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

The ever-elusive PhD work-life balance

Gemma Delafield is a third year PhD student at the University of Exeter’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute. Her research focuses on determining where in the UK to locate future energy infrastructure particularly with regards to the impact on the natural environment.

 

 

Can I do a PhD and still have a life? This was the question I asked myself three years ago when I was deciding whether to apply for a studentship or not. The very thought of entering back into the all-consuming academic lifestyle that I’d witnessed whilst at university wasn’t very appealing. I did not want to spend the next four years of my life feeling guilty for not having done enough work.

So I made a pact with myself, I would apply for the PhD if I promised to treat it like a job. I would work 37 hours a week, take the annual leave I was entitled to and not work evenings or weekends.

I actively prioritised a work-life balance from day one. For me, this means:

  1. I start early and finish early as I know my brain doesn’t function properly after 4pm.
  2. As strange as it sounds, I record what I’ve worked on and how many hours I’ve worked each day. This helps me remind myself that I’ve done enough. I deserve that beautiful guilt-free evening/weekend/holiday.
  3. I book annual leave into my diary and politely decline if someone tries to sneak something into my calendar.
  4. I do not look or reply to work emails outside of office hours.
  5. If I’m having a day where my brain is so befuddled nothing is happening I either go for a walk to clear my mind or I call it quits and go home.
  6. If I work extra hours one week, I ensure I take time off the week after.
  7. I write a to do list to break down the day/week into manageable tasks to stop myself feeling overwhelmed.
  8. I remind myself that a PhD isn’t just about conducting research. A well-rounded PhD also offers you the opportunity to build academic networks, teach, attend conferences and communicate your research with stakeholders – there is no need to feel guilty for doing these ‘additional’ things.

I know the way I work wouldn’t work for everyone. If you work in a lab or have a family it might not be possible to work standard hours or it might be that your brain doesn’t actually start functioning until 4pm. But whatever your working style, find a schedule that works for you and stick to it.

I believe that research culture plays a big part in whether people feel like they can prioritise a work-life balance. Find the strength to say no when people ask you to work extra hours. Look out for your peers, remind them they do not need to feel guilty for prioritising their wellbeing over their work.

Most importantly be kind to yourself. Take breaks, whether that is a walk or a week’s holiday, so you can come back to your research refreshed.

Written By: Gemma Delafield. You can find out more about Gemma and her research by following her on Twitter @G_Delafield

 

Benefits of the ‘Researcher Development Programme’ – an ECR perspective

Marco Palomino is currently a Senior Lecturer in ‘Information Systems and Big Data’ at the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics at the University of Plymouth.

Before this, Marco was a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School, based at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Truro. His research and teaching focuses on the acquisition and analysis of real-time, web based information and emerging trends, opportunities and constraints that might affect the probability of achieving management goals and objectives. Marco had previously worked at the University of Westminster as a Visiting Lecturer after he gained his PhD in Computer Science from Downing College at the University of Cambridge.

One of Marco’s publications for work conducted whilst he was at the University of Exeter was selected by the publishing house’s editorial team as highly commended. He puts part of his success with publications, public speaking and his career progression down to the training he took place in, whilst at Exeter.

Whilst at Exeter Marco took the opportunity to engage in as much development as time would allow and came to several of the Researcher Development Programme sessions that are tailored towards Early Career Researchers (ECRs).

The training courses for early career researchers at Exeter are brilliant – entertaining, informative and applicable

I found the sessions on giving presentations and visualising data particularly useful. Indeed, one example which has stayed with me to this day, used the London Underground map as a reference point. It was a perfect way to demonstrate how information visualised for a particular audience, should often be adapted to suit the needs of a different group of users, even if the underlying data is the same.

The training and development sessions at Exeter were also immensely useful when I subsequently went to conferences to give presentations and now for giving and preparing my lectures. Things that I learned from the Researcher Development Programme keep coming back to me on a daily basis and have really enhanced the way that I work. They were also fun to take part in and highly applicable.

Sometimes these are simple things like ensuring that my slides are being understood by the audience by reducing the amount of text, maintaining clarity and simplicity. This is advice has also been of equal use for when I prepare my online teaching materials.

However, some advice I gained has been fundamentally more important to my career, in general. I was always quite nervous speaking at conferences, but the advice I received whilst at Exeter about how to start a presentation, introduce myself and the content of the talk has proved essential. I use this now every day when I start my lectures and it has also aided in my preparation. Moreover, I used the technique for the interview for my current role, so it seems to work well.

My advice to current ECRs at Exeter is to make as much use of the training on offer from the Doctoral College as you possibly can, it really is excellent and can make a difference to your research activities as well as securing future roles. Finally, I am really happy to hear the plans for the future of ECR development at Exeter. The ‘ECR Hub’ and more bespoke training in the form of ‘Researcher-led Initiatives’ sounds like they are excellent additions.

Written By: This blog article has been compiled by Dr Chris Wood, Research Staff Development Manager in the Doctoral College, based on a discussion with Marco Palamino in February 2019.