The dos and don’ts of nailing an academic job interview

Interviewing for a job is not a skill we’re trained for in academia, so here are a few tips from a professor who has been on both sides of the interview divide

July 10, 2021
How to nail the academic job interview
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Many resources are out there on how to launch an academic career once you get your first job. Or how to finish that pesky PhD successfully to set you up for said career. But there’s a crucial link that’s less explored: the academic job interview.

The race for an academic job includes many steps, but I will focus on that crucial final stretch: you’ve applied, been shortlisted and now get to interview. Here are a few tips, gleaned from advice I’ve received and applied, what I’ve learned from being interviewed, advice I give my own graduating students and my experiences sitting on panels as an interviewer.

Come with prepared responses
It works for me to imagine all sorts of questions I might be asked, then write down full answers, adding a concrete example or anecdote whenever possible − one where the outcome makes you look good. Then highlight on your notes the key words or concepts you want to convey if asked that question.

The last time I did a job interview, I pre-prepared more than 20 questions. In a one-hour interview, I was asked five of those, and five I had not thought of exactly, but for which I could use elements of the ones I had prepared. Yes, it’s an awful lot of work, but many of these questions are good for multiple interviews.

Further, from an interviewer’s perspective, it’s impressive when someone has an anecdote that illustrates a question. It brings the interview alive and helps you stand out from others.

Do your homework on the institution
Much of this labour will be done in preparing the application documents. But make sure you have a sense of who the people you’d be working with are, how you would interact (and perhaps collaborate) with them and what the place’s culture is in relation to grants.

Further, if teaching is part of the role, get a sense of what their teaching needs are in the core part of the curriculum. Hardly anyone gets hired to teach an elective − they want you to teach a core subject in an area of need, and only once those needs are met can you run your dream elective in your nice little corner of knowledge.

In doing this homework also think of a question or two you can ask them at the end. Make it a question about them, how you can fit with them and make sure you can show what a great colleague you’ll be. Remember that people do not only hire academics in the abstract, they’re also hiring a colleague, someone they can spend time with. So, I would generally make that question about institutional culture.

Understand that there are formulaic elements
Invariably, there’s a human resources representative in the room. Even if not, the interview needs to be set up so that everyone being interviewed is comparable, which means you and the people you’re up against are being asked the same questions (at least initially – there may be variation in follow-up questions).

That is to say, initial queries will necessarily not be about the fascinating details of your research you’ve spent so much time learning and pitching. They will be broader questions about your approach to things such as dealing with conflict in the workplace, your approach to working as part of a group, how you prioritise tasks and the like. These are certainly questions for which it’s worth having prepared answers, with a pithy anecdote that makes you look appropriately responsible and effective.

Don’t be too earnest
Yes, you’re prepared. Yes, you did your homework. But you don’t want to seem like you want it too badly. Wanting it too much will invariably make you come across as nervous; you’ll be tempted to cram too much into answers just to showcase all your homework, and you risk being perceived as not personable. Remember, in the interview, they should also have a sense that they would be lucky to have you, and not just the other way around.

Don’t take it personally if it doesn’t go your way
Lots of factors are at play in a hiring process, some of which are far, far beyond your control. So, if it doesn’t go your way, understand it’s not necessarily about you. It can be about their teaching needs, other candidates seeming like a better fit for the institutional culture or many other factors. Ask for feedback if you can (but don’t count on it), do a self-analysis of how it went and move on to the next interview. Rejection is part of the game, but it should not hold you back.

Interviewing for a job is a skill that we’re not often trained to perform in academia. So, learn the skills and find a good person with whom to practise your interview. That person can be a peer, a mentor or, ideally, someone who has served on recruitment panels and knows your area and/or your work well enough to see where you’re selling yourself short. Now go get ’em.

Lucas Lixinski is a professor in the faculty of law and justice at UNSW Sydney.

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