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Academic professionalization workshop: part 2

4 June, 2010

As part of our attempt at Macquarie University (and Culture Matters) to get our students ready for the wide, weird world of professional anthropology, Lisa Wynn put together an Academic Publishing Workshop for grad students and more, which she also graciously posted online. Following suit, we recently had a workshop on ‘professionalization,’ the process of preparing for, getting, and eventually successfully filling some sort of job in our field: Academic professionalization workshop for grad students and more.

This post is the second half of that last workshop. It’s still very much a work in progress, so I’d welcome any feedback. The advice is going to sound more assertive than I might normally write, but I think that we should, at the very least, get some strong provocation to think ahead of time, rather than force ourselves to learn everything through trial and error. Like the first professionalization workshop post, this is not really my own creation: I simply pulled an old folder I had from my days at the University of Chicago, with advice from John Comaroff, John Kelly, and others, and found some other information in old handouts (and some new stuff online). This post focuses on interviewing and thinking about the transition from being a grad student into an academic position. I’ll try to follow up soon with a discussion of early teaching, and, if we’re lucky, we might be able to persuade Jaap Timmer to write a bit about his experience in consultancy anthropology, and how one goes about cracking into that field.

Like the previous posts, this material is licensed for free non-commercial use and adaptation, so long as you (a) acknowledge your source, and (b) license derivative materials under the same conditions. (c) Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

Creative Commons License
Professionalization workshop by Greg Downey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.


Like every part of the application process, with interviewing, candidates often wish they knew at the beginning of the process what they learn the hard way going through it. The most important thing about interviewing is to find ways of getting through nervousness or inhibition that might impede demonstrating who you are and the abilities you would bring to the job. Try to practice some of the things that you can reasonably expect to be asked about so that you can get through any rocky initial anxiety and let yourself do well.

There are several genres of interview which you might run up against:

1. The conference interview
2. The teleconference interview
3. The ‘firing line’ interview
4. The marathon campus visit

Each genre demands different things of you, so you need to prepare a bit differently for each one, but no matter what the format, you’re likely to get similar questions.

Questions you’ll likely need to answer during an interview

On your research:

— Tell us about your current work.
— Can you briefly describe the significance of your research?
— How did you choose your dissertation project?
— How does your work contribute to anthropology?
— What theoretical framework did you use in developing your research?
— If you were to begin it again, are there any changes you would make in your research or dissertation?
— Why didn’t you do ____________ in your dissertation? (Sometimes asked with the questioner’s favorite topic as the reference, so prepare to be politic.)
— Tell us about your publication plans.
— What is your next research project?
— How do you plan to fund your research?
— Where do you see yourself in five (ten) years?
— What do you see as your primary area of contribution to the discipline?
— What equipment or training will you need to pursue your research agenda?

On your teaching:

— How would you design/teach a class on X (something from the job advertisement)?
— Your work is very specialized, cutting edge, but how would you feel about teaching our general introductory course?
— What do you see as the main difference between undergraduate and postgraduate education in anthropology?
— What textbook, books or readings would you use in your _________________ course?
— How would you structure a course on ________________? (Be prepared especially for anything in the job ad.)
— What classes have you taught?
— Many of our students may not be as talented as the students you’re familiar with at Macquarie. How do you think you’ll have to adapt your teaching to our students?
— What is your teaching philosophy? How does it affect what you do in the classroom
— How do you structure your courses?
— How do you evaluate student work? What experience do you have, and what do you think the main issues are? What do you think the fairest way to evaluate students is?
— What sort of assessments do you use? Exams or essays?
— Do you enjoy mentoring graduate students? Do you have experience mentoring independent research.
— How does your research inform your teaching?
— If you could teach any class that you wanted, what would it be? How would you teach it? What sort of readings, assignments or projects would you do with your students?
— What are your plans for integrating students into your research?

On professional life:

— Why do you want to work here?
— How do you feel about working here (in a small town, in a cold area, in an urban setting)?
— How do you feel about working with older students, or teaching evening courses?
— How might you contribute to our extensive set of external offerings? Can you envision some of your units being offered as online or distance units?
— What kind of service do you expect to do when you arrive? Where would you like to contribute to the university overall?
— We have a very close community here, and we foster close relationships with students. Why do you think you are suited to this kind of environment?
— Do you have any questions for us?

Note: Some questions adapted from, and from Heiberger and Vick, The Academic Job Search Handbook, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

The conference interview:

This interview format tends to appear predominantly in anthropology the United States or in fields where there are clearly defined annual gatherings that attract job seekers and interviewers to the same place. The American Anthropology Association Annual Meeting, for example, is notorious for conference interviews, often held an immense room (sometimes called the ‘cattle pens’) in which temporary dividers section off tiny interview spaces.

