ECH Careers: Interviews

1 October 2014

Most interviews open with a question designed to put you at your ease, such as why you have applied for the job.  Prepare a succinct response that shows you have done your research about the department and the role and what you think you can bring to it. The panel will not want this answer to take up very much time.

There will probably be follow-up questions from your presentation. If a member of the panel repeats a question that was asked after your presentation, this is probably a sign that they were not convinced by your previous answer.  Hence the importance of doing some thinking in between the presentation and the interview.

In general, though, the interview is likely to be focused on areas not covered in your presentation (so if you did a presentation on your next research project, expect the interview to concentrate on your previous research, especially any written work you have submitted, and on teaching).

Other questions you might be asked include: the significance of your research; grant-raising plans; plans to meet the next REF requirements, both publications and impact; academic networks, especially with colleagues abroad; experience of academic administration; what connections you might make with other disciplines (again, do your research about the place to which you have applied). Prepare answers that highlight the most important points, so that the panel gains a clear idea of your strongest claims to the post. Bear in mind that no answer should be too long, because there will be a lot of ground to cover. Stay alert for cues that your responses are long enough.They will ask follow-up questions if they want more information.

At the end, you will usually be given an opportunity to ask any questions that you might have. There is little to be gained and something to be lost by accepting this invitation.  Candidates often seem to think they have to come up with something clever here, but panels are usually relieved when someone says they don’t have any questions.  Detailed questions about terms and conditions are inappropriate until you have been offered the job. Panels are usually irritated by questions such as “Where do you see the Department in five years’ time?”. It’s impossible to answer quickly and in any case you are being interviewed, not them. The most sensible question to ask is when you will hear the outcome of the interview.

If you don’t get the job

Remember that in many cases the job will have gone to someone else because that person is a better fit for it, with more directly relevant experience and/or better matching intellectual interests. It is not necessarily the case that you performed badly on the interview day, or that you would have got the job had you performed better. Even so, the most important thing to do, once you have got over the inevitable disappointment, is to learn what you can from the experience.  Most chairs of recruitment committees will offer feedback, but even if they don’t, you are entitled to ask for it at this stage. If it proves difficult to get feedback from the recruitment panel, you should contact the university’s HR department and ask them to help you.

Feedback is most useful if done by telephone (or in person), rather than by email. Whichever mode is arranged, make sure that you clarify in your own mind how you think the interview day went before you start the feedback session, so that you can ask specific questions and be responsive to what you are told. Prepare yourself carefully to stay calm during the conversation. Do not try to argue your case or justify yourself (even if you feel that what you are being told is unfair). If you came across in a certain way, even if you feel that’s not how you are, then it will be worth thinking about what aspect of your behaviour contributed to creating that impression. It is often the most irritating comments that really help us; in due time we recognise that they were so annoying because they hit home. Be alert also for cues that the other person wishes to close the conversation. Above all, keep in mind that feedback is given because someone wants to help you; be gracious and appreciative. Apart from anything else, the person you are talking to might well be on the recruitment panel for a future post.

Then do a short review of what you have learned. If there are questions you know you answered badly, think through what you wish you’d said and have it prepared for next time. If your presentation went on too long, note that you must take out some of the material next time. Like anything else, being a good job candidate is partly a matter of practice.  Unless you are very lucky, you will need to fail several times before you can be successful. Some of the most renowned historians in the UK today went through many job interviews before being successful. Don’t agonise over jobs you didn’t get: learn what you can and move on.