Tips for Forming Your Dissertation Defense Committee

Image Credit: Randall Munroe

For many graduate students the dissertation defense committee is somewhat of a mystery. How many members must you have? Who should you ask to serve on your committee? How far ahead should you be preparing for this? To answer these questions I asked chairs from departments all across campus as well as DU’s Graduate Student Services team. They had some wonderful insights, advice, and explanations that I think will be extremely helpful for you all as you embark on this important task.

Consult Your Advisor

Ok, so you have different options and important components to consider when putting together your dissertation committee. Generally a Defense Committee Chair (non-voting) –> Dissertation Director (voting) –> and a minimum of two additional committee members (voting) comprise the dissertation committee. Dr. Valavanis, profess or in Electrical & Computer Engineering, states normally students typically select all three members from their college (two from the department and one from another unit within their college/school/other units, depending on the topic), and one external member (industry, other university) who is an expert in the area of the dissertation. Deciding on if that’s the path that you’ll go down, it’s important to first seek the advice of your advisor.

Department chair and associate professor in the Higher Education program, Dr. Gildersleeve, recommends that students should “always take their advisor/supervisor’s advice. S/he has done this before, and has a clearer idea of how the process can unfold.” For doctoral students in the Graduate School of Social Work program, Dr. Bender recommends that students in addition to one’s advisor, should also consult the Associate Dean. Dr. Hazel, department chair and associate professor in the Child, Family, and School Psychology program, echos this advice stating “your major advisor will be your primary resource and support. However, no one person will be able to advise you in all things, so considering the complementary skills that other faculty can bring to your committee is important.” When thinking about questions to ask your advisor, Communication Studies chair and associate professor, Dr. Foust, recommends that students ask about the “possible strengths that other committee members might bring to the project–for instance, if your advisor has a strong background in research methods, you might select a committee member who has research or experience relative to the theories or contexts with which you’re working.” It’s also important to consult your advisor before you start cold calling other faculty. Anthropology professor, Dr. Conyers, reminds us that advisees are a direct reflection of their advisor and it’s important that we go over all our dissertation details before moving onto the next step. Dr. Conyers prefers to be the one to recommend committee members and call in favors to find an outside chair, using it also as an opportunity to involve “someone who has not been involved in our department before, in the hope we can show others what we do here, and open up channels for future collaborations.”

Plan Ahead

While you definitely want to make sure you’re prepared before you start soliciting faculty members, you should start making connections with potential individuals in advance. Who knows, your future outside chair could be someone you met at DURAPS! One great way to do this is to take a class from a professor who has work in which you’re interested. Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor, Dr. Yi, states that taking a class from a professor allows them to gain specific knowledge and expertise in a student’s area and specialization, enabling them to reliably judge their performance. Dr. Foust points out that some faculty request that grad students have taken at least 1 class with them before they agree to serve on committees. She states that “this can also be helpful for locating mentorship beyond content-expertise (so students not only find a mentor who is an expert in your research area, but they might also find a second faculty mentor who nurtures them as a teacher, and a third faculty member with whom they talk about methodological concerns, etc.).”

Dr. Foust also points out that “getting to know many faculty members serves graduate students well during sabbaticals–remember that faculty members take time off for their research, so your ideal committee members might not be available at the exact right time.” Emily Kintigh and Dr. Clark, in Media Film in Journalism Studies, also found this to be an important consideration and suggest that students “lay out a realistic work plan with deadlines that take into account thesis committee members’ schedules during breaks, summer, sabbaticals, etc. Dr. Yi states that he is often “reluctant to select a professor from outside the department, who knows very little about engineering, but sometimes has to, especially in the summer time when it is difficult to find a faculty available on campus.

Strike the Perfect Balance

Ok, so you know that you need at least three voting committee members, but how do you choose? Dr. Gildersleeve, provided the following advice “balance your committee with expertise that will serve your project; a content area expert, a methodologist, and a theory expert. This group of experts is dedicated to making your project the best it can be. You want to make the most of the opportunity to have nationally recognized experts (like the DU Faculty) supporting your project.” Kimberly Bender states that for students in her department “the choice of members for the committee should be guided by the candidate’s need for consultation on substantive matters, research methods, and statistical analytic approaches. It is common for a student to form a committee by choosing one person with whom they have an established working relationship, one person who has special substantive knowledge related to the research topic, and one person who has special research methods or statistical knowledge congruent with the proposed dissertation research.” Dr. Davis, professor and chair of the English department, also finds that it’s important to choose an individual with whom a student has a working relationship, especially when selecting a committee director. Dr. Wilcots, former Associate Provost of the Office of Graduate Studies, recommends that any dissertation that draws upon a field of study outside of the discipline in which the degree is being offered have a defense committee that includes a faculty person from every field represented. For example Anthropology faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on the quality of a novel, and Higher Ed faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on a film.

Dr. Hazel points out that “in some institutions, how the faculty get along is a serious consideration for students in the selection of their committee members. In the Morgridge College of Education, we are fortunate that the faculty hold each other in high regard and I have never seen power struggles in dissertation committees. Therefore, students can and should consider solely the expertise that the faculty can bring to the committee in their selection. I hope this is true across all units, but would advise students to confirm this with their major advisor.”

The Dissertation Director

DU’s Student Services experts state that the dissertation director needs to be a tenured or tenure-track member of the candidate’s graduate program. It is the dissertation director’s responsibility to ensure that the student’s research meets appropriate academic standards for the discipline in which the degree is being conferred. Dr. Cutforth, chair and professor in the Research Methods and Statistics department, outlines the following considerations when selecting one’s director:

  • Consider their expertise, accessibility, quality of feedback, and personality: The dissertation director’s role includes assisting you in developing your topic of interest and ultimately approving it as a researchable topic, approving your committee members in consultation with you and determining their role in the dissertation process; reading every line, section, and chapter of your dissertation, and judging the quality of your dissertation and deciding when you’re ready to successfully defend it in your oral defense.
    • Their expertise: Your director should have expertise and interest in your topic area so that they can direct you to relevant literature sources, foresee challenges that you may encounter as you proceed with your study, guide your choice of data collection and analysis procedures, and be thoroughly invested in your work.
    • Their accessibility: Your director should be able to give you the time you need to complete your project. Factors to consider include whether their own research or speaking engagements take them off campus for large periods of time, whether they are likely to be on sabbatical or family leave during your dissertation process, whether they are on numerous other dissertation projects, and whether they are available during the summer. All these factors influence the amount of time they will be able to provide to you.
    • Their quality of feedback: Your director provides quality control for your dissertation and decides when you can send chapters to your committee and when you’re ready for the final oral defense. Find out from other students whether s/he is respected for reading, critiquing, and returning drafts promptly (i.e., within 2 weeks except during busy periods like grading, vacation, and other deadlines). A director who provides specific and detailed feedback rather than vague comments will ensure that you are well prepared for your proposal and final oral defense.
    • Their personality: You will be working closely with your dissertation director so you should choose someone with whom you get on well. Do you want a director who closely monitors each phase of your work and tells you exactly what has to be done at each step, or would you rather have a director who lets you progress on your own and to finish a complete draft of the project before turning it in? Most directors fall somewhere between these two extremes. They also differ in the manner in which they provide feedback. Ideally you want someone who is direct and kind in critiquing your work but who ultimately will ensure that your study meets your department’s, college’s, and university’s standards.

Outside Chair(s)

The outside chair is a tenured member of the DU faculty from outside of the student’s department or discipline whose role is to provide a non-specialist’s perspective on the quality of the dissertation.

Dr. Gildersleeve encourages grad students not to be afraid to reach out to faculty members, even if you don’t know them very well or at all yet. “Make an appointment and share your ideas/project with us. If it fits within our scholarly agendas, we will be just as excited about supporting your project as you are.” Dr. Hazel discusses her experience stating that she’s “worked with outside chairs that have content expertise in the dissertation study and those that are from disciplines that had no relationship to the dissertation. In all cases, I have found the outside chairs to be engaged and thoughtful in their leadership of the dissertation defense. In other words, if you don’t know a faculty member outside your unit with expertise in your study, worry not! You will still have a faculty member who is dedicated to the process, who has read your dissertation and will ask thoughtful questions, and who will make sure that your defense proceeds in compliance with University policies.” Dr. Davis advises that outside chairs ideally should come from a discipline that is related to the project, but that students can also ask their committee members to suggest people they think might be interested in the topic. Often times, one’s dissertation director assists with choosing an outside chair. Dr. Cutforth states that  dissertation directors “will likely know faculty whose research is connected to your dissertation and/or those who enjoy being outside chair of dissertations in your college.”