Conference interviewing is typically a way that an employer tries to get from a ‘long list’ (typically around ten or more candidates) to a ‘short list,’ of around two or three finalists for a position. Although a really good conference interview can move you up in the standings, be warned that most candidates who are making an impression are moving the wrong way, down the list. Conference interviews are typically ‘preliminary’ and allow the members of the selection committee to screen out some of the candidates.

Here’s what you need to know about conference interviewing:

You’ll have ten or fifteen minutes, maybe a bit more (some as long as an hour, but they’re rare), to talk to two or three or four screeners who may sit through a dozen interviews back-to-back. Help them by making the conversation easier; don’t go into a shell and become a hard interview. But know yourself before you go into this setting — if you have a tendency to become either extremely extroverted or uncomfortably introverted under pressure, remind yourself to fight unproductive tendencies. (For example, I tend to talk too fast and too much under pressure. Knowing this I could artificially stop myself.)

Give relatively short answers to questions, watch to see if they’re squirming because you’re going on too long, but feel free to say, ‘Would you like me to elaborate?’ if you have more to say but want to give them the chance to move on if they have a fixed list of questions. You don’t know how many questions your interviewers want to get through, so give them a chance to push on if they’re ambitious.

Be polished, on-time, and as slick as you can manage. You don’t have to buy a new suit, but you’re more likely to get into trouble for being quirky, especially if you run up against a crotchety Old Guard professor who’s worried the profession is ‘going to hell.’ Imagine dressing for a visit to grandma because your interviewer may be the same age; nobody will hold it against you if you seem to be taking the interview very seriously.

Check to make sure you know where you’re going well before time; last minute stress or freak outs can be hard to recover from in a short interview.

Practice your ‘questions to expect,’ and feel free to bring supplementary materials: dissertation abstracts, sample unit outlines, chapters… One of the interviewers may wind up reading through the materials when another candidate fails to show on time.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you are going to interview, investigate the department that is interviewing you. Many interviewers will consider a clear sign that you’re not interested in working for their institution if you don’t know something about the place. I have seen too many interviews go horribly wrong when it becomes clear that the candidate has not even studied the department’s webpage or says something incredibly insensitive given some basic, obvious facts about the department (for example, watching one cultural anthropology candidate bang on about the close-mindedness of biological anthropologists to an interview team from a four field department, including a biological anthropologist).

Be prepared to ask a question or two about the institution. You will always be asked at the interview if you have any questions, and, unless the interviewers have indicated you’re out of time (and sometimes even if they have), it’s crucial to ask them questions.

Above all, realize that conference interviews are a very unnatural, high-pressure conversation. If you don’t let the odd setting throw you off, come across as confident and articulate, mostly have thoughtful answers to their questions – you’ll probably move up in the candidate standings. Some people will be having meltdowns, brain snaps, and other minor disasters; just avoiding this is a step in the right direction.

This may sound like simplistic advice, but young scholars are often unprepared for how scary and lonely conferences can be when you don’t know where you’re working the next year. When I was a graduate student, I felt like conferences were sort of like music festivals, with too many stages all having good acts on them at the same time. As soon as I was trying to get a job, a cold chill swept through my conference experience. Suddenly, I didn’t want to run into my friends from graduate school, didn’t want to hear that they were interviewing for the job that I really, really wanted, kept going back to the message table to see if anyone — anyone — was trying to get in touch with me. During one AAA conference, I simply couldn’t share a hotel room anymore with a close friend who was interviewing for a job for which I was heartbroken to fall out from contention (and felt especially messed with after several people from the department had earlier told me I was perfect for the position, and suddenly weren’t talking to me).

In other words, job interviewing at conferences can be really hard, exaggerating any insecurities you have and generally messing with your head. Just try to remember that the insecurity is generated by the situation, not by any real inadequacies in the candidates. Many of the worst answers I’ve heard in interviews seem to come, not from thoughtlessness, but rather from an unwarranted sense of inadequacy.

Talking about…


You will be asked to talk about yourself in an interview, so be prepared to do this in a way that feels comfortable to you. Interviewers want to know about you, your personality, your interests, your long-term goals. Specifically, interviewers want to know that you are well on your way to becoming a professional, not still thinking like a student. Of course, interviewers will ask about your theses, about what you’ve learned, about your dissertation, but you will also want to demonstrate to them that you are a good future colleague, one who they would be happy to have working in the office next door for many years to come.

For this reason, the more you can treat the interview as a conversation among peers, the more likely you are to give the kind of impression you are seeking. You should be polite, but you need not be excessively subordinate. I worry a little about some of our international students, that their modes of signaling respect may also read as professional immaturity, although most anthropologists should be well aware of this (and discount it in interviews). Think of the interviewers as future colleagues with whom you’d like to work; they will be potential mentors, but in the long run, you will do the same work and not act as subordinates (this is especially true in anthropology).

