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Gaining an edge in overseas interviews

Elizabeth Tasker

Elizabeth Tasker

Courtesy of Elizabeth Tasker

In many countries nowadays, there is increased pressure for early-career scientists to do a postdoc abroad to broaden their experience and boost their competitiveness. Furthermore, the international nature of scientific research means that the permanent position you desire may well be outside your home country.

Interviewing for positions abroad poses greater challenges than applying locally. Different countries have different approaches to interviewing. The location of the interview, its format, and even the kind of questions you can expect cannot be assumed. Consequently, applicants who learn early about the local interviewing standards can gain an edge over those who remain unaware of these differences.

When I hired my postdocs, I interviewed over Skype only, since most of the candidates were not in Asia.

—Elizabeth Tasker

Diverse settings

While it is common to be invited for an in-person interview when applying for positions close to home, the extra costs of overseas travel mean that some institutions have developed different ways to recruit internationally. Applicants, therefore, need to be prepared for a range of interview settings, and they need to ask in advance what the interview process will entail.

Some places overseas will still invite applicants for in-person interviews, especially if you are applying for more senior positions. At the University of York in the United Kingdom, “we do ideally like candidates for lectureships and professorial posts to attend in person because it is a key appointment for the university,” says Paul Ellison, a human resources (HR) recruitment adviser at the university. At Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, and at other universities in the United Arab Emirates, in-person interviews are the most prevalent method of recruitment for positions at the higher academic ranks. “Face-to-face interviews will normally be arranged for full professors/head[s] of department/senior positions,” writes Robert Milne, the director of institutional effectiveness at Khalifa University, in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Robert Milne

Robert Milne

Courtesy of Robert Milne

If you are not asked to fly to the interview, what alternative arrangements might you be offered?

Telephone or video interviews are increasingly common for academic posts at all levels. At the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in the United Kingdom, which mainly employs permanent staff, a video interview is often conducted before a candidate is invited to interview in person. “STFC would encourage a Skype interview, to ensure that bringing a candidate over is in STFC[’s] and their interests," writes a STFC spokesperson.

A video conference may also entirely take the place of an in-person interview, especially for less senior roles. At Khalifa, for example, “[a] job offer is often made on the basis of one or two conference calls, especially for Assistant Prof. positions,” Milne writes. The few postdoc positions that come open at Khalifa are also filled through video interviews, unless the university is running a large recruitment drive, in which case the search committee travels overseas to interview candidates.

Paul Ellison

Paul Ellison

Courtesy of Paul Ellison

At the University of York, Ellison says, the decision whether to fly in overseas postdoc candidates is made case by case, depending on the distance and the funds available. This is also the experience of Elizabeth Tasker, a British assistant professor of physics at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “When I hired my postdocs, I interviewed over Skype only, since most of the candidates were not in Asia,” Tasker writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. For a faculty position, the money likely comes from the department, but “for a postdoc, an individual faculty member is often funding the hire from their own research budget, so money for interview visits may be limited or have restrictions; for instance, my grant specifically cannot be spent on students, so it is difficult to pay for a postdoc interview visit if the candidate ha[s] not yet graduated,” Tasker explains. Most principal investigators “would prefer an in-person interview, but they can only pay … for reasonably short trips, so no transatlantic or transpacific.”

Occasionally, a post—especially a junior post—may be filled with no interview at all. Italian-born researcher Riccardo Sturani, now a group leader at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) in Brazil, did two postdocs outside of his home country, one in Finland and another in Switzerland. Both were awarded solely on the basis of a written application.

Who pays?

If you do travel, one question you should ask is whether the institution will pay your way. Many will—for example Khalifa University and the University of York cover travel expenses for overseas candidates, and Sturani says he was reimbursed after he interviewed for his current position. But before joining UNESP, Sturani traveled to the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris—four times—to interview for permanent positions. He paid his own way each time.

Ricardo Sturani

Ricardo Sturani

Courtesy of Ricardo Sturani

Asking about reimbursement can be culturally delicate, so Ellison recommends having “a look at the institution’s website to see if it explains their policy for recruitment.” Your interview invitation letter may discuss expenses and even include an expenses claim form, Ellison says. If the invitation leaves you unenlightened, Ellison recommends making an informal phone call to the HR department and cautiously asking, “I’ve attended a number of other interviews and the policy has been slightly different from institution to institution. Could I just clarify your policy on travel expenses?”