So there you have it. The DU Defense Committee in a nutshell. As you begin on this process I recommend that you also read this article from Inside Higher Ed “Dealing With the Committee” for more logistical advice. If you have any comments/thoughts feel free to add them in the comments. Good luck with creating your dissertation defense committee in the coming months!

Introducing the Grad Lounge: DU’s Newest Open Work Space for Grad Students

Welcome to DU’s new open work space for graduate students, The Grad Lounge. The Grad Lounge is open from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm every Monday through Friday and is located inside the Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence suite in Driscoll North. The space was just created this quarter for DU graduate students and provides an area to work on the many projects that seem to take so much longer than anticipated. Today I sat down for a chat with Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence’s Assistant Director of Graduate Student Programs, Sujie Kim, to learn more about this new resource. Happy reading!

Open Work Space Just for Grad Students

Graduate students are often criticized for their tendencies to sequester themselves during their time in school. While alone-time is definitely vital for any scholar, it’s also important to get out one’s lab/cubicle/desk periodically. The Grad Lounge is a perfect opportunity for that, providing not only an open work space to get that dissertation chapter started, but also a space for our graduate community to write together. Additionally, it can be used as a convenient spot to relax, unwind, or just kill time before a class/meeting. The lounge is equipped with items to support every graduate student’s cognitive needs including tables, couches, writing supplies, a fridge, a microwave and even Play Dough, fidget spinners, and peppermints (which have been shown to help with mental recall)!

Drop In Writing Assistance

Prefer more low-key, graduate focused writing support? Need to talk to a writing center consultant but have your kids with you? The Writing Center can help! The Writing Center will be offering drop-in consultations every quarter right in the lounge. Sujie explained that what’s great about these sessions is the fact that they are flexible and can be made to fit graduate students’ diverse writing needs. Unlike the traditional 45-minute sessions that are offered in the Anderson Academic Commons, these drop-in hours can be more customized. Advanced graduate consultants are available to talk with you about ideas for a paper, help you refine arguments, and working on later-stage revising and editing. The Writing Center also now offers online scheduling that can be made for sessions in the AAC or Grad Lounge (current hours in the grad lounge have ended for the fall quarter but will resume in the winter). Once you’ve created an account, the system will also send you reminders the day of your scheduled appointments, allow you to register for workshops, and add you to an automated wait list if you cannot get an appointment at your preferred time. In the future the Grad Lounge will also be offering accountability and writing groups for graduate students.

Mental Health Support

Graduate life can take a toll on you, both mentally and physically. To help combat the mental stresses that students pursuing post-baccalaureate goals encounter, Sujie coordinates Grad Chat and Wellness Wednesdays. Grad Chat offers the opportunity for graduate students of color to talk and engage around mental health topics over a meal. This fall the monthly sessions included stress management and care and medication management. Sujie explained that each meeting is facilitated by a mental health expert such as the Health and Counseling Center’s postdoctoral fellow (who helped with the stress management session) and a psychiatrist (who facilitated the medication management session). Wellness Wednesdays is a another opportunity for students to make time for self-care during the quarter. Wellness Wednesdays is a weekly program that currently provides coffee, snacks and de-stress activities. Future programming will include yoga, wellness workshops, mindfulness and meditation, and massage.

So next time you’re traversing Driscoll Bridge to get out of the cold and snow be sure to drop in at the Grad Lounge! If you have any questions or would like to utilize the space for an upcoming meeting feel free to email Sujie (currently, the Black Graduate Student AssociationGraduate Women’s Council, and Latino/a Graduate Association, hold regular meetings in the lounge). Happy writing!

Graduate Citings: Harry Gollob Award Winner – Kayla Knopp

knoppHello graduates! While you’re enjoying the summer break, we’d like to share the work of Kayla Knopp, a recipient of this year’s Harry Gollob Award given by the Department of Psychology to the best first author publication for a current graduate student. Kayla’s paper was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in September 2016.

