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Interviewing

Phone & Skype Pre-Interviews

Phone and Skype pre-interviews are becoming more common. Try to avoid it if you can (Skype is an easy way to filter out folks for free, while flying someone out is an investment). Yet, I interviewed candidates on Skype when I was on a search committee, and we did eventually hire from those who passed several rounds of this means of communication. Some people prefer video while others prefer phone. In one case a search committee member ambushed a candidate, calling this person without prior warning. I usually give warning. For video interviews, dress as you would for an interview, at least for the part of you that will be visible.

Our department operates these this pre-interview by breaking up a pool of 20 candidates among five search committee members, each interviewing four candidates.  I gleaned information that was not immediately obvious from the application packet.

Here is what search committee members usually do:

  1. Ask questions about their research statement and try to get an idea about their depth of content knowledge. Another reason to do this is to get a good idea for what the candidate is really doing and to gauge how versatile they are as researchers, and to judge their potential to bring funding. We ask about which grants they would apply to, which agencies, and about their proposal writing experience.
  2. Why are you interested in our institution? Good answers ranges from geographical preference, to family living in the area, to relevant industry in the area, to ‘I want to collaborate with Dr. Bob.’ This last point shows that the applicant spent the time to look through the department website and researched the faculty with whom she or he would be working. The more they knew about the research, the better ogg goes the interview. However, if the applicant does not mention anything about the faculty, we may ask with whom she/he wanted to collaborate. If the response shows that no homework was done on this topic, interview ‘points’ are lost.
  3. What do you need to be successful here?  Every applicant must be prepared for this question. There are several parts to it. One is,"How much money do you want?"  What we want to understand is a) Do you have a good idea of how much things cost (i.e. have you thought this through?) and b) Can we afford you? It is up to the candidate to figure out what equipment is needed to realize their vision (think about things like equipment list). They do not need to have exact numbers, but at least have a ballpark figure. This also gives an opportunity to understand the depth of their knowledge about hardware and pricing. It is critical to understand what is reasonable and what is not. This functionally depends on the caliber of the institution and on the nature of the research.  Do not forget that some people consider student cost to be a part of the start-up, while others think of it as a separate matter and view the dollar figure as just equipment and expendables. For one who models, for example, cost is nearly negligible.
  4. Ensure that your career does not depend on some super-expensive machine that is unavailable on our campus*. As a student or postdoc, you do not really think about the logistics of this, because when you work on your project, all of these are typically already in place.  But if you say that you need to use something that costs one million dollars, we will ask you where you plan to find this machine, and your answer should be good, which means that you should have looked up whether our campus has it, or maybe a hospital or another university near by. The last thing we want to happen is to invest in you but realize that you cannot do the work because of something like this.
  5. Communication skills/English proficiency. This is self-explanatory. Of course we understand that English might not be your first language, but there is a minimum expectation (so you can at least teach courses and the students would understand what you are saying.
  6. Teaching experience. We are also looking for the ability to teach chemical engineering courses (a concern for non-ChE diplomas). You can talk about anything from your teaching-assistant experience to volunteering in a high school or tutoring. It is not the biggest thing, since your teaching can be improved by sending you to workshops, but it is still important to show that you are enthusiastic about it. The best way to do this is by establishing a track record of going out of your way to gain teach experience.  Think about what classes do you prefer to teach and why.  Be aware that most pick thermodynamics (because we have so much of it, and its relatively easy).
  7. Miscellaneous. If you already have grants, we ask whether you can bring them with you. Obviously if you can, that gives you a huge edge over the other candidates, but most postdoctoral grants are not transferable to faculty positions. (Unless it is something like the K99/R00 transition grant. If you have one of those, then almost any university will take you!)
  8. Be friendly! One candidate argued with me when I asked about the research. As I said above, I ask questions to get an idea how much is known. Sadly, in this case the Skype interview got nasty fast. And I walked away from it feeling that I would not want to spend the next twenty years working next door to this person. I reported as much to the search committee.

