Thursday, January 28, 2010

Interviewing Info IV

What is the most important part of the interview? The talk? The meeting with the chair and/or hiring committee and/or dean? The individual meetings with faculty? The 45 second elevator talk you have with the Famous Professor who is too busy to meet with you or attend your talk? All of the above? Or does none of it really matter because they've already decided and/or the decision will be based on an intangible sense for how well your research specialty/personality fit with the department?

Answer: Yes and no.

And how's this for another annoying non-answer: All of those things are important, but at the same time, you don't have to be amazingly awesome every second of your interview and you can even have a few less-than-great interactions and still do well overall.

For example, I have seen successful candidates who gave rather boring or somewhat inadequate talks but then did really well in other aspects of the interview. So maybe they haven't yet learned how to give a good talk (and might need some proactive help learning how to teach), but they are clearly creative, interesting, motivated people with good ideas and a sincere interest in being part of the department.

And I have seen very polished talks given by people who had nothing to say beyond what was in the talk.

So the talk is important -- in fact, it is quite important for those whose only glimpse of you is during that talk -- but it's not the only factor.

Clearly there are many factors, and there is a large degree of randomness in how a candidate is evaluated and perceived. Keeping in mind that my own evaluation method is likely different from that of other faculty because we are all individual special scary people, here's how I make my decisions during faculty searches:

- I have an initial general impression from the application files. We invite candidates based on this initial information, so that's the typical starting point. This impression may or may not end up corresponding with my final opinion and in fact doesn't seem to influence my final evaluations much, if at all. Whether or not I thought a particular candidate should be interviewed, I try to start with a positive attitude about each one, on the assumption that any one of them might eventually be my colleague.

- If I'm on a hiring committee, I might meet the candidate early-on in the interview, e.g., during breakfast the first morning. In many cases, however, my first view of a candidate is at their general talk, so the talk is the next data point in my overall evaluation. In the talk, did the candidate provide a general context in which we can understand the research or did he/she just dive right into the methods/data? Whether or not I personally think the research is interesting, did the candidate explain it well, present convincing results and interpretations, summarize the key points, possibly indicating future directions? Did the candidate handle questions well after the talk? (That last one is of course very subjective; I recall one candidate talk in which some faculty thought a candidate was "combative" but others thought s/he was "confident").

- In some departments/institutions, there is a second talk. There are different ways that the two talks are organized, including: (1) one is general, one is more specialized; (2) one is research, one is teaching; (3) one is a classic research talk, one is a 'vision thing' talk or discussion. Whatever the format of the second talk, I find that it is extremely useful for getting a better impression of a candidate's abilities and potential. Most people can get up and give a decent 50-minute talk on something related to their research, but you start to see the energy and creativity more in a second talk.

- During the individual meeting, typically in my office, I am not interested in grilling the candidate or making them outline their research plans in detail for the next 10 years. I just want to have an interesting conversation about something related to their research or mine or even just something interesting in Science. If there's time, I'm also happy to give my general perspective on the department/university -- there are things that I really like about this place and think are somewhat unique and worth discussing -- or to describe my research group and how I've organized it in terms of number of students, funding, and so on.

When I was a young professor, I had some truly bizarre individual meetings with faculty candidates. The bizarreness related in part to the (erroneous) assumption that because I did not have tenure yet and/or was a young-looking female, I didn't have a role in the hiring decision or, if I did, that my opinion wasn't as important as that of my senior colleagues. The fact that I was the only assistant professor in my department for a while (and a very rare FSP) probably enhanced this (erroneous) assumption by some candidates.

This (erroneous) assumption manifested itself in different ways in different candidates: some were openly patronizing or rude (a rather shocking thing to do even if I hadn't had a vote in the hiring decision), and others treated me as a source of inside information to help them impress the more important professors.

One hapless candidate started talking about people I had never heard of and saying that so-and-so was doing really well this year. I thought we were having a conversation about scientists in the candidate's field, and said that I wasn't familiar enough with this field to know these people. It turns out that the candidate had studied up on the university's athletic teams, learning the names and positions of key players and their scoring records, and thought it would be good to practice on me first before attempting this with the senior professors. I was stunned that (a) anyone would bother to do this, under the (erroneous) assumption that it would matter, and that (b) anyone would admit to having done this bizarre thing, much less admit to "practicing" on me because I was only an assistant professor.

All this is to say that my general advice is to BE REAL. Sure, go ahead and read up on the webpages about faculty and their research interests; this will help you learn about a place and also give you some conversational fodder for some of the individual conversations that might otherwise drag a bit. But don't pretend to have interests you don't, don't try to psych out the hierarchy of a department, treat everyone with respect (including students and staff), and try to enjoy the variety of people you meet.