Researcher: I’m a 6th-year Clinical Psychology PhD. student. My research has three main focuses: first, understanding how people form, maintain, and break commitments in romantic relationships; second, studying diverse relationships (e.g., non-monogamous relationships, relationships of LGBTQ people); and third, applying new statistical methods to better answer research questions about relationships. Right now, I’m mainly working on my dissertation study, which is exploring “defining the relationship” (“DTR”) talks in teens’ and young adults’ romantic relationships. In addition to conducting research, I work as a therapist with couples and families, and I teach undergraduate courses in psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. Once I earn my PhD, my goal is to work as a clinical researcher and supervisor at a university – and I hope to be able to settle down in a city that my partner and I love as much as we love Denver!

Published Research: In this paper, Within- and Between-Family Associations of Marital Functioning and Child Well-being, we looked at the way children’s well-being changed over time in concordance with their parents’ marital functioning. We found that at times when parents’ communication and conflict management was relatively better (or worse), children’s emotional and behavioral well-being was also relatively better (or worse). Before this paper, other studies had only looked at differences between different families rather than looking at changes over time within the same families. This paper gets us closer to understanding how to help parents with children make sure their family is functioning as well as possible.

Collaborators: Dr. Galena Rhoades, Dr. Scott Stanley and Dr. Howard Markman

Inspiration: I was inspired by learning a new statistical method (disentangling within-subject and between-subjects effects in a multilevel model). I noticed that this method was very applicable to my field, but I had never seen other researchers use it in this way. I think this paper is a great example of how we can use statistical innovations to help us understand psychological processes better.

Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge with this paper has been helping other people (like reviewers and other experts in my field) understand why this particular method is important. In a way, my coauthors and I were saying to other researchers that they need to make a change to the way they’ve been analyzing data and making conceptual inferences up to this point. It took a lot perseverance to write (and rewrite) this paper in a way that was meaningful and useful to these other researchers.

Research Result: First, I hope that parents find the information useful. One online blog has already published a summary of the paper, and I hope that some couples try to make changes to the way they communicate and solve conflict as a result of reading about this research. My other hope is that other researchers can use this paper as a template for how to use this kind of statistical method with similar data in the future.

Research Advice: Be persistent! Be open to feedback along the way. Projects and papers sometimes take a long time and many iterations to get off the ground. If you stick with it and continue to get input from others about how your project can be improved, you’ll be successful.

Collaborative Classrooms, or the Art of Letting Go

– By Dr. Julia Roncoroni, Counseling Psychology, Morgridge College of Education

 My first day teaching college was awful. No, no, take note. I mean that. I knew the drill: you stand in front of the classroom, you pull up a digital presentation, you talk, and you command control. Students, well, they just stay quiet and listen. Except for I was bored, really, really bored. And I know students were too. I could not decide if it was my uncharming tone, the lack of animation in my slides, or the classroom lighting… but I was doing what teachers do, and students weren’t buying it.

Paulo Freire suggests that, in the traditional model of teaching, we view students as “empty vessels.” So we teach how we were taught, and we measure success accordingly: the more we fill the receptacles, the better professors we are. And students typically buy into the model. In fact, they are often baffled by the proposal that “this is [their] class and [they] decide what form it takes.” Many students go into courses thinking, “education happens to them.” If they sign up and show up for class, as professors, we will do something that will transform what/how much they know about a topic.

Yet, education is a deeply civic and moral exercise, an inherently political practice that enables students to expand on the possibilities of what it means to be critical citizens of their worlds. Capturing the spirit of Freire, Theodor Adorno claims, “Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation… Open thinking points beyond itself.” The cycle of student dependency must be broken, but one of the most difficult steps in our journey as professors is to do away with the way we were taught.

Syllabus Design 

The syllabus is a key communication tool between a professor and his/her students. Many instructional resources will advise professors to ask themselves the following questions as they design the syllabus: (1) Who are the students? (2) What do I want students to be able to do? and (3) How will I measure students’ abilities? Little is said about what students want to learn and how they would like to measure their increased abilities.

Democratic education is emancipatory—students’ understanding of what they should learn and how is just as powerful as the teacher’s. In democratic education, students are empowered to collaboratively (with the professor) design and implement class materials, including the syllabus. The role of the teacher is not to decide what students will learn and how, but instead, facilitate an environment where the students can decide and make meaning of class content.

Classroom Activities

When I surveyed students in my first class at DU, in Fall 2016 (four years after I first taught college), about their class experiences, the response was unanimous: the most liberating aspect of their participation was selecting a topic for a mini-lecture and sharing the results of their research with their peers and the broader DU community. It is easier for students to grasp core psychological concepts and frameworks when they become active collaborators in the investigation of psychological theory, research, and practice. I invite students to participate in projects that allow them to select and present topics that are appealing to them personally. When we design curricula in a way that gives students freedom to decide what (and how) they want to learn, students gain knowledge and skills that go well past the content matter of the course.


