Academic Interviews from Both Sides

Brenna and Maura were asked to write collaboratively to explore academic interviews from both sides– job applicants and administrators. HLS is also featuring this post today.

Brenna is a student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and managing editor of Hack Library School. She has a bachelor’s in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). While working as an undergraduate at the Richard J. Daley library at UIC, she fell in love with all things library and has been there ever since. Her professional focus is academic librarianship with an interest in reference, collection development, and marketing/communications. Maura is the Chief Librarian at NYC College of Technology (City Tech) of the City University of New York, a large, public, commuter college in Brooklyn. She’s been at City Tech since 2008, first as instruction coordinator and as Chief Librarian since 2014. She’s also coordinator of ACRLog, and has been blogging there since 2009. Her research interests include undergraduate academic culture, critical information literacy and librarianship, open educational technologies, and game-based learning.

Cover Letters

Brenna:

The number one piece of advice library students receive in regards to cover letters is to find a way to stand out from the crowd. I totally get it: search committees have piles of cover letters from candidates and we all must start to blur together after a while. I try to find a couple of things that set me apart from other applicants and make sure to highlight them, but a lot of us come from similar backgrounds and it can be a daunting task. I’m also frequently advised to tailor cover letters to each individual job description. I realize why employers look for this, but it can be maddening when applying to many jobs at once. I’d love to hear some advice on how to stand out from other applicants and how to stay sane while writing multiple individualized cover letters.

Maura:

Brenna’s offered some great advice about cover letters, and I second all of it. It’s absolutely true that it’s time-consuming to tweak your cover letter to each job you apply for, but in my experience it’s also absolutely worth it. A cover letter that stands out to me connects your experience specifically with the job requirements listed in the position description. It’s also fine to highlight your relevant non-library experience here, and draw parallels between your background and the library or college. It might be helpful to make a quick list of what you find compelling about the job — pick one or two reasons from your list, and devote a few sentences in your cover letter to how your interest and experience would be beneficial if you were hired in that position.

Distance Interviews

Brenna:

Phone interviews are intimidating for me because I’m never really sure what to expect. Though I’ve yet to have a phone interview for an academic position, I’ve had a fair share for other jobs and they are always a surprise. Sometimes the interviewer mostly wants to share information about the job with me and other times they have a laundry list of questions to slog through. What kind of questions should be expected for a phone interview? Will we be interviewing with one person or several? How long should we set aside for the interview?

Everyone has different levels of comfort while speaking on the phone. Some things that have helped me feel confident include: dressing for the occasion, smiling (even though they can’t see me), finding somewhere quiet where I won’t be interrupted, and bringing a notebook to jot down notes and questions. Also, remember the names of your interviewers!

Maura:

In my library we typically have two rounds of interviews for library faculty positions, and if any of the applicants are not local we’ll do a phone interview for the first round. I’ve rarely heard anyone — candidates or search committee members — say that they love phone interviews, but with budget limitations it’s just not practical for us to bring in all first round candidates for a campus interview.

If you’re contacted for a phone interview, try to schedule it for a time when you can be on the phone in a quiet location, as Brenna suggests. Have a pen and paper ready so that you can take notes if you need to. It’s fine to ask the committee to repeat questions if you have trouble hearing them — we hold interviews in our conference room via speakerphone and not everyone can sit right next to the phone. (Years ago I did an interview on my cellphone in an alley behind the office where I was then working, so I’m very sympathetic to phone interview issues. But if I could do it over again for that interview, I’d have found a different way for sure.)

To speak more specifically to Brenna’s questions, I make sure to share as much information as possible with the candidate while scheduling the phone interview: that it will be with our full search committee (typically 5-6 librarians), and that we anticipate it lasting about 30 minutes. It’s fine to ask those questions if that information isn’t shared when you’re scheduling the interview. We do have a list of questions to go through — the same for all candidates; I also briefly introduce the job responsibilities and budget time for the candidate to ask questions at the end.

