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Preparing for the academic job interview

Most importantly: remember your audience.


There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. – Colin Powell

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

During the course of my faculty search I visited at a total of six different academic research institutes, one pharmaceutical company and two intellectual property law firms. While there were significant differences in the style, length and pace of my interviews between the academic research institutes and the private companies, among the different academic institutes the process was identical.

For starters, the academic research institute interviews began with a (generally) informal invitation to visit the site, most often at the request of a specific investigator with whom I was already well acquainted and whose work overlapped significantly with mine. While I appreciate there are significant differences here with regard to specialty, in biomedical science it is expected that the host institution will cover the cost of travel, hotel and expenses, and I was often reminded to keep my receipts. Reimbursements were handled by the administrative assistant of the inviting professor following the visit.

Faculty interviews typically take the form of a daylong or overnight visit to the campus, followed by an “informal” lunch or dinner meeting later that day. Be prepared. It is important to organize travel, hotel accommodations and arrangements for pick up well in advance of your trip, and to be conservative about your travel time. The schedule will be created around you, and there is no reason to inject extra stress into an already stressful day by having to worry about making tight connections. Once you have scheduled your travel and accommodations, forward the necessary details to the administrative assistant in charge of your visit and move on to preparing your job talk. The itinerary for your interview day will likely not be finalized until 12 to 24 hours prior to your visit, and it is best not to worry about it as you will usually be led from one appointment to the next.

Preparing your job talk

Your first priority upon scheduling your interview should be preparing your job talk. A formal presentation on your current research is always expected and typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour, allowing 10 to 15 minutes for questions. While you have likely given many of these already, there are important considerations to make note of:

  • Write out your entire talk. You will want to be very careful about what you say and how you say it. Keep it simple and clear.
  • Consider your audience. The majority of your audience will not be familiar with your research, and many will not be familiar with your field. Emphasize the importance of your work, underscore your overarching hypothesis, clarify your rationale and restate your conclusions often. Acknowledge your collaborators (particularly if they are in the audience) and highlight their accomplishments.
  • Distinguish yourself. You are trying to leave a lasting impression on the institute with this talk. Wow them! It is important the audience take notice of the value of your work and what it could mean for their research program. It is not only important that you distinguish yourself from other applicants, but that you demonstrate independence from your supervisor. Make it clear early on where your research diverges and how it will lead to an independent research program.
  • PowerPoint. Your talk will almost exclusively be given in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Include images and videos, and vary the design of your slides, alternating between text and figures (see PowerPoint for academic job talks). Less is more! If there are specific audiovisual requirements you need, be sure to discuss these with your host ahead of time. Bring a backup copy on a USB drive or e-mail it to yourself, and maintain a set of slides as a PDF document in case the formatting on your power point presentation goes haywire. Finally, be prepared to give a chalk talk on the spot if all else fails.
  • Story arc. You have done a lot of work, but now is not the time to discuss it all. Choose one story with a clear beginning, middle, end, and exciting promise (future). Your talk should comprise your primary and secondary research aims, including only that data which supports the story arc. You can address your other work during the discussion period. Reference your primary publications in the talk, as well as other major contributions to the field (particularly if they are from members of the institute you are visiting).
  • Practice. Memorize your talk and practise it often and under varied circumstances. Ensure your pacing is consistent, your word choice and transitions are adequate, and your slides match your content. Finishing 10 minutes short is preferable to finishing 10 after. When it is ready, give it to your advisor, to your department, and to your partner. Be receptive to criticism, improve your talk and repeat as often as is necessary. Leave enough time to complete the many revisions you will need to perfect it well before your visit.

Also worth reading is “Academic Scientists at Work: The Job Talk.”

Dress code and small talk

Prepare your look ahead of time. Choose a semi-formal style that you can dress-up or dress-down as needed. Each department, institute, meeting is different and you should be ready to adapt to your environment. If you are visiting Utah in winter, expect to go skiing. If visiting California in the summer, expect someone will want to show you the beach. Most importantly, remember your audience. I recommend spending the week before your visit researching the institution, the department and the investigators you are likely to meet. Read their papers and formulate questions about their work ahead of time. It is not disingenuous to prepare relevant anecdotes and talking points. Consider these important components of your “interview Swiss army knife” and employ accordingly. Small talk is critical to breaking the ice, transitioning between topics and filling awkward silences. That said, expect to have fun. Now get excited!

For postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a faculty appointment in academic research, I strongly encourage the following resource, alongside which this article should be read: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. Burroughs Wellcome Fund / Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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