Most professional coaches advise you to refer to your interlocutors as colleagues, either by first names or perhaps with ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ if you feel too uncomfortable with informality. The interview is not the place to show exaggerated respect because it highlights the inequality between you and the interviewer. For example, refer to your advisor as ‘Kalpana Ram’ rather than ‘Professor Ram’; you will sound like a professional and it will be easier for your interviewer to know who you’re talking about, as he or she also thinks of your supervisor as a peer.

During the interview, most interviewers will be looking for evidence that you are ready to step into the role for which they are hiring. They are not so much focusing on the excellence of your thesis, for example, as they are thinking about whether you, as a potential colleague, will be ready to produce the outputs that the department needs. The interviewers will be less interested in how you did in your coursework than whether or not you can step in and take over the 200-level class that they’ve been unable to staff for a year. That is, you need to think about the needs and desires of the interviewers and how you might demonstrate that you will be a strong colleague.

In addition, collegiality is king in the interview. No one wants to hire a colleague who is arrogant, over-bearing, aggressive, argumentative, inflexible or excessively dependent and in need of guidance. Remember, unless they’re planning on leaving the department, you could be working together for a very long time; you need to show that you can play well with the other children. Getting in an intellectual throw-down in the interview or demonstrating that you are a demanding and inflexible colleague may make you seem like more trouble than you’re worth. At one department in which I worked, colleagues openly discussed ‘the N-factor,’ how nice a candidate seemed. ‘Niceness’ might seem inconsequential in an intellectual meritocracy, but a difficult, uncooperative or egocentric colleague can pollute the energy in a whole department, helping to generate factions, undermining future hires, and generally making life unpleasant for years and years to come. If you want to be a jerk professionally, you should at least wait until after you’re tenured.

You’ll need to convince the interviewers that you will succeed in every facet of the job, which may mean doing some homework to shore up an area of your C.V. that you haven’t yet been able to fill out. For example, if you have little or no teaching experience, you can offset this by talking intelligently about course design, classroom innovation and teaching philosophy. If you haven’t published a lot, make sure you’ve thought about what you will be publishing, your priorities and what sort of work different pieces will need to prep for submission.

…your research.

Throughout your interview process, you will need to tell people what your dissertation is about, even though you feel like you’ve already done this in your job letter. Especially in an on-campus interview setting, you’ll likely encounter people who, although they have not read the files, are part of the decision-making process – don’t assume everyone has read everything that you’ve sent as part of your dossier.

You’ll want to be able to give a very short and a short version of your dissertation; practice explaining what you have written about in one-and-a-half minutes and in four- to five-minute formats. Practice them aloud, to the mirror, with friends, with strangers, while riding the bus, while under water or gargling. You want to be able to present your work clearly and concisely, even when you’re under pressure. If the person in the cattle-pen next to you has a shrieking breakdown as you walk into your conference interview, you still want to smile and give a great summary of what you’ve done. Practicing means you will get to the main ideas and won’t get bogged down in the details of one particular section.

Remember that anthropology is a diverse field, and selection committees may even have members from outside the department, so give an explanation that you would give to a very well-read, intelligent non-anthropologist. Even the anthropologists will appreciate that you can pitch the field well, or explain your subfield to people who don’t know it well. You needn’t name drop or try to sound scholarly; if you have good questions, an interesting ethnographic specialty and come to some intriguing conclusions, most people will be impressed by your insight and clarity. Remember that you’re selling yourself as a future teacher and colleague, someone who will represent the field well, not just talk to other members of the subfield you already inhabit.


Depending on the position and the department, talking about your teaching may be even more important than talking about your dissertation and research. Some interviewers may focus exclusively on your potential teaching as it is through teaching that you will help carry the collective workload of the institution.

Be prepared to talk about teaching philosophy, classroom methods, concrete ideas you have, and specific courses you could teach. Don’t just talk about what you’d like to teach; talk also about what you can teach. Everyone wants to teach a specialized, high-level unit on their area of expertise; most of the department stays afloat financially because of large ‘service’ courses at the first- and second-year level. Junior faculty are often slotted into the big service courses, especially if a department is not particularly egalitarian, so you are likely to have to teach courses at all levels, to majors, non-majors and postgraduate students. Check to see if the department has any special teaching programs (such as night courses or external offerings) and be ready to talk about how you could fit into their curriculum. Talking about teaching well is where you can often tell which candidates have done their homework, and have prepared to move into the job market.

If you’re ever asked if you could teach something, the short answer is always, ‘yes,’ although you should make it clear if preparing a unit would be a real stretch and difficult to do (one caveat: not if that unit is listed among the ‘essential’ criteria for the position – that’s what you’re signing up for). Often, interviewers will project onto new hires their hopes for innovation or expansion of the curriculum, a new subject that they’d like to add. It’s okay to say, ‘Wow, that’s a great line of teaching, and I’d love to do it, but it would take a fair bit of work to prepare myself to teach that.’

