How to Interview the Hell Out of Academic Job Candidates

One of my favorite parts of being a faculty member is interviewing students, fellows and future faculty members. For reasons that elude my tiny Fighty Squirrel brain, folks think if you are a female and people liked you when they interviewed, it means you are nice. I’m not particularly nice. Ask my kids. What I am is exceptionally helpful. I ask good questions and have pretty keen powers of observations which have landed me some really good colleagues and outfreakingstanding lab members.

My ID photo from when I was on the job market after my post doc. I thought I was pretty chill.

My ID photo from when I was on the job market after my post doc. I thought I was pretty chill.

Make no mistake, interviewing is hard work. Academics are weird birds. Often the brightest minds come with a plethora of odd social quirks ranging from goofy-nerdiness to full on grandiose thinking. It is painfully difficult to have to hire someone from a pile of folks who aren’t behaving according to social conventions when you only have 30 minutes to talk with them. How do you know if the person you interview or take out to dinner will a fantastic member of your department or the someone you have to duck into the autoclave room to avoid when you see them coming down the hall? 

Here’s a couple protips for that may help you get to the answers you about people when time is a wasting. 


  1. Toss softballs/blather. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Anyone can act normal for 30 minutes. Well, almost anyone.
  2. Spend too much time asking about technique. Yes, they made neurons that emit glitter, but chill. Candidates aren’t there to solve the ‘innovation’ problem you keep getting hung up on when writing grants. (Although the glitter is pretty fabulous)
  3. Make your university hire any more lawyers than necessary. Skip the illegal stuff like asking about if folks are married, what religion they are, if they will marry you…stuff like that. Check here for more on that.
  4. Try to get the ‘inside scoop’ or some slimey gossip on another university/department. It’s gross and you’ll look like a jerk. Stay in your lane, folks.
  5. Be hilarious. Feel free to ask the Squirrel sometime about the dood who interviews science candidates and “loosens up” interviewees by demanding to know when the Battle of Bulge took place. Sigh. Yeah…did I mention the weird bird thing?


  1. Be kind. It is stressful as all get out to interview for jobs. There aren’t enough academic positions and these folks have their whole lives up in the air right now. Smile. Give them water. Ask if they need to use the restroom first. Thank them for meeting with you. Manners. They matter.
  2. Accept all invitations to interview faculty candidates. I shall repeat for those of you just screamed ‘Are you kidding?! I have no time to do anything!!’. Yes, I said accept all requests to interview faculty candidates. You don’t know who is initiating this contact….it could be a committee or the candidate and 30 minutes is nothing to sacrifice to get a sense of the person who may turn out to be your new best academic friend.
  3. Make sure that the search committee is doing their due diligence. Have they gotten letters of recommendation that they are following up on with phone calls? Are they asking questions to ensure that the candidate has no pending Title IX, faculty disciplinary, ethical or other disciplinary hearings or previous findings when they were sanctioned? Yeah…they should be doing that so you don’t need to worry about it and you can kill the dreaded ‘whisper net’ of finding out who’s a mensch and who’s a monster.
  4. Keep a ‘go file’ you can hand off to job candidates. The Fighty Squirrel’s ‘go file’ has a copy of my lab’s two big papers from the last two years (one clinical and one basic science), a tiny faculty bio about me, a page that my lab has put together about things we love in our town and a campus map. I slap a business card in there and an Oatmeal cartoon about stress and suddenly everyone wants to be the Fighty Squirrel’s new best friend. To be fair, it’s a pretty awesome gig.
  5. Make sure you know who is collecting comments and transporting the job candidate. There is no bummer like your meeting time being over and having no idea where to take someone or who you should write to share your comments with about the interview. Your interview is meaningless unless you share your insights with someone doing the hiring.
  6. Keep the science in the science forum. Whenever possible, I like to ask questions about candidate’s work when they give their talks. This gives speakers a chance access extra slides they may have at the end of their presentations in case the topic you are thinking of came up, lets folks stay on point, shows you’re engaged and gives you a strong sense of how they think on their feet. Protip: Administrative staff are your best friends here. Encourage them to have the speaker give their talk early in their visit and, after you drop off stickers and cookies every couple weeks to these folks, be sure you let them know you really appreciate being offered a slot after a candidate talk).
  7. Grab the bull by the horns and ask, “What do you think the next big challenge is in securing funding and communicating/translating this data to the public health?” “Who do you need to work with on campus to make your program top tier?” That kind of stuff.
  8. Put the Tone Police on Guard. I keep a mental tally of how folks are talking about their field, their colleagues and trainees. Were they bashing their post doc lab, sniping about a meeting organizer or generally being a sour pickle? I don’t want snarky colleagues. Hilarious, resourceful and brilliant, yes, but biting, pessimistic and generally grumpy? Not interested. We are all filled up in crazy town, so move along.
  9. Include a Personnel Czar on the List of Folks Interviewees Meet With: Universities are overrun with administrators and they don’t do a darn thing but make forms I keep forgetting to turn in. KIDDING!! Not about the forgetting to turn in forms because zOMG…I’m awful! They do a lot! These folks are way more normal than scientists. They don’t wonder if they have time to take a break to pee, draw on their faces near daily, and they dress like grown ups on the regular. In addition to these mind boggling skills, these gurus of normal will be able to help your hiring team figure out if a candidate can balance a budget, understands the hiarchy of your organization and be a fantastic point person for questions about wardrobe, forms and bathroom breaks.

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1 Comment

“Feel free to ask the Squirrel sometime about the dood who interviews science candidates by ‘loosening up’ interviewees by demanding to know when the Battle of Bulge took place.”

How do candidates respond? You know, in case I run into that guy.

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