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Tuesday, November 18, 2014


These days this is becoming more common.  Try to avoid it if you can, because Skype is an easy way to filter out folks for free, while flying someone out is an investment. Yet, I interviewed candidates on Skype when I was on a search committee, and we did eventually hire from those who passed *several rounds* of this means of communication.  Some people prefer by video while others prefer by phone.  In one case a search committee member ambushed a candidate, calling this person without prior warning. I usually give warning.  When I call the candidate, they are usually formally dressed as if it is a face-to-face interview.  When I was in that position, I too wore a tie, but only the visible part of me was fancy ;)

Our department operated these this pre-interview by breaking up a pool of 20 candidates among five search committee members, each interviewed four candidates (I actually went out of my way to interview more than I was assigned to ensure we did not miss anyone good).  I gleaned information that was not immediately obvious from the application packet (see my blog the application packet):

1) I asked questions about their research statement and tried to get an idea about their depth of content knowledge.  This was difficult to do as I was not an expert in their field.  But, I am pretty good at seeing the big picture, so with my questions, I pushed them outside of their bounds; yes, I can be mean :)  Another reason to do this is to get a good idea for what they are really doing (I spent maybe ten minutes skimming their statement), and to gauge how versatile they are as researchers, and to judge their potential to bring funding.  I asked about which grants they would apply, to which agencies, and about their proposal writing experience.

2) Why are you interested in our institution?  Now, good answers ranges from geographical preference, to family living in the area, to relevant industry in the area, to ‘I want to collaborate with Dr. Bob.’ This last point showed me that the applicant spent the time to look through the department Website and researched the faculty with whom she or he would be working.  The more I knew about the research the better off went the interview.  However, if the applicant did not mention anything about the faculty, I then asked with whom she or he wanted to collaborate (oh, yes!) and if the response showed that no homework was done on this topic, interview ‘points’ were lost.

4) What do you need to be successful here?   Every applicant must be prepared for this question. There are several parts to it.  One is,"How much money do you want?"  What we want to understand is a) Do you have a good idea of how much things cost (i.e. have you thought this through?) and b) Can we afford you?  It is up to the candidate to figure out what equipment is needed to realize their vision (I ask for an equipment list, regardless, and highly encourage applicants to think about this).  They do not need to have exact numbers, but at least have a ballpark figure.  This also gives me an opportunity to understand the depth of their knowledge about hardware and pricing.  Often, candidates told me that they needed an incubator, and then looked at me scared, as though they had asked for something unattainable. And I responded, "Okay...that’s only about ten thousand dollars, but you are asking for half a million, so, what else do you need?"  They then named a few more ten-thousand-dollar pieces of equipment...and it is like okay...now you are up to fifty thousand, so for what do you need the other $450 thousand, LOL?  Oh, I had a good time torturing these hotshots :) Some candidates asked for more than a million dollars, making me wonder whether they mixed up our university and MIT. It is critical to understand what is reasonable and what is not.  This functionally depends on the caliber of the institution and on the nature of the research.  Do not forget that some people consider student cost to be a part of the start-up, while others think of it as a separate matter and view the $ figure as just equipment and expendables.  For one who models, for example, cost is nearly negligible.

We also want to ensure that your career does not depend on some super-expensive machine that is unavailable on our campus.  As a student or postdoc, you do not really think about the logistics of this, because when you work on your project, all of these are typically already in place.  But here, if you say that you need to use something that costs one million dollars (keep in mind that I know the prices and you might not), I will ask you where you plan to find this machine, and your answer should be good, which means that you should have looked up whether our campus has it, or maybe a hospital or another university near by.  The last thing we want to happen is to invest in you but realize that you cannot do the work because of something like this.

A SPECIAL NOTE FOR MODELERS:   typically universities want to hire modelers because they require smaller start-up packages (so keep that in mind when you asking for money).  Because super-computing resources are typically available through national resources (e.g. XSEDE https://www.xsede.org), gone are the days when "I wanna build a local cluster" is a legitimate reason to waste hundreds of thousands of tax-payer dollars.  An experienced computational scientist should understand that setting up and maintaining a cluster yourself is a huge pain in the @$$.  Sure there are exceptions when exotic software is not available on the supercomputer; for such cases, you should check whether the university you are applying to has local HPC resources (so you could pay for the license and have it installed there). With computational candidates its always funny to have them explain how they are going to spend the hundreds of thousands they want, when all they really need is ~20k worth of desktops... but, for example, postdocs (man-power) is a legitimate way to spend money for a computationalist... because quality of your the brains that you employ is your most critical resource for your work ;)

5)  Communication skills/English proficiency

This is self-explanatory.  Of course we understand that English might not be your first language (as in my case), but there is a minimum expectation, so you can at least teach courses and the students would understand what you are saying (I have experience with professors whose English is terrible).

