How to prepare for an academic interview:

Advice for interviewing at your field's big conference

(or just surviving it)

by Eric M. Eisenstein

 

Note:  The advice contained on this page will be most germane to those seeking employment in marketing, other business fields, engineering, and humanities and other social sciences, in that order.

General Advice

  1. Strike fast. Try to establish your candidacy in the first 5 minutes of the interview. The standard advice for business interviews applies in academic job interviews as well. 

Your interviewers have probably been sitting in a room listening to 5-10 other presentations the DAY you interview.  

Many will tune out after 5 minutes no matter what you do!  Provide some take-aways in the first 5 minutes.

  1. Try to relax and be yourself.  Try to enjoy yourself.  This convention is a lot like a debutante ball -- your introduction to the field.  Handled properly it should be fun.

  2. Dress distinctively (but don't violate too many conventions).  After 2-3 days trapped in a hotel room interviewing, search committee members are completely fried or bored or both. It'll be hard to remember you if you looked and dressed like every other candidate.  My stab at what you should wear follows.  I'll try to get someone to send me something useful for women... I have no idea how women should dress.

  3. Watch your time.  Know how much time you have.  In marketing, your AMA talk should take you about 30 minutes to complete.  That leaves 15 minutes for questions, and about 5-10 minutes for you to ask questions.

  4. TAKE NOTES! If you're successful, you'll be interviewing with a lot of schools, and you'll forget people's names and faces. Keep a notebook and scribble down impressions after each interview.  Write down any specifics about the schools.  Most importantly, write down who was in the room.

  5. Bring food.  If you are successful, you may have a long stretch of interviews with virtually no break.  Bring a couple of granola bars and a bottle of water, soda, or juice.  Know if you'll need caffeine, headache medication, or any other drug, and bring them with you.  Do not accept offers for coffee or tea (or anything else, when asked "can we get you anything?") from your interviewers (the question is frequently rhetorical, but water is fine).  Do not eat during interviews.  If possible, be firm that you cannot interview for one hour around lunch (your life will be much better for it).

  6. Organize, then practice, Practice, PRACTICE!

    Visit Trina Sego and Jef Richards site at University of Texas, which has a lot more advice on what search committees are looking for (in general), and how to prepare.  They also have a long list of questions, but without answers.

    If you already have an offer in hand, visit my list of questions to ask after the offer.

 

Interview questions you must be able to answer

This section details questions that are likely to be asked.  This is a list of the tough questions, not a comprehensive list of possible questions.

The Questions

Strategy:  Have a good, articulate description of your research down pat in both short and longer versions, for experts and non-experts.  You should have a 5 min, 2-3 minute, 1 minute, and a 1-3 sentence answer.  These answers should be well-rehearsed and polished.  You need to know which length is appropriate.  In general, the more that you can make the longer versions extensions and elaborations of the shorter versions, the better off you are -- just start with the 1-3 sentences of overview, then continue elaborating through the 1 minute version.  If people's eyes are not glazing over, continue to 2 minutes, and then stop to see if they ask you go go on. 

Strategy:  You must be able to answer this question.  If your dissertation is a basic science-type project in an otherwise applied field, then you should be prepared to offer a succinct, compelling bridge between your problem (and results) to those who would use the result, and what applied research would benefit from your findings.  This may give you a brief opportunity to mention your future plans for additional research, if that research path will be more applied.  If you have already chosen a relevant applied problem, then be sure that you can explain (and show with data) that your new technique is superior to the existing state of the art, or explain how your idea changes the common wisdom.

Strategy:  Do NOT get into a protracted argument with the questioner.  Do NOT deliver a look of withering disdain and then respond with the thirty reasons that technique Y stinks, or is inappropriate to the problem at hand.  As the alternative phrasings make clear, your questioner may have developed or used the technique that you are about to discredit.