Faculty member have the “beauty” of getting it both ways—students think we are out to get them; my colleagues think students are out to get us. Whether you are taking or preparing/grading them, exams can be truly tedious.

We frequently play the ‘gotcha’ game: we use exams and other assignments as an instrument to oppress our students, to see how well they can adjust and not how well they can think critically to the service of their own learning.  We want to know, can students regurgitate this motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable bits of ‘reality’ that we have narrated to them?

Instead, we should ask, are students moving in the direction of being able to think creatively about their reality and participate in the transformation of their worlds in ways that fit their personal and cultural backgrounds and developmental levels? Assessment needs to be consistent, using multiple methods over time. These methods have to be, in part, determined by the expertise of the professor, but they also have to be defined by the expertise of the student-colleague. Making ourselves vulnerable is pivotal in deciding if learning has happened. As professors, we model this vulnerability and make space for students to engage. Students set their own personal baseline against which to contrast class outcomes and decide if learning has happened.


Democratic education can take many different forms, but all forms have one common denominator: a commitment to go outside the box of standardized one-size-fits-all education, so that students can feel empowered and engaged as learners. If we wish to train well-informed citizens who are intrinsically motivated and prepared to confront society’s most pressing challenges, we must provide them with the skills and critical thinking opportunities they need to build a more equitable and socially just society.

Dr. Roncoroni is an Assistant Professor in Morgridge College of Education’s Counseling Psychology department. She received her PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida. She is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA). Dr. Roncoroni’s primary research interests include health disparities, customized culturally sensitive health promotion and health care, and the integration of health promotion in medicine. She is a yoga and Zumba instructor and enjoys traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.

Stump Speeches at the University of Denver Over the Years

In light of Chelsea Clinton and America Ferrera’s visit to DU today we thought we’d compile a list of all the hopeful candidates and supporters who have visited our campus over the years. DU has had quite a history of high profile visits!

Madeleine Albright

madeleine-albrightWhen: October, 2016

First female U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited DU this month to stump for Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, she spent the bulk of her teenage years living near campus and her father taught at DU!



Vice President Joe Biden

When: Thursday, Sept 15, 2016

“For the first time in Korbel’s history, the sitting Vice President Joe Biden was welcomed to campus with over 700 people in attendance for the dinner, along with a student watch party held in Hamilton Gymnasium” (DU Clarion).




Chelsea Clinton & America Ferrera

Chelsea_Clinton_microphone_Philadelphia_2008  AmericaFerreraDIFFApr10 

When: February 18th, 2016

DU welcomed Chelsea Clinton and America Ferrera in the Anderson Academic Common’s Special Events Room where they stumped for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Bernie Sanders

When: June 20th, 2015

Last year, Vermont senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders spoke to 5,500 Denverites in Magness Arena.



romney obamaMitt Romney v Future President Barack Obama

When: October 3rd, 2012

While not a stump speech per se, DU hosted an exciting presidential debate in 2012. This debate garnered an impressive 67.2 million viewers; “the highest rated first election season debate since 1980” (Ostrow, 2012).


John_McCain_in_KyivJohn McCain

When: May 27th, 2008

Arizona senator John McCain visited the University of Denver to build support for his 2008 presidential run against Barack Obama.


Future President Barack Obama

When: January 30th, 2008

Four years before the Romney debate, future President Barack Obama made a campaign stop at Magness Arena.

President William J. Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton

When: January 30th, 2008

Former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife Hillary Clinton the night following future President Obama’s morning appearance.


Official_Portrait_of_President_Reagan_1981Future President Ronald Reagan

When: April 8th, 1979

Before he announced his candidacy, future President Ronald Reagan visited the arena-fieldhouse at DU.


Richard NixonFuture President Richard Nixon

When: September 13th, 1961

DU’s Young-Republicans League sponsored future President Richard Nixon’s visit to the DU Arena in 1961.


Did we miss anyone? Let us know in the comments!



So You Want to be a Professor? Tips from a Newly Hired Faculty Member

leerer Hˆrsaal in der Universit‰t / empty auditorium at the university

Hello DU grad students! Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday break. This week we’re excited to share with you a guest post written by DU Higher Education professor Dr. Cecilia Orphan. Having just recently been hired at DU’s Morgridge College of Education, Dr. Orphan knows how competitive the academic job market can be. Below are her thoughts and advice that she graciously penned for us. Happy reading!



Given the vanishing nature of tenure track jobs, a job as a professor is becoming more and more of an elusive brass ring. With careful preparation and practice, you can become a competitive applicant. What follows are a list of tips for your job search including advice about preparing your CV and cover letter and nailing the job interviews.

CV Prep

Curriculum Vitae is Latin for the “course of my life.” Remembering the etymology for this part of the application is important. A CV is much longer than a resume because it shows the academic journey you have taken since undergrad. There are a plethora of resources online that describe CVs, so I won’t be redundant and repeat the good advice of scholars much further along in their careers than me. That said, I have three pieces of advice:

  1. Imitate: Ask to see the CVs of faculty members you work with and students who are further ahead in your program or who have recently landed jobs. When you do this you’ll notice that there are a variety of different ways to construct a CV. If you see a format you like, ask the person if you can borrow their style. Also ask to trade CVs with 3-4 of your friends and say that you’ll edits theirs and give advice about it if they’ll do the same for you. The more eyes you can get on this document, the better.
  2. Proofread: There is absolutely no excuse for typos, spelling or grammatical errors in a CV. Your materials are going to be in a pile of hundreds of applicants and reviewers are looking for any reason to thin that stack. A typo or inconsistent formatting (ex: periods at the end of some but not all items on a bulleted list, italics in some places and bolding in others, etc.) can move your materials from the “look into further” pile into the “reject” pile. A piece of advice I received was to read my CV backwards, from the bottom to the top, so I could look strictly for typos and formatting inconsistencies.
  3. Tailor the Format: Depending on the emphasis of the job application, change the order of items in your CV. If you are applying for a job that emphasizes research, put your publications and research experience first. If you are applying for a teaching gig, put your teaching experience first. This re-ordering will signal to reviewers that you are serious about and understand the goals of the program and position.

Cover Letter Tip

Again, there is a bevy of advice out there on how to write a cover letter but I’ll chime in with the following advice: similar to the CV, your cover letter should tell a story about you as a scholar. The best way to do this is in a narrative format. How has your work, academic and personal experience culminated in your wanting to be a professor? How have your experiences influenced the research you do and the way you teach? How do all these pieces of your life fit together? Constructing a narrative is particularly important if you followed a nontraditional trajectory in your academic career.

Being able to tell your story in a narrative format also humanizes you to the reviewers and makes for a memorable and compelling application. Echoing the advice I gave regarding the CV, depending on the emphasis of the application, you’ll want to highlight either research or teaching within the text of the cover letter. This means that in a 2-page cover letter for a posting for a Research 1 institution, you’ll spend 3-4 paragraphs talking about your research and the second-to-last paragraph briefly talking about your approach to teaching. In your last paragraph, you need to write convincingly about how XYZ State University is the absolute perfect place for you to continue your academic journey.

Interviewing Advice

Once you get an interview (or interviews), celebrate! This is a huge accomplishment followed by what will have likely been dozens of applications you submitted and heard nothing about. After you celebrate, it’s time to get to work. Nowadays search committees conduct a Skype (or phone) interview with candidates first before deciding to bring the top three candidates to campus for a day and half long marathon interview. What follows is my advice about both steps in the interview process.

The Skype or Phone Interview

  • Find the Perfect Spot: If it’s a Skype interview, find a quiet place that has the semblance of an office. This will take some creativity because as grad students, you don’t have access to scholarly-looking-rooms you can take over and use for an interview. I conducted mine in my bedroom in front of a bookcase and I told my roommate that she had to be absolutely silent for 30 minutes.
  • Dress the Part: You should be in interview clothes whether or not the search committee can see you. You should be in interview clothes whether or not the search committee can see you.Stepping into interview clothes (preferably a suit – it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed in these situations) helps you get into the mindset of an interview.
  • Prepare for Questioning: Come up with a list of 8-10 questions that you think they’ll ask you and practice answering these with a friend. Write down points that you want to cover and put them on sticky notes attached to your monitor. This way you can discretely glance at them during the interview if you get stuck.
  • Create Some Queries: There will typically be 20 minutes of questions that they ask you and 10 minutes of questions that you ask them. Your questions for them are probably the most important part of the Skype/phone interview. Your questions should not be about salary or benefits but instead about the work of the department, the strategic direction of the department, and how the department fits into the larger institutional context. Asking questions like this shows that you have a keen interest in the department and more importantly, that you have done your homework.

