Monday, February 05, 2007

The Interview Trip

A reader asks
You've told us what to wear and how to give the talk at my interview. Any tips for the rest of the trip?
Aside from your talk and a nice dinner, your interview will consist of a grueling series of half-hour meetings with faculty in and possibly outside the department. While you have passed the first test to even get an interview, you still have to distinguish yourself from the other candidates. Your job is to sell yourself particularly to people outside your field who don't know you or your research well.

Take the lead from the person you are talking to. If they start talking about their own research then listen intently and ask friendly intelligent questions. If they start talking about the town (indicating a belief that the two of you have no research interests in common) then have a nice talk comparing it to places you have lived in the past. If they ask about your own research then describe some results beyond your job talk.

Some will ask you questions. "Would you be willing to teach X, or organize Y?" Your answer is always "Yes, I'd be happy to." Some might ask why your research or even theoretical computer science in general is relevant. Make sure you have something intelligent to say and never apologize for your research. Some will ask about your ability to generate funding. Say you will regularly apply for grants at the NSF and other agencies. Acknowledge that theory grants aren't as large as more applied areas but your needs are also fewer.

You must avoid dead silence. Visit the web pages of the faculty you are meeting ahead of time and find some talking point for each of them. Have a list of questions about the department that you can always ask to keep the conversation going.

Act positively. Always show interest in what the other person says. Say only positive things about the place you are visiting and don't say anything negative about any other place. Don't complain how bad the market it. Don't complain about the hotel or the food. Don't complain about anything. Most importantly act like you really want the job whether or not you do.

Have good manners. Always firmly shake hands and thank the person you just talked to and firmly shake hands with the person you will talk with next. Act civilized at dinner. Send thank you emails soon after you return.

Good luck!


  1. You are not a clown performing for the faculty's amusement. Maintain some level of dignity and respect. Don't just nod furiously at everything they say; personally, I wouldn't lower myself to singing and dancing, agreeing excitedly to teach every intro-level programming course, or avoiding saying negative things when they are relevant to the discussion. You are supposed to be charasmatic and have good taste as well.

    Most importantly, know why your research is important, and believe in it. And if they ask you "are you more like Professor we already have #1 or Professor we already have #2?" The right answer is NOT "I share some qualities with both of them" the answer is "I am completely different, and here's why..."

  2. Departments are also looking for synergies and multiplier effects. It would be good to have thought about how you would bring those about at each place you visit: whom would you work with? what new things would you enable at the places you are interviewing?

  3. If asked if you can teach something
    or if you know about a certain area
    NEVER respond with `I had a course in that'
    since at this level knowledge is
    NOT measured by courses. Say what you
    know. (NOTE- they will NOT ask for
    your transcript, they don't care what
    courses you took, just what you know).

    Mundane point- better to arrive the
    night before and stay in a Hotel over
    night, so you are fresh and on time.

    ALSO- people claim they want people
    that are interdiscplinary but unless
    the job posting says that explicitly,
    better off saying
    ``My main area is finite model theory,
    but I also know alot about Database
    and could teach it and work with people
    in the area.''

    rather than say
    ``I do both finite model theory and

    bill gasarch

  4. I do not know if these suggestions are so good. If I am part of the commission
    and I notice that a candidate is more focused on "public relations" than on
    research, he never came to my department.
    And from the point of view of the candidate.. if I will be assumed because
    people believed I was friendly, I was interested and so on, what happen when
    it will emerge that it is not true?

    I believe that a researcher has to be assumed because he does good research.
    and good teaching. and it is better if the researcher is good in finding founds.

  5. A good short course in opportunism.

  6. Do your homework. If a faculty member does research that overlaps yours, make sure you know about it and are at least reasonably acquainted with what he has done.

  7. ...make sure you know about it and are at least reasonably acquainted with what he has done.

    Yeah, if the faculty member is a woman, just compliment her shoes.

  8. One important part left untouched: LEARN ABOUT THE DEPARTMENT.

    There are huge differences between Stanford and Iowa State, and between Iowa State, Smith, and Grinell College. (Incidentally, there are excellent theoreticians at each of these.) Expectations are very different.

    At my home institution, Chicago, research trumps everything--but even here it helps if our non-theory colleagues are not put off by someone who seems utterly uninterested/uninformed about the rest of CS. At least be an interested listener of the research of others.

    Many institutions have important secondary agendas: teaching large sections, interacting with other areas and other fields, attracting grant money. Find out what these are and have a realistic assessment of how you could fit and help. Do not lie: if there is a large mismatch, you would be unhappy anyhow.

    I take issue with the first anonymous ("You are not a clown performing for the faculty's amusement...") Of course you should not lie--but if you are interviewing at Enormous State University, and they tell you that part of your job would be to teach large introductory classes, be aware that that is what the job is. Make sure what the expectations are. For example, when I went to Penn State, the deal was to teach one course "for the university", one "for the department" and one "for yourself": a service course, an undergraduate course, and a graduate course in your specialty. The first course I taught was Compiler Construction, for about 60 seniors. Still, it was not hard to be very productive in the environment.

    In some departments (e.g. in small liberal arts colleges) teaching is extremely important.

    So be aware what the culture of the department is, and be prepared.

    Remember that there are many good theoreticians out there. Some places will overlook an abrasive personality, arrogance--real or perceived, and narrow interests for academic excellence, but many departments will not.