Academic Job Market Interviewing & Negotiation

I've been wanting to write a post on some academic job market insights that I learned this past year. Some of them are things that I read on others' blog posts that were extremely true (and that I wanted to emphasize here) and others are ones that I learned on my own (sometimes the hard way). These insights are going to be more fitting for someone looking for tenure-track psychology positions, and are of course biased by the institutions I interviewed at, but I thought they would still be quite helpful to think about. This post is more for interviewing and negotiation because these seemed like the bigger mysteries for me entering the job market, but I can write a post about preparing for the job market and applying too, if that's something people are interested in!

Quick summary of my job hunt (with some data):

Overall, I applied to 16 tenure-track psychology and human development positions and 3 tenure-track public health positions, all at R1 and R2 institutions in the US. I was location-restricted since I needed to apply to schools in cities where my husband could do a specific medical fellowship, which was mostly restricted to large cities. Because my research is highly interdisciplinary and I was location-restricted, I applied to some jobs that I knew would be a stretch for me (e.g., social psych, clinical psych if internship was not required, and public health). Nearly every school needed the CV, cover letter, research statement and teaching statements, although 2 schools only needed a cover letter and CV for the first round (I did not hear back from either). A total of 6 schools required a diversity and inclusion statement (mostly California schools), and 2 required evidence of teaching effectiveness.

I was invited to 6 in-person interviews, all for developmental psychology, health psychology, or human development positions, and I attended all of them. I had an initial Skype interview for 2 of the departments, a phone interview for 1 more, and the other 3 invited me on campus without an initial phone or Skype interview. I gave 6 job talks, 1 chalk talk, and 0 teaching talks. Interviews lasted from 1 day to 2.5 days (some flew me in for dinner the night before interview day 1). I had between 7 and 16 individual meetings at each school, not counting dinners (average was 12.8). Only 1 school had 2 dinners --  the rest all had 1 dinner. I was asked about start-up costs (ballpark estimate and equipment needs) at 2 interviews, and I was asked about salary needs at 1 interview. All universities covered the entirety of my travel costs, though there is a range when it comes to the method of reimbursement. Four out of 6 paid for everything up front, including flights, while 2 others had me book flights and then reimbursed me (still waiting on 1 of those for reimbursement) but they both paid for the hotel up front. In the end, I received 2 job offers and accepted 1! Whew, I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

First of all, let's start with the general feeling of being on the job market [FYI: You are not alone if you're feeling overwhelmed.]

Credit: K.C. Green

Credit: K.C. Green

Ok, now that we're on the same page, let's dive in.

Preparation for Interviews

·      Make sure you develop a 5-year plan for your research specific to the institution you're interviewing at, including specific studies that you would conduct. This helps give you a clear narrative that links your job talk and prior work to your future work--in both the immediate and long-term future. This plan will also help you figure out start-up costs much more easily should you ultimately get an offer. Your plan should include specifics about why that particular university is the ideal place to do this work. This shows that you've thought deeply about your research trajectory and that you're really interested in doing your research at that particular institution, which is what they want to hear! A 2-year, 5-year, and a rough 10-year plan are really essential. You can acknowledge that research plans change over time but that this is where you see yourself going. I went into my first interviews having rough ideas of studies I would do, but across the interview season, I really solidified my plans for specific studies and timelines, which made my individual meetings much easier. Only a few people will ask you for your 5-year plan specifically, but others might ask you about a study or two you’d do.

·      You'll get a schedule of the people you'll be meeting with between 2-7 days before the interview. Gather and read 5-10 abstracts from each person you’re interviewing with, some of the most-cited papers and most recent papers where the person you’re meeting is the first or senior author. Visit their lab webpages to see what they're currently up to that might not be in press yet. I also went to NIH Reporter to see if they had any active NIH grants to ask them about. I prepped things to talk about with each person and the questions that that person would be perfect to answer. I created cheat sheets for my interview folder that I kept in a small briefcase with my laptop, and I would often check this sheet during bathroom breaks to refresh my memory on what to talk about with the next person on the schedule. [If this all sounds overwhelming, it is. Don't expect to get too much work done besides interview prep for a few months!]

·      Look into the resources at each university that you can utilize—specific centers, departments, collaborators within and outside the department. Ask about these resources when people ask you if you have questions, and bring them up as reasons that the institution is perfect for your research.

·      Prepare as many questions as you can possibly think of and memorize them, because you'll be asked if you have questions a million times and if you run out, you risk looking uninterested. Remember when you prep questions that you're going to have different questions for the chair and dean than you will for new assistant professors. You won't ask the dean about their research (you might ask them about the tenure and promotion process or college initiatives), and it's most helpful to ask assistant professors about their transition to becoming faculty or new associate professors about the tenure process since they'll have the most up-to-date experiences.

