Post Tagged with: "interview"

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 7: Research/Proposal Talks and Meeting with the Chair

The research talk and proposal talk are arguably the most important parts of the on-site interview. This post, part seven in the “Get a job, Ken! series” delves into both, as well as the final meeting with the department chair.

My first piece of advice for those preparing for an on-site interview is to purchase and practice with a slide-advancing remote (a.k.a. a laser pointer or ‘clicker’). I find it tragic when a great scientist appears incompetent because they don’t know how to use a borrowed clicker. It’s worthwhile owning a clicker that you know like the back of your hand. In fact, for young graduate students, I recommend investing in a clicker and practicing with it as soon as possible. I am partial to the Logitech Wireless Presenter (The author declares no competing financial interests).

The Research Talk

Standard seminar talks have one primary goal, to share science. Research talks during an interview have two additional goals. The first is to briefly introduce your area of research and lay a foundation for the concepts and techniques relevant to your proposal talk. This groundwork will allow for extra time during the proposal talk (vida infra) to discuss your ideas. Of course, it’s important to seek a balance since not everyone who attends your proposal talk will be at the research talk, and vice versa.

The second goal of the research talk is to demonstrate your teaching skills. The presentation will be open to all faculty and students—basically any involved in the hiring decision—and they’ll be asking themselves: How engaging and eloquent is this applicant? How well does he or she explain new concepts? What kind of teaching methods do they use (analogies, examples, images, etc.)? How good is she or he at answering questions?

I have seen way too many talks that care more about demonstrating “I’m smart!” than actually communicating ideas. In these “I am so smart” presentations only two or three audience members have the expertise necessary to follow along past the first few slides. Please be assured that the audience already knows you’re smart, competent, and can publish complex ideas in top-tier, peer reviewed journals. They want to know if you’re also able to share your ideas with non-experts (i.e. students).

The research talk will generally be scheduled for one hour, which will include a short introduction and a ten minute question and answer session at the end. I made sure to avoid 1) going over the allotted time because it can imply time management issues or 2) finishing the presentation in under 30 minutes, which might  suggest a lack of content/results. I did my best to aim for a 40-50 minute presentation. Most audience members will not mind if they get to leave a little early.

Also, presenters usually have about 15 minutes to prepare before the talk. But be forewarned that when earlier meetings run long, you’ll have to jump into the presentation without any prep time.

Proposal Talk

The job interview proposal talk is a lot like a graduate student proposal talk (also sometimes known as a qualifying exam) but with a slightly different focus. The primary focus of a qualifying exam is to defend your ideas.  In addition to defending your ideas during the job proposal talk, you’re expected to provide tangible ways of pursuing the ideas and mentoring young researchers along the way. Similar to the written proposal, the general outline for most proposal talks is 1) introduce a problem that needs to be solved, 2) mention how others are trying to solve it, 3) introduce how you are trying to solve it, and 4) discuss why your method is better and 5) mention the possible implications of your work.

I started my proposal talk with an outline slide. While everyone was getting situated they were able to view the slide and familiarize themselves with my flavor of research. Below is an outline slide example:

Not all audience members will have read your proposals or attended the previous research talk, so you’ll also want to briefly introduce a few important concepts while explaining your research plans. In all likelihood, you’ll be the foremost expert on your proposed research area since they wouldn’t have brought you in for an interview if they had someone already in that niche. You’ll also be asked a number of questions. In addition to the questions from the phone interview (previous post), here are several questions that colleagues and I were asked during the proposal talk:

  • What type of group structure do you envision for your research program?
  • In terms of personnel, what would your lab look like?  How many graduate students/post-docs/undergrads in 5 years? In the long-term?
  • How do you plan to integrate students into your research projects?
  • What will be your approach to mentoring and supervising student progress?
  • Which proposal do you like most?
  • Which proposal is likely to give results the fastest (I.e. which is safe and which is high-risk/high reward)?
  • Which proposals/projects could new students work on right away?
  • Let’s say that next summer you’ll have 2 graduate students and 1 post-doc, what projects would you start them on?
  • What do your proposals have in common? Or what is your proposals central overriding theme (synthesis, electrochemistry, mechanism, etc.)? How do you define yourself as a chemist?
  • Does your proposed research projects depart from your mentors’ work and if so, how?
  • Are you aware of any competitors in the areas of your proposed research? How do you feel about competing with them?
  • Given the courses that are in the U of X handbook, which courses would you prefer to teach?
  • What preliminary results do you need to get in order to go after major grants or a career award?
  • What happens if a fundamental aspect of your proposals fails? Could you still salvage a paper and what would the community learn from that “failure”?

