How to get a(n academic) job: Interviews

UPDATE: I’ve now (October 2014) posted a Storify with comments and further thoughts on this topic – please continue to share your thoughts in the comments section here or on twitter, and I’ll continue to update it. (Updated again October 2015.)

This is a sequel to my post a couple of months ago about making job applications: what happens if it works and you get an interview? Interviews are always frightening and almost always annoying. That said, there are things you can do to make the experience better, and even improve your chances of getting the job.

Preparation

Here there’s good advice, as ever, from the Guardian: in particular, talk to others about their experiences, and do your research on the university, department or research project – in the latter case, I’d add, look carefully and even critically at the approaches and methodologies the project uses and read its publications.

Think about possible gaps in your application (breadth of teaching, rate of publication, too specialised or not specialised enough), and if you feel you score poorly on any of the published criteria prepare for enquiries on those points in particular.

And then there are the predictable questions: some version of ‘why do you want this job?’ is a very frequent opener, and I’ve enjoyed ‘how did you prepare for this interview?’ Be ready with the elevator pitch description of your thesis and/or current research project: 1-2 minutes on what it is, what it does and why it matters. Have a few ideas ready of specific courses you’d like to teach (ideally at different levels: a first-year lecture course, a senior-level undergraduate class, a graduate seminar) – but make sure you know how teaching works at this institution, and how much input into the syllabus faculty have. In the US (and perhaps elsewhere?) be ready for questions about what textbook you’d use, especially for language teaching.

One thing that makes a huge difference is practice – preferably with someone who is familiar with the process from one side of the table or the other. In an ideal world departments would organise practice interview sessions for all their graduate students and post-docs; in reality you may have to call in some favours from friendly faculty, but it never hurts to ask.

Don’t worry too much about what to wear: committees only notice if it is very noticeable, which you want to avoid – so no bright colours, no jeans, no comedy ties, no eye-catching jewellery, nothing too high or low or transparent. (I know transparent sounds unlikely, but I’ve been there.) A good rule of thumb is to wear something you’d imagine wearing on a smart day on the job – and if you aren’t sure then no one minds people wearing a suit to an interview.

One last thing: if you have to do a skype interview – and if you possibly can avoid it, do – make sure that there is nothing of any interest behind you. Plants are okay, for some reason, pictures aren’t. Avoid in particular, as I once saw, a half-open door…

In the Room

Act like a colleague not a student. Even if you feel a bit awed by the people interviewing you (or some of them at least), if you get the job then in a few months time you’ll be sitting beside them. Convey your competence, friendliness and your enthusiasm about the job without coming across as presumptuous or a lunatic. It’s good to demonstrate knowledge of the department; refrain from expressing unsolicited opinions about it.

Answer the question asked. Finish your sentences. Look out for signs that people are trying to get in: don’t rely on them to interrupt, or the chair to stop you on their behalf. Don’t get defensive. Don’t cross your arms. Don’t rock back and forth. Talk to everyone around the table, and remember that some of them probably aren’t specialists – so, for instance, give dates as well as ‘Song Dynasty’ or ‘Second Kingdom’ – and always remember the ‘e allora?’ question: why does what you do matter beyond the small group of people who do it too?

Don’t be surprised if the questioning seems a bit impersonal: panels often agree (or are told) to ask all the candidates the same questions. And even though everyone in the room has no doubt read every application with great care, it may have been a few weeks ago when the shortlisting meeting was looming. So if a question you are asked was in fact answered on p17 of your CV, resist the temptation to point this out.

If they ask you if you’ll teach a certain course, say yes. If they ask you if you’ll accept the job if you are offered it, say yes. If they ask if you have questions, the only question you have is ‘when will I hear?’ Real questions about the job can wait until they offer it to you.

Presentations

The requirements for presentations differ so much that it is impossible to give blanket advice – an American ‘job talk’ is basically a research presentation of the sort you’d give if you were invited to a departmental seminar at another university (although people will also use it to judge you as a communicator in a teaching context); a British ‘teaching presentation’ is usually supposed to be demonstrating your ability to engage second year undergraduates on a fairly central topic, ideally one unrelated to your research (but expect research-level questions from committee members, especially if they haven’t managed to round up many, or any, real live undergraduates). In both cases, though, you’ll be talking to some people who don’t know much about what you are talking about: keep it clear, straightforward and accessible, with a bit of glitter from time to time to please the specialists.

Campus Visits

It’s getting less common at my own university to demand that candidates for a job come to dinner (together) as well, but in the US if you get through the longlist/convention interview stage to a campus visit, you’ll end up facing a lot of people over lunch, dinner and coffee. Enjoy yourself, find out as much as you gently can about the institution and the programme, especially from the graduate students, and don’t drink more than two glasses of wine at a time.

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3 thoughts on “How to get a(n academic) job: Interviews

  1. Pingback: Applying for academic jobs | sophiecoulombeau

  2. Pingback: How to get a(n academic) job: career development | JCQ

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