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Working at a Major Research Institution, Part 3: The Interviews

When interviewing at a major research institution, Ohio State University's Michael Ibba told attendees of the American Society for Microbiology's annual meeting held in New Orleans, La., that faculty candidates will meet many people — all of whom have, to some an extent, a say in the final hiring decision of the search committee. As such, Ibba suggested that, when asked for a first on-campus interview, a candidate study up on every person whose name appears on the meeting schedule, particularly those who are not in his or her immediate field, "so that you can ask them questions." While a candidate may have rehearsed a polished talk, he or she may never before have been asked to give an informal "chalk talk," or to sit down to lunch with a department's graduate students, Ibba said. "I didn't know when I first went for an interview what a chalk talk was," he said. "I now laugh, luckily, with the person that interviewed me at that place where they didn't offer me a position."

A chalk talk, Ibba said, involves "you standing up, with a piece of chalk, in front of a board, explaining your vision for your research, [and] outlining how you see your lab will run." When sitting down to lunch with graduate students, Ibba said it's imperative to listen to them carefully. "Be aware that the graduate students are looking to see how you are as a potential member of the department, someone that might be on one of their committees. They have an important say. Take them seriously," he said. It's also generally during the first interview that a promising candidate will be asked for an exit interview, to discuss with the department chair his or her needs, Ibba said. "This is your chance to … leave them with that message of what you're going to need, what your expectations are. This is modern interviewing — you don't say 'thank you' all of the time," he said. "You have to prep them, because your chair will be on your side, [but] the chair needs ammunition to go up to the dean and say 'Hey, I need extra money, this guy's great.'"

In the event that a candidate is asked for a second interview, he or she must prepare to negotiate, Ibba said. By its nature, a second interview is less competitive — the candidate can be confident that the committee has given serious thought to hiring him or her, he added. "Once you're at the second interview, you have the advantage, because it's bad for a chair or it's bad for a dean if the search drags on or if the search fails. To be honest, as someone very kindly told me — a faculty member on my second interview — 'Screw them for every dollar they've got while you're there. This is your chance,'" Ibba said. "You'll be saying 'thank you' all the time when you're trying to get tenure; this is the chance where you have now to get what you can," and most importantly, "get everything in writing," he added.

Stay tuned for part four of this series on working at a major research institution for more of Ibba's advice for aspiring academics, and for tips for newly hired assistant professors.

See also Working at a Major Research Institution, Part 1: Reflections and Part 2: The Application.

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