19 Jan 2018

How to Stand Out in Your Interview and Job Talk

How to Stand Out in Your Interview and Job Talk

Vital advice from psychology chairs and others who make hiring decisions

After years of juggling classes, assistantships and a dissertation in graduate school, the moment finally arrives when it's time to apply for an academic job. If you are fortunate enough to be invited by a search committee to come in for an interview, you must prepare to meet with search committee members, faculty, administrators and students. 

It may seem intimidating to be evaluated by so many different people, but William Hetrick, PhD, chair of the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, has a different take. "By the time candidates are identified to come in for an interview, they are usually one of only three to five people who are coming in," he says. "They have done really well to get to that point, and framing it this way can give candidates confidence."

The candidates' research, CVs and recommendation letters have already impressed the search committee, so the interviews and job talk are an opportunity to "let that work show through and be a predictor of future behavior," Hetrick says.

It's also important to keep several other factors in mind during these interviews to maximize your chances of getting hired. Remember to:

  • Come with questions. When meeting with administrators, ask about their expectations for faculty members and how the department is perceived in the university, says David Haaga, PhD, psychology department chair at American University. For faculty and search committee members, ask about the department's strengths and weaknesses, what they are looking for in junior faculty and any changes they anticipate in the department in the future. When meeting with students, find out their perspectives on the department, whether they are receiving good instruction and mentoring, and if they are frustrated with anything, says Mary Louise Kerwin, PhD, psychology department head at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. 

  • Show that you are thinking long term. Department heads are looking for faculty who can sustain their research for 20 to 30 years. "We want faculty who can establish a programmatic line of research," says Kerwin. "We want to hear where an idea started, how this led to other research projects, and where this could go in the future." As part of that effort, candidates should learn about specialties of other faculty and be able to describe how they could collaborate with them. 

  • Give a general overview of your research needs. Interviewers want to know that you've thought about what you will need to start a program of research, such as specialized equipment or laboratory space, and if the school doesn't have the equipment, how you plan to get access to it, Kerwin says. 

  • Maintain professionalism throughout the day. Sometimes candidates may let their guard down during the dinner or other informal gatherings, but keep in mind that this is still part of the interview process, Haaga says. Enthusiasm, genuineness, curiosity and confidence are important to maintain throughout the day. 

Stellar job talks

Also critical to any academic job seeker's success is the job talk, the candidate's presentation on his or her research, followed by a question-and-answer session. To best prepare, be sure you:

  • Know your audience. Find out who will be attending your talk and tailor the presentation accordingly. When Calvin Lai, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard University, applied for an assistant professor position at Washington University in St. Louis, the search committee was looking for someone who specialized in diversity research, so Lai adapted his talk to highlight that aspect of his work. If someone is applying to a business school, then the talk can be tailored to focus on how the research findings can be applied to the business world. (Lai got the job and will start in the fall.)
  • Build a rapport. Most young professionals focus primarily on the content of their job talks to the peril of the interpersonal elements that are vital to a successful talk, says Greg Neimeyer, PhD, APA's associate executive director for continuing education in psychology. "Remember the three Cs: communication, connection and conversation," he says. "You need to communicate in a comfortable, accessible way, make direct connection with your audience through the use of humor, anecdotes or illustrations, and invite back-and-forth conversation, either throughout the talk or during special time reserved at the end."

In the end, your objective is to make sure your audience enjoys themselves, Neimeyer says. "If they are laughing, talking, asking questions, or otherwise showing interest and involvement, then you can be sure they are viewing you and your work favorably."

  • Practice, practice and practice. Know your talk so well that you can engage with the audience rather than reading notes, says Haaga. Practice giving the job talk to colleagues, an advisor and other faculty, and ask for candid feedback. This will also allow you to prepare for the types of questions people will ask during the Q&A at the end of the talk. Lai practiced his talk at three separate lab meetings and two brown-bag meetings. He then took the feedback he received from these audiences to revise the order of his talk to create a more cohesive narrative. Presenting your research at conferences and colloquiums throughout graduate school will also give you valuable experience.
  • Manage your time. Avoid spending too much time on the background and theoretical framework of a study. "Get to your data within the first 10 to 15 minutes of the talk," says Deanna Barch, PhD, chair of the department of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. "If you are trying to convince us that you can do research, we want to see the data and how you analyzed it." Also, be sure to leave enough time for questions at the end. Hetrick says a common mistake is trying to fit too much information in, which leaves little time for a good back-and-forth with the audience.
  • Come prepared to teach. At smaller teaching colleges or community colleges, candidates may be asked to do a teaching demonstration to students. For research-heavy institutions, the job talk is seen as a way to evaluate how well a candidate demonstrates teaching skills, such as introducing people to fields of research succinctly and clearly.
  • Create effective visuals. Faculty can be impressed by persuasive, elegant graphics. Candidates sometimes present slides that are difficult to follow with too much text, so "spend some time thinking about the point you are making with your graphics," Barch says. Ask what equipment will be available, such as a Mac or PC, because the formatting may vary depending on the technology. Nicole Caporini, PhD, a recently hired assistant professor at American University, created both Mac and Windows versions of her slide presentation so she could make any necessary formatting adjustments prior to the job talk.
  • Are open to criticism. Avoid getting defensive, even when faced with questions that challenge your research. "Take it as an opportunity to show that you can think on your feet and be collegial," Haaga says. If you don't know the answer, there are graceful ways to respond, such as saying you hadn't considered the question before, but will think about or research it further.
  • Look for opportunities to be interactive. If you're explaining a concept, create a short exercise that demonstrates the concept or come up with multiple-choice questions for the audience, says Michael Lau, PhD, chair of the clinical psychology department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Also, consider mingling with people in the audience after the talk. He was impressed recently when a candidate went into the audience to introduce herself to students. "She made personal connections with the students, and they were asking her questions," he says. "Making those connections isn't something people always do because they are nervous and focused on their talk, but it's important."

After the interviews

Follow up by sending an email to thank the people you met with individually. Say something personal and individual about each meeting rather than writing a generic thank you, because this connection makes candidates more memorable, Lau says.

Top job talk tips

  1. Tailor your presentation.
  2. Connect with your audience.
  3. Rehearse and revise.
  4. Leave time for questions.
  5. Use persuasive, elegant graphics.

By Heather Stringer

This article was originally found in October 2017 Monitor on Psychology 

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