Academic job interviews - quick tips

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, Interviews

As I’m spending quite a bit of time at the moment helping our research staff to prepare for lectureship interviews, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’m saying most often about how to prepare and how to answer questions well:

1. Think about how your research and teaching aims and interests align with those of the department and university. You need to articulate very clearly why you are applying for THAT particular job at THAT particular place. Research the university’s strategy and research and teaching strategies and think about how your work can contribute to their aims. It’s vital to show you’ve considered how your research fits with the interests of the department and why this is the right place for you to do the research you want to do. Look at their staff lists and think about who you could collaborate with – and it’s fine to name names. Interdisciplinary research is increasingly valued, so look too at other departments/research centres and consider how your research can add value. Look at their courses and modules and think about which ones you could teach.

2. Articulate the impact of your research. ‘Impact’ can mean a variety of things in relation to academic research, but in essence it means why does this research matter. Why does it matter to the field – what has changed in the field as a result of your work? What new knowledge or perspective do we now have? What will others now be able to do? Impact can also mean why your research matter to broader society/industry/economy. Always be ready with an answer to the question ‘How is your research going to impact the average person?’

3. Structure your answers. It’s really easy, particularly when talking about a research area you’re passionate about, to waffle on and forget to give your answer a clear, logical structure that helps the listener stay with you. When I attended Academic Career Academy recently, the course leader, Dr. Tracey Stead, suggested using a ‘what, so what, now what’ framework to structure your answers. ‘What’ is giving very specific details of what you did. Talk them through the lecture you gave, who the students were, your aims for the session and the delivery methods you used and why. ‘So what’ is what was the outcome and impact of this? How do you know the students learned what you wanted them to learn? You could, for example, refer to feedback from students or peers. ‘Now what’ is how will you take this experience forward so it adds value in the job you’re applying for – ‘I think this would be a great way to approach module x because …’. Remember that they’re recruiting the future you, so it’s vital to have clear plans and ambitions for future research as well as emphasising your achievements so far.

An alternative structure might be to draft examples for each of the criteria and note down three points you’d want to make. Use a clear introductory sentence to orientate yourself and the interviewer before launching into a ‘story’. What inspired me to apply for this position was …’. ‘I have several examples of that from my research experience. The one I’m going to talk about is …’

4. Give yourself credit. As a researcher you’re trained to focus on the content of the research rather than on your contribution to making it happen, to use a passive voice when writing reports and publications and not to use ‘I’. You need to unlearn this for job applications and interviews; the whole purpose is to showcase what YOU can do and your skills and experience, and using ‘I + verb’ will help to emphasise the actions YOU took: ‘I knew this research would be of interest to company x so I approached them for funding’. ‘I organised fortnightly meetings to review progress on the project and ensure everyone was clear on project aims and timescales.’ ‘I provided informal supervision to new PhD students in the lab. I showed them how to use equipment and told them they could come to me for advice’. Absolutely talk about things you did informally, including informal supervision and mentoring, and talk about the input you made into writing a grant application even though your name wasn’t on it. In doing this you aren’t taking credit away from your team; you can acknowledge their contributions too, but remember that the panel are recruiting YOU so you need to emphaise your role and contributions. Have a read of another post I wrote on How to sell yourself and feel ok about it.

5. Think beyond research. You need to show motivation for and experience and potential in all aspects of the job. When thinking about how you could contribute to the university, don’t just think about your research, but also consider any networks you could bring or activities and interests that could enhance the wider department and university. There’s lots of discussion at the moment about creating a positive, inclusive research culture and supporting the career development of others, so think about how you could contribute to these. Consider how you will lead and manage a research group – if you haven’t done this yet, think both about how you would approach this and also other leadership experiences you can draw on , such as membership of committees, informal supervision and mentoring, and leadership from other professional experience or voluntary roles.

6. Scope the funders. When talking about your plans for future research, you need to not only consider how it fits with the research of the department and university, but also how it fits with funder priorities. Research the main funders in your field, look at specific schemes you could apply to, and articulate how your research aligns with the priorities of the funding body.

These are just a few key things to think about. I’d also recommend having a look at the advice and sample interview questions on the Vitae website, and having a watch of our short video on academic job interviews.

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, Interviews


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