Prepare yourself to be asked specific questions about teaching methods: ‘How would you prepare a course on X for advanced undergraduates?’ for example. Be prepared for the courses that you’ve said in your job letter you could offer; getting caught out with no ideas for a unit you said you could teach can really undermine your credibility. Make lists of books you might use or resources you would draw on or ideas for how to structure a course: movies you would use in a visual anthropology class (if you offered to teach one), the case studies you would use in the gender unit you mentioned, the format for the theory seminar you said you were excited about doing. You don’t have to bring the lists with you, but writing them down will help you to think concretely when you’re put on the spot (and if you do a phone interview, you can have your notes in front of you).

Think about how you would adapt courses you’ve already taught or TA’ed, about the readings that left an impression on you when you took a unit on a similar topic, on teaching methods that are especially appropriate for some subjects. For example, if you’ve said you could teach ethnographic methods, what sorts of projects would you have students do or how would you get them some sort of experience? The more specific you can be when you talk about teaching, the more you will appear ready to teach, even if you don’t have abundant experience. If you can’t answer questions like this, you will leave the impression that you’re not really ready for a teaching position.

…future research plans.

Although it’s hard in the midst of your dissertation or thesis, and some of you are likely not convinced you’ll ever come up with another project (or want to do one), most academic positions will involve continual research. Even if a position is not explicitly research-oriented, most academic departments gain significantly if their members are active researchers, so seriously consider how you will talk about your research career.

You will need to demonstrate that you have done some thinking about life beyond revising and publishing your thesis. Your next project (or two) should demonstrably connect to what you’ve done, but make some advances upon it. That is, connected but a substantial step forward. Don’t worry if you say something that you don’t end up doing; you’re not signing a contract to do the research. But the project should be something plausible that, from where you are at the time of the interview, you’d like to do. Don’t make up a project whole cloth just to impress an interviewer.

The campus visit

Often, when universities have the resources, they will bring the candidate onto campus for a job talk and interview. The process will vary from university to university, but here are some general things to think about as you prepare.

When you arrive on campus, you should receive an agenda for your visit; if you don’t, ask for it. Interview formats vary, but you want to know what you’re up against. Some departments will put you in a large group interview, with a round table of the staff; others will have a series of one-on-one or small group interviews throughout the day (and even into the next). Look closely at the agenda and pace yourself. You may be repeating yourself all day, but you want to do so as energetically at the end as at the beginning. Some particularly grueling schedules will place the large group interview at the end of the stay, when the candidate is likely worn down; knowing the agenda will allow you to prepare yourself.

Think of your meetings as conversations in which you’re demonstrating the kind of person you are, more than any particular content. You can relax if you don’t get to give your whole dissertation description or talk about all five courses you’re proposing in any one meeting; the crucial things you are demonstrating are the intangibles, especially your intelligence, energy, curiosity, and collegiality.

Social events during a campus visit are likely to include dinners in local restaurants or at potential colleagues’ homes, meetings with graduate students, wine and cheese parties, breakfast with the faculty or the dean. Be prepared for anything. Remember that you are being wooed by the Department at the same time that you are seeking a position; they want to make sure that, if they offer you the job, you will accept the offer.

In these social situations, behave naturally, but cautiously. Although alcohol is likely to be served, remember, these social functions are still part of the interview process; you’re not auditioning as drinking buddy or life of the party. Don’t be afraid to remove yourself from a situation if you’re uncomfortable, to say that you’re exhausted after travel or for some other reason.

Conversation is likely to appear casual in these settings, and you may find yourself surrounded by staff families. These events, however, are also opportunities for potential employers to get to know you, and you don’t want to give away too much information inadvertently. For example, someone may ask you, directly or indirectly, where else you’re interviewing; it’s up to you what you reveal. You may meet your potential colleagues’ spouses, but you don’t have to reveal information about your own family. You can dodge these questions or be vague, since you cannot really know how this information will be used.

The job talk

The most important two things to know about your job talk is 1) how long you have, and 2) what specifically are they asking you to present, especially the audience. The first is more crucial than you realize, and you need to respect time constraints religiously. Nothing drives academics more nuts, and makes them wonder if you understand the constraints of your job, then going far over or under your presentation time limit. Odd, I know, but you are guaranteed to annoy and frustrate people if you overshoot, especially. In general, job talks are 45 or 50 minutes, but they may be as short as 20.

The best way to manage this is to practice. And give a finished work that’s more polished than it sounds; that is, give a presentation that’s well enough rehearsed that you know you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve to extrapolate in places and make it seem less well rehearsed than it actually is. And then know exactly how long your conclusion takes and cut straight to it when you have that much time remaining. A tight introduction and conclusion will help immensely to keep people on your side.

