Job interview: how to avoid 10 pitfalls

You got an interview! How do you do your best so they choose you for that elusive position on the faculty of a college or university? Actually most of this advice applies to any kind of in-person job interview. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you are never out of scrutiny and they are likely to know each other and to talk. Most of these pitfalls are easily avoided if you take some time to absorb both them and the reasons behind them. The actual talks are worthy of their own posts. You may get to give a research lecture, a sample class, or a chalk talk.

Pitfall 1. Inadequate preparation. More than anything, you want no surprises on the job interview. You want your answers to questions to fit in the context of the place you are interviewing. Some of this is obvious. You won’t want to say you love straight research at a primarily teaching college, for example. But you should really dig into the structure of the place, who is there, what collaborations exist, and what people do inside and outside academia as much as possible. You should then be able to ask strategic questions, or find bonds with people whose research interests are different, for example if you both knit, or are both hikers. If this were advice for the hiring side, I would point out that those extraneous connections should not be part of hiring decisions, but on your side, I say whatever it takes. It is human to look for connections and feel good when they are found, so the more you can help with this the better.

Pitfall 2. Inappropriate dress. You do not want your clothes, your hair, or any part of your body to come into the hiring decision. Of course all of this is illegal, but it doesn’t stop people even inadvertently bringing it in. A rule of thumb is to dress a step up from what is normal for the place and to show as little skin as possible. This is easier for men. They can wear a suit and tie, or a sports coat and tie, taking the tie off if necessary. Remember male deans often wear ties, though. Women should not show their collarbones or anything below. Did you get that? Collarbones. Do what you want after you get the job. Pants are safer than dresses, but dresses and skirts can work with dark tights, not transparent hose. For a job on the East Coast, I would go with black. And wear comfortable shoes you can walk miles in. I went on one job interview about 15 years ago where the shoes I thought were comfortable turned out not to be. I only hoped no one saw the blood seeping out from broken blisters. When I interviewed for my first job at Rice University, Mary Ann Rankin took me shopping for clothes. I had a yellow dress in particular that my grandmother and her cousin happily hemmed with long French needles. The outfit was perfect for the occasion, though the grad students suspiciously thought I had never done any field work. A job interview is not the place to express yourself with your clothes, your hair, your jewelry, or your tattoos.

Pitfall 3. Failing to keep to the schedule. You will be given a schedule of meetings with little time for breaks. You might be shuffled from one person to another in a very organized fashion or you may not. You may be stuck with professor long-winded who has no idea of time and get late to your next appointment. You will be blamed even if it is not your fault. So treat your schedule as your bible. Make sure it is up to date. You could even set a phone timer if you are not being well-minded so that it will ding, and you can have a reason to bring up the time. It will also help if you learn the buildings, but accept any offer made to take you to your next appointment. Remember, if you are late, it reflects poorly on you.

Pitfall 4. Thinking any interactions are not important. In some ways, we learn the most about people when we see how they treat staff, janitors, and servers. Be unfailingly polite to everyone, even if someone has totally screwed up. Assume everyone knows everyone and the staff member you hope never to need could be the husband of the powerful professor. You are on show. I’ve heard of candidates who complained that the grad student who picked them up from the airport got lost. Not a good idea. I’ve seen candidates treat servers with impatience. The most off-hand interactions can be the most telling, so be sure they tell only good things about you, that you are kind, considerate, and patient.

Pitfall 5. Meal complications. Perhaps nowhere is more of a minefield than the simple meal. We take people to meals both because everyone has to eat and because of what it tells us about them. You do not want to be seen as a difficult person. This does not mean you should eat things you are allergic to or that go against your principles, but do not let this become a matter for conversation. Get away from it by asking something about the department, for example. I was once with a blind woman who was being interviewed for a job in another department. We went casually out to lunch apart from the interview. She was so easy going, she didn’t ask to have the whole menu read to her, but just asked for 3 or 4 suggestions and picked from those. If I had been interviewing her, I would have been very positively impressed. Along these lines, don’t ask for anything on the side, or any alterations to the menu. Try to not be the first person to order, so you aren’t the only one getting or not getting an appetizer for example. Don’t get the spinach salad. I did that at lunch with the dean on the interview for my current job, and later discovered a huge leaf stuck to my teeth. Treat the servers with respect. If they bring you the wrong thing, just eat it, if it doesn’t make you sick. Alcohol: A job interview is not the place to drink. But you don’t want to seem to not fit in if everyone else is drinking. So, have one drink if you drink, no more. Have a soda water with lime if you don’t drink. If wine is going to be served with dinner, don’t have a cocktail before. If it is a US state university, all alcohol might be personally paid for by the faculty inviting. If they don’t get wine, you shouldn’t. I have to say I’m baffled at the number of job candidates I’ve seen get tipsy on the interview. It is not the place for drinking. Remember, they are watching you.

