Becoming Competitive for a Teaching (and Research) Position Part III: I have an interview! Now what?

Large group of students writing.By Joseph Provost, University of San Diego

After the marathon of creating an interesting research and teaching statement, chasing down letters of recommendation, and filling out piles of forms comes the painfully long wait to hear back.  However, if you get that call or email to arrange an interview, it is time for a celebration… and preparation!  Get ready for a phone interview, an onsite visit, and hope for an offer!

Today most primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI) or community colleges (CC) will conduct phone interviews before deciding who to bring to an on-campus interview.  This allows a deeper pool of applicants to be screened and helps narrow the field.

Phone Interview
A phone interview will last from twenty minutes to an hour and is a challenge for the interviewee.  Prepare for your interview by reviewing the application and highlight each component of the advertisement.  Ensure you can address each point of the position description.  Most interviews will ask some common questions:

  • What is your teaching history? Discuss how you would teach a course for freshmen or senior classes.
  • What classes are you comfortable to teach?
  • Have you used different teaching techniques / pedagogical approaches?
  • Describe your history or how you would manage a classroom or mentor students.
  • Talk about your teaching philosophy, how you approach teaching science courses for majors or non-majors (in the classroom or teaching laboratories).
  • Have you done outreach or service learning?
  • If the institution is a liberal arts college/university or has a component of the job involved with non-majors, be ready to discuss the importance of liberal studies for student learning and your potential role to teach them.
  • Describe your research and how you would mentor students.
  • Explain your short and long term research goals.
  • Be prepared to address specific instrument needs.  If you have to have high powered equipment such as a 900 MHz NMR, EPR, X-ray defractometer or access to an animal room for your research, consider how much this will cost and alternatives that will allow you to continue your work if the university doesn’t have one.  Partnering with another institution is not an unreasonable way to approach this.  Having some sort of agreement in place is a bonus.
  • There are a lot of example questions of academic phone interview questions and how to succeed on a phone interview on the web.

Just like preparing for a scientific presentation, practice is key. Prepare by practicing these by giving the answers out loud.  Nothing can replace the experience of answering these types of questions out loud and in front of a friendly audience.  The phone interview is difficult.  There is little feedback and interpreting subtle cues is a futile exercise and can be discomforting.  While it seems an obvious point, find a quiet place and, if possible, use a land-line instead of a cell phone.  Dropping a phone call during an interview is unnerving.  I have been in several interviews where the call was in a busy lab with all of the usual disconcerting background noise. Another interviewee conducted the interview outside where traffic and a siren disrupted the dialogue.  Speak slowly and deliberately and smile.  Enthusiasm, interest in the position, and animation will come through your voice when you are practiced and in a positive mood.  Remember to review current teaching approaches, assessment techniques of teaching, and student outcomes.  Reference the ASBMB and other resources to talk about how you would use such resources to develop your teaching and re-read how to prepare your teaching statement for hints.  Remember that the search committee is looking to find someone who is a good fit with the department, and who can teach more than an upper-level specialized class.  Read the background of the department members and information on existing courses and programs.  Make sure you have a question or two prepared for the inevitable question: “Do you have any questions?”

On-Campus Interview
This portion of the interview is typically what you would expect to happen over a two-day interview.  You will meet with faculty, students, staff and administrators; give a research talk, possibly a teaching talk or lecture; a dinner or two with groups of faculty; and a long trip back home.  The process is a marathon and can be exciting. I have done this a few times beyond the interviews for my first position and I can tell you that the key is preparation that helps you to be relaxed and yourself.  My first offer came from the last interview for four positions.  I was tired from the travel and the emotional stress of four sets of closely scheduled interviews.  I was absolutely interested in the job but was sick with a flu and mild fever.  I was feeling very ill and had taken something during the flight to help with the fever.  I did not expect to be picked up at the airport by a senior faculty member who wanted to stop for chili and a beer to visit.  I wasn’t prepared to decline the invitation, as he wasn’t able to be at my interview the next two days. Somehow I was able to convince them I was peppy and able to work well with the students.  I don’t encourage cold medicine to help your interview!  In addition, having been on the other side of the interview many times in several institutions, I can tell you the passion and interest of a candidate is one of the first things I notice.  Are they genuinely interested in the position?  How do they relate to the students?  Can they motivate and inspire students in the classroom, teaching laboratory, during advising and in the research lab?  Will they be a good colleague and fit in the department and university?

