Day: December 22, 2016

Skyping Your Way Into (or Out of) a Faculty Job

I have been on a cross-departmental search committee, and it’s been a ton of work. Over the last few weeks, I have taken part in a number of Skype interviews, and it blows my mind how poorly the people who look really good on paper perform on these interviews. While my department alone hasn’t done Skype interviews in the past, I am going to strongly advocate that we start. The main reason is that Skype enables us to see in person many more candidates than we otherwise would, which is really important, since so far the best ones have been those you would not necessarily put in the top 3-5, but would in the top 20-30. Being able to access a broader pool before doing the more expensive campus interviews has the potential to do wonders for obliterating the pedigree bias.

The interviews we do last about 15-20 min, but can go up to 30 min, and I think that’s a very good duration.

Here are some common pitfalls.

1. I know some people don’t like it when I mention this, but it’s important for all non-native speakers of English out there trying to get a faculty job in the US (or any other job that requires specialization and/or an advanced degree, especially if it pays well):

You have to work on your English. I know it may be hard and it’s much easier to converse in the native language, especially if you are in one of the labs where your advisor is from your home country and all your advisor’s collaborators, postdocs, and other graduate students are from the same country, too. I can understand that it may feel like speaking English is unnecessary… But that’s a dangerous lie. Such labs fail students in a key aspect of professional development to a degree that I feel is abusive — what else do you call a situation in which an advisor prevents his or her students from acquiring critical skills necessary for success?

It is not enough to be “sort of” fluent. You have to be able to express yourself as well as you would in any other language. You have to be so fluent that you can make strong, succinct, and grammatically correct statements; you have to be so fluent that you can use idioms, and make jokes, and understand jokes, and perceive nuances in the response of others. You have to be able to be your complete self in English; if you are excited about research, you have to speak English well enough, with good enough diction, that the brilliance and enthusiasm can effectively come across, rather than struggle to break through the barrier erected by your lack of facility with the language.

You have to be completely fluent. Both your vocabulary and your command of grammar should be comparable to those of a native speaker with the same level of education, because that is who you are competing against; today, it’s for faculty jobs; tomorrow, it’s for grants and awards. 

So work on your English tirelessly, from the minute you arrive in the US. Devour written and spoken English, and dissect it like the scientist that you are: Why did this native speaker say that? What does this idiom mean and when should you use it? Are your verbs and yours nouns/pronouns in agreement? Do you use punctuation correctly?

You may not be able to completely get rid of your accent (I imagine I have less of an accent than I do; only when I hear a recording of myself is when I do hear that some of my sounds are sharper or otherwise a little off with respect to what they should be in American English). However, becoming more fluent means that your diction will also improve, and you will get better at enunciation overall. The quest to improve your English should never stop.

2. This faculty search is broad enough that, for many candidates, I don’t know the technical nitty-gritty of the research projects, but you bet I can tell whether the person answers precisely and succinctly, whether they are at the top of their game, and whether they are persuasive enough in their communication to be able to get recognition for their work and effectively raise grants. When you drone on, in painful monotone, about the technical minutiae during your Skype interview, so that most of the committee no longer looks at you but at their phones or laptops, you are dead in the water; you are never getting that campus interview.

(Bonus: Do not freakin’ read your research statement to us straight from the computer screen, pretending that you are answering a question. Yes, we can tell you are reading; remember, we see your face blown up to 3 feet tall on the conference-room screen. We can tell by how your eyes are moving from left to right, by how unnaturally even your speaking tempo is, and by the sharp drop in the quality of your spoken language when you go off the script.)

3. Many people could not articulate what they had done in the past that was important. They couldn’t tell where their work had made an impact and how. Some did not understand what we were asking (even after three committee members took turns trying to rephrase the question somewhat; see the need for facility with the language) or were pretending not to understand in order to bide the time while figuring out what to say. Others were only ever able to talk about the minutiae, showing that, while they are good as “doers,”i.e., as someone who can execute the grand vision of others, they are not likely to develop a vision of their own.

4. Many people could not articulate what their plans were for the next 5 years beyond “I will do this (one paper’s worth), and then maybe I will do that (another paper’s worth).” They could not tell how they would be different from everything that their postdoc and PhD advisors did.

We are not interviewing your advisor, or you as a postdoc. We want a person who can stand on their own two feet, who has scientific curiosity and drive, and who has enough maturity to understand what this job entails. You need to have thought about who you want to be, and what you want to do, and what you need to get there.

The other day we interviewed a guy who didn’t seem to take this job application business seriously at all. He had no clue where he would apply for funding, didn’t seem to be able to see past the next couple of papers, overall conveyed  that he had no idea what the job would actually be, yet seemed quite confident that he’d be coming to an on-campus interview (as in, “I will ask all my questions during the on-campus interview”). We were all amused by how clueless the candidate was.

You have to take the job search — any job search — seriously.

5. You have to be able to answer why this job, assuming you want it, is a good fit for you. Which facilities would you be able to use, what equipment would you would need to buy? Who are your potential collaborators on campus?

6. You have to have some questions for the interviewers. The prepared candidates asked perfectly reasonable questions about the startup package, tenure expectations,  teaching load, and advising students from different departments (my campus is great about that, barriers to interdepartmental or intercollegial advising are really minimal). Depending on the duration of the Skype interview, you may or may not have time for all of these, but be prepared to ask something. If you are serious about the job, you will naturally have questions.

A good PhD and postdoc advisor will be able to help you prepare for interviews, but this is your job search, you need to be proactive about finding information. My PhD advisor did comment — once —  on my research and teaching statements, and gave me some advice when I was comparing competing offers, but everything else I learned on my own, using resources from the web. There are plenty of resources. There were certainly enough online resources even when I was applying for jobs in late 2003 (interviewed early 2004), over a decade ago. There is a ridiculous amount of information available now (like here!). There is no excuse to be uninformed.

As I said, many of the people who looked best on paper ended up interviewing poorly. Those who rose to the top and will be coming to campus in January were not all native speakers, but were certainly perfectly fluent and had no problems with listening comprehension. They were able to answer the above questions clearly and persuasively, and came across as enthusiastic, energetic, and just ready to conquer the world. The ones who rose to the top were the ones with whom the whole committee was engaged throughout the interview; they conveyed their infectious love of science and cut the time-wasting bull$hit.

Good luck to everyone on the job market!