Careers in Science Series: Preparing for Academic Job Interviews

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

I was super excited when I got invited for my first in-person interview. If you have gotten invited for an interview, congratulations! Getting selected for an interview is a huge accomplishment and the first step towards securing an academic position. Your odds of getting the job at this point are also much higher as departments typically interview three to eight  people for each position. Take a day or two to celebrate, and then you should really start to prepare for the interview. Before you go on any interview there are three important things that you need to do in advance to prepare.

1. Finalize your research talk.

It’s a good idea to go over the details with your host and to make sure you know what is expected for your research talk. On most of my interviews I was expected to give a 45-50 minute research talk but at my first interview at the NIH through the Stadtman Search I gave a shorter 30 minute talk. You should also plan to cater your talk to your audience somewhat. For example, if you are interviewing in an immunology department, but your talk is more molecular biology based, you might need to incorporate a few more background slides and spend a few minutes discussing how your work is relevant to the immunology field.

2. Put together your chalk talk.

I will admit, before my first interview I was the most anxious about giving a chalk talk. I had never actually seen a chalk talk before I gave my very first one. If you ever have the opportunity to observe a chalk talk in person I highly recommend that you do so just so you have a better idea of what to expect. I structured my chalk talk with the following:

I. Introduction

II. Significance

III. Background

IV. Specific Aims/First R01

V. Long-term Goals

That format worked really well for me but I suggest you use whatever format you feel most comfortable with. Another thing that really helped me prepare for the chalk talk was to practice it enough so that I could give it without using notes at all. I think it’s really important you know what you are planning to do really well and to be able to demonstrate this to your audience. It’s also really useful to practice writing your chalk talk out on a white board/chalk board, as it’s an entirely different experience than simply clicking through a prepared presentation. It’s also good to make sure you know how to spell everything!

The first time I practiced on the white board I realized I made several spelling mistakes as it had been a long time since I actually wrote things out by the hand and didn’t have the computer to auto-correct it for me.
Another important way to prepare for the chalk talk is to practice with as many different people as possible. What makes the chalk talk so unique from a typical research seminar is that you have no idea what questions people will ask you, so it’s important to get feedback from a variety of different people. I made a list of some of the most common general questions that I was asked during my chalk talks, but you should also anticipate getting asked a lot of questions specific to your science.

  • How will you differentiate yourself from your mentor(s)?
  • What equipment do you need to be successful?
  • What will you have your first graduate student or post-doc work on?
  • What are some of the potential pitfalls in your proposed project?
  • What will your first big paper be?
  • Where will you get funding?
  • Where do you see your research in 20 years from now?
  • Summarize your research goals in 1 sentence!
  • How does your work fit in with the goals of the department/institute?
  • Who are your biggest competitors in the field going to be?
  • Why should you be at this specific school/institute?

3. Get to know the faculty.

The final thing that you need to do for your interview is to learn a little about the faculty within the department/institute. You don’t need to be an expert on what everyone in the department is doing but it’s a good idea to have a basic knowledge of what everyone is working on. I would recommend printing about a recent paper or two from each lab and perhaps making a short list of questions to ask each faculty member.

Category: Careers