Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Post: Lisa Winter on Academic Campus Interviews: What to Expect and How to Prepare

This week's guest blogger is Lisa Winter. Lisa Winter is a Hubble fellow at the University of Colorado studying active galaxies and their relationship to galaxy evolution through feedback processes.

Academic Campus Interviews: What to expect and how to prepare

After years of paper applications with no real interview process, I found myself faced with the difficulty of several interviews this academic year. In fact, the only real interviews I had until this point were all during my undergraduate career, so this process was particularly daunting. Making the leap to that next level of a staff or faculty position requires the inevitable interview and this article shares some of the things I learned after going through it all for the first time.

First of all, every school is different! You can read over and over the interview advice found on-line (for instance: this and this), but chances are that your experience will be different. I know that mine was!

On-campus interviews are quite comprehensive. Often you fly in the night before the visit. You are likely to meet with nearly all members of the astronomy/physics department. This takes the form of ~30 min meetings scheduled right in a row and forms the backbone of the campus visit. The only breaks in these meetings are for meals, which also include meeting with a sub-set of the faculty, and your research talk.

The hardest part in the individual meetings for me was knowing what these meetings are supposed to be. I found that there was no structure and each meeting would be quite different. Often the professor would talk about their own research or why they liked (or didn’t like) their institution. Out of meeting with ~40 faculty at two schools, I would say that I was only directly asked questions by 2-3 faculty members. This is extremely hard if you are an introvert, like me, because while you have lots of ideas running through your head, it is hard to know what you should be bringing up in individual meetings (too bad it couldn’t be more like a written exam!). It doesn’t help at all that each faculty member will be looking for something entirely different than the one you talked with before. Additionally, you can not expect that the interviewer is entirely familiar with your CV/application and so if you don’t bring up your qualifications, you shouldn’t expect anyone else to know what a great teacher/mentor/researcher you really are.

If you are an extrovert, the campus interview is your time to shine. Of course, there is the chance that you can come across as “too much” in sharing your enthusiasm, but it is likely better to err on the side of sharing lots of enthusiasm than too little. Many professors do have an extroverted tendency and if you are interviewing in a department where this is the case, you will be at an advantage. If you can project confidence, enthusiasm, and excitement for yourself, your work, and the department, this will go a long way in producing a favorable impression to the search committee.

If you tend towards the quieter side and like to let your work speak for itself, be aware that you have a lot more work to do! So many times we read about the problems that women have specifically in succeeding in careers (which men can also share, of course): not bragging about their work, not conveying the right amount of confidence, and being perceived as too quiet or too aggressive. I personally had trouble knowing what to bring up and because I wasn’t asked many questions, ended up feeling like I wasn’t seriously being considered or that the individual faculty had already made their minds up on who they wanted (which actually could be the case). Next time, I will make sure not to assume that they are familiar with my qualifications and try to be more direct in highlighting how I would fit into the department.

Some very good advice that I had recently, which I wish I had beforehand, was to practice beforehand short statements about what you bring to the table. That way, if you are in doubt as to what to say, you can fall back on one of your prepared statements. Another good suggestion was to practice interviews with other post-docs. Keep in mind though that you may not actually be asked questions so you need to figure out how to convey a favorable impression while swaying the conversation towards highlighting why you would be an excellent professor and colleague. I was really impressed with the idea of a peer mentoring group, like in this article of Science Careers, which would be a perfect format for building up interview skills.

Finally, if you do have an interview that doesn’t go well, remember that it is not the end of the world! Maybe you weren’t a good fit for the department, maybe you couldn’t be enthusiastic because it wasn’t a good fit for you, or maybe they were just looking for something different. The important thing is to evaluate what you really want in a career and work towards achieving it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback to understand the decision and/or improve the next time.


Eliza said...

Maybe not true of larger departments, but I found that with my interviews in smaller departments that the issue of "fit" is very important. In that sense, it was best to highlight how you might fit in with projects already occurring within the department and on campus, how you would use the available observing facilities (if applicable), and how your research would complement and add to existing research within the department. Also, a lot of what the individual professors seemed to be looking for was someone who they would want as their colleague for many years into the future.

Tess young said...

Hello There,
I just wanted to see if you were currently interested in additional guest bloggers for your blog site.
I see that you've accepted some guest posters in the past - are there any specific guidelines you need me to follow while making submissions?
If you're open to submissions, whom would I need to send them to?
I'm eager to send some contributions to your blog and think that I can cover some interesting topics.
Thanks for your time,

berkeleyjess said...

Please contact either Joan Schmelz or Laura Trouille to discuss with them the types of blog posts you are interested in writing and ways you can get involved with the blog.