Best Practices for Interviewers
Mary Lindemann, October 2006
One of the most uncomfortable experiences of my professional life came at a job interview, but not for the reasons that generally make the rounds as the job market equivalent of "tales from the crypt." Rather, more than once I was confronted with teams of interviewers who had no clue whatsoever about their role. More than once, I had to prompt them: "Wouldn't you like me to describe the courses I'd teach?" Or: "Let me say just a few words about how I think my research enhances my teaching." Or: "Let me suggest to you the ways in which my dissertation furthers historical debates on...." And so on. Interviewers could do much worse than read the many columns of advice given to interviewees. Interviews usually proceed in two stages. There is the preliminary interview often conducted at a professional meeting, classically the American Historical Association's annual meeting in early January. This is then normally followed up by on-campus interviews. In the latter, the institution selects a small number (typically two to four) of candidates to interview at the institution itself. In recent years, the telephone interview—often conducted as a conference call—has frequently come to replace one or both.
The Preliminary Interview
Institutions and departments follow a wide variety of practices in arranging preliminary interviews, but generally materials from candidates are reviewed by a search committee that then decides (often in consultation with the larger department or a significant subsection of it) which candidates it wants to interview at a professional meeting. While expectations differ from institution to institution, in particular depending on whether a school or department sees itself as primarily a research institution or a teaching one, it is wise to gather as much information as possible at this early stage. If you are principally interested in hiring a research scholar, dissertations (or books) and other written work should be collected as soon as is feasible and read thoroughly. A teaching institution may well be just as concerned about the research interests of a candidate, but will also take a closer look at teaching credentials, often in the form of teaching evaluations, portfolios, or candidates' statements about their teaching goals and methods. Obviously, research institutions also endeavor to identify and hire good teachers. Either way, the search committee's members are well advised to be diligent and thorough in examining the credentials of all candidates.
Next, a search committee must decide if it intends to conduct a preliminary interview at a professional meeting (e.g., at the AHA annual meeting). If so, candidates must be informed in a timely manner in order to be able to arrange transportation. The search committee must also decide how many candidates it wishes to interview. Some institutions use these preliminary interviews to screen as many candidates as possible. This is a poor practice that leaves search committees exhausted and bewildered and candidates with the feeling that they were never being seriously considered. It is far better to keep the number of interviewees small, no more than 10–12. Whether one interviews in a suite or in the Job Register, a reasonable schedule is to allocate 1 hour to each candidate. This schedule allows the search committee to talk with the candidate for about 40–45 minutes, and then catch its collective breath until the next candidate knocks at the door. In the 15-minute interval, one can also prepare for the arrival of the subsequent candidate, refreshing one's memory about her or his name and work, and even briefly reviewing the questions that seem most critical. This rather generous timing allows for interviewers and interviewees to move along at a brisk yet by no means hectic pace and avoids the unpleasantness of having one candidate lurking outside the door while another scurries out.
Interviewing teams should take with them to the meeting a small packet of materials on each candidate: a c.v. and perhaps copies of the letters of recommendation as quick refreshers. In addition, it is an excellent idea for the team to decide who will lead each interview and act as moderator. Usually either the head of the search committee or the department head fills this role. S/he should briefly lay out how the interview will proceed, offering the candidate a chance to settle in but also giving her or him some guidance. Typically, one might divide the interview into sections on teaching and then research. One should always let the candidates know that there is time planned at the end of the session (certainly 10–15 minutes) for them to pose questions. One member of the team should then wrap up by informing the candidate "where we go from here." It is appropriate to suggest what your time schedule is, telling the candidate perhaps that the department will be contacting candidates they wish to invite to campus within a certain specified period of time. Candidates should also be told how to get in touch with the team after the interview and should be told whom specifically they should contact. A business card gives all the information necessary. Candidates should also be told that if anything in their status as candidates change—that is, if they wish to withdraw their application or if they have received a job offer—that they should feel free to contact the head of the search committee by telephone or e-mail.
