Know the format of the interview
Academic interviews vary from institution to institution, but most recruitment processes follow some recognisable patterns. On the day, your first interaction will normally be a well-worn welcome ritual from the head of department’s assistant, followed by a short presentation to academic colleagues from your prospective department, before the interview itself.
Be unfailingly polite and complimentary to everyone you meet within this process because they might all be asked to offer feedback to the interview panel before a final decision is reached.
Strike the right balance with your presentation
You will be much better briefed on what the presentation should be about than your audience. Indeed, there is a fair chance that they will not know what you are meant to be talking about, or even the nature of the vacancy involved. Worse, they might have been press-ganged at the last minute when it became apparent that there might not be an audience for you at all. It might be a good idea to include your name on the first slide just to jog your audience’s memory.
In the room will be a mix of people with differing levels of familiarity with your topic area and, indeed, differing levels of interest in the outcome. Be wary of using all the available time to explain the nuances of your latest structural equation model lest your audience fall asleep or begin surreptitiously texting each other about how badly the presentation is going.
Tell some stories, amuse people and stick firmly to the time allotted. Specialists in your audience want to know that your research is up to scratch. Generalists want to know if you’ll be a good colleague and whether you can teach. Sticking to time and to a well-honed message should please both groups.
Prepare for likely questions
There will be some curveballs, but there will also be some well-rehearsed favourites among the questions that you’ll be asked.
However, don’t ignore the hidden meaning behind some of these. “Why did you apply for the job?” might really mean “have you applied to every available vacancy in the land?”, which will be asked in the hope that you have researched the university so that you can, at least, fake a level of interest in their institution.
The “where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” chestnut can generally be read as: “You’ve already told me about your ambitious research plans; now tell us if this is plausible and if managing your expectations is going to take up a lot of my time?”
Beware of trial by food and drink
You may be asked to join prospective colleagues and other applicants for anything from coffee to canapés or even a full sit-down dinner. Don’t worry; no one enjoys these occasions.
You probably don’t want to be stuck next to the other candidates as you measure each other up during the academic equivalent of the Hunger Games, while your prospective colleagues can almost certainly think of other things they’d rather be doing. If you have to endure one of these meals, eat little, drink less, keep the small talk witty but non-controversial and focus on your escape plan. Leaving too early could be read as a lack of enthusiasm, but staying on to the bitter end could engender reciprocal bitterness from your host.
Know your audience
You are supposed to be a researcher. Ask who you will meet at each stage of the recruitment process and do some background reading on them.
Preparation, scanning the university’s website and reviewing the research profiles of those you’ll meet is your chance to level the playing field a little. Your interviewers will have the benefit of your application form and CV. They may even have looked up your h-index, research profile, Twitter feed and other information in preparing for your interview. There is nothing stopping you from doing the same in reverse, but few candidates do. It shows that you’re organised, thoughtful and really want the job.
At some point in an interview, you might find yourself at a loss. If all else fails, pour yourself a glass of water to buy a few seconds of thinking time.
We have seen successful candidates who have said “I don’t think I can do this…” or have answered some things very well but fluffed other questions. You don’t have to knock every question out of the park.
If you genuinely have no idea what a question means, ask for clarification. If you do understand the question but don’t know the answer, just say so. The interview panel will appreciate your honesty more than any amount of bluster.
Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.