The hunt: the tenure-track job interview

This is the third in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position, but rather highlighting my experience. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

You’ve sent out your applications for twenty-something tenure-track faculty positions, and you’re doing your best to play it cool while waiting. Maybe you’ve received brief correspondence from a search chair or two, but mostly you’re in the dark as to how your application package is faring across the country/continent/planet. The wait is slowly driving you crazy, as days turn to weeks, then into months. During this period, I kept myself occupied by pushing publications out the door, applying for grants, and looking out for additional job postings. And then it happened – I got a phone call from an acquaintance on the search committee at TTU (tenure-track university), asking what dates would work for me to fly out for an interview. I remember the phone call vividly, because I was sitting at a coffee shop working on a new round of job applications, as the past year’s search appeared to be dead in the water. One week later, airline reservations and a tentative itinerary were in my hands. I had about 4 weeks to get my seminar ready, organize my future research plans for a chalk talk, and prepare to carry on conversation with a pretty diverse group of scientists.

Using my most recent departmental talk as a template, I designed my seminar to highlight my communication and teaching skills. I didn’t want to overwhelm with data, but instead focus on telling a story and portraying myself as an authority in my sub-field. After putting my slides together, I practiced until I knew my talk forward and backward, making changes to slides and adding transitions as I found necessary. Since my talks tend to run faster when someone is watching, I practiced in front of an audience as much as I could – even Hubby and Monkey got in on the action. An audience can also spot annoying presentation habits you’re not aware of. Take a look at #6 on Sci’s recent PowerPoint presentation post – the laser pointer is my Achilles’ heel. After nearly blinding my son during an at-home practice, I made sure the pointer spent most of the time on the podium. I have no idea what my hands did sans pointer, but the talk flowed well and elicited several very good questions. Job talk success.

My first interview also included a chalk talk, which is used to evaluate the viability of candidate’s research plan. I found it easiest to prepare for this by typing up an outline of my research statement (see more on this here). I was only allotted one hour for my chalk talk, and the attending faculty ranged vastly in specialty, so I knew I needed to keep things focused on the big picture. I prepared a single PowerPoint slide diagramming my model, then printed several copies of my outline, also including a picture of my model, in case a projector wasn’t available. Everything else was done on the board. I began my talk by writing out my main research question on one side of the board. At the top of the board, I divided this question into two main sub-projects and listed (in a very abbreviated fashion), the specific aims for each project. One of these sub-projects was my K grant; the other was the basis for my first R01. Surprisingly (to me at least), I didn’t get very many questions on the science, but I was asked a LOT of questions about how I would get my research program off the ground (personnel, funding, publication timeline). I was also asked how my project would fit in the department and where I envisioned collaborations with their faculty. None of the questions were difficult, but they did require some thought ahead of time. Luckily, I had spent a fair amount of time beforehand preparing for these types of questions, thanks to the advice of others in the blogosphere.

The week before heading to Tenure Track Town (TTT) for my interview, I spent some time checking out the department faculty, especially those on my itinerary. I was scheduled to meet one-on-one with nearly 20 diverse faculty in 30-minute increments throughout my visit, and I wanted to make sure I could at least keep up with a conversation on their work. I wrote down a question or two for each person with whom I was meeting, paying extra attention to those whose work could complement my own studies. This aspect of the interview was by far the most intense and overwhelming, as I spent the entire day shifting from one topic to the next, trying to stay on my game. Some of the faculty talked about their research for the entire 30 minutes. Others wanted to talk about my work and how they could add to it with their own specialty. Others didn’t talk about research much at all, focusing instead on teaching, grant-writing, tenure requirements, or the benefits of living in TTT. As intense as it was, this aspect of the interview was also very informative. These faculty were potential future colleagues, and I was able to glean quite a bit of information about how the department functioned.

All-in-all, my first interview was a success, as evidenced by the offer I received a few weeks later. Still, there were a few things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have worn a new pair of heels – I actually tripped and nearly fell while rushing behind my guide to the next faculty interview. I also think I could have done a better job of focusing on the big picture versus the details during my chalk talk, although this probably has more to do with how diverse the department is. Above all, I wish I had been more prepared to talk about what I would need from the department to be successful – in other words, negotiate. I’m sure this is rare for a first interview, but I doubt I’m the first, or last, to be caught off guard by these types of questions. How my negotiation progressed will be the subject of my next (and final) post in this series.

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5 thoughts on “The hunt: the tenure-track job interview

  1. I thought the chalk talk was fun! Really. I had a similar strategy, but focused mainly on my first R01, after summarizing the key points from my K grant. This showed them that I could form coherent plans and carry them out. I also pointed out which subaims would form manuscripts and how to involve students (graduate and undergraduate). Don’t ‘name drop’, but if you don’t have the primary expertise for a specific subaim which you are proposing to do, have a specific plan for how you would fill in the gaps.

    You’re right about thinking about things from a negotiation stand point. They want to know how much money you think you will need to be successful. Meaning your specific needs: big equipment, safety stuff, personnel, etc. It’s not being arrogant if you consider this stuff ahead of time-it’s being proactive. It will look pretty bad if you think that you need to order a bunch of pipettes (consumables) and you’re good to go. You will likely get ball parks on start-up and salary on your first interview. It’s better to be prepared than not.

  2. Glad to see that I’m not too far off-base with having already applied to 18 jobs! I think that by far the worst part of all this is the waiting. And the wondering….

    Although, I’m very happy to use your experiences as not only a learning experience, but also as inspiration. I know I can make it if I’m given a shot at this – I just need to convince people to give me a shot… :)

  3. I think that I applied close to 28 jobs…got asked to 2 interviews. I’ve had friends apply to 60-they got called to about 5 interviews….

  4. You have great information here, Dr. O. Thanks for sharing.
    As for the new heels thing – I got that advice so many times when interviewing for a postdoc – “don’t wear new heels.” I wore new heels but they were Sofft and probably one of the most comfortable pair of shoes I owned right then. I did have to walk across icy ground and some gravel at one point during the first interview with new heels. My escort, an older man, asked if I would be okay. My response, “I wouldn’t wear anything to an interview that wasn’t also functional.” I wasn’t totally sure if he meant my shoes (which he glanced at) or my pencil skirt which did not allow a huge range of walking motion. He seemed reassured that I was not dressed only for looks, but also for functionality. I am a scientist after all.

  5. Related to balancing (research and family) … how did you (or do you recommend) handling bringing your husband into the interview process? I have been invited to for a TT interview, and I’d like my husband to also be able to see the town since I would never make this decision without him being able to visit, but I’m unsure at what point this is appropriate. Have him come with for interview, but do his own thing exploring the town (that way my flight and hotel is paid for by TTU)? Wait to see if I’m offered a position and then have the two of us make a separate trip out there (more costly since that trip is not likely paid by TTU)?

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