preparing for the academic job search: interview

Once you receive an invitation to the interview, send a polite email thanking the department head/search committee chair (whichever invited you for the interview) and ask for any pertinent details about your job presentation, chalk talk details if there is one, or any other details you feel are necessary to prepare for the interview. Some institutions might invite you for a pre-interview via teleconferencing. If this is the case, ask for details: how long the interview is, who will be present, what your presentation should involve, what the next steps are.

You will mostly be communicating with an administrative assistant who will be there to help organize your trip. Make sure you are polite and present yourself well; you will be surprised how many search committees ask administrative assistants for their opinion on the candidate (we certainly do).

You will be asked for an abstract, bio and picture to advertise your talk; take time to prepare an inviting and exciting abstract. Send a high-quality picture.

You should expect to receive your schedule a few days before the interview, though last-minute changes are possible. Study the schedule both from the point of view of logistics (do you know where to go and how you will get there) as well as people you will meet. Do your homework ahead of time and learn about the research and responsibilities of those you will meet. This will give you an opportunity to craft a conversation around potential common threads.

If you know personally anyone in the department, reach out to them for tips and pointers.

Day of the interview

The interview is an opportunity for both the department to get to know you as well as for you to get to know the department; you should approach it in that spirit.

Logistics

If possible, you should get a good night’s sleep before the interview. Coming in tired and cranky will not help you; research shows that even moderate sleep deprivation reduces your cognitive abilities (and they have to be super sharp on the day of your interview).

Plan on what you are going to wear ahead of time; have backup plan in case of accidents (food and drink stains). Aim for professional, clean and comfortable and something that you are used to wearing; if your interview is the first time you are wearing a particular outfit, you will get distracted. Wear comfortable shoes, you will be on your feet a lot. Make sure there are no stains, your outfit is not wrinkled and polish your shoes. You only have one chance to make a first impression.

If you have special needs or a disability, make sure you ask for accommodations during your interview; these are best handled through the administrative assistant.

You will be typically picked up from your hotel/airport and taken to campus. In rare instances, you will be just given the address where to show up. Ahead of time (not the morning of), check the map and how long it takes to get there; print the map or save the address on your smartphone. Plan for inclement weather by asking the hotel to arrange for a cab. Arrive 15 min early so you have time to stop by the restroom and compose yourself.

Legal versus discriminatory questions

You should be aware of what the legal versus discriminatory questions are (see University of Michigan Handbook, p. 8). Should you receive such a question, you may try some of the following tips on how to handle the situation:

  • Try redirecting the question back to the interviewer. For example, if the interviewer asks you whether you have children, you may say “It seems that children are important to you, tell me about yours.” Or, redirect to discussing the position you are applying for, “It is interesting you mention children because I am passionate about sharing my knowledge with students.”
  • If this does not work and the interviewer persists, you may say “I am curious about his questions because I am unsure how my family/age/etc are related to this position.”
  • If neither of the above approaches work, you can simply say that you prefer not to answer the question.

Interview with the department head/search committee chair

Chances are you will be meeting either with the department head or chair of the search committee at some point during the visit. This is one of the most important meetings you will have. While the department head/chair of the search committee is only one person, he/she has considerable influence. You want to make sure you have done your research on the department/institution and ask pointed questions that tie the current and future state of the department to your research. If the department has a published strategic plan, make sure you read it; spend some time studying the web for areas of strategic focus, teaching innovation, student engagement, etc.

The department head will typically cover the following in the meeting with you so be prepared to ask questions: overview of the department (strategic thrusts, interdisciplinary research, curriculum, etc), promotion and tenure process, research/fundraising expectations, teaching expectations, service expectations, your needs in terms of a startup fund.

You should end the meeting thanking the person for his/her time. If that meeting is the closing meeting of your interview, you should inquire on when you may expect to hear from the committee. If this is not the closing interview, you can do that in the follow-up thank you email.

Interview with individual faculty members

More and more institutions are providing interview scripts to faculty members so that the search committee can fairly compare one candidate to another.

Here are example questions you may be asked (for more details, see JoAnn Moody, Faculty Diversity: Removing the Barriers, RoutledgeFalmer Press, 2012 and C. Porath, How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee, Harvard Business Review, February 3, 2016):

  • Tell us specifically why you would be an asset for our department.
  • What connections do you see yourself making in the department, at the university, and outside, to be successful?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Who are the main players in the field where you aim to be a leader?
  • Recall a successful collaborative project you undertook in the past couple of years; what was your role in the project? Did you encounter any problems? How did you resolve them?
  • Tell us how your teaching has evolved over the past few years? (for a more junior candidate) Tell us what you have learned in your teaching/mentoring experiences?
  • We are interested in how you have mentored and inspired undergraduate and graduate students, in particular women and URM.
  • Tell us how you deal with colleagues you disagree with.

