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).
12 years ago