Saturday, October 17, 2015

How to Get a Faculty Position II

We are now in the midst of a series of three posts on “How to Get a Faculty Position”:

2. Succeeding in the interview
3. Guaranteeing success

In the present post, I will deal with point 2 – succeeding in the interview. Your CV has gotten you the interview but now an entirely different set of skills comes into play. My advice here will boil down to a couple of general points, each with several supporting arguments.  Although I expect my suggestions will hold in most instances, it is important to remember that jobs/departments/committees vary just as much as do individual people, and so you might need to adjust your strategy to suit the situation.

The key starting point is to realize that the department is not hiring your CV, they are hiring you. They have already determined that your CV is sufficient for you to be a member of their faculty; now they essentially throw out the CV and judge you based on your performance during the interview. As a result, someone who just squeaked in as the last person on the short list after a bunch of folks with more impressive CVs now has an almost equal chance of actually getting hired. In fact, people in such a position sometimes have an advantage because opinions depend on expectations. Someone with a huge CV comes with huge expectations during the interview and, if they don’t blow folks away, they can seem disappointing. By contrast, someone with only a decent CV can blow folks away with a good performance during the interview. So how to succeed during the interview? Unlike my previous post where most things were rather obvious, I will hopefully now have some novel and surprising things to say.

The hiring committee wants to see a colleague

Young scientists seeking their first faculty position can sometimes interact with professors as though they are still students. That is, they can be deferential rather than assertive, shy rather than bold, intimidated rather than confident, and so on. Acting in this manner can give a strong negative impression as it really does make you seem like a graduate student, which no committee is going to hire. Instead, the people you meet, whether the committee, other faculty members, or students, really want to envision you as though you are already a professor, which is the role they are hiring you for. So, how to do this without seeming arrogant or over-confident?

Talk. If you are too quiet, it will come off as though you aren’t engaging and sometimes as though you don’t have much going on upstairs. Your CV may have all sorts of outstanding papers that show you (or your supervisor) are really smart, and it may seem clear that you will publish lots of papers once hired; but the committee is not hiring your papers – they are hiring you. Being a member of a department is so much more than the papers you produce – it is also how you interact with colleagues, how you interact with students, how you collaborate, how you hang out, and so on. In fact, some faculty members who are very successful with publications nevertheless come to be viewed by their fellow faculty as bad hires because of their arrogance or indifference or disengagement or whatever. What the hiring committee and everyone else wants to see is a nice, engaging, and challenging EQUAL (at least in North America) during the interview. Of course, you also don’t want to talk too much. That is, don’t cut folks off when they are talking (unless you can’t get a word in otherwise) and don’t talk just to make noise (say something interesting). This can be very challenging and exhausting and, as I can attest from personal experience, can lead one to say things that come out wrong – a trap that I fell into during at least one interview. 

By Kerry Soper.
Prepare well but don’t look like you over-prepared. It is frequently suggested that folks going to an interview should know a lot about everyone’s research in the department, including having read some of their papers. This advice is certainly fine at face value BUT it can’t look like you have done this specifically for the interview. Instead, it should seem like you knew something about everyone’s research just as a matter of course in your normal research activities before getting the interview. Two elements of psychology come into play here. First, it can’t look like you are desperate for the job. If you are, then it will seem like you need the department more than it needs you, which is unlikely to inspire enthusiasm for your hiring. Instead, you want to make it seem like you are very interested but that you have other (implied) options that make you relaxed about whether or not you actually get the job. If this is done well, it can lead the committee subtly to the feeling that the department needs you more than the reverse, which makes you more desirable as a hire. Second, faculty members want to think that you knew about their work outside of the desire to get the job. That is, if you read their work only in preparation for the interview, then you didn’t really know about it otherwise. However, if you knew their work independent of the interview, then it makes you seem widely read and generally knowledgeable. Perhaps the best way to walk this tightrope is to explicitly refer to the person’s work only after they first mention it. You can facilitate this sequence by asking “So, what projects are you developing now?” Then, as they talk about their projects, you can interject a comment or two that makes it clear you know earlier aspects of their work. 

By Kerry Soper.
Engage in social activities. I have also seen it suggested that, when asked in an interview if you want do something (go for a beer, have a coffee, see a local attraction), you should just say yes! I generally agree with this point but with some additional nuances. Many faculty have other departmental members as their best friends and members of their social circle. Thus, they are often consciously or unconsciously hoping that you – the interviewee – will also become a friend beyond the necessary work interactions. They want to imagine you hanging out with them and engaging in sporting activities or clubs or poker nights or garage bands, or whatever. They want to envision a causal, relaxed friend as well as an intellectual colleague - and participating in social activities really helps. Many people who have not yet had a faculty position, think that faculty spend all their time talking about and debating science. While such debates are indeed frequent, much of the time faculty talk about other stuff (music, sports, politics, etc.), even at work; so it is great if you are comfortable doing  same. These informal “fun times” during an interview can be a great way to talk about your hobbies (hopefully following naturally from other aspects of the conversation), weigh in on a political issue, or refer to the latest social media scandal. These relaxed interactions will make you seem sociable, which will help people to see the sort of value-added colleague they would love to have.

Of course, you also don’t want to project yourself as someone you aren’t. Most obviously, you shouldn’t drink if you aren't comfortable with it. In addition, you should avoid situations that encourage inappropriate comments or discussions about race, religion, sex, or other topics that can be insulting or uncomfortable. Moreover, if you receive comments of this sort during the interview, you should make sure to tell the department chair or someone higher up. Situations that make you personally uncomfortable or intimated should not be tolerated or allowed to pass. 

