Monday, April 30, 2012

Job Hunting Tips - Faculty Jobs

A couple people recently have asked me about what I've learned from my experiences applying/interviewing this past year. After many post-doc, faculty, finance, consulting, and tech interviews I have a lot of to say. I'll divide my posts by type of jobs, as well as general information.  This post is about faculty jobs.

Faculty Jobs
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Thus far I've only had faculty interviews for positions at institutions that are more teaching-oriented than research oriented. I've interviewed at two four-year (mostly) undergraduate universities, and three community colleges (I also have a scheduled future interview). 


In general, you can tell a lot about what these institutions are looking for (and therefore how they will focus the interview questions) by looking at the mission statement of the college and the job description / application.


Community Colleges
The community college applications varied quite a lot.  Some colleges just asked for my CV/teaching experience.  Others wanted a statement of teaching philosophy and discussion of research interests along with detailed responses to a series of questions.


In the interviews, the community colleges didn't ask me anything about my research.  In fact they wanted to make sure I understood that there was little/no support for research from the college and that anything I did was considered "extra" and on my own time/dime. The questions were heavily oriented towards assessing my experience teaching, my educational philosophy, and my knowledge of physics/astronomy.

The community college interview are less of a back & forth than the four-year college interviews. I think this is because the state requires them to ask the same questions to every candidate and try to make the interview process as uniform from candidate to candidate as possible. I think they even assign who asks which question ahead of time.  For two of the interviews I was given 30 minutes to look over the questions before I went into the interview. This allowed me to jot down notes ahead of time.

I already listed questions from my first community college interview here. Here are the questions from my second cc interview:
1) Describe your teaching experience and educational background that prepare you for this position.
2) Discuss specific ways that you incorporate technology into your classroom.
-They seemed particularly interested in the fact that I discussed the advantages and disadvantages to incorporating technology. (i.e. costs, student access, not allowing the lesson plan to be flexible).
3) Faculty often have college responsibilities outside of their teaching duties. What is your experience participating in support services, or committee work with faculty and staff.
4) How would you approach teaching physics to non-science majors.
5) How do you access as an individual or an academic department, if teaching is effective?
6) How would you explain light to a student? Be specific of what methods or demonstrations you would use.
7) Many students will be different from you in race, gender, nationality, disability status, socioeconomic background etc. Imagine what might make learning difficult for different types of students. What can you do to help these students?
8) What would your typical lesson look like?
9) What can you do outside of the classroom to make yourself a better teacher, and overall improve student's learning?
10) Do you have any questions for us?


My third community college interview was for an astronomy position, so they asked a bunch of questions directly related to my astronomy knowledge:


1) What experience do you have with telescopes.
2) Have you ever taken photo-images with a personal telescope, what are some of your favorite images?
3) You are observing with students on a particular night.  You have looked at all the planets, and the moon.  What would you look at next?
4) How can you tell the temperature of a distant star by looking at it's color.
5) How can you tell the age of a star cluster?
6) A student asks you if the moon rotates, what do you say?
7) What evidence is there for the big bang?
8) Explain the retrograde motion of mars.
9) Explain the sidereal time.


And then some general teaching questions:
10) What criteria do you use to grade lab reports?
11) How much time do you think grading should take?
12) Why do you want to teach at a community college?

I recently read, Five Easy Lessons by Randall D. Knight. This book was very helpful in guiding my answers to questions in my interviews. This book gives a much more formal organization to the physics education research I've incorporated into my teaching style and philosophy. It also touches on assessment -- something I don't have much experience with, but which my second interview asked about specifically.

Something to keep in mind is that the portion of time for you to answer questions, is also a time to give your interviewers more information about yourself. So think about what types of questions you can ask that will make you seem like a better candidate. Asking questions about money or vacation (even though we are all interested in knowing these things) do not make you seem like a better candidate. But asking about faculty development, mentorship, and service opportunities show that you want to improve yourself, and get involved with the campus at large.

I like to spend time looking over the campus's web page to see if this inspires questions. Look at their mission statement, does resonate with you?


All of my community college interviews included a 10-15 minute lecture.  The lecture was always on a topic that they chose ahead of time.  I found these mini-lectures to be quite challenging.  I am used to running more interactive classrooms.  But when you are assigned to cover a whole topic (like the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics, or conservation of angular momentum) it's hard to do this in such a short amount of time without doing a more conventional lecture.


Small Colleges
Small college applications are more in-depth.  The all required a CV, letters of reference, statement of teaching philosophy and research interests/plans.  It was recommended to me that I have at least one of my letters be from someone who is familiar with my teaching, and if possible to send teaching evaluations.  Small colleges all have several rounds of interviews, usually a first interview over the phone, and then a second (and sometimes third) interview in person.


The small college interviews are more personalized, and a lot more fun in my opinion.  Both the jobs were for full time, long-term positions in small physics departments.  So I got the distinct impression that they were simultaneously trying to assess my skills as a teacher, researcher, and colleague.  It seemed to me that it was just as important to them if I was likable and fit in with the department as my prior experience.


