By Anika Prabhu, PhD
On August 6, 2018, the NICHD Office of Education held an informal lunchtime workshop with three junior faculty members about the academic job interview process. The speakers included:
- Dr. Stephanie Cologna, former NICHD fellow and assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago
- Dr. Kevin Francis, former NICHD fellow and assistant professor and assistant scientist at the University of South Dakota
- Dr. Laura Sanchez, assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago
Below is a summary of the questions and key points discussed during the workshop.
The Application Process
How do I find positions?
Look widely for job advertisements. Sites such as HigherEdJobs.com or Indeed.com are useful sources, as well as scientific societies in your field. Utilize your network by letting your colleagues and mentors know that you are on the job market so they can inform you of any open positions they come across.
Any tips for developing my application packet?
Apply for grants such as the NIH K99 (Pathway to Independence) Award. Even if you aren’t awarded the grant, writing the grant and receiving feedback will be a valuable experience in developing your application. Ask your colleagues, including PIs, to look over your research proposals and research statements.
Make your CV easy to read. Include Pubmed links to your publications. Also, list any manuscripts in preprint or under review/revision.
How many positions should I apply to?
The three speakers applied to 10 to 20 schools each. But there is no magic formula—be realistic about your chances and identify the institutes where you will be competitive.
The Interview Process
What does the interview typically involve?
Often there is a pre-screening interview—via phone or Skype—that typically includes members of your search committee. During this first interview, you can clarify some important questions you may have. You should do your research about the school and department before this meeting, and be aware of critical topics like the cost of running your lab, to be sure you and the department are a good match.
Then, typically, there are two full days for the on-site visit. During this time, you will likely give a one-hour seminar on your research and a one-hour chalk talk. The on-site visit is a tiring process with meetings throughout the day as well as during dinner. Be ready!
What is the chalk talk?
The chalk talk is an opportunity to outline your potential research program and describe how you will execute your proposal. It can include a PowerPoint presentation or a whiteboard/blackboard lecture, for which you should arrive early to write or draw the key points ahead of time. Typically, you should design your chalk talk as a 20-minute presentation. With questions from the audience, it may run for about one hour. You can describe the major findings from your work, but ultimately you are describing two to three fundable projects that will build on your work. The workshop speakers stressed the importance of highlighting how you plan to take your field in a new direction.
What tips can you share for preparing for an interview?
Practice! And practice in front of a broad audience, as the selection committee members are unlikely to be experts in your field. Become comfortable with the audience freely interjecting during your talk to ask questions. Be prepared to defend your ability to carry out the research projects and answer questions related to:
- Potential funding mechanisms
- Who will carry out the work
- What tools from your postdoctoral work you will be allowed to bring over
- The validity of proposed assays
What fatal mistakes do interviewees make?
At the application stage, deal breakers include submitting an application late, absent or late reference letters, not reading the job ad, and not tailoring your application to the position.
At the interview stage, being unprepared or being rude to members of the selection committee or administrative staff are easy ways to put you out of contention.
Accepting an Offer and Setting Up
What happens after I get an offer?
You can still ask more questions and negotiate the offer in terms of salary, office space, equipment, moving costs, starting dates, etc. before accepting.*
What have been the main challenges in the first years of starting your lab?
The budgeting of the lab and administrative duties are challenging. Also, it is not always easy to step away from the bench and hire good people to carry out the vision of your lab.
How can I prepare for running my own lab now?
Supervising summer students and/or postbacs and running journal clubs will give you experience with managing and mentoring your own small team. Towards the end of your postdoc, walk around the lab, make a list of essential lab reagents and equipment, and identify the costs of these to develop your budget. Be mindful of expensive service contracts for equipment. You may also need to budget items such as computers, desks, and chairs.
The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education also runs several workshops, such as the Workplace Dynamics series, that teach essential management skills.
*Check out our recent article on job negotiations!