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What to expect when applying for academic jobs: selection panels versus endurance tests

February 22, 2018

This is not a blog that tells you how to do well in an interview. Those can be found in many other places (e.g. here and here). Rather, this blog is for highlighting differences in procedures and expectations between regions/countries that you may end up interviewing for. For example, do you do a one hour interview with four people or a three-day interview with an entire department?

(Plus, Manu Saunders over at Ecology Is Not A Dirty Word prompted me).

 

What qualifies me to write this? Nothing especially. Those familiar with my other blogs will know that I have worked in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. I have also applied, interviewed and worked for postdoctoral, government and NGO positions in both hemispheres. I am still chasing the Faculty/Tenure Track position, but I have had interviews in both hemispheres for those too.

 

Finding positions

This step is reasonably simple. Find a listserv relevant to your discipline and sign up. Ecologists usually like Ecolog, evolutionary types might prefer EvolDir and systematists usually go for Taxacom. Twitter and the EcoEvo Jobs Wiki are other great places to start. You can also sign up for country/continent specific Times Higher Education Uni Jobs.

 

All of these places post jobs from around the world so you should have plenty to choose from – of course ‘plenty’ is relative to the fact that the number of job posts specific to your desired geographic and academic area of interest are reasonably limited.

 

The Application

Broadly speaking, applications come in two different flavours: 1) the selection criteria, and 2) the research/teaching statement. One is not necessarily easier than the other. They both require a great deal of thought and tailoring the first few times to get you on the right track. Once you think you have worked out the kinks and buzz words, they do become easier in the future.

 

Selection criteria – what are they? Well, they are used by a number of government departments and academic institutions worldwide to tailor the application process to their specific position needs. Typically, it will be a list of around six essential criteria that you must address, using a solid half page to a page to respond to each. Then a smaller list of desired criteria that you should address as best as you can.

 

Some of the questions are reasonably standard. Do you have a PhD? Do you have a demonstrated ability to conduct high impact research? Some questions are formality. Do you have exceptional communication skills? Do you have a demonstrated commitment to equal opportunities? Some questions will be tailored to the particular position. Do you have a demonstrated ability to conduct research in the field of molecular genetics? Addressing selection criteria can quickly turn into a 6-10 page document. Those looking for tips on how to address selection criteria should look at the STAR model.

An example of addressing selection criteria - Jasmine Janes

 

This, plus a cover letter and CV, is generally all that is required for the application in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and various other countries.

 

Research/teaching statement – This is the preferred way of applying for jobs in North America. A research statement is typically a 2-3 page summary of what areas of research you are interested in, what research you have done in the past, and what research you would like to do in the future. Beyond that, there really isn’t a correct formula. The teaching statement/philosophy is usually 1-2 pages detailing your overall philosophy to teaching and highlighting your teaching and supervisory experience. Stephen Heard at Scientist Sees Squirrel has posted some advice on the do’s and do not’s of writing teaching statements.

An excerpt from one of my research statements 

 

These documents can be quite tedious and intimidating to write the first few times. They really require that you self-reflect on who you are, what you aim to achieve and what will set you apart from other candidates. Also, because there is no real set model for writing these, other than what I have laid out, it can be difficult to form the ‘best’ response.

 

Accompanying the research statement is usually a cover letter, CV and teaching statement/philosophy. Occasionally you may be asked to submit a diversity statement too.

 

The interview

Again, I’m generalising here, but the factions remain. There are two types: 1) the panel interview, and 2) the endurance test. Both will be nerve wracking. Both require preparation. The best advice I can offer is advice I have been given myself. Rather than treat it as an interview, treat it as an invited talk or collaboration meeting, try to have fun (i.e. learn from them, develop new ideas, make new collaborative opportunities). Most important of all be yourself and be true to the type of position/research/teaching you want to do.

 

The panel interview – Many countries opt for a 1-2 hour interview with a panel of academics and human resources representatives. This may or may not require a research/teaching talk to the department. You may or may not have had a skype pre-interview. These interviews will be very formal – HR ensures that.

 

The questions will be standardised; every candidate will be asked the same and ranked accordingly. You probably won’t meet the whole department. You might not even get a tour of the campus. In keeping the panel style interview fair for all, you might even conduct this final interview via skype/zoom/whatever and the top candidate will be invited for an on-campus tour after they have been made an offer. This might seem unusual to some people, but it does provide a very fair platform for all candidates and reduce costs to the institution. Let’s face it, universities can spend a fortune on conducting interviews. As far as I can determine, this system has pretty equal academic retention when compared to the endurance system.

 

The endurance test – North America is a big fan of the endurance test. This system works around the idea that both the candidates and the university are being interviewed. Universities want to make sure they get a good candidate that meshes well with existing research and teaching strengths, and the rest of the faculty. On the flip side, candidates want to make sure they are walking into a pleasant environment that supports them and offers a number of facilities and opportunities. Both parties put on their best show because no one wants to be stuck with something they don’t like in the end.

 

Candidates will generally have had a pre-interview; this narrows down the top 10-30 (approx.) people to the top 3-6. You will be invited to a multi-day interview, typically three days. These days will be planned for you, and I mean planned! Expect to be ‘game on’ from around 7:30 am to around 9 pm every day. You will be meeting everyone, or nearly everyone. Students, faculty, some of the administrators; you will be show ponied from one meeting to the next. You will be required to do at least a research talk and possibly also a teaching talk (essentially a lecture with the topic and target level audience provided by the interviewers).

 

Most people will be very nice and open to questions about the institution, research and teaching expectations. Some people will ask tricky questions. Some people, especially at the lunches and dinners, which are technically ‘off campus and off hours’, will broach the inappropriate questions. Are you single? Are you married? Do you have kids or are you planning to? Are you religious? How did you become first author on such a big paper? (Yes, I have been asked these questions). Even if you don’t want to answer them, you have to be prepared to think quick about how you want to deal with this line of awkward questions. This can be mentally draining when you have already talked with numerous other people and delivered two lectures. It’s even worse if you have that brain fog feeling from jetlag.

 

The offer

A decision may be made as quickly as one week later, but may take far longer. Usually the selection panel style will have made a decision within 2-3 weeks. The endurance test style may take longer because they are collecting information from many different sources. In some cases, an offer may not be made for several months if the department has to seek/finalise budgetary approval. It’s even possible that a search will fail – no one will be made an offer because the department didn’t quite find what they were looking for.

 

Once made an offer, regardless of where it is, you should try to negotiate. Negotiations are pretty much expected under the North American system, and although not necessarily expected under other systems, it doesn’t hurt to try. When negotiating think very carefully about what you want and why. You will have to justify your requests. Above all, be respectful and don’t get too greedy, there is only so much wiggle room for everyone.

 

 

 

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