Friday, 7 February 2014

Preparing for an academic interview

Dr Steve Joy

[Here is the original (slightly longer) version of my most recent piece for the Guardian Higher Education Network.]

For many, interviews represent the stress of the job market par excellence. Yet it is a fact not often acknowledged that interviews are generally predictable, and you can prepare for them without feeling as if you are submitting to a dark ritual in the face of which passive acceptance is the only option. My aim in this piece is to point out some of the rationale behind an interview, and a few ideas for practical ways that you can prepare for one.

Talk to others about their interview experiences
I’m starting with this advice, because I’m frequently surprised by many people’s resistance to sharing interview experiences with their peers and colleagues – except, that is, for the odd comically embellished horror story. Gathering anecdotal evidence from others will help you to spot patterns and anticipate potentially tricky questions. So, make a point of asking everyone about their interviews, regardless of sector, subject, age, or experience. What kind of interviews have they had? What questions did they get? What else was included in the assessment process? Who was on the panel? What surprised them? And what about people you know who have sat on interview panels: what do they think? Start having these conversations right away; don’t wait until you have a scheduled interview.

Top tip: I recently met a postdoc who, with a group of fellow researchers, kept a secure web document of all their interview stories and questions – a shared resource as easy to set up as it was invaluable for interview preparation.

Do as much research as you can
It’s a truism, but you can’t do too much research before an interview. What has that group published recently? Who funds their research and what are the funder’s requirements? What techniques are others in the group using? Or: who works in that department and what do they work on? Who ought to be interested in what you do? Where do you fit with their existing specialisms? Or: what kind of students does that university have? What are their mission and values? What strategic goals do they mention on their website? How do they present themselves to the world?

Clearly, you don’t have to research all of these questions, just as you don’t have to memorise all of the answers. Look for information which enables you to demonstrate how you align with what the employer is trying to achieve, and which marks them out as distinctive from other institutions.

What is unique about you (and why is that good for them)?
Too many people have weak answers to the question ‘Why should we offer this job to you?’ Yet, whether asked explicitly or not, this is what all interviewers need to know. Your answer should be unique to you. Imagine a fellowship for which one of the criteria is ‘a record of producing independent research’. Nobody will have been shortlisted who doesn’t meet this criterion, so your message to the panel needs to be more sophisticated than ‘I have proven experience of producing independent research’. How does that distinguish you?

Identify what makes you stand out. Your professional background, your particular skill set, international networks, language skills, leadership experience, financial management training, innovative teaching ideas? If you’re not sure, then ask colleagues and mentors. And once you’ve identified your unique factors, strengthen your case by thinking through (and thus being able to say) why these make you better able to do the job.

Identify likely questions
In the main, it’s not in the panel’s interests to trip you up with wilfully esoteric questions. As I’ve said, interviews tend to be predictable, because, in essence, they come down to need: the employer needs a job to be done, and they will design questions to test which of the eligible candidates they trust most to do the job. So, start there: based on the job description, what would you ask?

Here are two further things to keep in mind. First, a lot of researchers say that they feel caught out by academic interview questions which are too ‘big picture’ or don’t seem to engage sufficiently with their work. Don’t let this catch you out. Panels are often not experts in your precise area, and they need to understand why your work is genuinely important (not merely interesting) and how it sits within the field. Be prepared to think at the peripheries of your research and to make links.

Secondly, don’t be selective in how you read job descriptions. There’s no denying that they can feel like a feast of HR-speak and buzzword bingo. But give the panel the benefit of the doubt: assume that they meant what they wrote. You need to consider carefully (and be prepared to discuss) all of what’s being asked for, not just the bits that seem most relevant to you.

Practise your answers orally
Note-taking or scripting of ‘model’ answers does have its place, but many people seem to stop at this stage of interview preparation. In effect, this means that they’re saying things aloud for the very first time when they’re in front of the panel. In good time before the interview, switch focus to oral practice. Ask yourself – or get a willing interviewer to ask you – a mix of predictable questions, questions you’re dreading, questions you’re hoping to be asked, etc. Get used to the sound of your own voice and, ideally, used to the ‘feel’ of suitably succinct answers (I’d say generally 90 sec to 2 min).

Then listen back to yourself. Almost all phones and computers are kitted up with microphones, so it’s easy to record your practice answers. Yes, yes, it’s uncanny and excruciating. But it’s also incredibly helpful. Do you mumble? Speak in a drab monotone? Fail to pause? As you listen, pay particular attention to clarity and structure, not just content. Will I hear the logical progression of your answer?

The day before the interview
Lastly, I think that the most important preparation in the last twenty-four hours before the interview is proper rest, so – at the risk of sounding like a hectoring parent – lay off the caffeine and get to bed early. Avoid the temptation to spend those final hours cramming furiously or rehearsing your presentation compulsively. Having a clear head counts for a lot. Iron your clothes (even shirts that will be worn under jackets), double-check your travel plans, watch something light-hearted on the gogglebox. But, please, rest.


  1. Having been a subject group head for 4 years, head of school for a bit, and also the "external member" for panels from french to chemistry, i think you probably need to add one other major consideration:
    "Good" hirers now recognise that taking someone into a lecturer post, and simply giving them an office and saying "go do research" is setting them up to fail, so one has to build teams and foster collaboration. A major concern therefore is that the person appointed is not islolated, but can / will work with others in the group, adding new skills not replicating what we have. A common question then is "who would you like to work with here". This serves two purposes. Firstly a lot of potential new lecturers interpret this as "who will you do grunt work for" - so this gives us an opportunity to assure them that we are not like that. Secondly, that is the sort of question that anyone can answer having done 10 minutes of looking at the group website, but its amazing how many people cant answer it. Finally, dont just trot out the names of the two famous professors in the group - they are already busy, but a group worth joining will have any number of ambitious staff who might not be well known yet, but are always on the look out for new collaborators and ways to write more papers - and it is their research interests that probably led you to being on the short list anyway - at least it is IF the senior staff are seeking to build synergies as they doubtless claim to be!

    1. Thanks, Nigel. You make excellent points. Apologies that it's taken me so long to publish them!