The job interview is a crucial step in the academic career with respect to both its beginning and its progression. Learning how to prepare for and handle a job interview is an essential skill that researchers, and especially young international researchers, need to develop for today's academic job market. Even more so if they want to get a job in prestigious research institutions where jobs are allocated with a strong emphasis on the quality of the candidates.
We will assume that you need to prepare for and then go to a job interview. We cannot cover all the issues and questions that can emerge in relation to being interviewed in a specific institution, in a specific discipline, and so on. However, there are some general rules to stick to and common mistakes to avoid on matters of job interviews. This tip focuses on them.
To start with, we will provide you with some knowledge on the structural and contingent factors that can influence a job interview. We then give you some practical suggestions on what to do before the interview and how to answer and put questions during the interview. At the end, you will find a list of typical questions that interviewers put to candidates together with the answers that we think may be appropriate.
This career tip is largely based on the presentation that Terry Jones and Susan Goldie (The Careers Group, University of London) gave at the MWP in December 2007.
Interviews are conditioned by the broader academic and institutional framework in which they take place. Consider, for example, in what discipline or position in a discipline the job for which you are going to be interviewed is. In the same vein, consider also if the position is 'interdisciplinary', and the consequences of that.
Think of all the rules that people sitting on interview panels must respect. In many cases, like the UK for example, interviewers have to stick to rules of non discrimination, transparency of the interview procedure and clearness of the assessment criteria.
Apart from the objectiveness of the procedure, universities are also increasingly concerned that panellists be capable of putting the right questions to identity the most appropriate candidate for the position. For all these reasons, some universities have started to train panellists to do job interviews.
A number of contingent factors can influence the interview when it takes place. Here are a few: language, culture, gender, age, family, geography, personality, discipline, level in that discipline, publications, range and depth in that discipline.
Take language, for example. A good knowledge of the language in which the interview takes place (English, in the case of most internationally mobile researchers) will certainly have a positive impact on the outcome of the interview. However, sometimes mastering certains structured answers during an interview is more important than the knowledge of a language by itself.
Culture is another important issue. Interviewers and interviewee can be quite far from one another with respect to the way they approach people or use words.
Personality matters. Extrovert and introvert people may clash during interviews for reasons that have nothing to do with academic qualities and the skills that are necessary to fill the position. An extrovert panellist may look too aggressive to an introvert candidate. At the same time, the same panellist may take that candidate's introversion as a sign of lack of interest in the job.
Other factors are less fluid and have a more clear influence on the interview. Questions on some specific aspects of a candidate's CV can easily be predicted. For example, in the UK having a good list of publications is certainly an issue when considering a candidate. Researching and publishing matters more than possessing good teaching skills and a rich teaching portfolio due to the government's reliance on publications as a measure of scientific output of departments.
Consider also the depth/range variance of the position requirements. Candidates may need to show a good knowledge of one specific area or a good potential for moving through different areas depending on the purposes for which the candidate is being selected.
As a preliminary step before doing the interview you should ask yourself about the institution to which you have applied: 'What is their problem?' And about yourself: 'Am I the answer to their problem?' You probably already asked yourself these two questions at the moment of making the application.
First of all, you need to understand what sort of gap the institution is trying to fill.
Second, you need to understand in what respects you fill that gap.
Third, you need to have convincing statements and arguments that demonstrate that you are the right person for that position.
The following paragraphs will guide you in this process:
Know the department. As a preliminary step for the preparation for the interview you should read carefully the areas of interests and priorities of the department. Check their list of publications, their strengths and weaknesses. You may want to to cite these publications during the interview. We suggest that you do and show appreciation at least for some of them, being very specific and contextual.
Contact the department, mobilise your network. You may find it useful to contact somebody in the department who may be able to give you further and more specific information about the position, and help you find out the qualifications of the person that the department would like to recruit. If you already know people in the department, do not hesitate to contact them. This is the right moment to capitalise on your networking.
Do a self-evaluation. Ask colleagues or friends what you are good at and what you are less or no good at. This will allow you to do a self-evaluation and see whether or not you fit the position and the department. On the basis of this self-evaluation, you will have a better picture of your starting position at the interview and therefore find the best formula to handle questions or comments that openly address your weaknesses.
