How NOT to blow an academic job interview in design, the arts or the humanities (but mostly in design) (Part 3)

This is the THIRD in a series of pieces that will appear on the AIGA DEC blog during the 2015-16 academic year. They are offered on behalf of both emerging, university-level educators entering the academic job market for the first time, as well as on behalf of those who have accrued significant teaching experience. Each of these posts will address issues pertinent to engaging in the academic job interview process. The first and second articles in this series are available at the following URLs:

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

How NOT to blow an academic job interview in design, the arts of the humanities (Part 2)

Just in case you’re new to this series, or you’ve forgotten some of the key points articulated in the two articles mentioned above…
The content that was emphasized in the first two installments in this series underpins what will be emphasized in this one. A brief recap of what appeared in these earlier pieces is offered as follows:

The need for applicants to write and design their entire array of application materials with great care is of paramount importance. Not “sweating blood-’n’-bullets” to ensure that the visual and linguistic structure and details of your application materials are well-honed can and does cause the people who are called upon to assess these to be dismissive of you. If your work appears to be less-than-meticulously crafted and assembled, it tends to create the perception that you aren’t either. As my AIGA DEC national steering committee colleague Kenneth Fitzgerald recently stressed in an article that appeared in this space, “…too many applicants don’t seem to consider that the rhetoric of design can and should apply to an application for a teaching position.” AND…

The increased financial pressure placed on the institutions within which design, the visual arts and many of the humanities are taught means that applicants for academic positions within them now need to assess themselves through very different types of evaluative lenses than those that were employed for this purpose just a few years ago. Those who wish to teach design are increasingly being sought after to fulfill roles as revenue generators for their colleges, schools and programs. This means that applicants for many contemporary academic positions must possess not only the abilities to teach and plan curricula, but to operate design projects and design research initiatives as ways to earn sponsored funding from the private sector, granting agencies, alumni groups, philanthropic organizations and the like. Application packets that articulate how and why a given applicant has the potential to secure revenue streams, high-caliber students, project partners and inter-disciplinary collaborators now tend to generate far more advanced interview requests than application packets that do not communicate these potentials.

Some things to think about if a search committee decides they’d like to speak with you
The rest of this piece is being written from the hypothetical standpoint of an academic job seeker for a design, visual arts or humanities position who has reached the stage of the process where it’s time for her to begin the actual interview process.

This will very likely involve an array of e-mail exchanges between her and (at first) one “primary contact” at a given institution that has expressed an interest in interviewing her, followed by one to three conference calls or Skype chats. The calls and chats will likely involve her and between three and seven other people who constitute the “search committee” for the academic position to which she has applied. These types of exchanges generally transpire over the course of 40 minutes to an hour, and can be rather stiff and formal, as the search committees that are charged with facilitating them often are required to ask between three and six job applicants the same set of questions in the same order.

Well-managed and operated search committees know how to get these questions asked and answered in ways that allow for follow-up questions or issues to be posed or broached, and they also tend to be well-equipped to answer questions put to them by thoughtful applicants as these exchanges progress. (Please note: choosing NOT to ask the members of a search committee “follow-up” questions when they give you the opportunity to do so can make you appear uncaring, disinterested, and can give the distinct impression that you really don’t care very much about their position, institution or philosophies. More simply, not asking these types of “follow-on” questions can and has caused applicants for academic positions to appear ignorant or—worse—stupid.)

SO—do the “homework” necessary prior to the start of these types of interviews and learn as much as you can about

· WHY the curriculum of the program you’re applying to teach within has evolved as it has,

· why particular faculty members who teach there have chosen to operate their careers as they have,

· why the university or college to which the program you’re applying to teach within views this program—philosophically, ideologically, practically—as it does,

· how (and why) the program you’re applying to teach within plans to evolve in the future

Whether or not applicants who are interviewed this way get to review the questions posed to them prior to the beginning of the interview is entirely up to the search committee to decide. Many search committees are unwilling to share their questions with applicants prior to the beginning of the interview, as they wish to assess the applicant’s ability to answer questions posed to her “on the fly.” If you as an applicant can’t speak extemporaneously to good effect during this type of interview, it can cause search committee members to question your ability to do this effectively in the kinds of day-to-day situations they believe you’ll encounter working within their institution.

