by Kyaw Aung
Who knew job interviews would be so brutal fun?
If you are a graduate student or post doc, you might dream of becoming a professor at a research university some day. Do you know what it takes to get the job? This year, I was invited to a few research universities for on-site interviews. Although I had some idea about the job interview process, I was pretty much clueless regarding how to prepare. Going into the battlefield on your own is very challenging; so, I started with collecting information on-line and seeking advice from colleagues. Since I found this approach – tapping into my Community of Minds – extremely helpful in preparing, I would like to share my experience applying and interviewing for Assistant Professor positions with the hope that it might help you better prepare for your own interview.
Step 1: The Application
In general, an application packet includes the following documents:
- Cover letter
- Research statement (2-3 pages)
- Teaching statement (1 page)
- Previous research accomplishment (1 page)
- Diversity statement (1 page)
- Selected publications
The first five documents are standard for most searches. Occasionally, you will be asked to include the additional documents listed above. I would highly recommend that you have all documents prepared for different job applications. When preparing each document, make it clear and concise for the search committee. Remember, they will be reading through a whole pile of applications, so you want to stand out by highlighting your Big Ideas and Novel Approaches (for more on this, read “Writing that Standout Research Statement” and “PI Perspective: TPC’s Critical Evaluation of CVs”). After sending in applications, I heard back from the search committee around 1-2 months after the deadline posted on the job advertisement.
Step 2: Webbed/phone interview
If you make it to the short list, you will either be directly invited for an on-site interview or contacted to schedule a webbed/phone interview. To prepare for a smooth and successful webbed interview, you may want to find a nice and quiet place. I would highly recommend checking the proper function of your computer (Internet access, microphone, speaker, etc.) and printing out your application packet for easy access in case you need to pull out some information. For the webbed interviews, I was scheduled for a 30-minute meeting with the search committee. Here are a few questions I was asked during the interviews:
- My current research (also an elevator pitch to a general audience)
- The first hypothesis to test in my future lab
- My future research plans
- Potential funding sources
- My Teaching philosophy
- My Teaching interests
- My Mentoring philosophy
- Where do I see myself 5 years from now?
Although most of this information was included in my application packet, the committee still wanted me to tell them about these things during the interview. With this, they are evaluating your verbal communication skills and personality. After the webbed interview, I received an invitation for an on-site interview within a week.
Step 3: On-site interview
I was expected to be prepared for an on-site interview within 2-8 weeks after receiving the invitation. So, if you are actively seeking a job, you may want to have your job talk and chalk talk prepared in advance. For the visit, I was expected to be onsite for ~48 hours. In general, my schedules looked like this:
- Job talk
- Chalk talk
- Meet the faculty
- Meet the Dean
- Meals with faculty members
- Lunch with graduate students and post docs
- Exit interview
It was the most exciting and exhausting two-day event of my career, as I was given two days to impress the search committee and the faculty members.
Looking at the schedule, you may notice that it is extremely challenging to prepare for the interview. Luckily, you can fully control your job talk by delivering a perfect seminar. So, make sure you do your very best to give the best talk of your career. Here are a few tips:
- Present the Big Picture and concept of your work
- Know your audience and try to engage with them
- Do not go over your allotted time limit
- PRACTICE A LOT
When I was preparing for the talk, I practiced with two different crowds. I first rehearsed with my lab mates and a few colleagues in my field. Later, I practiced another round with a general audience. Input from two different crowds made a big impact on improving my job talk. Highly recommended!
The main purpose of a chalk talk is to show your ability in conducting scholarly research independently. In general, you are expected to talk about your first research proposal, funding strategies, mentoring philosophy and teaching interests. To prepare for this part, you should communicate with the chair of the search committee on the format. You may want to ask whether you are allowed to use PowerPoint or only the white board. Also, you may want to clarify whether you are expected to talk about your first proposal or your first 5-year research plan. Unlike the job talk, you don’t have full control over the presentation. While you do want active discussion during this talk, you also want to have a chance to communicate some key points. After a few practices with my colleagues, I decided to open this section with a well-rehearsed monologue. Basically, I took the first 5-10 minutes to articulate my vision, my short-term career goal, my potential funding sources, my strategies in running a successful lab, and my plans in becoming a great mentor and educator. To do this effectively, you must have your pitch polished to perfection!
Once I started talking about my specific research plans, the audience started asking super exciting questions from very different angles. As long as you know your proposed research well, you will be able to hold a lively discussion. The major goal here is to lead an intellectually stimulating discussion about the Big Ideas of your projects to see how well thought out they are. You don’t want to sound too arrogant, but avoid being overly humble also. Remember, this is the time for you to convince the committee that you are ready to lead a research team in making ground breaking findings in your field. The best way to prepare for this type of active discussion is to frequently engage in these types of conversations with your friends and colleagues over time. The more your ideas have been challenged and tested, the more refined they will be, and, therefore, the more comfortable and thoughtful your articulation and discussion of them will be.
