Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School

By psykadamnit

I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.

For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.

“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?

“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.

“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?

Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?

5 comments

  1. psykadamnit:

    I think your post sounds like a problem of too many candidates and too few jobs.

    Yours is another piece of advice and probably similar than all other advices. There was a recent article (in NewYorker) about explosion of parenting advices and no sane person can follow all of those advises and this sounds so similar.

    I don’t think any candidate can satisfy so many subjective judgements. I am sure all your colleagues have their own opinion (and probably different than yours) about these talks as well.

    At the end of the day, all you need is an engaging colleagues who loves undergraduate teaching, can explain concepts clearly and can excite students with science, so all these whining sound so childish.

    Since it is teaching oriented school, most of the candidates probably prepare seminar keeping that in mind. I would applaud candidates who are trying to explain basics, keeping undergraduates students in mind.

    Maybe you and your colleague should sit down and specify what is expected to candidates.

    Just wanted to add that this comment is purely based on reading this post, not from my experience of interviewing at any such school.

  2. So the advice that Eli got is the first fifteen minutes should be understood by everyone, the second by the grad students (maybe the seniors in your case) the third by the faculty and the last fifteen are for you and your buddies.

  3. rs,

    I wasn’t the only person bothered by the lack of specifics on what these people actually do. Just about everyone agreed that this was a problem, and it was strange because during the last few searches just about everyone used their seminar talks to tell us what they actually do and how students can get involved in their future plans. This time around, there was at least one person who told us how students could get involved without actually telling us what they could get involved in. It was odd.

    And we definitely wanted them to spend time talking about the basics, but we also wanted them to balance that with an explanation of what they actually do. The job ad reflected that balance, talking about teaching as well as research, and the job itself balances teaching and research. Yes, we teach a lot of undergrad classes, but involving students in original research is also a big part of what we do. To that end, we need to know about the candidates’ research accomplishments and plans.

    Somebody, somewhere, gave some weird advice, and a bunch of people took it.

  4. psykadamnit: see if what you are talking about sounds familiar with this story today.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/09/us/led-by-stanfords-5-top-colleges-acceptance-rates-hit-new-lows.html?src=me&ref=general

    The competition is high and the poor candidate does all he/she can to improve his chances. At some other school, the same person will be turned down for talking too much research. It is so vague and subjective that complaining about it seems obnoxious to me.

  5. First, I do sympathize with people caught between contradictory pieces of advice. That said, I doubt there are many institutions where a talk that is 95% background would be well-received. In the end, we have to hear the person talking about what they actually do, otherwise we cannot make a well-informed decision. My strongest criticism is not of the candidates, but of the fools who steered them wrong.

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