Campus Visits: Manners Matter

The campus interview: A chance for academic job candidates to put their best exhausted, stressed out, overworked, anxiety-ridden foot forward.

I found that, by the time my campus invites came in, I was too tired to worry. It never edged toward fatalism, but the previous months' demands had stripped me of the energy to pretend. Most candidates can stand on their heads for the first interview, but by early January--with classes resuming, dissertation revisions, and post-holiday stupor settling deep--everyone's a little raw.

If you get an invite, the committee has decided that they could see you in the position, even if you're their last choice. They've likely extended invites to three candidates, and depending on their timeline, their top choices may have already committed to positions. If you have campus invites before January--not common, but it does happen--the department may need to fill the position before the tenure-line funding evaporates. The Academic Job Wiki earns its keep during campus-visit time. If you feel flush about your phone/Skype/video/MLA interviews, the Wiki may give some indication of the school's correspondence with candidates.

At no point does the AcJoSer most closely resemble high school dating than the campus interview. When a school contacts you to arrange a visit, you may have to play the I'm-busy-with-another-school-that-day game. They know what's up, but protocol says that we pretend the relationship is monogamous. And just like high school dating, the juggle can lead to slips. I was regaled with football stories about another candidate's university, a friend received documents with the previous candidate's name printed on them, and I had a lengthy discussion with an undergraduate student about the pros and cons of my competition. (The interaction was sweet and sincere, not awkward, as undergraduates can't possibly be expected to know the unspoken rules of the search.) The search is series of overlapping human relationships, so I wasn't shocked to see a little lipstick on the collar.

However, with some planning, the campus interview can be a truly delightful experience. I met engaged, thoughtful scholars who I am proud to call friends and colleagues. I was taken to dinner at really nice restaurants that I couldn't afford myself. More than any other experience, the campus visit professionalized me, as I lived the role of professor before I had rightly earned it. I found people outside of my committee who saw value in my work.

Know this: Every moment of a campus visit requires preparation, from airport pickup through casual lunches to airport dropoff. Feeling "on" for two solid days can zap even the most stalwart candidate. Still, there's something gratifying about being treated like someone special. It's a courtship in the best sense.

1. Once invitations start, they'll come in a flurry. I kept a blotter and marked out unavailable dates. Nothing says unprofessional like double booking. That said, if you are especially interested in a position, and they've contacted you with a range of dates that lands weeks after your first campus visits, do ask if they can host you a little earlier. That way, if you receive offers, they're coming in at once.

2. Invest in yet another suit, if you have the funds and are getting multiple invitations. Dry cleaners take days, and you may not have the time to spare. Also, one visit may demand two days' worth of suit-wearing.

3. Wear business casual when you travel. The interview begins at the airport, and yoga pants won't cut it. I wore jeans and a nice sweater. Part of my research talk detailed the performance of academic identity vis a vis dress, so I tried to live my work. I am also most comfortable in jeans and a sweater.

4. Pack your suit (in a dry-cleaning bag, folded lightly), one other nice outfit (think slacks and a button-down or a skirt and blouse), and a business casual outfit for the trip home. Visits vary in terms of scheduling, so you may find yourself flying home in your suit. I also invested in a cheapie travel steamer. Pack your business tote. Don't check bags.

5. A gendered piece of advice: Pack comfy-yet-professional shoes. Orthopedics aren't necessary, but you may be taken on some kind of campus tour, and it's likely to be cold outside. As cute as you think your peep-toes are, this isn’t the time to trot them out. Pack for local weather.

6. You'll be asked to present to the faculty by giving a job talk (probably 45 minutes or an hour) detailing your research. These job talks should consider local contexts and the job requirements. If it's a smaller teaching-focused institution, make sure to split the talk between your research and its connections to your teaching philosophy. If the job is administrative, connect your work to your admin philosophies. If it's a research-focused position, outline implications for future work and intersections with current local initiatives.

7. If you plan to use a presentation format like Prezi or PowerPoint, save it in multiple places. Prepare for disaster. Handouts get printed and packed at home.