·      Identify features of the community that will influence your work (e.g., specific populations or centers you might be working with…why your work is perfectly situated for THAT city). I googled city demographics and centers for children who've experienced maltreatment or who live in poverty so that I could name potential populations or centers that I could work with.

Interview

·      For any faculty member you could see doing any kind of collaboration with, MENTION THE POTENTIAL COLLABORATIONS. I had 1-2 specific studies that I’d do with that person ready to discuss. And I’d bring it up pretty soon into the interview or when they asked me if I had questions. For the first couple of interviews, I felt shy about it and didn't want to be overbearing [why should I assume they want to collaborate with me? Cue the impostor syndrome...]. But I learned that even if we never collaborate, people like to hear how your research might enhance theirs, and it's also flattering to have people who want to work with you! So don't be shy about mentioning any potential collaboration.

·      If your research is very different and you don’t see any overlap, refer to their research that you read. Say—"I found [insert research finding] interesting OR I didn’t expect [insert unexpected result]—are you following it up?" It shows that you've thought deeply about their work and that you can add to the department intellectually.

·      Illegal questions: you will be asked them. Be prepared. I was asked about my partner, if I had kids, whether and when I wanted to have kids, where else I was interviewing, etc. Sometimes these are explicitly asked, and sometimes you’ll be invited to talk about it if you want, particularly at dinner [which is always awkward because then you feel rude if you don't talk about it]. I always gave a little personal information, like mentioning my husband and adding that he was excited to move to the area. I decided that I didn’t want to come off as rude (although I’m sure you could deflect in a respectful way), and I also didn’t want to take a position at a place where they did not welcome my husband. I made sure that I mentioned that my husband wouldn’t need a faculty position there, which is a huge sigh of relief for them since they wouldn't need to arrange a position for him as well, and that he would be able to get a job in the area fairly easily. At certain places, people were excited to tell me about resources for getting my husband a job. It reflected well on those places knowing that they were supportive of my husband's career as well.

·      EXPRESS ENTHUSIASM about the place, particularly if they’re your top choice. There’s no sense in playing hard to get if you really want to go there. They want to know you’ll come there if they offer you the job. They really don't want to offer you the job and then have you turn it down several weeks later when their 2nd choice may have already accepted another offer. I made the mistake of not wanting to seem overbearing or too desperate and I think I seemed a bit distant at the beginning. Especially at my top choices, I was given a lot of positive feedback when I expressed to them that they were one of my top choices or gave specific reasons why that place was the best place for me. [Note: I never told people that a place was my top choice when it was not, since it seemed dishonest to me. I don't know how other people handle this. Rather, I told them lots of reasons I was excited about the place.]

·      Make sure you get a feel for the culture of the department. You don’t need to ask explicitly. People will tell you if you ask about their favorite aspects of the department or parts they’d change. Grad students and postdocs are very honest and will give you their feedback openly as well. There was huge variation in the culture of the department at different places. Some have mostly senior faculty and some have mostly junior faculty. Some are places with a more laid-back culture and some places you’re expected to work all the time. I think I was able to get a very clear sense of this, and I also wrote down all of my impressions in a Word document on the plane ride home so I wouldn’t forget those important pros and cons and the feelings I had when leaving. I wanted to make sure that I documented whether I felt extremely excited or emotionally exhausted when leaving the interview so that later events wouldn’t cloud my earlier judgments about whether the culture was right for me. Leaving an interview nearly in tears is a pretty good sign that it was not a good fit, and I'm so glad my Word doc reminded me of that! Alternatively, calling my husband and family to rave about a place right when I got to the airport is a pretty good sign of a great fit!

·      Fit is really important. I was told by a couple of department chairs that while I was near the top of their list after interviewing, I didn’t get the first offer due to another candidate being a better fit with what the department is looking for. Of course, there are many forces that go into the final decision of who to hire, so you can’t worry too much about it. You may get an offer if the first person turns down the offer, and I know several people who have had this happen (hooray!). It’s hard to let these instances go because it feels like you have no control over fit. As long as I felt confident that I had made the case for why I was a great fit for the department, I was content with their decision, but of course that’s more difficult if you’re in a situation where your top choice doesn’t give you the first offer because of fit. Being aware that it’s one of the most important criteria for hiring is really helpful to remember going into the job search. It definitely helped me to let go a bit and not blame myself for not getting an offer!

·      While interdisciplinary research is highly valued by many departments on paper, I found some trouble trying to explain my work at times. I sometimes got the feeling that my work was a little too developmental for health psych positions and was too health-oriented for developmental positions. I also had some problems because I study several different age groups depending on my research questions, so I’m not an “early childhood” or “adolescent” researcher specifically. I think that sometimes confused people, especially when a posting was looking for someone who studied a particular age group. There's the tendency to want to put you in a certain box, which can be tough if you have a broad or interdisciplinary research program. You want to make sure there’s a balance of being true to yourself and your research interests but also presenting enough data to show that you can cover that need within the department. You can show this through your job talk and by bringing it up in individual meetings. I don't have specific suggestions since this is really dependent on your own research program, but it's something I wish I had thought about how to handle more in advance!

·      The dinners are still a mystery to me. Some are more formal where you talk a lot about science and work, and some are informal where you mostly talk about life in that city, hobbies, and current topics. Most are a mixture of both. Some were very relaxed, while I was definitely grilled about my research and future plans at others. I was always unsure about which direction to steer the conversation when there was any kind of lull, and I’m sure the expectation differs by department. Don't have more than 1 glass of wine, and have some potential talking points prepared that will fill in some conversation if the group isn't very chatty. 

Job Talk

·      It’s really hard to gauge exactly what different departments are looking for in the job talk, so I tried to appease the widest audience by giving the background and importance of my work, briefly touching on the theory behind my research questions [do not forget to do this. Forgetting theory is a death sentence at some institutions I was told], mentioning some of my previous work and what my lines of research are, showing data from a few exemplary studies, and talking about future directions. This should be adaptable for a 45 min to 1 hr talk plus about 15-20 minutes for questions, which varies by institution.

·      You really need to fit your job talk to the position (e.g., if they want someone with imaging skills, present some imaging data, but if they want an adolescence researcher, present some adolescence data). My job talk was generally the same at most places, but with some edits for different postings. I’d change out one of my specific studies in order to match the topic they requested, and these changes went over well.

·      Departments are looking to expand what they already have. Mentioning specific methods you’d bring to the department and what makes you unique is important. But it’s just as important to show how you’ll fit in. Mention at different points in your job talk who your collaborators in the department will be, how you’ll fit in the program, and what kinds of future work you’ll do there while collaborating with specific faculty members. In my future directions, I showed a slide of a big model that I want to test across my career, pointing out specific parts of the model that I’d like to test with [name of researchers]. I got a TON of compliments about this in individual meetings because I got to explicitly show them how well I’d fit in the department. I didn’t wait for them to make the connections…I did it for them. I also made some connections that some people wouldn’t have seen, which I was also told was exciting.

·      Show the breadth of your work with a couple of slides that displays the work you've done. For example, a bullet point with "social buffering in children and adolescents (Doom et al., 2015, 2017)" so even if you don't cover it in detail in the job talk, they see how broad your research is. This is important because not everyone will have read your CV or your previous work. Then say that you’ll be diving into a few specific studies that showcase your work.

·      Relatedly, one area where I realized my mistake very late in the interview season (with 1 interview left...) was that my whole job talk centered around cortisol data. Of course, I know that my work is broader than cortisol, but for someone who only knows my work from my job talk [because most will not have read your CV], they will not understand this. Thus, my job talk for 4 out of 6 of the institutions I interviewed at was not helpful for showing the breadth of my work and demonstrating that I have many tools that I can bring to the department. Really think about how the data you present shows what new methods and ideas you can bring to the department! What will someone who has never read your research think you do if they only see your job talk?

·      Practice your job talk a lot! You’ll get many of the same questions over and over, and it’s good to have answers ready for them or to have extra slides with data at the end to refer to. You’ll also get off-the-wall questions that you will never be able to anticipate. I luckily had some experience answering these types of questions from one of my grad school profs, so although it was frustrating during grad school, it really helped me to know how to handle them during a job talk! I suggest setting aside some time before you go on your interview to think about your work very broadly to be able to handle some of these questions. Also ask people of all different levels of expertise on your topic to hear your talk and ask you questions. They’ll give you an idea of the types of questions you should be thinking about. My #1 suggestion: Don't get defensive during the Q&A. Your work isn't perfect, and questions and critique will help to expand it and make your future work better. They are not attacking you personally, and you need to show that you're going to be drama-free and a good person to have in the department for potentially the rest of your life. I did get some questions that were hostile, and remembering to keep my cool and answer professionally helped me get through it. You never know if the person asking a hostile question is known for that, and they may be more interested in how you handle the hostility than your actual answer to the question.

·      You will know who is in the department, so you will be expecting most of the people who might come to your talk, and you will be able to mentally prepare if there's someone who's a BIG DEAL in your subfield who will likely attend. But you don't know if BIG DEALS or your research idols from other departments or other universities will be there, so just make sure you're ready for whoever walks in that door. A BIG DEAL researcher walked into my talk from a nearby university right before my talk started (making that TWO of my most idolized researchers watching my talk at the same time), and after a 15-second panic, I was able to regain my composure and it all went fine. Just BE PREPARED.

·      Bring a water bottle and drink lots of water the entire interview! Take bathroom breaks whenever they are offered and ask for more frequent ones just to get a break! Bring all of the things you might possibly need to do your job talk, including your own laptop, laser pointers, a clicker for your PowerPoint, dongles, chargers...you don't want to have to rely on that place's resources since they might be different than what you're used to!

Negotiation

·      Hooray, you got an offer! Now it’s time for negotiation, one of the biggest black boxes of the entire process. And one of the hardest parts for me since I have trouble asking for things! This is likely due at least in part to both impostor syndrome and being a woman. So you've got to pump yourself up for this process!

·      First, to prepare for negotiation before you even get an offer, start by asking relatively new assistant professors if they’d be willing to share their start-up requests and any other things they negotiated or wished they’d negotiated for. This is especially helpful for people doing similar research to you (e.g., asking fellow fMRI researchers for their start-ups). For women, make sure you ask both men and women for their start-up information, because I often saw that men were asking for a lot more than women were. Ask them what you should consider negotiating for outside of start-up (e.g., course releases and moving costs) and what they wish they’d negotiated for. This will help you to make a list of things that you should start to price out in an Excel document to eventually share with the chair (after editing the list for things specific to the institution that you know you’ll have to add or things that you won’t need there, like grad support or construction costs).

·      You’ll need to find out if construction costs for your lab are part of the start-up or if they come out of a separate fund. If they come out of your start-up, you’re going to need to budget a lot more, especially if you have a lot of changes you want to make. Or you can add the changes to your offer letter (e.g., a room with a double-sided mirror) instead of a certain amount of money in case your estimate is off.

·      Make sure you outline everything in your Excel sheet of potential start-up costs and JUSTIFY it. This makes it easier for the chair to negotiate with the dean on your behalf if they know why you need a particular thing. Also, insert a paragraph of what you are planning to do broadly (what studies, how many people in each study) to outline what work you want to do and why these expenses are necessary. I was told that this was extremely helpful for getting the things I needed from the dean!

·      Read the book “Ask for It,” especially if you’re a woman. It shows you how to ask for anything that will make you and your future grad students successful! Well, it’s not specifically for faculty members, but the same principles apply. If anything, it'll get you pumped up to ask for exactly what you need.

·      I didn’t know this until fairly close to application season, but you can go on the job market early! For example, if you’d like to start in Fall 2020, you can apply during Fall 2018 for the Fall 2019 start date jobs. If you get an offer for a job you love, you can negotiate a late start date of a semester or a year delay. I did this so that I could finish my postdoc and my husband could finish his residency at the same time. It was not a big deal for either of the places I got offers from, and they granted the request quickly. Though I wouldn't bring up your intention to defer until you've got the job offer in hand. I figured I’d go on the job market early so that if I landed my dream job, I’d know where I was going for a year and a half and have that time to prepare accordingly [Which is how it worked out for me! Yay!]. I also figured that if I didn’t get a job this round, I would get a lot of practice at interviewing, and be ready to land a great job the next year. This may not work so well if you’re ABD since they’ll want evidence that you’ll have your diploma before the listed start date.

Chalk Talk

·      At one institution, I had to do a chalk talk, which is something you usually see in the biological sciences that job candidates have to do in addition to their job talk. The chalk talk for the one institution involved me creating 3 slides with data on them [this was the max amount of slides I was allowed] to show the faculty some interesting data that I want to follow up on. I was told I’d show data and the faculty would ask me questions about the data and my future directions. We only got 1 slide into my data in the full hour and I was mostly just getting peppered with questions about the data, theory, and how I’d follow up the data. This experience is pretty rare so I won’t really delve into it unless people really want to know about it, but just know that it’s something different than your job talk and teaching talk. To prepare, I actually got a biology prof to help me with the chalk talk since it's extremely common in biology and none of my psych advisors had ever heard of it. He gave me a lot of useful pointers for what to expect, but the fact that we only got through one slide was shocking to him, since a chalk talk usually has about as many slides as a job talk. It was good evidence that this type of chalk talk was unique to that institution. Contact me if you need to give a chalk talk for a psychology job, and I can tell you more!

·      I never had to give a teaching talk, so I'm of no help there.

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I hope this info was helpful! It's so hard to know what to expect and what you should be thinking about with an interview or negotiation coming up. I hope I can save you some of the trials and tribulations that I had. But I can't complain too much since I accepted a fantastic offer at the University of Denver starting in Fall 2019! I have to admit that I was very lucky to have had that interview last so that I could be the best possible candidate by the time the interview came around since it was my first choice going into the job market. Please feel free to reach out if you have additional questions...I'm happy to de-mystify the process in any way I can!

--Jena