“Get a job, Ken!” Part 6: Phone and On-site Interviews

In the “Get a job, Ken!” series, I’ve so far retold my experience coming up with research ideas, writing the ideas down as formal research proposals, assembling the different pieces of the faculty job application, and submitting everything. In this post, I move beyond the waiting, waiting, and waiting that happens after submitting to the next step: interviews.

After the submission deadline, most interview offers are extended sometime between October and February. They begin with a phone call or email from a department or search committee chair and conclude with a scheduled phone interview or in-person interview. The waiting period—between the submission deadline and receiving an interview—can be daunting. Every single unknown number on my cell phone screen prompted sudden excitement and then, most of the time, disappointment.  I’ve never hated telemarketers more.

Eventually, I did receive my first call–a thrilling experience–and by the end of my job search I had one phone interview and several on-site interviews. Below I describe my experience and share my (and others) advice on the interview process.

Phone interviews

Not every University holds phone interviews, but those that do use it as a preliminary screening method. It’s a strategy for interviewing a greater number of candidates and testing “fit” before extending offers for an on-campus interview. Think of it as a asking someone out on a quick coffee date before committing to a full evening together. An on-campus interview is a lot of time/effort/money to commit to someone and it’s reasonable to take measures to test “fit” prior to jumping in.

The good news for job candidates offered a phone interview is that, by reaching this stage, they can be assured that the search committee has looked through his or her application and feel confident about the viability of their research proposals. The interview stage—whether by phone or on-campus—is more about assessing a candidate’s speaking skills, ability to run a research program, and departmental “fit.” Between my experience with phone interviews and the anecdotes I’ve heard from others, here’s a short list of example phone interview questions:

  • Who would be your primary funding sources?
  • What major pieces of equipment will you need and how much do they cost?
  • Do you have a project that you would bring with you from your time as a post doc?
  • Where do you see your research program in 5 years? 10 years?
  • Who from our department/university might you be interested in collaborating with?
  • When would you be available to begin work?
  • Are there any factors that we have not spoken about that would be important in your decision to come to X if we were to make an offer?
  • How do you feel about teaching general chemistry?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

The last question was especially important. Nothing says, “I’ve done my homework on your university/department” like asking one or two insightful questions. For example, I’d usually prepare a question about the department’s facilities, asking something like: “The department has a solar cell testing station. Would I be able to add electrochemical impedance capabilities to the system?” It helped show my seriousness about the job and genuine interest in the department while also suggesting something I could contribute.

It’s a good idea to start thinking about possible answers for interview questions as well as questions to ask the committee early. While most phone interviews are scheduled ahead of time, I’ve heard stories of people surprised with an on-the-spot phone interview.

On-site interviews

If the phone interview ends favorably then—congratulations—the next step is an on-site interview. On-site interviews are intensive. To help me organize the story of my on-site interview experiences, I’ll break the process down into five sections: a rough timeline, food, meetings with faculty, meetings with students, and post-interview follow-up.

A Rough Timeline

Many people tried to prepare me for the on-campus interview, describing it as an incredibly exhausting experience, especially the first time. They were 100% right but simply saying this wasn’t nearly enough to prepare me for what it was really like. The faculty job interview is a constant—dare I say relentless?—two and a half day series of meetings, conversations, and presentations. In retrospect, the only thing that might have helped me prepare would have been traveling back to my undergraduate university and ask them to schedule a marathon, one-day visit starting at 8:00 am and concluding after dinner at 8:00pm.

One thing that did help was that, about a week before I left for the interview, I received a schedule of events. Here’s an outline of the four-day schedule from start to finish:

Day 1: My flight arrived by mid-to-late afternoon. Sometimes a faculty member was there to pick me up at the airport. Other times I arranged my own taxi. Either way, I’d reach my hotel with an hour or so to check in and prepare for dinner with 2-3 faculty.

Day 2: The day began with breakfast or coffee with another faculty member who then brought me to campus. Most of the day (9:00-5:00) included non-stop, 30-minute meetings with faculty. There was a lunch “break” with 2-3 faculty or a group of students. Day 2 was also when the research talk was scheduled, during which I presented on the research I conducted as a graduate student and/or postdoc. That evening I had dinner with 2-3 faculty as well.

Day 3: The third day was similar. The 30-minute meetings with faculty continued and I had lunch with a new group of students or faculty. The most faculty meetings I had in one day was 11 (between 8:30 and 5:30). Also, the third day usually included a tour of the facilities (NMR, mass-spec, spectroscopy, etc.), my proposal presentation (i.e. chalk talk), and concluded with a meeting with the department chair (around 4:00 or 5:00) followed by dinner with 2-3 faculty.

Day 4: I woke up in time to take a cab to the airport, flew home, recovered, and waited.

During the entire trip I always kept reminding myself that it was a non-stop interview. From the moment I was picked up at the airport to the end of the dinner on the third night, regardless of where I was, who I was talking to, or what I was eating, I was being observed and evaluated. The entire process is designed for the department members to assess who a candidate is as a person, researcher, teacher, mentor, coworker, friend, and collaborator (and vice versa).