In both phone interviews it seemed like they were just making sure my CV matched the person they were talking to.  They asked me to discuss my teaching experience, my research interests, asked why I was interested in teaching at their school.  They both asked a few questions to try to assess my style and philosophy as a teacher.  I found it hard to covey my personality over the phone.  It's hard to have a good rapport with a stranger over the phone.  I tried to make a couple jokes, and they usually fell flat.  


The advice I was given about phone interviews is to have a clear idea of some points/skills/information you want to get across to the person.  For me it was as follows:


1) I did my undergrad at a small college, and that is ideally where I would ideally end up teaching.
2) I love teaching, and want that to be a major focus on my career -- this is why I am pursuing jobs at more teaching oriented places.
3) My research is in a state where I have several projects that I can continue independently, with little start-up funds.
4) I have research ideas that would be good for undergrads, and I want to involve undergrads in my research.
5) I am looking for a long-term appointment.  A major reason why I am pursing teaching jobs over post-docs is because I want to find a job where I can stay for the foreseeable future.


I feel that each of the above are true, and also skills/assets that these departments were looking for.  The phone interviews were also about me asking questions.  Here are some questions I asked:



1) What are you looking for in a candidate?
2) How are tenure decisions made?  What expectations are there for faculty research/service?
3) What support is there in place for new faculty?  Is there a mentoring system?  Are there people who will help with grant writing or collaborate on research projects?
4) What are your students like?  How many are majors versus non-majors?  What types of courses do you offer (or if this information is available on the web page, ask specific questions about classes that you find interesting). 
5) What type of research is going on in your department (or if this information is available on the web page, ask some specific questions about projects you find interesting).
6) What would my teaching load be like?  How are teaching assignments decided?
7) Is there funding available for course development?  For instance if I was interested in using clicker technology in an introductory class, would the department be able to support the implementation of these devices?
8) How much control would I have over the courses I teach?  Would I be able to choose the textbooks? Format? Topics?
9) Are there funds available to hire student graders or student teaching assistants?
10) Would I be able to design my own course?  Or develop new curriculum?
11) Do you have students who are interested in astrophysics research?  How many students are engaging in research right now?


I think that the interview should be just as much you asking questions to them as them asking you questions.  If you don't have a lot of questions then they probably will think you aren't that serious about the job, or haven't thought much about the job.  Also asking questions is again a way to convey information to the interviewer that they didn't ask you.  If you are asking about course development, this shows that you are interested in teaching and working on your teaching.  If you ask about research collaborations, this shows that you are going to engage in the department.  I tried to ask questions the re-affirmed my points I was trying to get across.


I also had one in-person interview at a small college.  This was a very intense experience.  I was picked up at 9am by the chair of the physics department, and I was literally in meetings  or giving talks all day until 9pm that evening.  The day went as follows:


9am - Pick up by physics department chair.
9-10:30am - Tour of campus by chair and dean of science, discussion of the curriculum, various projects that students and faculty are working on.
10:30-11:30am - Individual meeting with the Dean (also a physicist)
11:30 - 12:30pm - Meeting with chair of physics department.
12:30 - 1:30pm - Lunch with 5 faculty members.
1:30-2:00pm - Meeting with students
2:00-2:45pm - Meetings with two other faculty members.
3:00 - 4:00pm - Sample teaching lecture
4:00-5:00pm - Research Seminar
5:00-6:30pm - Beer with 3 faculty members.
6:30 - 8:30 - Dinner with 4 faculty members.
9:00 - Dropped off at hotel. 


The meat of my interview were the sample teaching lecture and sample research lecture.  I found it pretty challenging to develop two talks that were geared towards undergraduates.  Most of my research talks have been for cosmology PhD students and faculty, so it took quite a lot of time to develop a talk that was appropriate for undergraduates but still interesting enough for the physics faculty in the audience.  I recommend developing this talk well in advance, and practicing it a few times.


I also debated on what type of lecture to do.  I decided to do a lecture geared at a general audience (so that non-science majors could understand).  I'm not sure if this was the best approach.  Most of the audience was science faculty and students who had taken many physics classes.  I think they were pretty bored by the topic I chose -- motion and kinematics.  In retrospect it might have been more fun for everyone if I covered a topic that most people haven't been exposed to -- like how gyroscopes work, or time-dilation in special relativity.


My main recommendation for these talks is to practice them ahead of time -- preferably in front of similar audiences who will be seeing them during the interview.  I practiced my lectures in front of housemates who are not physicists, but are college-educated and have science-y backgrounds.


In terms of the interviews with various faculty members.  I wish I had done more research on faculty in other departments.  I was pretty up on the research of the faculty in the physics department, but I ended up also interviewing with people in the CS and Art departments.  It would have been impressive if I could have engaged them in a deeper discussion because I already knew a little bit about their work.  


I'll try to figure out a way to post my sample teaching and research lectures.  They both involve a bunch of movies and so it's a little bit tricky to post them.


More interview tips to come!