Questions and Style of Interview
Obviously, the questions asked at an interview are absolutely critical. The particular questions that a team will want to pose, of course, are often shaped by the exigencies of the search and by specific departmental, college, and university concerns. It is impossible, therefore, to offer a set of actual questions that can be used in all interviews. However, some guidelines are provided here to suggest possibilities. It is good to be concerned about the physical arrangements as well. While some of these—acoustics or the condition of the chairs—may be beyond the committee's control, some others are possible; for example, providing a glass or small bottle of water to each candidate will obviously be helpful.
Questions You Can Ask ... And Those That You Can't
- Have a good idea of what you want to ask in advance. Decide which questions you intend to ask all candidates and which you want to pose only to some. Obviously, there is a great deal of room for variations here and answers often provoke new questions, but having no idea in advance often leaves the committee without the information they need or want to make good choices. Some suitable and important questions are:
- Could you give us a brief explanation of what you consider the most important contributions of your scholarly work? Why did you choose this particular topic?
- What is your philosophy of teaching? How would you construct a course in ________ (and then offer specific examples relevant to the particular post)? What forms of assessment do you prefer? What sorts of courses would you like to teach?
- Where would you like to be—in terms of scholarship—10 years from now?
- What sorts of courses do you think you would like to develop and teach over the course of the next five years or so?
- Divide questions among the members of the team. If nothing else, this presents an image of equality and collegiality.
- Allow the candidate time to answer questions fully. It is, of course, permissible (even desirable) to cut off a candidate politely if s/he is going on too long.
- Do not gossip about the department or the university or bad-mouth other faculty or administrators. If there are administrative/departmental issues that are relevant (such as a changed funding situation), one should, of course, inform the candidate, but this must be done in a professional manner, not by referring, for instance, "to those total idiots in the Dean's office."
- Do not ask illegal questions. Professional guidelines (see, for example, the AHA's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct" [2005 edition]) partly determine what is an illegal question but so do individual colleges and universities. It is absolutely vital that all members of the interviewing team be aware of these guidelines and follow them in both spirit and letter. While institutions differ, virtually all have a list of bases for discrimination that are prohibited: most include race, sex, age, disability, religious affiliation, and national origin. Avoid any direct or indirect questions that touch on these areas. If the candidates volunteer information on these areas, the best practice is to make no further comments or inquiries, even if they seem harmless. For instance, if a candidate volunteers that s/he has a two-year-old, don't smile and say, "Oh, kids of that age are so cute." Just move on. A useful guide to legal and illegal questions can be found at www.acenet.edu/resources/chairs/.
After the candidate has left the room or interviewing space, it is a good idea for the interviewers to discuss their initial impressions. This can, of course, be done more extensively once all candidates have been interviewed. Departments vary enormously in how decisions are made as to which candidates should be invited to campus. In some departments, the search committee alone decides or decides in consultation with the head of the department. In other departments, the committee must bring their recommendations to the whole department for approval. In either case, ideally the candidate should be informed what the procedures are and approximately how long these usually can take. Now is also the time to request additional materials from candidates if this is deemed desirable.
All the points made above also pertain to the telephone interview. Preparations for telephone interviews need to be made with as much care as for other interviews (preliminary or on-campus). Usually telephone interviews proceed as some form of conference call. For this, one needs a quiet room and a speakerphone with good acoustics. The candidate should be informed in advance of when to expect the call and who will be present during the interview. Once contact is established, all members of the interviewing team should introduce themselves by name to give the candidate some voice clues as to who is speaking. Whenever a member of the team poses a question or makes a comment, s/he should once again introduce him- or herself. Admittedly this is a bit cumbersome at times, but is essential, as the candidate cannot, of course, see the interviewers. It is also important to remember that a candidate on the other end of a telephone line lacks all reference to facial expressions and body language. S/he is also often unable to judge when to continue speaking and when to end and thus some understanding should be brought to bear when a candidate, for instance, rattles on a bit too long.
