i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgFollowing up on Alice’s excellent discussion-starter post on “negotiating the illegal questions on an academic job interview,” I’d like to offer a few thoughts from the departmental side of the equation. Anyone with more or different experiences should also chime in below.

First of all, search committees, and really anyone in the department who will interact with the candidate, should get correct and up-to-date information on university policies and relevant laws. Then nobody can pretend to be in the dark about which questions are off the table. I haven’t served on a search committee, but when we bring candidates through they interact with all members of the department and I have never gotten any information like this.

Second, I think we faculty members probably need to do a better job of acknowledging that things ) that are comfortable for us (beer tailgaters, for instance) might not be that way for all candidates. In my opinion, leaving alcohol out of the social plans (with the exception of being able to order EtOH at a restaurant) seems like an easy concession to make. Other things I’d exclude from candidate itineraries include extreme sports, pig roasts, quilting bees, ritual sacrifices, etc. (unless these things are directly related to the job description).

Third, it would be really great if the search chair made the effort to schedule time for the candidate to meet with university human resources. In an HR office, the candidate can ask about maternity leave, spousal hires, childcare, schools, etc. with confidence that it won’t affect the hiring decision. For departmental folks, knowing that the candidate will get those questions answered by HR, should remove any self-imposed pressure for a “friendly” leading question “because they are gearing up to be helpful.” As a job candidate, I never had a chance to meet with HR, and partly as a result I’m still unclear what our maternity leave policy is like at MU.

Fourth (and this may sound a little contrary to the above), if the candidate doesn’t get a chance to meet with HR, someone in the department (preferably untenured and not on the search committee and therefore less threatening) should speak up about their experiences in the community and with the university. Since our candidates at MU don’t meet with HR, I’ve made it a point to meet with candidates and talked about MU’s support for untenured faculty through mentoring programs, spousal hires, etc. I’ve also mentioned that I have a daughter and said that I’ve been very pleased with the department’s family friendliness in scheduling classes, etc. By keeping the conversation focused on my experiences, I hope I’m able to answer some unspoken questions.

Fifth, go ahead and volunteer information about the community, just don’t do it in a way that necessitates information sharing by the candidate or makes them feel like they are being singled out for that information. When I was in grad school and prospective students would come around, I’d always make sure to tell them about the bike lanes and recreational opportunities around town, the wonderful cooperative grocery, the dog friendly community, etc. Someplace in that spiel though, I’d also mention how hard it was for significant others to find decent jobs. I’d just phrase as either “The one thing I wish people had told me before I came was” or “Something I always make sure to tell people is…” And then I’d move on.

Finally, I know everyone wants to meet the candidates and show them the facilities etc., but for the candidate’s sake, it would be helpful to schedule a few breaks in the interview schedule. Ideally these breaks should either allow the candidate to go back to the hotel and decompress or give the candidate an empty office to check email, stretch, review their notes, etc. When I interviewed at MU, I had to explicitly ask for breast-feeding breaks of course (Minnow was 4 weeks old and along for the trip), but I can imagine lots of other reasons that candidates might need a little bit of downtime two or three times per day. Even at the interviews when I wasn’t bf’ing, I still found the five minutes in a communal bathroom breaks inadequate for reviewing my notes on the faculty I was about to meet. It would have been lovely if I’d had 15 minutes here and there so that I didn’t have to sit on a toilet and do that.

So those are my suggestions of changes I’d like to see to the interview process. Would these suggestions make a difference? What else would help you feel more comfortable?


  1. #1 squawky
    August 26, 2008

    Some excellent suggestions – some of mine (ok, I didn’t do that many interviews, but still…))

    * The more time you can give the candidate before the interview, the better – 3-4 weeks seems ideal in my head. 2 weeks seems a bit short notice.
    * Usually faculty interviews require a research talk, sometimes also teaching a lecture. The specifications for these (expected length, available facilities – computer, chalkboard – are in the room, kind of audience to expect, the topic for the lecture, etc.) should be given to the candidate at the time the interview is scheduled… [In the interview for my current position, getting the topic for the teaching talk took a few days, and I was lucky to be able to get a used copy of the text shipped to me before the interview.]
    * I love the idea of breaks – my first interview experience included something like 20-30 minutes in the conference room to chill before my talk by myself.
    * On the alcohol thing – please make it clear if it’s OK to order a drink or not with meals. Candidates should be aware that it’s not always acceptable (for reimbursement, at the very least), but knowing for sure because it was stated outright it makes the whole situation less stressful.
    * On the breaks thing – include rest rooms in the various tours in the interview (the tour of the department, the walk around campus), please! Much easier to take a bathroom break when the facilities are convenient than to hold up the interview later.
    * Scheduling – please, create a sane schedule (if it takes 10 minutes to get from one room to another, build that into the schedule). Make sure each interviewer knows where and when the candidate needs to be next so no one is wandering around aimlessly with a job candidate in tow, or searching through piles of unread mail to find the schedule.

    (OK, won’t take up all your comment space! Hope these are at least an addition to your list!)

  2. #2 Gilman the Penguin
    August 26, 2008

    Hear hear on these suggestions — great ones all.

    On the first point, I would add that it is critically important to discuss _why_ the “illegal” and off-the-table questions are a bad idea. In the search committees I served on, I was amazed (and appalled) at the number of colleagues who thought that these rules served no purpose, and that they were there simply because of a meddling bureaucracy. With just a little discussion, they would see the reason why, and they became much more interested in being careful in their discussions.

