A random walk through job interview observations

Dec 30 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Here are some random observations about the job market and interviewing for jobs. More than anything I’ve learned that the academic job market really is a rational meritocracy…

LOL, naw. But it’s tempting to start thinking that since I have apparently successfully traversed it.


(after 3ys and 100+ applications). Before I become an entrenched lifeboater (is that the term? I don’t even know). Let me get out some ramblings while I can still remember the feelings of desperation.

Interviews are grueling. If you are a high energy person it will be fun. If not, I recommend your good friend caffeine. I am going to go ahead and assume that for me strategic caffeine consumption was the difference maker. That may seem like an exaggeration but when you need to be energetic enthusiastic and polished at dinner after 9 straight hours of interviewing it can be helpful.

Bathroom breaks are your friend. Take some breaks, even if you don’t have to go. Being constantly ‘on’ is exhausting and even a 5 min break can be helpful. Find a way to keep a few things on you, like a small snack.

 There are a million post-hoc justifications of why you may be rated better (or worse) than another candidate. Maybe you complained about the weather. Maybe you didn’t complain about the weather. Maybe your shoe laced came untied. Your clothes weren’t fancy enough. Your clothes were too fancy. You mispronounced someone’s name. Your accent sounded fake. You ordered that dish that nobody likes at the restaurant. Your talk went 30 seconds over time. Or somehow somewhat during a grueling 2 day, meeting-palooza, you showed a real lack of polish.

Don’t worry about this, as you have no control over it. The applicant pool is deep enough that there's a bit of coin flipping going on to select short lists. Prepare as much as you can, and know that at some point something, no matter how small, will go wrong.

Every interview has a few awkward moments. Some related to research, like a skeptical professor saying that your entire research area is a waste of time. Others may be personal, like asking what your spouse does (happened more often than not for me) or if you're planning on having kids.

The most consistently awkward moment of  interviews for me? The casual chit-chat about what the local city is like. “This neighborhood is nice, this one is more trendy, oh no you don’t want to live that other area, it's full of crime and min-*awkward pause* umm…I mean, that’s where they live, it’s historical, and a shame, we really should do something about it.” Just an FYI for those of you that 'encourage diversity'. I usually just nodded and smiled so as not to display a lack of polish.

All of this will be slightly less stressful when you have a fully developed plan B. When there is nothing between striking out on the academic job market and oblivion (perceived or real) the whole thing has a real desperation to it. Spend some time developing a plan B. Having a plan B will help you with your plan A.

If you get an offer celebrate! Because it’s going to get weird. Right in the middle of all the fuzzy feels you’ll have to start actually negotiating the offer. This may be more or less complicated depending on your research laboratory needs and other issues (spousal considerations). I’ve head a million “I wish I negotiated X” stories from new professors. Even if not required work with your PI to make a draft of a start up requests before you go on interviews. I also recommend a brief read of this book Getting to Yes. It’s not exactly rocket science but helpful I think.


9 responses so far

  • excellent, excellent post. And negotiating is tough, real tough. And one often feels like as ass whilst doing so. Congrats if you got a job. And one more link to Dr. Becca's page:

  • Ola says:

    Great stuff. Still not sure about the whole bring snacks/bathroom breaks thing. The 20+ meetings in a day is meant as an endurance test. In the same way you can "fail" a chalk-talk by bringing written notes (do you know your own science inside out or not?), I would say spending 5 min in the bathroom and coming out with your breath reeking of granola bar is a fail too. Same goes for dinner - CONFIDENCE is what's being sought here. Ordering a lemonade and the cheapest thing on the menu isn't going to cut it. Get a freakin' G&T, and some wine, and order something pricey (not the most expensive thing, that's douchey). Act like you know what you're doing, even if you don't.

    And FFS read up on who you're meeting AND the others in the Dept. They love to switch up the itinerary at the last minute, throw in an emeritus or two who only found out about your visit at the last minute, and you'd better have heard of them! You need to request the itinerary at least a week prior. It WILL arrive the day before, or even on the day of, while you're on the plane... This is what smart phones are for people! Again it's a test - did this person care enough to be awake in time to check their email before they left for the airport?

    • Bashir says:

      Ha. Now I'm reviewing all those dinners and trying to remember what I ordered. My advice is to try to not stick out too much either way. Go with the flow at it were. Even if they are peppering you with questions between sips of wine.

      To be honest, the one piece of advice I constantly hear that didn't seem to ring true is to read up a lot on the people you meet. 90% of my meetings began with people just telling me who they were. Not that you shouldn't have some idea of the principal players, especially in your area. No one asked if I knew who they were, or quizzed me on their latest research.

    • DJMH says:

      I think it is better to eat a snack when you need it than to be hungry and unable to focus. No one is going to ding a candidate because of a granola bar. The endurance test quality is an offshoot of the schedule, not its goal.

  • SEL says:

    Don't take a long phone call during one of your bathroom breaks. Nothing says "this interview is not important to me" like chatting on the phone in the hallway outside the bathroom when you're supposed to be chatting with one of our faculty members. You better have a dying relative or interviews lined up at Berkeley and MIT if you're pulling that crap.

  • GMP says:

    Congrats on the interview(s)!
    I am sorry if I am being dense, but I wasn't clear -- did you get an offer or offers?
    If yes, congrats!

  • Nice...congrats! So did you find that some of the tips you linked to below (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2013_12_10/caredit.a1300271) made a difference? Changing up the style of your research statement and highlighting work done on grants?

    Great point on the going to job talks as well, I've found them to be hugely informative. I've never understood why some of my fellow post docs who proclaim they want to be professors never make the time to go....

    • bashir says:

      It's hard to know what made a difference if anything. I know a few things were different. I totally reworked my research statement. That included sending it to as many smart people I knew. Especially people just outside of my area. The end result was defiantly better than the prior version. I won an award and highlighted it all over my materials. Who knows how much this mattered but it surely caught some eyeballs. I got better at in person interviewing. I'm a bit low energy in person, perhaps that didn't translate well to interviewing. I'm not usually what people would call, outwardly enthusiastic.

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