Initial Publication Date: September 20, 2006

Academic Job Interviews

Every interview you get is an indication that the hiring committee is impressed by your application materials, and thinks you might be a good fit for their needs. The purpose of an interview, then, is for the institution to find out whether you would be a good fit for them, and for you to find out whether the position is a good fit for you (Gibson, 1992, p. 44). Here are some resources that will help you to prepare for, and get the most out of, your interviews.

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General information about academic interviews

Information about interviews at two-year colleges

Research and teaching presentations

Interview questions

  • Academic Job Interview Questions: A list of interview questions that you will typically be asked, and that you might want to ask in return. Similarly, here are some typical Interview Questions for Two-Year College Positions.
  • Search Committee Confidential: This article, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers some insight into questions posed by search committees during the hiring process.
  • How Would You Teach This Class?: This article, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes four categories of questions about teaching that are likely to come up in an interview, and gives examples of each type.
  • What to Do When They Say, "Tell Us About Your Research": Tips about how to answer one of the most common interview questions and keep your listeners interested. A column by Mary Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick, from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Responding to inappropriate or illegal interview questions:
    • How to Handle Difficult Interview Questions: Mary Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick discuss several strategies for handling inappropriate or just plain bizarre questions during an interview, in this column from the Chronicle of Higher Education. They also give several examples of such questions, collected from real life.
    • Recognizing Inappropriate Interview Questions: This page, by the Pomona College Career Development Office, lists several illegal interview questions and legal versions of the same questions that address the legitimate, job-related concerns that may be behind them. Recognizing the legitimate concerns behind illegal questions may help you to prepare for and decide how you want to respond to such questions.
    • Tactful Answers to Illegal Interview Questions: This handout lists additional illegal questions and the legitimate concerns that may be behind them, and offers suggestions on how you might address those concerns.

Tips from Early Career Geoscience Faculty Workshop Alums

These tips come from participants in the NAGT/NSF-sponsored workshops for "early career" geoscience faculty members.

Preparing for the interview | During the interview | Following up after the interview

