How to avoid interview pitfalls

Jenny Pickerill offers some advice on some common mistakes and how to stand out from the pack

January 8, 2015

Source: Elly Walton

The New Year is traditionally a time when thoughts turn to the future and, perhaps, to plans to apply for a new job. If you make it on to the shortlist for an academic post, then you are probably pretty intelligent, have multiple degrees and know how to do research. But all too often – and perhaps as a result – candidates who are invited to an interview forget the basics of interview etiquette.

In the 15 years I have worked in higher education, I have sat on my fair share of interview panels, mostly in the social sciences, and I have identified a number of common mistakes.

Some candidates fail to prepare for the classic questions. I have yet to take part in an interview at which the following questions were not asked: Why do you want this job? What special skills would you bring to it? What is your main research contribution/ your big idea/your best article? What is your five-year research plan? What is your greatest weakness? And finally, if you were offered this job would you accept it?

Interviewees often need to pay more thought to the way they project themselves. While it isn’t easy to get it exactly right, you should try to balance confidence with humility. Too often candidates are either too bold or too modest about their achievements. In one interview I took part in, the candidate neglected to mention that they had been awarded a prestigious fellowship until the very end. But you should also remember that you are probably being interviewed by a panel of senior academics. It doesn’t pay to be arrogant. Although you need enough confidence to sell yourself, even if you are a senior academic your contributions are likely to be narrow, partial and obscure, so don’t make claims that are too grand and sweeping. Academics don’t like to be outsmarted.

A surprising number of candidates don’t do enough research about the department. Show that you have bothered to read the department’s website. Look up the research themes and identify where you could fit in. Remember the names of a couple of staff you would like to work with. Demonstrate that you care about what they already do. If an interviewer has taken the trouble to read up on you, he or she will expect you to reciprocate.

Don’t divulge too much personal detail. An academic interview is not the place for discussing your life circumstances. The panel is not interested in your family, health, friends, pets or hobbies. It is sad to say, but many places would worry if you did have a personal life as this could be seen as something that is likely to distract you from work.

Another tip is to answer questions succinctly – in the first sentence – and then give a specific example. Be aware that the panel is likely to be tired, slightly bored and thinking about other things, such as their burgeoning email inbox, their unwritten lecture or what they are having for lunch. So get to the point and then back it up with evidence. It is a bit like writing a verbal essay answer.

If you are applying for a lectureship, focus on research. In this era of research assessment, even a position that looks like a teaching post is probably research-led. Highlight your research achievements, capacity and potential. Show you know that academics have to deliver journal articles, funding and impact. Illustrate how you will deliver on all three, every year. Don’t point out your failings; describe how you are improving. Always be optimistic, but not overconfident.

Be sure to communicate clearly. This is necessary for most academic jobs, and especially for those that involve teaching. Know that the panel members will be assessing you for how well you could communicate with students, academic staff and administrators. If you can talk only in acronyms and complicated sentences, the panel will worry that no one will understand you.

Act ready to start the job. Most academic jobs get advertised only when the staff are already needed. Academics are overworked and will have little time to show new staff how things work. Heads of department want to know that a new staff member will fit in and get on with the job.

At the end of the interview, candidates are always asked if they have any questions. Prepare a simple one such as “When is the start date?” Keep any complicated questions for a later, direct discussion with the department if you are offered the job. The panel is ready to wrap up at this stage and members are making their final judgement of you. You want to leave them with a positive image, not test their patience with a long list of queries.

Finally, be passionate. At interview stage candidate selection becomes quite subjective. Everyone invited to interview appears to have the qualifications, experience and potential to secure that job. So convince the panel that they would want to work with you, persuade them that students would like you and prove that you are an exciting candidate.

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