The on-campus interview is a demanding experience for both candidate and department and requires considerable preparation in order for it to go smoothly and for each participant to feel satisfied with the experience.
Soon after the preliminary interview (whether at a scholarly meeting or by telephone), a department usually decides to invite a number of candidates to the campus for a one- or two-day visit. Once that decision has been made, the head of the search committee should make available (in multiple copies if possible) the candidate's dossier (c.v., letter of application, recommendations) as well as all written work requested. Departmental members must be given adequate time to read the materials in advance of the candidate's visit. On the other hand, it is inexcusable for a faculty member to express opinions on candidates when they have not read their work or attended their teaching session or job-talk.
Candidates should be provided with details about travel and hospitality arrangements (flights should be booked, hotel rooms reserved, dinners arranged—and, as far as possible, these should be prepaid by the department or college). The candidates should also be told exactly what will be expected of them while they are on campus—whom they will meet, and when, and about what. During the visit, candidates usually meet with individual faculty members, perhaps with the search committee as a whole, with the chair of the department, and often with dean(s) or other administrative officers. Ideally, candidates should also meet students. It is useful to separate meetings with graduate and undergraduate students. An informal lunch with a number of graduate students is often a good way to familiarize the candidate with the graduate program and it has the additional benefit of acquainting graduate students (who will someday themselves be candidates) with the process. The centerpiece of the interview is, however, a scholarly presentation and/or a classroom teaching performance, and candidates should receive clear instructions about what will be expected in a presentation or teaching performance (see also box on page 55 for additional notes on the "job talk"). How long should the candidate speak? A good rule here is to allow the candidate 40 minutes and then be sure to tell them to speak not a second longer! Repeat the latter at least twice. Also make sure that all members of the department know that this is what the candidate was told. The candidate should also know: Who is the audience? Will AV equipment be available? And so on. If the candidate is to teach a class, he or she should be provided with a class syllabus and given a specific topic or topics. S/he should also know what the class size is, whether it is a seminar/discussion class or lecture, and if AV facilities are available. All these things are best specified in writing (or in an e-mail). The candidate should also receive specific information on the department and its members, although today, of course, it is often most expedient to refer candidates to a departmental web site (and most candidates have probably already perused the university and departmental web sites). The candidate should receive in advance of his or her arrival a detailed itinerary and a contact number or e-mail address to which he or she can address any questions. Universities generally have a packet of materials with all sorts of valuable information for a prospective faculty member—benefits, amenities, special collections in the library, and the like. Similarly, a city's Chamber of Commerce will also have such packets, which contain neutral information on schools and religious communities. These are good ways to provide further information on a community or university without running the risk of trespassing on prohibited territory.
While on campus, the candidate should be given enough time to catch his or her breath occasionally, but should not just be left hanging around. Tours of the campus, visits to the library, talks with specialist librarians, and visits to particular collections that are relevant to the candidate's field are all useful ways of informing the candidate of the strengths of a particular institution. Candidates should also be given an opportunity to ask further questions about the institution and chairs, in particular, should be prepared to answer queries about, for example, salary, benefits, research leave, teaching obligations, and the like. Before a presentation, a candidate should be given enough time to relax, use the bathroom, perhaps get a cup of coffee, and review notes in peace and quiet. Meals are another opportunity for faculty and candidates to become acquainted. It is wise for candidates to be made aware that there is no such thing as a purely "social event" during an interview. Thus, there is no need to avoid scholarly topics and intellectual conversation at meals, although the candidate should get enough of a breathing space to eat. Here, too, interviewers must be on their guard not to pose embarrassing or illegal questions. Nothing is more natural in a social setting than to ask candidates if they like baseball or if their kids are doing well at school, but such questions can make candidates feel uneasy. Here the advice is exactly the same as for the preliminary interview. Know the relevant guidelines, adhere to them, and avoid at all costs asking illegal questions, either directly or indirectly.