    The suggestion for having HR talk to the candidate is great. I might even expand: in a few searches, we have recruited a trusted colleague in a related department to meet with the candidate, with the explicit understanding that the colleague would NOT report anything back to the search committee. We told the candidates this, too, and explicitly said that this was a chance for the candidate to talk with a faculty member about the forbidden issues, if they were important to the candidate, with no fear that the questions would affect any potential offer.

  3. #3 Kim
    August 26, 2008

    I did have the HR meeting as part of the interview for my current job, and yes, it was a very convenient place to ask about things like maternity leave policies. (The information wasn’t entirely correct for faculty – it fit staff better – but at least I was free to ask the questions.)

    On the other hand, my interview included a visit to the hot springs. I was the only interviewee who said yes, it turned out. (I also had my husband along, because a lack of job opportunities for him would have been a deal-breaker. He’s not an academic, so mostly he was turned loose to explore the town, but his presence made the hot springs trip with the all-male department less weird than it otherwise would have been.)

    I like hot springs, but when we did a job search for a replacement for another retirement, I told the guys that hot spring trips were really inappropriate for a job interview.

  4. #4 Becca
    August 26, 2008

    If anyone knows of employment opportunities for which the job description contains: extreme sports, pig roasts, quilting bees and ritual sacrifices, I’ll get my CV ready!

  5. #5 Propter Doc
    August 27, 2008

    This is a good list. Where I interviewed, the department could have done much better in many respects. I felt like the whole interview process was an inconvenience to them. It was a busy teaching day, and from what I know now I better understand why they seemed rather disinterested in the whole process, but it wasn’t a particularly positive experience.
    One of the things I did seek to establish at interview (during informal chat with junior staff) was whether there was a culture of trips to the pub. That gave me a good insight into how friendly and sociable the department was. I do agree that events should be planned with great sensitivity and awareness, the tailgate thing was just absurd.

  6. #6 Mike
    August 27, 2008

    I think a reasonable argument could made that a pig roast is very appropriate for an animal science department or a food science department.

  7. #7 Ewan
    August 27, 2008

    In an HR office, the candidate can ask about maternity leave, spousal hires, childcare, schools, etc. with confidence that it won’t affect the hiring decision.

    Really? Maybe I’m paranoid :). But if I were worried about asking such questions of search committee folks, I’d be equally worried about asking them of HR, frankly.

    {And: an interview visit with a *hot springs* trip? Wow :)}

  8. #8 Alex
    August 27, 2008

    Good suggestions.

    In regard to HR, some universities actually have formal efforts to hire spouses, but they might do better to learn of a potential spousal hire early. In those cases, a confidential phone conversation with HR before the interview might be appropriate, to find out what the time tables are for those hiring processes. This may not be as much of an issue for a large department at a large school with a large endowment, but a small department in a small school with a budget crunch might need some time to work on a possible spousal hire. A lot of the time, these efforts are discussed in the context of big research universities where a lot of departments have their own building and the university endowment is larger than the GDP of many third world countries. OTOH, if the department has a hallway instead of a building and the budget is tight, making room for a spousal hire takes time and planning. They might not be able to make it happen in the usual time frame that a candidate has to consider an offer.

    I don’t have any insight on how to manage spousal hiring, but hearing that it works so well at Stanford says very little about how to make it happen at a small, cash-strapped state school. Different places need different approaches.

  9. #9 Anonymous
    August 27, 2008

    Great suggestions. In my experience, telling the interviewer(s) that I don’t drink raises more eyebrows than asking for breastfeeding (or pumping) breaks, and that is saying a lot! Is it because I’m a recovering alcoholic or am I just no fun? It’s a no win situation. Now I just order a drink and pretend to drink it for a couple hours….

  10. #10 Pablo
    August 27, 2008

    In my experience, telling the interviewer(s) that I don’t drink raises more eyebrows than asking for breastfeeding (or pumping) breaks, and that is saying a lot!

    At what messed up places do you interview?

    Again, I must be in an unusual institution. I just went to a faculty party last weekend, with lots of wine flowing. I asked for water, and the only question I got was “gas or no gas.” No one cared that I wasn’t drinking, and this was a wine tasting event.

    Then again, I’ll say that if this is unusual, then I am two for two in unusual institutions, because “not drinking alcohol” at functions of faculty has not been an issue at either of the places I have worked, and believe you me, they could not be much different in the local cultures.

  11. #11 Peggy
    August 27, 2008

    I’ll second Alex’s comment. The more lead time an organization has to negotiate a partner hire, the better chance of making it happen. That said, there are no guarantees, and even large state institutions are cash strapped these days.

    Re the alcohol question, many state institutions have restrictions on the presence of alcoholic beverages on the premises and the ability to reimburse employees for money spent on alcohol.

  12. #12 Lab Lemming
    August 27, 2008

    “I told the guys that hot spring trips were really inappropriate for a job interview.”

    Was the context scientific or social? I don’t see how you could get away with hiring a hydrothermal person without a field trip there- that’s like interviewing in zurich and not seeing any mountains.

    As far as the quilted pig sacrifices are concerned, It is most informative if any scheduled social event is simply what normally happens on an ordinary weekday. Canceling after seminar beers just because a candidate is in town doesn’t help anyone, and neither does organizing a first-ever departmental bungee jump-off.

  13. #13 Jessica
    August 28, 2008

    For my job interviews, I was advised to check out the HR homepage to read about issues like maternity leave there. This was easier on me than asking during the interview. And I did have a 1-2 hour meeting with HR, but mostly to go over benefits. I would have preferred spending that time with faculty/students.