Getting a Faculty Job in Astrophysics – The job interview
Part one was about your written materials that hopefully got you a job interview, and this part is about the job interview itself.
As always, this is my N=1 advice – take note of the things that seem useful to you, ignore anything that doesn’t. This is highly personal and subjective.
What I’m gonna do here is tell you my experiences with job interviews in a mildly structured way. I’ve been interviewed for faculty jobs by six universities, two in the US and four in Europe. I’ve also been a member of two faculty hiring committees in Europe.
- part 1: Types of interviews
- part 2: The talk
- part 3: The actual interview with the search committee
- part 4: Where you ask thoughtful questions
- part 5: Motivational words for if they are stupid enough to not offer you the job
- part 6: Negotiating when they offer you the job
Part 1: Types of interviews
There is a big divide between the European and the US style of interviewing faculty candidates. I can’t say anything about other countries/continents because I don’t have experience with their interviewing style.
Here’s what typically happens in the US:
This may only be true at research-oriented universities, because that’s what I have experience with. Typically they invite you for a two-day campus visit. On one of the days is your talk (see next part), the other days are filled with individual interviews (euphemistically called “conversations”) with most members of the astronomy department, plus some meetings with groups of people (one with the hiring committee and one with the grad students at the very least, sometimes also with a diversity group). To be honest, for a more introvert-leaning person like myself this is quite the horror. But don’t despair, you’ll make it and I’ll tell you how 🙂 You will also be asked if there are some people you would particuarly like to talk to, in case they aren’t on the list. Maybe there’s someone who’s not faculty and you’d like to chat with them about their research, or there is a dean or head of department who has done a lot of work on new diversity policies or so. This is the moment to tell the organizer of your visit that you’d like to talk to this person.
Here’s how I prepped: As soon as you know who you’ll be talking to, it’s a good idea to read a bit about every person you’ll meet. What is their research topic, check out the abstracts of a handful of recent papers, do they have any non-research activities that interest you – find something you want to talk about with them. They will likely ask you to tell them a bit about your research (especially if your talk is on day two of your visit and you meet them on day one), and they may have something specific they want to talk about with you. But typically you have to fill at least half an hour with them and want to avoid awkward silences, so have some talking points prepared. In my experience, once you’ve chatted about the more research-oriented topics, it is also acceptable to ask about how they like living in the city they’re in. People expect that you want to know what you’ll get into if you move there, so I think it’s fine to spend a few minutes talking about things like that.
Introvert pro-tip: I have a little notebook where I write down info about each person I will meet before I go on the visit, and check my notes during the visit when I get some time alone, so that my brain has the info available when I need it.
Prepare some open-ended questions for when you meet with the students. Sometimes they find it a bit difficult to keep a conversation rolling with this candidate they’ve never seen before. I ask everyone for their name and their research topic, and then I tell people what I do and where I’ve been before (i.e. short version of my CV, with a few personal notes where appropriate). Then I ask if they have questions, and if they don’t have so much right then, I ask them a few things. I’ve had good experiences with questions about how they like the mentoring at the department, or if they feel well prepared for the next stage of their career (this can lead into a nice discussion about academic vs. industry careers and what you need for those; I have worked in both academia and industry and students often want to hear more about that).
As part of your visit, they will also take you to lunch and dinner. “They” in this case means a combination of different academic staff, one lunch is usually combined with your meeting with the grad students. So have some light-ish conversational topics about the city, or wider research perspectives, or outreach, or such prepared.
My experience is that US departments have one candidate per week visiting them, as long as the search goes on. They decide on their favourite candidate quite quickly after that. So you can check on the colloquium webiste of their department who else is getting interviewed, and if you’re early or late in the list (and how long it will be until you can expect a decision).
Here’s what typically happens in Europe:
The standard interview is much more condensed in the EU versus the US. They try to interview all their candidates in two or three days, and each candidate gets about two hours of dedicated time. Typically you’ll be invited to give a research talk, and sometimes they ask you to give a separate teaching demonstration as well. This will be a short lecture about a topic that they tell you in advance. Alternatives are: they ask you to keep the first half of your research talk pretty introductory, so that an undergrad or first-year graduate student can follow it. Or they ask you to reserve the last 5-10 minutes of your research talk to talk about your teaching methods.
After that you will have an interview with the hiring committee. This typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour. And that’s it! Those are the only official parts of the standard European interview. Some universities will give you a bit more, like a tour of their laboratories if relevant for your field, or sometimes there will be a dinner with the committee *and* the other candidates. This is less awkward than it sounds – conversation is typically kept away from actual research, and one-upmanship is considered bad style in events where several candidates are present.
If you’re like me, you want to find out a bit more about the people you might be working with soon. I have often asked to meet some people from the department individually before my interview, to talk about research perspectives and get a better feeling for how the department works. I have always asked if that’s okay with the hiring guidelines at that univeristy; some universities only allow a certain number of hiring committee members to meet with the candidates individually. So check that you’re not violating any red tape rules.