But let's not forget one other chance for candidates and faculty to interact:

- Social events. Perhaps this reflects my own neuroses and lack of social skills, but these are my least favorite part of an interview. I found them extremely stressful as an interviewee, and I don't particularly enjoy them as an interviewer. Breakfast meetings are the worst, perhaps because I am not a so-called morning person.

On rare occasions, however, these can be very fun. I recall some interviews at which I got along really well with some faculty and we ended up having a great time at dinner or lunch or whenever.

In general, though, these events can be kind of weird and awkward. They are technically still part of the interview, but at the same time, you're all supposed to socialize and chat, in some cases for hours (but not about spouses or children!).

Unless a candidate reveals some truly disturbing behavior at a meal or other social event, I don't tend to consider this part of the interview to be as important as some of the other parts. If I had a great conversation with someone when we were talking in the department, but later I find their views on wine or weather to be dull, I will still have a very positive impression of them as a candidate.

By the time the exhausting interview is over, you and at least some of your possible future colleagues will have spent a lot of time together. It is likely that you and several other candidates all did well during the interview, and then the final decision comes down to factors beyond your control.

The faculty will discuss their impressions with each other, get input from students and postdocs (in some departments), and may then quickly reach consensus or spend hours/weeks bitterly divided.

In my experience, whether or not the person who shows up to take the job was the unanimous choice of the faculty or the choice of a small but powerful faction, we old faculty are interested in helping our new colleague get started, wish him/her well, and want him/her to succeed. Everyone should start with a clean slate when starting a new tenure-track job, no matter what happened during the interview process.

My wish for members of my own research group when they are out on the interview trail is that they feel good about their interviews, whether or not they get an offer. Of course I want them to get offers and have many enticing options, but if you come out of an interview feeling like you did your best and you had some positive interactions with faculty and students, that's an important thing for your confidence, and for your next interview(s).


Anonymous said...

FSP, You are lucky. I only wish candidates I meet with would bring up sports topics. Usually I have to initiate the conversation about football, basketball, hockey, etc. In the one-on-one interview I could care less about hearing more about their research, I would like to see if they can carry on a conversation about what I am passionate about, re. FOOTBALL. If we decide to collaborate on science later in our careers, great, but I will NOT collaborate with anyone....and I mean ANYONE that cannot have a serious conversation about football, basketball, hockey, etc.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

BE REAL is the most important thing, other than giving a kick-ass job talk.

BTW, this is the second installment of your series that is labelled "Interviewing Info III". Maybe it's supposed to be "Interviewing Info IV" or "Interviewing Info IIIb" or somefucking thing?

BrownieCentral said...

When you discuss the social part of these interviews, my first thought was that as an interviewer it could be OK to talk about family - perhaps as another means of telling said candidate, without them having to reveal information , about on-campus support for families you've used etc. But I can see this putting the interviewee in an awkward position of feeling like they then should reveal information - do you think its best to avoid these topics altogether? Or perhaps if you bring it up, you are responsible for then steering the conversation away from the topic, so the interviewee doesn't feel they have to comment on families? (Still a grad student, not there yet) =)

John Vidale said...

Nice summary - just two minor quibbles.

1. The social meetings conversation are often about livability of the town, and hence neighborhoods, nightlife, culture, etc.. No one but the candidate should force the topic, but kid- and spouse-related topics can be gainfully addressed. Where are the good schools? The commuter options? Who locally may be hiring for a spouse? I've never heard that it is bad form for the candidate to raise these issues at dinner. Certainly it is a more interesting topic for many than the campus football star.

2. First impressions are hard to assess. They should be superceded by more complete information, but people seem irrationally committed to any view they've already expressed.

Anonymous said...

What if the candidate IS the campus football star?

Gratitude said...

I didn't think to add this when you were polling for questions, but I wonder how common written thank-you notes are these days. When I was interviewing several years back, I wrote a hand note to every person I met with or had a meal with (i.e. someone who commited a portion of their day to my interview). I didn't have a ton of interviews, and I really wanted the jobs I interviewed for.

In two recent searches that I participated in, I was on the search committee and met more than once with the candidates (6 total). Only one followed up with a thank-you, and it was emailed.

Am I just a 'well-bred southern belle' to think that thank-you notes are still important?

Siz said...

Well, then, maybe you FSP can explain to me why for two of interviews I got feedback but did not receive offers had the same comments.

1) The faculty and students really liked you.

2) We all thought you gave great talks and did very interesting research and had good ideas. We also think that you will be an excellent teacher.

3) we envision you being an excellent mentor and adviser to your students.

