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The joy of the interview
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Gerty-Z

I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

We are entering the season of the job interviews for folks that are looking for a tenure-track job this year. Just 1 year ago -almost exactly!- I was myself on my very first interview. So, as a service to folks going through the interview process this year, including our very own LabSpaces Aces, Dr. Becca (WOO HOO, Dr. Becca!!), I decided to share some survival tips*.

The TT job interview is usually  2-day ordeal. Over the course of the interview you will give a seminar to the dept., talk to many faculty members and perhaps give a chalk talk. You should get an itenerary before you visit so that you know what to expect. The first day will usually start between 8 and 9 am (depending on if someone takes you to breakfast). TIP #1: Every interaction is part of the interview. From the first moment that you start interacting with the department arranging travel, in fact. So don't be a douche! Don't be rude to the secretarial staff, don't blow off random student interactions in the hallways, etc.

In all the interviews I went on, your first meeting will be with the Dept. Chair, who will talk to you about the dept. and university environment and perhaps show you some lab space.This is very exciting, but don't get too worked up. You have a long day ahead! You seminar "job talk" will usually be on the first day. TIP #2: Give a fantastic talk. Practice it in advance, and get feedback from everyone you can. Especially people that have sat on a search committee recently. It is also good to get some old-timers to give you feedback. There will undoubtedly be some of these in your new dept., and they vote! Sometimes, the deadwood old-timers may throw around a lot of weight. Your job talk may also be used to judge your potential as a teacher (unless you are on an interview where you have to teach a class. I've heard of these, but have no experience with them whatsoever). So make sure it is clear, logical and easy to follow. The job talk is slightly different than a normal seminar. It is not just about data. Your job is to get the faculty excited about your problem, your approaches and YOU! This may be the only time you get to interact with some of the people that will be voting on the hiring decision. Spend time on background to set up the "big picture" of your research and why it is awesome. Folks are probably going to be sitting through a lot of these talks, so make yours memorable (in a good way). Tell a story that gives me a sense of what you are interested in doing and how you approach your science. Do not try to beat me into submission with data slides. Show me how your career so far has set you up to be succesful. BE EXCITED ABOUT YOUR WORK! And most importantly, whatever you do: TIP #3 DO NOT GO OVER TIME. In fact, end your talk early (aim for 45-50 min). You want to give everyone a chance to ask questions. The more questions, the better. Questions mean that your audience is engaged and are interacting with you. Win!

TIP #4: Bring water. Seriously, you will be talking for 10-12 h straight. Very few people will offer you anything to drink. I carried a 1L bottle and was still totally dehydrated by the end of the day. You may also want to bring some snacks. or Gu. I am not kidding. The job interview is like a marathon - it just keeps going. Also, you probably won't get to eat much lunch. I mean, there will be food for you. But you will also be talking to someone over lunch-maybe even a whole group of grad students. So don't expect to eat much. I was in the middle of training for a marathon when I was on interviews, and it sucked!

When you are going from office to office for the 1-on-1 interviews, your job is to show them that you will be a good colleague. You don't necessarily have to already be an expert on their work, but you have to be able to have a good conversation. The may ask you about your seminar or go straight into what they work on. I know some folks spend a lot of energy reading everything from everyone in the department. I didn't do this. I figured that I can talk about science with anyone, so I didn't do much interview-specific reading. But I am really comfortable asking questions about all sorts of random things. If you need some background, then read away. TIP #5: do not look at your watch/clock. I know you want to stay on time, but this is not your problem. It is the responsibility of the person you are speaking with to get you to the next place on time.

The chalk-talk can seem intimidating, but it is the most fun part of the interview IMO. About 75% of interviews that I am familiar with do a chalk-talk. These are informal presentations to the faculty (and sometimes others) about your future research directions. They are usually on day 2. I highly recommend that you DO NOT bring slides for your chalk-talk, even if you are allowed to. Your goal in a chalk-talk is to show the committee that you have thought about how you are going to organize your lab and funding. In my field, a common framework is to lay out the aims for your first 1-2 R01 applications (One of my interviews told me to be prepared to talk about 4-5 proposals!!). Be prepared to discuss how the projects will be split into graduate student projects. A common question I heard was "what will your first rotation student work on?". The audience will interrupt you to ask questions that challenge your approach, background, etc. The most important advice: TIP #6: DO NOT GET DEFENSIVE. Even if the questions are very aggresive or even hostile. Be receptive and responsive to criticism but stand up for yourself (respectfully). Try to control the room so that you don't get off topic, but don't be crushed if you don't get to everything you want to talk about. It is more important to show that you can interact with the other faculty.