Good answers to this question depend on who is asking.  Sometimes the person is not in your field, or is old and out of date, or is plain wrong.  The safe answer is to respond with the strengths of your technique, AND THEN relate those strengths back to the specific problem and audience you are addressing with your research.  The feeling you want to convey is that you considered using technique Y, but chose X based on the specific advantages it had for your problem.  If the person is dead wrong, or if the technique is merely one of their personal favorites, one of their colleagues may come to your rescue (e.g., "...come off it Jim, nobody uses that technique for these problems any more..." -- it helps to make eye contact with the colleagues).  If the person keeps pushing you, or if things get adversarial, manage your time and politely say something like "there are clearly many ways to approach this problem, and it is unlikely that we will resolve them in the next 20 minutes... perhaps if I show you my results, we can return to this topic again at the end of the interview..."

Your advisor and other members of your department should have brought up all these questions with you.  It is your responsibility to have precise, reasonable definitions of words that are central to your argument.  If you are using loaded words (e.g., "normative", "reasonable", "fair", easy, hard, analogous) you had better be able to defend their use and to give precise definitions of what you mean.  If you don't need to use a word, don't use it.  If it is central to your argument, be precise and clearly express why it is central.  Examples:  

"I hypothesize that people will be more concerned with fairness when the situation is reasonable than unreasonable." -- This line just screams for someone to ask you to define "reasonable," define "unreasonable," ask how you quantify the degree of (un)reasonableness, and how you will measure fairness.  Furthermore, someone will ask you how your operationalization of fairness compares with the economic (mathematical) literature on fairness, and someone will ask if you are talking about procedural or outcome based fairness.  In short, you will not get off the first page of your presentation if you haven't thought through your terms.

"I am studying diffusion of innovation in high-technology markets." --  Why high-technology markets?  In what ways are high-tech markets different from fast-paced, but low tech markets?   Does your research hinge on the product being high tech?  Why or why not?  How do you define the market?  How sensitive to the definition and boundary of the market are your results?  Are you looking at first adoption or the diffusion of products through multiple generations?  ...

Having a paper or a talk ready that showcases a topic different from your doctoral research demonstrates strong research prowess.  Having research underway (but not in finished form) that is different from your dissertation is also a good sign. You don't need a lot of other research, just enough to make people believe that you are not going to be a one-hit-wonder.  In either case mention the other research that you are doing, perhaps by directing people to the relevant portion of your C.V., and deliver a well-developed 1-2 minute description of this research.  Be prepared to go into more detail.

Remember that this is a legitimate and important question -- it may be the toughest one you get.  Usually asked by someone outside your (sub)field. The question essentially asks whether you can explain the value of your work to an educated layperson.  It also asks you to grapple with the limitations of your research. Don't be afraid to acknowledge these, particularly if you can use such an acknowledgement to indicate where you intend to go in your research after this. (My doctoral research, you see, is only the necessary first step...).  You should have a good idea whether people think your work is any of the above adjectives before you go and interview.

Strategy:  Some variant of these questions will almost certainly be asked.  The questions fall into two types:  legal and potentially illegal.  Ordinarily, these questions are trying to ascertain how likely it is that you would accept an offer if one were made.

Legal Questions  

Questions of this type (numbers 1-4) represent your opportunity to show that you have done your homework.  You should sound interested in the school.  No school wants to be someone's safety or backup choice.  Know the department's strengths.  Know where the school is located, and what is nearby.  Link departmental strengths and nearby attractions to your lifestyle.  A slam-dunk answer would be something like this:

"You know, a lot of people ask me why I'm applying to more rural campuses.  The truth is, I don't like the city much.  As you can see from my CV, my undergraduate alma mater was located in an idyllic frozen winterland.  For all these years of work and graduate study, I have been wondering how to return to a similar halcyon environment.  Since Boondock U is a department with great research strength in <fill in sub-field here>, it is particularly attractive to me because I see <fill in linkages to your research, and how you will add to the strength, or compliment it>.  Furthermore, as I am a world-class cross-country skier, the flat, frozen tundra around Boondock U will be a source of endless entertainment during those dark winter months."

