A big list of academic job interview questions (and how to answer them)

Academic life has seasons, as Les Back so eloquently pointed out in his lovely book The Academic Diary. At the moment it seems to be the season of job interviews, at least for some recent graduates in my immediate circle. I’ve been doing some challenging emotional work assisting with preparation of job applications and interviews, which reminds me of what a stressful time the end of a PhD can be! Examination is one emotional hurdle; getting into the job market is another thing altogether. The combination of waiting for results and finding a job would try anyone’s nerves. I’ve written lately about the difficulty of getting short listed when people have weird attitudes about PhD graduates and how to get in the mind of a potential employer, but what about if you get that job interview? What can you expect then?

I’ve felt unqualified to do a post on how to ace job interviews as I have not exactly had a history of success there. It’s fair to say that I have only succeeded in a job interview if people had already decided they wanted to hire me. However, a couple of people have pointed out that I’ve had plenty of experience sitting on the other side of the table, at least in academic settings. I’ve interviewed and hired people for a long time now. I know what people do wrong in academic job interviews, particularly the right and wrong ways to answer questions.

Preparing for job interview questions in advance can help calm your nerves, so what are you likely to be asked in an interview for an academic job? A candidate I know has an interview next week and was given a huge list of over 60 authentic post-doc job interview questions, compiled by Dr Larissa Schneider, A DECRA fellow at ANU. Larissa got these questions from graduates who took notes in their job interviews – a nice example of collegial sharing in the sciences! Larissa kindly shared it with me on the understanding I would develop a blog post that did not reveal the specific jobs. Accordingly, I took the original list and developed a shorter, more generic one that still represents the variety of the original.

I include the altered list below, with some notes on things to think about as you develop your potential answers. Bear in mind these are questions posed to science graduates applying for a post-doc project doing research in a specific area for a year or more. If you are going for a lectureship or a job in the humanities, you can expect the questions to be a little different, but I think this list will still be a good starting point anyway:

How would you collect data for this project? The notes I was given suggest that interviewers will expect quite a detailed answer. What I would look for is a person who can identify risks with data collection and have some mitigation strategies in place.

How would you analyse data? Questions about analysis are directly testing out your capacity to do the work. I strongly recommend you sketch out a research plan in advance so that you have a good idea of the steps you would take. You might have to make some assumptions in this plan as you don’t have all the details as yet. Don’t worry too much: it’s the thinking processes that matter here.

Can you use [insert relevant analysis software]? If you don’t know the specific software in question, don’t panic! Describe other, similar ones you have used and how quickly you can learn more with the aid of YouTube and a few instruction manuals.

What can you add creatively to the research? This can be a very difficult question to answer on the spot. Make sure the sketch research plan I mentioned above includes a ‘further work’ section so you can spin out a few ideas ahead of time.

Where do you see yourself – short term / long term? I hate this question. Like most people I am kicking the can down the road of my career; reacting to opportunities as they arise. If you don’t have a clear idea of where it’s all going, just have a plausible reply handy. “Director of a research lab” is as good an answer as any for the long term career; “continuing research and teaching position” is a good enough short term goal. Good on you if you have more specific answers than this!

Why do you want to do the job? How will this position fit in your overall career plan? Not as easy to answer as you might suppose. Let’s face it, sometimes people apply for jobs that are convenient in terms of place or pay. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can make the potential employer feel they aren’t your first choice. Try to keep your answer focused on how this job fits in with your overall skills development and interests.

Tell us about your publishing experience. This question is testing what you know about getting papers into the pipeline, as well as how you respond to reviews and deal with co-authors. Don’t forget to include other forms of publishing if you have done them, but don’t emphasise these at the expense of telling the panel you can deal with the banal problems of the normal scientific publishing process. Science communication is very hip right now, but a working scientist needs to concentrate on communicating within a community of practice. This has different ‘rules’ to communicating with external stakeholders and the public.