During the course of your interview you will be asked many, many times if you have any questions. TIP #7: ask questions! But use some common sense - this is not the time to start negotiating for startup. It is appropriate, however, to ask about things like environment (Do you collaborate with anyone in the dept.? What about other depts. in the university? How are collaborations viewed wrt tenure decisions? Is there a faculty seminar series?) or shared resources (can I get access to the fancy machine? How is it maintained? Can I see it? Is is ridiculously expensive?) or grad students (are they good? Are the admitted directly to the dept. or an umbrella program? are there training grants?). It is important that you determine if you can be succesful at the place you are visiting.

TIP #8 Have fun.This is a rare opportunity. You will have many smart people that will spend 20-30 min focused exclusively on you and your work. Besides the interview, this is a networking dream! So try to relax and have some fun with all the attention Smile

 

 

*OBVIOUS DISCLAIMER: these are based on my own experiences, or of those people I talk to. Your experiences may vary. Please feel free to add in tips that I mis in the comments!

 

PS: I am sure that there are a lot of other great posts on interview strategies out there. But I didn't have time to track them down. Please link in the comments! Much appreciated.

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Tideliar
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Excellent post as usual :)

 


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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Tideliar said:

Excellent post as usual :)

This. Featured :)

 


Gerty-Z
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Thanks, guys!


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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I LOVE YOU. That is all.

Bashir

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Talk tip. Learn how to answer questions. Hard questions, easy questions, questions you don't know the answer to, questions out of left field, and so on. I've seen a few painful posttalk q&a sessions.


Gerty-Z
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Good point, Bashir. In fact, I would say that everything I mentioned re: chalk-talk is equally true for the question period after your talk. AND, I will add one thing: LET PEOPLE FINISH THEIR QUESTIONS. Do not interrupt when you think you have figured out what they are saying.


Odyssey
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Great post! I'd like to emphasize the importance of the chalk talk. If you don't nail it, you're screwed. It's really, really important to show you've thought about what you're going to do and how you're going to try to fund things.

Gerty-Z
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So true, Odyssey! the chalk-talk really is the make or break. I realize now the way I wrote this post that it may not be clear how important the chalk talk is. I have had no less than 4 people tell me that I got my job because of the chalk-talk, not anything else. There are many ways to screw up, but the most common failures are in the chalk talk. And a good chalk-talk can catapult you from "meh" to "OMFG WE HAVE TO HIRE THIS PERSON".

gc

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thanks Gerty-z, great post.

i hope you can (some day) elaborate on the funding component pitch of the chalk talk. i guess i'm more generally quite vague about one budgets to run a lab.

gc

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*about how one budgets to run a lab


Dr. Zeek
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Could we have a post on giving a good chalk-talk?  Is giving a good chalk talk really that different than giving a good seminar?

 

*BTW- thanks Gerty-Z and Odyssey and everyone else who have been posting about job searches/interviews/etc.  It makes the whole process seem a tad less daunting/intimidating.


Gerty-Z
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Dr. Zeek and gc. I will start working on a chalk-talk post pronto!


NatC
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THANK YOU! Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

Also, 4-5 R01 plans???? HOW?!


Gerty-Z
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NatC: at first I found that one a little strange. But if you realize that they can't expect you to have the preliminary data for 5 R01, then it just becomes a fun exercise in how to "structure" a grant. Similar to your general exam, but a little more in depth. But, more on that later...


NatC
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@Gerty-Z. I look forward to it.


Evie
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Very cool post G!

Comrade PhysioProf

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grad students (are they good?

Do NOT ask if the grad students are good. It is an insult to the department to even ask this question.

Here are some posts I wrote a few years ago about various aspects of faculty job interviewing. You're welcome.

 


Gerty-Z
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Thank you, CPP. I knew that there had to be links out there somewhere.

You also make a good point. Please don't insult your interviewers. Or ask questions that have obvious answers (really, who is going to say "no, actually, the students that come here are dumb as sticks!". In other words, think through what you are going to say before you start (unlike what I did when writing that paragraph).


Gerty-Z
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Seriously, folks. I just read CPPs posts. Full of awesomeness. Go read NOW!


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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I just read them too. Really, really excellent. Thanks PP!

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