You've spent years in school, conducted research, taught some classes or perhaps held a postdoc position. You have a dossier that includes glowing letters of recommendation, a few published papers, a strong curriculum vitae and an application that's impressed a university's search committee. Now you've finally gotten that call you've worked so hard for: They'd like to bring you in for an interview.
Experts agree that you wouldn't have received the invitation if the search committee didn't think you could do the job. What they're trying to evaluate are intangibles: Your personality, your creativity, how well you understand the difficulties you might encounter in your research and your ability to relate to other faculty in the department.
"Once [the search committee] has selected you, they have already determined that your academic credentials are sufficient to be hired," says Frank Collins, PhD, a psychology professor and former clinical director at Oklahoma State University. "In the interview, they are looking at how well you articulate what you can do, as well as your social ability."
Here, seasoned experts and new faculty offer tips on how to navigate the academic interview and win the call that's most exciting of all: The one that says, "You've got the job!"
How to prepare
A typical academic interview takes place over one to two days. You'll usually share meals with your university hosts, meet with faculty, deans and department chairs, give a job talk (see "Job talk basics") and attend an evening social.
"There isn't a single instant when you aren't being interviewed," says Emanuel Donchin, PhD, the University of South Florida's psychology department chair. "You are being evaluated when you are picked up at the airport, when you chat at a cocktail party. It all becomes part of the data that will ultimately make the difference."
Beware of thinking otherwise, cautions Latoya Conner, PhD, who began her first academic position in 2006 as assistant research professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. "They'll say it's just dinner," she says of her interview experiences. "But dinner's never 'just dinner.' They told me that, but I was still being interviewed."
Because you'll have to be on your game for what can be very long, intense days, Conner recommends getting a few days of rest before the actual interview. She also advises that to be at your best you should carry water or juice and a bit of food that you can eat during breaks.
Perhaps most essential to conversing intelligently with your interviewers is knowing about their research. Read the department's Web site before you interview, and take a look at some of the faculty's publication abstracts, which you can also find online, says Brian Yochim, PhD, an assistant professor in his first year of teaching at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
What to talk about
Your main job on interview day is to sell your proposed program of research, experts say.
"We're looking for people with very clear, well-defined and well-articulated research programs," says Donchin. "We are clearly very interested in what you've done, what you've published, but it's crucial to us that you have a very clear idea of what you want to do in the future, for the next few years, and that you know how to move from one point to the next."
It's also important to convey your concrete, specific interests, says Donchin. "Saying 'I'm interested in the brain' is wonderful," he says, "but not as good as saying 'I'm interested in the way memory relates to synaptic plasticity.'"
Practice delivering a short summary of these points, advises Mark P. Zanna, PhD, an editor of "The Compleat Academic" (APA, 2004), as not everyone you meet will be able to attend your job talk.
"You have to be able to talk about your research plan in five minutes or less," says Zanna, professor and former chair of the University of Waterloo psychology department. "Faculty members who have experience are used to doing this all the time, but grad students probably haven't had occasion to do it."
While you're presenting your research plans, think of ways to relate what you do to what other faculty study, and explain how collaboration could advance your careers and the goals of the institution.
"I'm a social psychologist, but when I talk to a clinician, I have to make it interesting to them," says Tonya Dodge, PhD, an assistant professor in The George Washington University's applied social psychology program. "I have to ask myself, 'What would be the clinical implications of my research?'"
Being able to relate your research to that of others demonstrates your creativity and willingness to collaborate-intangibles that institutions value, say experts.
And, if there's an empty niche at a university that you might be able to fill, make sure your interviewers know that. "In terms of setting yourself apart, if you look through the university's catalog and notice predominately traditional psych courses, and you want to add something on HIV/AIDS that's a bit different, that will be your unique contribution," says Conner.
In addition to knowing what research you'd like to do, you're also going to need a plan for how you'll pay for it, says Collins.
"Universities today are heavily influenced by soft money, grants and contracts, and it's not uncommon to expect an incoming applicant to be ready to submit NIH grants, or at least have a plan on how they are going to collect a pile of data that will lead to a grant," he explains.
Also be prepared to state how much money you'll need for startup funds, says David Feldman, PhD, a clinical psychologist who's in his second year of teaching at Santa Clara University. "That question completely blindsided me," he says. "When the dean asked how much money I needed for startup, I didn't know how much to ask for. I didn't know if it was $10 or millions." To determine how much to request, Feldman suggests asking other new faculty who are conducting similar research how much they needed to start up their labs.
Finally, spend some time thinking about your teaching philosophy. Write it out as an exercise to help you think it through, recommends Yochim. (For more on crafting a teaching statement, see "Why do you want to teach?")
What to ask
Interviewing is a two-way street, says Collins.
"There's a tendency to think, 'How can I get this place to make me an offer,'" he notes, "but the real thought should be, 'Would I want this offer if they made it?' and 'Are these the kind of people I want to hang out with for the next four or five years?'" Some questions experts suggest asking:
How are junior faculty mentored?
What research projects are other faculty members working on, and how do they relate to both their personal goals and the goals of the department?
What is the teaching load like, and what is the faculty perception of the student body?
What kind of support is provided in terms of research or teaching assistants?
How many hours a week are faculty typically working on campus?
Where do faculty live?
What are the benefits of working for their university versus another?
What are the strengths of the psychology department compared with other departments on campus?
What are the goals for the department and the university in the next 10 or 20 years?
In addition, ask yourself if you really want to live in the particular town where the university is located. Some universities build an extra day into the interview visit so that you can get a feel for the community. They might even provide real estate agents to show you a few homes, says Donchin. Even if the institution doesn't offer these services, consider adding an extra day to your schedule to show yourself around.
"When I was interviewing, I asked the schools if it was okay to make an extra day's hotel reservation so I could look around the city, and I always offered to pay for it myself," says Feldman. "It's a move that many of my friends thought was brazen, but the reaction I got was positive."
By showing curiosity about the community, as well as the school itself, you're signaling to the interviewers that you're interested in living in their town and that something drives you other than late nights in your lab. For example, when Feldman was interviewing for one academic position, he and a faculty member discovered they had a mutual interest in food and cooking. They spent 45 minutes discussing what they liked to cook and talked about exchanging recipes and restaurant recommendations. Feldman was offered the job, and that particular faculty member called to offer it to him--not the chair of the search committee.
After you've established such connections, make sure you follow up with your interviewers. Ask the chair of the search committee when they expect to make a decision. Send thank-you e-mails or cards to the key people you met with, emphasizing your enthusiasm for the university and the position. And after the interview, experts advise that you not dwell on what went wrong or right. "You've done everything you can possibly do," says Conner.