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Getting There, Part II: Navigating the Interview Process

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So, you've been called in for an on-campus interview. Now, prepare yourself for around three days of meeting people, giving talks, and plenty of sit-down meals.

Meals and meetings

During a panel discussion at a science and technology career symposium hosted by New York University's Langone Medical Center and other New York City sponsors this month, Vassar College's Teresa Garrett said her interview at the primarily undergraduate institution was "exhausting," but that, at the end of it, she had an overall sense that she'd done well.

"I flew up, went to dinner with two faculty members that evening. The next day, I had breakfast with a faculty member, and then began the day of meeting people — meeting faculty [in] sort of these one-on-one conversations of them talking about their teaching, talking about their research," Garrett said. In addition to meeting with the faculty, "I had lunch with students, I met with the dean of the faculty," she said. Garrett also met with Vassar's faculty compensation committee. Throughout the day, "I gave a talk on my research that had to be pitched for undergraduates … and then more meetings, and dinner again that night," Garrett said. She recalled having felt so tired after a long day of interviewing. "I was so exhausted, I took off my suit jacket and left it at the restaurant," she said. "It was a very tiring day. I was there two nights, so maybe not as long as some other interviews, but I think that was typical for the interviews … in my search."

Preparation (plus caffeine)

Providing a perspective on interviewing at a major research institution, New York University's Michael Long spoke favorably of the interviews he'd done. "Interviews are scary before you do them," Long said. To combat the fear, though, "I did a lot of preparation on the front end," he said.

"They give you the roster of who you're going to talk to and my rule of thumb was I was to read enough of their papers that I have three interesting questions to ask them about their work," Long said. "That really saved me I think in terms of having something to talk about."

NYU's James Borowiec said that even the littlest bit of preparation can go a long way in an interview. "It's just a very common courtesy when you are applying for anything that you do some legwork ahead of time," he said. "It seems like common sense, but many people don’t take advantage of this." Overall, he added, faculty candidates "should know how to sell yourself because everyone's looking for not only what kind of success you had in the past, but what kind of fit you are for the future."

In Long's experience, the academic interview process is manageable when approached correctly. "If you approach it the right way and prepare, it's a lot of fun — you go out to eat, you meet a lot of people, you learn a lot," he said. "The interview process doesn’t have to be bad. They actually go out of their way to make it positive — you go out to dinner, everybody offers you coffee, you become extremely coffee-d up by the end of the day, it's a nice hotel — I mean, it's fun."

The all-important chalk talk

Many search committees ask that, in addition to a more formal presentation on their research plan, faculty candidates also take questions and answers during a less-formal session known as a chalk talk.

"It's very free-form, they just have you go up to the board and answer questions about basically what your first R01 grant's going to look like," Long said. "Often, that starts with some of the more forgetful or more absent people asking clarification questions about the talk you gave the day before, but then hopefully you can get through 'This is my five-year plan,' and maybe even a glimpse into the future."

Borowiec said that on searches in which he's participated, the chalk talk is often the make-or-break element of the interview. He recalled once interviewing a candidate who "came from a really good lab at Harvard, [and whose] CV was one of the best CVs I've ever seen." That candidate had given a really great seminar on his research plan the day before, Borowiec said. But when it came to the chalk talk, that candidate froze up. "It's easy to give a seminar, you can prepare it. Now you have people asking questions from right and left, interrupting you, and it's a much more challenging experience," Borowiec said. "Generally, people fall flat in the chalk talks. They can give great talks, but that's not the reason we're hiring them. It's the chalk talk, for us, that's most important," he added.

Borowiec also said that search committees value a candidate's ability to think on his or her feet and clearly and concisely present their ideas in a chalk-talk setting. "What we're looking for is that for success in science … getting grants, which means you have a clear idea, you can clearly express it, and you can clearly give it to a broad distribution of people who understand what you're talking about," he said. Borowiec added that search committees generally place great emphasis on a candidate's ability to "think on your feet, which is something you can't always prepare for but is a better indicator of success."

'So, how'd it go?'

On your trip home from an academic interview, you'll likely mentally review your performance. "I left my interviews feeling like 'Yeah, I rocked this! Great, they love me!'" Vassar's Garrett said. "Overall, the vibe I got was very positive." Some search committees schedule some sort of exit chat into the interview process, NYU's Long said. But even if you had no such discussion, it's a good idea to keep in touch shortly after the interview. "Usually you go back to the person who was kind of shepherding you around — either the departmental head or the person who's the chair of the search committee," Long said. From there, the panelists said candidates are normally notified within a week or two.

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