How do you handle collaboration with external stakeholders? An excellent question – and difficult to answer if you have not really dealt with people in industry etc. If you haven’t actually dealt with this situation, emphasise that you understand the idea of negotiation being built on mutual interests and clear communication. For a good primer on the basics, check out the book Getting to Yes and for the nitty gritty of stakeholder engagement a good reference is Project management for the unofficial project manager.

How have you handled a difficult situation with people? Another great question. Luckily, academia is full of difficult people, so you should be able to think of a situation where you had to deal with someone being an academic asshole. Outline the situation and describe how you solved the problem with your superior negotiating skills. Don’t use managing your supervisor as an example – especially if there’s bitterness. No one wants to hire someone bitter about their supervisor, no matter how justified.

How did you handle a difficult situation with a project? A nice variation on the question above. Think of some specific example that demonstrates you are cool in a crisis / able to predict a problem in advance / good at managing fall out from problems or all of the above. I like to hear about banal, ordinary problems because it helps me get a sense of what that person will be like to work with.

How do you get things done? If you have a ‘getting things done’ system like Omnifocus, it’s a good chance to mention it, but don’t, whatever you do, bore people with the specifics of your system and try to tell them why it’s better than anything else. During this interview you are being judged on what kind of colleague you will be. No one wants to work with someone who tries to tell people how to do their job – it’s annoying.

How would you attract new/extra funding to the role? This question is testing your knowledge of how the funding landscape around you works. If you haven’t familiarised yourself with all the acronyms for the funding schemes, now is the time to do a deep dive on the Research Whisperer blog, which has been running almost as long as the Thesis Whisperer and has nearly a decade free to access wisdom.

What is the most exciting thing you have discovered in your research?/ What do you think is the best paper you have written? / what are you most proud about? I like these kinds of questions as it’s a chance for you to shine and tell a good story about yourself and your work. I think it says something about your powers of self reflection and self confidence if you can’t easily answer this question, so be ready to share.

What have you read outside your field that interested you? A curious question, but probing the less ‘visible’ parts of your professional persona. All of us have side research interests that feed our creativity, so this is a good chance to show your versatility as a scholar. If you can speak to what you bring back from this ‘extra-curricular’ reading to your current work – be it a method, theory, approach or procedure, even better.

What isn’t in your CV? I’d hate to get this one without being prepared. This is a good opportunity to pick up on a character trait, like your creativity, analytical ability, how fast you can read and digest information etc. Have a concrete example of this skill in action so that you can ‘show’ as well as tell. A similar answer could be used for the old ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ question.

What’s your approach to teamwork? Depending on your PhD project, specifically the kind of lab settings you were in, you might not have as much to talk about here as you would like. Don’t forget, previous jobs in retail / fast food are settings where you also developed team work skills, often in much higher pressure environments.

Tell us your understanding of workplace equality and your direct experience of it Given that a woman was asked this question, I am not too sure of the intent behind it. Did they want to see if she would complain? I suppose this question is a good chance for you to share any additional training you have done, or initiatives you’ve been involved with that promotes this worthy aim. Otherwise, I got nothing!

Based on what you have read about this position, what would be your research question? This one will be a snap if you have already sketched out a research plan for this post doc position – hard if you have to make it up on the spot. My go to reference for articulating research questions properly is The Craft of Research.

What do you know about working with industry? I guess if you have never done anything with industry, you just have to own your lack of knowledge here. If you are still studying, it’s good to know that research impact and industry led research is becoming something that people ask postdoc applicants. Most universities have ‘innovation training’ or something similar – might be time to consider popping along to one of these so at least you can say you did something.

What do you understand about authorship and how people are ordered on papers. Hopefully you’ve had some experience of this already. The problem I find here is that what is taught as ‘best practice’ is routinely broken in reality. Authors seem to get chucked on papers for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the Vancouver Protocol or any other rules. Here’s a good blog post that outlines some of the issues and might help you make a more informed answer.