In general, whether you’re meeting people individually or not, it’s a good idea to read up about each person you will meet before the visit (like for the US campus visit). Sometimes you won’t know who is on the hiring committee; in that case, just quickly check out every astronomy faculty member online. With very big departments, you can make an educated guess who will be most interested in you as a candidate; know about the research interests and (vaguely) about recent work of at least those people.
In my experience, it varies wildly how long they take for their decision after the interviews, depending on which European country you interviewed in. In the UK it’s quite fast (a few weeks); in other countries, they often ask external reviewers (i.e. not your letter writers, but other people) to give their opinion on the highest-ranked candidates from the shortlist, which is folded into the decision whom to make an offer. This can easily take two months after the interview. And then only the favourite candidate gets an offer, and as long as they’re negotiating, nobody else gets to hear anything (since the favourite candidate may decline and then they go down the list). So you may easily have to wait several months after the interview before they tell you anything.
Part 2: The talk
The talk fulfills several purposes:
- You show people that your field of work is super interesting and relevant and will continue to be over the next decades.
- You show people that you, personally, make really important contributions to solving important problems in this field.
- You show that you would be a good fit with the department where you’re interviewing.
- You show that your research is fundable. This one is a bit more subtle than the other ones.
Here’s what I did:
1) The your-field-is-awesome part. How much you should “prove” this depends on the type of job you’re applying for. If it is an open-topic, from exoplanets to cosmology, type of faculty job, you should very clearly demonstrate why your field is relevant. You can also expect that the search committee will be pretty diverse in terms of their own research areas. In contrast, if you’re applying for a faculty job that only invited applications from theoretical cosmologists, you need to demonstrate why your specific sub-field is the hottest and bestest. It is still a good idea to give a quick big-picture intro into cosmology just to show them that you can, but this can be much shorter than in the other case.
Also: when you explain what the big questions in your area are, make sure that everyone in the audience understands those questions, why they are important, and why they are not easy to answer. This part of your talk needs to be crystal clear to the audience.
2) The why-you-are-awesome part. This is a large part of your talk, showing your own contributions to the field and your ongoing research. It’s great if you can actually show how you solved a problem, or invented a new technique – anything that makes you as a researcher unique. Parts of this can actually go into quite a bit of detail, so that you may only be speaking to the two or three experts on your sub-sub-field in the room for the duration of a slide or two. That’s fine. If you have supervised students in some of your research projects, you can show their photo along with a plot of the results of that project and mention their contribution.
3) The why-I-should-work-here part. I include this as a small part near the end of my talk – it is intended to show that your work would complement and enrich the research and teaching/mentoring environment at the department. For example, one can give an outlook about one’s future directions in research, and how those relate to other areas of interest which are already represented at the department. One can also show which of one’s projects, and to what degree, can spawn student research projects.
4) The I-will-bring-in-external-funding part. It is a good idea to subtly show that one is likely to get extended research funding over the next years. Two ways of doing that are: A) You already have obtained some substantial research funding. When you talk about that part of your research for which you got a big grant, you can have a line on your slide mentioning that is project is funded by such-and-such agency, and how much funding you were granted. B) If you don’t have a big-ish grant as PI yet, or you are moving to a different continent so the search committee may not know your previous funding sources that well, you should at least demonstrate that your research aligns with the stratetig interests of the important funding agencies in the country where you are applying. There are usually “roadmaps” and such which are published every few years by the big funding agencies, so make yourself roughly familiar with those.
Part 3: The interview with the search committee
In the European context, the interview with the search committee will usually happen after you give your talk; in the US context, this part can be scheduled any time during your (typically) 2-day visit.
Here are questions I got asked a number of times; so these are things you may want to have an answer prepared for.
- Why would you like to work here?
- How large would you like your research group to be, ideally? (This is a good thing to think about in general, independently from job interviews.)
- How do you plan to fund your research group? (This is where you show that you know the available funding routes for the respective country.)
- What is the big thing you want to be known for in 20 years from now?
- What opportunities for collaboration do you see at this department? (This should be an easy one if you have done your homework.)
- Tell us about your experience in teaching astronomy. (It helps if you give a very specific answer here, like what you taught, at which level and how many students. Especially if you mainly have teaching experience that is not traditional lecture courses, make sure you tell them that what you taught would be roughly equivalent to, say, Astro101 or Radiative Processes for 3rd-year physics students or whatever.)
- How would you select your BSc students? (Got this question twice in Europe. It is a trick question: The correct answer is that you don’t. You will pull your weight in the department by offering BSc projects to any student who is looking for one (given that your total number of BSc students stays reasonable). BSc projects are a mandatory part of the degree in Europe and every student is entitled to a project, so if you start picking the best students you will put an undue burden on your colleagues. In contrast, it is totally fine to pick and choose your MSc and PhD students to get the best ones.)