6) Teaching experience/ability to teach chemical engineering courses (a concern for non-ChE diplomas)

Here you can talk about anything from your teaching-assistant experience to volunteering in a high school or tutoring.  It is not the biggest thing, since your teaching can be improved by sending you to workshops, but it is still important to show that you are enthusiastic about it.  And the best way to do that is by establishing a track record of going out of your way to gain teach experience.  Also, I would ask you what classes do you prefer to teach and why.  Be aware that most pick thermodynamics (because we have so much of it, and its relatively easy). For those reasons, thermodynamics is usually not the one we need help filling, LOL.

Miscelaneous:  If you already have grants (that is really good), we ask whether you can bring them with you. Obviously if you can, that gives you a huge edge over the other candidates, but most postdoctoral grants are not transferable to faculty positions, unless it is something like the K99/R00 transition grant...if you have one of those, then almost any university will take you!

Finally, be friendly!  One candidate argued with me when I asked about the research.  As I said above, I ask questions to get an idea how much is known. Sadly, in this case the Skype interview got nasty fast.  And I walked away from it feeling that I would not want to spend the next twenty years working next door to this person.  And, you bet, I reported as much to the search committee.

Here is a post about someone else, regarding what type of questions they ask: https://twitter.com/ThisAmyPeterson/status/1193957678613172230

Common Mistakes Over Skype:  
-Jumped right into the guts of the science, without an introduction that establishes importance of the topic, captivates the audience, and does a literature overview explaining your niche.
- Not able to follow your science.  Keep in mind that your audience is smart, but is not necessarily in your field.  So, it is your job to present the information clearly. You and your work can be a genius, but if people can't follow what you are saying, you will not get grants.  So this is important.
- Future research is an extension of the advisers work (you should be prepared to answer how you will stand apart, and whether you will be competing with them).  The assumption is that the established investigator wins if you compete.
- Did not look up potential collaborations in the target school/dept
- Has a vague idea about what will be the first grant / when will it be ready for submission / which agency / what are the submission windows
- Missing a slide about teaching preferences
- Missing a slide that tabulates the start-up requirements (we should have a clear idea of your critical needs and how much you will cost us).  Meanwhile, you need to show that you know how much the equipment and the expendables cost.
- Too few slides or too many slides.  Ask the Search Committee Chair for a break down of how many minutes you should spend on each section.
- Bad microphone, internet connection, etc.  You should check these things before Skyping. 

For the formal Skype meeting with the whole search  committee (as opposed to the 1-on-1 pre-screening above), we ask the candidates to prepare a brief presentation, including about 10 min for their current research, 15 min for proposed projects and funding opportunities, 5 min or so for teaching, and 5 minutes on the start-up needs. We block a time slot of about 1.25 hours (with 15 minutes extra in case we need more time) so we will have enough time to set up, presentation and asking questions. There should be also time for you to ask us questions.


First, this in our (ChE) profession, it is customary that the visit should not cost you a dime.  For this reason, the department only invites between five and eight candidates to the university (number of applicants, 80-200).  So 1) Keep your receipts, and 2) Understand that the department (especially at small universities) have limited resources, and actually try to invite people who do not live across the country from them (this makes no sense to me, since plane ticket prices do not depend on the distance so much, but that is how it is).

But anyways, congratulations if you got to this point.  You are on the short list, so now is your time to shine.

Dress nice.  Be polite.  Observe etiquette.  Try to steer the conversation towards small talk as much as you can.  Pretty much, your interview has already started (so keep in mind that you will be probed throughout the dinner).  And you don't want to be saying all the same things to these guys the next day, because you will have plenty of time to spend with these people and it might get awkward.  So at dinner, do not talk about research too much, instead show your human side.  They, in turn, will try to access: how interested you are in the position; whether you've had other interviews before (or have many lined up); what kind of personality you have; what your geographical preferences are, etc.

A professor will pick you up early in the morning (after a sleepless night for you), and you will have a nice long awkward one-on-one with this person, while stuck in traffic, looking for a parking spot, walking to the department.

You have probably seen when seminar speakers come to the department, and they spend half an hour or so individually with each faculty member.  During this time the faculty members will you about their research.  You can, and should, ask the secretary to send you the schedule of whom you will meet, to prepare.  I strongly suggest reading at least one latest paper and at least one most highly cited paper for each faculty from the department.  The ones with whom you actually meet, you should especially read. Obviously, do not leave until the night before (you should practice your presentation then).  And when I write, "read", I mean skim ;)

In any case, this part is not too hard, though some might immediately ask you hard questions.  What I remember about this part is that I got a tour of the facilities, and I acted really interested in all of them, nodding my head a lot.

You will have lunch with up to six faculty members, some of whom you likely met, others not.  You would think they would leave you alone, but no, they will ask you things like, "So what will be your first step, after we give you an empty office and an empty lab?"  They will also want to know whether you can somehow collaborate with them (go out of your way to stretch your research to their needs, because they do want to collaborate).

