What I learned from watching job talks

My (small, research-focused) department is in the process of hiring two new people at a level equivalent to ‘Lecturer’ or ‘Assistant Professor.’ One is in a field I’m sort-of in, and the other was about as far away as you can get from my subject while still being in the same department, though both were advertised as having a very broad scope.

I have no idea how this is done at other universities, but in my university, here’s the procedure: the short-listed candidates come in for their interviews all on the same day. In the morning, they each give a 20-minute talk on their current and future research plans, followed by questions, and then in the afternoon they have formal interviews with the panel. In between, they awkwardly chat with each other, are entertained by the grad students, are free to meet with anyone they want at the university, etc.

In the audience of the job talks are the interview panel and a small group of ‘others.’ This is where I come in. The ‘others’ are postdocs, other department members, members of other departments, etc, who have volunteered or been roped into sitting through all of the talks. These are the folks who will be asking questions after the talks (for HR-related reasons, the interview panel can’t), and after all the talks are over, these folks will discuss each of the candidates and rank them while the interview panel watches/listens. After the interviews are all done, the interview panel may reach back out to one of the ‘others’ for clarification, and/or may consult the grad students for their views on the candidates that they’ve been hanging out with all day.

I got to be one of those others, and oh boy it was fascinating. Here are my thoughts and observations, in no particular order. To give a bit of context, in the first batch, all five candidates were SUPERB, and the department would have been very happy with any of them. In the second batch, three of the five were absolute train-wrecks, but the other two were phenomenal (for slightly different reasons) and the department’s currently trying to see if it would be possible to hire both of them.

  • If the job is for an X and you’re a Y-except-Y-is-reaaaaaaaaaally-close-to-X, it’s totally possible to be short-listed, but it’s going to be down to luck after that. In the batch of five superb candidates, two of them were Y-which-isn’t-quite-the-same-as-X, and that meant they just weren’t going to be the top candidate out of that particularly strong bunch. But, look, they were shortlisted, everyone really liked them, this will be great for them from a networking perspective, and if for some reason the other three all turn us down? One of these two would be hired in a heartbeat, never mind that they aren’t really an X.
  • Seniority doesn’t matter all that much. As long as you’re above a certain threshold of productivity and experience, you’ll be judged as appropriate for your career stage.
  • If the instructions are to talk about your future research plans, talk about your future research plans. In concrete details. “I have submitted a grant for Project Z. I’m working with these collaborators to set up Thing W.”
  • Have an answer ready about recruiting postdocs and grad students.
  • Have an answer ready about incorporating undergraduates into your research.
    • Seriously, we had someone list off 10 fascinating, sensible undergraduate dissertation topics that could arise from his work. Super impressive.
  • Have an answer ready about how your research can inform teaching.
    • Bonus points if you’ve figured out who’s leaving the department and what gaps that’s going to leave in the teaching.
  • Do your research about the institution and/or country. A few people really, really flubbed questions that showed that they had no idea about the university as a whole or about how the system works here. Don’t do that.
    • Have a good, specific answer for how you’d work with colleagues already in the department. Bonus points if you work that into your talk.
    • Have a good, specific answer for how you’d take advantage of university resources outside of the department.
    • Are there any academic policy buzzwords that the department/university/government is really into at the moment? This is totally Googleable, and you will get asked about them.
  • Personality can be make-or-break. If at the end of the day, someone says ‘wow, their research is superb, but they’d drive me nuts as a colleague,’ then you’re gone. Or, less damning but still not a good sign, ‘wow, undergrads are going to hate them.’ On the other hand, if the grad students come back and say ‘wow, this person was really great, they were super-approachable and explained their research to really well when we were getting them coffee’? That’s really going to count in your favor.
  • The audience of your talk is going to be a mix of people, ranging from specialists to outsiders. In fact, the audience may have been deliberately tailored for you so as to have an expert in your sub-specialty and someone who does the complete opposite as to what you do. Your talk needs to be exciting to both types of people. Yes, it’s hard. Too bad. If at the end of your talk the specialists say “wow, this person is so inspiring!” but the outsiders are saying “wth, I didn’t understand a word of that,” then you’re not going to get the job. At least not at this university.
    • Some of the grad students and postdocs may have questions planted from their supervisors. Don’t be surprised if the person who looks like she’s about 20 (*cough* me) (I look super-young) asks you really specific high-level questions.
    • But on the flip side of the above point, sometimes the grad students and postdocs really are just trying to make small-talk, because they’re not allowed to leave you alone in the break room but they’re tired/stressed/whatever. They might end up talking to you about pizza. Don’t be surprised either way.
  • It’s really competitive. I’m sorry.
    • Seriously, the first batch where all five were superb? All five were superb. But at the end of the day, four of them are going to be just as rejected as the three train-wrecks from the second group. And there’s no HR-approved way to reach out and say “wow, you were fantastic, please don’t take this to heart.”