Monday, December 03, 2012

Job Search - What not to Say

I thought it might be worth talking a bit today about what not to say in job interviews.  These might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised.

In previous comments, some folks have suggested helpful questions and unhelpful ones.  Susan suggested not asking about personal issues in an initial interview, but saving those for an on-campus visit.  And that got me thinking about other questions not to ask.

Like other interviewers, I really like the interview question where we ask candidates what questions they have for us.  But...

1)  If we've listed a deepwater basketweaving position, with a secondary interest in reed cultivation, don't ask us about teaching mathematical weaving course.  You can safely assume that if we needed someone new to teach it, we'd have put it on the ad.  Further, if the person who teaches mathematical weaving is on the interview committee, and a bit defensive anyway, s/he is going to get cranky.

More important, we're looking to hire someone who will want to teach deepwater basketweaving, whose life will be better because they're teaching deepwater basketweaving, not someone who will pine about not teaching mathematical weaving.  If you're going in a direction where you want to be doing more mathematical weaving, then we're going to find that problematic, and if we have candidates who are enthusiastic about deepwater basketweaving, we'll look to them.

2)  Don't ask us about salary.  If we're a state school, you may be able to look up salary information.  We may be able to tell you what we make as individuals, but we'd probably find that uncomfortable.  And that wouldn't necessarily help you know what you'd make.

What you may not realize is that a lot of colleges have what's called "salary compression" going on.  Here's how it works.  Say Dr. A got hired in 1995, at 40k/year, and got a few raises, and tenure and promotion, and now makes 48k/year.  (These numbers are fairly close to beginning salaries at my school, so try not to react with too much scorn.)  Dr. B got hired in 2000, at 42k/year, and got a few raises, and tenure and promotion, and now makes 49k/year.  The school knows that neither of these folks is going to leave because they're both mid-career, teaching 4/4 and so on.

Dr. C got hired in 2007, at 45k/year, and hasn't gotten a raise. 

And now we're hiring again, and Dr. D may be offered a salary of 47k/year.

There's talk around here of giving people who've been hired more recently a fairly chunky raise, a couple thousand a year.  The university, we're told, is worried about retention of young faculty.  The admins aren't worried about retaining Dr. A and Dr. B, though, so they won't get raises.  Dr. C will be making more as an assistant professor than Dr. A and Dr. B, and when Dr. C is promoted and gets that raise, will be making more.

Since there haven't been raises around here for a long time, we're not likely to be privy to initial salary offers, and we're maybe not going to be comfortable talking about our salaries, depending on who's in that interview room. 

3)  I'm not sure about this, but I probably wouldn't ask about spousal hire possibilities.  I'd appreciate hearing what other folks have to say.

So, everyone, what shouldn't a candidate ask during an interview?


  1. Spousal hire possibilities are hard. I think generally I've seen advice to wait till you have an offer, then bring it up as part of the negotiations. I could see bringing it up in an on-campus interview, though, especially if you know it's absolutely make-or-break, you couldn't possibly take the job without some kind of spousal hire arrangement. You may well not get the job in such a situation, but if you couldn't take it without a spousal hire anyway, you're no worse off. I think the issue is whether you want to approach the search with all your cards on the table, so that an offer is made in full awareness of all your concerns (in which case bring it up at the on-campus), or if you want to maximize your chances at an offer and then decide what to do (in which case wait till the offer). Sometimes, though, discussions arise organically through the course of the on-campus interview - although committees are not supposed to ask about family arrangements and whatnot, in practice they often do, or such info slips out (e.g. for parents - over dinner, conversation turns to kids - your interviewers, who know each other and know each other's kids, start talking about kid-related thing; do you join about your own kids as you do in a normal social situation or not? that kind of thing). I think if a committee finds out you're partnered with an academic, they're going to worry you'll want a spousal hire regardless of what you say. So being open at that point be advisable? That's really hard to predict, though.

    (I should say, too, that I don't know where schools generally are at with spousal hires these days - are they more common? less common? I don't know. I think if you know of a spousal hire or a spousal hire policy at a school where you're interviewing, it's easier to bring it up earlier than if you don't have that info.)

  2. Anonymous9:53 AM

    Yes, only ask about spousal possibilities if it is make-or-break. It takes us a while to come up with one, and with the recession we have a lot fewer options available than we used to. So giving lead time helps.

    However, in the past two years we haven't been able to come up with a spousal offer before the person accepts the job anyway, even with lead time. (Though we have been successful at facilitating spousal employment before the school year starts.)

    So far we've been really good at hiring people without making assumptions that single people will leave us or married people with career spouses will leave us... but I imagine that is not the case in all departments.

  3. Be very careful when asking about reduced teaching loads. If you're interviewing at a teaching-intensive institution, that type of request comes across as cluelessly privileged. Ask instead about research support, broadly drawn: that can open the door to learning about the research atmosphere as well as the concrete programs that will be available (or not).