In-Person Interviews

Brenna:

I’ve been advised (read: warned) time and again in library school about the full-day interview. As a new professional, the pressure to make a good first impression on a search committee can be overwhelming. I know that interviewees meet with the search committee and sometimes give a presentation, but everything else seems to vary depending on the institution. One thing that would put me at ease is having a schedule so I know what to expect. For students, I’d recommend reaching out to the career advisors at your school in preparation for your interview. They can provide you with guidance not only for the interview, but for the whole process.

One thing I’d like to know is what to expect from the presentation: what should we be conscious of as candidates? what kind of things are the search committee looking for? Also, what should we expect from the shorter interviews?

Maura:

In-person interviews at academic libraries can vary in length — I’ve seen anything from a few hours to a full day or more. The search committee should share the schedule details with you, and you should definitely ask if you have any questions. If you’re traveling from out of town, the search committee and/or college administration should be able to help with travel arrangements and/or reimbursement. Unfortunately not all colleges and universities have funding to support bringing in out of town candidates for a position — if you’re applying for positions outside your local area I’d suggest asking about travel reimbursement before scheduling the interview. And for those of us on hiring committees, it’s best for us to be up front about whether we can support travel for out-of-town candidates before we schedule interviews.

My understanding is that the most common components of an on-campus interview are a meeting with the search committee and an opportunity to make a presentation with all librarians in attendance. Other possibilities include meeting with one or more library departments or units, meeting with other offices or departments at the college or university, and lunch or dinner with the search committee or others. Interviews with individual departments or offices might focus specifically on what those departments or offices do, while the search committee may ask the typical interview questions and discuss the responsibilities listed in the job ad.

I’ve heard (and suggested) a range of presentation possibilities for job candidates. In my library we usually ask instruction librarian candidates to present on how they would teach a specific topic in our library course; for technical services and technology candidates we typically ask candidates to look at our library’s strategic plan and consider one or more goals related to their position. We do ask all candidates to give presentations, not just instruction librarians — all of our librarians will likely make a presentation at a conference or on campus at some point, and we also use the presentation as an opportunity for our entire department to meet and ask questions of the candidate.

Institutional Culture

Brenna:

It seems that a major part of the on-campus interview is to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the institutional culture. Though it’s tempting for recent grads to jump at the first job opportunity we see, it’s quite possible that we may interview somewhere and find we would not want to work there. Some things I look out for are lack of mobility and limited professional development opportunities. I want my career goals to match up with the opportunities the institution provides their employees. What do search committees look for in a candidate that tells them they will fit in? What should candidates look for to see if they are a good fit for the institution?

Maura:

Institutional culture is varied and can be difficult to get a handle on in just the time allotted for an interview (or even multiple interviews). My experience is that you can’t really know, you can only make your best guess. However, your best guess will be better if you dig into some research beforehand.

Browse through the library’s website to see how the library is organized and what services and resources the library offers. Search the internet to learn more about the librarians who work there: are they active in professional organizations? do they publish or present at conferences? Look through the college or university’s website as well, which can help you get a sense of the institution. Some sections to look out for include any policies that apply to librarians, including support for travel or professional development. If the college or university has a union that includes librarians, you might find information about contracts and salaries on their website.

During the interview you should have time to ask questions about the work culture in the library, and to see how the search committee interacts with each other. While I hope this happens infrequently, if search committee members: make disparaging comments about their colleagues or the institution, ask questions they’re not allowed to, or you experience microagressions — those are red flags that you’ll want to consider. As Brenna notes, during the interview process you may realize that you don’t want to work at that institution, and it’s okay to withdraw from the search if so.

What Questions to Ask

Brenna:

Preparing questions ahead of time is a necessity for jobs of any kind. I usually peruse the library and institution’s websites to gather as much information as I can. I also look for a strategic plan, if it’s available, as well as news stories about the institution and faculty biographies. From these sources I come up with a list of questions to ask — I usually have quite a few in case some of them are covered during the interview. I also come up with questions as the interview goes on.

