Crossroads The ACM Magazine for Students

Sign In

Association for Computing Machinery

XRDS: Resources for Students

Share |

The Academic Job Search:
Tips for Interviewing

By Matt Might

One of the most stressful moments of an academic job search is the interviewing phase, but it's also one of the most exhilarating parts because it means you are in the home stretch.

Don't let the one-on-one interviews be a one-way conversation. Ask people to explain their research to you, too. Engage them as much as possible. Just as in the job talk, the interview is a time when your potential future colleagues will gauge whether they will want to work next to you every day for many years.

Questions to Ask

  • Why did you choose this school during your job search?
  • Where do you see this department/school/college in five years?
  • What's the teaching load like?
  • What's the tenure process like?
  • Which courses need teaching?
  • What kind of start-up package do you think I should negotiate? (Ask this of junior faculty.)
  • What's the overhead on grants? (This question tends to impress deans.)
  • How much does it cost to fund a Ph.D. student for 12 months?

Questions You'll Answer

  • Can you give me a quick overview of your research? This question will be asked by anyone who was not able to attend your job talk, so always prepare a 2- to 4-minute long summary of your job talk. 
  • Do you have a teaching preference?
  • Where else are you interviewing? (Answer honestly.)
  • Where do you see your research going?
  • Say something to prove to me that your research or field is going to matter.
  • Do you have any more questions?
  • Do you think you could apply your research to X? (Yes, you can!)
  • Do you think you could apply X to your research? (Yes, you can!) 

The impression you want to leave is: "Wow, s/he's a pleasant, smart person. It looks like we'd have interesting things to talk about at lunch, and we might even be able to collaborate."

Negotiating and Start-up Packages

  • Don't negotiate salary during a job interview. If you are accepted a job, that will happen after the interview ends. Never name a salary number during your interview. If asked, say you'll accept a "competitive offer." Exception: If you've already received a competitive offer elsewhere, feel free to reveal it.
  • Do negotiate your start-up funds, but you can argue for a concrete plan of action for the amount you request. Consider graduate students, equipment, travel, and summer salary support.
  • Aim high on start-up, and provide a diplomatic out: "If you think this plan is too aggressive, let me know, and I can scale it back."
  • Ask for a first-semester break on teaching.

Additional Considerations

  • Actively involve your significant other in every step, so that they have ownership of the final decision.
  • Dress like a nicely dressed professor--not an investment banker, and certainly not a graduate student.
  • If interviewing somewhere far away, plan to arrive two days prior to your interview in case of travel delays and so you're well rested. Interviews are already physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. 
  • The day after your interview, email everyone you spoke with a short, personalized thank-you note. 
  • Thank secretaries and administrative assistants, as they are extremely valuable people in every academic department. 
  • If you have several interviews planned, try to interview first at the school where you'd least like to work to test out your job talk and build up your confidence. The next interview will always be better than the previous one.
  • If the school sets you up in a roundtable discussion or "firing squad," take command and ask for everyone's name and a short introduction about who they are and what they do.
  • Prepare an "elevator pitch" (a very short oral statement that you'd use if you met your idol in an elevator and only had those few seconds to talk) that starts with the phrase, "Over the next five years, I see myself..."  It should be no more than 60 seconds long. Try to make it only one or two sentences.
  • Be prepared for your personal productivity to grind to a halt for two months during interview season. Don't be dissertating, defending, marrying, or having babies. 
  • After or during your interview, make it clear to the dean, director, or department chair that you really liked his/her school, and that you're looking forward to hearing from them.

Additional Resources

"Giving a Job Talk in the Sciences," by Richard M. Reis, The Chronicle of Higher Education (2001)

Even a Geek Can Speak by Joey Asher (2006, second edition)

Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering by Richard M. Reis (1997, Wiley-IEEE Press)