Meet the faculty:
I was scheduled to meet with individual faculty for a 30-45 minute time slot. Because different faculty members have very different styles, I tried to sense the atmosphere during the first few minutes of the meeting and build the conversation from there. Scientists enjoy talking about their work, so as soon as you start talking about their research, time will fly very quickly. You will want to be as familiar as possible with their work so that you can conduct an in-depth conversation about their research, as well as potential ways you may be able to collaborate. I prepared a set of generic questions for each faculty member and specific questions for junior and senior faculty. No matter how tired you already are during the interview process, keep your interest in the science and the faculty with whom you are meeting.
Meals with faculty:
This is a great time to get to know more about the place and show your personality. In general, I followed the flow and tried my best to participate in the conversation. I had a list of casual questions to carry on the conversation or break an awkward silence during the meals. If there are multiple faculty members joining, you can learn so much more about the interaction between the faculty members and within the department by listening to their conversation. Since you are expected to speak while eating, you may want to order something that is easy to eat. As dinner normally includes alcohol, it is very important to know your limit before taking one.
Lunch with graduate students and post docs:
If you are scheduled to meet with students and post-docs for lunch, you should take the opportunity to learn their perspectives. As I have attended several luncheons with candidates in my department, I came up with a routine structure to interact with the students and post docs at several levels. Here are a few topics you could discuss to keep the conversation flowing and show your genuine interest in training the next generation of scientists:
- their research and career goals
- their opinion on departmental and institutional support
- their life in general
- your mentoring and teaching philosophy
You can try to relax a little bit during the meeting, but be fully aware that you are being interviewed by them as well. If there is a chance to meet with faculty members and students at the same event, it is very important to treat all of them with the same respect.
Meet the Dean:
I had very different experiences meeting with the college deans at different universities.
Case one: Do you have any questions for me?
Case two: Let me explain everything you may want to know.
Case three: Why should the university hire you?
To be ready for this part of the interview, I would recommend you prepare for the following topics:
- Understand the role of the dean’s office
- Prepare a list of questions regarding the current and future directions of the college
- Prepare a brief introduction about yourself (that Elevator Pitch is getting a work out!)
- Prepare to talk about your expertise and research interests in a broader sense
- Prepare to talk about your teaching and mentoring philosophy
If there is an exit interview, you will either be meeting with the chair of the search committee or the whole committee. You will be asked a few more questions during this meeting. Also, you will likely be given information about the interview process and the timeline of the search. You can expect to hear from the search committee within a few weeks to months after your visit.
A View from the Other Side of the Aisle
In addition to being interviewed at a few places, I also served on a search committee seeking to hire an assistant professor in our department this year. The experience provided me with a better understanding of recruiting from the other side of the process. The main takeaway for me is that there are so many things that can affect the final outcome regardless of your performance during the interview. Among the highly qualified candidates, the first offer will most likely go to the candidate who is seen as the “best fit” for the search and the department. No matter what the outcome, it is extremely valuable to go through the interview as it is a great way to build your scientific network and to introduce your research to a greater scientific community.
It takes a Community to raise a Scientist
Competing for a position at a university is extremely challenging, but following a few major guidelines can prepare you to become a competitive, and hopefully successful, candidate. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to start preparing NOW! As you may have realized, no matter how amazing your science is – published or proposed – landing the interview, and hopefully the job, is entirely dependent on your ability to impress the committee. This happens first with your written application and is followed with your verbal explanation and discussion in the interviews. Developing effective Communication skills, in all the various forms, takes practice over time with critical feedback to help you improve. The worse mistake you can make is to wait until you start applying to start preparing. With that in mind, here is a list of things that you can start working on over the course of your training:
- Carefully build your CV
- Read broadly to identify outstanding scientific questions
- Write/draft your funding proposal/s
- Develop your scientific communication skills
- Develop your social communication skills
When I was preparing for my interviews, I was very fortunate to have the tremendous support from a local “Community of Minds” called The Pub Club. I took full advantage of the community in polishing my job talk and chalk talk. In retrospect, I wish I would have taken more opportunities to sharpen my communication skills, as a community provides an excellent environment to develop both scientific and social communication skills. Going through the job interview process was a daunting task, but the support from the community really helped prepare me for the challenge. Now that I’m on this side of it looking back, I wanted to share what I learned with you as a way of giving back. After all, that’s how a Community works! We gain value both from receiving input from our peers and by sharing what we have learned to help our peers advance with their careers as well. If you learned something useful in reading this, or have your own interview lessons/tips to share, please feel free to let us know using the comment box below.