whole. At a college you will probably feel that the college itself is your employer. When you visit, you will probably spend at least some time with someone who represents a unit larger than your prospective department. Use this as an opportunity to evaluate the role that the department plays in the broader picture. Is it strong and respected? Slowly eroding? The bright, brash new kid on the block?
As you learn throughout the day, feel free to comment positively on what you are learning. For example, if your first interview of the day is with someone who devotes a great deal of time to describing the school's excellent computer resources, in the next interview you can explain that you were impressed with them and go on to explain why these facilities would be particularly advantageous in your own research. If you notice an extremely collegial atmosphere throughout the day, and at the end of the day the chair asks what you think of the department, by all means say that you've observed a lively exchange of ideas and are very attracted by that kind of atmosphere. Hiring committees like to know that you have read their institution correctly and can picture yourself functioning well in it.