Preparing for academic job interviews

Dr Gavin Buckingham is a senior lecturer in Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter. His research examines perception, illusions and sensorimotor control during object interaction, surgical learning, and virtual reality.

 

 

 

This blog post has been taken from Gavin’s personal blog Making it as an Early Career Academic

This post is about how to prepare yourself for a job interview in a UK psychology department, but I suspect that some of this advice might well generalize to life sciences in general (I, for example, work in a Sport and Health Sciences department). It will be of most relevance for those applying for a first or second lectureship in a combined research and teaching role (i.e., the majority of advertised positions).

Originally, this post was going to be about the whole job application process but a quick tally of my application:interviews ratio suggests that I could do with some improvement on that front myself (since 2010, 48 applications:8 interview requests). So I guess all I have to say on that front is that you should only expect to be shortlisted for ~15% of your applications, and closer to 10% if you are applying fresh from a postdoctoral position rather than making a lateral move (as I did in 2016).

Out of my eight interviews I have been asked to attend, I have attended six of them (one wouldn’t pay my flight costs from Canada, which I felt wouldn’t bode well and one came after I’d already accepted a job). From these six interviews I have been offered jobs twice, both times accepting the offer. So I’ve been through this process a fair few times. It’s worth noting at this point that I’ve never been on an interview panel for a lectureship position, so my perspective is completely naive in some respects (although I do talk a fair bit to colleagues who are on interview panels to prep for these things).

The process in the UK is startlingly different from in North America. In the US/Canada, you’ll typically spend several days at the institution during which time you’ll meet individually with everyone in the department, give an hour-long seminar, and perhaps a demonstration of your teaching. In the UK, they’ll fly you from wherever you come from for, at best, a 20-minute talk to the department and a 20 minute interview. And I mean at best. My first interview was a 12 minute (!!) job talk to the interview panel, followed by 15 mins of interview, costing the hosting department about £1000. Better-organized places might have lab tours/meetings organized for the candidates, but don’t take that as writ – I’ve had to organize my own ‘tour’ of the department’s facilities and meetings with staff more times than not. I always found this a bit disheartening but it’s usually just down to the difficulty in getting the interview panel to agree on a day, and that day is rarely convenient for everyone.

You will be given a title for your talk, and a duration. Stick to the title (don’t just give a research seminar) and get the time correct. Make it engaging – this talk will be the primary way in which they evaluate whether you’ll be a good lecturer – a skill increasingly valued by the UK market. After you’ve finished your talk, the people in the room need to understand what you do, where you aim to go, and what you’ll add to the department. Given that the time constraints are so tight, you have the option to give a very broad-brush overview of everything you do, or a deeper ‘case-study’ of your major project as an exemplar. Having sat in many job talks I’ve seen both work well. I tend to take the (slightly breathless) broad-brush approach, but be sure to include some actual data if you want to go down this road. Don’t neglect to talk about your teaching skills and show you’ve made an effort to identify your fit. Try to come across as friendly and approachable (what helpful advice..) – a good talk won’t get you a job, but a bad talk can certainly sink your chances.

Your interview may occur immediately after your talk, later on that day, or a different day altogether. Seems obvious but pay attention to your scheduled slots – I’ve seen candidates assume that the talk and the interview would be at the same time each day, subsequently missing their interview. The panel will be made up from at least one big shot (head of college or higher), the head of department, and various other important members of the department. They’ll all know the contents of your CV and will probably already have a preliminary (and unspoken) ranking of the candidates they are going to interview. Typically, they’ll invite you in to take a seat, introduce themselves, and then start asking questions one at a time. You will be nervous, and they will be tired. You will want to ramble, but try to resist that urge. Before attending the interview, you will need to do some homework and practice articulating your answers a bit.

  1. Try to identify the first grant you will apply for (funding agency, value etc), along with some detail about the research project. You will be expected to be applying for grants from the word ‘go’, so worth showing that you won’t have to spend too long finding your feet.
  2. You will probably have to answer some variant of the old chestnut: ‘where do you see your career in 5 years time?’ or ‘what will you hope to have accomplished by the end of your career?’. I have no idea how to answer these well. Try not to say something stupid, and be aware that these are distinct questions (nice little anecdote from my first interview: got asked the 5-year question. Gave a rambling answer. Asked follow up question asking ‘what I would hope to have accomplished in 10 years’. Totally blanked. Awful).
  3. Know which of your current papers you’d submit to the REF (you will likely only need to submit 1 or 2, but have four ready to articulate just in case). Don’t know what the REF is, or the criteria for entry? Then spend some time on the internet finding this stuff out.
  4. Figure out what new course you’d like to develop and what existing courses you’d like to contribute to (stats is always a popular one here). Have a look at the undergrad-facing side of the website so you can get a sense of the course structure and the taught content.
  5. Figure out who you’d like to collaborate with in the dept because (1) it might come up in the interview and (2) you might like to sound them out for advice before the talk/interview anyway – if you want to collaborate with them then they are likely keen for you to get the job.
  6. Have a think about what administrative ‘opportunities’ you’d like to take up. A good one is organizing seminars. Another good one (which I’ve always done) is managing undergraduate dissertations. Regardless, come up with something to say.
  7. For every answer, try to elaborate a bit beyond the question asked. I like to think that the panel are not asking a question to find out the answer, but to find out something about you. Every answer you give should be an opportunity to impress them (bear in mind this doesn’t mean gloating about your accomplishments – this rarely goes over well in UK academic settings).

Miscellaneous points:

  1. Often a point of contention, but I’d always suggest wearing a suit and tie (advice geared toward gents obviously – I have no insight into what female candidates should be wearing).
  2. Bring your passport, even if you’re a UK person who has driven to the interview – it’ll be needed for admin stuff.
  3. You may get the opportunity to go for dinner with some members of the department. Don’t get drunk. Don’t voice your edgy views on non-academic topics. You’re still being assessed.
  4. You may get the opportunity/be forced to interact with the other candidates. This can seem weird at first, but is actually quite fun – they are almost all at the same career stage as you are and having a similar set of emotions. Be supportive of them. I’ve stayed friends with several who I’ve met at job interviews, and you are all likely going to be ending up attending similar conferences eventually.

Written ByDr Gavin Buckingham, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Health Sciences. Find out more about Gavin and his research on Twitter @DrGBuckingham