Succeeding in Academic Interviews

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You've applied for an academic job and to your delight you receive an invitation to an interview. What do you need to know? What should you expect? How can you prepare? What kind of questions will you be asked?

The Panel

Interviews for academic posts usually involve a panel of three or more. Universities have rules about the membership of selection panels. They often include a senior member of the department, usually the head, a senior manager from the university who is independent of the department (perhaps a Dean) and a representative from human resources. The function of the senior external manager is to ensure that the standards of the university are maintained. The human resources manger ensures that selection is fair and without unlawful discrimination. Your potential immediate boss needs to feel comfortable that you and they could develop a good working relationship. Generally your prospective manager has most influence.

The golden rules

Good preparation is the key to success. There are several things that you must do if you want to be successful:

  • Read in full all the information that they send you
  • Learn as much as you can about the department and the university by searching their web site, read their prospectus.
  • Talk to anyone you know in the department to glean any additional information. Without inside knowledge you cannot know enough about the culture of the department
  • Know about the courses they offer at every level and the kind of students they attract- foundation, undergraduate, masters and research
  • Try to discover how their research is organised, usually in groups of academics pursuing related topics
  • Re-visit your application and be prepared to substantiate everything you have claimed
  • Dress smartly to look the part
  • Arrive early
  • Appear happy, relaxed and confident

This last one is perhaps the most difficult. It is inevitable that you will be nervous, Good preparation reduces the problem. Stiff shoulders, arms and fingers are tell-tale signs of stress, so be sure to relax them immediately before an interview. And a smile is always attractive.


Candidates are often asked to give a lecture or presentation. Ask beforehand who the audience will be so that you can pitch your discussion to their level of understanding. Practise your presentation and check that it is within any time limit that is set. Exceed it and you may be stopped, or worse, be marked down. Try neither to pace up and down nor be rooted to the spot. Talk loudly enough for the back row to hear and maintain eye contact with your audience throughout.

Find out before the day what equipment will be available to you in the lecture room. If at all possible, visit the place in advance so that nothing is left to chance.

Prepare a new lecture, specifically for that occasion, which looks complete rather than piecemeal. Don't use several different slides from earlier presentations, all in different formats. In your presentation and interview don't simply cover what you have done in the past. Look to the future. What possibilities do you see to develop your research and theirs in new directions?

Positive Body language

Before the interview try to relax. Take a deep breath and shake your arms out to relieve any tension. You will look more confident.

In the interview try to sit up straight with hands uncrossed. Don't grip your legs or the furniture. Use your hands to express yourself and keep them away from your face. Don't fidget. Keep eye contact with the entire panel.

Prepare for the Why?' questions

Expect to be asked why you want to work for their organisation and what attracts you to that department. Be prepared to discuss why you want this role and specifically what you can contribute to their work. Analysis of their web site, prospectus and research activities will give you the information you need to answer such questions. Think hard about where you might fit in.

Your Teaching Experience

If your application is for a lecturing job be ready to give details of your teaching/ lecturing experience. Remember any conference presentations, seminars, tutorials, laboratory demonstrating, supervision of student projects or assessments of their work that you have experienced. Use your knowledge of the department's courses to express enthusiasm for lecturing in certain subjects and suggest at what level you would feel most confident teaching.


Your research experience is also an important factor, especially in Russell Group universities. Prepare to talk about your achievements. Avoid jargon. Demonstrate that you can explain lucidly what you have done. Be ready to suggest how your research relates to theirs and looking forward, what new lines of investigation may be opened up.

Show that you have considered how your research could be financed. If you have been involved in successfully applying for research funding before be sure that the panel is aware of that.

If your previous work included liaison with research teams in other universities, especially abroad, consider how these links might be beneficial to your prospective department.


All academic jobs include some administration. Be prepared to answer questions about events you have organised, membership of committees and contributions to professional bodies. Every academic department has numerous committees and members of staff are expected to pull their weight in organising events, managing junior staff, selecting new students, attending to health and safety issues and much more. Typical questions include: ‘When did you use your managerial skills to resolve a problem?' and ‘What experience do you have of managing a budget?'

Strengths and Weaknesses

We all have them and interviewers often ask us what they are. Never say that you're a perfectionist. Lots of candidates do. But consider- are you an attention to detail person who needs to give more consideration to the big picture or an imaginative ‘what ifer' who could pay more attention to the nitty gritty? Do you prefer to talk through your problems with colleagues or reflect on them yourself? In one case they may tire of your babbling on and in the other wonder what you are thinking about.

Do ask questions

At some stage, usually at the end, you will be asked if you have any questions for the panel. This is your opportunity to demonstrate your interest in what they do, not ask questions about pay or working conditions. Leave these until you have an offer. If, during the interview, you once or twice have an opportunity to ask a question, take it. If you make the panel think you will be ahead of the competition. Achieve this by answering questions like ‘Tell me about your expertise in X' and then asking them how useful they find X themselves.

To read Neil Harris' article Academic Applications click here

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