Only one-third of the postdocs who responded to recent queries on PostdocNet and elsewhere had received any interview coaching from mentors and advisers. "Nobody coached me," wrote one young scientist via e-mail. "I think people don't like to talk about that." Said another young scientist, "I received no coaching from my mentors, or even tips, for that matter." There were some glowing exceptions, but in general, the art of mentoring seems to have fallen on hard times.
This is bad news, right? Not necessarily. Yesterday's world of science was less diverse than today's science and more personal. Although it helped to be a really good scientist, in the good old days, it also helped to be white, male, and buddies with someone famous. The people with the best mentoring were, very often, the people who needed it the least.
In contrast to excellent mentoring, which is often unavailable to all but the well-connected, the Academic Career Development Center  is available to anyone with an Internet connection, from Amherst to Yeshiva University. We can't get you a job interview, but we can help you perform well once you've earned one. One of the key goals of the center is to level the playing field by disseminating as widely as possible information that once was available only to the privileged. It is in that spirit that we introduce (drum roll, please ...)
The Interview: What should you expect?
Although the pattern of campus-based interviews varies widely from campus to campus, the basic structure consists of interviews with faculty members, postdocs, students, staff, and academic and human resource administrators, as well as giving one or two talks. Given all these components, most (but not all) campus-based interviews now last the better part of 2 days.
At some institutions, the teaching talk will be with a real class during which you may be asked to fill in for the regular professor. If this is the case, be sure to ask for sufficient background information about the course so that you can prepare well. Elsewhere, the teaching talk will be a mock teaching lecture, in which you may be asked to prepare certain material or may be allowed to make that choice yourself.
At other institutions, both talks will be research talks, the second often a "chalk talk," less formal and more interactive than the research talk with "more opportunity to explore ideas, direction of work, and some perspective of the field," as one senior faculty member put it.
Do your best to remember everyone's name, but if you can't, don't worry about it too much.
Don't expect to eat much
You'll probably have lunch with students and dinner with faculty members. Although more relaxed than the rest of the interview, these are not social events. Stay sharp.
During meals, you'll be talking too much to chew your food, and if you're the nervous type, you won't be hungry anyway. So bring along a couple of protein bars, a bag of trail mix, or some other snack so that you can squeeze in a few calories during those too-infrequent 5-minute breaks. Finally--and this is very important--make sure you have access to plenty of fresh, clean, cool water.
Keep talks general and short ...
The biggest problem with most research talks? It was unanimous: "Much too technical," said one faculty member/administrator. "This is not a talk to the 10 people in the world who actually care about minidetails. Remember that we will be judging how you might teach students by how well you teach us. It is not clever to pitch the talk above the heads of the faculty."
"[Candidates] usually do not have the big picture," wrote another respondent, "and present talks which do not place the work in the context of the field." Another wrote, "The most important flaws are the candidates' inability to present information or respond to questions relevant to a broad audience." Still another: "Make the talk focused, punchy, clear."
Your audience is seeking evidence that you can see the big picture. Although they are likely to be smart and well trained, few audience members will be specialists in your field.
Keep talks short because you want to leave plenty of time for interaction at the end. And don't abandon detail completely. You don't want to talk about the details, but you do need to demonstrate that you're aware of them.
... But be prepared to answer specific questions and let people know you're prepared
Don't use your talks to answer complicated questions that nobody has asked; you'll only confuse the audience. Lay out your research plan and its significance in a general way and leave time for discussion. End your talk with a brief discussion of specific preliminary plans, just to let people know that you've thought about it, and invite them to squeeze more information from you during Q&A. Your detailed explanations will be far more comprehensible--and far more appealing--when they come in response to a particular question from an obviously brilliant professor.
What kind of questions should you prepare to answer?
§ You should be prepared to present a detailed, step-by-step plan for attacking your research problem, and you should anticipate and be able to answer any technical and scientific objections your interrogators might raise.
§ You should be prepared to present an alternative approach in case the primary one should fail, to satisfy those audience members who are certain that your first plan won't work. Even if the skeptic is skeptical of the second plan, too, you'll be showing them that you aren't a one-trick pony.
§ You should be ready to present a funding strategy. To whom will you apply for research grants, and when? What evidence can you present that your work is fundable? That you, personally, are fundable? Have you written grant applications? Did they do well?
Modesty is the best policy
Keep your claims modest, because understatement comes over well, and even nonspecialists can smell exaggeration. And although having research funding already in hand is a great advantage, if you play it wrong, it can work against you. "Sometimes, the candidates with big extramural funding seem to think that funding alone is sufficient to carry them,” writes one experienced faculty member in an e-mail. “It isn't. Ironically, these same candidates want to know how many more dollars in start-up will be invested in their programs. They can come off as uninterested or, worse, selfish and arrogant. It is interesting to note that these are typically experienced scientists in nontenure-track research slots, and it is easy to understand why they have not landed more permanent positions."
Think hard about what you need to succeed ...
... and make sure they have it. Ask to see critical core facilities.
Do some thinking about management issues
Fourteen percent of Ph.D. graduates intend to do work that involves management, but nearly 50% find that their jobs require management skills. Management is part of the job and would be in the job description if there was one. You'll spend far more time than you anticipate filling out forms and dealing with compliance and personnel issues. So give management some thought. I don't mean that you should read Peter Drucker or any of those business-management tomes (although it probably wouldn't hurt). Stick to the nuts and bolts: Kathy Barker's article “At the Helm ” covers the most important management issues.
