Interviewing for an Academic Post

Your vita has made the right impression on the search committee, and you have now been invited to interview in an academic science department of a wellnown university. An interview is a courtship between you and the department, and in this formal two-step both are looking for a serious, lasting relationship-at least until "tenure do us part" or a better offer comes along. The typical academic interview consists of three parts: meeting people; giving a seminar; and "the dinner."

By | April 4, 1988

Your vita has made the right impression on the search committee, and you have now been invited to interview in an academic science department of a wellnown university. An interview is a courtship between you and the department, and in this formal two-step both are looking for a serious, lasting relationship-at least until "tenure do us part" or a better offer comes along. The typical academic interview consists of three parts: meeting people; giving a seminar; and "the dinner." The whole process is usually a blind date, but you can lay some groundwork beforehand.

Two important decisions are what to wear and how to behave. We all know that Einstein wasn't a great dresser, but wearing no jacket and no tie, for a man, or the equivalent in casual attire for a woman will indicate to many interviewers not that you are brilliant but that you simply don't care about the job. On the other hand, three-piece suits look a bit stuffy and insecure. As regards manner, most academics are impressed neither by a "used car salesman" approach, nor by the patrician air of one who has "come down to take a look."

The actual interviews with faculty, students and, sometimes, deans are brief encounters that happen with machine-gun rapidity-30 minutes with Professor X, 20 minutes with Professor Y, and 40 minutes with Professor Z. Every time you sit down you will be offered coffee, but you will get no breaks in between to visit the rest-room.

Since you will meet so many peo-ple whom you don't know, preparation is important. The easiest way to get ready is to ask the department chair for the vitas of department members and any other persons you may be meeting. If these are not forthcoming, take a walk to the library and look up the department in Peterson's Guide to find out who is on the faculty. Then go to American Men and Women of Science or Who's Who to find out what they have done. Note the names and important details on 3x4 cards that you can keep handily in your pocket or purse. Be sure to check that the address fits the name, as you may have the wrong person. The ensuing conversations might be interesting, but they won't help you. You can follow up on your detective work by checking ISI's Science Citation Index. Use the latest five-year accumulated citations for established faculty and the last complete year for younger faculty.

The index will give an impression of the importance of each person's work and enable you to identify one or two papers that are dear to individuals' hearts. You will be in a good position to have lively discussions with interviewers rather than feeling around for a point of common interest. This method is not foolproof, of course, because some faculty members and deans do not appear in any reference book or citation index. They may, however, have certificates and pictures on their office walls, and perhaps you will find a clue from these to develop a conversation on baseball or orchid growing. Chances are that they will appreciate this, as they may not know who you are or why they are interviewing you.

A good seminar is essential but not sufficient. A bad one can wipe out all the points you have gained from your vita and the interviews. A seminar tells the department more than simply the speaker's research quality. It indicates whether he or she can be a good teacher, can communicate, has any real enthusiasm to for joining the faculty, and is creative and well-organized. The best length for a seminar is about 45 minutes with perhaps ten minutes for questions, and you should organize it so well that you have a couple of slides to show in answer to predictable inquiries.

Make sure that you have enough material. I remember one candidate who was doing well until 20 minutes into his seminar, when he stopped speaking. So abrupt was the halt that the faculty couldn't think fast enough to generate questions. For some reason, the poor candidate thought he should only discuss the relatively small amout of work he had done during his postdoctoral fellowship, even though he could have talked about four papers from his thesis. If you have dealt with two separate topics in your pre- and post-doctoral re-search, you shouldn't be afraid to speak on both. Some faculty may get more out of a two-for-one talk than from one topic alone. Filling a carousel with every slide you have ever made is a sin equal to being too brief. No matter how hard it is to take out some old favorites, you must trim down the number of slides for a 45-minute presentation.

Don't underestimate the role of the dinner. It provides hungry faculty the chance to get a free meal on the department in the town's best restaurant. And it gives you the opportunity to show the lighter side of yourself and to get into good discussions. It is not the time to fall asleep or, worse, to drive others to sleep with boring conversation.

Some departments that I know of use the dinner to watch for professional behavior and count the number of drinks the candidate imbibes. So if someone says "Now you can relax," keep your guard up. The dinner is not a good time to challenge your host to a drinking contest, flirt with the waitress, or lick your plate.

The key piece of advice is to take every interview seriously. Perhaps you are planning to practice on Boondocks University before the real thing. But when you arrive, you may be surprised that B.U. is a spectacular place where you could happily work for the next decade. With no preparation or thought about the interview and a hurriedly put-together seminar, you may bomb out of the best opportunity you ever had.

Remember that the courtship is one in which you are not the only suitor. Generally, six candidates will be picked out of the pile of vitas, and the top three interviewed first. If it is "love at first sight," however, only one of those might be called back for a second interview and that next step-negotiations with the Chairman.

M Ian Phillips is Professor and
Chairman of the Department of
Physiology at the University of
Florida College of Medicine,
Gainesville, FL 32610.


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