global politics, relationally

Return to the Dark Side, Part 4: Preparing for the Administrative Interview


UnknownA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I started a series of blog posts on moving from a faculty position to the administrative realm (you can find them by typing “Dark Side” into the search box on this blog). Like George Lucas, I wrote a trilogy and then stepped away for a while. Unlike Lucas, I hope that now that I’m picking up the thread again this next set will be at least as good as the first ones. I promise, at least, no Jar-Jar Binks.

When last we left off, I had written about things faculty can do to set themselves up for administrative positions in the future – a sort of “how to build your resume” exercise. Now that administrative interview season is upon us, I want to turn my attention to more immediate concerns. Assuming that you have already ventured onto the path, applied for an administrative job, and been granted an interview, now what?

The key point here is both obvious and easy to miss: Administrative interviews are fundamentally different from faculty interviews. The sooner you convince yourself of this – really believe it – the better off you will be.

Interviews for tenure-track faculty positions are, for the most part, pretty routine. They consist of meetings with the department chair, with the members of the search committee (if the department is large enough to have a subcommittee), with other members of the department, and sometimes with some selected students. There is usually a “job talk” in which you get to explain your research and dazzle everyone with your brilliance. There is sometimes a “teaching demonstration,” depending on how teaching-oriented the institution is. Your goals in all of this are pretty simple:

  • Convince the department that you will be a productive scholar.
  • Convince the department that you can teach well.
  • Convince the department that you will be a good colleague, someone they would like to have around.

Granted, “productive scholar” and “teach well” have localized standards. But the basic outlines are there, whether you’re interviewing at a small private school or a large R1 institution. The conversations you have during the interview, other than an obligatory meeting with a dean, are almost entirely within your field with others of your academic tribe.

This is the first, and one of the biggest, differences between faculty and administrative interviews. When you interview for an administrative position you will meet with everybody – faculty, staff, students, sometimes even people outside the institution entirely. Because administrative jobs necessarily entail dealing directly with a much broader range of constituencies, you have to be able to talk intelligently to faculty from a wide range of fields, staff members who are not academics at all, students, alumni, and a host of others. Almost everyone you talk to will know next to nothing about your field of study, nor will they care. In short, everything you would prepare for a faculty job talk is useless in an administrative interview.


So if the point of the interview isn’t to dazzle with your research brilliance or your pedagogical prowess, what is it? In an administrative interview your goals are:

  • Convince everybody that you are competent to do the work demanded of the position – that is, that you have the knowledge and skills necessary to get the job done.
  • Convince everybody that you can make decisions when necessary.
  • Convince everybody that you have a “leadership style” that they are comfortable with.
  • Convince everybody that you have experience dealing with the issues they’re dealing with.
  • Convince everybody that you will solve all of the problems left over from (or caused by) the previous holder of this position OR convince everybody that you’re (almost) as good as the much-loved previous occupant of the office.

Notice that only one or two of these are about actual competence and skill. Those are important, yes, and certainly if you come across as incompetent in any significant way you’re dead in the water. But most of this is about style and fit with perceived needs and local culture. It’s also about casting you in light of the recent history of the position or this area of the institution – something you will know next to nothing about.

This is where the variance among administrative jobs is almost as broad as the variance between administrative and faculty positions. Every institution has a different culture and a different history, and teasing these out ahead of time is extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, within a given institution different people will have different ideas – sometimes radically different ones – about what they want. Colleagues and underlings may be looking for a team player, a unifier who will consult broadly and bring people together and empower them, while the senior administration is looking for a “get things done, take no prisoners” kind of person. The former deplore micromanagers, but the latter may prefer them.

It’s possible, in other words, to walk into an administrative interview that is the professional equivalent of facing the Kobayashi Maru test – there is no winning answer. I’ve had that happen twice in my career – in one case, an administrative position that a wide swath of faculty thought wasn’t necessary at all (it wasn’t), and in the other a set of factions that all had to agree on a candidate but whose interests and worldviews diverged too widely. Both searches failed entirely, which is (I suspect) more common in administrative searches than in faculty ones.

Assuming that you’re in a search process that actually has a chance of succeeding, one of the chief implications is this: you have a lot of homework ahead of you. Whereas interviewing for a faculty job involves researching the members of the relevant department, interviewing for an administrative position involves looking up information on a lot more people, and many more kinds of people. Many of those people will be academics in different fields than yours – but if you can make some kind of connection to their work (even just intellectual interest and a layman’s familiarity), that’s a plus. You also need to meet with staff with professional and technical expertise in various areas, who will likely understand what they do far better than you do (or ever will). Knowing people’s names and roughly what they do, and demonstrating respect for their expertise, goes a long way.

In short, interviewing for administrative positions is not for the faint of heart. It takes a certain kind of person to succeed in this gauntlet: someone who can be organized with a lot of disparate information, do their homework ahead of time, prepare but also be prepared to adapt, and read people and adjust message and tone to suit the audience. Luckily, these are also skills required to succeed once you get most administrative jobs – so the process, as arduous as it can seem, actually makes some sense. Just make sure that if this is your first administrative interview, you don’t confuse it with your last faculty interview. You’re starting over in a strange new country. Enjoy the trip!