*A Special Note to Modelers:

Typically, universities want to hire modelers because they require smaller start-up packages.  Because super-computing resources are typically available through national resources (e.g. XSEDE https://www.xsede.org), gone are the days when "I wanna build a local cluster" is a legitimate reason to waste hundreds of thousands of tax-payer dollars. An experienced computational scientist should understand that setting up and maintaining a cluster yourself is a huge pain.  Sure there are exceptions when exotic software is not available on the supercomputer; for such cases, you should check whether the university you are applying to has local HPC resources.

On-Site Interviews

In our (ChE) profession, it is customary that the visit should not cost you a dime. For this reason, the department only invites between five and eight candidates to the university (number of applicants, 80-200).  So you will need to do a couple of things:

  1. Keep your receipts.
  2. Understand that the department has limited resources. Deparments will try to invite people who do not live across the country from them.

But anyways, congratulations if you got to this point.  You are on the short list, so now is your time to shine.

Dinner the Night Before

Dress nice. Be polite. Observe etiquette. Try to steer the conversation towards small talk as much as you can. Your interview has already started, keep in mind that you will be probed throughout the dinner.  Don't have the same conversations with them the next day when you have to spend more time with them.  At dinner, do not talk about research too much, instead show your human side. They, in turn, will try to assess: how interested you are in the position; whether you've had other interviews before (or have many lined up); what kind of personality you have; what your geographical preferences are, etc.

Morning Pick-Up

A professor will pick you up early in the morning and you will have a nice long awkward one-on-one with this person... while stuck in traffic, looking for a parking spot, and walking to the department.

Interaction with Faculty & Facility Tours

During this time the faculty members will talk to you about their research. You can, and should, ask the secretary to send you the schedule of whom you will meet. Read at least one of the latest papers and at least one most highly cited paper for each faculty from the department. The ones with whom you actually meet, you should especially read. In any case, this part is not too hard, though some might immediately ask you hard questions.

Lunch

You will have lunch with up to six faculty members, some of whom you will likely already have met, others not. They will ask you things like, "So what will be your first step, after we give you an empty office and an empty lab?"  They will also want to know whether you can somehow collaborate with them. Go out of your way to stretch your research to their needs, because they do want to collaborate.

Meeting with the Dean

The dean actually gives out the positions in the university, so he will be trying to gauge how good of an investment you are and how fundable your work is. Expect the conversation to be about money. Give him a brief overview of who you are and what you are about. Then he/she will ask you some questions that are specific to your case (e.g., details of your start-up request, whether you are eligible for some funding opportunity that they know about).  This usually doesn't last longer than half an hour, but be prepared for small-talk. You can ask him/her some questions regarding the university, what you can expect on the job, basically act interested and ask questions that a person who seriously cares about working there long-term would ask. Its always a good idea to look up the Dean's background.

Seminar & Chalk Talk

After lunch, it is your time to tell them about who you are and what you do. Typically, the seminar should be about an hour (40mins + time for questions), while the chalk talk is probably half that time, but again you should ask for the format. 

The seminar is what you did (your PhD work) and what you are doing (your postdoc work).  While the chalk talk is what you plan to do in the next five years (you can mention beyond that, but short term is the emphasis). The seminar should be easy for you, since nobody knows your work better than you, but still expect technical questions. Chalk talk is usually done on PowerPoint, just like a seminar.

In the chalk talk, you should briefly go over:

  1. Your teaching plan. Essentially just describe your philosophy.
  2. What courses you want to teach. Look up which are offered by the department and which are missing.
  3. Courses you want to develop. It is always good if your particular experience can fill in an existing niche.
  4. Your teaching experience.  This can be just 1-2 slides.
  5. Talk about the skills and toolsets that you will bring into the department

Next is the meat of the chalk talk:

  1. Describe ~4 future proposals: 2 short term projects, and 2 long term.
  2. Talk about how you will make things happen (established or needed collaborations, equipment needs)
  3. How you will finance each one. Mention grant opportunities that you will apply for and when; or maybe you already have some grants pending or even funded.  The more detail provided the better; it shows that you have the maturity level to pull this off. Talk about which agency, which division, which type of grant. Even mention the grant officer name. It is also important to establish that you will be independent from your previous bosses; common criticism is that your future work is an extension of what you've been doing under somebody else's guidance, so how will you compete with established people? 
  4. You should present a few tables summarizing your start-up request:  key equipment and estimated capital costs, annual costs for running the lab, student years (or maybe you want a postdoc). The committee needs to have a ball-park idea what your needs are and what kind of package they will be negotiating with you. 

