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From the Graduate Students Forum column of the September 2003 Perspectives

The Campus Visit: Passing the Brains Test and Lunch Test

Sally Hadden, September 2003

Drawing by Chris HaleMost historians admit that an on-campus interview is an unnatural way to make a hiring decision—sort of like going on a blind date and then suddenly deciding (if the feelings are mutual) to get married, from first date to wedding chapel in the blink of an eye. But in our profession, it is rare to be hired for a tenure-track job without an on-campus interview. A campus visit can last up to three days, and each faculty has its own methods of conducting it, so any advice must be general. One rule is universal, however—every great on-campus visit begins with the preparation you do before traveling.

Most campus visits feature a job talk or a seminar devoted to your work. You may also be asked to teach a class. You need to find out which of these (or both) are expected. Next, find out how long the job talk is expected to be—20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour? Do they expect to hear about future projects, or just your most recent research? Are they interested in having you describe new historiographic trends in your field? Every department will have a style it prefers—find out what it is and then fit the format as closely as possible. In teaching, will you be in a large auditorium, or an intimate seminar room? Are they expecting you to lecture, or lead a class discussion? Once you have prepared your job talk or classroom teaching plans, present them at your home institution to a live audience. There is no substitute for practice. All the rules from Speech 101 apply: be organized, repeat important information, use lively, colorful examples to hold the attention of the audience, and practice the talk enough times so that you know the contents cold.

The day comes and you've arrived on campus. You can be more confident because of your preparations. Confidence is very appealing—if you look like you know what you are doing, you'll have an advantage. But confidence is not the same as arrogance. So while you're on campus, remember these three rules to follow: Don't be a jerk. Be enthusiastic. Be a good citizen.

Rule one: Don't be a jerk.

This rule relates to one of two tests that you'll be facing when you get to campus, the lunch test. You must pass both the lunch test and the brains test to get a job offer, or at least do better than other candidates. Both tests begin the moment you arrive and will continue until you leave campus. Most people focus upon the brains test—we are in the knowledge business, so brains are important—but don't forget, if they hire you, they want to be sure they will enjoy being around you. Are you the kind of person they want as a colleague and possibly a friend? The conversations you have at breakfast, during a walk around campus, or riding to your hotel, all comprise the "lunch test." Use meals with faculty to find out about their other interests, and be willing to talk about your interests beyond history. Have a few topics ready: a recent column from the New York Times, a movie you saw last week, a sporting event. Having a few topics "ready to go" will help you avoid awkward silences and gaps in conversation, and will suggest that you can talk about many subjects with confidence. It also helps if you are enthusiastic about meeting new people and don't think of them as adversaries or superiors, but rather as intelligent folks who could turn out to be lifelong colleagues. As for lunch, choose your food wisely, avoiding messy entrees (like spaghetti) that splatter clothes and skipping finger food entirely because you shake hands a lot when on campus.

You also need to pass the brains test. In the job talk you will display your talents to their fullest, but remember that your knowledge is on call throughout the visit. No matter who you speak with, your responses demonstrate your ability to lead a college classroom, so consider your answers carefully.

Rule two: Be enthusiastic

As the visit progresses, you will meet different people: secretaries, graduate and undergraduate students, faculty members, a dean. Have questions ready, because everyone is a source of information. Questions send the message: I am interested in your school and I want this job. No questions send another message: I couldn't care less about your school and I am a dull person. When you ask questions, put the emphasis on the person being asked: where do you like to get a cup of coffee, what sorts of committees do you serve on? Listen carefully and use the answers to ask follow-up questions. Curiosity on your part will show eagerness to take the job, and enthusiasm is the second rule while on-campus. One way to indicate your seriousness about the institution is to ask about the tenure process (if relevant). This could set you apart from the typical job candidate, who just wants to get the job. By asking about the tenure process, when and how it works, you indicate that you want to get, and keep, the job.

Rule three: Be a good citizen.

When you become a faculty member, you'll discover a lot of faculty work is collaborative, like planning curriculum changes or running job searches. Show that you are a good team player and not too selfish. This is the kindergarten skill your teacher marked as "plays well with others." You demonstrate good citizenship by talking about the service and contributions that you can make to help the department function. For example, if you talk only about specialty courses and never speak about leading survey courses, this could send the signal that you would rather not teach freshmen. Do they expect undergraduate advising, or need a mentor for the history club? Listen to their comments about their departmental needs. Impress your hosts with a willingness to do your share. Enthusiasm and being a good citizen will help you pass the lunch test.

During your visit, be gracious and be classy. The scholars hosting you are putting their time and energies into helping you and they deserve a 100 percent effort from you, even if you ultimately decide against taking the job. I have heard candidates make remarks like "I'm only using this interview for practice because I expect a better job." I have witnessed a job talk that the candidate admitted was written on the plane trip to the campus visit (it wasn't very good, either). In the short term, it cost those candidates the job offer. In the long run, you can never tell who in the profession may be able to assist you later. So when you are on the campus, just put your best foot forward.

—Sally Hadden is associate professor of history and law at Florida State University. She wishes to thank Seth Katz of Bradley University, who first drew her attention to the "don't be a jerk" rule.