8. You may be asked to give a teaching demonstration. These presentations take a number of forms. You may instruct actual students enrolled in a faculty member's class. Collaborate with the regular instructor so you don’t make their next class coverage of what you should have taught.  Faculty members sat in on one of my demos, and I treated them like undergraduates, which made the regular students laugh. One tip: Bring index cards and have students fold them in half, write their names on them, and prop them on the desks. It's easier to approximate a teaching environment—and gain control of the situation--if you can use names. If your demo involves teaching faculty pretending to be students... well, good luck. I tried and failed miserably. Even with the name trick, I had a hard time teaching full professors the rhetorical triangle. I learned afterwards that a number of the faculty members didn't know the rhetorical triangle. The teaching experience was more authentic than I gave it credit for. Maybe the lesson here is to find something that you think they don't know and teach that.

9. Prepare to talk to non-experts in your field with two-minute definitions of your specialization. ("Rhetoric? What's that?") You'll meet with provosts, deans, and possibly college presidents. Be clear with what you think you bring to the institution. Review the school's mission statement and strategic plan. How do you contribute? If you're looking at a research-focused position, prepare good questions about internal and external grants. (Research, research, research: the institution, the department, and the program. Know who your students may be and what you’ll be expected to teach them.)

10. You'll also meet with the Department Chair. If the position is tenure-tracked, prepare questions about the TNP process. Ask about travel and research funding opportunities. Chairs like to see that you're thinking ahead in terms of your Statement of Mutual Expectations, so it's never a bad idea to have 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year plans articulated. Local contexts, as with every interaction, are paramount.

11. Don't get drunk: You'll be taken to dinner and lunch. Your nervous system may scream DRINK DRINK NEED A DRINK. Stick to the soft stuff. Goes without saying? You'd be surprised.

12. Like the MLA interview, pack snacks. Candidates have been stranded at hotels without access to food. Instant oatmeal may be the only thing between you and a two-mile trek to the closest gas station (in the dark, in the dead of winter).

13. Ask for downtime if you need it. I remember feeling weird about asking for a bathroom break. Don't. We're all adults. People need to go to the bathroom.

14. Keep granola bars in your business tote and carry a water bottle. You might find yourself in the humiliating position of speed-eating a NutriGrain bar in a bathroom stall. That's normal.

15. Keep it positive: These last few points frame campus interviews as opportunities for disaster and mistreatment. Visits are scheduled and staffed by humans, and humans make mistakes. It's your job to prepare for the worst case. Things may happen that leave you feeling slighted or even offended, but keep negative rumblings to yourself. A handful of confidants graciously listened to my complaints, but I made these calls in my hotel room, under the cover of darkness, and far away from the committee. Practice your I-am-in-shock-that-you-just-said-that-but-won't-show-it face. You'll get to use it.

16. I wasn't prepared for the gossip. During your visit, well-intentioned faculty may "warn" you about other professors or staff. Don't participate. If, indeed, Dr. Smith really does do those horrific things, the campus visit isn't the time to express your disgust or amazement. Ditto for committee members who feel confessional. Practice good listening and non-committal responses. Then change the subject. Your visit isn’t the only thing they’re doing that day, and everyone’s tired. Exhaustion can lead people to act out of character.

17. Understand that you're also interviewing them. Desperation isn't professional, and knowing your worth will (again) move you from candidate to colleague. You're there to assess the school, the faculty, and the area to in order to make a life-changing decision.

18. Be kind, be diplomatic, be professional. I had first written "be yourself," but if you're someone who is routinely snarky or high maintenance, you'll want to curtail those urges. I'll frame it this way: snark and dramatics may make a committee's job much easier, and not in your favor. You'll meet approximately 700 people in two days--from realtors to presidents, graduate and undergraduate students. Be nice to everyone, regardless of their access to decision making. It reflects well on you, and it's just a solid life philosophy. Nothing says “Work with me!” like condescension. Manners matter.

19. I am an outgoing person, so campus visits were fun for me. If you're more self-contained, I recommend practicing at holiday parties. Sounds ridiculous, but small talk is an art. Ask about their work, be interested, find common ground.

20. Send thank-yous. Departments spend ridiculous amounts of money, time, and energy hosting candidates. Send a nice thank you email or even a handwritten card. I served on a search committee as a graduate student, and I remember distinctly when a candidate took time to email me and thank me for my time.

Campus visits were the first time I felt like the search process would lead to an actual conclusion. Before that, even though I had interviewed face-to-face with a few schools, the process felt very abstract. Visits represent the culmination of years of work, and they can serve as celebrations if you hedge your anxiety enough to let them. Understand that, by the time you make it on campus, you’re already a top candidate. Let confidence (coupled with good planning) energize you to push through self-doubt and exhaustion.

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