A moment of reflection by UW-Madison geography professor Kris Olds on one of his first faculty job interviews years ago led him to pose a question on Twitter last month.
In Olds’ tweet to his 17,000 followers, he recalled an odd job interview experience he had with a New Zealand university and then asked others to share their own “terrible/surprising academic job interview memory.”
Olds, who has been on Twitter since 2009, said he expected seven to 10 responses. Instead, he got more than 500 from people around the world. In most cases, the tweets don’t specify at which universities the interviews took place or how long ago they occurred.
The tweets varied from the odd — walking from the airport to campus instead of taking a taxi — to the awkward — when a professor warned a candidate to “stay far, far away” from her institution — to the downright head-scratching — when a candidate received an offer letter but hadn’t applied.
Tell me about your general Twitter presence.
A lot of people in higher education use Twitter. I use it mostly for research purposes as a way to keep track of debates and discussions on higher education in a real-time basis. Sort of like a bulletin board. It’s a good way to archive things that are interesting and a great research tool for what I happen to study.
What do you study?
The globalization of the services industry. So how do service industries get involved in cities? How do their agendas, as they’re trying to globalize, interrelate with city government agendas? For example, last spring I had a class about Foxconn. I started to realize my own sector is an industry in formation. How is higher education being transformed — for good and bad — into a global services industry? How is it being globalized and what are the implications of it? That’s what I research.
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Walk me through your awkward interview.
So I was reflecting on when I was a Ph.D. student in England, that phase of my career. I was applying for jobs all over the world. And one morning, I was wearing my pajamas, eating breakfast and had a child who was a couple of months old. The search committee chair for a New Zealand university called me up and said, “I’ve just got a few questions to ask you. Don’t worry. This isn’t an interview.” And then it proceeded to last 45 minutes, very interview-like. I’m not even sure if they ever notified me that I didn’t get the job. When I reflect on it now, it seems even stranger than it did back then. And I have talked to one or two other people, including someone in my department here, that went through the same experience with the same university. So I just wrote it, like you do with Twitter. Like, oh, that’s a little strange.
What responses surprised you?
Yeah, you read those comments and you wonder, ‘What kind of institution is that?’ One surprise for me was everybody knows now you shouldn’t be asking questions about marital status, whether people have children, stuff like that. But people can’t resist it based on the comments I got. I guess the other surprise was people not using communication platforms properly. For example, one candidate was looped in on an email string. It was the same string in which she’d been invited to interview and now they were deciding how to reject her, but she was still on all of the emails.
What do you think the volume of responses says about the hiring process in academia?
It’s 2019 and hard to believe this is still happening at some institutions. When you think about it, the search process should be taken really seriously. If you ineptly handle searches, it leaves bad memories and people will talk or say negative things or not encourage other people to apply. Generating positive reaction from candidates even if they aren’t offered the job is important because those people will probably have students who might get a job there.
What was your interview like at UW-Madison?
I’ve gone through job-search processes in Canada, England, Singapore and here in the U.S. Because UW-Madison is competing nationally, if not internationally, for faculty, we have to treat search processes really professionally. I was met at the airport and taken to my hotel near the campus. There were individual meetings with faculty, there were some meals engaging with faculty and graduate students. I’ve done my own share of searches for my department. Things get run really well here, better than anywhere else I’ve been, so I’ve sort of normalized that. But then the tweet goes out and people start talking about these experiences, and it’s just bizarre.