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The Black Hole

The actual job interview – what to expect


If you are not sure what you want to do for a living, that message comes out loud and clear in the interview.

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

When you arrive

Itineraries will vary between departments, but expect to meet with up to 11 investigators at 30-minute time intervals over the course of an eight-hour day.

Included in your itinerary will likely be your host (with whom you will meet first and then again for dinner that night), a handful of investigators whose research relates to yours, at least one new hire with experiences similar to yours, the head/chair of the department for which you are interviewing, and most likely members of neighbouring departments with whom you will likely be working closely or possibly seeking a cross appointment. Important to remember is that you are here to make a positive first impression.

Be prepared for a demanding and exhausting experience. Remember that you are on display at all stages of the visit and remain cognizant of whom you are speaking to and the liberties you take. In every case you should be striving to convince the department that your work is exciting, that you will be a leader in your field, that you are personable and will make a good colleague, and above all, that you are the best possible fit. Conversely, you should be taking this opportunity to consider if the institution and department are the right fit for you, if the faculty are personable and will make good colleagues, and if the environment is one in which you can be successful.

Delivering the job talk

It is common to be both nervous and anxious regardless of how experienced a public speaker you are. Arrive to the lecture room early enough to set up and become comfortable with the space, even if it means cutting your last interview short. The minutes before you are called to the podium are the most nerve-wracking – make a deliberate point of controlling your breathing, calming your heart rate and planning your first few words, gestures and stance. You should begin by acknowledging your audience with eye contact and a smile. Greet them. Let them know you are glad to be with them, find the few audience members who seem eager to hear what you have to say, and then plunge in.

Enthusiasm is infectious, and modesty is important. Use “we” and plant discussion points throughout your talk that can be picked up on during the question period. During your talk, be cognizant of your stance and hands. Do not rock or fidget, and take the time to catch your breath and regulate your voice so that you are neither whispering into the microphone, nor shouting at your audience. If you can get off to a good start, muscle memory will take over and everything will suddenly fall into place.

Prepare to be challenged. The interview is as much about your research and ability to present it clearly and confidently as it is about how you deal with criticism. When challenged, don’t become defensive. Listen and stand your ground politely. If need be, offer to continue the discussion after the talk and move on to another point, then follow up with this investigator after your talk. Some of my harshest critics have become my closest collaborators this way. It is these sorts of exchanges that highlight weaknesses in your logic, provide new perspectives to your work, and help make you a better scientist.

Although the emphasis is generally placed on the job talk, it has been my experience that opportunities to present less formal “chalk talks” often present themselves during the course of an interview. It is worthwhile to prepare a five-minute synopsis of your work ahead of time that can be given on the back of a napkin, a pad of paper, or a whiteboard. These are typically more discussions than presentations and you should expect to be interrupted often. The emphasis should be on the importance of your research, innovation/novelty of your approach, independence from your principal investigator, and departmental fit. You are role-playing a future meeting among colleagues and you should take this opportunity to highlight how well you think on your feet, demonstrate your capacity to be interactive, collaborative and personable, and provide your interviewer with a taste of what having you in the department will be like.

Concluding your visit

Your last meeting of the day will most likely be with the chair of the search committee who will brief you on the administrative process and when you should expect to hear back from the search committee. Now is not the time to worry about specifics such as startup package, salary, personnel, equipment, etc. That discussion comes later and is contingent on you making it through this first phase.

When you return home, write a formal letter to the chair of the committee thanking them for their hospitality and reiterating your interest in the position. Do the same for each faculty member with whom you met, and follow up on any data you promised to share, or outstanding commitments made during the interview. The committee will undoubtedly have multiple candidates to consider and the only thing left for you to do is wait. Academic departments tend to move notoriously slow on administrative issues and you will be expected to be doing your best to bring in multiple job offers to allow room for negotiation.

Although you will be applying to as many different research departments as possible, keeping an open mind with regard to your flexibility and geographic mobility, and remember that merely securing a tenure-track faculty position is not the point. What you should be looking for is an environment that complements your strengths, and that you can help grow as you strive to realize your research goals. If you are not a good fit, or the department cannot meet your needs, move on; there is no reason to waste your time and theirs going through the motions for a job you will not take. Just be careful: there are very few tenure-track jobs available and a lot can happen between a great first interview and a final appointment offer. If there is even the smallest chance that you will accept a faculty position from this department (however undesirable) and can find a way to make it work, do not pull yourself out of the running! You will regret it. However, if you do decide to take another job or are no longer interested in the position, withdraw your candidacy immediately, and respectfully. There are a lot of people involved in this process, and their time is every bit as valuable as yours.

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
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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