I tend to follow a tight-loose-tight model of lecturing when I’m time constrained. My introduction is really well scripted and I stick to it (nothing gets you off on the wrong foot quite like a long, unrehearsed, scattered ‘pre-presentation’ self introduction — I’ve seen these go on for five minutes without adding much, and the candidate goes over at the end). My conclusion is well scripted, and I know exactly how long it takes to read it. In the middle, I have more leeway to extrapolate, have a section that I know to drop if I’m running low on time. When I get to the time mark that I know is the cue for my conclusion (say, I have four minutes left), I stop whatever else I’m doing, say, ‘I could talk about this all day if you all wouldn’t sneak out on me,’ and go directly to the scripted conclusion.

This tight-loose-tight structure means that, when you start and are nervous, you have the content carefully prepared and start with a bang (rather than a meandering, ad-libbed whimper). Then you have greater chance to interact with your audience, add in elements if you want, and feel more like you’re not just head-down reading a paper. Finally, when you hit the time mark when you want to begin your conclusion, you also go out strong, with a clear, well-rehearsed conclusion that stops spot on your time limit. At least, that’s the way it works in theory.

A ‘work in progress’ is definitely riskier to present than a finished paper; and no one will give you an allowance for saying something is a ‘work in progress’ even if they say they will. You should read and reread your job talk OUT LOUD, getting very comfortable with how the paper feels.

You should also know what sort of genre they’re looking for in the talk; ask who the audience will be before you arrive on campus, if it will include only academics, postgraduate students, non-anthropologists, even undergraduates. In some rare cases, you may be asked to teach a class to demonstrate teaching ability; that is the time to pull out all your audio-visual tricks (I’m not persuaded that audio-visual elements improve the purely academic job talk in anthropology, especially if you don’t have experience working with slides or the a-v platform you’ll be using). Definitely have a clear lecture, and consider slides, a video clip, or something else that will help to engage students if you’re teaching an undergraduate class. Listen to the instructions carefully and request the unit outline or syllabus if you’re going to be lecturing in someone’s class. If possible and where appropriate, try to engage the students, but don’t be surprised if this is hard, especially if you don’t have a lot of teaching experience.

In general, trying to give a synopsis of your entire dissertation as a job talk is a recipe for disaster. You can allude to other chapters, to the variety of your interests, but you should really have a strong sense of an intellectual problem, some carefully chosen ethnographic data, and a driving narrative in your job talk. Think of it as your best unpublished chapter (because people will have read your publications, you can’t give them as job talks).

In the talk, you might be best off if you start with ethnographic material, rather than a theoretical statement. As a bald statement, someone might disagree strongly who, after they heard what you were explaining, would be willing to concede your theoretical insight. Make sure to move back and forth between theory and ethnography – don’t go for long stretches with nothing but theoretical argument.

Be very careful with humour. It’s typically dangerous and can go badly. Better to be friendly, happy and open, but serious in your scholarship. You’ll have plenty of other forums in the campus visit to show more of your personality.

Leading up to the job talk

If possible, ask to see the room before you give the paper and see if you can get a few minutes to go to the bathroom, collect yourself, make sure all the pages are in the right order and that you can find the folder with your talk. Your final checklist should be: 1) bathroom, 2) water, 3) pages in order, 4) pen for questions afterwards, and 5) make sure the person introducing you has the title of the paper.

Usually, if you ask for a bit of time and can entertain yourself, your host will be more than happy to concede some time. From their side, it’s very hard to entertain visitors all day for a couple of days, especially if a lot of candidates are visiting. At one institution, we hosted 14 candidates for two jobs and two fellowships in one semester (if I remember correctly — it was a blur); we were very happy when a candidate wanted some quiet time.

Candidates disagree a lot about the value of slides and handouts. My opinion is to use slides and handouts sparingly, and only when they help. If you have slides, and you will be talking without reference to them, make sure to insert a blank slide so that people will not be staring at your slides instead of listening to you. Handouts can be a problem as well. Rules of thumb are: 1) avoid page turning (one page); 2) no prose, only outlines; and 3) a good handout, like good slides, is worth the effort, but beware the disruption that they inevitably cause. Check ahead of time to make sure that the host has the capacity to show slides or copy handouts, and be prepared to perform without them, without harping on their absence, if your host can’t support you. Nothing undermines a candidate like finding that the computer in the lecture room can’t open the slides and having the candidate get overly flustered, defensive, or even blaming the host for the problem. But above all, follow the model in your subfield; even attend job talks of candidates while you’re still working on your dissertation, and ask your supervisor or a mentor who sees the talk for feedback about the performance.

Questions after a talk

One of the hardest things to do is to prepare for questions after a job talk. Because you’ve been focusing on the talk, preparing, rehearsing, once you finally give it, you’re likely to be enormously relieved. You may even slip into a state of semi-consciousness; take a drink of water, close your paper and WAKE UP! Now you have to interact, so you need to be more on top of things than you were during the talk.

