Job Interview One-On-Ones

January 15, 2008

In the context of tenure-track faculty job searches we’ve previously discussed CVs, the job talk, and the chalk talk. Now let’s talk about a sometimes underappreciated aspect of the job interview: the one-on-one meetings between the candidate and departmental (and possibly extra-departmental) faculty.

These meetings will each last anywhere from 30-60 minutes, with 45 minutes the norm. While the most important goal from the job candidate’s perspective is to demonstrate that she will be a fun, cordial, and interesting colleague, there are a number of possible scenarios for how these meetings play out that can require different tactics (listed in descending order of likelihood):

(1) The faculty member gives you an overview of the research going on in her lab. This overview can involve different degrees of formality, from a mini-seminar with slides displayed on a computer monitor (PhysioProf has a second monitor in his office that is pointed at the chairs where visitors sit, for exactly this purpose), to a more casual conversational narrative. Faculty members also frequently like to show people around their labs.

From the standpoint of the candidate, the key in this scenario is to project understanding of, and interest in, the faculty member’s research program. The best way to do this is to engage the faculty member in interesting discussion by asking questions about what she is talking about. Of course, this is easiest if you do understand what you are being told and do find it interesting. But even if you don’t, you can’t let your lack of interest be apparent. And definitely resist the urge to nudge, or wrest, the conversation back towards you.

(2) The faculty member will just have a casual conversation with you about more general issues such as those relating to the job search–including what other institutions have invited you for interviews, what the department and institution you are visiting is like, common acquaintances, etc.–or even general topics of academic science–grant writing, peer review, dealing with editors at journals, etc.

In this context, the key is two-fold. First, no matter what direction the conversation goes, do not get drawn in to malicious gossip (Yes, some academic scientists love to gossip!) or to bad-mouthing anyone. Second, to the extent that you are discussing your job search, make it clear (if you can truthfully) that you have been invited to interview at multiple institutions, at least some of which are at a reputational level equal to or greater than where you are visiting.

In relation to the former, there is basically no potential upside for you as the applicant to gossip, and only possible downside. Let’s face it, someone who is willing to gossip with you, is also going to be willing to gossip about you: “You wouldn’t believe what Dr. Snooty’s post-doc said about Dr. So-and-so when she interviewed here! Can you believe it!?” Not good.

In relation to the latter, it is human nature to find attractive that which attracts others. And, complementarily, to be repelled by that to which repels others. You’ve gotta exploit the first and avoid the second. If you have interviews at other institutions, don’t be shy about disclosing which ones; there is absolutely no reason to keep it a secret. If this is your only interview, you’ll have to try to finesse the answer without being untruthful.

(3) The faculty member missed your job talk and asks you to “go through it with me on your laptop”. Honestly, this just totally fucking sucks. You have already given your job talk, maybe a chalk talk, and listened to a bunch of pompous blowhards go on about their groundbreaking research at length. You are exhausted, it’s 5:30PM, and you want nothing more than a stiff drink and something to eat. And this asshole just casually asks you to give your entire job talk again, except you have to fit it into 30-45 minutes instead of an hour. And, of course, because it is just the two of you, there is going to be a ceaseless stream of comments, questions, and requests for clarification.

OK. Here’s what you do: Tell the faculty member that she is an inconsiderate asshole, and you have no intention of going through your entire job talk again just for her. Hah, hah. Just kidding. I think at this point you know exactly what you have to do, so just do it. Being prepared in advance to present an abbreviated, but still coherent, version of your job talk would obviously help.

(4) The faculty member has already decided that she really wants you to get the position over the other candidates. She spends the meeting telling you what she thinks is the right strategy for you to employ to get the position. If the meeting is before the job talk and/or chalk talk, she might tell you how to couch or aim your presentation(s). She might also tell you what kinds of things to say to other members of the department when you meet with them.

This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, and it can be hard to tell which is which. This person is most likely to be a junior faculty member, and it is difficult to know if she has any influence and is respected by her colleagues, as well as if she really understands departmental politics well enough to be giving you useful advice. So listen to what she has to say, give it some thought, and if her suggestions sound reasonable and are not extreme in any way, then it might be worth taking some of them.

(5) The faculty member has a bug up her ass about some aspect of either your job talk, your chalk talk, or even some feature of your CV. This can range in intensity from a few mildly annoying questions to truly demented meeting-long perseveration on some point. These are your most dangerous one-on-one meetings, because you really don’t know what is up with this person. Is she a crank whose opinion is ignored by her colleagues? Is she powerful and has it in for you, favoring some other candidate? Does she actually like you, but is just a weirdo?