In many meetings, the format will be more informal and the faculty member can ask you to tell him/her something about your research. You may then discover that you have interesting threads in common; follow up on these by asking questions and showing interest in the research area of the interviewer. Use what you have learned ahead of time through your research to comment or inquire about a specific research direction.

Interview with students

You may still be a student while interviewing so you know how smart they are. They cut through a façade pretty quickly, so make sure you connect with students on a human level and ask them questions about the department. Inquire about their experiences and be on the lookout for students who seem unhappy and unsupported in the department; this could be a red flag. Ask about their research and plans after school and show enthusiasm for mentoring and teaching.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Remember, all interactions with the people from the institution where you are interviewing are part of the interview. While events such as dinner(s) may be more relaxed and informal, this is not the time for that second glass of wine; you need to stay sharp and professional. These are opportunities for you to present yourself at a fuller scale, with interests that may range outside your professional life. It is also an opportunity for you to find out how the department functions, whether people seem to be friendly and supportive.

Interview talk

While the interview talk is only one element of the interview, it can ruin your chances if you do not do it well. Typically, the talk should be aimed at a broad audience; you should aim for 45 min to leave time for questions.

Ahead of the talk. As for everything else, organization and presentation are very important. Do not prepare your talk at the last minute, iterate and rehearse in front of others; your delivery will improve as you go through more interviews so pay particular attention to the early ones. Do not go too fast; aim for about 1-1.5 minutes per slide. Be ready with a laptop that is fully charged, have a charger, appropriate connector if needed and a backup presentation on a USB stick if something goes wrong. Have a remote presenter so you can move around while you speak.

Beginning. Thank the host institution, introduce yourself and acknowledge your co-authors. Practice ahead of time speaking at a reasonable pace; do not go too fast. Do not put hands in your pockets, use them for emphasis.

Content. Your talk should have elements of your research statement in it. The most important element to remember is “what, why, how”. In the talk, the first thirds (roughly 15 min) should be spent at a very general level that anyone no matter how removed from your area can understand and should clearly state your vision. You can do the what first (what the problem is that you are addressing) followed by the why (why is that important) or reverse by doing the why first (motivation, societal needs, potential impact) followed by the what (how this motivation and needs lead to the problem that you want to solve). If you lose your audience in the first five minutes you have failed.

The how portion of your talk should be thought in two ways: an overview of your work at a very high level, with perhaps a slide or two on each (say the second 15 minutes) and a deep dive into one of the areas (the last 15 minutes, aimed at experts); this last portion will allow you to demonstrate your technical expertise. You can preface this second part by saying “I will now give a broad overview of topics I covered in the past few years and will then spend some more time discussing XXX in detail.”

Make sure you acknowledge your co-authors and properly attribute prior work by name; err on the side of being generous.

You should orient your audience periodically. For example, “We have just seen why there is a critical need for XXX; I will now move onto the key components of building such a system.” Page numbers and displaying an outline periodically are also good reference points.

Conclude the talk by reiterating key points and potential directions and challenges. Thank the audience and invite them to ask questions.

Style. Here are a few useful tips (see the guide by our colleague Markus Püschel for more details):

  • Go for visual representation whenever possible; we are able to process visual and spoken information at the same time but the same is not true for written and spoken information. Minimize text whenever possible.
  • Create master pages with a basic layout that you will then use consistently. Do not overload slides, do not use too many colors (three maximum). Use two ways of emphasis (bold + italic, or italic + color, etc).
  • Use good guidelines for creating well-organized, informative slides; these pertain to alignment (left align whenever possible), contrast, use of white space, color, charts, etc (again refer to Püschel’s guide).

Chalk talk

Some institutions have instituted the so-called chalk talk, which is an informal gathering of interested faculty and gives you an opportunity to talk about your research, funding and teaching in a more relaxed atmosphere. Slides are not typically expected but can be used if you wish. Check with your host ahead of time what the expectations are.

After the interview

As soon as possible after the interview and no later than next day, send thank you emails to the department head (and any other administrative officials such as the dean), members of the search committee and all those you talked to; do not forget students and the administrative assistant who helped organize your trips.

This email should thank the person for the time he or she took to talk to you and should mention something specific you discussed during the meeting. If there is a follow up, make sure you mention you will do that or that you are looking forward to the follow up from that person.

You should end the email with “Looking forward to hearing from you,” (to the department head/search committee as appropriate) or “Looking forward to our potential collaboration,” (to other people you talked to).

useful links

(more to come)

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