Editor’s Feature: ECR Ben Offiler Reflects On His First Academic Interview

Following the popularity of Sue Currell’s post on “Academic Job Applications: Do’s and Don’ts”, we thought it would be a good idea to consider what happens when you actually get invited to interview. Next week, we will be publishing Sue’s post on “Academic Job Interviews: Do’s and Don’ts” but today USSO co-editor Ben Offiler writes about his first academic interview experience.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to interview for two academic posts in two weeks, which was almost as exciting as getting married and going on honeymoon… in the same two weeks. Needless to say (although I’m going to say it anyway), it was an extraordinarily busy fortnight. My main concern was that in all the excitement I would somehow get my wedding speech and interview presentations mixed up. Fortunately, they all went as well as I could hope and I have been assured that they each contained just the right level of US foreign policy analysis.

Having applied for quite a few academic positions since completing my PhD, it was such a relief receiving the first email inviting me to interview — it wasn’t that I thought that I would definitely get this job (I didn’t) or that I had deserved to get interviews for other applications. It was just a sense of validation that I wasn’t barking up the wrong academic tree by applying for these jobs. With the abundance of rejection that one inevitably encounters in academia, simply being asked to interview for a full-time position felt like a significant achievement.

Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com

Mixed with my excitement was a substantial dose of nervousness — in addition to being my first academic job interviews, these were my first serious interviews. As a perpetual student, up until this point I have only had casual interviews for temp jobs — even teaching and other academic duties have not normally required an actual interview, usually relying on the tried and tested method of simply being known to the relevant people, and/or the only PGR in the department who researches US foreign policy. I didn’t even have to interview for my PhD funding and, unlike some other courses, apparently they let anybody do a degree in History.

After deciding that my powder blue wedding tux wasn’t suitable for an interview I bought a new green suit (I know, a bold choice), having my own Pretty Woman moment in the process. Being a sensible sort, I caught the earliest train possible to make sure I arrived in plenty of time, allowing me to stay relatively calm and look through my presentation and notes a few more times. Upon arrival, I met the other four candidates in the reception as we waited for the committee to collect us. I had been warned that this awkward scenario might arise and while the other candidates were all lovely there was still an air of ironic discomfort; predictably, the small talk revolved around our respective journeys and research areas.

Cartoon by Kerry Soper, Assistant Professor of Humanities, Brigham Young University. Courtesy of Kerry Soper.

Cartoon by Kerry Soper, Assistant Professor of Humanities, Brigham Young University. Courtesy of Kerry Soper.

Before we could get onto discussing the weather (it was gloriously sunny, thanks for asking), we were herded into a holding pen; well, a stiflingly hot room with refreshments where we would wait to be called in either for our interview or presentation. We then went across to the HR department to have our passports and other relevant documents photocopied before returning to base. Because of the number of candidates and the limited time available, the presentations and interviews were to happen simultaneously; so while one of us went for the interview, another did their 15 minute presentation, leaving the remaining three to defy common misperceptions of academics as socially awkward. In fact, rather than contributing to the necessarily stressful circumstances, it was actually quite pleasant getting to know each other, not as rivals or “the competition”, but as fellow historians and Americanists.

Having relaxed somewhat, I was still slightly nervous when it was my turn to do my presentation. There were about half a dozen academics from the department in attendance, who welcomed me warmly, putting me at ease and helping to set up the power-point system. The presentation itself went fairly well as far as I could tell, although I did overrun slightly, a rookie mistake. I tried to pass it off as enthusiasm for my subject but it was probably more to do with me forgetting to start my stopwatch like I normally do, thus giving me only a vague sense of how long I had been talking. On this occasion, the audience wasn’t allowed to ask questions, instead noting their observations on a standardised feedback form, which would be used by the job committee to inform their decisions. By contrast, at my other interview, the academics responded to the talk with questions and comments in much the same way that you would see at a conference.

With my presentation over, there was little for me to do except wait until my turn to interview and pick at the biscuits provided for us (as a recent PGR it is still written in my DNA to never turn down free food).

It could have been worse…

Finally, one of the professors on the committee came to collect me. Once in the room, I was introduced to the panel. In this case, there were only three people: the Department Head, a professor, and the Associate Dean for the faculty. At the other interview, there were about six people, including the Head of School, relevant professors, a more junior academic, and a representative from the Students’ Union. The interview itself lasted about thirty minutes with the committee taking turns to ask a set number of pre-arranged questions in order to get a balanced picture from each candidate. Anyone who has been through weekly work-in-progress sessions during the PhD, presented papers at a conference or defended their thesis in a viva will be well prepared for the type of inquisition encountered in an interview.

The key difference, I suppose, apart from the fact a job is riding on your performance, is that you are not only answering questions about your research but all aspects of the things that make a rounded academic: current and future research, teaching, administrative experience, other professional roles, outreach and impact. What kind of scholar am I? In what ways will I contribute to the department? How will I add to the reputation of the school through my research and how will I generate income? I had prepared thoroughly for the interview — looking up details about the faculty and their research, the department’s current teaching options, the university’s student support system — so wasn’t too blindsided by any questions. As this was a predominantly teaching role they focused on my experience teaching certain subjects, my qualifications, use of online technology, examples of providing pastoral care to students and so on. It seemed to me (at both interviews) that one of the most important issues, beyond my education, research and teaching qualifications, was how I would fit into the department in terms of my research and teaching expertise.

So that was it. My first interview was over. The journey home gave me time to reflect on the whole experience. Overall, I felt it had gone fairly well. I didn’t think I had completely wowed the committee but nor had I completely embarrassed myself. I gave some solid answers to all of their questions and, I hoped, demonstrated my viability for the role. In the end, it was amazing how quickly it had all gone by and how difficult it was to judge the day’s events. As it turns out neither interview was all that successful. According to the feedback I received I was a little short on experience in digital histories for the first job and not enough of an International Relations theorist for the second. C’est la vie. Still, both experiences were extremely valuable in helping me understand how the interview process works and thinking about how to approach my preparation by putting myself in the minds of the interviewing committee. And hey, third time’s a charm. Right? Right?!


About Ben Offiler

Ben completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham and is currently Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University. His current research examines the role of philanthropic NGOs in US foreign relations, focusing on the Near East Foundation's education and disease control programmes in Iran during the Cold War. His first book - US Foreign Policy and the Modernization of Iran: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and the Shah - was published in 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan.
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