Webinar report: Academic interviews and how to get hired

The panellists of July’s #ECRWednesday webinar shared their tips for interview success.
Inside eLife

Moderator: Emmanuelle Vire, Investigator scientist, University College London and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Martin Sauvageau, Senior Research Associate, Harvard University; Anne Forde, Careers Advisor for Life Sciences, University of Cambridge; and Reinhard Jahn, Director, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry.


Although interviews can seem daunting, there’s no need for them to be. With a bit of preparation, they can even be enjoyable. Here are some tips for interview success:

Prepare for the expected

“About 95% of interview questions are entirely predictable,” says Anne Forde. No matter what kind of position you’re applying for, questions will fall into three main categories: Can you do the job? What’s your motivation – why do you want to do that job at the institution you’re applying to? And who are you – what are you like personally, and what are your future ambitions?

Prepare for your hosts as well. Look up who you’ll be talking to, find out about their interests, and think about how your work fits in with their research. “The better you prepare yourself”, says Reinhard Jahn, “the [better] impression you will make”.

Practice, practice, practice!

Because it’s largely possible to predict the questions you’ll be asked, you can prepare answers for them. Write them down if it helps, but most importantly practice saying your answers out loud. “See [this] as a warm-up, like you would do if you were doing exercise”, suggests Forde, who also recommends that you record yourself practicing. Watching or listening to the recording may be an uncomfortable experience, but you’ll see that some of your answers work really well. You’ll also see parts that don’t come off as well as you intended, and be able to concentrate on improving those.

Think broadly about your future plans

If you are “still entrenched in daily experimental work”, says Jahn, “it’s very hard to take a step back [and] look at the bigger picture”. As a result, he has interviewed very good candidates who were “completely stumped” when asked about their future plans and the impact they’d like their work to have. “Take the time and really think about what questions you want to answer when you have your lab”, suggests Martin Sauvageau. “Find what gets you motivated”.

The chalk talk

A common part of academic interviews in the US, the chalk talk involves presenting your research plans to a panel of faculty members, armed only with a whiteboard. Sauvageau suggests planning your talk spatially and temporally – practice how you’re going to draw your key points on the whiteboard, and how your explanation will progress throughout the talk. Expect to be interrupted constantly by the panel. You’ll get a lot of feedback that you can use to improve your research plans, which is one reason why Sauvageau really enjoyed giving chalk talks: “sometimes someone will point out something […] you just didn’t think of”.

Show you’ll be a good colleague

An interview helps your potential future colleagues to get to know you, and is also an opportunity for you to get to know them and figure out whether you’d be happy working at that institution. Successful candidates take an interest in the research of the people they meet, and show that they’re excited about the prospect of setting up their lab in that institution. “[Showing enthusiasm] is more difficult to do than people think”, says Forde. That doesn’t mean faking an upbeat personality if you’re not naturally like that. Instead, “be a positive version of yourself”.

Overcoming nerves

Your interviewers will probably expect you to be nervous and want to put you at your ease. To channel your nerves and increase your confidence, imagine how happy you’d feel if you were working in the role you’ve applied for. Concentrate on the fact that an interview is a great opportunity to meet new people, learn about their research and inspire them with your work and ideas. Above all, “be really proud of what you’ve done”, says Emmanuelle Vire. “You should never doubt yourself”.

Further information

Take a look at our post-webinar Twitter chat with the speakers.

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