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How NOT to blow an academic job interview in design, the arts or the humanities (Part 1)

June 10, 2015 / By Michael R. Gibson

This is the first of a series of short pieces that will appear on the AIGA DEC blog in the summer and fall of 2015 that are being written on behalf of emerging, university-level design educators. These posts will address issues pertinent to engaging in the academic job interview process.

What follows has been adapted from a presentation I give once per semester to soon-to-be-finished M.F.A. and Ph.D. recipients at the University of North Texas. I make this presentation with two other professorial colleagues from outside design to a (usually) large and diversely populated group of grad students as one means to help prepare them for entry into the university-level, academic job market. Much of what follows is directly relevant to emerging design educators; other portions are relevant to most people seeking full-time or part-time positions in departments that teach some forms of what many in the academy refer to as the “arts and humanities.”

Avoid ALL typos or grammatical errorrs like the ones that are occurrin’ in this sub-head in any and all presentation and correspondence materials that you plan on having anyone other than yourself see

(You shouldn’t have to be reminded of this, but I’ve seen far too many emerging university-level educators blow this to not make mention of it here. Holy sheesh, people…)

Some general-yet-crucial things to remember about interviews and presentations, in no particular order of importance:

  • Be aware of how the context within which a given interview or presentation will occur affects its perception >> this includes factors such as accounting for the type of room(s) you’ll present or be interviewed in, as well as preparing for the type(s) of audience members who will be listening to or interacting with you.

 

  • Tailor your presentation and the operation of your interview to the type of institution you have been invited to >> what “plays well” at a tier one research institution may not be well-suited for a smaller, private institution.

 

  • Be sure to qualify the significance of your scholarship >> just because you believe that what you’ve been working on during your graduate experience, recent fellowship or post-doc endeavor is worthy of the “high attention” of others isn’t sufficient enough to convince them that it actually is. You need to speak and/or write about why the knowledge you’ve developed/scholarship you’ve authored/creative or design initiatives you’ve engaged in is significant in light of the other scholarly and/or professional work that forms and frames the current landscape of your discipline. Describe how and why your work complements or refutes extant work, or how and why it is (necessarily) new and innovative.

 

  • Bear in mind that an interview and a scholarly presentation is a performance that requires you to “play yourself” really well >> don’t try to be someone you’re really not as these interactions progress lest you be perceived as false, or arrogant, or a jerk, or incompetent, or some combination of these. Speak and be who you naturally, truthfully are: if you’re not a good fit for them/their institution/their department, or they for you, it’s a good idea to ascertain this during the interview and presentation process rather than during your first or second year of employment with them.

 

  • Also bear in mind that the questions you ask are just as important as the ones you’ll be challenged to answer during the presentation and interview process >> you need to be able to engage the people you’re interacting with during these exchanges in meaningful dialogue, which will require you to inquire about matters as diverse as their curricular plans in the near- and far-term, how the program you’ll teach within fits—and doesn’t—with other programs at that institution, what types of community-based and/or inter-disciplinary opportunities there might be available to you, what type(s) of support they have in place for your potential travel and scholarship/research, etc.
COMMENTS
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  • Steven McCarthy

    Some great advice, Prof. Gibson. But prior to the considerations of “Part 1” (the interview), aspiring academics should give thought to what precedes an interview: the application itself.

    A few cautionary words, in no particular order:

    a. Tailor your application to the position. Emphasis on undergrad or grad teaching? Research? Creative practice? Professional experience? Different schools value different strengths.

    b. Cleanse your online presence, if necessary (and possible). Faculty on search committees aren’t banned from Googling you.

    c. Have a clear, detailed and accurate Curriculum Vitae. Look at the CVs of the faculty of the hiring institution if they’re available. Make sure it’s evident what was peer-reviewed (juried, competitive, etc.) versus invited opportunities in your CV. For collaborative projects, clearly state your role.

    d. Design your application as a package: portfolio, examples of student work, writing samples, website, etc. How you handle the typography of a page can say more than “I’m interested in teaching typography.”

    e. Be patient. It can take weeks or months for search committees to cull through applications and schedule interviews.

    f. If something spectacular is accomplished (major award, grant, exhibit, publication, etc.), it’s okay to update your application dossier. Otherwise, see “e” above.

    g. Be aware that behind many academic job openings, there are unknown internal interests, agendas, factions, ideologies and goals. If you don’t get the offer, it might not be about you.

    h. Consider attending academic conferences as a way to network and learn more about this culture. If the presentations and panels are worthwhile, you’ll also learn about various topics of interest. Your own teaching and scholarship will be advanced too.

    i. Good luck!

    • Michael R Gibson

      Thanks very much for offering this well-considered and critically relevant advice re: preparing an effective application, Steve.

      In light of the issues you have raised, combined with the ones Mr. Carton and I’ve articulated above—

      the national steering committee of the The AIGA DEC is currently preparing the content that will constitute our roundtable and panel discussions at the upcoming AIGA national conference in New Orleans this fall. The issues that we have begun to broach here, and likely several others related to the processes that guide academic hiring (or that thwart it) will frame and form at least two of these discussions.

      Re: the particular issues you’ve raised in your commentary, I’ll begin by qualifying my response by offering that I’ve served on over 40 search committees now in my years as a university-level design educator. Even after gaining all of this experience, I’ll admit that I’m negatively amazed, and (depending on the specific situation) either chagrined or saddened when I see evidence of candidates for teaching and administrative positions “stub their toes” on/around one or more of these concerns. Not tailoring application dossiers to the parameters that contextualize a particular position posting—philosophical, pedagogic, instrumental, onotological—is something I’ve seen in the application materials of dozens, if not over a hundred, applicants in the last two decades. Designing application materials poorly, including those that appear online, is something else that I’ve encountered repeatedly over the years, and that I never cease to be adversely flabbergasted by.

    • JMinneapolis

      question on point B: cleanse in what sense? I only ask because I’m a non-traditional professional (went back to school and got a BFA in GD in my early 30s.) I do have photos with alcoholic beverages at events (probably about 70% are AIGA) but I have been an adult for a long time. (These are not frat party kegs – but regular adult events, like birthdays/holidays/etc.)

      Also, I’ve been fairly active in campaigning in person and online for the Dem Party – so there are political stances out there. Are academic interviewers going to be adults and realize people have a varied background? Or will they be scandalized if someone only has a perfectly “curated” design only type online presence?

      • Steven McCarthy

        Those exposures don’t sound very worrisome. But think of your application packet as a tightly “curated” portrait of who are, what you’ve accomplished, etc. Online, things take on a life of their own, and not all of it behind privacy firewalls like FB friends’ settings.

  • Tony Carton

    Here’s one for the interviewing team, how not to blow an interview from our side. Can we stop selecting a faculty member to systematically interrupt candidates during their public presentations? I understand, having been on both sides, the value of challenging someone to communicate the value of their research interests, but having also spoke with other faculty in different fields, it seems to come typically from an environment in which machismo is expected for success.

    One anecdote I can recall is from an outside committee member from Computer Science who noted after sitting through a presentation for a graphic design candidate that it is typical in CS for the candidate to be systematically interrupted repeatedly, as often as during each slide in the presentation. This faculty member connects this to an overtly macho culture in that field in which one gains status by humiliating others. I’ve experienced similar while sitting in on presentations in Mech Eng. and Statistics.

    With the development of empathy and the ability to place the user at the center of our work, we can do better, and don’t need to rudely interrupt candidates in order to ascertain their qualifications.

    Why would any of us really want to work with someone who accepts the responsibility of repeatedly interrupting a candidate with questions that we know will very likely be answered in the next slide anyway? I know I wouldn’t want to be that colleague.

  • http://www.studiojunglecat.com Matt Wizinsky

    A great budding resource here! While my time in academia has been brief, I’ve been ridiculously fortunate to land exactly 2 of the 2 academic positions for which I’ve applied (maybe, I should try to stay put for a while). I only state this to preface what might otherwise sound like “soft” advice, but… I believe one of the most important tasks for design educators is to INSPIRE. If it’s not a labor of love, it’s just labor (which is quite different from “work”). Genuine enthusiasm is as easy to spot as the faux kind—in an interview as in the classroom. You can’t teach passion, but you should be able to inspire it.

  • Eric Benson

    I am excited for Part 2!

  • Liese Zahabi

    Some really great advice throughout. I would also like to add that finding a mentor can be really important. Academia is a very different world (from something like business) and you don’t learn all the ins and outs while you’re a student. It takes time and effort to figure out ways to navigate the system, and to learn how to interpret job write-ups and interview questions.

    The forum on the Chronicle of Higher Education is an amazing source of information about academia. And while it isn’t solely focused on design education, if you’re willing to spend some time reading through the posts (specifically about the job finding process and interviewing) you’ll start to get a good sense of what generally occurs in academic searches and interviews, and how much those things differ from discipline to discipline and institution to institution.

    I also know that I became a much better candidate over time. My first few interviews were much more difficult (and far less fruitful) than my more recent ones….but I learned something with each job application, each phone or skype interview, and certainly with each campus interview. Job candidates should really try to hone all their interviewing skills and materials after each job interview experience, and learn from what did and did not go well.