Job interview and application advice

I am quite certain I would not have landed a permanent academic job without the amazing advice I received from my post-doc mentors and earlier on from my PhD advisor. So I’ll stop whining for a minute to pass their insights on to you, and add my two cents while I’m at it. If you’re likely to get the Fields Medal or the Nobel Prize next year, you should probably stop reading now, and pour yourself a glass of wine instead. But if you’re a mere mortal like me, then putting some work into how you present your real work can make a difference.

I know you’ll probably be applying for a hundred jobs, but this is advice on how to get one of the few you actually want. I’m going to tell you to put in a lot of effort, and you should focus that effort where it counts. When I was applying widely, I had this rule of thumb: if I’d rather have delivered pizza in Toronto, I would not apply. Imagine living in your favourite location working in a boring unremarkable job; this is a thing you are allowed to do. As you’re writing a cover letter for a tenure track position that will make you strictly less happy, remind yourself that it’s ok not to.

0. Make connections (or use the ones you already have)

I want to focus on how to interview successfully, but first you need to be invited to interview, so let’s talk about that for a moment.

Ideally, visit your top choice institutions a few months to a year before you’re going on the market. In the year I was finishing my PhD, my advisor sent me on a talk tour. Don’t be shy: write to the person closest to your research interests and tell them that you’d be interested in visiting, getting to know them, giving a seminar talk. Then go and nail that talk. If you see people from your dream schools at conferences, introduce yourself. Ask about upcoming positions, tell them you’re interested, explore whether you have shared interests.

When you’re entering the market, put together a draft application early, and get mentors or friends to read it and give you feedback. Ask people who have been successful on similar applications or who serve on hiring committees, to do this: your advisor, your post-doc mentor, your more senior collaborator, your friend who got a great job last year.

At the school you’re applying to, email everyone

  • you know
  • your advisor knows
  • a collaborator of yours knows
  • has compatible research interests with you.

Your email should be direct, specific and short. For example, say you are emailing your former advisor’s collaborator that you’ve never met:

Dear [first name],

I am a former student of [your advisor], working on [your research described in at most 5 words]. I will be applying for the [job] advertised at [their university – get it right!]. I’m very excited about this position because [you want to collaborate with specific people there, you want to work at exactly this kind of institution, it’s a permanent job in your hometown, etc]. I believe I can [be a valuable hire: see below].

I would appreciate any advice you may have on putting together a successful application. [Specific questions: are they looking to hire in any particular research area? If it’s a different country, ask for advice on the application format, etc.] I [will be at X conference, will be in town on X dates, am available by skype] if you are happy to have a short conversation.

I have attached my CV and [research statement or teaching statement] in case you’d like to know more about me.

Best regards,

[your full name]

Being a valuable hire depends greatly on the kind of position you’re applying for. As a post-doc you should emphasise how you’ll fit into their already existing research group(s) and your collaboration potential. For a research-focused tenure track position, your best bet is to explain how you’ll add a new dimension to the department’s research profile while being compatible with their existing strengths. For a teaching-focused job, tell them about your innovative approach to teaching, or why you’ll be just the right professor for their student body. For an institution that cares equally about teaching and research, you might emphasise how well-rounded your CV is.

When you get responses, follow up. Engage with your potential colleagues and tailor your application based on their advice. When you are invited to interview, contact them again to tell them how thrilled you are.

1. Every word must have a purpose

Congratulations, you have been invited to interview! It might be a 10-minute skype chat for a post-doc, a phone interview to see whether they will fly you in, a colloquium talk and a dinner, or a massive three-day affair. Whatever it is, every word that comes out of your mouth during it must have a purpose, and that purpose should be to get you this job.

Let’s tackle The Greatest Misconception About Interviews right away: what honesty means. You should certainly be truthful, that is, everything you say during your interview should be true. If the job is really right for you, you can probably afford to be honest, as in, not bite your tongue too much. But you can and should cherry-pick the information you share, not only to present yourself in the most favourable light but also to avoid wasting precious time. You are under no obligation to be un-censored or authentic, or to bear your soul.

I love my current job, my colleagues and my school. In my interview every word I said was true, but very little of it felt authentic. When it was finished I wanted to wash my mouth out with soap just a little.

Example: When interviewing for a research position, you will almost certainly be asked about your five-year research plan. Of course research can change course in that time frame, and anything you say is at best an informed guess, at worst wild speculation. Your interviewers know this, they know you know it too, and they know you know that they know. So saying it is a waste of time, and giving this as your answer will make you sound tentative and aimless.

You should have a five-year plan, and you have to be able to explain it convincingly in one sentence, two minutes, ten minutes, half an hour. You have to be able to explain it to someone outside your field, in an adjacent field, in your general area, and to an expert. Practise these in advance. When asked in an interview with a committee, lead with the “one sentence for someone outside your field”, and then proceed with the two-minute explanation, getting specific enough to speak to the member of the committee closest to your subject. When asked one-on one, quickly judge which version is appropriate and go for it. (Same goes for your “strongest result to date”, by the way.)

Another example: I once interviewed with a bilingual institution, and I was asked if I’d be able to teach in French. I said “Well, when I was about 19 I could mostly hold a conversation in French… but then I moved to North America and I needed English much more, and I couldn’t keep both languages in my brain so I forgot French completely. I would love to learn it again though. The fact that I used to speak it a bit should make learning easier, so I could probably teach within a year or so.” Needless to say I didn’t get that job.

