Friday, March 01, 2019

Early Career Academics: Tips for Preparing for your Interview Visit

This post goes out to early career academics about to interview for positions. Preparing for your interview is very different than preparing for just another seminar visit. Moreover, the observable difference between a well-prepared candidate and one who sees the interview as  just another invited seminar visit is HUGE. Do yourself a favor and ask faculty you know how to prepare. Most faculty, even junior faculty, have served on at least one search committee and will have a lot of good perspectives from sitting on the other side of the interview process.

This post gives a few tips that I've picked up after sitting on search committees. Your mileage may vary, and you should definitely ask around. But this is what I notice...

Given that your audience will be with everyone you meet that day as well as everyone who sees your presentation (which may be video taped and viewed in a tiny screen, which is something you might want to consider when crafting it), you should survey several people to see what sticks out for them about good and bad candidates. Ultimately, people make up their minds very quickly based on relatively small things. The search committee might have combed through your CV, and certainly some who submit feedback to the search committee about your visit will have as well, but many will make their decision during your talk (or multiple talks, in the case of some departments) and/or in the few minutes they have had to talk to you during a half-hour meeting or over a meal. So get a good idea of what "many people" might like.

So below I've put some good general tips from my perspective. Again, your mileage may vary.

FIRST, THE NON-TALK-RELATED TIPS (talk tips in next section)

It's not all about the job talk. I've given job talk tips below, and the job talk is extremely important -- one of the most important talks you'll give. However, there is a lot of the day(s) that won't be the job talk, and you need to be prepared for all of the interactions you'll have. So I put the non-job talk tips first.
  • DO YOUR (VIRTUAL) RECONNAISSANCE IN ADVANCE! When you find out you are going to be interviewing, you may not know who exactly you will meet that day. Even when you're given the schedule, there may be last-minute additions. So if you can, do your best to memorize who all of the faculty are and know roughly what they do (up to a 2-sentence description). You may not know who the search committee is, but you should use whatever clues have been made available in the communication thus far to be able to spot them in a crowd so that you know they're coming. You never want to be in the position where you have to ask someone what they do. You want to make it seem like you are genuinely interested in their research and can ask intelligent questions about it. You also want to try to anticipate what they find valuable and adjust your answers to questions to be complementary to these perspectives.
  • Try to understand how the school is structured and where your position would fit in that structure. Try to understand what resources are available. Be able to tell someone what specific things attract you to that school or that program. Make it look like you've been waiting for this particular position to open and jumped on the opportunity as opposed to just interviewing at any random school.
  • Be very courteous and approachable and never dismissive. Be comfortable. Do your best to be relaxed and conversational while also internally keeping up a little bit of a guard. You don't want to be too quiet, but you want to be more professional than you usually are on an average visit. You aren't required to answer certain classes of personal questions (whether you have a spouse, kids, plans for these things, etc.), and so you can divert if they happen to come up casually, or you can try to use them if you think they would be an advantage. But don't give up too much information about things that could make it difficult for you to accept a position. Those tricky details can come out during negotiation.
  • Keep in mind that you want faculty to want to work with you. You want them to be excited about collaborating with you.
  • Keep in mind that you will also be evaluated based on whether there is too much overlap with existing faculty. Do your best to emphasize the new things you can bring (without accidentally pointing out weaknesses in other faculty or the program as a whole).
  • You may be given 30 minutes alone with graduate students. Prepare for this time by having a set of questions that you can ask them (in case they don't have much to ask you). You have already studied up on all of their advisers, and so you should be prepared for the different research directions they have and can maybe anticipate some of their answers. But let them speak. You want them to see you as another faculty member that they would want around as a resource. Their advisers may ask them how they felt about the interaction.


And here are the general comments about job talks. See the previous section about non-job-talk related tips (in short: DO YOUR RECONNAISSANCE and BE COURTEOUS)...
  • Practice your job talk before hand so that your timing is flawless and you are clearly confident with the material. And get your timing and talk density right so that you END WITH TIME FOR QUESTIONS. Ten minutes is sufficient. But don't leave more than 15 minutes. But if you leave less than ten minutes, people will not be impressed (and may even be annoyed).
  • Make sure your job talk tells a consistent narrative that gives everyone in the audience an idea of what your research vision is and how your career up to this point has successfully implemented that vision. This may not be true a priori, but you need to find a way to tell your story to make it seem true. People don't want to see a random collection of research. They want to use the talk to get to know you, what you've done, what you will likely do in the next 3–5 years, and be impressed with both the current body of work and the potential. With that in mind, you don't have to present everything if some things don't contribute to the broad overall narrative. If you still have some work you're proud of that you don't think fits a narrative, you can include it briefly as a kind of "Other things that I am interested in" near the end to show you have breadth. But don't hop back and forth between disconnected projects. People will forget what you're all about and get frustrated by the lack of consistency.
  • If your work has been published or presented at major conferences, call out these venues in your presentation as you go through them. You want people to be convinced that other people care about your work. Don't hit them over the head with giant bibs, but maybe include a small parenthetical ref at the bottom of slides here and there and then say things like, "In work I presented at .... last year," or, "In work that came out in ... a few months ago..."
  • If you have more work than just your PhD work, be sure to show it somewhere. People like to get a sample of what you'll do as an independent researcher. Sometimes just the PhD work doesn't quite capture that.
  • Include at least a few slides on future directions. You don't want people wondering what you'll do next. Pointing out where you have already received funding is a good thing, and it's definitely good to identify where you'll go next for funding (agencies or even particular programs). Some sort of flowchart showing how your research vision can be divided into specific threads that meet the objectives of these different agencies is great as it is more convincing that your vision can be operationalized for the next 3–5 years.
  • Figure out if you are in a discipline (or even a school) that cares so much about education that a significant portion of your job talk should be associated with your classroom innovations and perspectives.
  • When you get to the end of your talk and are taking questions, try to maximize for the quantity of questions. Don't dwell on one particular answer, and don't give one question too much time. Do your best to respectfully acknowledge the value of the question you were given, but try to table long discussions for "off line" discussion. This is the only time some faculty will have to interact with you, and you don't want to frustrate some who have questions by being too thorough with someone else's question. It also looks much better if you answer 3 questions than spending a long time on 1. So find a way to pivot quickly to another question if your first question is starting to take too long and prevent you from getting to others.
  • The Dean/Head of School/Director may be in the audience. They may have a question. Take that question first as they may have to leave earlier than everyone else, and they also have an outsized role in hiring decisions.
Make sure you go to a bunch of job talks before your own job talk to see the diversity and try to guess which ones are good and bad job talks. Usually (but not always) more senior people give better job talks because they already have a good idea of what is good and bad because they've done it more and been a part of the decision-making process themselves. Contrast these more senior researchers with junior researchers who are definitely giving their first job talk. You'll notice consistent differences in the structure of the talk. I would say a good structure is something like...
  • Here's my vision
  • Here's a few projects that fit well together that show that vision
  • Here is where that vision takes me in the future and who will pay for it
  • Oh, by the way, here are other things I do too, but I don't have time to go into in detail
  • Here are my perspectives on education (depending on the school/discipline, you may not have this section at all or it may be half of your talk)
  • Here are 10–15 minutes I've made available for questions