4) However, there were a few faculty members who did not think your research would bring in a ton of money.

WTF? So basically, I had all of the qualifications of being an excellent professor but because I didn't sell my science as being the next thing since sliced bread that would bring in millions of dollars I don't get an offer?

I feel I should also add that I'm generally found to be very attractive and look like I'm 22 years old. Did this play into it? I'd like to think not, but who really knows.

I had people I didn't even know come up to me at conferences telling me that faculty at different departments had interviewed at talked about how disappointed they were I didn't get hired.

I have a position from my first hiring cycle so am happy about that, just disappointed I didn't get offers at places I really wanted to be.

Amy said...

I agree 100% with you about the awkward social interactions. I am pretty quiet, and enjoyed dinners where the faculty would steer the conversation and I could gather information. But I'm not so great at initiating conversations and I had some extremely uncomfortable dinners with faculty who also were not conversationalists. Perhaps because of that, when I arrange visits for seminar speakers and candidates now I make an effort to ensure that the people at dinner will have something interesting to say.

To BrownieCentral - at one faculty interview I particularly enjoyed (but did not get the job in the end for whatever reason) one faculty member whose wife was also on the faculty took it upon himself to talk to me about on-campus daycare, schools in the area, etc. He did it in a very nice way that implied that he gave this same info to all candidates and did not require me to divulge and personal info.

Amy said...

A follow-up question to my previous post: any suggestions about how interviewees can brush up on their conversation-starting skills to feel more at ease on the interview circuit?

I had a friend who "trained" himself to drink coffee and beer and stay up late before he went on interviews (things he did not ordinarily do) so that he would "fit in" better with the search committees. I thought this was rather silly, but understood the motivation. Hopefully the department he ended up in wasn't disappointed to discover that he wasn't really a late-night bar crawler!

Kevin said...

One slight disagreement. The job talk is definitely the most important part of the interview process. For most of the faculty it will be their *only* view of you. I have seen people who were reasonably interesting one-on-one, but whose talks sucked. They did not get the jobs.

As FSP says, it is not hard to put together a one-hour talk on your research. If you can't do that competently, you should not be a professor (try industry or government labs, where you won't be required to present things 3-10 times a week).

One memorable job talk involved someone trying to move out of a government lab into academia. He gave what had to be the worst job talk I've ever seen---addressed to precisely one member of the audience (OK, the most famous member, but still, ...). I didn't even know it was possible with computer projection to have the slides in sideways.

Another memorably bad job talk involved the speaker talking dismissively of "just engineering" for a trivial part of their very mundane research---when interviewing for a department chair position in an engineering school.

My own students get a lot of practice before they go out for their job interviews, but haven't had much practice in real job interviews---they've all gotten offers they accepted after only one or two interviews. (I only have 6 who've finished: 2 in industry, 1 in a faculty position, and 3 in postdocs.)

One basic idea to keep in mind: your job talk should be comprehensible to all the faculty and grad students in the department, which probably means it should be comprehensible to an intelligent freshman. If your talk doesn't include the background needed to be broadly understood, you're likely to be seen as very narrow.

Jane said...

Anonymous, I'm concerned about your preoccupation with football. I know men who like sports and women who like sports, but the notion that adults must bond over discussing athletics has a strong history as a man's domain.

I enjoy supporting my school's athletic teams, but I am still learning the rules of the different games and don't follow any professional teams. We don't even have a football team. Does this mean I am not qualified to teach at your school? Or do I just need to spend all my time studying football so I can have the unparalleled honor of working with you and drawing on your obviously considerable expertise?

amy (the other one) said...

I wonder what other people's thoughts are on candidates who reveal during the informal meetings and social events that they're sexist or racist pricks? If a candidate treats all the female faculty as if they were invisible or stupid, is that a deal-breaker?

Anonymous said...

I too could care less about hearing more about their research. I would like to see if they can carry on a conversation about I am passionate about, re. CATS. If we decide to collaborate later, great, but I will NOT collaborate with anyone, and I mean ANYONE, who cannot have a serious conversation about calicos, tabbies, Abyssinians, and especially kitten with pink noses who like to chase string.

Anonymous said...

Kevin: "try industry or government labs, where you won't be required to present things 3-10 times a week".

This is NOT true. People in my industry give WAY more talks than people do at my top 10, R1 university (I am a full professor and I consult in industry...for the extra $$ of course). There are professors at my university that only speak if they are required to while teaching a class.

And Jane. I agree with Anon @ 5:42. If you can't speak intelligently about most sports you need to start studying harder. I too bond primarily over conversations about university and professional sports..and I am a distinguished FSP. Sports are not just for males, and the olympics are coming up....if any of you are going to interview soon talk about the olympics!