Tell yourself, ‘Listen!’ Take notes on the questions so that you address them, even if it’s to say, ‘That’s a great question, but I can’t really answer it because it’s beyond the scope of the project.’ Never, ever, ever, ever interrupt a question. Never. Ever. We know you’re excited and you’ve already thought about this and you’ve got heaps to say, but you’re demonstrating collegiality, which sometimes involves letting someone else drone on.

Also try to keep your answers succinct; part of demonstrating collegiality is being capable of ceding time to others responsibly. It’s better to be short and incomplete than to spend 10 minutes answering a single question, rambling on and elaborating. The Q&A period after a talk is more of a demonstration of your ability to interact with colleagues, your generosity, your confidence, than a test of your knowledge. Other scholars will be frustrated if they don’t get to interact because you spend too much time interacting with a single member of the audience.

You will invariably get completely incoherent questions. Or, non-question ‘questions,’ which are really the interlocutor wanting to say his or her thing (remember, he or she has sat quietly for a long time — some academics find this uncomfortable). For the incoherent questions, rephrase them and ask the question rephrased. You can even say, ‘What I hear you asking is …. Is that about right?’ This gives your questioner a chance to bow out gracefully, ‘Yes,’ or take another crack at coherence. Either way, your audience will appreciate your attempt to communicate. Getting a coherent question of your own making out of something incoherent someone else said is a valuable skill as an academic.

Arguments can be very difficult to control, and if anyone asks you for a ‘yes/no’ answer, they’re trying to provoke an argument. The good news is that this is likely an argument that the department has had in numerous forms for years before your arrival; the bad news is that it will feel like it’s about you. Best to keep your answers short, concede when people have good objections, explain why you’ve made the decisions you have made in your work. It’s possible to disagree honourably while conceding space for someone else’s perspective.

Round table interviews

The ‘round table’ is often the least predictable part of the interview process, and many of those around the table may be bringing a lot of baggage. If a department is home to rivalries, you are likely to see them in attenuated form. Don’t worry about agreeing with everyone; it’s impossible. How you disagree and argue is as important as what you argue. If you are able to make your points with diplomacy and respect, you demonstrate you are the kind of colleague who can cooperate even in the face of division. You may run up against a stream of thought you can’t anticipate: a hysterical fear of post-modernity in a US department or a hardcore Marxist cadre in a European department. Recognize now that it’s not you – it’s them.

In general, engage everyone in a round table discussion, not just the dominant or senior people (or the ones who smile and nod the most). Listen carefully to questions, don’t be afraid to ask questions back, and avoid giving lectures. When you describe your work or yourself, avoid adjectives and work for substantial, evidence-based characterizations of your research or accomplishments. Giving examples will go a long way to persuading people that you are what you say you are.

If you are asked a question that really catches you off guard, and you don’t know an answer, you have only two options: if genuinely stumped, you just have to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I would have to really think about that.’ If you feel you could come up with something, think out loud. For example, if they ask you about teaching a course that you have never thought of, say, ‘I’ve never thought about teaching that, but I suppose I would use this book I’ve read, and I’ve done a lecture on this related topic…’ and start to piece together a course or some other answer. Seeing you solve a problem, even if only partially, will increase their faith that you can handle the constant improvisation involved in teaching.

One final bit of advice on these forums: don’t trade gossip. Someone may try to draw you out, to ask you how someone is getting along or if your colleagues have conflicts. Don’t get drawn in. The quiet person at the table may be furious with the whole conversation (including their own colleague), or even know the people who are the subject of discussion. The same thing with a ridiculous question; don’t play along. Stay cool, stay balanced, take the high road. Everyone will be happy in the long run.

The ‘firing line’ interview

In some hiring situations, all the candidates are brought onto campus at once, and candidates are interviewed one after another in a very formal setting. The practice is more prevalent in UK universities, where a potential hire may be asked to prepare a 20-minute formal interview statement about research, and then answers questions, some on them on topic and some decidedly off. The candidates are shuttled into the interview chamber one after another, and the committee usually decides immediately – candidates may even know before they depart campus whether or not they have gotten the position.

In these circumstances, you are likely to be entertained along with the other candidates for the job. Remember that virtually nothing that happens outside the interview chamber matters much for the chance of getting a position (that is, unless you do something monumentally stupid that gets back to the committee), so don’t feel like you need to compete over dinner or morning coffee with the other candidates.

In addition, if someone IS trying to get competitive or make you feel inadequate, don’t fall for it. Just be gracious and excuse yourself; remember that you wouldn’t be there without being a top candidate for the job.

These ‘firing line’ experiences can be profoundly disorienting; you feel like you were flown in for a ridiculously short discussion. They may seem extremely unfair and arbitrary. Just remember that job searching is a bit like door-to-door sales: if you make a good pitch, you still might not make the sale. But keep doing it, and the odds start to come around to your side.

