preparing for the academic job interview

This very helpful post is written by Sean Matthews, Director of Studies at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

So, you’ve polished your cv, sent in the (many, many) applications, run the gauntlet of the hiring committees, and finally you’ve made it to the shortlist, you’re in with a shout. You’ve got an interview. What happens in the interview room? The following thoughts and reflections are drawn from experience on both sides of the table – interviewer and interviewee. There’s no ‘one size fits all’, but hopefully we can demythologize the event and share some tips about what goes on…

Even before you start, it’s worth getting a little bit of an edge. Is there some innocent but substantive question you can ask the academic in charge of the process? You don’t want to seem pushy or out to get unfair advantage, but you can perhaps seek clarification about some detail of the teaching programme, or research strategy and direction of the department, in a way that will show interest and engagement. Also, and don’t tell anyone I told you this, but a good, supportive referee can sometimes give you a headstart by ‘inadvertently’ sending a reference to the Head of Department or chair of the panel, with an encouraging covering note, even if there has been no actual request for the reference. It’s a bit cheeky, but on the two occasions I’ve known about it happening, the person has got the job… the referee just wrote a note saying ‘I hear that X is shortlisted, I’m really pleased and strongly recommend her – I’m attaching my reference now so that you can have it to hand if necessary’.

Then, the Big Day. First of all, set yourself up when you arrive in the room. Take your time. There’s nothing wrong with having a few sheets of notes and a pen and paper to lay out in front of you in an interview. The panel will almost certainly have papers in front of them, so it’s fine for you to have your cues, too. Get yourself set properly, before letting them start the session. And when they’re asking questions, jotting notes is entirely normal – you show you’re confident, organized, thoughtful. It actually surprises me when people come to interviews ‘naked’. You don’t give talks or attend meetings without your briefings in front of you, and even if you don’t refer to your notes it shows that you’ve taken the time to prepare, and that you’re confident in your own skin.

The questions. Often there will be questions that you have to answer tangentially, in that you need to acknowledge that your experience or skills don’t include a direct answer, in those cases always (a) give parallels which show how you react to similar pressures or challenges; (b) note that one of the reasons you’re applying for the position is to extend the range of your experience, etc.,

What of the most common questions, or at least ‘areas of interest’? There will always be the ‘Why do you want the job?’ type question. It might come up as ‘Why do you want to leave your current job?’ There might even be ‘Why have you chosen us?’ which is where you have to show that you’ve done at least some research into the institution and place. That is a moment to mention family, too – that the place is somewhere you want to be, that it fits in with family/relationship/personal plans. There will also likely be a question about when you can start – it’s important to know exactly when that is.

Money is always the great unspoken in these things. You want the job in order to extend your experience, take on additional responsibility, career progression, etc., Never say anything bad about a current employer, needless to say, though I did once get feedback at an interview for a job I didn’t get saying I was apparently so proud of my existing employer they didn’t really know why I’d applied in the first place!

You’ll be asked about teaching: the general areas will be along the following lines (if you can answer these, you can adapt to most things they’ll throw at you):

What was your best/worst teaching experience? Use detail, but generalize what you learnt from it – generally it works to think of ‘over-prepared’ teaching, where you find that ‘trusting the class’ makes you realise that your role is to create the space for them to gain in confidence, etc.,
• What would be your advice for a colleague starting work in your current environment? All these sorts of questions you want to have just one or two pithy things. In terms of teaching, this is a chance to mention something about the distinctive international mix of students, and how to manage the different experience and expectations.
• What was the best advice you ever received about teaching? These things all sound banal, but if you can take some axiomatic phrase like ‘They’re not your friends’ (that’s Bob Eaglestone’s tip: we grade students, we cant get too close to them) and explain how that can usefully inform your work then you demonstrate that you’re thoughtful and pithy. I also like Peter Barry’s injunction to teachers: ‘Speak to the people in the room’. Think of all those lectures and seminars where the tutor is trying to impress someone who isn’t there, to show they’re on top of the subject, rather than help the students. Peter’s tip gives the right sense of priority and flexibility, and you can talk about it endlessly. This area might be phrased as your ‘hot tips’ for teaching.
• Most likely there will be a question about your use of teaching technology platforms, new media. Something that shows familiarity with the most common packages, while balancing personal interaction, is important.
• For some posts the question about ‘pedagogic philosophy’ is really just a cue to talk about being ‘communicative’ and discursive, enhancing learners’ ‘creative-critical thinking’, but you do need to have an answer to the ‘how to teach difficult grammar/theory/methodology issues’ angle, which can often separate Johnny and Jane Backpacker from the professionals.
• Often there will be a question about a specific class or cultural context. In these, it’s always good to start by defining a general issue, then moving on to a particular example. If the issues are around internationalization or multicultural classes, for example, it’s fine to say, ‘I don’t have experience of Sudanese students, but in Taiwan… whereas in Malaysia…’ and to use specific examples of how the same issue could be approached in different places. Particularly where student-centred, communicative learning is concerned, a common question is how to utilize that pedagogic mode in cultures of deference and hierarchy where students are unused to open discussion with tutor. There may also be, simply, direct questions relating to ‘tell us about the classes you’re teaching now’

