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A peek at the interview process for doctoral students seeking counseling faculty positions

Kathleen Smith December 14, 2012

(Photo:Flickr/bpsusf)

From the moment he stepped off the plane, Tyler Wilkinson knew he had to be ready. Ready to have a meaningful conversation in the car on the way to campus, ready to engage at a faculty dinner meeting and ready to field questions from potential future colleagues during a marathon interview day commencing at 7 the next morning.

Ask any candidate for a counseling faculty position to describe the job interview process, and you are likely to get the same response: exhausting. “It was exhausting in the sense that you always have to be ‘on,’ and you’re always trying to stay focused on interacting with the person in front of you,” says Wilkinson, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Yet at the same time, you’re anticipating what is coming up next.” A faculty member at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Counseling, Wilkinson ran the gauntlet of interviews this past spring as he was completing his Ph.D. at Auburn University.

Doctoral students looking for counseling faculty positions are often advised to consider how the timing of their arrival will affect their preparation. Interviewees might be rushed or exhausted from an early morning flight, but those arriving a day ahead of time might face an anxious night of tossing and turning. “I flew in the day before, which is good in one sense because it allows you to prepare,” says Joel Filmore, a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University and a member of ACA. “But for someone like me, it just created 24 hours of anxiety building up to the daylong interview. I tried to use that time to relax and reflect and work on my presentation, to make it more polished.”

With interviews often reduced to a single day, candidates face a gauntlet of meetings with several deans, department chairs, faculty members, administrators and students. And beyond the numerous rounds of questioning, they are expected to present and defend their own unique research, teach a course to unfamiliar students and socialize with future colleagues at several meals. “The day physically and mentally drains you because you don’t really know what anyone is thinking the whole time,” Wilkinson says. “You’re trying to get a sense of their thoughts, but everybody’s trying to make a good impression.”

Recently having faced an entire day of half-hour interviews, Filmore recalls a challenge he hadn’t been anticipating — hearing the same questions again and again. “They have to ask all the candidates the same questions so they’re not showing favoritism, and I wasn’t prepared for that. But it made it much easier by the second or third group of people I was meeting with, because I already had a framed answer for them. The challenge, I think, is to make it sound fresh, as opposed to being a canned response.”

More so than other faculty interviewees, counselor education candidates are also called to reflect on nonacademic experiences and their potential contribution to a career in academia. Wilkinson advises candidates to reflect on the interaction between teaching and clinical experiences — a question these candidates may very well be asked by an interviewer. “They’re not only interested in your teaching and scholarship,” he says. “There’s a piece of being able to speak to your clinical experiences, so consider questions about approaches to counseling in addition to teaching approaches. How does your teaching influence your counseling, and vice versa?”

Perhaps the most underutilized audience during the interview process, however, is the students themselves. Most counseling faculty candidates are given the opportunity to interact with students through teaching a class or during a scheduled meeting time. Filmore emphasizes that this opportunity should not be overlooked. “You want to have that experience to see how the students interact with faculty, but also, how do they experience somebody new? These are counseling students, so are they able to adapt to new situations?”

Another recommendation is to take full advantage of any brief moments of respite. “Anytime you’re offered a bathroom break, take it,” Wilkinson advises. “Even if you don’t have to use the bathroom, it’s your own little space saved for a moment to recollect your thoughts and take a deep breath.”

“I literally went out to the parking lot, got in the rental car, turned on the car, put on the air conditioning and just sat there for that whole half hour decompressing,” says Filmore, reflecting on one lengthy interview day.

Although no amount of practice can completely prepare a candidate for the interview process, doctoral counseling students are advised to take advantage of programs offered by their universities. Wilkinson attributes much of his own readiness to the Preparing Future Faculty Program at Auburn, which taught him about “the other side” of being a faculty member — “not just teaching and research, but faculty governance, the job search process, how to write a competitive vita and what to know about the interview process,” he says.

Doctoral counseling students also have exposure to the interview process through their own departments, which may be interviewing new faculty members. Seeing the process at work and bouncing observations off of faculty members can be an invaluable step in learning the interview game.

But for those who are in the thick of the interview process, the most pressing and perhaps the most challenging bit of advice is to stay composed and not to stress, despite the exhaustion they will likely experience. “There is a clear delineation between those programs that ‘fit’ you and those that do not,” Filmore says. “For the programs that fit, [the process] is almost effortless, so all the worry will be for nothing.”

Kathleen Smith is a certified rehabilitation counselor and a doctoral counseling student at George Washington University. She is also a regular contributor to the Counseling Today website. Contact her at ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

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