So, you’ve got an academic job interview…

It’s well past time to kick the AHA ECR blog back into life. Back in February and March, I collected advice from historians in Australia on two topics for early career researchers: how to approach academic job interviews, and tips for your first honours/research higher degree supervision. The COVID-19 crisis rapidly overwhelmed all other business, and some of this discussion felt a bit on the nose to publish. Perhaps it still does. But sooner or later (very later?), this will regain relevance. So, let’s do job interviews first. I post this as a reference for the future, as few jobs are being advertised right now. Please note that all of the content below was written before Covid-19 seriously affected our universities and the academic job market.

Most people find job interviews pretty intimidating. It’s hard enough just to get on the shortlist, especially when history positions at Australian universities get so many applications. And once you’ve made it that far, what do you do? This entry is especially for those of you who are preparing for your first interview, and for people who feel like they’ve not performed well in interviews so far. There is no magic trick to make a selection panel fall in love with you—as will be clear from some of the respondents differing with each other on a few points—and there will often be preferences and institutional politics you cannot possibly know. But with any luck the comments in this entry will help you build confidence.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne)

Much depends on the composition of the selection committee, though the applicant can hardly be expected to know that in advance. It is likely to include academics with a direct interest in the field advertised, but also others who might well be looking for greater versatility.

It is common for selection committees to prepare and allocate generic questions on teaching experience and approach, research record and intentions, etc. These questions are likely to be formulated using the selection criteria; but it means the person asking the question is not necessarily the person with the greatest interest and understanding of that aspect of the duties. Accordingly, responses are best directed to the committee at large, as opposed to concentrating on the questioner. It is always helpful to elicit follow-up questions, these helping to go beyond the generic nature of the interview. I think track record (and indications of the trajectory of the applicant’s career) take precedence over ‘fit’ – but it is helpful to spend some time looking at the school and program’s curriculum, research interests, etc. and to light upon distinctive features. That way you can show you have given thought to fit. I think video interviews make it harder to establish rapport, though a good chair should assist.

I think it is helpful to prepare notes in advance, formulating the salient aspects you want to emphasise; though using these notes can make for a somewhat wooden self-presentation. The key phrases will stick in your memory. Similarly with questions: formulate them but don’t force them on the interview and be prepared to take up any signals during the interview.

I’m most impressed when a candidate engages my attention. (Along with other members of the committee, a day of interviews can become wearisome, and it is sometimes hard to maintain concentration.) Without overselling yourself, try to communicate why you think this particular appointment attracts you and why you think you would make a good colleague.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Panels for academic teaching and research positions will often ask for an example of a unit you would like to develop and teach, so it can be worth fleshing out some possibilities that would work in the context of the institution you are hoping to work for. Panels will also want to hear you convey the excitement of your research, and may also want to know how you go about combining the demands of teaching and research. You would definitely want to be able to explain why the position is attractive to you and how the role fits with your career plan – the panel will be looking for a candidate who genuinely wants this particular job, and not just any vaguely relevant post. Astute panels will also be looking to hire people who are not only excellent researchers and/or teachers, but also great colleagues, so they may ask how you have managed disagreements, and how you go about working in a collaborative environment. It’s useful to be able to provide particular examples (without naming names!). Every selection panel I have been on has asked candidates whether they have any questions and I think it is a good idea to have some of these prepared, if there are indeed things you might reasonably want to ask of the panel. The panel’s answers can help you decide whether you really want the position, and your questions can help to reinforce the impression that you have taken the time to really imagine yourself in the position, as an ongoing commitment rather than a remote prospect. Do also come with a clear idea about when you would like to start.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Expect a question about why you want the job and what you have to contribute – try and make it clear why your track record and research fits with the institution. If it’s a teaching and research position, you will get questions which cover both areas. Consider how you’d answer a question about your most difficult teaching experience, or what some of your main teaching challenges have been and how you addressed them. What are your research plans and your research trajectory: where would you like to be, research wise, in five years? Take the opportunity to sell the importance of your research and why it matters. Universities like to hear about research impact so think about that, although as an ECR no-one will be expecting your research to have had major impact yet.