Meeting with the Promotion & Tenure Committee

After you are done with the chalk-talk, you will get a short break and then meet with the P&T committee. They are senior members at the department. It can be a bit awkward as there is no clear agenda as far as what the conversation should be about. This time is for you to ask questions about anything (the hiring process, the school, the department, student quality, teaching load, work setting, where are the recent hires (did they get tenure?), internal politics).  Express your thoughts in regards to improvement of the program.

Exit Interview

Finally, you will have a one-on-one with the department head. This person should be your friend and a parent-figure. Hopefully, this person will end up being your mentor. They will not make an offer there, but they will try to get an idea about how interested you are about the job, what your situation is and have a nice chat.  It is very important to get a department head who likes you, but also keep in mind that they are not always permanent and could be replaced by someone else. You want to go to a place that is not a snake nest, but a collegiate environment.  If you have places from which to choose, go for the one where you feel most at home and the the rest will fall into place.

Say your goodbyes, take a breather, fly home and reimburse your receipts through the secretary.

Following Up

One to two days later, write a thank you email to every professor you met. Try to customize it to that particular person. Although, they've probably already given their feedback about you, if you do not send an email, it makes it look like you are not very interested.

The most important person with whom you will have contact is the department head. He/she will probably try to buy some time for them to interview more people, make their decision, and maybe even make offers to other people. You may have to wait until the top choices have either accepted or declined the offer to receive your final response.  You won't know what is happening because they'll be singing a completely different song to you.

Talking to Students during the On-Site Interview

During on-site interviews, some of the departments will allocate a slot for you to meet the students. What should you talk to them about?

If you look at running your lab like a "business" or a company, the students are your "workers". Therefore, the students are your most important resource - regardless of how good you and your ideas are, the students are the ones who execute them (you will NOT have time to do research yourself). So it is very important for you to recruit quality workers into your group. This is especially true for computer modelers, where the work requires more mental ability, and less manual labor.

Depending on the school, the student quality changes: for example at smaller schools, most of the students want to do hands-on research, quickly get out of school and find a high-paying job. So if you were a modeler, it would be more challenging to find a good student to do research for you. The school's reputation, the geographical location, the tuition cost, and even the selectivity of the graduate acceptance committee can all affect the quality of the student that applies / gets accepted to your school or department.

So when you meet with the students, ask them about their background:

  • Where are they coming from?
  • Which schools did they attend?
  • What majors did they graduate with?
  • How did they find out about this school?
  • What made them decide to go here?

Ask them about their experiences so far:

  • What research they are attracted to?
  • Have they even done research before?
  • Which groups have good reputations within the department?
  • Where do the students live, close or far from campus? (This helps you determine how much face-time you will have with them.)
  • How many hours per week do they work?
  • What are their ultimate goals? Are they trying to go to academics or industry after they graduate?  Do they want to stay in the US or venture abroad?  What do they expect to get out of their school experience?

Ask them about their future:

  • Have them committed to an adviser yet? Is there any interest in joining your group (if you were to end up there)?
  • For undergrads – Are they interested in grad school? If they are interested in Industry – where and why?

The answers these questions can give you an idea of what you will be dealing with both in your classes and in your research.

Most likely, however, this is just an opportunity for you to gather information. The hiring committee most likely doesn’t ask the students for their feedback about you, nor will anyone be monitoring or judging your interaction with them. Think of it as an opportunity for you to interview your potential employees; where your goal is to access which school has the better talent-pool for you to select from.
Having said that, some of us prefer NOT to choose from the already-accepted students, and instead perform an external search.