Friday, 18 July 2014 00:00

Applying for Academic Faculty Jobs, Part 2: The Interviews

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faculty jobIn my last post, I covered the initial steps of applying for academic faculty jobs, basically preparing and submitting the application material to the universities. Most universities will shortlist the applications to between 5 - 20% for further evaluation, which usually includes two types of interviews: first, a remote interview (via phone or Skype), and finally the last round—a visit to the university. To get to this final step is already a significant achievement, since competition for faculty positions in certain universities in the United States can be intense—around 300 applications for 1 position.

The idea of this post is not to give mental and/or behavioral advice about the interview process, but try to explain how the process works. There is vast career advice literature on "how to be successful" in interviews, and I will not get into it because being yourself is a very important piece of your faculty application. However, in general terms, an interview is a feedback loop between the university's interest in you and your interest in the institution. Thus, it is critical to know about the place you will be interviewed—faculty roster and research interests, potential collaborations, and potential for funding. Moreover, it is critical to find common ground between your interests and departmental/university interests.

1) Phone or Skype interview. Normally the chair of the department or the chair of the search committee will send you an email inviting you for an interview by phone or Skype (most common way nowadays). Interviews are usually for 30 minutes to one hour, with the entire search committee present. They will use most of the time asking about you—your scientific background, your plans for the position, your current research, teaching experience, collaboration potential. In some interviews, the search committee asks for a brief presentation of your research. At the end of the interview, the committee usually asks you for your questions—but be careful! The type of questions you ask says A LOT about yourself and your objectives. This is not the time to ask about salary, welcome package, benefits, tenure, etc. It is time to ask about your research and their research, collaborations, teaching, student and postdoc recruiting, etc. It is important to remember that you are still competing with 5 to 10 other candidates. Thus you need to convince the search committee of how unique you are, and how you are the perfect fit for the position.

A little advice: No phone interviews should be conducted via cell phone—use your lab or home landline phone, making sure you are in a quiet place. The same applies for Skype interviews—book a quiet room, and use an efficient computer and internet connection. If you need to make a presentation, send the slides to the search committee beforehand to minimize the risk of technical issues. Have notes and write notes—some of the Skype interview conversations can return during the visit interview. The Skype interview normally will be first time you will learn the full roster of the search committee, therefore after the interview make sure you know their research pretty well. Having the search committee on your side is an important part of the process of being hired.

2) Between the Skype interview and the visit interview. Usually at the end of the Skype interview the search committee will tell you how long it will take to pick their finalists for the visit interview. Most places are kind enough to inform you if you were not selected. But, if a week passes and you don't receive an email, you should ask about the status of the application. If the search committee email inviting you to visit their campus arrived, congratulations! You made it to the final round! Usually no more than two to five candidates remain at this stage. For the travel arrangements, some universities will book (and pay) everything upfront, and some will reimburse for your expenses (be conscious with spending if that's the case). Now it is time to prepare for the visit, which usually consists of multiple interviews with faculty members, a seminar presentation, a chalk talk, and numerous breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

Usually one to two weeks before your visit you will receive your visit schedule containing the names of the people with whom you will have individual interviews, when you will give a seminar and a possible chalk talk, and mealtime meetings. You need to immediately learn about your interviewers—their research, teaching, experience—and most importantly how you can connect with them, and what should you ask them (because they will ask you if you have any questions). After this preparation you are ready to travel.

3) The visit—an intense interview process. The moment you arrive is the start of your interview. Always remember: The faculty want to know whether you fit in their department environment, and this includes all possible aspects—scientific and sometimes non-scientific. Be yourself—you are a finalist, you are relevant to them and they are relevant to you. Visit interviews are usually composed of two full days of activities. You will probably be picked up from the hotel to have breakfast with some faculty, and then the rotation of interviews begins. You will have rounds of 30-45 minute interviews with faculty members from the department. Your preparation will be helpful now, since you will know some information about the interviewers. Some people will be nicer or tougher than others; however, this does not mean anything significant. Make sure you have answers for questions and engage in conversation even if the interviewer doesn't. Special attention should be paid to the search committee members, and the dean/chair of the department/school. The dean/chair wants to make sure you fit into the department's mission and research/teaching objective, and in the end, s/he is the one who will accept or reject the search committee's recommendation. So, be clear in your objectives and make sure you demonstrate (1) your proposed research is important, and (2) the research has clear potential to be funded.