These types can keep pressing you on some obscurity of your data and how it relates to some other obscure crap. Or they can keep asserting that something that you propose to do isn’t likely to work. PhysioProf’s own research is quite interdisciplinary, and he has published in a fair number of pretty distinct subfields within the broader field. This one nutjob interviewer just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I would be a member of multiple scientific societies, each embracing a different one of those subfields.

He spent half of our meeting at my first visit harping on this: “Why are you a member of this society? Shouldn’t you just be a member of that other society? What contributions have you made to this subfield?” When I came back for a second interview visit, at my meeting with him he started in on the same shit. Needless to say, you just gotta take that kind of garbage in stride.

(As far as why he was doing this, I found out later that decades earlier he had been in a race to some big experimental prize in the particular subfield he was focusing, and he lost to people who were not really from that subfield but who had used an interdisciplinary approach based on techniques from outside the subfield to beat his sorry ass, thus transforming him into an anti-interdisciplinary cranky kook who subsequently never published anything important. Maybe, a post on disciplinary, interdisciplinary, anti-disciplinary, and anti-interdisciplinary attitudes would interesting, including the diverse institutional structures that arise out of those attitudes. If you don’t see a post on that within a couple weeks, and anyone’s interested, please remind me, either here or at PhysioProf.)

26 Responses to “Job Interview One-On-Ones”

  1. anonymous, I think Says:

    As someone who is about to go to another interview (which includes my first chalk talk – yikes) tomorrow, these have been very useful.


    One comment: I’ve found that a common reaction (especially perhaps given that I’m coming from BigName U) is to have concern over whether I would actually take the job if offered. Having lots of other interviews at good/better places probably doesn’t help that :(. not sure exactly how to handle this yet…


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    “a common reaction (especially perhaps given that I’m coming from BigName U) is to have concern over whether I would actually take the job if offered”

    first, congrats on getting interviews, anonIthink.

    second, great point and indeed I’ve always heard of this as a concern. primarily from the smaller U or college / teaching oriented traditional professorial type jobs. Where they are not only concerned that you take the offer but also that you won’t immediately return to the job market. it can be really frustrating.

    FSP had something on this a while back although in that case she was focusing on geographical / spousal limits.


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    You basically need to just assure them that you really, really are interested, and that you would do whatever it takes if you are offered the position.

    One of the ways institutions sometimes gauge if an applicant is really serious is to invite her back for a second visit with her spouse (if she has one). If the spouse takes the time and makes the effort to come, it gives a signal that you are serious.

    One thing you have to be aware of, is that offers beget offers. This relates back to my comment in the post: “It is human nature to find attractive that which attracts others. And, complementarily, to be repelled by that to which repels others. You’ve gotta exploit the first and avoid the second.”

    This means that it is *very* useful to get that first offer, even if it is one you would almost certainly never accept. Once you get it, you use it to “inform” the other institutions you have interviewed at that you are “wanted”. If any of them are vacillating about two applicants, and they find out that you have a decent offer, it can move their hand in your direction.

    Conversely, if an institution knows that you have interviewed at another institution that they consider to be their peer, they will be curious why you *didn’t* get an offer (if they become aware through the grapevine that you didn’t). They do know, of course, that there can be completely innocent reasons for this–not good fit for the precise area of research they were looking for, no ability to teach a particular course, ended up taking a two-body candidate at the behest of the Dean, etc. But they could very well contact someone they know at the other institution to try to find out why.

    For example, PhysioProf applied to a search that was a *big* stretch subject-matter-wise from PhysioProf’s research program. Nevertheless, there was a faction on the search committee that was excited by PhysioProf’s application and was able to get him on the interview list. The other five interviewees were right in the avowed subject-matter heart of the search. They ended up making offers to every single one of those five before the fifth one accepted it, but no offer to PhysioProf. This had nothing to do with PhysioProf, and everything to do with the fact that, while this faction had enough power to wangle an invite for PhysioProf, at the end of the day they didn’t have enough power to get him in the hunt for an offer.

    I will do a full post soon on what to do post-interview to maximize your prospects.


  4. CC Says:

    This one nutjob interviewer just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I would be a member of multiple scientific societies, each embracing a different one of those subfields.

    At the risk of sounding all Young Female Scientist: aren’t societies for old people?