If you possibly can, ask your peers and/or supervisor and/or experienced staff member, to give you a mock interview. Take this seriously and use it as an opportunity to practice how you respond to questions. Ask for critical feedback. If you are going to be interviewed via a video link or phone, practice that mode. In both face to face and video interviews, be conscious of your body language and what you are conveying. Watch this TED talk for some really interesting ideas about ‘power poses’ to help get your energy flowing ahead of the interview.

Do your research. Know what the job will be, what you might be teaching, where the synergies are with other staff members, what the university demographic is (and if you can’t find that out easily, ask it in the interview). Make sure you’ve looked up who the panel members are and, in a face to face interview, make sure you look at them all and don’t focus too much on one person. One of the key challenges of remote interviews is that it’s harder to ‘read’ the room. Don’t make the mistake of talking too much. If you have a half an hour time slot, practice within that time and don’t spend too long answering a question when you know that the committee will have other things they want to ask you. For a remote interview, dress as you would if it were face to face – it helps get you in the mode.

Always have at least one question prepared that you want to ask – it shows you’ve thought about the position and are genuinely interested. Don’t ask about workloads unless it’s a question about the teaching/research workload balance.

The most impressive interviews are the ones where the candidate is well prepared and conveys energy and enthusiasm for the position.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

I wouldn’t claim to be a very accomplished interviewee, but I think I’ve generally done best when I’ve had time to prepare thoroughly, and when I feel that I’m a pretty good fit for the job and the department. I also suspect I tend to do a little better when I rate my chances poorly, as I relax more and find it easier to articulate my case.

I’m more often on the other side of the table these days, and I’d say there’s nothing more important than being able to explain why you want the position. It will often be the first question you’re asked and, if you can’t answer it, it will likely create a poor impression. It’s the equivalent of an introduction to an article, or perhaps an abstract: if you can’t manage it, that usually means you’re not really sure of what the research you’ve done is really about.

There’s no harm in trying to anticipate the questions in your preparation, and in having a practice session with a friend or family member using those questions. Remote interviews will have their own challenges, such as the technology and the general difficulty of reading the room. If that’s what you face, it would be best to practice that way. I was part of a panel a while back interviewing an overseas candidate remotely and I was surprised when he asked for time to consider each of his answers – I suppose he sat silently, taking notes, for 30 seconds or more after each question before answering. It seems to have worked because we gave him the job!

I’d also do whatever you can to uncover local knowledge. If you seem to know nothing of the institution, including what the staff – possibly your future colleagues – are researching, an interview panel might read a career of future disengagement into it. For similar reasons, make sure you know what courses are being offered in the department, so that you can make a case about where your expertise might fit in – and also, again, so that you look interested. We all like to have people show interest in what we do, and members of job panels are no exception. Remember, you’re being interviewed for a position that, if it’s continuing, could be for a long time for all concerned, and those interviewing you will want to be assured that you’ll be a good colleague. Yes, they want to hear about your research, and your teaching plans, but they’ll also be looking for signs of flexibility and proportion. Your research is important but it’s not the only game in town!

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

As a committee member I have frequently found that my view of who is strongest on the shortlist based on the CV does not turn out to be the preferred candidate after an interview. Do your home work on the organisation – check their website, then take any opportunity to have a discussion with the contact person. This gives you a closer idea of what sort of person they are really looking for; this is not always self-evident from adverts.

During the interview, ensure you make regular eye contact. Don’t rush your answers or speak too quickly – appear thoughtful in the way you respond. Try to be the most positive, enthusiastic person in the room but don’t overdo that. While addressing questions to a reasonable degree, ensure you slip in points that you really want to make – treat it a bit like a media interview. Be honest about something you don’t know the answer to rather than stumble or struggle.

Make sure you know who’s on the committee and what their interests or perspective are likely to be. Expect the normal opening question: why are you interested in the position, what would you bring to it, what do you know about us. Do ask your own questions at the end – not too many – and take this as a further opportunity to reiterate your enthusiasm and to demonstrate your knowledge of the place.

Last: let your referees know you are being interviewed in case you are asked if it is okay to approach them.

4 comments

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