Interviewing at the AHA: Research Universities

We continue with part two of our four part series on interviewing at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Part One of the series focused on general interviewing tips.

This post will focus on interviewing for a job at a research university By “research university” I mean a “Research One” or Ph.D degree-granting institution. Nearly all of these universities have small teaching loads (usually 2 courses a semester–sometimes less) and high research expectations. Of course there are only a few of these jobs in your field each year and thus few graduate students will get the chance to put this advice to good use.

If you are fortunate enough to have landed an AHA interview with a research university you will probably be interviewed in a hotel suite. (If you are not in a suite, take this as a possible sign of budgetary problems in the department. Don’t ask about the financial state of the university in the interview though–save it for the on-campus visit). These departments usually have larger budgets than other search committees and they can thus afford a suite. The historians in these departments also see themselves as the elite members of the profession and thus want to provide more space and luxury than the schools interviewing in the “meat market.” In other words, they want to send the message that they do things professionally.

If the members of the search committee are hospitable–and in most cases they will be–one of the interviewers will take your coat and hang it up for you. You will be offered food and drink. (I recommend taking the drink–preferably water–and declining the food. The last thing you want is a piece of bagel or cheese in your teeth while you are talking). Get yourself settled, shake hands with everyone, and settle into your seat.

Try to talk as much as possible without notes or anything in front of you. You may, however, want a legal pad in front of you with a few questions on it that you want to ask the members of the committee. When someone says “Do you have any questions for us?,” pick it up and look at it. This will send the message that you are interested in the job and thought about things in advance.

Expect anything. Professors usually have agendas or strange personality quirks that might surface during the interview. Do your best to “read” the room. Try to figure out who on the committee is in your corner. (Somebody championed you during the selection process!). You may also learn rather quickly if a member of the committee is not in your corner. Scholars think that they can disguise the dysfunction of their departments, but it will inevitable shine through–if not during the AHA interview then definitely during the on-campus visit. Research universities are filled with scholars with big egos. When they tell you that “everyone in the department gets along,” be skeptical. In other words, if there is an underlying tension in the room you will probably pick it up. Do your best to navigate these types of situations with grace. but try not to make too much of all this. You are there to interview, not to play amateur psychologist. Don’t lose focus!

A good deal of your interview will focus on your research. Go into a bit more depth when discussing your dissertation or current book project than you would normally do in an interview with a non-research university. The committee will not only want to know the content of your work, but they will also ask how your work makes a significant contribution to your sub-field. There may even be one or two members of the committee who are familiar with your sub-field.

If you have a book contract you will have an advantage over your competitors, but you should also expect that many of your competitors will have contracts. This, after all, is how they have made it this far in the application process. If you don’t have a book contract, tell them about publishers or editors who have expressed interest in your work. The members of a research university history department will also ask you questions about where you are headed as a scholar. Do you have future projects in mind? You better. What will your next book be about?

There is a common misconception that research universities will not be interested in teaching. Every research university that I have ever interviewed with has made it abundantly clear that they take teaching seriously.

Having said that, don’t expect too many questions about your teaching philosophy or classroom style. The committee will want to know more about how you might contribute to the department’s curriculum. What kinds of new courses can you deliver? One of the fun things about teaching at a research university is that you get the opportunity to teach very specialized courses in your area of expertise. Even if you have spent most of your graduate school career teaching survey courses, you should definitely imagine a course with a name like “The Social World of the Enlightenment” or “Encountering the Other in Early America.” You should even write a syllabus for such an imagined course.

You can show that you are eager to plug into the curriculum by asking how the department defines the nature of 100, 200, 300, and 400-level undergraduate courses. Try to suggest (this will have to be off the top of your head, but since you are reading this you will be ready!) a course that you might teach at each of these levels. You may be asked if you are willing to teach a survey course. If asked, say yes. Since many professors at research universities do not want to teach these courses, your willingness to teach them will show that you are a team player.

You will also need to come up a with a few graduate courses that you may want to teach. Go to the department website and see the way in which it structures the coursework in the graduate program. Suggest one or two “reading” courses and a research-based course. These courses may be more general than the upper-division undergraduate courses you will propose (“Readings in Colonial America” or “Research in U.S. Women’s History”), but it all depends on the department.

Hopefully the interview went well. When you leave the suite take a deep breath, find the elevator, and feel the anxiety subside as you descend to the lobby! If you are being interviewed by a research university you probably have other interviews as well. Regroup and get ready for the next one!