Job Market Interview (Jennifer Segal)

"The Worried Student's Guide to...."

    Going on the job market marks the beginning of the end of a very difficult but rewarding graduate career. While the prospect of writing a vitae, getting letters of recommendation, choosing writing samples, and preparing for interviews can be a daunting and anxiety-provoking process, it should also be an exciting one that represents the culmination of several years of hard work and the start of your professional career. After all, the purpose of graduate school was to train you to be a political scientist; this is the stage at which you have the opportunity to flaunt your success and to prove to the world that you have what it takes to be a productive member of of your chosen profession. Thus, I encourage you to look at the placement process with excitement and enthusiasm, despite the butterflies that are rapidly flapping their way around your stomach!!

    Perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of the placement process is the interview (or interviews!) that you will have. I have several pieces of advice to offer in this regard, the theme of which is that ignorance is absolutely NOT bliss -- the more information you have about yourself, your dissertation, your public speaking skills and the department for which you will be interviewing, the greater the likelihood that your interview will be a positive and successful experience.

    Interviewing procedures vary from school to school in terms of the length of the interview, the number of individuals with whom you will be asked to speak, and whether you will be asked to teach a section of one of the department's courses. One part of the process, however, is standard: the job talk. Many people argue that this is the most important part of your interview since it is the time at which you present your own research; while the emphasis that is put on this presentation may vary according to whether there is a strong research or teaching tradition at the school, there can be no doubt that your job talk is extremely important. At the very least, it is an example of how well you present yourself to an audience and how well you are able to field questions and criticisms. More often, though, it also provides the opportunity for potential colleagues to evaluate the quality of your independent research efforts. The truth is that any department at any school is going to care very much that you can be a contributing member of your profession. Thus, most of my comments in the following pages focus on the job talk.

    There are at least three categories of information that you should have when preparing your job talk. The first may be titled "The Department and Your Audience." There are several things that you want to know about the department you are visiting that will influence your job talk. One is the relative weight the department assigns to teaching and research; related to this is the type of research that the department values, for instance theoretical/normative versus empirical research (for a lack of a better distinction). If the department emphasizes teaching, then you may want to pay particular attention to the way you present your research, perhaps using teaching props and making a concerted effort to be engaging and stimulating before your audience. Needless to say, presentation is very important for research-focused departments too, but the substance of what you say will be even more important in such departments.

    A research department is not necessarily a research department is not necessarily a research department. In other words, departments are different in terms of the type of scholarly work in which they engage and think is valuable. Many places emphasize empirical research, which is what our department trains you to do; you should have less difficulty preparing a job talk for these schools because your dissertation is likely to be of the empirical variety. You may, however, find yourself with an interview at a department for which empiricism is secondary to theoretical and normative work. This is not to say that empirical research is not desirable at these places, but questions that you receive and concerns that you hear about your work may be related more to big, theoretical questions and issues than to how you measured one of your variables or which statistical tool you used to evaluate your models. The latter are concerns you are likely to hear about at a talk you give to departments like ours, but let me emphasize that you may also get the broad, theory-oriented, normative "Who cares?" questions from empiricists too -- so be prepared!

    Particularly important for a job talk in any type of department is knowing who the individuals in your audience are likely to be. First, you can expect that there will be graduate students (if they have them; if not, perhaps undergraduates) and faculty members in attendance. At some colleges and universities, faculty from other departments may also attend. Second, these members of your audience will be quite varied according to their areas of specialty and their experiences and interests. You will be lucky if you get one or two people who actually know about and have any interest in your dissertation topic! Therefore, you must prepare a job talk that can be understood by, and perhaps stimulate interest in, an unknowledgeable audience. Not only is this more likely to keep people from falling asleep while you talk, but it will also increase the chances that your audience will believe in your abilities to be an educator and researcher -- in other words, a contributing member of their department.

    There are several ways to get information about the department for which you will be interviewing. The most obvious and useful is to talk to your professors here; often we know people from graduate school, conferences, by reputation or as friends, and there are all kinds of tidbits that you can pick up that will contribute to your interview preparation. Additionally, you should take a look at the American Political Science Association directory of universities and colleges; it will provide lists of faculty for different political science departments around the country and you can learn who's where and what their fields are from this source. Also, visit the webpage of the university/college and department.

    The second category of information that you should have before embarking on your interview may be labeled "THE Job Talk". Once you have gathered information about the department and the audience to which you will be delivering your job talk, you need to prepare and practice your talk. The more information you have about the content of your talk and your skills as an orator, the better off you will be. Thus, the importance of practicing your talk cannot be overemphasized. At the very least, you should "give" your talk twice to an audience of your dissertation committee AND others (friends, other professors, undergraduates, people off the street) before your first interview. Since you may only get a week or two notice before going on an interview, it is a good idea to schedule a practice talk when you start applying for jobs. Additionally, it would be ideal to practice once again before each additional interview, particularly if subsequent interviews are at different types of departments. Although your nervous stomach may tell you otherwise, you WANT to open yourself up to comments, advice, and criticism about both the substance and style of your talk from people that you know before doing so in front of an audience of strangers.

    The reasons for this are perhaps not obvious. One is that, for many people, it is more difficult to speak in front of people who you know than it is in front of people who you do not know; thus, if you are able to deliver your talk successfully before us here, then you will probably feel more confident delivering it at your interview. Second, it is absolutely better to know your weaknesses (both in delivery and in substance) and be prepared to address them before your interview than it is to be blind-sided by comments and critiques about them during your interview. Very few people are able to speak publicly without some difficulty and do research that is without flaws; practicing your talk will help with both. (the trick is to do things to divert some of the attention away from potential weaknesses in your presentation style (ie. by using overheads or other visuals) and to be able to address weaknesses in your research.)

    When you are writing your job talk, you want to keep in mind the department you're going to, the audience you'll be speaking to, the relative emphasis on teaching and research, and the type of research emphasized by the department, as noted above. Very importantly, you also want to be aware of the amount of time allotted for your talk by the interviewing department. When you are asked to interview, you should inquire about how long your job talk should be; this will vary from department to department. It is definitely a plus for you if you stay within the time parameters given to you; you will particularly impress those members of your audience who have less knowledge about and interest in your topic, who will probably compose the majority of those in attendance.

    The final category of information that you should have before interviewing may be titled "Interviews Go Both Ways". Remember that, even though you feel that the burden is on you to make a good impression because you're the one in need of a job, the department is also in need of an assistant professor -- in other words, you have been asked because you are wanted. This means that the interview process also involves you interviewing the department.

    Thus, you should go to the interview armed with several questions about issues that are important to you. These questions may range from those about tenure requirements and the amount of start-up research money available to those about the housing market, the quality of the school districts, the weather, and what types of extracurricular activities there are in the community. In other words, you should feel free to inquire about any and all issues that you think would be relevant to your life if you were to accept an offer made to you by the department (one exception to this is that the issue of salary is usually not discussed until an offer is made to you by the department).

    This is not an exhaustive list of things you should know about and do to prepare for your job interviews, but it does address many of the major points to consider when embarking on such preparation. When you have questions about the information provided in the previous pages or about concerns not addressed here, you should not hesitate to ask. As a reminder, the theme of this section is that ignorance is not bliss -- you must have information to be successful. So, you should seek out your dissertation advisor, another professor you know reasonably well and who knows you too (either from our department or another political science department), and/or fellow graduate students who have already been through the process. Different people have different experiences and different pieces of advice to give you and so looking to a variety of people for information can be very useful. In the end, the more you know, the more likely your interview(s) will be a successful, but also a positive and enjoyable, experience.

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