    Does anyone care about society membership anymore? What meetings the candidate attends seems relevant, but that’s largely covered by the list of talks on his CV. (If you haven’t given talks by the point you’re applying for jobs, it seems hopeless anyway.) Given that the overwhelming majority of “members” do nothing but read the journal and attend the meeting, is it even worth mentioning on the CV?


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    “Given that the overwhelming majority of “members” do nothing but read the journal and attend the meeting, is it even worth mentioning on the CV?”


    (wipes coffee off screen)

    oh you poor little naif!


  6. PhysioProf Says:

    Dude, you splain it to him. I’m too tired from my rant on PhysioProf today.


  7. whimple Says:

    I’d like this explained as well. I have never understood the need for society membership either.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    I’ll maybe see if I can pull some new (and more complete) thoughts together, but until then I touched on this a bit here and here.


  9. PhysioProf Says:

    Oh, for crying out loud, I’ll explain it.

    The bottom line is that society membership is like membership in any club. It marks you as having some common language, mindset, heroes, villians, etc as the other people in the club. Being a member is not just about attending the annual meeting and reading the society journal. It is about participating in the club.

    At the higher levels of professional attainment, this can also include serving on committees, as an officer, and even as president of the society, as well as on organizing symposia at the annual meeting (which has both societal and scientific benefits).

    There is also a hierarchy of societies. In neuroscience, the pinnacle is, of course, the Society for Neuroscience. Then there are a whole host of smaller subfield societies. Ambitious young faculty members cultivate personal and professional connections to begin to be asked to serve as symposium chairs, on the program committee, and then potentially as program committee chair, and upwards as an officer, in these smaller societies.

    This then provides a springboard upwards into analogous service for the Society for Neuroscience. That service goes on your CV, where it impresses people, and through your service, you meet people who can help you, and who you can help.

    It’s basically like the Kiwanis Club for Neuroscience. Capisce?


  10. CC Says:

    I’d like this explained as well. I have never understood the need for society membership either.

    I feel better knowing that someone else is as clueless as I apparently am! I’m not sure what DM’s links have to do with this question, so before you hold forth at too much length: 1) I’m talking about the $75-and-you’re-in societies, not the Royal or the NAS and 2) I’m talking about roles that a postdoc would have, not being the organizer of the ASCO annual meeting (which you’d put on your CV anyway).


  11. PhysioProf Says:

    You gotta start schmoozing and ingratiating yourself as a post-doc. Part of that means becoming a member *before* you can directly exploit it. It gives the illusion that you joined because the club is just so fucking cool, and not for mercenary reasons.

    When I see someone’s CV, and it says that they’ve been a member of the SfN since they were a first-year grad student, it tells me something about them.


  12. Bahrad Says:

    I don’t know why that question got such an outraged answer. It’s true, at first glance it is kind of weird that society memberships should be listed on a CV since it’s not an “achievement” per se… the reason is that it does indeed potentially (a) serve as a shorthand for your subfield you identify with most within a broader context of your discipline, and (b) it shows where you will in the future do your professional activities – it shows that you’ve at least thought a little bit about doing professional activities in the future, basically, and thus you have the potential to them. Anything above and beyond that, i.e., chairing a session, serving on a program committee, etc. goes on the CV and can actually add a lot of value to your case. Once you’re into your career, eventually actually doing that sort of service will be essential (and of course to do it you have to join some society or another, probably more than one).


  13. PhysioProf Says:

    “I don’t know why that question got such an outraged answer.”

    You must be new around here. Welcome!

    That is not outrage. That is feigned outrage. We do that a lot here, for dramatic effect.


  14. PhysioProf Says:

    Oh, and Bahrad, your answer is excellent. Thanks for commenting.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    Kiwanis club. oh for crying out loud. lemme break this down to simplicity itself.

    Job. Grant Money.

    That’s why you do it. oh, and “Promotion”.

    CC, perhaps you are asking about the accumulation of as many societies as possible on the CV. For that, I agree, this is essentially pointless. My comments are mostly addressed to the situation of carefully selecting the society or two or three that are most likely to give you long term career benefits.

    First and foremost you want to be “known” as being “in the field”. Why?

    well, NIH POs take a very proprietary view over “their” investigators. this is what can make the difference between a “pick up” (yes even at the NRSA level) and a “sorry chump”.

    the NIH as a whole loves them some societies. who did they solicit directly for input on grant/review issues? the society brass. it ain’t like they go down the Impact Factor list or h-index list and call up the top 10 names when they need an opinion you know. and if the brass is going to ask anyone for input on their “official position” it’s going to be the members, not random investigator Doe who happens to publish in their field.

