If you’re currently undertaking a PhD you may already be thinking about life after the viva, in particular, securing an academic position. But before that happens, you have to have an academic interview! Fear not, our recent PhD Seminar with Anton Harder, LSE PhD International History (2016) and Bernard Keenan, LSE PhD Law (2018) covered just that. Both Anton, who is now a Teaching Associate at Nottingham University and Bernard, a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London, shared their reflections on the academic selection process and in this blog PhD Careers Consultant, Catherine Reynolds, summarises their key messages:

Use your network (and your network’s network). Anyone you can contact in the department for a chat and some information gathering in advance will help you prepare better. Even if it’s just to tell them that you are applying. You learn some inside intel and word gets round that you are keen, you just need to reach out and not be shy. It’s a mature, professional approach to preparing for an interview.

Before the interview, you want to know about your panel and some of the things they have written so you can shape your answers to connect with their interests.

Think about your research work and what you want to say about it – not all of it, again select what’s relevant to the department and the panel. You’re giving edited highlights to tell a story – not a comprehensive summary of your PhD and other research.

Be prepared to elaborate on anything you have said in your application. For example in your research work: where exactly will you apply for funding? What will the first line of your next research proposal say? Why? What will you have achieved in 5 years? Who will you have worked with to increase the impact of your research? How will you have connected with them?

And in your teaching: how will you use your research in teaching? What does this mean for the students’ learning? How will you connect it to the readings and core concepts? What opportunities does it give for students to create their own knowledge

Interview styles vary considerably. For example you could be invited: for a short informal chat; to give a short presentation (eg show how you would teach a topic of your choice to a group of 2nd year undergraduates for 10 minutes) to a small panel followed immediately by the interview; or a long and very formal presentation on a given topic to a large room, followed by detailed (and some tricky) questions based on the presentation, then a free period and finally a formal interview to a large panel including several people from the department, an external and an administrative person

The job talk is an opportunity for you to show you can: communicate really well;  make eye-catching presentations; use (memorable) graphics for good effect. No need to over complicate things but send a strong message that you’re a really good presenter. Show is more powerful than tell.

Interview questions can be tricky to answer if you do not know the purpose of the question. In Bernard’s experience sometimes the question needs to be decoded. An example might be ‘What challenges do you think you’ll face teaching students here?’ the answer to this is not a confident ‘Oh none, I’m sure I’ll get on just fine!’. Instead, use this question to show you have thought about the differences between students you have already taught and those at the new institution, and describe some strategies you’d use to be a really effective teacher there.

Anton had examples of questions he categorised as ‘Unanswerables’. For example: What would you say to a student who was interested in women’s history in early twentieth century China? It wasn’t his area and he realised afterwards that that was the point – how would he support a student interested in a different field? The lesson: don’t waffle on trying to cover your ignorance of the issue. Show how you support the students’ wider interests. He answered the question by vaguely discussing gender aspects of his thesis, which didn#t really exist and that he regretted it! Remember: it’s ok to acknowledge your unfamiliarity, and think how you could nonetheless help i.e. how does one advise (encourage and motivate) a student to seek out readings and support for their interests in a new area.

Use the interview questions as an opportunity to show that you can and want to contribute to the department’s teaching, research and admin needs. Student recruitment, widening participation initiatives and committee work all need to be done to keep the wheels turning and you can demonstrate your willingness to be a good colleague in all or some of these areas.

Some ‘more tricky’ issues about your wider life roles and circumstances are best avoided eg will you move for the job? There’s no need for you to raise this or other more personal topics.

Negotiating your terms and conditions – do this after the offer is made and before you accept.  Use the publicly available salary grade scale spine points to ask for an increase in the salary offer within the same grade boundary. Departments are more likely to be able to do this than they are to offer additional benefits. They might also be able to re-allocate some responsibilities (eg teaching a particular course) or allow more time for research/conferences etc and this is a good time to ask. This is also a good time to confirm access to office or lab space and to agree working from home arrangements (your timetable could be organised to reduce travel).

Sometimes you may not be offered the post but this does not mean you have not impressed the panel. Often there are many appointable candidates and it’s your portfolio of experience that does not fit as well as another candidate’s. Keeping in touch and thanking the panel members will keep the door open for future jobs.

Reflect on the experience so you learn from it; listing the questions afterwards and assessing and refining the answers you gave, can improve your chances for next time. Talk to others about how interviews went and work out better answers, think about common themes: graduate vs undergrad teaching, managing time pressures; teaching introductory methodology courses.

If you have been invited to interview once, you will be again. One interview we heard about ended with the panel and the interviewee giggling together about what a poor fit they were for each other – there was no job offer but they still respect each other’s work, got on well and who knows when their paths will cross again.

You can read other experiences of academic interviewing on the PhD Careers Blog, including:

Dr David Hope, permanent Lecturer in Political Economy at King’s College London and a Visiting Research Fellow at the LSE International Inequalities Institute

Dr Sam Freidman, Assistant Professor in Sociology at LSE

Katsuhiko (Katsu) Yoshikawa, who received multiple job offers for lecturer/assistant professor positions and accepted one from Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Antai College of Economics and Management.

To help prepare for academic or any selection interviews, book an appointment online with Catherine Reynolds here: PhD/Research Careers. Good luck with your career development, whatever stage you are at.

Featured image: “Women in Tech 82” by WOCinTech Chat under creative commons license 2.0.
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