How (not) to interview a faculty candidate

“My colleagues tend to be overly negative about this city: they will tell you that there is only one restaurant but that is because they don’t count McDonald’s”
[Actual words spoken to me during one of my interviews in 1997]

A lot of articles, books, radio shows etc. dispense advice to job seekers on how best to conduct themselves during a job interview. Not nearly as much seems to have been written on how best a potential employer should interview a candidate. However, one would imagine that a significant effort should go into this part of the process, or it may in the long run negatively impact the ability of recruiting satisfactorily (and quite likely increase its overall cost).

And yet, sometimes I have the impression that, because academic jobs are hard to come by and there are more candidates than there are openings, universities regard theirs as a “buyer’s market”, wherein the average candidate will be happy just having landed a position. Thus, a concerted effort on the part of the school, in order to conduct interviews effectively, may be seen as overkill, unnecessary. Of course, in some cases it may simply be obliviousness on the part of faculty and administrators [0]. Be that as it may, I think that the importance of this aspect is often overlooked.
Fundamentally, the aim is that of having candidates actually enjoy the time spent on campus, leaving at the end of their visit feeling good about the institution and the possible position, enthusiastic about their career prospects at that place. On the other hand, individual actions or even a pattern of behavior that may convey a message such as “Hey, here is a job, take it or leave it”, should be avoided, as it puts candidates off and does not serve the best interest of the recruiter.
These are a few observations, mostly based on my personal experience on both sides (job-seeker and recruiter); some of them apply primarily to research universities.

Geographical Location
Obviously, there is not really much anyone can do about the geographical location; it is what it is, either good or bad. However, I think it is fair to assume that most candidates willing to come for a faculty job interview have done their homework, largely know what to expect about the place and/or are reasonably open-minded about the prospects of relocating there [1]. There is no excuse for not making a genuine effort in order to put one’s best foot forward, in terms of casting the place in the most favorable light.
It is all right to take a candidate for lunch at the campus bistro, but going there again for dinner will likely convey to the person the impression that the city outside the campus perimeter has nothing to offer. If there is one decent restaurant, a lively part of town, a nice looking neighborhood, it is not a bad idea to take the candidate there. Even if one opts to abide by the philosophy that the new faculty will be so focused and enthralled in his/her research and teaching that nothing else will matter, the person’s family will feel differently; the place will have to work for the spouse and the children as well (even if the candidate is single at the time of the interview, there is a good chance that there will be a family at some point). So, it is important for hosting faculty to be ready to share personal experiences, answer questions about schools, real estate, health care, entertainment, services and amenities in general. Being less than forthcoming, having candidates spend a lot of time with faculty who are utterly clueless about all of the above and/or act or speak as though none of that is an issue, in essence depriving the person of important information upon which to base a decision, is tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot.

It never ceases to amaze me that colleges and departments see it fit to save money on job interviews. The fact that flying candidates in for interviews, hosting and feeding them for two days is expensive, is no justification for being cheap. One should not miss the point here: It is not that candidates will in the end accept the offer from the place where they stayed at the best hotel, or enjoyed the most bountiful dinner. It is simply a matter of making it clear to the person that the institution takes recruiting seriously, and is eager to give the best impression. I am not talking anything extravagant, here; one can hardly expect candidates not to think, of a school that cannot afford to put them at a decent hotel or offer at least one formal supper, that it is probably an institution of limited means, one that may well short-change its faculty when it comes to support for teaching or research as well.
Equally short-sighted is to refuse to pay for spouses to come along for the interview. They will be involved in the decision, and they are going to want to check the place out, sooner or later. It is in the best interest of the university to make them part of the process as early as possible. Obviously things should be done within reason, but it should always be kept in mind that the most expensive interviewing process is the one that fails, i.e., the position remains unfilled. So, this is not the time to save a few hundred bucks.

An interview is tiring. The schedule is typically tight, everything is fast-paced and the candidate ends up repeating the same things to many different individuals, over and over. There is such a thing as too much of it. I think that one-on-one meetings should include few (as in one or two) individuals outside the members of the search committee; the prospective new colleague will have the opportunity of introducing him/herself to the department at large during his/her seminar, and that is sufficient. Otherwise, round table discussions can be just as effective.
Additional one-on-one meetings with faculty who are not involved in the search, are not in the same research field, or even worse have been added to the schedule just to make it look “full” but have really nothing to tell the candidate, are counter-productive. They are only likely to tire the candidates and generate spurious, subjective comments about their general demeanor, personality, look etc. This information is rarely useful when making hiring decisions. In turn, a candidate can tell whether the person to whom (s)he is speaking has only a marginal interest in the search. Including too many such individuals in the schedule will inevitably make the candidate wonder how serious the department is about filling the position and/or enthusiastic about what (s)he may bring to the place. If there are not enough people, well, fewer is better than too many. An interview need not last more than a day, after all.

If a candidate is asked to deliver a seminar, the department should attend, including graduate students. One would think that this is so obvious that it hardly need be stated… Making the person speak before an empty room, is not only insulting, it is one of the worst mistakes that can be made. Attempting to justify the scarce attendance (or, limit the embarrassment) with the upcoming Spring Break holiday, or the concomitance with other interviews, or exams, is lame. Practically nothing else conveys equally a sense of lack of interest and departmental inactivity as faculty “no-show”. Even worse, a candidate may also worry that his/her hire is strongly opposed by a substantial fraction of the members of the department, hence their refusal to attend. At the very least, all faculty and graduate students in the same research area of the candidate should be there.


[0] Hard as it may be to believe, academics have the tendency to be, how shall I put it, somewhat self-absorbed. This has sometimes the effect of making them act cluelessly, ignoring issues that the rest of society recognizes as worthy of attention.
[1] To be sure, there is the possibility that a candidate who has no intention of accepting a job offer may accept an invitation for an on-campus interview anyway, for various reasons. I think, however, that those occurrences are relatively rare, i.e., an institution should assume to have a fair chance of recruiting all of its candidates.

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