Give some thought to recruiting. How do you intend to get good students? How will you attract postdocs? How many of each do you intend to have in your lab in the first years? Would you prefer a lab weighted toward older personnel (postdocs and senior technicians) or younger personnel (graduate and undergraduate students?) (Here's a hint: Unless you're older or have a forceful personality, it's best to start out with a young lab; you want to be the one to determine the lab's direction.) Another important question: How much time do you intend to spend in the lab? Most (but not all) are likely to agree that the more time you spend in the lab during your first years, the better.
Take time to map out your answers to these questions. Your interrogators will want to know not only that you have thought through these issues but also that you have a sound approach that will minimize their need to cover your lack of management experience.
Make it personal
Scientists are human, and the best scientists are often driven by personal, even idiosyncratic, passions. Don't hide yours. The committee will not be hiring your publications or your research accomplishments; they will--it is hoped--be hiring you. So although narcissism is to be avoided, it is entirely appropriate to display a personal connection, a passion for the work. Keep it on a low boil (no When Harry Met Sally performances behind the lectern), but don't keep your love of your work a secret. Your future employers want to know what drives you. Show them.
Do your homework
It sounds cynical, but it's a fact: The best way to impress someone during a one-on-one interview is to show interest in their work. This is perhaps the most important factor in succeeding in the endless series of faculty interviews. A sure sign of a good interview is that the interviewer does most of the talking--and obviously enjoys herself. You might be able to get away with smiling, nodding, and exclaiming ("How fascinating!"), but it would be much better if you could insert the occasional insightful comment. "They should ask for a list of everyone they will meet," wrote one experienced scholar. "Then cruise the Web site of the department, even read the latest papers--or at least abstracts--of people they will meet."
Your interrogators are seeking a new colleague, a potential collaborator. "We value our candidates' interactions with us," wrote one senior faculty member, "and their potential for making us more than the sum of our parts." And don't stop at the department: "They must tell us if they have colleagues elsewhere on campus with whom they hope to collaborate--or we won't know until it is too late."
So now we move on to the more generic interviewing tips. One young woman I know felt so out of her depth at a job interview that she was moved to confession. She had applied on a whim and expected her application to be culled in the early stages. After a self-effacing research talk, she found herself speaking to the department's only female (a young, personable woman), and confessed that she felt like a fraud.
For the record: She got the job anyway, but that says more about the peculiar chemistry of hiring committees (the young woman voted against her, but the department's other members--all senior men--were oblivious) than it does about the wisdom of that particular move.
Treat everyone with respect, including administrative assistants, technicians, and undergraduate students, plumbers ... first, because they deserve your respect, and second, because one or more of those low-level functionaries might hold the key to your future.
When giving your talk, look all around the room. Walk to the back of the room from time to time and address some remarks to the slouching students. Their opinions matter.
Be confident ...
... but not too assertive
Some people can get away with cockiness and others can't. Sadly, this tends to break down by gender. Especially if you are a woman, you need to strike a careful balance. Work hard to appear confident and competent, but avoid being perceived as aggressive or overbearing. Some (especially older, accomplished) men don't deal well with competitive--even confident--women. It's a sad fact, but it's a fact.
Still, if you are naturally assertive and feel the need to choose between being cautious and being you, that's a very easy choice: Be yourself and deal with the consequences.
Trying to decide between overhead transparencies, slides, and a projected PowerPoint presentation? Bring all three. That way, if they can't figure out how to work the fancy projector, or if someone put all the slides in backward, you're covered. No need to take any chances.
Another sort of redundancy is also advantageous: Ask the same questions of a variety of people at different levels. Triangulate responses and test perspectives. After all, this is a two-way audition.
Don't get your back up over personal questions
Okay, so many questions about your personal life are illegal, technically. Some interviewers don't know that. Most mean well, even if their lack of social grace and cultural awareness is sometimes appalling.
Anyway, when you think about it, the prohibition is a little strange. Sure, it's well-intended, and it has some positive effects, but the division between professional and personal is a little artificial. You're all going to be working together, so it's natural for them to want to get to know what kind of person you are. You will, of course, have to make your own decision about how to deal with this, but I recommend that you go easy. If an interviewer asks you if you're married, assume the best, not the worst. Answer honestly with a smile and with conviction: You don't want to appear to be apologizing for something--or someone--you care deeply about.
There are limits, of course. Anything sexual is off limits. If an interviewer tries to seduce you or starts telling demeaning sexual or racist jokes, don't let the door hit you in the rear. Use your own judgment, but queries about future reproductive plans are clearly inappropriate and deserve a similar response. Still, be polite.
Dress appropriately, take a shower, and brush your teeth
"Scruffy, unkempt hair, dirty nails," wrote one prof in biomedical science at a large state school. "Inappropriate dress--e.g., a high slit skirt on a woman, or a holey T-shirt on a male. Academics are tolerant, but there is a limit to what will be seen as disrespect."
Make eye contact
Use a firm handshake (but don't break any hands)
Sell yourself, with integrity
The goal of an interview is to make a good match. For that to happen, you have to give an honest account of yourself. Salespeople have a lousy reputation. Happily (as you are now in that line of work), sales can be an honorable profession; the trick is to sell well-made, useful products, to present their virtues honestly, and to stand behind them. In this case, you are the product, so you can feel good about selling it.
The sales analogy works another way, too. The wiser members of the hiring committee realize that this isn't the last sales job you'll be doing. Just as your new job will involve more management than you anticipate, it will also involve more sales. Even as the committee is evaluating the product, they're also evaluating your skill in selling it.
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Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers.