10 Questions You Should be Prepared to Answer in a Science Faculty Interview

18 Nov

It’s pretty clear from the frequency of my posts (or lack thereof) how things have been going in the lab lately.  When things go swimmingly, I time-manage effectively, plan my experiments efficiently, and have time for the fun of science-writing.  When things don’t go so well, experiments get backed up, countless hours in the laminar-flow hood are followed by countless hours plying the PCR gods with gifts and trinkets, and by the time I done with all that, I’m too exhausted and brain-dead to even enjoy writing.  So, today I’m taking my lunch break to make a slight departure from my norm, just to get posting again.

After some discussion with a number of other newby postdocs in my field, it’s become apparent that many of us are (more or less) completely unprepared for what is hopefully the inevitable: a serious interview for a faculty position.   More specifically, a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution.  I’m not saying we’ll all go that direction, but many of us will and it pays to be prepared in the event of that oh-so-coveted interview.

I’ve done a number of online searches, as have my colleagues, on precisely how to prepare for such an interview and the results have been woefully vague, ambiguous, and decidedly unhelpful in the real world. 

Many of the questions you’ll find after such a search are similar to those you might find on any help site for any type of job interview…

  • Why are you interested in this position?
  • How do you see yourself contributing to this institution?
  • What is the biggest conflict you have ever been involved in at work? How did you handle the situation?
  • (my personal favorite) What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?

Other questions you might find even on site specifically for faculty interviews largely revolve around describing your pedagogy and how you involve your students in your research… 

  • What kinds of research projects/topics could you pursue here?
  • What pedagogical changes do you see on the horizon in your discipline?
  • What courses have you created or proposed in the past five years?
  • How do you engage students, particularly in a course of non-majors?

 

Of course, you should by all means be prepared to answer these types of questions.  But having served (as the student member) on two search committees for science faculty positions, I noticed a slightly different and much more specific set of questions being asked at every single interview we conducted.  I discussed this recently with a colleague who had just completed an interviewfor a competitive science faculty position, and he confirmed having been asked a very similar set of questions. 

 So, I’ve included the basic questions here (in no particular order), with suggestions on how to answer, for the benefit of all those research-faculty wanabees out there that could use a heads up..

1.  What do you propose to study?  

Sort of an obvious question, but specificity is of import in your answers.  Specific examples of your key objectives, any possible or previously established field sites you’d like or plan to work on, methods you’ve applied in the past and that you’d like to apply in the future.  Think about how all this will fit in the department for which you’re interviewing, equipment and resources you could share, etc.

2.  Where will you submit your first/next grant proposal?

Again, specificity is what they are looking for.  They want to know that your work has a funding home, and that you have a precise idea of where that is, i.e. which programs within which agencies and what the deadlines are for proposals.  The flip side to this question is “To which journals will you submit your research for publication,” although I think this question is less important if you already have a strong publication record.

3.  Who will you collaborate with?

This is a 60/40 question as far as what I’ve seen… they want about 60% of your answer to be in-depth with regards to the other faculty within and around the institution, but 40% of your answer needs to include collaborators around the world (usually around the U.S. will suffice, but it depends on where you’re interviewing).  Ideally, you’ve had some experience with at least a few of these folks in the past or perhaps during the course of the interview and can feed off prior conversations with them.  And I can’t stress specificity  enough… name names folks, and toss out project ideas.

4.  What courses can you teach or would like to teach?

This often will also incorporate issues of pedagogy, including how you intend to engage your students, general teaching and testing philosophy.  Lets face it, though, teaching  is not usually a deal-breaker at most research institutions.  Show that you’ve given this some thought and they’ll probably be happy.  If you’ve taught before, mention the courses.  If you haven’t, take some time to look through the department’s course catalog, get a feel for what they already offer and where your expertise might be able to fill a gap. Again, be specific as possible, give course names and topics.

5.  How many students will you have/mentor (initially and beyond)?

This question and the next few all have to do with the structure of your desired/planned lab and research operations.  Think it through in detail before your interview and give your rationale with your answer.  Do you prefer to start with a boatload of people on board so that you can get all the research underway and publications rolling out?  Or do you think you’d only like one or two to begin with, then gradually increase to a maximum of x?  Why?

6.  Do you need/want a technician?

This is where you get to debate (before the interview, preferably) the virtues of a technician versus a postdoc or graduate student(s).  What would someone in each of these positions be responsible for and how does that shape the lab-legacy you hope to become your own?  And where would the funds come from for any or all of these types of positions?  What gives you the most bang for your buck?

7.  What equipment do you need?

Again, be specific.  Brand names, models, functions.  Multipurpose equipment is always a plus, but (obviously) there are techniques which require highly specialized equipment.  If that’s the case, would you be willing to offer a fee-based-service with your fancy-schmancy equipment to help recoup any financial investment the department may have to make?

8.  Estimated startup money?

This is something I’m not particularly good at, but I would say “aim high” and it’s been suggested that (depending on the size of the institution) you have to say at least $200k or you won’t be taken seriously.   In many cases, this won’t even come up until the job offer has been made, thenyour negotiation skills come into play.  However, this is something that’s definitely worth taking a pen and paper (and calculator) to before the interview.  Figure what you think you would need for the first two-five years, while you work on generating preliminary data and writing proposals, then add at least 25%, and you should be covered. 

9.  How many square feet of lab space do you need?

I’ve never seen this question posed in an interview before, but my colleague was asked this during his interview, so I’ve included it.  Have a rough idea of space needed and how you would set up your lab, considering efficiency as well as safety regulations.

10.  How much office space for yourself and students?

This relates strongly back to #5 and #6 (and even maybe #9 – depending on how much time you’ll spend in the lab versus your office), but also to what you have seen around the institution with regard to what everybody else has.  I hope this is a no-brainer:  Don’t say you need 300 ft2 of office space for yourself if everybody else there has about 100 ft2

In short, if it’s a job you really want, spend some serious time preparing to answer questions with specific, and well informed answers.  Every institution will be a little bit different in their focus and desires, but from their website, the job announcement, and the search committee, you should be able to get a feel for that before you ever show up for the interview.

I’d love to hear if anyone out there has had similar or vastly different experiences and how it all went down.  Let me know if I left something critical out, too!

Happy hunting!

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Many thanks to those whose interview experience helped shape this post!

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