Anonymous said...

What's the preoccupation with sports? This is too weird to let pass. I am an avid enthusiastic of several different major and minor sports, yet I don't think I've EVER had a conversation with a scientific colleague (who wasn't also a friend) that had anything to do with sports. Why don't you save your non-science neuroses for your personal time?

On a related note, I can imagine it must be very frustrating for your collaborators to wish they could talk about current and upcoming experiments and instead have to bulls**t about who's field goal was most amazing or who's the best three-pointer before they can get down to business.

Anonymous said...

You guys are all kidding about the sports garbage right? I don't care if it's fucking Princeton, I'd never work anywhere I was required to talk about sports.

amy said...

I assumed the sports comments were tongue-in-cheek, and I thought they were pretty funny. Was I wrong? Yikes.

Female Science Professor said...

I assumed it was a joke as well, and still think so (the sports comment, NOT the cat comment).

EliRabett said...

About meals: Order less than you would normally eat, don't order the most expensive stuff on the menu. You a) want to have time to talk and b) don't want to overeat and get that stuffy feeling. c) stay away from raw shellfish, nothing like a good dose of food poisoning on the interview day.

Have maybe one glass of wine/beer or a before dinner drink.

unexplained said...

I actually have a *dinner* with a search committee on Superbowl Sunday. I don't really mind, and understand that this is the time of year for interviews. But having dinner at a restaurant that night could be tricky, and I wonder if the committee members are pop-culturally savvy enough to realize this...

Anonymous said...

In my field, the most important part of the interview is generally thought to be the chalk talk. I'm intrigued by the fact that, based on FSP's post and on the comments, chalk talks don't seem to be all that common in other scientific disciplines. Hmmm.

And for the record, I would never stoop so low as to collaborate with someone who cannot intelligently discuss recent sporting events, especially football (the olympics would be an acceptable alternative, but football would be much preferred).

Female Science Professor said...

That's what I meant by option (3), the vision thing second talk. I find these extremely useful, much more so than the general talk.

Anonymous said...

FSP, Thanks for this awesome series of posts. I've spent the past couple days at my first interview and have been reading from my hotel room each evening.
Regarding the "illegal" questions-- these have come up over and over again the past 2 days. I really believe that conversations about children, spouses, extracurriculars arise naturally among people trying to get acquainted-- for me that's part of presenting my real self. Luckily, the place I interviewed prides itself on being in a family-friendly part of the country and many faculty touted it as a "great place to raise their kids". The fact that I have a family seemed to reassure them that my interest in the place was genuine. (Sometimes what seems like a minus can be a plus!)

Anonymous said...

re: Unexplained at 9:21 pm

We once had an interviewee out on Valentine's day. It didn't occur to us until it was too late that this might be a difficult evening to get dinner reservations! We did end up getting reservations at a nice restaurant downtown and had a rather awkward "romantic" prix fixe Valentines dinner with two young women (the interviewee and I) and two older men (the other members of the search committee).

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, thank you FSP for your take on job searches from the faculty perspective.

Along these same lines, I just finished viewing this interesting set of video clips from Utah State on Hiring for Excellence.

Perhaps the most disturbing part to me was not the examples of bias in the process, because none of that was new to me, but just overall, what unmitigated a-holes some of the search committee characters are.

I'd really like to think that there are more people out there like FSP.

qaz said...

Gratitude @ 1/28 - I don't know that you need handwritten notes. That seems a bit overboard to me. But definitely definitely a quick email to the host or the chair saying Thank you for the interview. Something that expresses interest in the school. One of the big questions that interviewers want to know is "if we make the offer to this person, will they actually come here or will they just use us to get a better job somewhere else?" A thank you note can help make your interest in the job clear.

Female Science Professor said...

I agree. Sorry I forgot to respond to this earlier. A simple and sincere email to the chair of the committee and/or the department chair is a good idea if you want to confirm your interest in the position. Anything more than that (handwritten note) is actually a little strange.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about handwritten thank-you letters, but I did send followup e-mails to each of the faculty I met with individually, mentioning some specific thing we discussed, thanking them for an interesting and helpful conversation, and (if appropriate) expressing interest in future collaboration.

MargretH said...

On thank-you notes, one of my mentors suggested I also send a note to the administrative assistant in the Dean's office who had done my travel arrangements and provided other support during my two days. If you get the job, this is the person that may be finding the furniture for your office and facilitating your transition into the university. Never too early to be nice to them.

As a side note, I had a friend in grad school who was picked up for dinner by the wrong search committee. The college was doing two similar but related searches. Apparently, they were at dessert by the time they figured it out. He just kept answering their questions.