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How to ace your next academic interview
Whether you’re applying for a PhD, postdoc, or a tenure-track position, an academic interview will almost certainly be part of the process, especially since competition for limited places continues to increase.
For many, interviews are an unpleasant experience that must be endured rather than enjoyed. However, they are a somewhat predictable process and so with a little preparation and practice you can consider them as just an exciting opportunity.
Research, Plan, Practice
When preparing for any interview, try to think like one of the interviewers. They will be trying to figure out three major things:
- Are you capable of fulfilling the job role?
- What motivates you? (Both generally and to do this job specifically)
- Are you a good fit? (Within your potential team, department, faculty, the institution)
And they probably won’t just take your word for it. You will need to provide them with evidence for each of these factors.
Plan for certain questions. To assess your ability to do the job required they will likely want to know about your research history. Be prepared to summarise your previous research, the skills you learnt and not just why it was interesting, but also its importance to the field. Remember, not everyone on the panel will necessarily be an expert in your research area, so be prepared to explain it to non-experts.
Another thing they almost always want to know is what makes you unique, and how is that going to benefit them. In other words, “What makes you the best candidate?”
If the position includes any teaching, then be prepared to talk about your approach to education and how you put that into practice.
Top tip: One question that often catches people out is “Why do you want this job?”. “Because I’ve just finished my degree/PhD/Postdoc position, and I don’t know what else to do” or “for the money” are not good enough answers (even if they’re true).
To show your motivation (and that you will fit in well), research the institution that you have applied to. This may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people go to interviews without doing it. You probably did some research when you were deciding to apply, but now is the time to dig a little deeper. Find out what the institution's mission is, how it’s funded, the degrees that the faculty offers, the makeup of the student population, the department’s specific areas of expertise, what their motto is, etc. The more that you know, the more you can show that you care about getting the position, and the less likely you are to get caught out with a question about them that they think you should know.
Top tip: Try and find out who will be interviewing you. That will give you time to do a bit of research on each of the people interviewing you, providing you with some insight into what motivates them.
The National Institute of Health has curated an excellent list of questions that often come up.
You may well be asked to give a presentation on your own research or a topic chosen by the interview panel. Make sure you get all the instructions e.g. length, slides, available resources (such as a projector, laptop, pointer, etc.). Once you know exactly what they are looking for, get everything you need ready and practise it out loud (even if it makes you feel awkward!). For more tips on giving presentations read Scientifica’s article: 9 simple and effective public speaking tips for scientists.
The final countdown
In the last 24 hours don’t try to do too much. Read over any notes that you have made during your research and preparation. Make sure that your travel plans are fully worked out and that you have given yourself plenty of time to get to the interview. Figure out what you’re going to wear and make sure it is clean, ironed and ready to go. If you have a presentation, make sure you have your slides organised.
Top tip: Send your final presentation to your email address or a cloud storage service just in case your computer decides to stop working or your pen drive goes walkies, that way you will definitely be able to get the file you need.
Do not cram late into the night. Have a relaxing evening and go to bed early to make sure that you are fresh and have plenty of energy. Eat a decent breakfast in the morning. Don’t drink caffeine just before, but make sure you have something to drink with you in case you get thirsty.
In the final day before your interview, you should do all you can to ensure that everything goes smoothly on your way to, and when you arrive at, the interview. Any mishaps will likely lead to stress, which will only make you more nervous.
After the lion’s den
Once the interview is over, thank the interviewers for talking with you and then as soon as you are out of the room, try to stop thinking about everything that just happened.
Going over the interview and presentation straight afterwards probably won’t help. It is easy to concentrate on anything that you think didn’t go particularly well, but you can’t tell what the interviewers are thinking, and therefore it is a pretty useless activity.
Within 24 hours, it is usually worth sending a thank you email. If you don’t get offered a position, this will leave them with a good memory of you, and they may contact you should another position become available.
If you haven’t heard anything by the date they said they would contact you, don’t panic. It doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t get the position. The day after (or after a week if you weren’t told a date), you can give them a call or email to see what is happening. It may be that they got some more candidates at the last minute that they want to interview before getting back to you.
Finally, if you don’t get offered the position, ask for feedback. Every interview is an opportunity to learn something. Now is the time to start reflecting on how you felt the interview went. Consider how the feedback relates to your own thoughts and use any insights to improve for next time.