Prepping effectively for phone interviews and Skype chats
One effective means to prepare for this type of phone interview or Skype chat is to hand-write a series of succinctly worded phrases and short sentences that you can place on a single sheet of butcher paper measuring roughly 3′ x 2′ that you tape to a wall or window that you can clearly see during the interview but that your interviewers cannot. These phrases and short sentences should be written in your own natural language—however you most comfortably speak and write—and should provide you with material that could be used to help you answer questions such as “Can you please describe two to three ways your current research or professional endeavors affect your teaching and course planning?”, and “Can you please describe one or two examples of how you were able to forge and sustain an effective working relationship with someone at your institution who does not have a background in your field or discipline?”

The written material that winds up on the afore-mentioned piece of butcher paper can begin as simple phrases that are written on Post-It Notes or 3″ x 5″ index cards that are later transferred (and perhaps re-written or edited) and organized categorically. Engaging in this process will help you 1. organize your thinking prior to the initiation of a phone interview or Skype chat, and 2. it will help you create the perception among those who would interview you that you “have your act together.” Achieving this latter goal—“being perceived as having your act together”—is a crucial one to achieve during the interview process, especially for design educators, who have a need to both be and be perceived to be good planners (rather than crisis managers).


Showing a marked inability to be comfortable “operating within your own skin” is also a perception to avoid creating during these types of interviews. Most search committees are populated by at least a couple of people who know through experience that pretending to be someone you’re not while you teach tends to be a recipe for a variety of classroom-related disasters. Comporting yourself as yourself during these interviews will also help ensure that you and “they” are compatible, or at least have the potential to be, in a variety of areas ranging from the pursuit of research and professional agendas to teaching philosophies (which, by the by, applicants for these types of positions definitely need to a. have, and b. be ready to describe effectively when asked about).

Gosh, there are LOTS of design education positions that have been posted this year… 
As of this writing in early February of 2016, there have been over 120 academic positions posted in North America that articulate calls to attempt to hire full-time design educators in the realms of graphic, visual communication or interaction design, or some variation of these. About two-thirds of these postings tout tenure-track or long-term contract opportunities. Comparing this number of calls to hire design educators who possess the abilities necessary to teach in these areas with calls to hire faculty into full-time positions that involve teaching (for example) printmaking, painting, industrial design, landscape architecture, Japanese Art History or Art Education reveals that there are roughly (and conservatively) 10 graphic/vis comm/IXD positions posted for each one of the other types. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but here are some ways for the design education applicants reading this piece to consider how it might affect which positions they choose to apply for, and how they engage in negotiations with Deans and Chairs and other university administrators in the coming months as these searches advance.

Just because there are lots of positions posted in a given academic hiring cycle doesn’t mean there are an exceedingly large number of really worthwhile positions for a given applicant. Some of the positions posted will demand that those hired into them teach three or more courses per semester or quarter for relatively low pay, or will require applicants to spend some portions of their weekly schedule outside of class time managing a lab, or coordinating the administration of a given undergraduate or graduate program. Other positions will call for faculty to teach groups of students who are woefully under-prepared to enter a viable program of study in or around design, or to teach in programs that emphasize only the vocational or conceptual aspects of design (or neither); others facilitate curricula that philosophically equates the acquisition of software or coding skill with the ability to strategically and tactically plan and execute design processes in ways that connect audiences with clients and messaging. Still other positions require faculty hired into them to teach outdated curricula which, in design, is something to be especially leery of… If your perception of a given institution’s design program(s) is that “the 1990s are calling and they want their curriculum back,” think twice before accepting a position from them.

W. C. Fields plays Carnival Barker Gabby Gilfoil in Two Flaming Youths, 1927.

Accepting a teaching position in a setting where one or more of these approaches is predominant can prove to be problematic for applicants who have cultivated a broader view of what design is and can achieve, and can lead to a great deal of career frustration, especially among emerging design educators. Make sure you’ve cultivated a thorough understanding of the type(s) of programs who might wish to hire you before you engage in even cursory conversations with any of them. As former University of Michigan design educator Dwayne Overmyer once said about design schools pushing too zealously to hire faculty, “Beware of the club that wants TOO, too badly for you to join their ranks.”