On-Campus Job Interview

The on-campus job interview is in a word: intense. You will be meeting with people who are far more powerful than you (senior administrators) as well as people who are more senior than you in terms of rank. These people are trying to figure out if you would be a good colleague for them. Every aspect of this process is a job interview – everything from walking in the halls between “meetings” (mini interviews) to dinner the night before to breakfast the morning of. You will be watched closely during the entire time you are on campus and need to be on your game 100%. The hardest part for me was shifting my perspective and self-view from that of a grad student to that of a professor. Here are some tips to help you do that.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice Your Job Talk: I wrote a script of my talk and rehearsed it probably 30 times. This is a huge time investment because your talk should be about 40-45 minutes, but it is so important. Also, see if you can convene a group of folks (with strong faculty representation) to watch you run through your job talk. Get their feedback, implement it and … keep practicing.
  • Create a Narrative: Surprise, surprise, your job talk should be a narrative of sorts. I included an “impetus” slide in my job talks that described the impetus for my research. This helped my audience get to know me and also helped them see the trajectory of my work.
  • Select the Right Person: When it’s time for questions, call on the oldest person in the room. Also, pay attention to the person other people seem to defer to and really listen to. This person is likely someone with a ton of informal power who will make or break your interview. Make sure you establish a connection with this person.
  • Get to Know Everyone: Remember that you’re interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. Try to think of it as an opportunity to get to know new colleagues you will see at conferences for the rest of your life, and not as a do-or-die interview.
  • Approach Student Interviewing Earnestly: If the search committee has students interview you, take this very seriously. Students will report back to their faculty colleagues about how serious you took the interview.
  • Make Meaningful Connections: Read the last 3-5 articles written by every person in the department and think through ways your work compliments but is also distinct from theirs. Then be able to speak to these points of connection and areas in which you would add something new but related to their department.
  • Implement Mnemonic Devices: Print pictures of people and memorize them on the plane. Keep a cheat sheet in your brief case during the day. Calling folks by their names is extremely important. Do this in group interviews, “That’s a very interesting question, Cecilia … blah blah blah.” People like to hear their names. Calling folks by their name also shows that you have an interest in them as individuals.
  • Nix the Caffeine: Don’t drink too much coffee (unless you are exhausted). Your nerves are already going to be in overdrive. Coffee can exacerbate this. And for god’s sake, do not get drunk at dinner! I suggest ordering a glass of wine or a beer and sipping it throughout dinner.
  • Personalize the Follow-Up Email: Take notes about each person and send personalized thank you notes. If there is a question that you don’t know the answer to, say, “That’s an interesting and important question. I don’t know the answer to it now but I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Then follow up with that person through email and answer the question. Doing this shows that you are thoughtful and interested in ongoing scholarly engagement. If you wish that you had answered a question differently, after the interview email the person who asked and tell them how your thinking has changed or evolved since interview day.
  • Conduct Background Research: Take time to familiarize yourself with the mission and history of the university and come prepared with questions about how that larger mission informs the department.
  • Scrap Salary Talk: Don’t ask any questions about salary and benefits during the interview. This will happen in your negotiations with the dean if you get an offer.
  • Be Ready to Discuss Your Scholarship: Be prepared to talk through 2-3 concrete research ideas you will tackle in your first few years as a professor. A search committee is going to want to know that you’ll be able to stand on your own two feet after you leave the nest of your advisor’s mentorship. Having research ideas in mind will help with this.

My final piece of advice is to be yourself. Be exactly who you are. Authenticity is important for obvious human reasons but also important because a search committee is going to meet other interviewees who are trying to be who they think the department wants. That doesn’t land a job. Being yourself does.

For more information, check out the Academic Job Search Handbook. This is an amazing resource that will walk you through each step of the process.

Good luck!

Cecilia-OrphanDr. Orphan holds a PhD in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Portland State University. Her research centers on the effects of neoliberal ideology and public policy on the democratic purpose of higher education, the role of open access universities in facilitating opportunity and regional civic life.