Interviewing in a physics department
Who hires PER folks, what do they say they are looking for, and what are they really looking for? There are lots of places that hire PER folks for lots of things. In this article, I want to address faculty jobs at US institutions, primarily tenure-track or long-term VAP.
Dissecting job ads
Job ads are not a perfect match for what departments are searching for. You'd think that they would want to be as specific as possible, but there are a lot of institutional pressures and fears which limit the language in ads. Some examples:
- A department wants to hire a condensed matter experimentalist, for example, but would be happy with any one who would like to run their upper level lab sequence. To avoid cutting out all those potentially great applicants, the ad is written for a general experimentalist.
- A department wants to hire a PER person to reform their non-majors course, but is afraid they won't get a good enough applicant pool. They post instead for someone with a strong teaching background and interest in PER.
- A department really wants to hire someone more senior, but can't afford to search at the associate/full professor level. The ad reads "open rank". Conversely, the search is primarily for junior people, but the department would be able to wrangle a better appointment for the right person: the ad reads "TT or T".
- The department doesn't really want a PER person, but the Dean or Provost has decided that they can have another tenure line if they do. These kind of hires are usually part of some university-wide strategic initiative which involve multiple hires in multiple departments, sometimes spread out over many years.
There's a black art to dissecting job ads which comes with practice. When in doubt, show it to some people you trust and talk to the people who put it out. Don't ask the job search site where you found the ad, because they probably don't have any special information or expertise for you.
Getting more information from faculty
The only way to know about what the department actually wants is to talk to them, preferably before you apply. They might be cagey, but you'll definitely learn something about what they're looking for. During the phone interview, you should run away from any school which is cagey about what it wants: either it doesn't know and there's bad politics about why not, or it does know and it doesn't want to tell you. Both options are bad news for any eventual hire.
Ask the faculty to talk about where they see their department in five years. This is a great question because it talks about aspirations: you want to know how you can grow with the department, and the department wants to know how you will help them achieve their dreams. Don't be shy about adding to their dreams or adjusting them slightly to fit yours: faculty who make good colleagues are honestly interested in working with you.
Collaboration opportunities across campus. Are there other DBER or science ed folks currently? are more hires planned? a center for science ed research? The faculty should be very proud of whatever they've got, and/or they should be really excited about their growth potential. You should be nervous about a department who says there aren't many opportunities to collaborate across campus and seems unexcited about developing some. If there are other people on campus who aren't involved in the interview, see if you can get some names to google later. The seniority and departments of these other people is an interesting indicator of how long the institution has been committed to DBER and science ed. If you're interested in pre-service teachers or k-12, ask about local school district connections. If you're interested in outreach, ask about outreach programs. If you're not interested in either, ask anyways to get a sense of how much of that you would be expected to do.
Kinds of hires
Before you apply, ask about the department's desires for the position. Are they looking for someone to teach labs? pre-service teachers? manage the big education grant they just got? participate in a university-wide initiative? run outreach?
How senior are they hoping to hire? early TT? nearly-tenured? what are the prospects for someone outside their preferred seniority level? what would that person need to show in order to be competitive?
For tenure-track positions, ask if this is a new tenure line or a replacement. If a new line, where does the impetus come from? too many students in the classes? provost-level initiative for STEM ed? department wants to grow? If a replacement, is it because someone left or because of retirement (anticipated or actual?)? what was the research emphasis of the departing person?
How quickly do they anticipate running the search? If applications are due in January, when will interviews be?
Teaching and research expectations
What are the teaching expectations of the position? Teaching load is calculated differently at every school, so press for details. Common monikers are "3-3 load" (three courses per semester) or "9 contact hours" or "9 credit hours". In particular, you should ask about how lab time is calculated. Does a lab with duration 3 hours count for 3 contact hours? 1 credit hour? half a course? When your advanced undergraduates or graduate students want to do independent study or research credits, is that part of or in addition to the normal load?
What are the research expectations of the position? In particular, does the department expect or desire any particular kind of research such as reforming a lab sequence, research on upper-level students, or work with pre-service teachers? If a non-PER person develops new labs, this counts as departmental service. If the department expects the PER person to do it for research, you should be VERY suspicious, even if you would do it for research anyways. Here's why: if it's service for an ordinary faculty member, you may find that your nominal research work magically turns to service credit when it's time for tenure.
