some tips for academic job interviews

some tips for academic job interviews

The academic job market is fraught. We know this. I can only speak explicitly to the Canadian context, but we know from our own experiences, and from empirical data, that making the leap from doctorate to tenure-track is no easy feat. I do not want to downplay the realities of the struggle for folks on the job market. However, I also want to reach out here for those doctoral students on the market who might not have someone to give advice on how to approach an interview when you get one. I want to state right off the bat that this post is not meant to prescriptive — there are many caveats. Take what is useful, leave what is not. Also, this post is really geared towards folks from under-represented groups who may not have the support you deserve from your supervisory committee or from folks who can guide you regarding the interview experience. The caveats: first, I am mostly immersed in the Canadian context (though have some experience in both the UK and US). Second, I am Indigenous (Métis) and can really only speak to my experience interviewing in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission hiring academic landscape in Canada. Third, I am a social/cultural anthropologist by training and have less experience working in other spaces (particularly in STEM, though I did work in a gastroenterology research lab for many years in my undergrad). I am writing this piece after sitting on five hiring committees in the last three years, and fervently hoping more students from under-represented groups will get hired to tenure-track positions in academia. Fourth, as an Indigenous scholar with intensive pre-tenure service/admin experience under my belt, I have a lot of thoughts about how hiring committees have approached or treated myself or BIPOC colleagues over the years, but that’s a post for another day. Fifth, this is neither here nor there, but if you are a white scholar who professes to study race/racialization or to be an ally to Indigenous people, and you are applying to jobs specifically geared towards race/racialization or Indigenous issues — what on earth are you doing? You’ve just failed the first test of your claims to be a good ally. Black and Indigenous scholars remain massively under-represented in Canadian universities (CAUT 2018), so it’s really not your place, as a white person. to apply to these jobs. (Perhaps more importantly and pointedly: to the committees who post jobs on race/racialization or Indigenous issues and then hire a white person — what on earth are you doing?). I’m saying this because you need to hear it. I mean feel free to ignore me. But I am just saying what marginalized folks have not been able to say to you directly for fear of upsetting you or potentially provoking the privilege you possess (or for fear of direct, devastating impacts to their own careers/precarity if they raise these issues in still predominantly white academic spaces. As we know from the work of Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson (2011), anthropology in the US is still white public space). There are so many other powerful ways you can mobilize the things you have learned and studied as a white person dedicated to dismantling white supremacy/colonization/injustice. 

Anyway. In Canada, we know that:

“racialized university teachers make up just over one-fifth (21.2%) of the profession, about the same as for the labour force as a whole. However, they constitute fewer than 15% of all college instructors (see Table 7). While racialized university teachers seem proportionate to the labour force population as a whole, this is significantly lower than both that of racialized students (36%)15 and that of racialized doctoral degree holders (31%).” (CAUT 2018: 6)

I teach in a school where, according to our equity office, 46% of the undergraduate student body is racialized, while roughly 15% of the faculty are racialized (and some faculties at my school fall even farther below the labour force %). This manifests in classrooms where white scholars are lecturing racialized students about current social realities, and BIPOC students frequently express to me that they find this alienating. In some institutions, the number of racialized faculty falls far below the market availability (to use an Equity office term) of specific under-represented groups. For example: according to data from the 2016 Canadian census, compiled by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT),  First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people make up roughly 4.9% of Canada’s population, and represent 3.8% of the labour force, but only represent 1.4% of University teachers (CAUT 2018:10).  CAUT also indicates:

“There are significant differences when we examine representation of specific racialized groups as categorized by Statistics Canada. Black university teachers, for example, comprise 2% of all university teachers but make up 3.1% of the overall labour force. ” (CAUT 2018: 6)

We also know that, in addition to under-representation in total hiring numbers, racialized faculty who do get hired are being paid far less than their white colleagues: according to CAUT, in Canada, full-time university teachers who are not visible minorities (term used in the CAUT analysis) make 9.9% more than racialized faculty. When gender is considered:

“Non-racialized women university teachers and college instructors earn on average 82 cents for every dollar earned by their non-racialized male counterparts. Racialized women professors earn 68 cents for every dollar earned non-racialized men). There is an even more pronounced gap for college instructors, where racialized women earn only 63 cents on that same dollar.” (CAUT 2018: 9)

For more in-depth analysis of these dynamics, you can pick up a copy of The Equity Myth by Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda S. Smith.