Preparing for the interview

  • Many universities have a career center that offers such services as resume review and practice interviews. Take advantage of these services! The counselor I talked to before my first on-campus interview had a wealth of knowledge about academic interviews in general and about the specific institution where I was interviewing.
  • Get a copy of the interview schedule from your [contact person] before you go, thus you can know who you will meet and what they are doing, then [when you meet with each of them] you can adjust your topic to your audience.
  • Research all the folks you are meeting with and know a bit about what they do. I even had notes on their research in the notebook I had with me during the interview (to check in with throughout the day).
  • I think the thing I did that served me best was to do a bit of research into the school (or institution) giving me the interview. When I sat on a search committee for another opening at [my institution], I was really surprised by how many applicants demonstrated no understanding of the role or mission of a community college in comparison to a research institution! It's basic, but critical--know what they are looking for and be prepared to both show and tell them, as clearly as possible, how you fit their needs as a professor and/or scientist. Also, I think you'd be ahead of the curve if you have some verbal statement ready about how you will fit into the academic (and/or scholarly) community at the institution.
  • The advice that someone gave me on interviewing was to give it everything that I had, and that was good advice. I went into the interview with the attitude that this was the job that I really wanted. That is not to say that I didn't ask lots of questions, and even have some questions in my own mind about whether I would take the job, but I went in with the attitude that I wanted to be there, and I think it showed. I thought about what I could offer the department and really made the case for it. I had researched a lot about the school and the department. I think that helped to demonstrate that I was interested in the job and the school.
  • You should be prepared to discuss the courses you are prepared to teach and your plans for developing a research program. I made a list of the classes I had experience with and those that I hoped to teach in the future. I also made some very simple syllabi for the classes on my list so I would be ready to talk about course content. You should also be prepared to give a vivid description of what your research program will be like. I prepared a list of my most current projects and made a plan for implementing similar projects at the new university during the next 2 years. Once I finished making all of these plans for my 2-year program I did the same thing for my 5-year plans to demonstrate that I knew how long the tenure track was going to last.
  • Before a job interview, I was advised to prepare a very detailed plan for the next 5 years of my research career (including actual grants I will write, # of publications expected and where the will be submitted, planned collaborations, etc). I actually prepared powerpoint slides with this info, and it turned out to be an invaluable exercise. I actually used these slides in talking with the interview committee. I was told after I got the job offer that this preparation gave me an edge over several candidates.
  • One of the most important parts of interviewing is doing your homework. If you are applying for an academic position, look up the faculty members in the department. Read a paper (or at least abstracts) to get to know what type of work they are doing. Know what facilities are available at the university and with whom you may collaborate. This will set you apart from other interviewees and show that you have thought hard about whether or not the job is right for you. Also, remember to follow up after your interview!
  • Prepare for the interview. Prepare for the interview. Prepare for the interview! I cannot stress this enough. For a phone interview, you need to use a solid connection (i.e., land line and NOT a cell phone) near a computer with internet access as a crutch if needed to refresh yourself on faculty, curriculum, etc. For the phone interview, you should know who all the faculty are and what they do in a basic sense, especially for those that most closely overlap your expertise (if any exist). This will allow you to quickly assess who is interviewing you at the beginning when introductions are made. In addition, you should know how your research will fit into the department as it CURRENTLY exists and have an idea of what courses you would want to teach and/or create (which you should only share if asked). You should also have a list of 2-5 questions you want to ask at the end of the phone interview that will convey your interest in the position and provide answers on things you are not clear on. Send a thank you email to the search committee chair (and if you can remember, the rest of the panel) in a timely fashion by email after it is over. On-campus interviews start the moment you are picked up until the moment you are dropped off, so remain professional at all times including times that seem less formal. Make sure you are given an itinerary ahead of time that lets you know when you are speaking and who you are speaking with so you can have a list of more specialized questions to ask each person. Finally, be very gracious throughout the interview process and thank the search committee chair and people you met again in a timely fashion by email.
  • Outline a start-up budget based on your needs and an optimistic expectation of the school's funding abilities. Be detailed for big ticket items, general for lesser costs. Discuss your start-up hopes with the Dean and/or Dept. Head/Chair, and leave a copy of your outline with them.
  • I made a concerted effort to talk to folks who had recently snagged liberal arts interviews and jobs--to collect as much info and advice on the process as possible. I sent out my application materials to a variety of people at liberal arts institutions for feedback the summer before the process started. I also asked all of the grad students, postdocs, and faculty who were ever associated with liberal arts schools at [my institution] to attend a practice interview talk, ask questions, and rate my performance. Finally, I solicited advice from liberal arts schools that chose not to interview me. I really believe that the best way to approach a job search is to be as well-informed as possible.
  • Remember that an interview is your opportunity to find out about the institution, as well as their opportunity to find out about you. Approaching my interviews as exchanges of information helped me to relax and even enjoy them somewhat.
  • In preparing for interviews, I like to come up with some questions for the interviewer for which I mostly know how they will respond (based on research into the institution). Then I try to prepare a response to their expected response that helps elaborate a little more about who I am as a candidate and how I can contribute to their program/institution/organization on that particular topic. For instance, I might know that a college has a particularly vibrant Geoclub. I could ask them about this club and then prepare and additional response about my own experience mentoring undergraduates in Geoclubs at other colleges.

During the interview

  • Use power poses to increase your confidence and reduce the feeling of stressfulness that comes with interviewing.
  • It helps to learn to sell yourself, even when it does not come naturally. Attitude also matters. Be honest, and show how happy you are to have the opportunity to interview. It helps to care enough to try hard, and not to care so much that you are paralyzed by fear of failing. Compared to my multiple interviews outside of academia, however, the three-day academic interview, though exhausting, was much more fun. I approached the interview for my current position as a learning opportunity: prepared to fail, but ready to learn from it, and just excited to meet new, interesting people. In terms of practicalities:
    • Know something about the people you will talk to; it makes for better conversation. It's also simply more polite not to just talk about yourself.
    • Be well-rested before and during the process. Go to bed as early as possible. Talking to dozens of people takes a lot out of you.
    • Have a great well-prepared talk. This counts for a lot and is the one stage of the interview that is completely under control. Talk to a general, rather than specialist audience. Consider bringing your own wireless mouse and pointer. Ask to use your own laptop.
    • Dressing professionally can be key to feeling together and confident.
  • I think my interviews started to improve when my attitude changed to one of "Why don't I look at this as an opportunity to learn about what they do." Once I did this, I started asking more questions, didn't worry about looking dumb, and had more fun with the process.
  • Use bathroom breaks to your advantage. Ask for these often, and take 2 minutes in the bathroom to take a deep breath, look back over your notes on the next person you are meeting with, and regain your focus.
  • Ask the faculty about their research. We all love to talk about what we do. If you have close fields of interest, point out how you can "help" their research. Have good questions ready (lab space, vision of the department over next 5 to 10 years, etc.
  • I urge candidates to give interview talks on subjects for which they are experts. Although the research that people are doing as new post-docs may appear more glamorous to them, often it is enough of a departure from the work done at the Ph.D. level that they haven't had the time to make themselves aware of all the controversies in that field. It is far better to talk about this less developed part of your research in informal discussions with individual faculty members.
  • Be yourself! You don't want to try to fit their mold if it is not you. You (and probably the department) will not be happy if you get the job. Smile and be enthusiastic.... Talk to the students and find out what they think the department weaknesses are [Editor's note: ask about strengths as well]. .... Give the talk of your life - energetic, enthusiastic, and try to make it a bit interactive. Make sure to ask at what level to give the interview talk.
  • [Re: your research presentation:] Practice, practice, practice. Make sure you are within time limit. Big, easily readable slides from far away. Clear photos. Don't use a lot of text. Don't read your talk. Don't apologize for slides. Um, um, um don't stutter, (ask friends to listen to your talk beforehand to see if you have any funny habits when you lecture). Make sure you have a great introduction to set the stage and the importance, and tie research into big picture at end-why is it important? Be energetic!!! If you can't tell jokes, don't! Make talk accessible to students (grads or undergrads if applicable). Most of all have fun!
  • As a just-tenured second-careerer, I can vouch for the concept that it is all about "fit"- the employer must NEED what the candidate brings to the institution. And that can span many facets of one's career, not just technical or research expertise.... Essentially, one must have a good understanding of what he/she brings to the institution in terms of expertise, enthusiasm, attitude, etc. Then I think it is critical to ask yourself (and/or institutional personnel) if the institution is likely to VALUE what you can provide.... Since institutions are different, the demands placed upon geoscience faculty will vary widely, and require different styles, different research interests, different pedagogical styles, different geoscientists. Stay focused upon the FIT, and you won't go wrong.
  • I went out to dinner with faculty and staff during a lot of my visits and folks would encourage me to relax, stating that this is "not the interview." Although I think that most of these people were being quite genuine, you are always under the microscope, so stay on your game.

Following up after the interview

  • After returning from the interview, I sent an email to show my appreciation to EACH faculty who met me in person. It is just a simple message to thank them for spending time with me, and to show my interests in his/her research and look forward to work with them in the future. Do not send one email to a group of faculty, instead, I sent a similar email to each individual based on the talk between me and him/her.
  • Write thank-you notes! Having been on both sides of the hiring process, these go a long way, especially personalized!
  • Use your interview experience to make a 'pros and cons of taking the job' list. Include as items: research + teaching commitments, fit of your research/teaching interests to those of department and university, location, salary, employment opportunities for partner, clarity of advancement protocols, intradepartmental and extramural support, apparent quality of students, fit to departmental atmosphere, ... anything important to you. You'll probably have a good sense whether you'll have an offer by the time you leave the campus. If you get good vibes, use your list to start assembling a list of what you'll need to be successful in the position; they may want to begin negotiations the next day.
  • One thing I've found is that in many cases, if you are not the candidate accepted, you can find a friend or colleague on the committee that wouldn't mind giving helpful advice about aspects of your interview that could be improved--especially if you put the question in terms of how you could improve your interview.
  • Don't take a rejection personally.