Quick tip 1: I always kept a water bottle in my bag throughout the entire trip. It was easy to take a few sips while walking between meetings. The last thing I wanted was to deal with dehydration in addition to everything else.

Quick tip 2: Sometimes, if I hadn’t yet received the schedule 3-4 days before the interview, I sent a friendly email to my host asking about it.

Food

Since I was the focus of attention, even during lunch, I often ended up speaking during a large portion of the meal. I made sure to avoid ording finger food because I sometimes talk with my hands and didn’t want surprise projectiles. I also tried to order something light so I didn’t feel weighed down and sleepy afterwards.

Meetings with Faculty

I have no general formula to share for the 30-minute faculty meetings. Sometimes it was just me talking about my current or proposed research. Other times it was the professor explaining his or her research to me. The best meetings I had (on my end) were more of a casual conversation about life and research.

Sometimes faculty would give me a quick tour of their lab space and equipment during these one-on-one meetings. These tours were a fun opportunity for them show me pieces of equipment they would allow me access to if hired.

The interaction dynamic during the 30-minute meetings was very unique and not something I had experienced before. The uniqueness of it comes from the short amount of time, the balance between you selling yourself, the faculty selling the department/university/town, and the constant tension of probing each other with questions to learn what each other is really like.

The only thing that was consistent in every 30-minute meeting (as well as lunch) was the question, “Do you have any questions for me/us?” I was asked this at least 20 times. I tried to have a few standard questions I asked to everyone in an effort to gather multiple perspectives. If following this strategy, be sure to keep track of who you’ve already asked so they don’t receive a double dose of the same question. As the end of the third day neared I would sometimes politely explain that many of my questions had already been answered before redirecting the conversation to avoid any uncomfortable moments of silence.

My personal favorite variation on “do you have any questions?” was “What would your significant other want you to ask?” It was a really fun question because it really got me thinking. Not only about what my wife would want to know about the city but also about other things from my potential job that will directly affect her life. It’s unfortunate that that question was asked during my last interview. After sharing the question with my wife she quickly came up with additional questions I could have posed.

Interviewers cannot legally ask questions about a candidates’ personal life like “are you married?” or “do you have children?” but they will still try to probe your personal life (hobbies, what do you do for fun, etc.). This line of questioning didn’t seem like a malicious act. It was just another way to get to know the candidate and identify key features or selling points about the university and local town. I don’t know if it was a good or a bad thing, but I decided to be very open about the fact I’m married, my wife’s occupation, and our lack of children. For me it was easier to be up-front rather than spending effort avoiding topics. Perhaps others can share insight in the comments section about how to gracefully re-direct conversations when topics considered private come up during interviews.

Lunch with Students

I was told by a few younger faculty that student lunches “were more brutal because the students were much less inhibited in their questions than professors.” Despite this ominous warning, the  students I had lunch with were great and asked interesting questions about my approach to research, teaching, and mentoring. The student lunch was, of course, still a part of the interview. The student’s advisors, formally or informally, asked them about their opinions on the candidates. For one interview I was told up front that students had formal input on hiring decisions. The ~15 students that I had lunch with were asked to fill out a questionnaire with questions like:

  • Could you see yourself working for this person?
  • Were they clear in expressing themselves?
  • How do you think they would be as a teacher?
  • Any other comments on the candidate?

Post Interview Follow-Up

Finally, as with any job interview, I made sure to send a follow-up email to my host, the chair of the search committee, and/or the chair of the chemistry department. The message to both my host and chair were pretty straightforward: “Thank you for the invitation…I enjoyed the visit…I look forward to hearing the department’s decision.”

The email I sent to the chair of the hiring committee was slightly different. After all the interviews are over, the committee and/or department members get together and compare the candidates. In an effort to clearly define myself, I sent the chair a follow-up email reiterating my defining features as a candidate. Here is an example:

Dear _____,

I really enjoyed meeting you, the other faculty and the students in the U of Y chemistry department this week. I also appreciated the opportunity to interview for the chemistry faculty position. [My host] was helpful throughout the entire process, especially with…

In case it’s helpful, I wanted to recap two of the points we briefly discussed during our meetings and my proposal talk:

  • Having spoken with many members of the chemistry department, I am especially excited by the possibility of contributing my proposed solar cell research and photophysical measurements to the U of Y’s research agenda.
  • If given the chance to serve as a professor in your department, I would be particularly interested in teaching inorganic chemistry (200, 201, 202). I would also be comfortable teaching General Chemistry (100, 101). Long-term, I would like to introduce a photophysics/photochemistry class.

Please let me know if there is any additional information you’d like me to share. I look forward to hearing the department’s decision.

Thanks again,

Ken

And so concludes my post about the interview process. In my next blog I will delve into preparing and presenting the research and proposal talks, as well as the very last meeting with the chemistry department chair.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: One Person’s Trip through the Academic Job Search | Chemtips

  2. Dr. Fenton Heirtzler says:

    As someone who has been struggling to obtain a stable, long-term position in academia for more than a decade, I really appreciate the time which you have put into describing your experiences. I am a US-American with a European educational pedigree. It was never possible to obtain the kind of advice which you describe from former colleagues or research mentors, whether they were European or US-American.
    Best regards
    FH

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