A broad range of styles

Those traveling around the world for interviews should be prepared to encounter a wide range of interviewing styles, as did Steven Spallone, today an associate professor of mathematics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune. Spallone, who is originally from the United States, interviewed for an assistant professorship at the University of Georgia in Athens in the United States as well as a lectureship at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the United Kingdom. “At the University of Georgia, there was no formal interview; I spent a day with various members of the math department, and all the questions were mostly informal.” The most formal part of the interview was lunch, he writes. His experience in India was similarly relaxed. The interview only took about half an hour, although this was in addition to an hour-long talk he had given on a previous visit. “The questions were pretty straightforward: How would students understand your accent? What projects would you work on with students? What frustrates you the most about India?”

Steven Spallone

Steven Spallone

Courtesy of Steven Spallone

In contrast, at UEA, Spallone “gave a 20-minute presentation and sat for an extremely formal 45-minute interview. … There were questions about my ability to get funds, questions about … collaboration ideas for various categories of collaborators (undergrad, grad, postdoc, colleagues, mathematicians around England), and questions about how I would structure a course,” he writes.

For her current associate professor position, in the Faculty of Engineering at Shinshu University, Wakasato—in her native Japan—Akimi Fujita also had a formal interview. The department’s dean and other professors “all wore suits and sat down on a long table lined up, facing me. They were all nice, and in the end … we started to joke around (like they started to ask me questions about my kickboxing experience), but the structure and the setting were very formal,” Fujita recalls. As a native, she was prepared, but foreigners should take note. It’s easy enough to ask the search committee or the HR department in advance what the interview will entail.

Akimi Fujita

Akimi Fujita

Courtesy of Akimi Fujita

Whatever the format of the interview, it is crucial to remain professional at all times. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to overlook when you’re doing a video interview from home. “It is expected that candidates treat this as a formal interview, so dressing formally is recommended,” Milne advises. “Check what is in the background—for example a bookcase looks better than children’s toys—and set up the camera so that you are looking at it. Sitting at a desk is better than on a sofa.”


Finding out in advance about local customs is also advisable, to ensure that you feel comfortable in the new environment and that you do not offend or alienate interviewers. “Know the basic set of manners in each country, like you must bow deeply when you enter a room in Japan at an interview. You must not do that in the West, but perhaps smile and greet,” Fujita advises. Cross-cultural conversations can also be awkward, so studying the culture as much as possible will help you reduce opportunities for misunderstanding.

If the culture is very different from your home country, visiting first is advisable. Tasker, who took a 4-month postdoctoral fellowship in Japan before applying for her current position, recommends that foreign scientists considering a position there “take opportunities to visit, preferably for an extended period” and in an academic capacity. “Then [the search committee] will have more faith that the position is going to work out well.”

Your chance to ask

The more distant the culture, the more important it is to ask questions during the interview. You cannot assume that teaching load, research facilities, grants, and conference travel allowances (for example) are the same all around the world. In the United Arab Emirates, Milne writes, “most universities are less than 15 years old … and many of these are small and still in the throes of becoming established.” As a consequence, he says, teaching loads can be high.

Many people feel uncomfortable discussing salary and employment benefits—all the more if they have no idea what the local negotiating customs are. Given how delicate the salary issue can be, it is probably best to avoid it during job interviews, and it certainly should not be something you bring up early on. If you do get to the point of discussing salary—almost always after an offer has been made—ask “very politely whether there is any room for negotiation; [interviewers] shouldn’t be offended by such an inquiry,” Tasker says. Tasker found that during her interview for a faculty position in the United States, negotiation was a huge part of the deal. “This was very different from Japan, where I was offered the job offer.”

Despite the differences you may encounter from country to country, one fundamental principle remains the same, and it’s especially important in an international context: In an interview, be polite but authentic. This will help the search committee find the best candidate for the job, and it will help you find the right job for your professional and personal proclivities and aspirations. Faking it could make for an awkward interview, Fujita says, and ultimately, “we cannot change ourselves for an interview in a different country with different customs.”