Preparing for the Interview for Careers in Academia

Determining whether you fit

Once a search committee has decided that you meet the basic job qualifications, they invite you for an interview. The main goal of the interview is to determine "fit". What the department really wants to know is how well you will perform as a teacher, scholar and colleague. Can they live with you? Will you succeed? Will you maintain a good publication record? Find funding? Attract students and build a robust academic program? Will you be a good educator and mentor?

With a competitive job market, academic institutions are increasingly using an initial screening interview to narrow the number of applicants they will invite to campus for an interview.

See a list of questions you can expect to answer during a screening and on-campus interview.

Determining "fit" is based on three components:

1. Teaching potential:

    1. Can you teach?
    2. Will you be an exciting and engaging teacher?
    3. Are you organized and logical in your presentations?
    4. Can you convey complex concepts in an accessible manner?
    5. Do you prepare and use presentation material in an effective way (e.g. PowerPoint slides, additional material, etc.)?
    6. Are you skilled as a communicator and interpreter?

Note that some departments may ask you to give a separate teaching seminar (to faculty, grads or undergrads) on either a topic of your choice or one they assign. Others use the job talk to assess teaching ability. Find out and prepare to demonstrate these skills.

2. Research potential:

    1. Is your research interesting, cutting edge? Does it contribute novel information or is it more confirmatory in nature?
    2. How does your work fit into a broader conceptual or theoretical framework and what, specifically, is that framework?
    3. How does your work integrate with that of other members of the department? Does it build on an area of strength? Does it complement (or conflict with) work of other colleagues? Would it be an exciting new addition or a minor satellite?
    4. What is the potential for growth in your field (i.e., further research, but also funding, fitting grad students in)?
    5. Are you skilled as a critical and thoughtful thinker (your curiosity, ability to generate novel and insightful perspectives).

3. Collegiality:

This may be one of the most important aspects and often is under-appreciated. During the interview, the search committee and department are deciding whether they like and can live with you for at least the next 5-6 years (to tenure) and perhaps an academic lifetime (if tenured). They don't want a person with a super ego who will demand attention, resources, and cause conflict. They also don't want a recluse who will hide in their office, not contribute to departmental functions (seminars, serving on committees) or will avoid taking on the critical service roles such as teaching large introductory classes, etc.

Ideally, what a search committee and department want is someone who is interesting and engaging, a "team-player", possible collaborator or co-teacher. This can be a very "fuzzy" distinction and hard to prepare for, but the following are some suggestions.

    1. Know something about the members of the department. Do some research; find out about their research interests and contributions to teaching and graduate student projects. This not only helps to see who makes up this particular community and how you might fit in, but also will give you something in common to talk about in one-to-one interviews.
    2. Be yourself - one of the biggest mistakes might be trying to act differently than who you really are and then either having to continue that pretense for the rest of your career or, more likely, having them see very quickly who you are after the hire. If they don't hire you because of your personality, you might not have been very happy there in the long run. HOWEVER, don't let quirky aspects of your personality dominate -- especially ego!
    3. Many departments will have graduate students and often undergraduate student representatives on search committees or at job talks and their input can be very important. Search committees often schedule separate meetings or meals with the candidate and students. Don't forget that students are an important component of the community! Be curious and ask questions about them, their work, their career aspirations, and what they've enjoyed about their courses.

Take-home: Don't be overly critical or condescending. It doesn't impress and will only work against you. Don't compensate for nervousness with hubris. Be positive, constructive and friendly.

Adapted from Professor John Eadie, Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis

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