Academic Job Interviews: The Good and the Bad

Earlier this year, Next Wave hosted an entertaining evening for scientists looking for employment in academia and other arenas. The event brought together undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, and faculty from the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas--all interested in learning how to improve their interview techniques. Our four panelists that night included Andrew Morehead and Kathie Sindt, who presented "good" and "bad" faculty interviewing scenarios, and Grant Reed and Cindy Bouchez, both patent attorneys, who revealed to the audience what kinds of questions they can expect to face when interviewing for nonacademic jobs--in patent law in this instance. Both types of role-playing scenarios raised questions, suggestions, and advice applicable to all types of interview settings. In this first of two installments, we go through the academic role-playing scenarios; next week, we'll follow up with the patent law interviews.

Andrew Morehead received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke University, went on to do a 2-year National Institutes of Health postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and, in 1998, landed an assistant professor position at the University of Maryland's department of chemistry and biochemistry.

With a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Virginia already tucked under her belt, Kathie Sindt went on to enroll in a master's degree program in career counseling at the University of Maryland with the goal of establishing herself as a counselor who helps researchers develop their scientific careers.

In both role plays below, Sindt is the interviewer and Morehead is the postdoc interested in becoming a faculty member.

The Bad Academic Interview

SINDT: Hi--I'm Kathie. Come on in Andrew. Take a seat. So, I had a chance to hear your talk today and I was wondering: How do you plan to get your research started here?

MOREHEAD: Um...well, I guess I hadn't really thought specifically about what I was going to do right off the bat. I guess, obviously, I'd have to start out by just getting equipment together and just try and get the lab set up. I hadn't really given a lot of thought to my first experiment...I might recruit a student or two...but I hadn't really thought through about that yet.

S: So, how do you think you're going to be able to manage the people in your lab?

M: Well, um, y'know, right off the bat, I really just want a set of hands, I'm not really looking for, y'know, somebody who's going to try to get too far off bat. I mean it's really important to get these experiments run. I'll just say y'know, 'Do these experiments' ... and, er ... maybe in a few years I'll start thinking about expanding that role out a little bit.

S: Um ... Alright, so you need your students to do experiments in the lab. How do you plan to recruit them?

M: Well, y'know, I think, y'know, success breeds success in recruiting ... if you get some good results, people just come without a lot of effort on my part. I really think, in terms of reputation, I think you try to build a good one, people just come without any considerable effort.

S: OK. You know, I know I'm not supposed to ask you this, but um, are you married?

M: You really aren't supposed to ask me that!

The Good Academic Interview

SINDT: Tell me a little bit about how you plan to get your research started here.

MOREHEAD: Well, um ... y'know, there's a very clear experiment about three steps in, so clearly right off the bat, we need to, need to get this ligand made and there's pretty good literature for us to let us do that. And of course, it's good to do key experiments early on because if it doesn't work, I have several alternative plans that I'll be happy to discuss with you. I've already got a pretty good idea of what I need to do right off the bat. We'll be ready to go when I get here. I would like it to be that when I have some students join my group, that I'll be ready to have things rolling so that they can join a project that's in progress rather than just setting up the lab.

S: OK. So what other things do you have planned here that you can do if this doesn't work?

M: I think the key really is flexibility, in a sense ... y'know I have two projects that I've thought about, the one that I talked about first today was clearly the one I think has the highest chance of success, but, um ... as I said, the key experiment is about three steps in, so if that experiment doesn't go well, then I will go ahead and pursue the other plan of attack. So I would think within several months I would have a good idea of the progress of my work.

S: Alright. How do you view yourself as the manager of the people in your lab?

M: Well, I've seen several examples of management styles. My personal feeling--I feel that, for the students' success, that one of the advantages of being an assistant professor is that you spend a lot of time in the lab yourself, so I want to interact with them almost daily. And I'll be there to help supervise them, or assist a group of young scientists that have had only, y'know, only undergraduate experience for example. I think that I will have them write a research report at the end of each semester: That will allow them to polish their writing skills and also, when the time comes to start writing papers, they'll have all the pertinent data already in a form that's publishable. I feel that's an important consideration. And I'd like to have weekly meetings, this allows me to update myself on what's going on, not just in the lab but also, y'know, with other issues of classwork and stuff.

S: OK. How do you think you can manage to recruit the students to your lab when you get there? Nobody's going to know who you are.

M: That's a very big concern, I think, for assistant professors. Obviously you have to be pretty outgoing. ...You have to go to as many seminars as possible, you have to take every chance you get to do presentations, poster sessions, that kind of thing. You want to be active in the recruitment itself. You want to meet students, have a chance to talk to them. Also, this may or may not work out, but I mean, I would be interested in potentially teaching a graduate course early on, so that the first year will allow me to get to know them well in a classroom setting.

S: Alright. Y'know, Andrew, I know I'm not supposed to ask you this, but can you tell me, are you married?

M: Um ...Yes, yes I am. I have two small children, one is 4 and one is 2 and, y'know obviously, family is very important to me and so, one of the things that I do is, I take one day a week off to be with my family. My wife has a pretty good understanding, I think, of the time constraints of the job.

S: OK. Thank you.

"The basic difference we wanted to present," explains Sindt, "was that in the first interview, Andrew wasn't prepared. He hadn't thought about the type of questions that he would be asked." Preparation is key to establishing competent interview discussions, so what kinds of questions can you expect to face?

So Many Questions, So Much Time

"Well, some questions you can almost certainly anticipate," reveals Morehead to the audience. "We concentrated on the question of what was I going to do first when I started: That's what about half the people who I interviewed with asked me. The other half asked me 'what are you going to do 10 years from now?' That's actually a harder question because it's pretty easy to plan a short-term plan of attack, the longer-term ones are not so easy."

This Time It's Personal ...

"You're going to get some personal questions," he continues. "The bottom line is they're going to have to put up with you," so you have to expect them to try to get to know you during your conversations, says Morehead, who found his own real interview sessions "pretty informal." A lot of people, he says, were "very casual talking about their families, they're interested in you as a person, because you're going to work very closely with them for a long time. I think the best policy is just to be prepared if they ask those sorts of questions and to be--not brutally honest--but at least open."

Slides of Overheads and Overheads of Slides

Morehead prepared "very strongly for questions about my research and for questions about how I planned to get funded and how I planned to perform it," he explains. "I also prepared very strongly for my presentations because presentations are critical--this is the only time the whole department sees you. I had my slides for my research talk, I had my overheads, and I had overheads of the slides in case the slide projector didn't work." Some people want to know the details of your first and second experiments that you're going to run and many ask why is your project different? To address these interview and seminar questions, Morehead prepared three 10-page proposals that laid out the introductory set of experiments he planned to do. He had separate slides and overheads for each proposal that outlined his key ideas and schemes. "You have to be prepared for very wide-ranging questions and very specific questions," he tells the audience. "I also prepared a budget, because you don't want to come in looking like you haven't given considerable thought to the actual start-up costs."

During his job search, Morehead reveals that interviewers were more interested in what he was going to do to sell and perform his research than anything else. Your interview success hinges on how well you present yourself and your research. "I would say it's critical to present yourself as somebody who's going to fit into the department: Dress well and come across as confident." Ask yourself, Morehead concludes: "Are you going to be able to go out and convince people that you can do what you think you can do?"

In an upcoming issue, we'll check out more interview scenarios, tips, and hints with patent attorneys Grant Reed and Cindy Bouchez, who discuss what it's like to sit on the other side of the interviewer's desk.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers