More job interview advice

Oct 27 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

There is a good post at the "how not to suck at graduate school" blog titled "how not to suck at academic job interviews".  I've got views on the post, but also its worthwhile for people who have jobs to re-read. I just heard a pseudo-job talk (another department at Almost-MRU is trying hire said person in a made-for position) and it was dreadful. I want to send the person who gave the talk this link. Their science may be cool, but the disorganization of the talk made me think: do I really want to work with them?

So. The list of things to take is useful. For pete's sake, invest in a detergent pen (Tide2Go). Nothing says "not prepared for the Major Leagues" like stains on your clothes. In my day there were hippie types who said "if they care how I look I don't want the job". Those people are doing something else, and its not something they chose. That hard copy of your presentation they tell you to take: its invaluable. Its good for practice. Its good for before you go to sleep (you do know that reading computer screens before sleeping is a bad idea? the blue light and all that). Backing up your talk on the web somewhere (email it to yourself, if nothing else), may you never need it, but it can be invaluable.

Memorize your talk. Usually, you can get away with memorizing the first 2-3 slides and then wing it from there. There are disciplines (humanities) where people, grown-up, BigDog, BSD people, read a script. When I've done history/philosophy of science stuff, I've been amazed at just how horrible it is to listen to some(non-professional)one reading their talk. Do not do this. You will sound terrible in our culture which values the spontaneity of no-script. Bring notes if you must. If you are good at it, you can do the double-screen thing & see your notes, but do not risk screwing this up.

Now, here is where I part company from researchtopractice: trolls. Here is what they say:

Every department has a troll. That insecure person who tries to build himself up by asking you impossible or unfair questions. Everyone else in the department has already identified this person as the troll. In this case and only in this case, you are allowed to smack them down. My favourite smack down, “Well, that is certainly a convoluted and mostly unrelated question, and here why that is not relevant to my presentation…” You will not lose any points with the rest of the faculty. Quite often, other faculty members will apologize to you for the behaviour of that troll or congratulated you on how well you managed it. Expect it. The troll seems to be a feature of every department and does not necessarily indicate that the department is flawed.

Firstly, every department doesn't have a troll. I love my dept at almost-MRU because there is no troll, as compared to former department, where not only the chair was The King of Trolls, but there were many Trolls-in-Waiting, although they seldom waited long. Secondly, you, dear young f(or olde) reader may not be able to identify the troll. What you perceive as a troll-question may in fact be something that someone asks in total innocence, or genuine curiosity. There are different sub-strands of research.  You cannot and will not know them all. Or, the troll may have friends. Powerful department chair-like friends. There are chairs who can be good to all junior faculty, but especially good to their favorite disciple.

This is a job interview. Treat everyone with respect. The suggested answer above can lose you the job. Really. You will lose points with people in the department. As a faculty you will be dealing with trolls: other faculty, administrators, students. Politeness is valued. Showing yourself to be rude (into which category the suggested answer falls) is not going to work. Some people in the dept may value it, others will not. The department may not be flawed with the existence of a troll, and it is something with which you can live, nay thrive. BUT do not shoot yourself in the foot.

I also strongly disagree with the "blowing people away" advice.

 You are trying to make the case that your research is interesting and important, but also can blow people away with its complexity and your mastery of technique. Remember you that you are not trying to communicate the details of what you do, you are trying to communicate your own awesomeness. Clarity is preferred, but it is okay for an audience member to say, “I am not really sure I understood everything, but it sure sounded impressive.”

Nope, nope, and double nope. Complexity is OK, and to show you have mastered something hard is very OK. But leaving audience confused: do not do this. Unless you are interviewing at a research institute without students, you are most likely being evaluated on your ability to teach and explain. It is acceptably awesome to have people walk away and say "I never though I could understand multivariate statistics, but that candidate made me see that I could". This does not mean over-simplify. This does not mean dumb it down. But if people can't understand what you do, they will not want to hire you.

Going to the first two lines of the above para:

Open your talk with a compelling discussion of why your material is important. Immediately after this skip ahead to the most complex aspect of your methodology or analysis.

