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I know that a big part of academic job interviews is for the candidate to evaluate whether they want to be in the department (not only whether the department wants them).

Are there some non-obvious general factors that signal a possibly dysfunctional department, or an otherwise undesirable position, that a candidate should be aware of? For example (but not limited to), is a poorly attended job talk, or only meeting a relatively small fraction of the faculty, a warning sign of something awry?

I'm asking this question because I have had two successful interviews and am weighing competing offers. This has left me considering some of the finer aspects of the interview experience.

  • What countries are we talking about? Do you know if the interview/decision was supposed to be just with a select subgroup of the department, or was the whole department supposed to give input on the hiring process? I've had both kinds of interviews, neither of which gave me a bad impression. – Kimball May 7 '15 at 1:44
  • @Kimball, this is in the US. I don't know for sure what the selection process was. I suppose that part of an educated guess for this question would involve your personal experience with selection processes. In a search committee I served on in my own department, we solicited input from everyone, but the search committee ultimately made the decision (subject to Dean/higher level approval, of course) – ThePiecer May 7 '15 at 1:48
  • Sometimes when departments do targeted searches (for relatively large departments), the interview really only involves people from that group. Did you at least meet the people in your area? – Kimball May 7 '15 at 1:57
  • @Kimball, that were just intended as an example. Not to make this question too specific to me personally, but I am a specialist working in an interdisciplinary field, so there aren't exactly a lot of people "in my field" in the strict sense (although I do share research interests with many people in both departments where I interviewed) – ThePiecer May 7 '15 at 2:05
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One thing to consider is tenure rates. Some departments are much more difficult to gain tenure in than others. My undergrad institution is well known for tenure cases that end in litigation. Similarly, I am aware of a department (small liberal arts college, not MIT or the equivalent) that denied tenure to something like six assistant professors over the course of a decade without granting tenure to any of its hires.

Additionally, it's worth considering whether the department has autonomy over the hiring process. If the meeting with the dean is not largely a formality, this might be an issue.

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    I'm curious what you mean by "formality": in the interview that got me my current job, the meeting with the Dean was the place to negotiate salary and benefits. – Martin Argerami May 7 '15 at 11:49
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    In my undergrad institution, candidates met with college president. If he did not approve, they did not get hired, regardless of whether they were the department's first choice. Additionally, he once made the department bring a candidate they did not like in for a second interview. I'm not expert in these matters, and this seems unusual, but this is what I was referring to. – Zach H May 7 '15 at 13:37
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Some things to consider while judging the department might be recalling the following things from your interview:

  • How enthusiastic the folks were while talking to you. How much of the details about the school, department, colleagues etc. were mentioned? Did the chair mention you would be a good team with Prof. Y because both yours and Y's interests match closely.
  • What kind of publications are out from the department members: frequency, quality, collaborative, solo, etc. may give you idea on the work patterns.
  • What activities are on: Have they organized seminars, invited-talks, workshops, etc. Who has visited them in the past?
  • What are the missions of the department: student success, diversity, faculty success, being in the top 1%, being a research university, etc.
  • What kind of answers you got when asked possible questions about your life on campus. How was the tone from different folks: welcoming, hesitant, unsure?
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    If your interests match Prof Y's closely, I wouldn't expect you'd get hired. The department already has a one copy of Prof. Y; why would it need another? Also, most of the things you mention are the sort of things you should have found out before you even applied. – David Richerby May 7 '15 at 7:26
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    @DavidRicherby That depends a lot on the degree of overlap. At least in math, there's a general desire at many departments to get people who can collaborate with each other, and hence having more hires with similar interests can help build working groups. – JoshuaZ Dec 15 '18 at 19:19

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