Thursday, February 14, 2013

Job Search - Questions for the Campus Visit

I thought it might be helpful to talk a bit (and hopefully others will contribute better ideas) about what sorts of questions we expect (and hope) candidates will ask during the campus visit.

I sort of expect that candidates coming for campus visits will have looked over the website and found some of the stuff we brag about here.  Asking about stuff we brag about is enlightening.  For example, say we brag about undergraduate research.  If you ask faculty folks about undergraduate research opportunities, you'll learn a lot.  If we give you a blank look or laugh in your face, you'll get some ideas about the disconnection between the administrative bragging on the website and our experience.  But if we talk about trying this or that, or a colleague who's had some experience, or a student who's done something really special, then you'll know it's real, and you'll learn something about how we do it.

If there's a special department or group project, asking about that's likely to be informative.  For example, if you were interviewing with a biology department that has (and advertises) a special relationship with a local prairie restoration project, or a chemistry department that does some cool air quality thing, asking about that will tell you lots, and you'll also likely impress your hosts.

The harder things to get at are things like benefits, quality of life, equity issues, and so on.  How do you ask about maternity issues if you're worried that the department won't hire someone they think is likely to get pregnant?  I think that's a really hard one.  I don't really have an answer.

My hope is that someone along the way will talk about their kids, and that will give you an opening to ask about local daycare, maternity leave, and so on.

If you're openly gay and the department is even minimally aware, then it's probably not at all a problem to ask about partner benefits.  (Unless, of course, you're interviewing at a religiously affiliated school with an unfriendly affiliation.   Not all religious organizations are unfriendly to gay and lesbian folks, of course, and it's good to get a sense of that earlier rather than later.)

I would tend to ask hard questions in terms of "what was your experience with X" rather than asking for a policy statement or something.  So, if you're out with tenure track faculty, asking someone how their experience of the review process has been seems reasonable.  If they burst into tears, then it hasn't been good.  Let's hope that doesn't happen.

You might also ask if they feel well-informed about what's required for tenure.  If they all feel well informed, but each tells you something totally different, that's useful information.  (I know of a department where, when asked, each of the five junior folks had a rather different idea of what was required beyond "good teaching," especially in terms of research: from a single article, to X or Y number of articles, to X-1 articles, but in the very best journal(s).

You might ask what sorts of resources the department has for travel for research or conferences, and how it decides how to spend it.  (My department, for example, quite openly supports tenure track faculty with money first, and then tenured folks get less.  We all pretty much think this makes good sense.)  If you're in the sciences, you'll want to know about lab start up funds and such.  (No one cares about us poor humanists and our needs, waaahhhh.)  You can ask about the library, and what sorts of support it offers to faculty for teaching and research.

If you have a partner or kids, I tend to think it's a good time to ask about local schools, opportunities for work in your partner's field, and so on.

I've thought a lot about the difficulties of this community for people of color over the years, but I wouldn't begin to know how to help a candidate who's a person of color to negotiate those questions.  (For one very obvious thing, pretty much every person of color who's likely to be on a candidate visit has a whole world of experience more than I ever will.)  I think at my campus, the administration has looked at our record in hiring and retaining faculty, recruiting students, and graduating students, and seen that we're unimpressive on all counts.  At times, I've felt the administration was making real efforts to change things.  But then administrators come and go, and the next wants to focus on something else, and lower down the chain, funding for retention programs and so on dries up, and we're back to square one.  I don't know how visible that process is for a candidate.

How do you all think candidates can learn what's most important to them on campus visits?


  1. Anonymous11:04 AM

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how a candidate should address dietary issues. I'll be on the job market next year (in English), and I'm vegan. Depending on the school, and how it's addressed, it could be alienating/problematic. What would be a good way to ensure the dept knows that this is an issue, should I be lucky enough (ever) to have a campus visit? Knowing my own dept, my impulse would be to inform the administrator, and rely on zie to relay that information. Good or bad idea?

  2. Hi Anon, That's a great question. As I'm sure you know, vegetarian is pretty easy most places now, while vegan is a bit more difficult. Still, it's not impossible if folks put some thought in and ask at restaurants. I think you're on the mark to let the department know; usually our chair calls people, and would be a good person to let know, and then the chair could let meal hosts know. I'm sure you've dealt with travel issues and such, and would know to take some extra travel food with you, just to be sure you were able to eat something more if they only have, say, a salad available, but you need more protein. (My vegetarian friends are really smart about such things, and that seems pretty common for vegetarians and vegans, that they know how to take care of their dietary needs well.)

  3. I made sure to ask every candidate in advance of the campus visit whether there were any dietary needs we should be aware of as we planned meals, and I also checked whether walking around would be OK or whether we should try to do the campus tour by car (to address mobility issues as we discussed in one of the earlier posts in this great series). If you're not asked, I would tell this information to whomever first invites you to campus. Plus pack some snacks in your own bag! That way, even in a disaster, you'll be fine.

  4. Some benefit questions don't necessarily need to be asked of faculty (in fact, someone asked me what the maternity benefits are and I realized I don't know! ALthough I did know them at my old university. But things like whether there are domestic partner benefits and what are the maternity benefits are somethings things that can be looked up on the website. I don't mean to suggest that it's a problem to ask about them--more that sometimes, people who don't use them, won't know.

  5. Anonymous2:40 PM

    All of our candidates have a meeting with the head of HR, who fields those kinds of specific benefits questions. S/he doesn't communicate any information to the committee about what the candidate asks or doesn't ask, but I know when I was interviewing I was able to ask about partner benefits without it having to be something coming up in front of the whole committee.

    That said, we're also in a state that has much more robust protections for benefits policies than many others, so we probably have a leg up on that front.