Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Big Thirsty on Campus Visits.

A nice result of yesterday's active discussion about Santa Fe Sally was more mail than normal from readers of the page who are not active as posters or commenters. Many of the notes that came in concerned questions about campus visits. I've taken the liberty of jumbling a number of them together and offering them up as a list. If you feel you have something that might help the folks who've queried, comment below with an answer, noting which question you're addressing.

- CM Moderator


  1. What's the best way to answer questions about your negative attributes. For example, "what are your strengths and weaknesses?" What is the best answer for "weaknesses?"
  2. I know that questions about my relationship status and children are probably off limits in some way, but how do I deal with them when they ARE asked?
  3. Is there any way to tell if I'm a second-thought candidate? If I get the feeling that I'm just being entertained rather than considered, is there any way to turn that around?
  4. Is it okay to offer my dietary restrictions before I arrive at the campus visit, or will that just make me look like trouble?
  5. What kind of answer is a search committee looking for when they say, "Tell me about a time when you struggled/were challenged/etc. and how you resolved it/what you learned from it." What should I avoid in answering these type of questions?
  6. I know someone addressed this already, but how do I get them to give me a range of salaries without appearing just focused on the pay?
  7. What I wish someone could explain to me is what I'm supposed to do when a search committee actively argues about something in my presence. Am I supposed to weigh in with my opinion, or do I just sit there uncomfortably and wait for it to end. (What if it happens all day?)
  8. Am I wrong to be nervous if nobody I get introduced to seems to know why I'm on campus?
  9. For you campus visit veterans, I have a 3 hour block of "free time" in the middle of my long day. I don't know the campus, the city, or anything. I have a map. It's in Philly, which is covered in snow today. I leave for there this afternoon. What am I going to do with my 3 hours of "free time"?
  10. Eating. Seriously. I have a real phobia about the smells of food and the disgusting ways in which people eat. And my campus visit schedule includes 4 meals!!!! Is there a way to decrease the amount of meals I have to attend and increase the number of meetings where I might learn something about the job? Or is that me being a gumdrop unicorn?
  11. I don't drink. Not because I'm a prude. It's because I'm an alcoholic. How do I get around the drink ordering process without drawing attention to myself? The one person I've been corresponding with has written in an email to me, "We like to end the day with some cocktails so we can kick back as a group."


  1. #9

    Get a campus map. Go places where students are. See them in their natural habitat. Ask if there are some grad students going to be around; go to where they hang out. I can imagine that offering you a block of free time might be a test. How do you spend it? Holed up reading your iPhone, or actively getting around campus.

  2. #11

    I don't like the taste of alcohol. I especially can't stand sours or bitters, which is what is frequently ordered at end-of-the-day pub visits. When asked, I say I have a damaged liver. If asked how, I say from a severe bout of jaundice as a child.

    Thing is, it is true. But it's merely made my liver delicate, not eligible for "retired hurt". But they don't know that.

  3. #11 is a tough one for the person involved there. How alcoholism would be received by a group of folks you don't know will vary tremendously.

    Just best to use that suggestion from yesterday about wanting to keep sharp. But if it's the last day, the day when the rest want to "kick back," your refusal COULD raise questions. That's too bad.

  4. I like being asked #5.

    Just think NOW, before you to to the visit, about a time when you struggled to make something work. If you've got any experience at all, you can surely recall overcoming something that had stumped you.

  5. My few answers, for what they're worth:

    "Is it okay to offer my dietary restrictions before I arrive at the campus visit, or will that just make me look like trouble?"

    You'll look reasonable, as long as you phrase your request politely. No host department in its right mind wishes to poison or maim a job candidate, and only the places that are worth avoiding would discriminate against you for a religious restriction. In the case that you're just anti- a certain type of food, then most hosts would rather know that up front than try to feed you a meal you can't eat.

    "Am I wrong to be nervous if nobody I get introduced to seems to know why I'm on campus?"

    It big is the department? Are you meeting tenure-track folks or transient faculty? Are the people you're meeting in the same specialty? I, for one, have no clue what's going on with the Rabbit Fur Crocheting faculty search, even though we're in the same department, because I'm all about Hamster Fur Knitting.

    For you campus visit veterans, I have a 3 hour block of "free time" in the middle of my long day. I don't know the campus, the city, or anything. I have a map. It's in Philly, which is covered in snow today. I leave for there this afternoon. What am I going to do with my 3 hours of "free time"?

    Find a coffee shop and have a cuppa chai. Ask to sit in the back of somebody's class. Say hi to the department secretaries and ask them where they'd go if they had three hours. Whatever you do, find a place to chill out and just SIT. You'll probably want the chance to recharge your mental batteries.

  6. #11 I thought was the easy one. Agree happily. When the occasion comes around, order something non-alcoholic. If pressed, just wave it off saying you don't drink, but encourage others to do so. It's not really any of their business that you don't drink, but it IS their business to see if you're fun to hang with. An interview is really a date, remember.

    (The problem comes in if you don't want to be around alcohol at all. That IS something they want to know, since it will change how they act as a department.)

  7. #11: I don't drink either. It is almost never an issue. You just order a club soda or even just a diet coke. It seems seriously messed up that anyone would second guess you for not ordering a drink in an interview situation, but maybe I am naive. I will say, though, that if you are not bothered by their drinking and are really just relaxed, I'd be surprised if they were bothered by your not drinking.

    In family sitations when I do not drink (it was not always so---I am also a recovered alcoholic) sometimes someone will give me trouble "Oh come ON! One drink!" followed by "It's Christmas" "It's Jack's birthday" "It's your anniversary" --- and I guess in this case they might say "It's the end of the day and we are kicking back!"

    I used to say (in those kinds of situations) I was on medication that does not mix with alcohol. That worked fine. Now I just say, with a smile "Hey! I'm high on life, can't you tell?" It works for me. The more you can relax about it, the better.

  8. #2
    Unless the restrictions are very exclusive, pile your plate with what you DO eat, and then get your own food after the event is over. Either carry packed meals, or avail the cafeteria.

    I've had troubles at several buffet lunches when I first moved to the US, simply because I'm slightly lactose intolerant (all that cheese!), am not fond of olives or baby carrots, and have never encountered rice baked in grape leaves and other such standard conference/academic food. So I piled my plate with fruit, a few crackers and a little cheese, and stuck to it (or whatever it was that I could eat). And then I raced to the cafeteria for a warm, toasted sandwich or a burrito ;-)


    This happens when not on campus visit, too. People with authority over your career argue about you or your work right in front of you. I should know. I deal with it by looking equally interested in both parties, but be very careful to keep any expression of agreement/disagreement off my face. Sometimes, this gives the impression I'm watching a tennis volley, which is perhaps unfortunate, but better than looking like I wished I was somewhere else :-)

    This might be a deliberate intimidation tactic. I'd suggest being charming, taking their hand with a warm smile and saying how happy you are to have them at your campus visit. Who said one can't be assertive and firm while being sunny, peachy, and cheerful? :D

  9. I really like the perspective that an interview is really a first date. I don't drink either, for the same reason, but I never found, back in my dating days, that telling my prospective new boyfriend that I was an alcoholic was a great strategy for getting more dates.

    So I just didn't draw attention to my not drinking, but I'd order a Koala Springs or a Coke or a fancy coffee , something that looks festive, because that also signifies "kicking back and relaxing". If my new prospective asked why I wasn't drinking I'd just say "I don't like the taste of alcohol" and carry on with the conversation. This strategy worked fine; in fact I met my husband in a pub. He drank beer, I drank Perrier with lime. It was never an issue.

    I would say re: the free block of time, this is NOT a test, it's a way of giving everyone a break. Do not sit in the back of someone's class and make them nervous. Hang at a coffee shop or find the grad student union. I had the same sort of block of time and went to investigate the library (this always sounds impressive, and is usually a nice quiet place where you can doze off for a bit, which you'll need.)

    re: dietary restrictions, yes, tell them in advance, I think, so they don't bring you to Meg's Steak House All Carnivore All The Time! if you're vegan.

    re: food phobias, that's a problem. Once you've got the job you never have to eat with anyone again, but at the moment it's a social necessity. You don't have to eat yourself - you can just push the food around on your plate a bit and have a drink of water, that's what the Queen does, and if they notice they'll think you're just nervous - but it's other people eating and the smell of food that bothers you. I don't know what to suggest. I suppose you could just be honest about it but the fact is the 'weird' flag would go up, at least in my opinion. How do you usually handle this?

    re: the time-honoured "time when you struggled/ were challenged" question: answer with reference to your RESEARCH, because there's guaranteed to be a research question you struggled with, and it gives you a chance to showcase something you do really well (your research - after all, you're going to pick a question you DID ultimately resolve. Don't pick a teaching issue or talk about the time you had to leave your first grad school because of sexual harassment but you got a big settlement out of them when you threatened a lawsuit. Present yourself as never having had any problems with other people, ever, and teaching comes naturally to you.

    Range of salaries - if they aren't offering the information, that's their institutional culture. Don't bother to ask. After you get the job offer, however, negotiate like hell; they're keeping silent so as to keep their options open, which means that they WILL negotiate.

    re: arguing search committee: say nothing, take note, and if they do it all day, don't take the job unless absolutely nothing else offers itself.

  10. oh, and re: marital status questions - they're always doing this, usually in the form of hints. What they really want to know is whether your spouse, if you've got one, is portable, whether he/she is going to want an academic job they aren't going to want to have to give him/her, whether you're going to be embarking on a high-stress long-distance relationship because your very successful spouse won't want to leave Fancy City to move to Outinthesticks with you, which would make you a flight risk ...The ideal spouse is in the medical profession (doctor or nurse both good) because highly portable. Artists also good.

    your best strategy is to give them the information up front, but lie like a rug if necessary; it's none of their damn business and there's a reason they're not supposed to ask. Once you've got the job offer, THEN negotiate for a spousal hire. The time to negotiate is after the offer but before you sign the contract.

    So your best strategy, if you have a partner, is to volunteer the information that your spouse would LOVE to move to Outinthesticks because (invent a reason from the local tourist literature) and has no interest in an academic job because (is working on a novel, wants to start a home elk-grooming business, whatever). If, once the job is offered, your spouse's attitude has changed, this is sad, but they'll just have to cope with the fact that they now need to negotiate a spousal hire.

  11. Oh, and anyone using that "weakness" question is a boob. That's a bullshit question, and I have to believe everyone knows that.

    What do I say, "My students love me too much."

  12. 1. Be a hypocrite, it is the rule of the game, and this question shows that you know the rules and are ready to play. Your main weakness should be something like "I care too much for my students and my colleagues" or "sometimes, I work too hard and need someone to tell me to stop."
    5. See 1.
    9. Siesta.
    11. Lie. You have a touch of a flu and your medication will break havoc with alcohol.

  13. To the weakness question: I tell the truth: That I still, after 20 years, struggle with balance between my professional and personal time, in that I tend to spend too much time with the former and not enough with the latter. It signals a good work ethic and commitment to and passion for the job. "They" see it as a bonus, while my husband disagrees. Sometimes vehemently and vociferously.

  14. 1. I buy my colleagues too many drinks.

    2. Tape record all conversations and sue them. Or just tell the truth.

    3. You’re being entertained on an interview? Don’t knock it if you’re having a good time.

    4. That depends. If you’ll shit your pants or barf on me at dinner because there’s a breadstick on the table, give me a head’s up. Also, we don’t hire vegans.

    5. Avoid any stories that end with you saying, “And I learned never to aim my gun at/put my finger in/sleep with that again!” I guess you can tell us those stories after dinner when you’re buying us all too many drinks.

    6. There is no way to inappropriately focus on money without inappropriately focusing on money.

    7. Offer commentary. “Oh, snap!”, “Busted!”, “Booyah!”, “Daaaaammmnn.”, and “oh no you didn’t!” show that you are paying attention and want to get involved with the inner workings of the department. Chest bumping the winner of the argument helps to put you in the correct position within the pecking order.