Found here.

The presentation is critical

In addition to the above “I am already your colleague” feel that you want to project, the most critical aspect of your interview (at least for a research-focused position) is your research presentation. If you give a bad talk, you are toast. If you give a great talk, you can rise above other candidates even with better CVs. In fact, you really must give a great talk. It not only casts your research in the best possible light in the way you want it to be viewed, but it also indirectly shows your teaching ability and how likely you are to be interactive and engaging as a colleague. So how to do it?

Follow the baby-werewolf-silver bullet approach to structuring your talk and/or elements within your talk. I have written a previous blog on this topic.

Link your work to general theory. Following from the above, the baby should be presented in a very general way. Importantly, the baby/werewolf is not your study system or your experimental approach, at least not usually. (Instead, your study system or experimental approach is the silver bullet.) The baby/werewolf is instead some general theory or question that is of interest to many people, presented independently of your study system and in explicit reference to formal theory or meta-analytic results or famous previous studies. You want everyone in the audience thinking “Yes, that is an important problem that needs to be solved if we are truly understand the way the world works.” Then you want them thinking “Yes, that is a great way to address that problem.”

Don’t oversimplify. When presenting to a general department, the temptation can be to “make it understandable to everyone.” While this is a laudable goal, you really can’t water down your research or it will simply seem trivial to anyone that actually knows something about it. You need to show your data, not just the model fits. You need to specifically mention the statistical models you used. You need to actually describe the experiments. Importantly, however, you also need to explain your work in a way that even non-specialists can grasp the key elements and their importance and suitability. Perhaps the best way is to explain things twice: once the technically appropriate way and once the simple way.

Found here

Don’t describe too many projects. Hiring committees generally want to see someone who is going to be a world expert in some particular topic, not a dilettante who jumps from one random project to another. Thus, you want to present an integrated and multi-faceted approach to a particular important question (baby/werewolf) in which your work has the potential to be world-altering, paradigm-shifting, game-changing, and all those sorts of things your letter writers have said about you but which you can't explicitly state yourself. Of course, some people really do work on several entirely different topics that are not closely related to each other. In such cases, I still generally suggest focusing on only one of the topics in your talk, unless you have a clear expectation that some of the audience is specifically interested in one aspect of your work and some other segment of the audience is specifically interested in the other aspect. In such cases, you can present both but you need to explain why you are doing so.

Talk about the work you will do next. At the end of your talk, describe some of the projects (but not too many) that you will do when you are hired. These would ideally be logical – but not trivial – extensions of what you have already been doing. You don’t want to go into too much detail about experimental design as it can leave you open to criticism about things you haven't even done yet; but you should at least make it clear that you have an idea of what you will do next and how you will achieve it. As a more specific example, many people in my fields of ecology and evolution say they are going to use Next-Gen Sequencing methods. Nearly everyone says this even if they have no experience with it and no clear reason why it is an important next step for their research. As a result, it can seem like you have methods-envy and are saying something that you think folks want to hear just because they want to hear it. If you are going to say that you are going the genomics (or equivalent) route, then you need to have a clear reason why it is necessary and important. That is, the genomics must be the silver bullet that is clearly necessary to kill the werewolf. It can’t simply be something you are doing because you think folks are expecting it or because “we need a complete picture of what is happening.”

Don’t say “that’s a great question”. By way of illustration, I will relate a personal anecdote. When I was answering questions during an interview for a faculty position in 2000, I said for the first question That is a great question. Then I paused and said out loud (as it was crossing my brain in real time) Why do we always say that before questions? If we say it for everything, then it means nothing; that, in fact, no questions are great. And, if you don’t say it for one question, does that mean the question is not great? The audience looked amused or at least bemused. Then I went on to answer the question. I was still mulling over what I had said as the next question was being asked, and so I responded histrionically That is an OUTSTANDING question. This time some folks in the audience actually laughed out loud. Then I answered the question. Then, at the start of my response to the third question, I said That is a really awful question. This time, the whole audience burst out in loud guffaws. It turned out that the third person was internally famous for asking ridiculous questions and I had timed my comment just perfectly. However, I didn’t get the job. Perhaps my flippant comments were the reason or perhaps it reflected the search committee’s chair’s first words to me I don’t even know why we are interviewing you, you are totally unsuitable for the position. In fact, knowing that I wasn’t going to get the position was perhaps one reason I felt emboldened to say what was on my mind.

As a related point, make sure to leave room for questions at the end – your talk should only be about 45 minutes but not much shorter. During questions, make sure you respond at length and with deliberation. (Don’t just say Yes, you are right and then move on to the next question.) If the question doesn’t make sense, say something like OK, I am not sure precisely what you mean – I look forward to discussing it more with you later over beers – but I will for the moment convert your question into one that I can actually answer. A response like this is often good for a chuckle, which again makes you seem fun and engaging.

One problem that I might have introduced with all of the above advice is that you will begin to overthink everything during the interview when you really should be relaxed. So here is a more general suggestion that hopefully facilitates all of the above my more organically. When you go for the interview, pretend that you are already a faculty member at University X and that you have been invited to give a seminar at University Y. This mindset will hopefully help to make all of the above flow more naturally and without conscious thought DURING the interview.

Finally, note that many website give additional more specific advice - just type "job interview academia" into Google.

Now go out there and kill that interview.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Any thoughts on how to nail the interview when you're asked to give 2 seminars? The formal seminar you describe above as well as a 'chalk talk' that's specifically about future research plans? What are search committees looking for here?


A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...