Breaking Into Academia: Acing The In Person Interview

Striding Toward Employment

In my last post on Breaking Into Academia I addressed the Dread Phone Interview.

*Disclaimer: The advice below can be adapted to other areas of librarianship but will probably work best for people interested in one or more of the following areas: subject specialist, outreach, diversity, reference, and instruction.? A large number of people gave me advice about in person interviews and this is a distillation of what I’ve learned works for me.

So what happens next?

As several very wise people told me, if you are invited to an in person interview that means that they like you.? Unless they have money to burn they really want all of the 2-4 people that they bring to campus for the in person interview to be great candidates for hire.? It costs a lot of money to bring people in for on campus interviews so universities generally don’t waste money bringing in unqualified people for no reason.

Presentations & Mock Instructional Sessions

In most cases you will have to either give a presentation or teach a mock lesson.? If this isn’t mentioned in the information provided for your visit I recommend that you ask, I only know of one person who wasn’t asked to do this and it’s best to be safe.? Presentation topics can be very rigid or very flexible.? It is okay to ask about equipment and room size to help you prepare for your presentation.? Since I find projector screens hard to look at I tend not to do power point presentations, but there are plenty of really good power point and multimedia presentations out there.? I’m always very suspicious of Murphy’s Law coming into play when I’m interviewing so I like to go low tech.? That said if high tech is your thing go for it!? If you like high tech you know the drill: have a copy online, bring a copy on your laptop, and put another copy on a flash drive, etc.? If you have a soft voice, or are speaking in a large area ask for a microphone to be provided.

Due to some excellent advice I did create a power point presentation to organize and structure my thoughts.? I then created a handout from the talking points I mentioned on my slides.? I think it’s nice to hand people something that has your main points on it when you give a talk so that they can follow along and not have to scribble notes every few seconds.? Everyone has a different presentation style so what works for me may not work for you.?? I prefer a presentation style with some give and take from the audience, I’m not one to memorize my presentation I do practice giving my presentations but they turn out different every time.? When I’m in front of an audience I ask about their awareness of topics, adjust what I say based on audience response, give my opinions, try and state any biases I might have, and make sure that I finish on time so that there is time for questions.?? If you are given free reign on how long to talk I’d suggest keeping your talk to 20 minutes plus time for questions.

If you are told to talk for a specific amount of time make sure that you keep an eye on the time and try not to go over.? It is okay to ask someone to let you know when you have five minutes and one minute left to help you time things out.? You can also ask someone to pass out your extra handouts to people who come in after you start talking.? When people ask you questions you’ll most likely be keyed up with adrenaline, I try and remind myself to take a moment and think before I start answering so that my answers are more coherent.?? Sometimes I remember this better than others, but just by making the effort to pause before answering I think I improve the quality of my answers and maybe someday it’ll become habit.? Sometimes people ask you questions which seem really strange to you at the time, often these are based on the persons areas of interest.? Remember, all questions are good questions, it means the person cares enough about what you have been saying to want to know more so answer each question with a real answer.

Interview Day(s)

Depending on the position you are interviewing for, your in person interview can last anywhere from 1 to 3 days.?? If you are from out of state they will most likely fly you in and put you up for several nights.

  1. Attire: Bring one extra outfit just in case something happens, if you are prepared nothing will probably happen but better safe than sorry. (Yes ladies that includes stockings if you wear them.)? For both men and women I recommend wearing a thin undershirt even if you don’t normally do so, the lines of your clothes will sit nicer and give you a cleaner look.? Your outfit doesn’t have to be a traditional black suit, but a suit or suit like outfit is a definite plus, it says you know how to play the game.? I prefer a non-tradional suits myself in terms of colors but stay away from overly bright suits because they make people focus on the color of your suit instead of you.
  2. Library Information: Review all of the information you gathered for your phone interview.? If you haven’t done so read the annual report and most recent strategic plan, if you can’t find them ask if they are available and if so ask if you can have a copy.? You won’t retain everything but they will give you a sense of the library and its structure and when people ask how you prepared for your interview you’ll get a couple gold stars for effort.? Also review what databases are in your subject area, don’t be afraid to say you are inexperienced with some of them or to mention you have access to some but not others.? Every university has different databases and e-journals and if you don’t have access all you can do is look at the publishers information.? To my knowledge people don’t usually hold this against you and it’s much better to be honest and just admit it if you don’t know something about the library or its resources.
  3. Personal Care: Once you arrive at your hotel unpack your belonging and iron anything that got overly wrinkled on your trip.? Since I had to take a red eye for my interview with a long layover my bags were packed about 20 hours before I could unpack them.? If you need to iron things do it as soon as you get there to avoid being in a rush the next day.? Lay out your clothes for the first day along with shoes,? combs, brushes, and anything else you will need to use to get ready in the morning.? Eat a decent dinner, take a hot shower or bath, and try and get to sleep early, if you can’t sleep just try and let your mind wander while breathing slowly and evenly.? The more rested you are the better you will hold up the next day, or days as the case may be.
  4. Daily Schedule: Each day usually starts with a breakfast meeting.? This is often followed by at least one other meeting and then possibly by your presentation. Some institutions like presentations at the beginning of the day, others at the end of the day. You will meet with the search committee, library directors and/or deans, representatives from most if not all departments of the library, your potential boss, an assortment of committees within the library, and possibly with higher-ups in within the university as a whole depending on what type of position you are applying for.? On days in which you meet with people you will normally have lunch and “informal” dinner meetings.
  5. Questions: Interviewing with so many different groups means that some people here your answers to the same questions repeatedly.? Repeat questions can be handled two ways, you can either concentrate on giving the exact same answer each time or you can give similar but different answers each time.? Questions I was asked over and over include but are not limited to: What interests you about working for our library?? What are your areas of interest in regards to research?? What do you like best about librarianship?? What is your leadership style?? How did you get from Chemistry to Librarianship? (This is a useful question for highlighting the similarities and differences between what you used to do and what you’d like to do if you are a career switcher.)