Before the candidate leaves campus, s/he should be given an idea of where the process will go from there and a rough idea of when he or she can expect to hear back from the institution. Obviously, one cannot be precise here, but there is also no need to send the candidate off with absolutely no idea of whether s/he can expect to hear from the department in five days or five months. The candidate should also be informed as to exactly who makes the decision. In most cases it is the department sitting as a committee of the whole, but universities differ widely in hiring practices. Whatever the situation, the candidate should understand with whom s/he is supposed to negotiate and who makes the final and official decision. S/he should also understand that the process can often be prolonged as such offers usually have to be "signed off on" by various administrators and authorities before they are valid. Again, as at the conclusion of the preliminary interview, candidates should be informed that if anything changes in their status (if they decide to retract their application or, more likely, are offered another job) that they should feel free to get in touch with either the chair of the search or of the department. Accurate contact information should be provided.
If it has been impossible to prepay expenses (and to cover further expenses such as taxis and shuttles), please think to reimburse candidates promptly. Many are living on the margins and laying out $500+ is a serious strain on their finances.
Finally, all finalists for a job should be informed promptly of whether or not they are offered the job, are still being considered (if there are delays), or when they are no longer being considered for the position. A letter of rejection (or an e-mail telling finalists that they are no longer being considered) is always unwelcome, so make it as short and polite as possible.
In sum, perhaps the best advice that can be given interviewers is to put themselves for a time in the place of the candidate. A scholar's professional career often depends on these interviews and it is incumbent upon those conducting them to be as diligent, considerate, and prepared as possible. A department makes few decisions as important as hiring and thus the time and expense devoted to it is time and money well invested in the future of the department, the school, and the profession.
—Mary Lindemann is professor of history at the University of Miami, and is a member of the AHA's Professional Division, which commissioned this essay.
A Further Note on the Job Talk
Everyone agrees that the job talk is a critical part of the interviewing process. We should remember, however, that it forms only part of the process by which candidates are selected. Equally important are dissertations (or books and other scholarly writing) and teaching. And, in fact, someone who gives a poor job talk can be the best person for the job. All aspects should be taken into consideration. Nervousness, inexperience, and—sadly, all too often—poor communication about format and expectations on the part of departments can produce less than sterling performances. While it is perfectly legitimate to review each job talk with a critical eye, one's expectations should not be unrealistic. Department members should bear in mind that a candidate who has more experience teaching enjoys great advantage at the job talk simply because s/he is generally far more comfortable about speaking in public and answering questions. Departments should also remember that academia should be ecumenical and one's own preference for a talk—with or without notes, read or simply spoken, broadly conceived or more narrowly argued—is not the inevitable gold standard. Some read papers are dreadful; some brilliant. Some "off the cuff" talks amaze with their brilliance; others are merely hodgepodges of poorly organized information. Some PowerPoint presentations (or slide shows, for the old-fashioned) are stunningly effective; others yawningly boring. And don't be too willing to assume that an awkward job talk betokens a poor teacher. It ain't necessarily so. For a sobering look at the often unrealistic expectations we place on job talks, see the article "Job-Talk Blues" in the October 14, 2005, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Additional Reading for Interviewers
Melanie S. Gustafson, Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 2003)
Melanie S. Gustafson, "Interviewing Strategies: Survival at Interviews," Perspectives, December 2002
Lucy G. Barber and John Wood Sweet, "Successful Strategies for Interviews at the Annual Meeting," Perspectives, December 1998
Michael S. Foley, "Facing the Indignities of the Job Market," Perspectives, March 2001
Sally Hadden, "The Campus Visit: Passing the Brains Test and Lunch Test," Perspectives, September 2003
Carla Rahn Philips, "Moral Fables and Cautionary Tales from the Job Market—Annual Report of the Professional Division," Perspectives, April 1998