Preparing for an academic Job Interview

We have recently gone through an extensive senior job search for a joint position and the questions we asked the candidates were fairly generic. But I remember my own early job interviews and how badly prepared I was for them, so I thought it might be of interest to list the questions we asked the candidates and the kind of responses panels are typically looking for. At a certain level these questions are obvious as soon as you put yourself in the shoes of the interview panel, and that would be my single biggest piece of advice. Imagine that you are on an interview panel looking for a colleague. What would you be looking for?

Forbes recently crunched recruiter questions down to three core issues:  “Can you do the job? Will you love the job? And can we tolerate working with you?” In the academic context, where permanent positions may see you working with the same colleague for 30 years, I think there is inevitably a little more emphasis on fit and personality (who wants to have to work with a rude genius for 30 years?) although it is important to remember that Universities have to be successful financially, so more and more, the ability to raise funding and to build a department’s profile are coming in as key criteria.

Anyway, here are the questions we asked, which I don’t think anyone will mind me disclosing here in the interest of aiding young scientists. Needless to say these are my own thoughts and different countries and fields may do things differently!

  1. Give a brief non-technical overview of your research, highlighting what you think are your main contributions. — Can you describe your research quickly and interestingly in a broad context? Can you convince someone from a totally different field that what you do is important? Did you really make a big contribution to the work or were you merely tagging along for the ride? The panel wants a leader who does important work. Academics usually hate this question because most hate self-promotion. What the panel usually wants is a middle-ground between over-selling and under-selling.
  2. Describe your research plans and how you see them contributing to what we already do — Do you have a vision for the next few years? Are you about to burst onto the scene with something big and exciting or are you just going to keep doing what you have been for the last few years? Then tell us how you will fit into what is done in our department. If you have not thought about this, have not done research into how you will fit, it doesn’t leave the panel particularly optimistic that you will make an engaging and interactive colleague.
  3. Briefly describe your involvement in international experiments and other collaborations — Admittedly this is more focussed on experimental candidates but theory would have an analogous question around international collaborations. At its core it is attempting to sound out whether your work is of international importance and whether you have an excellent research network. Both are critical for obtaining funding, graduating students and placing them in postdoc positions etc…
  4. Briefly describe your experience in supervising students, advising postdocs and managing large grants. How would you build and manage your research group? — Clearly this is more important for a senior position but evidence of supervision and management skills are very useful even for more junior positions. The panel is looking for good supervisors and managers since both are critical for success in most academic environments today.
  5. What is your current position and what motivated you to apply for this position? — Here is a chance to show that you are particularly interested in coming to this institution. Panels don’t want to hear “I am just trying to get a job anywhere, I am desperate!” or “I hate my current job. Anywhere has got to be better”. This goes to the fit question again. Panels would prefer someone who has done a lot of research about their institution. Part of it is simple vanity. Panels want to feel that their research and department is important. If you don’t know in depth what the department does, it’s like saying “I couldn’t be bothered to find out what you do because it isn’t important!”
  6. If offered the position when would you be able to start and are there any obstacles to you being able to take up the position? — Very much a practical question, be careful if you want to ask for a 12 month delay in the start date! On the other hand, if you don’t know the answer the panel may doubt whether you are serious about accepting the job if it were offered to you.
  7. Do you have any questions? —  It is always a good idea to have a couple of shorter questions. I once asked rather probing questions about the financial policy of the department which I now realise was sub-optimal because it was inappropriate at that time. It would be more appropriate after the offer. You want your questions to show the panel you have been thinking seriously about the job but not engender hostility!

Some questions that might not get asked to you directly, but which will probably be brought up by the panel when it discusses include: are you a leader? Will you diversify the research of the department enough or are you just adding to an existing strength? What new things will you bring to the group? Try to address these indirectly during your job talk or the interview itself.

It is important to remember that the job panel is often very diverse and often will have conflicts of interest. Each panel member may have their own favourite candidate or hidden agenda and claims that a researcher either brings nothing new or is too isolated are two of the most common ways of dismissing candidates.

I will close with a couple of general pieces of career advice that I have found useful. First, try to act as if you are already doing the job you are applying for. If you are an MSc student, act like you are doing a PhD, if doing the PhD, pretend you are a postdoc, as a postdoc act like a lecturer and so on. Of course I don’t mean in terms of arrogance, but rather in terms of attitudes to hard work, responsibility and independence. If you look like you are already doing the work, hiring you for the next step involves very little risk and that is very appealing.

Secondly, it is useful to think of the hiring process rather like investing on the stock market. When you buy shares do you simply look for the most expensive shares and buy those? No, you buy shares you think are going to be worth lots more in the future. So it is with hiring panels. They want a candidate who will be “worth” much more in the future (more for younger hires), or will bring significant kudos to the department (more for senior hires). It is important therefore to be aware of the derivative of your career. If it is fairly static in terms of publications, funding etc… at any stage you may struggle to get promoted to the next career stage, so be aware of this aspect and work on giving a rosy tint to your derivative!

I haven’t mentioned anything about reference letters. It is important to have three good letters of reference available at any time. This means networking. Note that it is probably better to have letters that are positive but from less well-known people than to have so-so letters from well-known people. If you think you might get a negative letter be very careful! A Nobel-prize laureate saying you are useless will completely sink your chances so don’t simply ask the most famous person around! One way to reduce this risk is to ask people if they would be willing to give you a positive letter of reference, rather than just a letter of reference.

Finally, learn from your experiences and be wise about what the academic market is telling you, e.g. your subject may be considered out-of-date and it might be time to change. However, don’t take it personally if you have a good application but don’t get an offer.  The final choice of successful applicant usually has relatively little to do with quality and is mostly about perceived excellence, fit and luck, so although it is hard not to be upset, don’t get depressed about it. Departmental politics can be notoriously complex and petty and this is often the key driving force. A variation on Sayre’s Law, often attributed to Henry Kissinger says “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

On the other hand, if you get an offer, realise that your power has increased enormously relative to what it was before the offer, despite the lack of a big sign to that effect. You should be willing to negotiate politely but firmly to get what you want. Academics are often terrible negotiators in my experience and will usually accept the first offer they receive to avoid rocking the boat. In fact a senior colleague of mine says he usually just directly asks the candidates what they want because they usually do themselves a disfavour by asking for so little!  If this sounds like you then I highly recommend investing in yourself and getting the book Tomorrow’s Professor for all sorts of career advice for academics. Actually, buy it before you apply.

About Bruce Bassett

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2 Responses to Preparing for an academic Job Interview

  1. telescoper says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Not ready yet to resume full-time blogging, but have enough internet access to reassure everyone that I am indeed still alive, and able at least to reblog this nice article giving advice to anyone preparing for an interview for an academic position….

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