Academic Chair Tells All : Job Interviews, How to Get Tenure

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What could the chair of your department tell you about how to succeed in an interview or how to get tenure? A lot!

In my ongoing research about preparing for job interviews and how to succeed in the tenure climb, I realized that there is a treasure trove of information in books written FOR academic chairs. In that spirit, I’m bringing you tips gleaned from the 2004 edition of Chairing an Academic Department by Walter Gmelch and Val Miskin. In addition, I’ll make recommendations based on those tips [my comments will be in brackets].

The Job Interview

  • Be aware that the off-campus interview [frequently at a conference] is most often a “‘first look’ for both [the department] and the candidate, to see if a marriage of your interests and needs is possible.”

  • The interviewers will be looking at intangible non-verbal factors, such as energy level, body stance, facial expression and eye contact.

  • Be prepared for a list of open-ended questions, such as

    • “What motivated you to apply for this position?” [“I’m desperate” is not a good response.]

    • “How have you demonstrated leadership?”

    • “What made you choose teaching and scholarship as a career?”

  • Know everything you can about the university and department that is interviewing you! This can’t be stressed enough.

    • Be aware of the culture, values, location, and any other details about the university. They will be looking for someone who will be happy moving to their area, for example.

    • [By looking at the specialties of the various faculty members, you will get a clearer idea of what the gaps are in that department, and what skills and abilities you need to stress.
      For example:
      • Do they have a study abroad program they need administered? Even if you haven’t lived in that city, what programs have you helped organize or administer?
      • If they already have a specialist in early 20th century American literature, is your research heading in the direction of looking at film mid century? Make sure the committee knows this.]
  • [My most important advice is to write answers to the most expected questions, rehearse them, and then do practice interviews with anyone who will help you. Get feedback on both the verbal and non-verbal aspects of your performance. If at all possible, videotape and watch yourself, as painful as this might be. Better to find out now that you have some strange, annoying hand movement or that your eye contact is so limited that you look guilty of murder.]

Moving Towards Tenure

The book Chairing an Academic Department has a chapter called “Support Your Faculty.” The recommendations in this chapter offer good advice that you may be able to implement on your own, if your department chair hasn’t read this book!

  • Have a clear set of professional goals. [I think it’s worthwhile putting these goals in writing and revisiting them periodically.]

  • Try to write a little every day. [See Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members]

  • Break your big projects into smaller manageable blocks, so as not to get overwhelmed.

  • Form an interdisciplinary study/writing/research group. You may enjoy working on a joint project, which is studied from multiple perspectives. This can help you to “break out of personal paradigms and provide refreshing modeling relationships.” It may also allow you to increase your research productivity.

  • Join campus teaching or writing groups.

  • If, on the other hand, you’ve spent too much time with others and feel burned out, schedule blocks of time where you will be alone and uninterrupted each day. [You’re no good to others if you don’t take care of yourself.]


For both job interviews and getting tenure, I believe that you will do the best if you have a passion for your subject that really shows—this is what will make you do your best work, be the most active in sharing it with the academic community (despite your trepidation in doing so), and make people want to work alongside you.

I hope these tips get you started thinking. I’ve posted more tips for the job interview on my blog, Academiblog. I invite you to add to my list, which is, of course partial. Now is the time to prepare for those interviews! (…And to remind yourself why you wanted to be a professor and get tenure.)


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