Not that Kind of Candidate: Tales from the Interview Gauntlet
In my last post, I discussed what you can do to prepare for your first interview, but what does the interview entail? Here, I have compiled my experiences, as well as those of my fellow tenure track academic job-seekers. As always, n=me and a few of my friends.
General outline: You will usually arrive the evening before your interview day and there may or may not be a dinner with the Chair or other faculty that night. The next day or two will be spent meeting with faculty in the department and sometimes trainees. You will give your research talk, and perhaps a chalk talk. At the end of your interviews, the Chair or a search committee member will shake your hand, thank you for coming, utter the dreaded words “we will be in touch in the next couple weeks,” and send you home.
Number of candidates: Departments usually invite four to six candidates to interview. Sometimes this translates into two people interviewing for the position, and sometimes all six. Most departments aim to keep the interviews as close together as possible, say a week apart. Of course, this can drag out longer. A small subset of departments brings in all candidates on the same day.
One-on-one interviews: You will have a number of one-on-one interviews with faculty. The meeting numbers vary—we met with six to twenty faculty during interviews. Here you will discuss your research, their research, resources, and life in the department. These are all interviews, so regardless of how comfortable you feel, keep it professional.
Meeting with trainees: You may be scheduled for a lunch with graduate students and/or postdocs. Talk to them about their research, ask them about their courses, and offer answers to career-related questions. They will report back to the search committee, so make a good impression. This is also your opportunity to gain insight into the department from the perspective of trainees.
Research talk: This is your standard research talk (50 minute talk, 10 minutes for questions) about the wonderful work you have done as a postdoc or fellow. This is your time to highlight your research and how it fits into the department. It will also serve as a set-up for your subsequent chalk talk, either the next day or the next visit.
The dreaded chalk talk: The chalk talk is an hour long presentation/discussion of your future research plans, presented to a room full of faculty. Occasionally trainees are invited as well. Expect plenty of questions and interruptions. Most of the time, people are excited and asking questions because they are interested and want to see how you think. In case of a jerk, keep your cool. Answer their questions as best you can, try to stay on message, or see if they have a solution to the problem they have raised. Either way, this is all part of the interview, so remain firm but respectful and present your research plan with confidence.
The art of the dinner: There will be a dinner with faculty one evening. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security—this is still part of the interview. The faculty are trying to figure you out as a candidate, gauge your interest level, and determine how you will fit into the department. During the dinner, the conversation will meander towards your personal life/illegal interview question territory. More often than not these questions are innocent, i.e. questions about kids are usually followed by school district recommendations. Sometimes questions are not innocent, and other times, even if innocent, their answer can play into the decision making process. When faced with these questions, our cohort was split between response strategies. Some of us replied honestly while others were less forthcoming with the truth. You can limit these questions by focusing on your dining companions’ research interests, hobbies, or favorite local activities.
Meeting with the Chair: Your last meeting will be with the Chair of the department. The Chair will ask about your visit, what you think of the department, and if you have any questions. This is the time to ask about the tenure clock, teaching load, facilities, and maybe even what amount of your salary you are expected to cover from grants. This is NOT the time to ask about your lab space, your start-up, relocation, etc. Focus on questions that demonstrate your undying interest in the department. Questions about lab space, relocation, and start-up are best reserved for the second visit.
A note on thank you notes: Send out “thank you” emails a day or two after your interview. These should include all the faculty you met and the support staff that helped coordinate your day. Other than being the norm, these emails reinforce your interest in the department and its faculty.
Now that you have survived your first interview, the waiting game commences. Again, the search committee will put the rest of the selected applicants through the interview gauntlet and then invite their top candidate for a second interview. While you wait, keep applying for additional positions. There are no guarantees during the academic job search, so until you have a signed offer letter, keep applying. In my next post, I will discuss the second interview, or more accurately, the second visit. Stay tuned for more tales!
Still have questions? More confused than when you started? Need to vent about the process? Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org