Pitfall 6. Not mentioning your partner, or mentioning them too much.
There are a lot of opinions on how and when you should mention your partner, or even your lack of partner. Some think you will be less likely to get the job if you have a partner who also needs a position. But at all the places I have been, we are not surprised you have an academic partner. We want to do what it takes to get you, if you are our choice, so information is good and the sooner the better. We have turned one position into two with strong partners. For that, both of you should apply for the position right from the start. That is actually what Dave and I did for the Wash U jobs. If your partner is junior, it is quite standard at places I have been to simply offer them a three year position with some funding to get to the stage they are competitive for a tenure track job. If you have a partner at your same stage or more senior who is markedly weaker and you think your strength will make us offer them a position, be ready for a disappointment. We won’t. Your partner might not be in academia. Tell us. The sooner we know, the sooner we can start dealing with the dean about what we need to hire you, should you be our choice. But don’t talk alot about them. The interview is about you. If you mention your partner to anyone, you should also mention them to the chair. They will talk and soon everyone will know.

Pitfall 7. Thinking the interview is about you. You will talk to a lot of people on an interview. Each person will have their own way of interacting. Some may launch right into their own research. You should be aware of what they do and ask meaningful questions. If you get stuck and have no idea, ask something about what excites them the most about their work now. If conversation is not working at all – after all, these are academics – you can ask to see the lab or something like that. But you must talk about them. You might get asked to tell them something you won’t be covering in your formal talks. Have two or three things prepared for this and mention the one closest to their work. But then bring the conversation back to them. Ask about their research, about the strengths of the place. If they are negative, try to move the conversation on to something else. Don’t commiserate over particular problems. The more you let them talk, the more brilliant they will think you are. If the meeting is with grad students, postdocs, or post-docs, listen to their concerns. Ask them about the place. Answer their questions. Treat this as a very important part of the interview.

Pitfall 8. Taking the wrong tone with the chair, dean or search committee head. These administrators are busy, but hiring good faculty is one of the most important things they do. They will want an idea of your big ideas, your collegiality, and your interest in the whole job. They may also want an up front idea of your research needs. The chair may show you some space. The chair may ask you how much start up money you might need. I recommend that you never say space is inadequate at this stage. I also recommend that you do not name a dollar amount for start up. Instead, ask questions that show you are evaluating the space carefully. For start up, ask about available equipment, or support for students. Keep the conversation on capabilities, things, and people, not square feet or dollars. Indicate you are enthusiastic about sharing. The chair or dean may also try to determine if you will take this job. Exhibit maximal enthusiasm for it, unless you already have an offer you like better.

Pitfall 9. Department politics. Remember, you do not know how this department works. You do not know how the decision will be made. It could be mostly the head, the whole department, or just the search committee. There may be factions. There may be difficult people, or people with a lot of power that you never would realize from their title. Keep your mouth shut about anyone in the department. Do not gossip. Take in information but do not release it. Even if you have a good friend in the department, you do not understand how it works.


My daughter, Anna Mueller, has succeeded twice in the tricky business of succeeding at academic interviews

Pitfall 10. If you don’t get the offer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. This one is about you. You may have done everything right. Some elements of the interview are beyond your control. There may be areas of research they simply like better. There may be someone they already met that they think is amazing. Grow from the interview. Contact people afterwards if there were people you were especially drawn to and ask if there was a problem. I have mentored people we did not hire about exactly what might have gone differently. But just because you got an interview does not mean you are on equal footing. So never forget to enjoy the process and keep in touch with your almost-colleagues.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Interviewing, Jobs and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Job interview: how to avoid 10 pitfalls

  1. Pingback: Job interview: does timing matter? | Sociobiology

  2. Pingback: Interviewing students the Oxford way | Sociobiology

  3. Pingback: How do you get an academic job in biology? | Sociobiology

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