Sell Your Personality:

The hardest thing to do, and the most important, is to be yourself at your interview, but as I mentioned in my previous post if you aren’t honest about who you are you could easily end up in a job that you hate.? Here’s some things I try and remember, and areas which I work on.

  1. Poise: Because academic interviews are usually for 1-3 days, include an average of around a meeting per hour plus meal meetings, and answering the same questions over and over it can get very tiring and frustrating because you feel like a broken record.? This is where you remind yourself that these people want you to be a successful candidate so it’s important to try and keep a polite and pleasant demeanor.? In many ways your attitude from start to finish is one of the biggest factors which will get you a job.? Keeping your cool under pressure is always a strong plus.
  2. Admit When You Don’t Know: When people ask you questions there will inevitably be things asked that you either don’t know about at all, or have heard of but only know a little about.? This is okay!? No one does, or should, expect you to know everything.? Admitting when you don’t know something looks good because it shows that you are willing to admit the limits to what you know which is essential since many reference questions librarians receive are about topics they know little to nothing about.? Good phrases to use are things like, “I am not familiar with…”, and “I have heard the name but all I know about it is…”.
  3. Sharing😕 There are a lot of things that it is illegal for search committees to ask you which is generally a good thing.? However, this does mean that it is up to you to mention interests and relevant personal information at strategic points during an interview.? As I was told by a close friend, you have all day, or several days, to let them get to know you so you don’t have to share everything at your first meeting, share things strategically, be honest as you slowly reveal yourself and you’ll seem more interesting.? Over sharing makes people look insecure, interviewing is like networking in this regard.? (I think is a shame since I like collaborative environments where there is a ton of what most people consider to be over sharing and talking over and picking apart of ides, but if you want to be successful in academia you have to learn how to play the game.? Academia is largely driven through politics and understanding and accepting that is important to being happy in higher education.)
  4. Quiet: Let there be lulls in conversation, don’t try and fill the quiet.? This is a tough one for me for a variety of reasons, the main one being that when I feel like I’m being put on display I default into what I think of as hostess/actress mode which translates into dead air=Bad.? When I feel relaxed I generally don’t do this but since interviews are very much focused on me as an individual I constantly remind myself before and during the interview that silence is okay, I don’t have to fill the air, I’m not the host and an interview is not the same as being on stage.? This is another of those if you do this you look insecure things, I really doubt that this is the case for most people, but selling yourself is all about controlling peoples perceptions of you so its important to be aware of things will be perceived.
  5. Dining: Even though some eating functions may be labeled “Informal Dinner” they are still an important part of the interview process. To avoid stains stay away from pastas and soups, to avoid coughing stay away from croutons and other foods which create fine dust like particles.? I prefer to order sandwiches or burgers with sauce if any on the side so I can better prevent food accidents.? Do not order the most expensive thing on the menu, do not order alcoholic beverages.? If someone does order a bottle of wine for the table (not likely in higher education at all) it would be okay to have a little to be sociable if you like wine, but it is generally a bad idea to drink while interviewing.
  6. Institutional Politics: Different positions deal with politics to different degrees and it is good to show that you understand that they are important and are willing to learn how to navigate your institutions politics.? Chains of command are important, learning who to keep informed is important.? A large portion of institutional politics is informing or asking permission from the correct people in the correct order.

After the Interview

Pay attention to what people tell you about themselves so that you can send thank you notes to the head of the search committee and/or whoever shoved you around.? It’s best to put these in the mail as soon as you get home.? If you can write them immediately after the interview while you still have the people straight, consider this letter writing part of the interview process.

Now is the time to start thinking about what you’ve learned about the people you will be working with directly, the position, the institution, and the community you would be living in.? People often only have 2-3 days to accept an offer and begin negotiations so give it a good think before you move on to your next job application because the next e-mail you receive may be a job offer.

What else would you like to know about In Person Interviews?

What other tips do people have for preparing for and successfully surviving in person interviews?

Please leave a comment, send me a message on twitter, or write me an e-mail!

4 thoughts on “Breaking Into Academia: Acing The In Person Interview”

  1. I haven’t had a chance to read a lot of your blog, but these past two entries have been excellent and extremely helpful. Thank you very much for taking the time to expound upon this grueling process. So far I’ve only gotten to the phone interview stage before, and I’m thankful that when I get to the final stage, I won’t be completely in the dark about what it will be like! (also, I’m applying to some science librarian jobs too! I can see I have some catching up to do on your blog!)

  2. Thanks Lauren! I love your name, it’s the same name as my step-daughter 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions, or if there’s anything I can do to help. I often think that half the secret to being a science librarian is to find it interesting and not be afraid of having to learn something new!

  3. Yay, I’ve got the first half down! And thanks a lot for your offer – right now I’m too busy to think, but I’m sure I’ll have some questions for you at some point. 🙂

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