Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Job Interview Advice

Posted by L. Trouille

With the job application season coming to a head, we thought it would be useful to share potential questions astronomers and physicists may be asked during a phone interview for a tenure track university faculty position. This is the first in a series of posts with job application resources for academic and non-academic positions.

Potential Questions:


-What are your teaching interests? Which courses would you be interested in teaching?

-How would you handle X teaching situation? (relevant to intro courses through advanced courses)

-Some variation on – what is your teaching philosophy?

-If you were allowed to develop any course you like, what would it be?


-Variations on questions about your research – ‘Describe your research and its significance in two minutes or less’ to ‘How would you describe your research to someone outside your field?’ to ‘What is your most important contribution to your research field so far?’ to ‘Where do you see your research leading in five years?’ to ‘How will your research program complement the work already underway in the department?’

-What is your general approach to mentoring?

-What are specific projects you are working on that lend themselves to mentoring undergraduate researchers? Masters students? PhD candidates?


-If the department has access to a local telescope, how would you use it for outreach and teaching?

-If the department has access to specific research telescopes, how would you use them in your research?


-Have good, thoughtful questions to ask them at the end of the interview. Show that you’ve done your homework (see next item).

-Do your homework! Know as much as you can about the department, the courses offered, the research teams, and how you fit in. It makes the interviewers feel that you are really interested and may already belong.

-In case there’s a lull in conversation, have prepared questions about your interviewer’s research. Scientists love to talk about their work.

-Focus on the positive. Especially in a first-round phone interview, the reality is that they’re looking to see who to cut from the list.

-Think outside the box. If the committee is looking for someone with particular experience in X, think about academic and non-academic experiences you have that put you in a good position to fulfill whatever X may be.

-Stay relaxed! If you’re doing a phone interview, consider setting up a mirror to watch your face and relax if you see yourself getting tense. That tenseness will translate into your voice and your answers.

-If salary comes up before you’ve had an offer, consider responding with, “At this stage, I’d like to show that we’re a great fit. I’m extremely hopeful that I’ll receive an offer and we can then negotiate at that stage.” Or some other version that you’re most comfortable with.

Also, check out these online sites for additional questions and advice:,64844.0.html

We plan to compile this and other information we gather as an additional ‘job application’ resource page on the website. Please take a moment and send us a comment with additional questions or useful advice you’ve received for this stage of the process or helpful websites.


Laura Trouille & the CSWA


pippo said...

Wonderful job, Laura. You might want to include additional advice in terms of type of place doing the hiring: research university, liberal-arts college, etc.

L. Trouille said...

Definitely. For all readers, if you have advice or experience to share specific to a particular type of institution, please let us know.

A. Roberge said...

Should be prepared for the following illegal, yet often asked, questions (or variants).

"Are you married?"
"What does your spouse do?"
"Would they be willing to relocate to Universitytown?"

If you get these questions before an offer is out there, use some variant of the response above re. salary.

Miz Bunce said...

Illegal only some places. I just filled out a form asking my marital status and how many children I have. Some places, that's the norm and perfectly legal. If you are concerned about such questions, do your research before you make an issue out of it that might paint you in a bad light.

amanda said...

Another frequent one (particularly at smaller places) is "What do you need to do your research here?" It's good to have a general list of what you need (computer, Keck, etc) and their approximate costs.

L. Trouille said...

Porting a comment over from the astrobetter wiki -- Another couple obvious questions to be prepared for -- 'Why do you want to be part of this department?' And 'Why are you interested in this position?'

SDnH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kartik Sheth said...

Another one that I have encountered at small colleges is "How will you involve the students in research?" --and this is especially true where there is no observatory or telescope access for astronomers.

L. Trouille said...

Thanks for all the interview questions to add to our resource list. Post AAS Meeting, I'll be doing that (on the astrobetter

Here are additional great questions (to ask the dep't and be prepared to answer) from Alison Coil that I'll be including as well on the wiki:

- what are their plans for the future of the department? how many more hires, over what timescale? are they planning to grow or just replace retirements?
- what changes do they plan / foresee for the department over the next 5-10+ years?
- what areas are they trying to strengthen in?
- what about the financial situation of the university? how much support does the department get from the university and from the dean?
- what are their future plans in terms of observational resources, surveys, computing resources, any other resources you would be interested in using
- what are they looking for in this particular hire?
- what are the strengths and weaknesses of the department?
- do most junior faculty get tenure? on what timescale?
- ask the junior faculty why they went there
- what are the grad students like? are they attracting the quality level that they want to? where do their grads go? how are they supported? how many years do they take?
- what is the teaching load? can you teach the courses you want to? can you teach the same course a few times in a row?

you should be able to answer:

- what do you work on? (be able to answer at different levels - to an observer, a theorist, someone who works in a different field, someone in your field - having a set answer for this is a *great* idea, as you'll get asked it a ton)
- why would you want to be a faculty member at that institution?
- what distinguishes you from others in the field? (they won't ask this outright, but it's good to get this across to them)
- how would you fit into the department? are there people you would collaborate with, do you fill a void that they have, do you bridge groups w/in the department?
- what is your research plan for the next 5-10 years? what do you see yourself working on long-term?
- what are the big questions you are trying to answer?
- what resources do you need to do your work? supercomputers, data, etc?
- what classes would you like to teach?

also have questions for the grad students if/when you meet with them:
- be able to talk about your advising style
- have some examples of specific projects for students
- ask them how well-supported they are, do they know who to go ask questions of, how well do they interact with the faculty, how well do they see the faculty interact w/ each other, how much do they teach to support themselves, which faculty members do students tend to work with and why, what do they think the strengths and weaknesses of the department are, do they like living there, etc.

interview tips said...

Hey Laura,
Your article JOB INTERVIEW ADVICE is very well focused on interviews of any kind of job. And those suggestions are very useful to pass the interview of a target job.