Tell me about your PhD research. The important thing when you answer is not to rabbit on – the people on the other side of the table will be assessing how well you can succinctly communicate difficult information. Doing the 3MT competition is really helpful for exactly this kind of job interview question. Give a top level summary and then a sentence or two about the importance of your work. Write a couple of sentences down before you go in so that you keep on message.

I hope this big list of job interview questions will help you prepare for your post doc interview – or provide a starting point to think about how to apply for other kinds of academic interviews. Thanks so much for the list Larissa!

How what about you? Have you had an academic job interview, for a post doc, or some other kind of job? What questions did you get asked? Were there any unexpected ones? I’d love to hear about your experience of academic job interviews in the comments.

Related posts

What do academic employers want?

Academic on the inside?

I want to leave academia, what’s next?

Should you leave your PhD off your CV?

What is this anti-PhD attitude about?

Our research papers

“Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

“A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

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6 thoughts on “A big list of academic job interview questions (and how to answer them)

  1. Universities provide assistance for students with applying for jobs, including interview skills. ANU provide access to the “InterviewStream” service, where students can practice interviews via video.

    I suggest PhD graduates need to get out of the mindset of thinking employers having “weird attitudes about PhD graduates”. A PhD is an advanced research degree, so if you are not applying for a research job, don’t expect the employer to be interested.

    This semester I am helping computing masters students with their job applications. These students have the advantage of doing applied coursework in a filed in high demand, but even so, they need practice sounding less “academic” to an employer.

    The biggest problem I find with the students is where they do not address the selection criteria given. The employer is not interested in anything you can do, unless it relates to the job. Another problem is not mentioning extracurricular activities which are of interest to employers. An employer may be more interested in your hobby if that is relevant to the job.

    Here are my notes for the students: http://www.tomw.net.au/technology/education/learning_to_reflect/learning_to_reflect_1_0.shtml

    • Hi Tom – I appreciate you wanting to contribute to the Thesis Whisperer community, but our peer reviewed research shows clearly that certain employers (not all, but enough) are interested in high level research skills, in particular the independent and creative thinking requirements, which is not always a strong feature of coursework masters degrees. Also, this post is about academic jobs, so the information in on your link is not that relevant for people looking for further advice on that topic. I leave comments open to encourage conversation, but continually curate them to ensure that links people include are relevant. I remove advertising, or attempts to draw traffic to other sites that are not useful for readers. I haven’t removed your comment in this case, just in case Masters by coursework students are reading, but wanted to highlight my views on the usefulness of your link for the primary audience of this blog: PhD students.

  2. The key to a good interview response is to put yourself in the employers position. Consider how your skills and experience will be a benefit to them and include that information in your response. It is no good simply stating what you can do etc unless you can let them know that you have an idea of what they do and that you will be an asset to their team.

  3. Brilliant!

    “It’s fair to say that I have only succeeded in a job interview if people had already decided they wanted to hire me.” Wow, this is honest and so true for me as well. So eloquently put. I wonder how common this factor is? (I believe: very common.)

    Also, your answer to the one about workplace equality (“Given that a woman was asked this question”) gave me the good chills. Brilliantly put, there, as well, and with helpful advice on how to answer it diplomatically.

    Thanks for this great article.

    • Women can be racist or sexist too. And if an institution is committed to supporting diversity and equal opportunity in the workplace they might have a standard procedure of asking all candidates that question. A woman could have volunteered for their university’s ALLY program or helped organise some kind of multi cultural day on campus. Or she could just say that her understanding is that everyone should be treated equally and with respect and that she’s been fortunate to have been treated that way (hopefully true) and wants to continue working in environments where that is the case. I don’t think direct experience with workplace equality has to be getting harassed and deciding what to do.

      Your mileage may vary – I don’t have much expertise with interviewing either.

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