- How do you see your research in the context of future observing missions?
- Who are your biggest competitors? What distinguishes you from them? I found that an odd question, but I got it twice at different European universities. I guess they wanted to see if I has thought about the “market” (blergh) and if my area is an interesting, up-and-coming thing or more of a niche topic.
- A question I got asked once that I didn’t expect was this: “What scientific result did you find interesting lately? Something not from astronomy.” Yeah, that was something I fumbled.
Part 4: Where you ask thoughtful questions
In the last part of the interview it is usually your turn to ask questions. You should do this not only to demonstrate that you’re interested and what not, but also to actually gather some extra information about the department. Here’s what I like to ask:
- What is the long-term strategy for this department? Are there additional planned hires in astronomy/physics for the next years?
- What is the population of PhD/graduate students like? Are they mostly “home-grown” or do you get a large influx from other universities and countries?
- Are there university-based funding incentives for interdisciplinary collaborations between departments? (Only ask this if you actually have some vague idea what sort of interdisciplinary project you might want to do; you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner with this one if they ask “What sort of collaboration were you thinking about?” and then you have nothing.)
- What are the current initiatives at the department for underrepresented groups (race, gender)? Would there be opportunities to get involved with that? (Usually the answer is yes, but it’s a good questions to see if they actually do something already, or if they’d expect you to start something by yourself, or if they think there is no real issue anyway – which are all important pieces of information about your potential new workplace.)
Part 5: Motivational words for if they are stupid enough to not offer you the job
Okay, this always sucks. Some committees will send you a friendly email with a few nice words, others will just send you a generic two-liner, but in the end it means the same: you didn’t get the job.
But here’s a true story that will hopefully raise your spirits: Some years ago, I was a junior member of a faculty hiring committee. We had a bunch of very good short-listed candidates, but one of them was really outstanding. This person worked on a hot topic, had recently solved a long-standing problem in galactic astronomy, gave a really nice talk, seemed to be a capable teacher and thoughtful person. The only “issue”: they were just out of their PhD for 3 years. (Which is very young to become a professor in Europe.) Me and a few other people on the committee really strongly preferred this candidate, but a lot of the senior people were worried that there was only such a short career trajectory to judge them on. In the end the vote was in favor of another candidate who was more senior and very good, but not as outstanding as the junior one. Fast-forward a few years: that junior candidate who didn’t get the job solved *another* big problem in galactic astronomy and won several big prizes. And has a very nice professor position at a different university. And the people who voted against them are probably biting themselves in the backside now for not offering them the job when they had the chance.
So, hiring committees make bad decisions all the time. They will regret not having hired YOU in a few years from now! And living well is the best revenge.
Part 6: Negotiating when they offer you the job
You may find yourself in the fortunate position to have multiple offers at the same time, and you actually wouldn’t mind going to either of those places. Then you are in a very strong negotiation position. I wasn’t in this nice position, I got one offer very early in my search (and ended up declining it) and then got another offer much later (and accepted it after negotiaion).
Here’s my advice, distilled from my experience. The offers I got were from Europe, so I can’t tell you too much about negotiating offers in the US apart from what I hear from colleagues. So here’s my two cents:
- Think about what you would like to negotiate with highest priority: Your salary? Your start-up money? Your teaching load (this is typically only possible in terms of a teaching relief for so-and-so many semesters, but your full teaching load which you will reach at some point is often fixed)? Do you want a guaranteed PhD student, paid by the university (and is this possible in the respective country)? Think about this independently from any specific offer, and figure out what you would want in exchange if they can’t give you that salary increase, or that start-up money. I.e., have a list of ranked priorities. I found it also helpful to figure out how much money you will need for yourself (and your family if applicable) to live at a standard you like, and how much that actually is given the cost of living in the city where you would live if you accepted an offer.
- Know what is actually possible in the country where your offer is from, and use that to your advantage: Typically, there is quite some negotiation room for salary at US universities. But in Germany, for example, there is actually no negotiation room at all for your personal salary as a professor, it is fixed by law. You can have ten other offers, it won’t make any difference because they *cannot* offer you a higher salary. Other places like the UK have a specified scale of academic salary levels for each university, and you can find a description of those levels on the HR websites of the university. There is usually something like a typical profile of duties and accomplishments of someone being paid at level XYZ. This gives you some solid background for negotiations: If they want to appoint you at level ABC1, but you can show that your experience is more like the profile of level BCD5, you can often negotiate them to a higher salary.
That’s it! Hope this helps. Good luck to all of you! If you have suggestions, feel free to drop me an email at k.poppenhaeger (at) qub.ac.uk!
By Katja Poppenhaeger, 2015.
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