The CAUT analysis does not include information on disability, but we also know that disabled scholars are deeply under-represented in tenure-track jobs. At the university-wide level in the UK, Brown and Leigh report:

“The proportion of staff in universities declaring health conditions or impairments rose from 2.2% in 2003/04 to 3.9% in 2012/13 (HESA 2017). However, 16% of working-age adults (GOV 2014) and nearly 13% of undergraduates (HESA 2017) have a known disability. Considering these statistics, there is a stark under-representation of disabilities, chronic conditions, invisible illnesses and neurodiversity amongst academic staff.”  (Brown and Leigh 2018)

For more insight into disability scholarship and issues disabled scholars face in academe in the UK and Canada, you can also follow work of Zara Bain (UK) and Kelly Fritsch (Canada) and many other scholars challenging academic ableism (if I recall correctly, Zara coined the hashtag #AcademicAbleism on Twitter). Again, what we know, both anecdotally and empirically, is that current hiring processes are not addressing the under-representation of specific marginalized groups in the academy.

Given my experience both on the job market and on hiring committees, I feel strongly that hiring committees are an inefficient tool to address under-representation of marginalized communities in western academe.  In many cases, it is still predominately white committees interviewing candidates in Canadian anthro/social science departments. Of four interviews I’ve done as a candidate in social science departments the last four years, only one had an Indigenous person on the committee — and three of those four interviews were specifically targeted at hiring Indigenous candidates.

For all these reasons, I believe that students who do not have mentors to prepare them for the gauntlet of an academic interview are at a severe disadvantage. I want to share some thoughts. Again, take what resonates, ignore what doesn’t. I am writing this from my perspective as an Indigenous woman who was hired ABD (all but dissertation) and specifically expected to do a great deal of ‘Indigenization’ work at a University with a complicated history of relations with the Indigenous territories it occupies. But I was also able to go up for early tenure and promotion and secure my position within three years of hiring. What made my experience bearable were several things: a supportive department committed to social justice, a strong union, and other Indigenous faculty to work with. I now have a very different perspective on the hiring process than when I was first hired (back then I would have been, and was, grateful for any job interview and any job!). I want  you to have an affirming, positive, and empowering experience in the academy, and I want you to kick ass in the interview. Academia needs you in the classroom mentoring the next generation of thinkers and advocates.

First: congratulations! Getting an on-campus interview is a big deal. You’ve gone through the first few rounds of scrutiny from a committee of reviewers. What do they do in these reviews? They largely assess your file for ‘fit’ with the job ad and the program. They read your cover letter, check out your CV and reference letters (if these letters are requested up front). Usually a committee will prepare a long list and then a short list. Sometimes a committee will do skype/zoom/video interviews with folks on the long list. Again, these reviewers are largely looking for ‘fit’. Fit is a complicated and fraught thing that totally reinforces lots of bad dynamics in academe. But lots of academics still uphold it. If you made it to the short list and got an on-campus visit, your work stood out and you look like a promising addition to the department/school/program. Also, if you are not coming from an elite anthropology department, at this point, you’ve really overcome the insular hiring practices of the ‘top’ anthro programs in the US, as Kawa et al. (2018) illustrated in their work last year (and even though we don’t have data, I strongly suspect similar networks operate in Canada as well). So, celebrate yourself. And even if you don’t get an offer after the interview, remember that you are amazing and your work matters.

Second: remember that through all of this, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. We are taught, in western academe, that power flows from the top and that we cannot and should not expect to have any agency in every evaluative transaction. But we also know that these systems are (mercifully) crumbling as the structures around us shift (in my own personal opinion, anyway). There’s room in here for you to flip the lens on the interview process and stand in your own power and think about what the potential department will mean for your life and well-being. Hiring committees are looking to hire you to a potentially life-long job with them. Pay attention to red flags: how do they treat folks with less power than them? How do they talk about their colleagues? Do you feel at ease (in spite of your nervousness)? Do they seem to have funding for investing in your topic area, or for funding to address social justice or equity disparities? Is the department overwhelmingly white? Will you be asked to do a great deal of admin work? Try to find out what the research/teaching/admin loads and breakdowns are, and assess if this is what you can work with (ie: if you dream of doing research but are interviewing at a teaching-heavy institution, will you be ok with your research taking the back burner? — I realize a lot of this really is shaped by market dynamics so also remember this post is not prescriptive. Do what you need to do to survive).

Third: they are evaluating your every interaction. Eight years ago, a mentor told me, before walking into a scholarship interview, that I needed to remember I am ‘on’ the minute I walked through the door. That folks will be assessing how I interact with other candidates, how I interact with staff of the institution, etc.  I took that to heart and now carry it with me in every interview process. As a practice, it’s not entirely fair, and it’s certainly ableist and discriminates against folks who struggle with social interactions, crowds, and intensive immersive social experiences, but in these kinds of interviews, every interaction you have on campus is up for scrutiny. It’s not just in the formal interview or the job talk. They are assessing how you interact with everyone from morning until night. The coffee chats, the lunch, dinner — all of this will be analyzed in depth once the committee reconvenes to pick the successful candidate. It’s very exhausting for anyone who struggles with forcing yourself to be extroverted or engaging on the terms of dominant social structures. So take good care of yourself throughout the day, and if you need a little break, try to find a way to advocate for yourself if you can. 

