Of Course It’s an Interview

Arvind Narayanan wrote a mostly very good piece about some things that surprised him while interviewing for faculty jobs. One of them, “it’s not an interview,” was a surprise to me as well, since it’s wrong. There’s no doubt variation among individuals, but here are a few things I try to find out during a faculty interview.

Do you know why you’re here? Advisors often put pressure on their most promising students to go into academia, and some candidates arrive at the job interview for no better reason than a faculty position would be the latest in a series of stunning successes at meeting people’s expectations. I strongly prefer a candidate who understands and can articulate why he wants a faculty job.

Are you ready to be an authority figure? Professors have to run courses, degree programs, conferences, committees, research groups, and more. Managing people is difficult and requires a degree of maturity and finesse.

Are you a one-hit wonder? Although most people who interview for faculty positions have participated in several projects, it’s still usually the case that there’s one main body of work: the PhD thesis. Of course, that work was done under an advisor who, for all we know, supplied most of the ideas. The question is: Is the candidate creative enough, and does she understand the world deeply enough, that—working without a supervisor and working with students who will initially be very inexperienced—she can choose appropriate problems to attack in order to forge an identity as a strong, independent researcher?

Generally speaking, these questions can answered moderately better by a candidate who has done a postdoc and much better by a candidate with some industrial experience.

There’s more, but I think these three items get the idea across. If Dr. Narayanan aced his interviews without realizing what people were really asking, then more power to him. Most of us probably did the same thing. Even so, I don’t think “it’s not an interview” is what we want sitting out there as potential advice to the next generation of candidates.

I don’t bother trying to figure out if the candidate is an asshole. It is an iron law of assholes to never appear so to people with authority. This kind of information has to be teased out of recommendation letters or a back channel.

5 replies on “Of Course It’s an Interview”

  1. Weird… I explained what I meant right after that statement in my post, namely that people didn’t try to assess my technical competence. It’s strange that you would ignore that and take issue with my wording.

    The points of assessment you bring up were all things that I discussed directly in many of my 1-1 meetings (and also tried to convey in my talk). They didn’t go over my head.

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