    8. Nervous? Not at all. You’re only nervous if you don’t know how you fit within the situation. It seems pretty clear to me. On a personal note, this happened to me once. It was awkward.

    9a. Make the most of your time in one of America’s most historical cities. Go see a movie.

    b. Spend 30 minutes getting the fuck out of Philly. Enjoy your remaining day.

    10. No, this is you being a crazy person. WTF? Do your potential colleagues a favor by making it clear that you are disgusted by their eating habits. Christ, you’re nuts.

    11. Seriously, politely decline and make it clear that you don’t want to prevent them from having a relaxing time. You just want to sit this one out. Do some heroin, just so that everybody knows you’re trying to fit in.

  15. The best way to answer questions about weaknesses is to think of a real weakness. Your weakness is different from my weakness. A safe one might be "I have a tendency to coddle my students a bit. It's a flaw I'm working on."

    If someone illegally asks you about your relationship status, telling them that asking is illegal isn't going to win you friends. Since they're not allowed to ask anyway, I'd feel perfectly justified in lying my ass off, and giving the answer I thought they wanted.

    If you're a second thought candidate and you know it, you can take the pressure off yourself and just be yourself and try to have fun.

    I don't think you should tell anyone your dietary restrictions. Just go and pick something you can eat from wherever you go. Now, if you are a religious Jew and will not eat any unkosher food, that might be a problem.

    As for the "what I struggled with" questions, don't bring up how you struggled and overcame an attraction to a student. Or personal stuff.

    As for pay, some universities (like mine) are forbidden to name a salary until the offer is made. If you're at the campus visit, you've already wasted your time if they're not going to pay you what you like. The only time that information is really useful is at the phone interview stage. By the time you're on campus, unless they mention it, just wait for the offer.

    Don't weigh in on any search committee arguments. Ever.

    You have three hours to kill in Philly? I envy you.

    You cannot decrease the amounts of meals you eat with people. They will take you out and you will go. If you show any sign of disgust, they will take offense. You have to suck it up and accept their hospitality, even if they gross you out.

    If you're an alcoholic, for God's sake order a mocktail. A virgin mary always looks good. One of those no-alcohol beers or something. If someone tries to force a drink on you, say "If I have one I can never sleep..." Lies about medication (as have been suggested) also work well.

  16. General advice:

    1) Be confident! Treat these people as peers!! This will solve many of the questions above. Questions like 3, 5, 7, 8, 11 just seep with anxiety/inferiority. Behave how you would if you already have the job and tenure* They want to see how you fit, and they will be turned off if you act inferior or unsure. You can do this!

    Relatedly, answer the questions! Think about good answers for #1 and #5 that show you've learned something.

    If you worry about saying the wrong thing, you will. My colleagues are wrong all the time about stuff. Better to be wrong than to weasel out of an answer b/c you're scare.

    2) Don't worry about stuff you can deal with after you get the offer. This includes family and salary. Your family is always portable at the interview stage, even if they are not.


    Dietary restrictions: Rimi's advice works in 99% of cases. There will be *something* to eat if you are coeliac, vegetarian, or if dairy gives you the runs. I've never heard of an academic department without a vegetarian. The committee sees your visit as an opportunity to have a meal at somewhere they like but don't go very often.

    As for #10: Sorry, but this is a 'you problem'. Communal eating is one of the basic ways in which huamn relationships are strengthened. I do wish I had better advice than 'suck it up.'

    * does not apply if you lack basic social skills.

    Love the blog!

    -- Todd from Toledo

  17. Regarding #10 - have you considered cognitive behavioural or desensitization therapy?

  18. 9. Franklin Institute (cool science museum) or Constitution Center (cool American history museum). Done.

  19. 9. I agree with Ruby about the Franklin and the Constitution Center; the latter is near the Ritz movie theatres. Also: Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eastern State Penitentiary. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Masonic Temple. Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

    10. I was once the same way, so I understand, but the best you can do for yourself is get over it ASAP. We're all animals.