At an undergraduate institution, ask about how many undergraduates do research overall, either as summer students or senior theses or otherwise. How many would be interested in doing PER for that? How does the department feel about that possibility? Are those students primarily pre-service teachers or physics students who are bound for graduate-school?
At a graduate institution, ask about how many graduate students are in each cohort. How much departmental funding is available? What track record, if any, does the department have in attracting PER students? graduating them?
Navigating the phone interview
You got a phone interview for at least one the following reasons:
- Your application was reasonably articulate and your letters sufficient.
- You seem well-suited to the position.
- The department is curious about you.
- You represent some kind of diversity the department is interested in, either for EE/EO reasons or for research field reasons.
The phone interview is your first formal chance for the department to sell themselves to you. It's also your first formal chance to be personable, articulate, and exciting.
- Being personable: your interviewers are people too! Ask them about their research fields, their department, the things they like about the institution. They want to show off. Let them. (if they don't want to show off, they're not selling the school well.) Your interviewers want to know who you are as a potential colleague. Tell them how you might fit.
- Being articulate: have a short list of things you want to ask about for the inevitable "do you have any questions" part of the interview. Have some bullet points about your experience and research. Practice talking about yourself. I write three major traits about me on an index card and prop it up in front of me, to remind myself of why I'm here: friendly, curious, awesome. Pick your own traits to fit you.
- Being exciting: You are exciting, aren't you? You need to find a way to communicate your passion about your research (current and future), teaching (which classes?), and growing with a department.
If you haven't already, ask about the department's goals for the next five years. If you have, ask again after you reference what you've already learned from them. You'll get a different perspective from the committee and it shows you care enough to have had a conversation already and remember the details. It's too late to ask about their seniority and research field hopes for this position directly, but you can ask about teaching loads, research expectations, student availability, and search timing now.
A phone interview varies from a 20-minute vetting session in which they run through a list of predetermined questions to a one-hour conversation with a few major questions to cover. It's ok to ask about how long they're expecting to spend on it beforehand. If they're planning for it to be short, then you should not plan to ask many questions or talk for a long time about you.
Other things to watch out for
Are you a real physicist?
There is a perception among physics departments that PER people are not really physicists. They are worried on two fronts: that we can't teach upper-level courses, and that we don't fit in culturally.
You can reassure them on the first front by talking about the upper-level classes you've already taught, or the courses you would like to teach given the opportunity. Everyone wants to teach a seminar in their research topic; what else are you excited to teach? Be prepared with both cultural signifiers (to show that you are one of them) and interesting twists (to show that you have thought about it). For example, if you want to teach junior-level quantum, you can talk about "Griffiths' quantum" and how you might use simulations and numerical approximations to enrich the material.
You can reassure them on the second front by pushing really hard on the idiomatic physicist talk. Groups use idioms to determine in-group status: use this to your benefit. "To first order"; "zero friction experiment"; "Jackson" and "Griffiths" to signify courses are all examples. Find a way to reframe what you do in terms of idioms physicists use. You can also reassure them that you are a cultural physicist by talking about NSF programs that (might) fund your research or PRST-PER and AJP as journals to publish in. Different people will use different shibboleths; you should know the most common ones and how to respond appropriately. As if this weren't hard enough, there will be strange department politics that you don't know about, and they will make faculty members act strangely.
Part of fitting in culturally in a physics departement is about showing that you are ready for a faculty position instead of a postdoc position. Are you independent as a researcher? Do you think about collaborators primarily, or advisors? Have you reframed teaching to be about your courses, or are you still thinking like a TA? If this is your first faculty position, you can show this readiness by asking about the kinds of things faculty ask about.
They are legally forbidden from asking you about membership in any protected class, or about anything that might lead to you revealing protected class status. They can't ask you if you want a spousal hire or if you have personal reasons for wanting to move to the area. (A caveat: private religious schools are different and I don't understand them or their restrictions.) You shouldn't bring it up at the phone interview stage, but certainly at the on-campus interview stage. Similarly, if you have or want kids, you can ask about local school districts when you get there, under the guise of learning about which neighborhoods you want to live in (this signals you're considering settling down in their town). If you happen to have a special affinity to the region (you grew up there, you've always wanted to move there, you really like their sports team, whatever), you are free to mention it.
They are allowed to ask if there is anything which legally prevents you from working in the US. Many departments ask this as part of the paper application, but some leave it for the phone interview. Mostly they're worried if you have visa issues or convictions. If this has never occurred to you as a problem, it's probably not a problem for you. Americans currently working abroad should point out their citizenship explicitly.