There should always be space for you to ask questions of them: don’t ask about money – that is for the subsequent negotiation, although they may directly question you on salary expectation or even rank, so do have an answer prepared. If the issue isn’t raised, you can say ‘If I’m offered the job, that’s the time to talk about “the package” so I wont bring that up now’. Really, however, you need to ask them something that gives them a chance to be frank with you about the place you’re coming to work in. ‘What are the biggest challenges your institution/department are facing at the moment?’ can start a good discussion, as does ‘Can you talk a little about the departmental/institutional plans for the next 3-5 years?’ (you may want to specify in terms of teaching, research, expansion, etc.,) Ask them about hiring strategy, teaching ratios, and maybe ‘What would be the question you’d ask at this point?’ They’ll laugh at that, but it’ll show engagement, humility, wit, etc.,

Just possibly they will ask about how you and your current institution maintain quality and standards in teaching/examination. Make sure you can talk about systems, proecdures, accreditation, benchmarking, etc., so that the panel can see that you’ve thought about how your work fits in to the bigger picture of the organisation.

There are likely to be questions about administrative and managerial experience. Here even module administration can be talked up to demonstrate your competence and how well organised you are. Always good to stress experience of coordinating teachers, mentoring new colleagues, good relations with registry/administration, initiative and autonomy aligned with proper sense of process and Quality Assurance (QA).

There is often a question calculated to get at ‘Who are you?’ Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘What are you reading at the moment?’ or ‘What’s your favourite film?’ but it can be to talk about hobbies, etc.

You may be asked about your cv – sometimes in a ‘What do you consider the gaps/strengths in your cv’ sort of way. The gap, smilingly, is always not having worked at the institution you’re applying to, but with a follow-up more seriously about anything you do consider needs explaining. Sometimes in the ‘who are you?’ area you get ‘What was your biggest mistake in life?’ and ‘What are you most proud of in life?’ That’s one I like to turn back on the interviewer once I’ve given my exhaustive lists…

Interviews are really unpredictable, but this should cover most of the areas, if not the precise questions! Do make a note of what you get asked so we can cobble this together as a briefing for future reference… and do share any comments – from either side of the table – in Patter’s Comment Space below!

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in cv, job interview, questions, reference and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to preparing for the academic job interview

  1. I’d add:
    1) Call the academic contact (or head of department if a HR contact has been given) to have a chat about the job. Why is it available now? Has someone left? (Why?) Are they expanding? This personal contact before they get your CV makes sure they’ll read it with interest.
    2) Come with a seminar prepared, even if they haven’t asked for one. Make sure it’s work you’re excited about and includes longer-term thinking about what could come next. When you are called for an interview, offer to give a seminar while you are in town, even if it isn’t part of the selection process.
    3) Ask about their research direction and funding sources. “I know your department has been doing a lot of good X type of work recently. Will that be your focus in the next few years, too, or do you see new horizons emerging?” “What’s your success rate with ARC grants [or the local equivalent]? Does the university have a pre-screening process or some other strategy for improving applications?”
    4) Be aware that they are probably very keen to find someone with the right skill set. 90% of applicants are probably totally unsuitable. Research positions are hard to fill well (in my field, anyway — re-advertisement is common).

    • pat thomson says:

      A lot of candidates do get asked to do a presentation on a particular take on the job description. It’s usually something about how they’d take the post forward, s o not about track record.

  2. Elizabeth (Careers Service) says:

    Love the specific practical insights in this post – will be recommending it to our postgrads.

    Two related questions though:
    a) For a traditional “research & teaching” lecturer interview, what would be the balance of questioning between research and teaching?
    b) To what extent are potential questions about your research already answered (in the minds of the panel, at least), by your academic research reputation and your references?

    • pat thomson says:

      Not sure what Sean would have to say to these questions. But I think that if there were serious issues with publications and bids then you wouldn’t get Shortlisted. You have to assume if you are that your cv basics are ok. It’s always about the combination of things after that I think.

  3. Very useful–particularly the part about distinguishing yourself from ‘Johnny and Jane Backpacker’.

  4. KS Baral says:

    Thank you for the practical tips

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