The Academic Interview

I have recently been getting to know the academic interview or “job talk” very well, as I search for an amenable position to begin in the late summer/early fall. I also have learned from the questions of friends and family that this is a somewhat unusual and unknown process, so I thought I’d break it down for you.

As with many jobs, academics start with some sort of job application. The specifics vary, but in general for postdocs I have been asked for a copy of my curriculum vitae (CV, a more academic version of a resume); the names and contact information for three references (I use my PhD advisor, co-advisor, and a collaborator from my dissertation committee); a cover letter; and a brief statement of research interests and/or proposed research.

Then a variety of hurdles must be crossed. Not everyone adheres to all of them, but in general the order is:

  1. Someone reads your cover letter, CV, and proposed research statement. If they feel that you are a strong candidate, they contact your referees for letters of recommendation.
  2. If your letters pass muster, you may be contacted for an interview via skype or telephone.
  3. Finally, if you are doing really well, you are invited to give a job talk.
  4. At this point (and possibly also before) a committee meets to discuss your merits compared with other candidates. They select a first choice, and make them an offer. If the first choice declines, they move on to their 2nd ranked candidate, etc.
  5. If you are lucky (VERY lucky in these days of limited funding for science) you have multiple offers and can use them to try to leverage more funds or a more flexible work schedule from your first choice.

The main interview I’m referring to in this post is the ‘job talk.’ I get the impression my friends in other fields that their interviews are scheduled events in which they dress up in a suit, visit a climate-controlled location, and answer questions from a committee for 30-75 minutes before being excused. The job talk is quite different.

Academics are wonderful people, but tend to organize these things at the last minute. You set up the date and time and arrange your travel to the institution. Usually the hosting institution pays for you, but not always. If it is particularly far away you may need to spend a night or two in a hotel.

About 0.25-24 hours before you arrive, you will be given a schedule of the day’s events. This consists of tightly packed meetings with as many scientists and researchers as possible at the institution to discuss one another’s research, some kind of lunch meeting, and a scheduled talk. Here is a sample schedule from my interview at Princeton/GFDL:

(Lauren – wake up at 5:30, drive to metro station, take metro to union station in downtown DC to get on Amtrak northbound at 7:20am)
9:46am pickup at Trenton Station
10:30 – Scientist Meeting 1
11:00 – Scientist Meeting 2
11:30 – Scientist Meeting 3
12:00 – Lunch with Scientist 1 & 4
1:00 – Scientist Meeting 5
1:30 – Head to seminar location
2:00 – Seminar – “Oceanographic Controls on Coral Reef Habitats in
Present and Future Climates” (given by me)
3:00 – Scientist Meeting 6
3:30 – Scientist Meeting 7
4:00 – Scientist Meeting 8 (Phew! at least this is someone I went to grad school with!)
4:45 – drop-off at Trenton Station
(arrive in Union Station DC at 8pm. Metro and drive. Hope to arrive home by 9:15 so that I can kiss my kiddo goodnight)

Since you are traveling to this place, you spend that time googling each individual on the list so you know what they look like, what their general field is, and what they have recently been publishing on. (This is especially important if you have never heard of them before.) I must note that Amtrak is great for this as you have spacious accommodations, free wifi, outlets for charing, and access to a snack cart with coffee.

The entire day is an interview. While it is best to appear relaxed, intelligent, and entertaining, you (should be!) constantly thinking in the back of your head – this person will get to vote on whether or not I get a position here. Make sure that they know it would be foolish to vote no. The meetings will focus on science, but topics can range from microbreweries to family life to fine literature. You don’t have to study these things ahead of time, but you may have to discuss them with some degree of charisma. Scientists love debates and analytically solving problems, so healthy disagreement is great – just be prepared to back up your claim. (For example, I am willing to point out unsustainable seafoods offered on a restaurant menu at the lunch event.)

The schedule is quite tightly packed (see above). You are unlikely to have a reasonable number of chances to go to the bathroom, fill your water bottle, or get a much needed coffee since you woke up at 5:30 am to meet with these people. If you see even the tiniest opportunity or someone frees you early – take it. Even if you just went to the bathroom 45 minutes ago, go again, and at least take the 2 minutes to yourself to regroup.

The talk is either the best or worst part depending on how you look at it. For about 45 minutes, you are allowed to speak uninterrupted about yourself and your research. For about 45 minutes, everyone is staring at you and you must be careful to not say ‘um’ or play with your hair. This is an excellent time to be confident and engaging. The talk itself is usually adapted from one you gave in the past. I started with my PhD defense talk and have made several spin-offs since. No two talks are identical, but once you have the pieces to work from it isn’t that hard to put it together. The delivery is key. After the talk, you don’t have to spend half of each meeting explaining what you do, and of course you will be more relaxed.

The job talk day is different to a classic interview. You certainly want to look presentable, but most academic institutions don’t expect you to wear a suit (I don’t – but I do switch out my everyday flip-flops for flats). Your demeanor and your science are the two most important factors. The meeting rooms may be hot, cold, small, dark, or really nice – but almost never a polished conference room with aircon running and a large fancy wooden table in the middle. You may have to walk up and down hills or stairs (this was a particularly big deal at Scripps – I remember feeling terrible for visiting scientists as I led them up and down ‘the hill’ along the 300 meter high sea cliff). Finding the locations of meetings is almost impossible if you don’t already have familiarity with the complex, so always ask for help. Instead of feeling scrutinized, there is a much warmer, welcoming feeling. Often scientists engage you with tales of how much they love their institution and how much you will also love it there. Because the truth is, you are interviewing them too. This full day process gives you a very real chance to learn who you would be working with and what science life is like at this new place. You get the sense that it is a low-key private club. If you leave thinking that everyone wanted you to join and also feeling that you would like to join, you have done well.

Finally, the wait time on this whole process can be REALLY long.  I still have pending applications that I submitted last October. So rest assured, I will be letting you know when I have accepted an offer. I am far more anxious about this than you are!


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