Be concise, confident, and to the point. I should have said: “At one point I was conversant in French, and although my knowledge is rusty I am confident that I will be able to teach French classes within a year.” If you are anything like me (tentative, occasionally rambling, with a self-deprecating sense of humour), this will take practice. Lots of practice. Which brings us to…

2. Most important: mock interviews

You should do mock interviews, as many as needed until you can own your confident voice. Ask a couple of people, who preferably have served on similar hiring committees, to interview you and give you feedback. Make note of where you lose your confidence, go off on a tangent or use “weasel words” (an excellent term I learned from my mock interviewer), then use this information to polish your responses and the streamline how you present your work.

Example: In a mock interview I was asked what I was proudest of as a teacher. I talked about a course for future high school teachers that I had pretty much designed myself; someone had taught it before me but I decided to do it quite differently. I thought it turned out great. I said “I essentially designed a course for high school teachers, which I received very positive feedback on. I cared deeply about this course because I think secondary education is extremely important, and math teachers should understand and enjoy mathematics on a deep level.” The weasel word in that answer is “essentially”. If you essentially did something, just say you did it.

By the way, this was my second mock interview. In the first one I rambled on for ten minutes about various courses I taught, in chronological order, and then at the end said “Oh, by the way I also designed this course for teachers that I was passionate about and I think it was a success…”

As for your job talk or talks, research and teaching: practise these at least twice ahead of time, with audience to give you feedback. If ever you can ask your advisor, colleagues or friends a favour, this is the time. There is nothing more embarrassing than going 15 minutes overtime in your job talk, or not getting to your main result.

On a side note, while talking to people at the school I was applying to (see Point 0) I got great advice on what to focus on in my lecture, and how broad the audience would be. These are fair questions to ask: it matters whether you need to explain what a group is (possible) or if you can assume everyone is familiar with K-theory (less likely). If the school is looking for a biostatistician and half of your work is in that field, you should probably emphasizse that, not the other half.

3. What about the interview questions?

At your interview you might be asked about: why you want this job, why you are the ideal candidate for this job, how you will fit in with the department, your strongest result to date, your research program for the next 3-5 years, service teaching or teaching large courses, teaching innovation or technology in the classroom, funding you have received or applied for, and more. You should practice answering specific questions along these lines in mock interviews.

Watch out for multi-part questions: for example, say you’re asked “Do you work collaboratively, and if so, what sets your contributions apart from those of your collaborators?”. If you have done most of your work as part of a team, this is a great opportunity to point out how well you work with others. But you must not forget to then emphasise the unique perspective you brought to these projects, and how vital your contributions have been.

When a question is an invitation to name names, name names. “How will your research interests fit in with the department’s profile?” is such a question. Do your homework, and cash in on your Part 0 efforts by being specific. Saying “I will fit well into your Analysis Research Group” is weak; saying “I have been discussing a potential joint project with X and Y on topic A, and I am fascinated by Z’s papers on topic B” is strong. The same applies to questions like “Which courses in our curriculum would you be interested in teaching?”. Invest the ten minutes it takes to familiarise yourself with the school’s course offerings and show enthusiasm.

Awesome advice: Don’t get too bogged down with practicing answers to one set of specific questions though: your interviewers might surprise you. I got this fantastic piece of advice from a mentor: come up with ten “selling points” to get you this job. They should cover your research to date, future research plans, your enthusiasm for and compatibility with the school, your teaching record, teaching philosophy, grants or grant applications, any events you’ve organised, and whatever else makes you a great candidate. In your interview, when you are asked a question you haven’t prepared for, think “which of my selling points fits here?”. In my last, successful, interview I was asked a question that would have blindsided me otherwise, but I was able to answer it well with one of those “selling points”.

Finally, you will almost certainly be asked if you have any questions. It is important to ask questions, but know to distinguish between interview-appropriate and after-you-got-your-offer questions. Don’t ask how soon you can go on paid maternity leave, and I say in most cases you should not ask about help for your two-body problem at this stage. Ask about funding for collaborators to visit, or for you to organise a workshop, or about your teaching load, or the student body, or the graduate program. Your questions should be honest, but not unfiltered, and they should show that you are excited about your future role.

Good luck!

I’m usually equally happy to receive comments either here or on facebook, but in this case I ask that you share information (be it insights, disagreements or questions) that may be of use for others here. Responses that are meant mainly for me are welcome anywhere.

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  2 comments for “Job interview and application advice

  1. Matilde L.
    September 28, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    This is great advice! I specially found very valuable the part about preparing the file, because you don’t see that written in other places (everybody seems to focus on the interview itself). What you say implies contacting more than one person and I think this is very important.

    I’d like to add to your last paragraph. Make sure that you ask enough questions to show your interest in the place as a whole and not just your interest in the institution. For example, you can ask about the housing market, organizations involving your hobbies, etc. Obviously, it matters whom and when you ask these questions, you want to ask them in social contexts, or while walking with someone not in your field of research from one place to another.

    More generally, you’re interviewing the place as much as the place is interviewing you. Keep this in mind all the time.

    Another thought: remember that you’re interviewing all.the.time, including those social contexts to which I refer above. (Don’t get drunk, etc.) Show your interest and willingness to talk to everybody you meet, not just the professors. You should be able to have small talk and interesting conversations with staff members and students. These people report to the committee, often unintentionally.

    • MC&C
      September 29, 2017 at 8:59 am

      I agree with everything Matilde says, great advice!

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