I’d definitely like to hear some advice on talking about salaries. It’s a touchy subject and it can be hard to determine the appropriate time to bring it up. If the salary is not listed in the job posting, when should you ask about it? I know that negotiation is generally expected once the job offer has been extended, but what should we know about making a counter-offer? Is it better to ask over the phone or via email?

Maura:

While it sounds somewhat trite, it’s absolutely true: when you’re on a job interview you are interviewing the search committee and library, too. It’s important to have questions to ask during the interview — not only will it help you learn more about the position and institution, but it also signals your interest in the job. Brenna’s given some great advice about questions, some of which may come out of your research before coming into the interview. Definitely ask about anything that’s not clear in the job ad. Other questions to ask include how often and by whom you’ll be evaluated, and what are the requirements for reappointment, promotion, and tenure (if relevant to the specific job). You might want to ask about other possible benefits, for example, funding for conference travel or opportunities for continuing education.

Salary questions are fine to ask during the interview, as far as I’m concerned, though the search committee may not be able to answer as specifically as you’d like. Library faculty at my library are in a union (with other faculty) which publishes salary ranges, so that’s a starting point. Brenna’s right that negotiation begins after an offer has been made — if you’re negotiating for a higher offer, focus on the experience you bring to the position. Follow the lead of the search committee re: negotiating via phone or email. While I definitely advocate for candidates to negotiate for a higher salary, typically salaries are a function of multiple factors, including how many/what kinds of other job searches are ongoing both within the library and across the institution, and ultimately there may not be much flexibility.

What Search Committees Are Really Looking For

Brenna:

After all the preparation, hard work, and anxiety that goes into the job search process, it seems the best thing we can do as applicants is to be genuine and hope that things work out. Though I’m an introvert, I used to pretend I was super outgoing in job interviews because I thought that was what employers were looking for. After some reflection, I realized that I may not be the first to stand up and give my opinion in a meeting, but I will take time to contemplate larger issues and put effort into seeing things from different perspectives. I have found a way to sell my introversion as an asset. The ability to play up your strengths and provide concrete examples or successes seems to be the best thing a candidate can bring to an interview.

What kind of things should candidates absolutely not say in an interview?

Maura:

One of the things that’s been most important on the search committees I’ve served on is a clear feeling from the candidate that they want this job, the position that we are offering. I’ve been on the job market enough to know that often when we’re looking for jobs, we need a job, and thus we may apply for range of jobs that are not all the same. That’s okay, but during the interview it’s important to speak convincingly about what interests you about working in *this* job at *this* place. When I’m on a search committee I also want to see that candidates understand the responsibilities for the job (and that’s where asking questions can come in). Since librarians are tenure-track faculty at my college with the same service and scholarship requirements as other faculty, we are especially interested in whether our candidates are interested in service and scholarship.

I’m also looking for a positive outlook in the candidates we interview. This is not necessarily synonymous with extroversion — introverts are positive, too. Red flags for me include disparaging comments about prior colleagues and workplaces. I acknowledge that there are real issues with toxic work environments and that there are good reasons for leaving a job in a toxic work environment. However, a focus on your hopes for this job, for your work, and for libraries is much more compelling during a job interview. Brenna’s suggestion to have a few specific examples in mind of successful work in other jobs is a great one, and will help the search committee learn more about the strengths you could bring to the position.

2 thoughts on “Academic Interviews from Both Sides

  1. Oh, I like this format, Brenna and Maura. I’m chairing a search right now (the first on-campus day-long interview was yesterday in fact), and Maura is right on regarding what goes on on the library’s side.

    I have detailed suggestions on cover letter writing at
    “Confessions of a Search Committee Chair”, https://liaisonlife.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/confessions/

    Regarding institutional culture, also try to figure out if librarians tend to stay at the library for awhile, or have high turnover. There certainly can be different reasons, but morale, respect, and workload can often be issues when few folks stick around for long. But on the other hand, are folks with new ideas welcome, or is everyone happily moored in a comfort zone for decades?

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