  20. Don't flood the blog with posts full of questions that are already answered on the "syllabus." Everything you need to know about the campus visit has already been said:

  21. Oh, jeez, AdjunctSlave, let us newbies have some fun. You're not the boss of the blog.

    #1 - the work/life balance weakness seems safest.
    #2 - the BEST advice I ever heard about this was to turn the question around and say, "Do you have any particular concerns about that that I could address?" That's a subtle way to dodge and remind them it's illegal, but you can then answer whatever they bring up the same way: "Oh! That's not an issue for my family." Doesn't matter if your family is made up of just you or a dozen kids, 2 academics or not, whatever. SOME departments WANT you to be married, because they think if you are single you'll leave, so don't reveal your marital/relationship status either way.
    #3 - no and no. Just act as if you are a viable candidate.
    #4- tricky. The safest thing to do is to bring your own food to keep in your hotel, smile, and order what you can eat off whatever menu is in front of you.
    #5 - talk about a teaching or service challenge for a SLAC, a research challenge for an R1.
    #6 - you wait for an offer.
    #7 - turn on your mental screen saver, and wait.
    #8 - no, just let them flail.
    #9 - nap, watch TV, grade papers, make phone calls home.
    #10 - gumdrop unicorn, or scary neurotic: either way, hide it.
    #11 - definitely go for the mocktail/near beer.

  22. Can I say I absolutely hate the "weakness" question? I second Eating Low Salt: anyone asking that is an idiot. Mostly because EVERYONE who has any sense answers something like "I love my students too much" or "I am too involved with my research" or "I struggle with a balance between life and work." No one ever says "I have a tendency to shirk committee duty" or "sometimes I sleep with undergrads," even when it is true.

    That said, I was asked that question once.

    I responded "very bold old vine zinfandels and dark chocolate." I smiled. The committee laughed. And we were off to the next question.

  23. Extra points if you can answer the "weaknesses" question with "kryptonite" and not crack a smile.

  24. I tell the truth on the weakness thing: I often care too much about my students. Cut to me bawling my eyes out at one of their funerals. Cut to me trying to help them through personal struggles and giving out cards to a local women's shelter. I'm often just as disappointed when people fail because of personal problems as the students are, even if it's just not the right time for them to be in school.

  25. On #5: "There was this one time at a conference when this really hot bitch was sitting in the front row while I was giving a presentation. I couldn't concentrate on my paper and I got a raging boner behind the podium. I struggled to maintain my composure until question time. When she asked me a question, I could barely understand her, so obsessed was I with, well, other aspects of her being. I mumbled some platitudes and got through the session. But the biggest challenge was getting her contact information, getting her roommate out of the hotel room, and riding her like a horse for the last two nights of the conference without letting anyone else from my department, several of whom were at the conference, in on what was going on. It was difficult, but I saved my career and had a very fulfilling conference experience. In fact, I ended up marrying the young lady, at least for a while, until I moved to a better job and she wanted to finish her PhD instead of come with me. I'm always on the market for new jobs and new contacts."

  26. I work in a field that is alllllll about accepting difference. We seem to have a remarkably hard time doing that with our colleagues, though.

    When you come for an interview, we do want to see you drink four glasses of wine while dropping bombshells of brilliance about the nuances of Meerkat Tail Crochet! Are you married? Please tell us so we can prepare to commit adultery with your spouse! Want to have kids? GREAT, because if you are a man and you DON'T want them, you must be some kind of misanthrope, and if you are a woman and you DO want them, you're probably not actually committed to your work. (On the other hand, if you're a woman and you don't want kids, you must be either a dyke or very selfish or both.)

    We don't really care about YOUR dietary preferences, but we'd like to inflict our own upon you. We only eat locally grown foods from cows that are massaged daily and plants that listen to Mozart as they ripen under specially filtered sunlight. We would like it if you could wear as much organic fiber clothing as possible because the non-organic stuff actually lets off fumes that could harm the unborn fetuses of all the female faculty. (But if you could try and be cute, that would be good, too. Men can do the "rumpled sexy" look, women should go for the "Earth Goddess from Anthropologie" look.)

    Oh, and if we hire you? We won't give you tenure unless you're white. Just a little reminder that we ARE in the South, after all!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.