Thursday, May 27, 2010

Interviewing (from the perspective of a job seeker)

My first year on the market, I had 2 interviews. In my field, interviews are 2 day affairs that consist of a research seminar, individual meetings with faculty in the department, a presentation of research plans (sometimes formal, sometimes not), and several meals. Sometimes there are meetings with students, sometimes not. I had ABSOLUTELY no idea of what to expect on my first interview. I went in armed only with my schedule and zero pre-knowledge of what to expect and what to do. Coming from outside academia, this was a major disadvantage.

The interviews themselves were completely exhausting. After, I was really, really tired (and had to burn all my vacation to interview). You can find general interview tips all over. My main one is to drink something every time someone offers you something--you will dehydrate quickly with all the talking you are doing. My minor one is to remember that most academics are not trained in how to interview. Because of this, they may not know what to do other than to talk about their science. You don't want to have awkward silences. Think about things you want to know about working at the department, and ask. Most people are happy to answer questions. You can (and sometimes it is instructive to) ask the same question of everyone. If all else fails, ask about their research or their group.

I didn't get either job. Against the received wisdom, I asked the search committee chairs for feedback, and I actually got lots of very specific advice that really helped me out in my next job season. So how did that happen?

1. Ask for feedback on how to improve/advice on how to be a better candidate. DO NOT ask why you didn't get the job or anything about the deliberations or the other candidate.

2. Do not put the SCC on the spot. I asked for feedback via email, and was invited to call both SCC chairs to talk about it later.

3. Be sincere. If you are angry, annoyed, or can't take constructive criticism well don't bother.

What did I learn? The best piece of advice was a reminder NOT to make sarcastic or ironic offhand remarks. I did this once, and it came up when I was discussed as a candidate. This was totally a rookie mistake, but it is a common one!

Most important to me, I got good feedback on how a job talk should be organized and presented. This is one bit of mentoring I really lacked, since it is hard to do without face to face contact. I found out that I had prepared my research talk too narrowly. I highlighted one really important story from my research experience. This was not enough. You need to show depth AND breadth. This was the biggest change I made in my next go-round. Another issue was that I came across as inexperienced in running a lab and in understanding how much things cost because my wishlist for startup seemed incomplete. I did a complete overhaul my second time on the market. Last, I did not have enough details worked out for some of my proposed projects. This I definitely fixed!

Things I wasted time on:
1. Spending lots of time preparing to discuss teaching. This was absolutely not an issue. Later on, someone told me that the teaching evaluation at a research school is the job talk. If you can give a good one, you can teach.

2. Trying to learn about the research interests of everyone in the department in advance. Everyone likes to talk about their work, and no one who is far from your area of expertise expects you to know theirs. The Internet made me paranoid about this one. Don't bother.

3. Worrying about details I couldn't or wouldn't change in my personal life. I was really worried about what to do if people asked about my family, whether to talk about it at all, etc. What I found is that people talked about science (mostly) in the one on one meetings, but talked about the local area and/or small talk about life in general at the meals. To avoid discussion of my personal life would have been stilted and impossible for me (I am not very good at redirection). Above all, I failed to remember that I was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me. After I didn't get both jobs the first time around, I wondered about whether any of this made a difference. But then I decided I didn't care. If I wouldn't have been hired if the department knew I was married, I don't want the job. It isn't like I am going to hide my personal life forever once I arrive!

In year 2, I had 10 interviews (declined 1) and received 3.5 offers (one was verbal, but I pulled out before any written offer arrived) before I accepted a job. I still don't know why I got so many more interviews the second time around after making only small revisions to my application package. I am assuming it was a right place/right time thing. That said, I definitely nailed the interviews the second time around, mostly due to having more experience and getting good feedback on how to improve.

I will admit that I sometimes surf on over to the departments that didn't hire me to see how "my competition" is doing. I find myself doing a lot less of this now that my own lab is up and running.

Next topic: Interviewing (from the perspective of a search committee member)


  1. Great post! I am sure it will be very useful for job-seekers. Nice bit about changing your application and talk; it's great (very brave!) that you sought and received feedback from the employers...

    How much time did they give you to think about offers? I got between 1 week and 2 weeks only.

  2. Very helpful post! Thanks!
    One question: after one get an offer in Academia, is there any negotiation or PhDs are so desperate to get a job that they just accept whatever is offered?
    And if there is negotiation, how it is done?

  3. Thanks for the comments! PhD, there is definitely negotiation involved--I will post on this issue soon.