The phone interview

Advice, adapted from’s page on phone interviews:

— Remember that, just as it’s awkward for you, it’s probably awkward for those on the other end of the phone line, too. If you don’t let yourself get flustered, they will not notice that you, too, are struggling – they can’t see you. If there are awkward pauses, realize that they might be looking at each other, trying to figure out who’s asking the next question.

Smile and relax. Although you may not believe it, your state, including your posture and tension, will be evident in your voice. Make sure you’re comfortable and happy so that this comes through the line.

— Just like in a face-to-face interview, confidence and poise, the ability to respond comfortably to questions, all make you come across as ready-to-hire. Make sure you’ve done your homework so that you can come across with confidence. In the phone interview, you can actually put notes on a desk or table in front of you, making your homework even more valuable.

Keep your answers succinct. Even more than in face-to-face interviews, attentions wander in phone interviews. You will not be able to see someone’s face, to judge when you’ve talked too long. Answer directly and shortly and don’t talk to fill up space; with timing delays and groups on the other end, there will be pregnant pauses. Take a deep breath, relax, and smile; they’ll ask another question.

— Listen carefully. With so much to say, it can sometimes be hard to really pay attention, but in the phone interview, listening is even more crucial than in face-to-face interviewing. Concentrate as completely as possible on the phone call and what is being said to you.

— Since they can’t see you, create the ideal situation for you. Sit in the place you feel most confident, arrange notes in front of you, make a cup of tea, put on your fuzzy lion slippers, whatever it takes for you to feel like you’re going to be at your best. Phone interviews tend to be short, so knowing what you’re going to say, having a few notes, for example, can make a good, quick impression.

Do not ask about salary, benefits, retirement plans or other material issues of the job. The interview is really about the job itself, the demands, expectations and aspirations for the hire. Especially if you have a group interview, don’t ask the group these sorts of questions. Also, don’t bring up the fact that you won’t be able to accept the job until July because you have committed to your apartment lease and have your brother’s wedding to attend… that is, wait until the job is yours to negotiate this sort of thing.

Like cattle-pen interviews, if you do even reasonably well in a phone interview, you’re liable to improve your standing. Some people invariably do terribly. They may get flustered and unable to answer questions, or they can’t stop themselves from answering and answering, talking on long past when it is appropriate.

Preparing your own questions

Part of every interview is being asked if the candidate has any questions. Ironically, this question can often be a chance to really demonstrate your difference, your interest in the department, and your preparedness to become an academic. Unprepared candidates let the opportunity go by.

In general, assume the generosity of the department in which you’re interviewing. Even if you’ve heard rumours, before you get the job is not the time to fire up your demands for better working conditions (do that as soon as they make an offer). Don’t ask about salary, benefits, review process, sabbaticals, housing, childcare or spousal hires in the general interview. If a search committee chair is good, he or she will talk privately with you about these issues, making it clear that this is not part of the interview process and volunteering some of the information you need. In general, you want the offer before you get into the details of what the offer entails. Once you get the offer, the boot is on your foot, and in some institutions, the real negotiation starts.

Normal, and good questions, include: what kind of teaching load do department staff have? How open are they to co-teaching or interdisciplinary teaching (if that’s an interest of yours)? How does the university encourage and support research productivity? What role does the department hope the new hire fills? Where do they envision their department going in the next five years (turn the tables on them)? How does the department relate to the university as a whole?

Best of all, ask about teaching, student expectations, and the distinctive culture of the place you’re interviewing. Answers to these questions are helpful in both the short and long term; they help you to better craft your own answers during subsequent interviews, and, if you get the position, to eventually craft your own offerings. Even if you have nothing else in common with the person who has been assigned to take you to lunch – they are a demographic geneticist with a project on maternally transmitted eye colour variants – you can talk about the students together. You can ask if they do independent research, how they are different than other places the scholar might have taught, do they go on to graduate school? Does the department get mature aged students, MA student, applied anthropologists, lots of doctoral candidates? What sort of majors take anthropology as an elective and how does the general student body perceive anthropology? There are lots of questions you can ask that are non-threatening, useful, and will help to cut through virtually any conversational ice.

General advice

Campus visits are like the first weekend home with your new girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s family. These visits are awkward, everyone tries to be friendly, but they are closely checking you out and will discuss you after you are gone. Being a little quiet is okay; being aggressive, over-bearing or self-centred is not. You’re auditioning to be their colleague, to work together under pressure and cooperate in running a department.

In general, be on your best behaviour. Be kind and curious as much as possible. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes; you may be walking around a campus all day, so it’s not the time to break in new shoes. You want people to focus on what you say, not what you wore or carried, so wear professional clothing that’s appropriate to your position. I tend to err on the side of wearing a tie and sport coat, but I’ve also taken my tie off after my talk when I’ve realized no one else was wearing one and stuck it in my computer bag.

