You landed an academic job interview. Now what?

You did it!

Debbie Harry celebrating her Interview magazine cover at Studio 54.

You’ve arrived at an important milestone in your academic life: your first job interview for a tenure-track position. As you prepare, you may be fine tuning your research talk, or prepping your responses to potential questions about teaching large vs small classes. What strategies can make you shine brighter than the rest? How can you differentiate yourself from the pack?

My post-doctoral and graduate students often ask me for advice on giving academic interviews, so I decided to collect my thoughts on the present blog. I list a few simple things to keep in mind during that first interview.

Disclaimers: i) Not everyone with a doctorate is seeking an academic job. This blog is aimed at those looking for one. ii) I comment on my experiences hiring mathematicians. Other disciplines may have different expectations. iii) This isn’t a piece on the merits (or lack thereof) of tenure.

My background

My eighteen years as a mathematics professor have taught me a few things about the academic interviewing process. Besides having given interviews myself at multiple institutions, I also have the experience of sitting on over forty interview panels for tenure-track positions. I’ve witnessed good interviews, bad ones, and the occasional amazing one.

Most interviews I witnessed, unfortunately, were average.

Be yourself

The interview committee/panel has scrutinized dozens, and possibly hundreds of applications. They read something in your CV, cover letter, teaching portfolio, or letters of reference that they really liked. It could be that you fit well with the mathematical research required for the position. Alternatively, it could be the were impressed by your research papers or teaching experience. Sometimes, a stand-out letter of reference is the extra nudge to short-list a candidate.

Whatever the reason why you were shortlisted, they chose to interview you. Be proud of that accomplishment.

You need to be yourself during the interview. If you don’t know the answer to a question, then be honest. Try (as difficult as it can be) to relax and even enjoy the process. Think of the interview as a valuable and rare opportunity to talk about the knowledge you have acquired, and to share your insights.

Put yourself in their shoes

We are finite, self-centered beings, often focused only on our own needs, goals and aspirations. Imagine what it is like from the perspective of the Department conducting the interview. They are meeting potential colleagues for the first time, and put in the awkward situation of having to judge their work against others.

A tenure-track position is theoretically for life. The stakes could not be higher… for the institution!  I joke with my colleagues that we are hiring a colleague for the next thirty years. While tenure is by no means an automatic thing, you have at least a positive probability of getting tenure if you are tenure-track.

A very important piece of advice is:

 Think about what the employer is looking for, rather than just your own needs.

What do you know about the Department? Most have websites. You would be well-advised to spend an afternoon reading  about faculty research, the courses offered in the Department, and their programs. It wouldn’t hurt to learn a few of the faculty names and their interests.

Read up on the institution. Wikipedia is your friend here. How many undergraduate and graduate students do they have, and what are the popular programs? What is the institution’s history? Who are the Deans, Provost, and President? Does the institution have an academic plan? Does the Department/Faculty have its own plan?

No one will quiz you on these things necessarily during the interview, but even a casual reference to the Department’s strengths or opportunities by an incoming candidate can improve their perception among the panel. That shows you did your homework and actually care about the institution you want to join.

When it is time to ask the panel questions, inquire about their goals for the Department over the next five years, and how you can help achieve them. Watch them ease into a great dialogue!

Be prepared to present

Preparation is your biggest weapon for the job interview. You will likely have to give a lecture on your research. If you don’t have to give such a talk, it is worthwhile to think of ways to briefly summarize your research. In addition, the interview panel may want some evidence of how you teach. When I was interviewed Ryerson University as a tenured professor, besides a research talk, I gave a short lecture on differential Calculus. Less was more. I went slow, and made things clear and understandable. They seemed pleased with that approach.

There are few cases where being eccentric or sloppy will land you the job. Of course, mathematicians are a bit quirky. Our best talks can be chalk-and-talk; fancy slides are nice but can be distracting. A compromise is a mix of slides and chalk/whiteboard. Long definitions or theorems you can put on a slide. Use the board for some fancy footwork proving the favourite result from your thesis or freshly minted paper.

Your colleagues are looking for excellence. Was your talk interesting, deep, and relevant? Did you summarize your research interests in a way that was understandable to people outside your field?  Not everyone on the panel will be working in your area of mathematics. While it is great to be brilliant and a rising expert in your field, it falls on you to make your ideas understandable to a variety of stakeholders: experts, mathematicians outside your field, and graduate/undergraduate students.

If you think that giving a good talk and being brilliant are mutually exclusive, then think again. See below the TED Talk by Field’s medalist Cédric Villani. He has a wonderful ability to convey complex mathematical ideas to a general audience.

One trick is to start with easier examples in your talk and then build up in complexity. About 80% of a talk on your research should be understandable to everyone. It is OK to delve into some more specialized material near the end that maybe only a few experts will understand. But you should strive to have the talk be memorable. Remember: the panel will listen to your interview and several others. If they remember your talk in a positive way, it will push you to the top.

Be collegial

As a hire for potentially the next thirty years, the panel members will become your friends and allies as you mature as an academic. You will teach alongside them, they will write letters for your promotion (and vice-versa), and together you will sit through countless Department meetings. You will also someday sit on a hiring panel yourself!

Simple etiquette and politeness go a long way. Dress smart: don’t show up in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. Be on time. No one likes overbearing people who speak in absolute terms. For example, it might not be best to say, “I don’t suffer fools” in a job interview (no joke, this happened to me; the applicant didn’t get the job). Avoid discussion of things like religion or politics.

Don’t fake being nice. Just be nice!

After the interview concludes and you travel home, it is customary to send a brief e-mail thanking them for the interview. Don’t be too pushy with them about their decision. It is best to forget about the interview for a couple of weeks. After that, it OK to write them if you haven’t heard anything. No news is usually bad news, but not always. Faculty maybe still deciding. You might be number two on the list, but number one could decline. Any permutation of scenarios is possible.

Getting to “Yes”

Let’s be real: you likely won’t be hired on your first academic interview. However, it will be valuable experience. The skills gleaned from giving interviews tend to accumulate. By your third or fourth one, if your job search hasn’t yet ceased, you will be an expert.

Remember also that you could have done everything right,  yet another applicant was chosen over you. They might be just a better fit. If an offer doesn’t materialize, then just move on to the next application. Keep moving relentlessly towards your career goals. I know successful mathematicians who took years to be awarded a tenure-track position.

Skill, patience, and luck are needed. It’s a tough process, but worth it if your goal is to work in the academy.

Good luck with your interviews.

Anthony Bonato

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