We all know what a job interview entails, right? Dress nicely, shake hands, answer questions.
But academic job interviews can be much, much more complicated than that.
Of course, the interview process depends on the role. A casual, short-term teaching assistant position in your school may require no interview at all. But if you’re applying for a permanent academic position, such as a traditional lectureship, you should be prepared for a variety of activities that could form part of your ‘job interview’.
The reason that the ‘interview’ can be so involved is that there is a lot riding on the hiring decision. If you are hired for a permanent academic position, you will contribute (depending on the exact position) to the teaching and/or research of the school, faculty, and university as a whole. Think of it from the perspective of the university: if they hire you, you could influence the courses they offer, the types of postgraduate students they attract, and their research strengths – not to mention potential research funding. Universities are only as good as their staff; it’s a big decision.
So, of course, they want to make sure that they hire the best person for the role. Note the word ‘they’ – academic hiring decisions are usually made by a committee, rather than one manager. The committee will often seek input from within the school or department more widely as well. That means that you need to impress a lot of different people; which means, of course, that you need to meet a lot of different people. That’s why, typically, an academic job ‘interview’ will involve a whole range of formal and informal activities.
Before the interview day, you will need to ask a lot of questions to get very clear on how you might ‘fit’ (or not) into the culture of the university. What are their strengths? Who are their students? Who is on staff? What kinds of research collaborations could you form there? What courses do they offer? Which courses might you teach? What are their expectations of academic staff members? How would you progress or be promoted? You will probably be asked about these things in your interview, so it’s important to be prepared. Make liberal use of the university’s website, familiarize yourself with relevant course offerings, look up key staff members’ publications, and ask questions of the people you are in contact with.
You may also need to formulate a test lecture or presentation. If the position involves a teaching component, the hiring committee will want to assess your teaching skills. They will tell you in advance if this is the case. If so, be prepared to give a mock ‘class’ – and be prepared for your ‘students’ to be experienced academics! Occasionally you’ll also need to give a presentation, often on your research background or experience. If you are asked to prepare a lecture or presentation, be sure to practice a lot and have your materials saved in a way that is easily accessible. (USB drives are good as long as you don’t lose them; cloud-based storage can be tricky if there are internet or login issues.)
On the day
Clear your schedule. Academic job interviews can take a whole day, or even longer.
You will probably be given an itinerary in advance. It could include any or all of the following:
- a tour
- faculty meet & greets
- school or department meet & greets
- a test lecture or tutorial, potentially with Q&A
- a presentation, potentially with Q&A
- informal coffee or lunch appointments with potential colleagues
- a formal interview in front of a hiring committee
- individual interviews or meetings with senior managers
- an evening social function and/or dinner
The interview with the hiring committee is likely to be the most formal part of the process. You will probably be asked some questions which are backward-looking (about your past experience, your research background, your prior teaching, etc). But you are also likely to be asked questions that are forward-looking (about your plans, career goals, potential future publications, and so on). It’s important to be able to talk about where you’re going, as well as where you’ve been.
Although other events like coffee dates will be less formal, you should bring your A-game to those as well, since the hiring committee is likely to seek opinions from people you meet throughout the process. Ideally, you want managers to see you as someone who will contribute productively to the university, and potential colleagues to see you as someone they want to work with.
On a practical note, there may be lots of moving about and few breaks – so you’ll need comfortable shoes, breath mints, a water bottle, and strong deodorant!
After the interview
Decisions are not always made quickly, so be prepared to wait to hear the outcome of your interview. The good news is that because the interview process is very involved, hiring committees tend to only interview their top candidates – so the fact that you got an interview at all is a great sign!
No matter what the outcome of the interview, it’s important to be gracious. Academic communities are small, after all. Even if you miss out on a role, your connections with the people you met could come in very handy.