Editor’s notes: The new faculty job search season is approaching. We invite newly-hired professors to share their experiences and practices of faculty job search, in the hope of providing valuable information for new faculty candidates to know more about the process and prepare their search accordingly.
We invite Manuel Rigger to open up the series. Manuel will be joining as an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Manuel has been actively developing invaluable resources to help graduating PhD students and postdocs prepare for faculty job search. He developed a website to help prepare Interview Questions for Computer Science Faculty Jobs. He also founded and organizes Getting Academic Positions (GAP) Interviewing Series, in which (new) professors share their experiences applying and interviewing for faculty positions. Our blog series will be partnering with GAP.
Manuel was on the academic job market in 2020. He applied, interviewed globally (including institutions from Asia, US, and Europe) and had the opportunity to understand the diversity in faculty hiring processes.
I was on the job market this year and was very lucky to have obtained a tenure-track assistant professor position at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Applying and interviewing for faculty positions is exciting, stimulating, and rewarding on the one hand, but also exhausting on the other; the time, effort, and energy needed during a hiring season should definitely not be underestimated. This was especially true for this hiring season, which was tough due to the pandemic, which caused a significant hiring low, consequently resulting in more fierce competition, and reduced informal interaction since the interviews were held online.
Blog post overview. In this and a second blog post, I will give an overview of how the hiring season went for me. It is difficult to give any specific advice on how to succeed with the job search, because each university’s decision process is opaque to faculty candidates, and whether or not an offer is made depends on many factors. Thus, I want to share general advice on how one can approach the interviewing process well-informed and with confidence. This first blog post focuses on my experience of the interviewing process being heterogeneous across geographical regions and institutions. The second blog post will focus on seeking help and taking care of yourself.
Academic background. In order to put my interview experience in context, I believe it is important to understand my academic background. I obtained my PhD in Austria, where I was originally born. As with many European PhD programs, the program’s duration was short, 3.5 years, compared to institutions in North America, typically 5+ years. I had fun doing research, knew that I probably would not enjoy working in industry too much, and thus decided to give academia a try. To be competitive in the job market and gain further experience, doing a postdoc was a clear choice for me. I was lucky to have found an excellent and supportive postdoc advisor at ETH Zurich, Zhendong Su, in whose lab I am currently still working. As a postdoc, I had no immediate time pressure to find a job, which might be different from PhD students who are about to graduate. In fact, I had planned to start applying for academic positions one year earlier (and actually applied to one institution), but since my most important papers were rejected that year, I decided to postpone applying. I was also under no pressure to find a position this year, since my postdoc advisor would have been happy to keep employing me.
Applications, Interviews, and Offers
Applications. I received the advice to apply only to institutions I could see myself working at. I applied globally and to 31 academic institutions in total (and none in the industry). I applied for 6 positions in Europe, which would have allowed me to stay close to my family and friends and inside a somewhat familiar environment. My wife is Chinese, and I have lived for more than two years in Asia, making it my second home continent; I applied to 5 universities in this region. Many of the most interesting openings were in North America and I applied for 17 positions in the US and 3 in Canada. I selected institutions based on my perceived rankings of them, which is more or less aligned with the one of http://csrankings.org, whether any known faculty members in related fields worked at the institution, and whether I would enjoy living in the place the institution is located.
Interviews. I received interview invitations from eight institutions, so about ¼ of the ones I applied to. Three invitations came from Europe, three from the US (all R1 institutions), and two from Asia. Six institutions sent direct interview invitations, while two invitations were preceded by a phone interview. The phone interviews had different formats; for some, I received standard questions that probably every candidate received, and for others, my interviewers were familiar with my research and asked specific questions related to my research and background. I had two phone interviews that did not result in interview invitations. For one university, I was asked to record a short presentation, which also did not result in an interview invitation. I scheduled the interviews based on a first-in-first-out basis. All interviews were virtual and happened in February and March.
Offers. Altogether, I received three offers from institutions in the US, Europe, and Asia (namely NUS). I was very happy with all these offers. Since I could see myself having a successful career at any of the institutions, one of the main deciding factors was the job prospect for my wife, which helped us converge towards NUS and Singapore.
Diversity in Experiences
Existing Resources. I was surprised how vastly the interviewing experience differed across institutions and continents. Many excellent resources exist that describe the application and interviewing process from different angles, which I used during my preparation. The most comprehensive one is probably the CS Grad Job and Interview Guide by Wes Weimer, Claire Le Goues, Zak Fry, and Kevin Angstadt, on which I relied heavily. Others have written useful guides and notes including Philip Guo, Matt Might, Michael Ernst, Austin Z. Henley, Caroline Trippel, Nicolas Papernot and Elissa M. Redmiles and Shomir Wilson. After studying the existing guides, I expected a mostly uniform interviewing process. However, I noticed that these guides are tailored to the process at US institutions and that the interviewing processes at European and Asian universities were often very different. I also encountered minor surprises at US institutions. Even when the formats were similar, my experience could differ significantly due to the variety in attitudes and interviewing styles and how the institution presented itself. While it is difficult to analyze, abstract, and generalize these experiences, it may be helpful to outline the variety of the processes and how I perceived some differences.
