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If you are interviewing for faculty positions, how can you find out whether a particular work environment would likely be toxic? (Either generally toxic, or particularly bad for you as a {woman, early career researcher, researcher in a particular subfield, etc.})

Can such environments be avoided?

Can you ask about this during a visit or interview? Who should you ask (faculty, deans, students) and what should you ask that might elicit the relevant information?

Are there other ways to detect a toxic environment, besides for asking people who know to be on their best behavior for you?

This has been discussed here, here, and here for prospective PhD students, but not for faculty candidates (as far as I know). I believe the answers will be different for faculty candidates - for one thing, PhD students are likely to be honest when telling a prospective student about their advisor; faculty members talking to a candidate about their colleagues, not so much. Also, the interview/visit procedure is different for faculty candidates, as are some of the relevant indicators of toxicity.

[Source: I read this question on FemaleScienceProfessor]

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Another good question would be what are all possible dramatic (toxic if you prefer) situations that can happen for a new faculty member? –  Vahid Shirbisheh Feb 28 at 20:26
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I'd also be interested in how one might detect the opposite: that the smiling, genial, polite interviewee isn't going to be toxic – someone almost destined to be the one who upsets a heretofore cooperative and productive environment. But I suppose that's a different question. –  J.R. Mar 1 at 11:39
    
@J.R. Yes!!! I definitely want to know the answer to that question (unfortunately, hits close to home). Are you going to ask it? –  ff524 Mar 2 at 1:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

What I found useful was to be very watchful of how the interviewers act towards each other. Typically some sort of meal is part of an on-campus interview and you will be eating with several of the faculty members. If they can't make it through the meal without doing something objectionable you probably have a toxic environment. The funny thing is that they know to act properly towards you but will still forget to do so to their colleagues even though you are right there.

As an example there was one such dinner where I was pressured into drinking alcohol the night before the real part of the interview and the junior (and female) faculty member who was present was the target of most of the jokes from the senior male faculty members. Both of these details did not help their chances of getting me to accept their offer. Fortunately I had another offer to take instead.

This is by no means going to catch every situation you want to get away from but the general idea is to watch their behavior. In larger departments where the jerks are kept away from the candidates you may have to be more active in searching for these issues. I was mostly interviewing in small departments where I was able to meet everyone.

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A comment on the FSP post offers the following answer:

One tell tale sign at the last university where I worked, was that almost all the research collaborations in the department had fallen apart, many due to personal conflicts. If a department doesn't/can't collaborate I'd call that a bad sign. Lots of collaborations, especially interdisciplinary ones, suggest some rudimentary ability to interact with other humans :)

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A couple of suggestions ...

  1. There should be no "invisible" people. Do faculty greet students and administrative staff with a smile and words like "please" and "thank you?" Do they greet janitorial staff? A culture that values people for being people has a certain energy to it. Likewise, how do you interact with the secretary making your arrangements, people you see in the hallway during your interview?

  2. Consider the structure of the interview. Will you visit with everyone in the department on an individual basis? Does everyone in the department have the opportunity to meet you, even if its not one-on-one? Departments thrive on discourse, its up to you to find out if its civil or disruptive. One way to check this is to be in a position before the "job talk" to observe the dynamics of the room as various members enter. If the room goes quiet when someone walks in, try to observe why. Do eyes roll when someone asks a question designed to demonstrate their knowledge as opposed to find out about yours?

  3. When hiring (from the perspective of chair, dean, & provost), I want the candidate to know the unit's story and dynamic. That means a commitment on my part to allow the candidate to experience some of the discourse mentioned above. If all you see is harmony, then its either group think or a group that's been cautioned to hide the unpleasantness. You might ask your direct manager what people skills you could bring to the department that would build a stronger team.

  4. Get specifics. You are interviewing the institution at the same time they are interviewing you. For example, if you ask what people skills you can bring to the team, and the response is just be nice, think twice. Productive working groups should be built upon mutual respect for each others' strengths and a willingness to overlook some of the weaknesses. With that said, a healthy department will have a sense of what it needs to get stronger as a team.

  5. Read "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell and trust your gut. If you're sensing something is wrong, it probably is. For this to be effective, you need time to reflect. If you're being pressured for an answer immediately, you should be concerned. Not that you need 2 weeks to think about an offer, but you should know how much time you need to make a reflective decision.

  6. It is a very small world in the academy with LOTS of information available, especially in the public setting. Want to know about the larger faculty culture? Go look up the minutes from the last 12-24 months of faculty senate and look at the faculty in department/college you'll be joining. Go to the website of the local newspaper and search for articles regarding the institution. Have you looked at the faculty satisfaction survey on the Chronicle of Higher Ed? Looked up articles on the institution on Inside Higher Ed?

One last point - healthy people are attracted to healthy environments. Think about who you are and take a look at what you want, make sure its consistent with the institution, and don't be fearful of asking difficult questions. You're worth it!

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I know it's difficult to get straight answers out of people, but sometimes just asking, "Are there any politics within the department to look out for?" to multiple faculty on your one-on-ones will provide some insight. People who make a confused face and say, "No, no" or vehemently say, "Absolutely not!" are likely not lying about it. Those who sigh, or those who get wooden, or those who decline to speak about it might indicate some problems.

In my experience most faculty members are rather honest and have a hard time denying problems when asked straight up about them.

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"for one thing, PhD students are likely to be honest when telling a prospective student about their advisor"

I disagree. In fact, I have seen the opposite. A PhD student's future is completely in the hands of their advisor in a way that not even TT faculty depend on their chair, etc.

I think the answer to this question is the same for both prospective students and faculty. You cannot ask directly but must read between the lines. I find that staying more quiet than normal during a conversation will sometimes inspire the other to fill in the silence in some very ... revealing ways.

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I'm a PhD student and I'm honest when I talk to prospective students about faculty in the dept. (I genuinely like and recommend my own advisor, but I mention aspects of his advising style that may not work for everyone, and I freely share information about other faculty who are best avoided entirely) –  ff524 Feb 28 at 19:22
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Talk to students when their advisor is not in the room. Or in the building. Preferably over beer. –  JeffE Mar 1 at 3:43

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