Research talk
Like writing a good research statement, your research talk is not meant to impress experts in your field that you can do the most cutting edge work.  Instead, it is just as much to show your abilities to teach a complicated and likely unknown topic to faculty and students, as it is to showcase your research.  Your audience of experts will be organic and analytical chemists, wildlife behavior biologists, and perhaps a physicist or two. There may only be one or two biochemists or molecular biologists at the university and even then, they may not be very familiar with your specific research problem.  A few hints for your research talk:

  • Find a balance between teaching about your research project, selling it as an exciting fundable project, and one that has long term promise
  • Spend time to talk about your future research plans that come from the work you present.  If the bulk of your proposed project is different from the research talk, find a connection and transition into the future work in the final portion of the talk.
  • Consider how you will integrate students into the project.  If undergrads helped with your work along the way, highlight them during the talk, not just at the end in an acknowledgment slide.
  • Keep the slides from looking like your dissertation defense or overcrowded.
  • Maintain the principles of any good talk; take breaks, refresh the audience with the goal, present the project in bite-sized chunks with WDIC moments (why do I care?).

Teaching talk
You may be asked to give a lecture or teach a topic in your main discipline.  In some cases, you could be a guest lecturer and will take over the lecture for that day.  The host will coordinate and even give some options of the material to cover.  Others may ask for a separate short teaching example.  If asked to give such a talk, make sure you stick to the topic.  Ask the current instructor for learning objectives or an outline of expectations for the lecture.  Consider what approach you will want to take when teaching the course if you were hired and at the same time, ask the host how the course has traditionally been taught in terms of depth, chemical approach, and breadth.  If possible, ask what book the course is currently using and ask for figures if you plan to use power point to teach.  Find out who is teaching the same course at your current institution and ask for a little guidance.

Engaging the students during your talk
This is both important and terribly dangerous.  Asking questions of a group of students has led to many a blank stare by the students, adrenal secretion from the interviewee, and a panic to get out of the dead spot.  It takes practice and experience with students to learn how to engage them in a dialogue in front of their peers and their own professors.  Students will genuinely want to participate but may feel a little nervous to say the wrong thing in front of their professors.  It also takes time to earn the trust of students.  Asking direct questions is a danger zone.  Instead, start with opinion questions or simple questions to get them engaged.  For more critical concepts, ask for a show of hands for two options (well defined ahead of time) and then ask why someone voted one way, or use the majority to drive the presentation.  Involve the students but do so in a controlled, practiced way.  It is important that you do involve students.  Do it carefully and practice how to engage the audience so you aren’t left in a difficult situation.

Negotiating the Offer
When the offer comes, you have several issues to consider: salary and start-up are two obvious questions.  Some public universities have very limited guidelines on salary.  If the campus is unionized, there may be additional considerations and limitations.  Other private PUIs may have more room for negotiation.  At this time the institution is ready to invest in your future.  This is one of the few times you can set your salary.  During your visit, ask department members or the chair how salary negotiations proceed at the institution, and how much flexibility there is in the negotiation process.  For some schools, there is no room.  The offer is final and pushing too hard can result in a withdrawn offer.  I have seen this with one young promising scientist who was clearly getting bad advice.  At the same time, you need to ask for what you are worth.

The start-up is another tricky issue.  Start-up packages range wildly from nothing to $150,000.  Many are only a few thousand and a good PUI start-up package will vary from $20,000 to $100,000.  Again, ask what a typical start-up has been for the past few similar hires.  The concept is to provide enough funds to help the new faculty be successful in their research.  If you are looking at an institution with little to no research expectation, then the start-up package will likely reflect this.  Space and remodeling are another part of the initial offer.  Will you need a new hood or access to a space?  Ask for this in your contract while negotiating.

There are several other issues to consider: reduced teaching load for the first year, student support for your first summer, perhaps a summer stipend to come early and start a few months before the academic year begins.  If you have experience, this is the time to include the tenure timeline.

The initial search for a position to the signing of a contract is likely to be a nine-month adventure.  From start to finish, the more one prepares for each step of the way, the better your chances are to reach the finish line with an office, laboratory and a teaching schedule.  Being a teaching and research faculty is rewarding and different than other potential Ph.D. career paths.

Now go teach and mentor students…  that is another post.

Good hunting and good luck.

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