All of my proposal talks were either during or immediately following lunch on the third day. The length of the talk varied between 60-90 minutes, but the number of slides I actually made it through varied depending on the number of questions posed by the audience. In one of my interviews the audience only asked scientific questions so I got through everything in under an hour. In another interview the audience asked at least 30 minutes worth of logistical questions about teaching classes and running a research group so I didn’t finish the presentation in the allotted 90 minutes. Since the presentation portion is so unpredictable the best you can do is put together a presentation where you hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

Final tip: Be genuinely enthusiastic about your proposals. If you are not excited then it will be difficult for your audience to be excited too.

Meeting with the Chair

The last formal meeting of the interview will most likely be with the chair of the chemistry department. While sometimes casual, the 30-60 minute meeting was much more business-focused (i.e. startup funds and lab space). This meeting might have been my favorite part of the interview because it included a tour of my potential lab and office space. The tour was my  first real glimpse into what it might be like to run a lab in that particular department. I would walk through the rooms envisioning students working on my research and thinking about where I would put the UV-Vis, potentiostat, fluorometer, etc.

This meeting isn’t time to negotiate space, but going into the meeting it’s helpful to have an idea of what kind of space you’ll need during the first 5 years. Ask yourself: Is your research going to be focused on synthesis or characterization? If so, how many fume hoods? How much bench space? Do you need room for laser tables? Do you need/want proximity to departmental equipment or researchers doing related work? Most of the chairs I met with already had a rough idea of what space I would need based on my background and proposal, but they still ask for my rough estimate. I recommend touring your current advisors space and taking an inventory of how many hoods and square footage they have per person as a starting point.

You’ll also likely be asked—either in this meeting or even before arriving—for a rough budget estimate. For the most part, this budget will include the major pieces of equipment needed to conduct your research and their estimated cost. Although unusual, I sent my budget proposal to the department chair a week before I arrived on campus for the interview. I wanted to show I was serious, had done my homework, and that I was prepared to run a research group. My biggest concern was that the budget I proposed was off the wall, but I followed the suggestion of others. A reasonable budget proposal will depend on your flavor of research (spectroscopists are more expensive than synthetic chemists are more expensive than theoreticians). Also, top 50 schools budget proposals (including personnel) are usually somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 while top 50-100 research institutions are usually somewhere between $300,000 and $750,000.

During this final meeting I also was given an update on the faculty-hiring timeline. I’d find out when the last candidate would be interviewed, when the committee planned to meet for a decision, and when I’d likely hear the department’s decision. In practice, the actual timeline more often than not ended up being about 2-4 weeks longer than the estimate.

By May 23, 2013 1 comment Uncategorized

“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.


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,


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.

By May 18, 2013 2 comments Uncategorized

“Get a job, Ken!”

It has been several months since my last post, but I have (what I think is) a reasonable excuse: I’ve been trying to get a job. The demanding mantra endlessly looping in my brain for the last six months was, “Get a job, Ken!” Applying for chemistry faculty positions at R1 institutions has been a trial both scientifically and emotionally, especially since the likelihood of landing such a job is increasingly the exception rather than the norm. I’ve very glad my search is over and I humbly and yet happily share that I will be starting as an assistant professor at Florida State University in the fall (August 2013).

Reflecting on the job search, I found that there were very few resources that helped me understand what to expect beforehand. This is probably especially true for someone like me who did not come from institutions more traditionally known for producing professors, like Cal Tech, MIT, and Berkeley. I did not spend my undergraduate and graduate years observing and learning from older coworkers/friends going through the faculty job search process before me. To my surprise, I also found little online about the chemistry faculty job search and what makes it different from other job searches. Instead, I spent a lot of time gleaning hints and tips from coworkers, advisors, professors and anyone that would answer my questions. Hoping to help those entering the search after me, while also building on previous blog posts where I share advice for new graduate students and post-doc position seekers, my next series of blog posts will outline my faculty job search experience.

Most of the advice I’ll share is based on my own anecdotal experiences or the stories I’ve heard from others. These experiences vary widely and, when preparing for your own job search, I encourage job seekers to consult with as many people as possible and load-up on advice. I also hope others will share more in the comment section.

Another thing to note is that my experience was specifically with faculty positions relating to materials, inorganic, and any energy related research. Yet, even with this emphasis, it’s possible that many of the suggestions are still applicable to primarily undergrad or even an industry job-seeker.

Since I find myself with so much to share (as well as hesitant to ask readers to read a mega-post all at once) I am going to partition the “Get a Job, Ken!” experience into the following posts covering eight different aspects of the job application process:

  1. The Timeline
  2. Proposal Preparation
  3. Proposal Format
  4. Other Content
  5. Submitting and Waiting
  6. Phone and On-site Interviews
  7. Research/Proposal Talks and Meeting with the Chair
  8. The Offer, Second Visit, and Negotiation

I hope you find them useful.

By April 20, 2013 7 comments Uncategorized