Yes, start with why your material is important. Context. Show that you see the bigger picture. No one may care about bunny hopping, but translational research, the bigger question: it isn't just about the science, its about how you communicate the science. But to skip ahead to complex? I am not sure this is a good idea. Demonstrating that you can organize your ideas, that you can put a talk together that people can follow, is probably more important than strutting your stuff.

One of the things to keep in mind when crafting your talk is that few departments are mono-note. Biology departments include ecologists /evol bio and cell/molecular types. Med school departments can run the gamut from molecular through systems. Biomed engineering departments have modelers, cell scaffolding, and dudes building micro-hearing-aids. They are all very smart people. If you lose them in the first five minutes, they will tell this to the search committee and you will not get the job. In most departments, majority of faculty come to job talks. Interested people from other departments come to job talks. They also take the time to express opinions. They may not be the most important people on the search, and may not have the biggest voice, but if the BSD from the next department thinks what you do is cool, that will mean something.

But the closing of the post:priceless.

Have fun. Really. This is a great opportunity to present your research, your experiences, and yourself to a group of peers. Spend some time debriefing with peers or more experienced colleagues after you complete your interview. You do not typically receive feedback from your host. However, you can always work to improve your presentation and performance.

Really. Have Fun. Someone is interested in you, your work, your abilities. It's a compliment. Take it.



Important Update: If you read ONE THING about job interviews (hehehe, its not just one thing): Read THIS:

TT Job Search Advice from Around the Blogosphere

9 responses so far

  • Spot on. I completely agree that you should work hard to be polite and to be understood. Few people want to have an unintelligible bully as a colleague.

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    Totally agree with your breakdown of the first two points. Just go in with good faith assuming that all questions are sincere and address them accordingly. It never helps a candidate to think too much into it and try to give a smart-ass response. Always be polite because you are a guest in the department and they are trying to be as nice as possible. Never forget that.

    As for the second point - always, always, always make your talk as clear and intelligible as possible. No one gives a shit about being *stumped by your genius*. If they don't understand the talk, they don't understand your work and you are going down the list of potential recruits.

    Most important about the third point - this is a great opportunity to network and connect with potential future collaborators even if you don't get the position.

  • ecologist says:

    Exactly right. On all the points.

  • scitrigrrl says:

    Also remember that in most departments you will be talking to a much broader audience than ... say at a conference for your subfield. It is better to give a talk that includes detailed background and methodology in enough detail for both those in your subfield AND those who are in a totally unrelated field using different methodologies/subjects etc. Include additional explanations that seem redundant to you ("this is why this method is cool and important and what information it will give us") so that non-specialists can understand what you're doing why your project is important, and why your results have/will change the world (and more generally follow your talk). If that means simplifying some of the methodology, so be it. Interested parties will ask if they want to know more details.

  • LD says:

    Two rules for seminars (any seminar):
    1) don't go overtime
    2) make your audience feel smart

  • Zuska says:

    If you demonstrate you can handle a troll question with politeness and finesse your potential future colleagues will be impressed with your political savvy and interpersonal skills. If you are rude & dismissive, they will likely conclude they don't need more fireworks in faculty meetings & will move on to the next candidate.

  • Ola says:

    Agree on ALL of this.

    One more thing that came up while interviewing a candidate recently:

    If you're part of a couple, make sure to at least bring a copy of your other half's CV with you on the interview. You never know what opportunities there might be for the trailing spouse. Being able to go home to your child-vomit covered spouse and and say "I found a job for you too honeybun" is a nice way to end an out of town trip.

  • Ben says:

    Wow, these two bits of advice (smack down the troll and amaze them, but don't worry about whether they understand you) are shockingly bad. Either one would likely cause you to loose the job. The have fun part is important though. Sure, it's stressful but interviewing should be a great opportunity to have fun talking science with lots of new and interesting people.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    Strongly agree. Always be polite and respectful, even if you are treated rudely. You are absolutely being judged as to whether you will be a likable colleague.

    Along those same lines, respect your audience when you give a talk. That means tailor your talk to their expertise--don't give a high-level specialty talk to a diverse department. We've had front-runner candidates not get the offer because nobody understood their talk.

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