If you feel that your spouse or S/O is an asset, nothing stops you from adding (nothing stops you from volunteering information):

"Furthermore, my spouse is a freelance writer, and so he/she is very portable and can work anywhere.  He/She is looking forward to moving somewhere where there is less crime and noise so that he/she can concentrate on his/her writing." -- or anything equivalent that indicates that your spouse is portable and has no reservations about moving to wherever the school is located.

Similarly, reference family, friends, and other links to the area:

"I have a cousin (college roommate, friend, former business partner) in <Town less than 1 hr from Boondock U>, and it would be great to be only 1 hr from her, instead of seven hours."  or ... "Ever since I spent a semester visiting the west coast, I have always wanted to live in the Bay Area.  It is just stunningly beautiful.  I'll have no trouble leaving behind the cold, dreary East Coast."  ...or... "My friends who did their graduate work at Boondock U tell me that it has a vibrant cultural life, and a large and cohesive <fill in name of relevant ethnic, religious, or other community that you belong to> community, which is very appealing to me."

Don't lie.  The best response is that you will be done and defended by the time you begin your job.  The next best response is the exact date that you plan to finish, with a quick overview of the plan that will get you there.

Answer in terms that do not indict any member of your program, do not shed you or the program in a bad light, and which make it clear that you think that you received first-rate education and mentoring.  Anything can of course be improved, so think of interesting and creative things that you would like to have improved about the program.  Anything that smacks of knocking your professors or your coursework is a recipe for disaster.

If you have trouble answering this question, you should probably stop thinking about academic job interviews and instead pause to reconsider your life.  You are probably not yet beyond hope. 

Strategy:  Find a like-minded friend, spouse, or significant other if possible.  Log onto Travelocity and book yourself a long (1 week or more) vacation to somewhere with no computer, no Internet, no TV, and no phone.  Repeat for friend or spouse.  Preferably, choose a place with lots of sun so you can be outside.  ClubMed is an affordable alternative that satisfies the above requirements.  Don't worry about the money -- this is much more important.

Purchase, bring with you, and read Night, by Elie Wiesel; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; and All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren.  Add a book of accessible poetry, such as Poetry for a Lifetime, by Samuel Norfleet Etheredge, and try to find at least one poem that speaks to you.  Bring a recording of the complete Beethoven Symphonies and listen to numbers, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9.  Listen to the ninth at least twice.  If this doesn't help, then I was wrong, you are beyond hope.  Sorry.


Suggestions, additions, comments, or profundities:  email me - eric.eisenstein@temple.edu

This document is based on material written by Mary Corbin Sies, Dept. of American Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, who has a site more targeted at the questions that come up in the humanities recruiting process here.  Acknowledgements should also go to Trina Sego and Jeff Richards at U T Austin, Michael and Gamer and Anne Krook, at the University of Pennsylvania.  Links to both of their sites appear below.

All other portions are copyright Eric M. Eisenstein, 2001.  You may link to this page at will, but not mirror or reproduce it without permission from me.

Did you get an offer? Congratulations!

Stop by the related page: Questions after the offer

 

Other Interviewing Sites

Trina Sego and Jeff Richards have a great site at UTexas for interviewing advice.  Some is redundant with this site, but it's a great site.

About.com has a must-read site here... lots of links to other articles

Michael Gamer and Anne K. Krook have a site at the University of Pennsylvania, more targeted at humanities and English.

 

Academic Job Search Sites

Jonathan Dantzig has a great site on the entire process of negotiating an academic job.

Chris Golde wrote: After the Offer, Before the Deal -- how to negotiate once you have an offer.

Leigh Thompson, at Kellogg, has another site on how to negotiate an academic job.

I wrote up a bunch of questions that are culled from the above documents, you can find them here.