The dean is who actually gives out the positions in the university, so he will be trying to gauge how good of an investment you are / how fundable your work is.  Basically, expect the conversation to be about money.  I suggest you give him a brief overview of who you are and what you are about.  Then he/she will ask you some questions that are specific to your case (e.g., details of your start-up request, whether you are eligible for some funding opportunity that he knows about).  This usually doesn't last longer than half an hour, but be prepared for small-talk:  

You can ask him/her some questions regarding the university, what you can expect on the job, basically act interested and ask questions that a person who seriously cares about working there long-term would ask.  Its always a good idea to look up the Dean's background (for that matter the background and publications of all the people you are expected to interact with during the interview).


After lunch, it is your time to tell them about who you are and what you do.  Typically, the seminar should be about an hour (40mins + time for questions), while the chalk-talk is probably half that time, but again you should ask for the format.  

The seminar is what you did (your PhD work) and what you are doing (your postdoc work).  While the chalk-talk is what you plan to do in the next five years (you can mention beyond that, but short term is the emphasis). The seminar should be easy for you, since nobody knows your work better than you, but still expect technical questions.

In the chak-talk you should briefly go over your teaching plan, which essentially just describes your philosophy, what courses you want to teach (look up which are offered by the department, and which are missing), courses you want to develop (it is always good if your particular experience can fill in an existing niche), and your teaching experience.  This can be just 1-2 slides. 
Also, I talked about the skills and toolsets that I will bring into the department(for example super-computing and modeling were missing in the department). By the way, chalk talk is usually by PowerPoint (not chalk on a board), just like a seminar.  

Next is the meat of the chalk-talk, describe ~4 future proposals (it can be compact, like one slide per proposal):  2 short term projects, and 2 long term. Talk about how you will make things happen (established or needed collaborations, equipment needs), and how you will finance each one (mention grant opportunities that you will apply for and when; or maybe you already have some grants pending or even funded).  The more detail provided the better it shows that you have the maturity level to pull this off.  Talk about which agency, which division, which type of grant. Even mention the grant officer name (maybe you called them and discussed your idea with them).  It is also important to establish that you will be independent from your previous bosses; common criticism is that your future work is an extension of what you've been doing under somebody else's guidance, so how will you compete with established people?  

Finally, you should present a few tables summarizing your start-up request:  key equipment and estimated capital costs, annual costs for running the lab, student years (or maybe you want a postdoc).  Things like that.  The committee needs to have a ball-park idea what your needs are, and what kind of package they will be negotiating with you.  

After you are done with the chalk-talk, you will get a short break and then meet with the P&T committee.  They are senior members at the department.  It can be a bit awkward as there is no clear agenda as far as what the conversation should be about. But its kind of time for you to ask questions about anything... the hiring process, the school, the department... you can ask about the students quality, the teaching load, the work setting, about where are the recent hires (did they get tenure or not), about the internal politics, and so on.  Express your thoughts in regards to improvement of the program.

QUESTIONS THAT YOU COULD (AND SHOULD) ASK:  The two most important offices at the university, as far as you are concerned, are the purchasing office and the grants office.  If their grants office doesn't have grant writers (i.e., all they do is check your work, and all the bureaucratic paper-work falls on you) avoid that place like the plague.   Likewise, if the purchasing office is slow/terrible, it will slow down your lab and make your life a living hell.  A quick example is if they don't have a credit-card system in place for small purchases, and you have to submit a purchase order for every little thing you want to buy.  This will waste a lot of your time.  So, if you are in a position to pick-and-choose job offers, I would definitely ask about your potential colleagues about these two offices.

Finally, you will have a one-on-one with the department head.  This person should be your friend and a parent-figure.  Hopefully, this person will end up being your mentor.  They will not make an offer there, but they will try to get an idea about how interested you are about the job, what your situation is (do you have other offers, interviews, etc.), and have a nice chat.  It is very important to get a department head who likes you, but also keep in mind that some times they are not permanent and could be replaced by someone else.  You want to go to a place that is not a snake nest, but a collegiate environment.  So, if you have places from which to choose, go for the one where you feel most at home and the the rest will fall into place.

Say your goodbyes, take a breather, fly home and reimburse your receipts through the secretary.

> FOLLOWING UP:  after a day or two, write a thank you Email to every professor there met.  Try to customize it to that particular person, to make them feel good. Although, they've probably already given their feedback about you, if you do not send an email that makes it look like you are not very interested.  If you can get them talking over Emails, that is always nice, because that person probably liked you.  But the most important person with whom you will have contact is the department head.

He/she will probably try to buy some time for them to interview more people, make their decision, and maybe even make offers to other people... unless you blew them out of the water, you may be not the top choice... so pretty much you will wait until the top choices have either accepted or declined the offer, to receive your final response.  Of course, you won't know what is happening, because they'll be singing a completely different song to you.  What I am trying to write is that even if its been a month and you still don't know, that might actually be a good thing, because that could mean that other people are not accepting and you might be the next in line to get the offer!

In case you do, read my blog about the DOs and DONTs of negotiation offers :)