The campus visit, in marked contrast to the sprint of a conference interview, is a marathon. Actually, more like a triathalon. You have many opportunities to demonstrate diverse dimensions of your personality and intellectual skills, but you really have to be ready for the long haul. Relax. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, and realize that, with so much time to get to know you, there’s much less pressure on a first impression. And make sure to gather information about the potential employer because you may soon have to decide if you want to accept an offer.

The secret

The following are the most important bits of advice that I was given when I was trying to work out how to be an academic anthropologist and get paid at the same time, or things that I now consider to be absolutely essential. I can’t take credit for most of them, although I often can’t remember who told me them in the first place.

Wherever you wind up, however your situation is, in academia, you can write your way out. Writing is the coin of the realm.

In contrast, if you want to stay where you are and move up, learn to think like a Head of Department. Make yourself indispensible and find the niche that is rewarding, without wearing you down. You’ve got to find a sustainable position, not a project that inevitably burns you out.

Collegiality is crucial. Academics work alongside each other for very long periods of time. Although it’s an individualist job, you need to be a team player. Prima donnas and eccentric geniuses are great, but you better be damn good if that’s going to be your schtick. And someone will still probably try to get rid of you.

Don’t try to read the minds of search committees, and don’t give up when you lose the ‘one that gets away.’ Remember that, if you’re doing the right thing, your time will likely come. It may not be where you expect, but you will find a rewarding place to work.

Always take a tenure-track position over a contract position, even if the tenure-track position is not ideal. Once you’re in a tenure-track position (except in a handful of departments that never tenure their junior people), it becomes in the interest of your senior colleagues that you succeed. No one likes doing academic searches, so they’ll tend to invest in you. In a contract position, unfortunately, your Department does not have an incentive to invest in your future. Yes, I know that there’s special, generous departments, but the structural incentive is not the same. If you fail on a tenure-track position, other people will feel pain, too.

Never talk down a fellow job candidate or spread negative gossip about your home department. It probably won’t help you get a job, and it will certainly convince potential employers that you talk down people and spread gossip behind their backs (and they will realize you would do the same to them). You want your friends to get great jobs all over the place; that way you get nice invitations to speak, have well-placed friends to help your career, and the reputation of your home institution increases.

Remember: it’s a job. You love it, it excites you, you read about it… but ultimately, it’s a job. Keep it in perspective.

How to stay unemployed

— Don’t think about getting a job until you’ve finished your degree; what’s the rush?

— Wait until the very last minute to prepare your C.V. and job letter because nothing gives your writing more energy than sleep deprivation and the fear of never being able to move out of your parents’ basement.

— Definitely stretch your record to try to make it appear better than it is. Mix in a few extra presentations that you’ve thought about doing, put together poems you’ve published in the local paper with refereed publications, and go ahead and suggest something’s ‘forthcoming’ when what you mean is ‘forthcoming, it will be mailed from my office.’

— During an interview, assume everyone present has read everything you’ve sent in for the application and committed it to memory. If anyone demonstrates any ignorance of what you’ve written, get offended, and keep referring to it to make sure that they get when you’re alluding to your job letter and dissertation abstract.

— Don’t prepare for potential interview questions in order to keep your answers ‘fresh’ and ‘off the cuff.’ Too much preparation might make you seem stiff or overly-polished.

— Try to win any argument that seems to come up during an interview or job talk. If you win, you’ll probably get the job.

— Use humour. Especially dangerous innuendos and maybe even some ethnic or sexist jokes. It’s always a good idea to be edgy when you’re under pressure. Helps cut through the tension.

— Don’t keep a notebook by the phone or use a calendar so that you miss application deadlines and forget to return people’s calls and emails. After all, if you were meant to get the job, you wouldn’t forget these things.

— Don’t apply for any job unless the advertisement explicitly says that they want an anthropologist or someone with your specialty.

Good luck, and I’ll try to put up something on first teaching experiences soon.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. L.L. Wynn permalink
    29 June, 2010 7:15 pm

    Greg, now that I’ve finally submitted marks for the semester, I’m catching up on all the things I’ve wanted to do the past few weeks and haven’t had time to do, and reading this blog post of yours was high on my “want to do” list. It’s fantastic. I’m going to recommend it to every student I know. It’s full of really sage advice, it’s funny, it’s pragmatic, and it rings true both with my experience of being on the job market AND my experience of sitting on a hiring committee.

  2. gregdowney permalink
    30 June, 2010 11:46 am

    Thanks, Lisa.
    Don’t know about ‘sage advice,’ but I’ve definitely learned more than my share of things the hard way in the job search. Did I mention the year I applied for 40 positions? yeah… good times… heh, heh. Fortunately, now that I’ve written some advice for someone based on my experience, I can consign the whole four or fiv years to blissful amnesia. Glad you enjoyed it.

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