The seminar. The presentation is the heart of your visit and is your formal connection between your past and current research and what you want to do in the future. Moreover, your communication and presentation skills will also be evaluated. Be clear in your presentation: It is preferable to show less data but demonstrate a clear and understandable line of thought, rather than multiple graphs and figures without a logical connection. This presentation is neither a paper presentation nor a work in progress kind of seminar. Your job seminar should be a compelling scientific story of you, including the amazing research you will do in the future. Allow time for questions and needless to say: Treat all questions with respect, no matter how simple or complex or from whom they came. Your future directions are an important part of your talk, since they describe your plans for your faculty position. Do not forget to mention all collaborations you had/have—it shows your ability to work as a team player. Finally, make sure you have multiple backups of your presentation.

In some interviews, there will be a chalk talk, which is a time for the faculty to discuss with you your science projects for the future, focusing on feasibility, collaborative and funding potential. For some candidates, chalk talks are the most pivotal moment of their visit interview. Ask the search committee chair ahead of time about the format of the chalk talk at that institution, and find out the type of presentation and level of formality required.

Meeting students and postdocs. Most universities will schedule a lunch with students and postdocs. It is a great opportunity to hear about the university, the department environment, and the city from a different perspective. Ask them about their research, productivity of their labs, collaborations, the number of students/postdocs, and whether the place you are applying to is a great place to be. This may be one of the few times you can be more relaxed than usual.

Dinner and other outings. After a long, stressful day of activities, you probably will be invited to have dinner with faculty members. It is an informal setting, but it still an interview. Science should be the major topic, sometimes sprinkled with nonscience topics. Be yourself and try to check if you fit as a colleague. Since the dinner is usually after the seminar, you will naturally be more relaxed and the seminar itself will produce great conversation topics.

The exit interview. Close to the finish line of this hiring marathon, you still may have an exit interview with the search committee. Most of the time, they will be brief, but they will open space for you to talk about your impressions of the department and the interview process. Always be grateful for the chance—remember you passed a huge selection process to be a finalist. Articulate the positive sides of their institution, and tell them you want to be there as a faculty member. Do not talk about salary, relocations, or welcome packages. This conversation happens when the job offer comes. If you have other interviews or job offers on hold, be careful: You don't need to give details about them. You can inform the search committee you have other applications currently open. Finally, ask them how long you will probably have to wait for an answer. This is important information in case you have deadlines or other applications or job offers pending. When you return home, do not forget to send a thank you email.

And then it is time to wait the long two to three weeks for an answer. Regardless of the outcome, you passed through a very competitive process, and you should be proud. You either will have a great job and start your independent career, or you will evaluate any mistakes and take the next step forward. It is important to remember that our academic hiring system leads to just 15% of PhDs, with 6 years of postdoc experience, getting tenure-track faculty positions. In the end, self-evaluation is critical. Are you ready for this job hunt adventure? There is no doubt that enthusiasm, persistence, and passion are prerequisites for a successful academic faculty application.

Bruno da Rocha-Azevedo

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo has been interested in how cells interact with their environment since college. During his Ph.D. studies and his first postdoc in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Richmond, VA, Bruno discovered how pathogenic amoebas interact with host mammalian cells and components of the host extracellular matrix, applying Cell Biology concepts in Microbiology. Currently as postdoctoral researcher at the Dept.of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Bruno is expanding his knowledge of cell - microenvironment relationships studying the interaction between fibroblasts and three-dimensional collagen matrices as a model to study skin wound healing at Fred Grinnell's lab.

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