Define an interview strategy. Come up with a line of attack and a line of defence for the interview. The first line will comprise the areas in which you are strong vis-a-vis the job requirements. The second line will include weaknesses, meaning the areas in which either you do not fit the position or at least fit less convincingly.
Before going to the interview you need to consider also the degree to which you know the literature in the area of studies in which the position is open. In order to be successful at an interview you will need to master this literature.
Knowing your topic is not sufficient and questions will almost certainly be put to you to find out what you know beyond your personal area of interest and therefore whether you can claim to be an expert in a given discipline.
When answering questions concerning the literature in the field of the position you will have to look confident and capable of explaining at least some general concepts and issues.
It is also important to show that you match the specific requirements for the position for which you applied.
In the Interview
Once in the interview, one of the most important things to control is the way you organise and structure your replies to questions. When answering a question follow some general rules.
First, take some time to briefly think about the best answer. To gain time, start with a brief introduction and/or make a comment on the question.
Second, come up with a structure for the answer and eventually count some points. Do not give answers which are too long but go straight to the point and be as concise as possible.
Third, ask the panellists if they are satisfied with the answer. It is important that you get to the point of the question and give control back to the panellists.
If you are asked a question but you do not hav a clear idea of where it is leading to, give yourself time to understand the question and try to give an accurate answer. This pause will show your interviewers that you are self-confident and reflective. If you are not sure of a question, rephrase it at the beginning of the answer.
If you get lost when answering a question, be clear about it and do not improvise. Ask your interviewers "Where was I?," or admit "I forgot where I was going with this." That is: ask help from the panellists to put you back on the right track. They will have no problem in doing this. Think that they are there to help. In any case, do not cover up: this makes a bad impression.
When answering questions, tell narratives from your own experience in support of your arguments. In particular, when discussing a specific question on a requirement related to the position, refer to something that you did in the past that may be related to that question. This is much better than, for example, making statements concerning what you may do in the future on the same question. Go for facts!
Check the list below to find out more about questions and issues that commonly pop up during job interviews, and typical responses can be used.
- 'Why did you apply for this job?' This is often the opening question of a job interview. Bearing in mind what we have explained above, your answer should sound like: 'Because I match perfectly what you are looking for...' Then, state some reasons based on the job requirements underling your strong points for claiming the position.
- You are asked to illustrate a debate in the literature. Show that you know the positions on the debate by introducing them with 'on the one hand...' and 'on the other...' and eventually state some moderate opinions. As a rule avoid siding with either one or the other position on the debate because you may not be aware of the personal preferences of the panellists and/or tensions within the department on the matter. In any case don't argue too strongly!
- Panellists may ask you to comment on how you handle and solve some critical incidents, meaning situations in which one faces a dilemma and needs to find or select a strategy to solve it. The best way to answer this question is to offer a past example of how you managed a critical situation rather than going abstract or making hypotheses. Refer, for example, to some hard methodological issues and problems of your thesis.
- Panellists will address deficiencies that emerge from your application concerning the position. In these cases, you should always provide some positive and encouraging answer or comment. For example, if you are at an early stage of your career panellists may point out that you have a weak publication record. As an answer, you should say that, for example, you have been looking for grants, or that you are working on the problem. Show them your research potential!
- 'What are your career objectives?' or 'How do you see yourself in five years?' Both questions want you to make statements about your future and see if your aspirations and expectations match those of the institutions. When answering these questions, you need to negotiate between different perspectives, but do not have to be honest. Show panellists your contingency. In particular, let them know what your plan is if you get the job. Stress new ideas for papers and publications, for example. In any case, you should avoid disclosing alternatives.
- 'Do you have any questions?' It is quite common, especially at the end of an interview, that candidates are asked if they have any questions concerning the job. It is important that you show that you have or had questions. Say something like 'Yes, there are some questions I thought of at the moment of applying for this job...' and then put the questions. Otherwise, if you do not have any particular question - or have not thought of any - say 'No, thanks. You have answered all my questions.'
Special thanks to
Terry Jones, The Careers Group, University of London