A Note to Ph.D. Students: Here’s What We Are Really Looking for in a Job Interview

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 25, 2016

One of the scariest aspects of pursuing a Ph.D. (aside from thesis defense) is the poor job prospects on the other side.  After slogging through many years of intense research, late nights writing, spouse working, and no money, it is a bit discouraging to realize the job opportunities are few and far between.

Of course, I always warn my own students of this reality if they express interest in getting a Ph.D.  It is a noble pursuit, but one that does not always translate into to steady, financially-viable employment.

So, whenever a Ph.D. student does get that rare job interview (and they are rare!) they will need to make the best of it.

Given that I have sat on both sides of the interview table–as both candidate looking for a post, and as President or Academic Dean looking to fill a post–I thought I might offer a few reflections on the interview process.  In particular, I want to help candidates know what we are really looking for in a potential professor.

I say “really” because I think candidates often misunderstand what we are looking for. And, due to that misunderstanding, sometimes candidates are simply heading down an unhelpful path in the interview process.

And when I say “we” I am thinking particularly of those leaders in the world of evangelical seminaries.  Those in university settings, or those who are not evangelical, are unlikely to offer the same advice.

So here are seven pieces of advice:

1. Don’t talk about only your dissertation. This is (by far!) the number one mistake in an interview.  To be sure, we want to know about your dissertation, your field, and your research interests.  But, don’t offer a 20 minute recap of an obscure point in chapter three of your thesis (yes, people do this).

I know that when a student has been working on one thing for 5 years it is difficult to talk about something else. But, that is precisely what we want to see. Can this person talk about, think about, and engage with, topics outside the micro-world of his dissertation research?

2. Don’t try to prove how smart you are.  Having done many, many interviews, I get the impression that candidates are very worried about whether we think they are smart enough for the job.  And this is understandable. The academic environment is an intimidating one, and candidates feel the need to prove themselves.

However, you should know that you wouldn’t have been given an interview if we didn’t already think you had the academic chops to pull it off.  We can assess academic ability pretty quickly on a CV because we know about your program, your advisor, your publications, your undergraduate work, your masters work, your references, etc.

So, in many ways, we have already crossed that bridge.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t continuing to evaluate academic ability (we are), but in the interview we are more often looking for other things (see below).

On top of this, too much self-promotion can come off negatively. Yes, interviews are about putting forth your abilities and credentials.  But, this needs to be done carefully lest you become this guy.

3. Brush up on your systematic theology.  This is the big one.  You may be surprised to know that when we (at least here at RTS) look to a hire a professor we are very concerned about his understanding of systematic theology and his ability to articulate theological positions.

Unfortunately, many Ph.D. students have become a little rusty in systematics (their MDiv was a long time ago), or perhaps think it doesn’t matter (most Ph.D. programs don’t emphasize it).

But, it matters to us.

Additional note: the importance of systematics shows that the Ph.D. is not necessarily the most important degree you get.  In many ways, your M.Div. is more important because of the foundational way it shapes your view of theology and ministry (which is what seminaries are concerned about).

4. Understand the institution that’s interviewing you. Whenever you interview with an institution, it is important to do a little homework in advance, lest you find yourself articulating (or emphasizing) positions contrary to the very institution you are hoping to get hired by.

This does not mean you should change your views to match the institution (you need to be honest about your views), but it does mean you should be wise about the way you speak.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been in an interview where the candidate decides to share his views on his favorite hobby horse topic, not at all aware that his views contradict the positions of our own institution!

Simply put, if you interview at a Reformed seminary (like RTS) you will not want to lead with how much you enjoyed this book.

5. Be ready to answer, not evade, hot button issues. If you are interviewing at a confessional seminary–i.e., a seminary that has a well-established doctrinal statement–then you can expect to be asked a variety of questions about how your views line up with that statement, and what your positions are about related hot-button topics (e.g., historical Adam, authority of Scripture).

Since Ph.D. students have been immersed in academic circles for a number of years, they tend to answer these questions in the same manner they would deal with scholarly debates.  In the scholarly world it is very normal to express agnosticism over certain topics, or to straddle the fence between opposing positions, or to withhold judgment until more research can be done, etc.

Unfortunately, this sort of methodology doesn’t work the same when applied to a confessional situation where core doctrinal views are being discussed. It’s one thing to be agnostic over whether you date Mark’s Gospel to 50 A.D. or 70 A.D. (a scholarly debate) but its another thing to be agnostic about whether you believe in substitutionary atonement (a key confessional issue).

6. Show an interest in the church, not just the academy.  This is a biggie. Seminaries are different than universities in precisely this way–there’s an ecclesiological/ministry dimension to what we do. So, we are not interested in hiring only scholars, but also people who have a love for the church.  We are looking for pastor-scholars.  We want to know about church involvement, denominational activity, engagement in preaching, etc.

This doesn’t mean all seminary professors have to be ordained pastors (though that is ideal).  But it does mean that all seminary professors should have a love for, and interest in, the church.

7. Get to know those interviewing you.  There are a lot of factors that go into a decision to hire someone.  But, a major factor is just whether this individual is someone we would like to spend time with and get to know.  In other words, there is a relational dimension to any interview process.  So, make your interview more than about downloading data.  Find a way to interact on a more personal level.

Now, I know this is complicated.  Professors are not the most relational folks (on either side of the table).  Nor do you want to come across as overly “chummy” in a formal interview situation.  But, do your best to get to know those interviewing you on a personal level.  Show that you could be an enjoyable and interesting part of the professorial team.

Needless to say, these seven things are only part of the equation.  There are many more things that could be said.  But, hopefully they can prove advantageous for those Ph.D. students who are in the job hunt for a seminary post.

And perhaps the final word is simply this.  Ph.D. students, we are for you.  We have a special place in our hearts for folks in this tricky stage of life.  Whether our answer is yes or no in regard to the job, it is definitely yes in regard to your calling.

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