Fourth: your job talk should reflect the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Pick something that makes you feel empowered. Trust your gut. The committee is going to come back to this talk repeatedly in their evaluations. And it’s usually one of the only really public parts of the interview process, so departments will probably be soliciting feedback on your talk from people who attend it. Remember that the question and answer period is really important, too. They’re assessing how you can think on your feet. Similarly, if they include a teaching demo, they’re trying to figure out how you will interact with their students. Choose something you feel confident teaching, and that you can play with when the question period comes up. Don’t be afraid to include some interactive portions (ie: ‘think pair share’ or class discussion). The goal is to show how you can engage a classroom.

Fifth: Practice. Practice your job talk. A lot. Also, if you can, find some friends to do a mock interview with you. The committee is probably going to ask you about your previous work, your future work, what kinds of research aspirations you have, how you see yourself fitting in with the department (be sure to read up on the other faculty, the research they are doing, take a look at the courses being taught, think about how you can add to the department’s ongoing courses etc.. and what you might bring to the overall vision of the program). They’ll probably ask about your experience doing administrative work — so think about what strengths you have in terms of committees, developing new initiatives etc.. If you’re interviewing in a department outside of your specialization, they’re probably looking to see if you can prove to them you are capable of teaching within their discipline, so do some reading up on social theory or major topics in that field before you get to the interview). Sometimes it’s helpful to write out your three or four major points you want to get across — this is a trick I learned in my past life as a media/comms person. Think about what your major contributions/strengths/goals are and you can keep steering things back to this is you get off track or are super nervous. 

Sixth: what is the state of labour relations on campus? Do the faculty have a union? Or a faculty association that advocates on your behalf? Do folks seem to enjoy their work? Are they remunerated fairly (this is one of those awkward things we’re taught not to ask in the formal interview, but you can certainly ask the union about salary floors, etc..)? If they do have a union, you can make a point of talking with the union before the interview or afterwards, to get a sense of what kinds of supports and rights you will have in the job. 

Seventh: what is the tenure process like? Does the department have a transparent tenure process? Is it attainable/reasonable? Is there a history of tenure denials in the department or at the university? What I’m saying is: the world is closing in on massive upheaval in the next decade: do you want to be fighting with petty scholars for recognition of your work, or do you want to be working in a community of folks committed to uplifting humanity?

Eighth: it might get awkward. People are people. Awkward topics come up. For example, if you didn’t have a good experience in your department etc.. just do your best to navigate this with grace. North Atlantic Anthropology is a small pond, really, and the six degrees of separation are probably more like 2 or 3. Oh, and I know from my own experience: they’re reading your social media. Don’t censor yourself, but don’t be surprised if it comes up. 

Ninth: if the job offer comes in, here are some tips compiled by Rine Vieth based in part on a twitter thread I posted last year (tips are pretty specific to US/Canada so consult colleagues for more direct advice depending on your context, and again, take what resonates, leave what doesn’t) https://docs.google.com/document/d/14NEBj4XeHmLy_gl_9Z9jGB4XOQfuuV08LCyzvzVsNR0/edit

At the end of the day: remember that academe is a structure built on euro-western hierarchies and dynamics. You deserve better than what academe has to offer. But we also need good people in the system to mentor and guide brilliant young badasses studying within our institutions. I want you to get that job. And maybe some of what has been shared here will help. And hopefully folks can add their own thoughts in conversations beyond here.

For my own mental health and for my safety as an Indigenous woman in academe, I do not answer comments on this blog. I encourage you to write your own blog posts if there is something you are really passionate about. 

Works cited:

Brodkin, K., Morgen, S., & Hutchinson, J. (2011). Anthropology as White Public Space? American Anthropologist, 113(4), 545–556. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01368.x

Brown, N., & Leigh, J. (2017, November 3). “Ableism in academia: where are the disabled and ill academics?”. Disability & Society 33(6): 985-989. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/TNKmvGUKi4WgvA98p33J/full.

Canadian Association of University Teachers. 2018. Underrepresented
& Underpaid: Diversity & Equity Among Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Teachers. Retrieved from: https://www.caut.ca/sites/default/files/caut_equity_report_2018-04final.pdf

Kawa, N. C., Michelangeli, J. A. C., Clark, J. L., Ginsberg, D., & Mccarty, C. (2018). The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities. American Anthropologist, 121(1), 14–29. doi: 10.1111/aman.13158

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