As a reminder, my defining thesis for these posts is: we need to make the job process into the ‘will of God.’ Or in other words, we need to discover how God can work in us and among us during the search process.
You have written a good letter—so good in fact that now you have some interviews scheduled. These could range from a phone call to some form of video conference. As you will learn, this means you are now in a group of roughly 15-20 people, down from the mammoth pool of 100-200 who applied. You may never have thought that Anonymous U or Nowhere U would call for an interview. And yet, here you are. And the odds now are significantly better.
Having been a part of two searches for a tenure-track professor while a grad student, I know that the number of applications can be high, making it very hard to narrow down the list. How and why the search committee narrowed down the list may never be known to you, but that you are on it is clear.
This is where the ‘will of God’ comes in. In researching the school pre-interview—its faculty (especially the committee members), its curriculum, its student body, its location (i.e. getting intimate with the school’s website and its public persona)—you also should at the same time develop some ‘feel’ for how you fit in those categories. This is why they chose you for an interview. They saw something on that CV or in that letter that ‘checks the boxes’ so to speak. And through their questions, they will see how well you can articulate back to them what they saw. In other words, can you articulate why you are a good fit? In religious language, you should try to convince them it is the ‘will of God’ for you to work there.
If interviewing at a military institution, can you speak to leadership as a faculty member? If interviewing at a private (non-religious) school, can you speak to its particular brand of education? And finally, if interviewing at a religious school, can you decipher which brand of Christianity it follows and how that might affect pedagogy, content, and faculty responsibilities?
I have been using that phrase ‘will of God’ in both its serious form and also in a way to mock its use as a mathematical proof that tells us what to do. In regard to the interview stage, finding the ‘will of God’ is not just deciding where God might have you—but articulating to yourself, convincing yourself that you can be there. Then convincing the search committee. In my theology, in the 95% of life not dictated by scripture, God’s will is not a narrow road or one option, but a responsiveness to human movement. In other words, there are many ways to go within a broad spectrum (orchestrated by the Lord). Even more so, among our choices, good and bad, wise and unwise, in our uncertainty and undeterred stubbornness, God goes ahead and comes behind us, revealing himself. And to be sure, that 95% has much to offer about how to become wise (read Proverbs for more). Scripture does not offer booming voices from the sky. It offers more a frame of how to live in a world with many decisions to be made. God directs our paths and we walk.
At the end of all this, you could say, “It was God’s will for me to get this job in this location . . .” But one could have said that about any of the other places because it was not God so much as the search committee and department chair that made it God’s will (and like the latter, the former never explains). So God would have worked in you in all the other places, too. He wasn’t in ‘it’ so you could discover a narrowly defined ‘will’ as much to discover him – how he is responsible for you, and responds to you in the ways he reveals himself.
This is why ‘fit’ is both a good metaphor for the job search process and God’s will. And that ‘fit’ comes out clearly enough during an interview. So here are some ways to talk yourself into a campus visit, that important next stage.
First, practice. Practice with others. Test out your speakerphone voice. Test your Skype. Get those professors who have been recently hired or who recently have been on a search committee to interview you as if they were the school soon to do just that. I add this in regard to getting advice from professors for the job search: you should stick to those who have either been hired or have hired in the last five-ten years. Eight might pushing it. Things have radically changed in higher education since your tenured favorite professor was hired, and even since that last hire in your department. It’s like the old adage: any person who has been ‘out of the game’ for five years doesn’t understand the business. Practice with those who can offer you relevant advice.
Second, prepare an ‘elevator’ speech about your dissertation. That is, a 30 second or 1 minute summary of it for a person who has no idea what you are talking about. This is not the ‘complete stranger’ explanation, but an explanation for the highly educated, somewhat knowledgeable about a general field. The committee will be made up of 3-7 people who will mostly likely not be in your field, but in your department, maybe not even that, at some small schools. And you need to convince them as much as the chair of the committee, who was likely chosen because they are in the same field as you. If you can make the dissertation summary applicable to this school, all the better. But a summary of its impact on the field is key. Depending on the school, research will be of less importance than teaching. But the reasons for you taking up a particular subject—more than “I thought it was interesting”—shows at least in my terms, how you follow God’s will in research. You have an ‘agenda’ in academic terms.
Third, have an elevator speech about your teaching. What kind of teacher are you? Especially if this is a teaching-heavy job, what educational or pedagogical theories do you operate from? Don’t name names as much as show how you apply that name. What kind of courses would you create? What lacuna in their department might you fill? And finally, what might you say to convince these people that you are a good teacher? They don’t need the detailed summary of your desire since five to be a college professor, but some indication that you know something about vocation. That is, how is God calling you to teach?
You will most likely get the ‘talk about your weaknesses or greatest failure as a teacher’ question (especially at a teaching-heavy school), so try to relate as if, you know, you have actually failed and have a weakness. Answer the question honestly, but also intellectually, showing you have learned something from the occasion. This is the time to treat yourself as a human and those interviewing you as the same. This is what God does. In other words, this is his will.
Fourth, try to make small talk. This will be difficult over the phone or video. But a ‘robotic’ interview doesn’t leave an impression in the same manner that a monotone lecturer doesn’t. If you know someone who went to that school, if you know of its general academic reputation, if you know its brand motto, chat about that. Try something other than sports. I once interviewed with my alma mater. I mentioned from the start I would love to return to the town. I didn’t get the job and it might have been because I sounded too eager to live in a college town, i.e. wanted to relive my undergraduate days. Or it could have been I didn’t ‘fit’ what they were looking for as much as others. Or my talk wasn’t small enough. Try to make yours fit.
Lastly, there will be many interviews and many things you repeat. But of course they are hearing it for the first time. Say it with spunk, joy, and authority each time. It’s why we have different genres and writers in the Bible. Timeless truths about yourself to different audiences – that’s how God speaks. There will be days you have three interviews. There might days where you do a video interview in the hotel room as you just finished a campus visit. There will be interviews where it is clear you are not their ‘guy.’ And of course there will be interviews you pray and pray it goes well, and the technology limits you (the video doesn’t work and you are left with the phone, or worse, you can’t hear them well). These are God’s will as much as the better ones. Our lives don’t depend on insignificant factors like a faulty speakerphone. They are grounded in mystery at times. Yet in the end, someone will like you enough to invite you to their place. Maybe.
More on that next time.
Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. He has degrees from the University of Florida (BS) and the University of South Carolina (MFA and PhD). He enjoys books by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner. His research interests include the rhetoric of evil, ethics, and professional writing.