    Some, not all, some, investigators (who by the way are the ones doing the hiring) take an insular view of who is “in” their field. particularly nasty in the case of those Balkanized depts who are fighting sub-specialty turf wars over the next hire. burn their capital just to hire someone they aren’t totally sure won’t jump ideological ship? don’t think so!

    Vonnegut had it nailed with his “granfallons”. people are idiotic herd beasts and they make supposedly objective judgments accordingly.

    There will come a time when an investigator is up against promotion criteria that involve directly or indirectly the degree of “in the field”-ness.

    meta: as PP says, “it tells me something”. even if I might reject all the granfallon clubbish rationales, the mere fact that a postdoc/grad/jr scientist knows what time it is in terms of career is meaningful to me. as a matter of fact there is this one society in my area that thinks quite highly of itself on the “secret tap to get in” scale. you should hear all the gossiping on the plane out and around the pool about how stupid all the snootiness is, how the meeting ain’t all that, etc. and yet because of “meta” issues, people still try to get in…

    underlining PPs additional point about getting started as a postdoc, how do you think people got into the positions of power in the first place? by being “in” the group. Which jr. person gets selected to chair the oral com session? The one that is viewed as the most promising of “our” investigators. Who gets the travel award? Who is really in the running for society awards? Who gets tapped to join what committee? When it comes time (much later) to run for the society board, I can tell you that “I’ve presented data at the annual meeting every year since I was in diapers” is on every personal statement.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    dammit PP you took the wind out of my feigned outrage.

    which I will note, yung’uns, is a highly technical blogger technique. you learned something today….


  17. PhysioProf Says:

    Dude, WTF? You didn’t appreciate the Kiwanis Club analogy? I thought that was finely crafted.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    oh yeah, one more reason. the study section tap. a colleague was once detailing the process of a PO saying at a meeting “gee isn’t it about time you were on study section” and following with a direct email to an SRO saying “say, Dr. Schmoe here is one of our investigators and would be a good addition to your study section”.

    True Story. sorry, strike that, not one of Chad’s TrueStories. actually a true story.


  19. whimple Says:

    Oh for fuck sake! Drugmonkey, I thought you were the avatar of breaking up the ole boyz klub, and here you are as a charter member!


  20. PhysioProf Says:

    Change from within, my friend. Change from within.


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    subvert from within my friend, subvert from within…..

    Look, much as with my musings on Impact Factor, don’t confuse recognition with endorsement. Not taking a stab at joining the “traditional” structures of power may give a warm fuzzy feeling of ideological purity but it makes the career pretty hard. In no way shape or form am I suggesting that these insider relationships that affect who gets jobs and who gets grants are the best way to select who should be doing science.

    am I in any OldBoyzKlubs? I think not. the aforementioned snooty meeting has ways other than actual membership to attend albeit much more limited that most meetings. sure, I have a RealJob, NIH grant support and I serve on a study section. does this mean it is all gravy from here? heck no.

    am I taking whatever steps seem likely to increase my OldBoyzCred? heck yeah.

    do the usual DM soapbox issues have a way of emerging anyway, doing me no favors with the OldBoyz? unfortunately.

    am I channeling Rummie? errr…..


  22. CC Says:

    OK, I get it. My guess is that the role of societies is somewhat field-dependent, with older and more medical-ish fields having more embedded societies. My wife’s graduate field revolved around the geezer doctors’ society’s meeting and journal, while the paths to power in genomics are — very different.

    Maybe it just shows how obtuse I am, but my postdoc was spent around some hyper-ambitious (and hyper-successful) peers, and I can’t recall the topic of society membership ever coming up. So I’d encourage the youngsters reading this not to panic if you haven’t been a member of the Whateverological Society since first-year. (The importance of presenting, networking and self-promoting in general, however, is absolutely vital, starting in early grad school.)


  23. Piled Higher, Deeper Says:

    Seems as though the more basic the science, the less tied to a given Society? If your work from year to year could be relevant to cancer, diabetes, neuroscience, heart disease, etc you aren’t going to be so tied to the Society based on disease category or even older-fashioned ideas of what a “field” is.


  24. […] about the one-on-one interactions you will have with faculty during your interview visit… but Physioprof has previously posted on this over at the old DM site in glorious detail.. and with many excellent comments.. Also, I found this […]


  25. […] or looking stupid in general. I've been poring over the very excellent advice on such matters from Physioprof, DrDrA, and Gerty-Z (and their commenters), but I still have a bunch questions. Here they are, […]


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