If you’re an applicant for a design position and you possess well-cultivated knowledge of Interaction Design and User Experience Design, it costs more to hire you. Period.
More than two thirds of the positions posted in North America this year call for applicants to possess the ability to teach IXD and/or UXD and to play an active role in planning these types of curricula. Just as IXD and UXD design professionals are now earning more than traditional graphic design professionals in markets in all four time zones, people who possess the ability to teach in these arenas are beginning to see increases in pay. (Rough comparative estimates of these increases analyzed between October 1, 2015 and February 1, 2016 by this author peg them conservatively at 15% to 25% above salaries for design educators not called upon to teach in these areas. To reach these figures, data was analyzed from 52 academic job postings in the U.S. and Canada that called for applicants to fill positions in or related to graphic, visual communication, interaction and user experience design.)

If you possess these skills, and, more importantly, the bases of knowledge that inform them, university officials should be aware that they could well be facing a “pay you what you’re worth or lose you to private industry scenario,” so negotiate with them accordingly. This means that they may have to bring in someone who possesses these abilities at a salary higher or equal to what they’re already paying some or even most of their current faculty who don’t know how to facilitate learning in and around the realms of user experience and interaction design. This is especially true in public university settings that operate their own colleges or schools of art and design. It also means that they have to offer applicants for these positions attractive enough compensation packages to allow these individuals to not be lured into well-paying free-lance consulting opportunities that would pull them away from their teaching responsibilities, which tend to pay far less.

Additionally, we’re living through a time where many institutions are trying to determine exactly how they should incorporate IXD and UXD learning experiences into their more traditional graphic design curricula, OR whether they should opt to operate IXD and UXD as their own, unique curricular paths. People who have accrued experience about how to strategically address these issues to good effect also possess much sought-after knowledge, often of the type that can allow design programs to “play nicely and lucratively” with disciplines on university campuses within which almost no one knows the difference between tracking and kerning type, much less much else about effectively engaging in design processes.

Knowing how to teach IXD and UXD, and how to use IXD and UXD strategies to bridge disciplinary gaps within university and college settings, provides administrators with yet more reasons to hire people who know how to do this over those who don’t. Further, as most reasonably well-qualified applicants for university-level design positions know how to manipulate two-dimensional arrays of type-and-images in aesthetically compelling ways, this has become the floor rather than the ceiling of expectation for many contemporary design education positions. User interface (UI) designs must function effectively based on a design and development team’s ability to match real user needs and wants with how the look-and-feel of a given interface facilitates these. If all you know how to do is make the graphic appearance of a given UI look cool, know that you’ll be outcompeted by people who can bring much more than this ability to the proverbial table. In this context, “much more” =  the ability to use knowledge gleaned from a variety of types of user testing and market analysis to guide design decision-making, “from inception to product pitch,” of a given interactive experience, and the ability to contribute to the work of teams comprised of people who have cultivated knowledge from areas such as Computer Science and Marketing and Logistics.

Putting a bow around all of this (so far)
The next piece in this series will offer information-cum-knowledge that addresses issues that need to be considered once an academic job search has progressed to the point where a plane ticket for an on-campus interview has been purchased and a schedule-of-on-campus-meetings-for-a-prospective-applicant has been devised. What has been offered in this piece are a series of things to think carefully about BEFORE a given applicant for an academic position ever boards a flight for an on-campus interview. To synopsize:

· plan for your initial phone interview or Skype chat carefully—use the “handwritten-phrases-on-butcher-paper-near-your-phone-or-computer” method for doing this;

· bear in mind that the questions you ask during these initial interviews are just as important as the ones you’ll try to answer, so prepare for them accordingly;

· practice talking about your personal, philosophically guided approaches to teaching and engaging in YOUR scholarship, professional work and research, so that you can effectively and comfortably SPEAK TO STRANGERS ON SEARCH COMMITTEES about these;

· make sure you “have your act together” before you attempt to initially interview with anyone (and remember that the design and writing of your application materials should create the impression that you do indeed “have your act together”);

· Bear in mind that just because it looks as if there’s a “sellers’ market” out there for applicants for academic positions in your discipline, this perception may NOT hold up under closer scrutiny—be sure you understand the working parameters of any position you apply to THOROUGHLY;

· If you possess IXD or UXD knowledge, bear in mind that the pay rates for these positions, for the good and the ill of it, are rising across North America—negotiate preliminary agreements accordingly (people who are “very excited” to pay design educators with IXD and UXD skills only what undergraduates with two years worth of professional experience in these arenas make do NOT deserve hire anybody into one of these positions).

By Michael R. Gibson
Published February 5, 2016
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