US institutions. All three interviews in the US had a roughly similar format. Each visit lasted for one to two days and consisted mostly of 1:1 meetings with at least 10 faculty, each lasting 25-30 minutes. A visit also included one or two meetings with the chair, deans, and graduate students. The job talk was scheduled before lunch or in the evening of the first day. One institution had a group interview at the end of the day, in which all faculty could join and ask questions, most of which were rather general. Another one had a social hour (albeit online, so socially distanced), in which I could ask questions about life in the city. What perhaps differed most between the US institutions were the interviewing styles. For example, for one institution, many of the 1:1s were with junior faculty and it felt more like an opportunity for me to ask questions and chat with them rather than being a more formal interview; I perceived this institution as supportive and collegial. At another institution, a fraction of the 1:1s felt more like a thesis defense, since I felt that they wanted to gauge my abilities when talking and reasoning about research; while I still had a positive impression, I found this visit more distressful.
European institutions. Since the European institutions I interviewed with aim to attract international talent, their application deadlines were aligned with the US ones and one institution even used a typical US interviewing format. I had the most unique interviewing experience at an institution in the UK. There, the focus of the process appeared to be on a one-hour interview by an appointment panel, which consisted of more than 10 people. I was asked in advance to prepare two short verbal presentations related to funding plans and teaching contributions. After that, the appointment panel took turns in asking various questions. Another unique experience was the meeting with the teaching staff, where I was asked about my teaching experience, approach, and vision. For this institution, I had to record the job talk in advance and did not receive any direct questions about it. My overall impression was that the faculty (called “academics” in the UK) were already convinced by my research, and gauged whether I would be successful in the other aspects and whether I “did my homework” by informing myself about the institution and the ongoing research. This institution made use of the virtual setting and, also taking into account my constraints, we scheduled the meetings over multiple days.
Asian institutions. At one of the Asian institutions, my visit felt compressed. Besides meeting with the chair, dean, and giving the job talk, I only had two meetings in which I was simultaneously interviewed by three faculty. These interviews felt informal, similar to the US ones, but the faculty members spoke very openly, for example, on how they felt about my research. They also argued with each other during the interview and were not afraid to hide any perceived weaknesses, which made everything feel very genuine.
Comparison. I perceived the European visits, and especially the one in the UK, to be more formal, serious, and structured (or inflexible) than their North American counterparts. On the other hand, they felt less intense, perhaps due to the generally lower number of 1:1s. In the US, I had up to 16 1:1 meetings. In the UK, I had 8, and at another European institution only 4, each of which lasted 45 minutes. As a faculty candidate, I felt more valued at the US institutions; I had the impression that faculty put more effort into “selling” the institution to me and making me feel welcomed. Also following the offer, I received more attention, support, and help with my dual-career situation. Institutions and faculty outside the US seem to sometimes stay quiet after making an offer and might also lack institutional support for dual-career couples.
GAP Interviewing Series
Biases. Likely, all the information and advice faculty candidates hear about the interviewing process is highly biased. New and incoming faculty, like me, have many insights to share, but it is important to realize that we have limited interview experience and are unable to share insights into how the decision process went that resulted in our offers. Senior faculty have likely interviewed many candidates, but are mostly only informed on how the hiring and decision process works at their institution and on how they judge candidates.
GAP Series. Inspired by the diversity of experiences that other people and I have made, I initiated an interviewing series to help future faculty candidates learn about the different interviewing processes and experiences. This Getting Academic Positions (GAP) Interviewing series is available on YouTube and has over 15 interviews so far. Recent faculty candidates, and successful new faculty, talk about academic systems, their interviewing experience, and their experience of progressing to the new role.
Utilizing the GAP Series. Given that the advice and experience of the interviewees are biased, how can the interviews be utilized? While each response should be taken with a grain of salt, I believe that hearing about the different formats, experiences, and opinions might help set future faculty candidate’s expectations, make them aware of things they might not have thought of before (e.g., whether to send “thank you” emails after a visit), and allow them to prepare better as well as make them avoid major surprises. Furthermore, I have asked multiple candidates the same questions, making it easier to build an opinion on what seems to be a common way to think about or approach a certain issue. Finally, watching the interviews is a convenient way to learn about different countries’ and regions’ academic systems (e.g., in terms of funding or kinds of appointments), about which many of the candidates talk.
Although the faculty candidate interviewing process might appear uniform on the surface, formats, styles, and attitudes can differ widely between institutions and even interviewers. Furthermore, advice by both junior and senior faculty can differ significantly. This is not surprising, since there is no silver bullet to both identifying who has the potential of becoming a successful faculty member and succeeding in the interviewing process. Before interviewing, become familiar with the different interviewing formats, for example, by listening to other candidates’ experiences and insights. However, as Reuth Mirsky said in her GAP Interview, you need to know which volume to set to other people’s opinion and choose what is right for you. The next blog post will focus on seeking help and taking care of yourself.
Cover image: The Getting Academic Positions (GAP) Interviewing Series have included interviews with 16 newly-hired professors from 15 institutions from 8 countries.
Editor: Tianyin Xu, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign