Interviewing

Information on this page includes:

Overview

Interviewing is a skill.  You should prepare yourself thoroughly for every interview and identify your purpose in advance.  What do you want the committee to remember about you?  What messages will you send, and how?  Taking some ownership in the process will enhance your performance while also reducing angst and feelings of powerlessness.

Above all, in academic interviewing you want to show those on the hiring side that you are “self-starter,” that you are a forward-thinking professional whose future is compatible with theirs.  Let them see how invested you are in your profession and what you find interesting about their job opening.  If the position is tenure-track, convince them that you are “tenurable.”  

Many search committees receive dozens, if not hundreds, of applications.  Their first task will be to size down the applicant pool by weeding out the least likely prospects.  The screening criteria vary from one committee to the next.  Applicants with poorly presented materials are likely to be eliminated.  For especially competitive searches, committees sometimes reduce the pool by retaining only candidates from prestigious institutions and advisers, those with the degree in hand, and those whose interests and accomplishments best fit the department’s needs. 

When you make the first cut, you may receive a request for additional materials, such as a dissertation abstract, writing sample, teaching portfolio, transcripts, etc. Be prepared to submit these materials promptly.  It is common for search committees to contact candidates who make the first cut to schedule a conference interview or interview by phone.  These screening interviews help them narrow the selection further to the top few candidates, who will then be invited for campus interviews. 

 

Before the Interview

Research

Prior to any kind of interview, a job candidate must do homework to perform well.  Learn as much as possible about the department and institution with which you will interview.  For teaching positions, do not neglect to learn about the student body.  Doing your homework will take at least some of the mystery out of the process, and it will relieve some stress.   You will be able to ask good questions and thoroughly evaluate (and argue for) your fit only if you know something about the context you would be fitting into. 

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the work of the department’s faculty, their subfields, the courses they teach, and their other professional activities.  Also review the institution’s mission, history, philosophy, strategic plan, programs and services, and so on, to identify its priorities and “brand.”  Look for recurring key words and phrases.  Much information can be gleaned online, of course, at the institution’s website.  Review the degree programs (undergraduate, graduate, professional) and course catalog to get a sense of the institution’s breadth and priorities.  You may wish to consult the Employer Profiles section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, where many institutions feature their own profiles written for the job-seeking audience.  You may also find valuable information from the institution’s Office of Admission and Office of Institutional Research (otherwise called Institutional Assessment or Institutional Data) if it is available online.  Do some digging on the website.  To view examples, visit the U.Va. Office of Undergraduate AdmissionFacts at a Glance: Statistics and Facts, and Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies.

As a general starting point, you may want to explore some or all of the following sample questions: 

  • What are the institution’s mission, goals, and “brand”?
  • What is the size and composition of the student body/faculty? 
  • How big is the department?  Who are the faculty, how prolific are they, and what are their scholarly interests?  Is there anything special about the department’s history?
  • What are the institution’s strengths and weaknesses?  Are some programs ranked more highly than others?  If so, which ones?
  • What is the organizational structure of the institution?  Who are the key leaders (e.g. president, chancellor, provost, dean, department head)?
  • What is the institution’s history?  Historic landmarks?  Athletic programs?
  • What issues or current/recent events have grabbed the attention of the campus community?
  • Are there programs or other institutional efforts outside the department in which you could play a role (e.g. interdisciplinary centers, study abroad, intra-institutional collaborations)?
  • What facilities and resources exist to support faculty teaching and research?
  • Is the campus on a semester or quarter system?

Prepare and Practice

Before you interview for a job, know in advance what points you want to make about your fit with the position.  Do not depend on the interviewers to draw these out.  Sometimes interviewers are inexperienced at interviewing, and in any event, you want to play an active role in the process—not a passive one.  You should prepare for frequently asked interview questions.  This effort is essential to performing well.  Practice them—preferably with someone else—to ensure that you can present your ideas clearly without rambling or getting off track.  Take care not to sound scripted.  Know by heart all materials you submitted with your application.  If asked to clarify a point you made in your teaching statement, for example, you would not want to have to refresh your memory on the spot.

In the interview you will need to address your 1) research accomplishments, 2) research plans, future interests, 3) interest in the institution (less of an issue for highly competitive institutions), 4) fit with the position, department, and institution, and 5) your teaching.  Think R.I.F.T.

Generally speaking, research institutions will focus attention on your research, and teaching institutions on your teaching.  You should always, however, be prepared to discuss both when interviewing for a teaching faculty position.  Prepare to talk about your research in two different ways: for people in your field, and for educated people outside of it.  Prepare short versions (a.k.a. elevator speeches, about 1 minute) and longer versions (about 3-5 minutes).  Be sure that these explanations address what your research accomplishes, why it is important and interesting, and how it relates to other work or might lead to future investigation.  Be prepared to discuss the future direction of your research after the publication of your dissertation.  Nothing need be definite, but you should convince your audience that you are thinking ahead.  The committee will like ideas that do not simply extend your thesis work.  This discussion may include plans for applying for grant funding, collaborating with others in your field, and so on. 

In discussing what you would bring to the position, especially your teaching, think in terms of specifics.  Be prepared to discuss your teaching methods, your use of technology in the classroom, how you approach diversity, etc.  Visit the Teaching Resource Center for helpful resources and guidance.  As always, keep the needs and mission of the department and institution in mind.  
Seize every opportunity to practice your interviewing and presentation skills.  Your department may arrange mock interviews for graduate students on the academic market.  Take advantage.  You may also conduct a mock interview at any time of the year with a graduate career adviser at the Graduate Career Development office.  Although this mock interview service is not discipline specific, it helps with many of the common interviewing challenges that job candidates face. 

Also be certain to rehearse your job talk.  Some academic departments coordinate brown-bag meetings or symposia where graduate students can present their work to a departmental audience. Students who participate in these public speaking opportunities fare far better on the job market than those who do not.  If your department does not arrange such events, speak with your adviser, who may have alternative ideas.

Dress

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dressing for academic interviews. Cultures vary from one academic field to the next, but observance of some basic customs conveys that you respect the interview process.  Following are general recommendations:

  • Always go for a professional look.  This usually includes something with a jacket.  Think in terms of the best dressed faculty member in your department.  How would she or he dress to give a conference talk?
  • Wear comfortable shoes but not sneakers.  You will probably be walking a lot.
  • Reserve your best attire for the job talk and search committee meeting.
  • Avoid overdoing accessories, jewelry, make-up, etc. that detract. 
  • Exercise good hygiene.  Hair and nails should be clean and neat.  Clothes should be pressed and well-tailored.  Avoid perfume and cologne.
  • Remember that every moment of interaction is part of the interview and dress accordingly (e.g. something comfortable but not sloppy for the airport pick-up).
  • Carry your materials in a portfolio or briefcase, not a knapsack.  Carry as little as possible.

 

Types of Interviews

  • Conference Interviews

In many fields, it is customary to screen job candidates at national conferences.  Short interviews (usually about a half an hour) give employers the opportunity to assess candidates quickly in person.  If you applied for a position, you may be contacted in advance to schedule a conference interview (you will be responsible for your expenses here, unlike campus interviews).  Otherwise, while attending a conference you may see an opening posted on a job board and sign up for a time slot to meet with the recruiter/s.  Conference interviews sometimes take place in meeting rooms, sometimes in hotel suites.  You will typically meet with only one or two representatives from the hiring institution, not the entire search committee.  Always be prepared to put your best foot forward at conferences, as you may haphazardly run into faculty from hiring institutions.  If you are on the job market and presenting at the conference, it is safe to assume that interested recruiters may be among your audience.

Prepare for a conference interview as for any other interview: dress professionally and do your homework.  Keep in mind that you will have a relatively small window of opportunity to make a good impression on the hiring institution’s representatives.  For this reason, focus on being professional, collegial, confident, and concise.  Think in advance about the points you want to get across.  Concentrate on the department’s priorities and your “fit.” 

  • Telephone Interviews

Telephone screening is a cost-effective way for search committees to narrow the pool of applicants to a short list.   A search committee member may call you to chat one-on-one on the spur of the moment or to schedule a more formal discussion with several members of the search committee at a later time.  While you are on the job market be prepared to take such calls at any time, including evenings and weekends.  Stay “on your game” and be ready to make a good first impression.  Keep organized materials close at hand for speedy recall, and do not be afraid to reschedule the first conversation if the call comes at a bad time (or if the telephone reception is bad).  This pertains especially to cell phone users.

Following are general tips for phone interviews:

Before the Call

  • If your line has “call waiting,” disable it. 
  • Take the call in a quiet place with no background noise or other distractions.
  • Have your materials handy for easy reference.
  • Prepare questions in advance, and have your list by the phone.
  • Be prepared to take notes (with pen and paper—the sound of you furiously pounding on your laptop will probably not impress).
  • Have drinking water close at hand.
  • Many job candidates feel that dressing for the part during a phone interview helps them project confidence and professionalism.

During the Call

  • Do not use speakerphone.
  • Jot down the names of the people interviewing you.
  • Speak clearly and slowly.  If you are soft-spoken, you may want to raise the volume of your speech slightly. 
  • Convey your interest and enthusiasm about the position.  Smiling while you speak helps you sound more positive and confident (you may feel silly, but no one can see you).
  • Do not ramble.  It is more difficult on the phone to gauge the attention and interest of the people you are speaking with, because you cannot see them.  Keep your responses concise.
  • If anything is unclear, ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase. 
  • Offer to send additional information or supporting documentation at the end of the call.
  • Close by reiterating your interest in the position and ask about the next step.
  • Send a thank you letter after the interview.

 

  • On Campus Interviews

Academic job searches culminate in the campus visits of the top 3-4 candidates.  These visits can last anywhere from one day to several days.  They typically consist of a series of multiple interviews, a job talk, and meals with search committee members and/or other representatives of the campus community.  Some may also involve the candidate giving a teaching demonstration in an undergraduate class.  Job candidates are carefully scrutinized to assess their fit with the department and institutional culture.  Why so much ado?  It helps to keep in mind that an academic job search is a huge investment of time, money, and effort on the hiring side, and a major effort to coordinate.

When you are invited for a campus visit, you will likely be contacted by a member of the search committee, who will go over the general contours of the visit and work out the date/s with you. 

Logistics

It is customary for institutions to reimburse job candidates for expenses associated with campus visits, or they cover them directly.  If you are told that you must pay all expenses for the visit yourself, let that be a sign to you.  Under normal circumstances, when the institution is covering costs, you may be asked to make your own flight arrangements, or the hiring institution may make them for you.  Your hosts will probably make your hotel reservations, but you may be expected to pay the bill at the hotel.  Save all receipts (e.g. airfare, hotel, taxis) for reimbursement later, and bring a credit card and cash for unexpected expenses. 

Candidates typically arrive the evening before the formal interview begins.  This evening may involve dinner with a representative from the institution.  The search committee may arrange for someone to pick you up at the airport (dress respectably!), or you may be responsible for getting yourself to your hotel.  Beware of checked luggage when flying to interviews.  Pack everything you need in carry-on luggage; at the very least be sure to carry your essentials with you (e.g. slides, job talk and teaching notes). 

Hosts usually assume the responsibility of escorting candidates around during the visit.  If you require audiovisual equipment for your job talk or teaching demonstration, be sure that your host is making those arrangements, and ask that time be built into your itinerary to test it. 

Request a copy of your detailed itinerary before your trip.  You may not receive it until shortly before you leave for the interview, so allow time for last-minute research.  Be certain to obtain as much information as you can about expectations for the job talk and/or teaching demonstration.

What to Bring

Below are items you should always bring to a campus interview:

  • Name and phone number of your contact person
  • Itinerary and hotel information
  • Extra copies of your application materials (e.g. CV, reprint or other writing sample, teaching and research statements, teaching portfolio)
  • Notes, slides, handouts for your job talk

During the Interview

The campus visit is the critical moment for you in the job search process.  You will be “on stage” for virtually the entire visit, and you will have very little time to yourself.  The search committee will schedule your job talk (and teaching demonstration, if required) and arrange a series of meetings/interviews with various stakeholders in the search (i.e. faculty, administrators, and students).  You will likely have as many as a dozen or more separate sessions throughout the visit, and you will be in constant movement from one to the next all day.   Be prepared to sustain a high level of energy while repeating yourself a lot.  Remember that every new person you meet is hearing you speak for the first time.

While the schedule is definitely rigorous, you will probably enjoy yourself more than you expect.  People are generally very welcoming and friendly.  You will impress them if you put your sharply honed interviewing skills into practice and show them that:

  • You have done your homework
  • You are productive
  • You are forward-thinking
  • You enjoy your work
  • You are comfortable in the classroom
  • You are comfortable in THEIR environment—very important!
  • You have thought about what it means to be a faculty member
  • And last but not least, that you are a pleasant person

Consider what you have to offer from their perspective—what has meaning to them?  Also remember that the interview is a two-way street.  You are evaluating the opportunity, too.

The Job Talk

The job talk, otherwise known as the "seminar," "colloquium," "paper," or "presentation," is arguably the focal point of your campus visit.  Here you have the opportunity to share your expertise with a captive audience.  Job talks typically last about 30-45 minutes, with 15-20 minutes for Q&A.  You should carefully prepare and customize your talk, then rehearse it, well before the campus visit.  Prior to coming to campus, request any computer or audiovisual equipment you will need, and once on site, test the equipment at some point before the presentation.  The more equipment you use, the more set-up time you should ask for before the visit.  Also request any accommodations you might need to feel comfortable, such as a podium, a microphone if you speak softly, etc.

Immediately prior to your talk, allow a bit of time to acclimate yourself to the environment—adjust the lighting, particularly if you are using slides, test the microphone, have a glass or bottle of water handy, and so on.  Always bring both backup electronic and hard copies of your presentation in case something goes awry.  

Obtain as much information as you can from your hosts in advance about the format and audience of your talk.  Will you be standing or seated at a table?  Roughly how many people will attend?  Will the audience include students, people outside the field?  It will certainly include faculty, with varying degrees of knowledge of your specialty.  Depending on this composition, tailor your content and tone, aiming to make your presentation interesting and accessible to the disparate members of your audience.  Keep in mind that the people who know very little about your research will likely focus on your presence and public speaking skills.  Those who are closely familiar with what you do will assess your approach and the depth of your knowledge.  In a good job talk, everyone in attendance learns something, experts and non-experts alike.  Be sure to answer the following questions:

  • What problem do I address?
  • Why is it important?  (Cover this early in your talk.)
  • What are my methods?
  • What is significant about my work? 
  • How does it advance knowledge in the field?

Good presentation and public speaking skills are crucial.  Maintain eye contact with your audience.  Show enthusiasm for your work.  Project your voice, speak clearly, articulate your words, and do not talk too quickly.  Practice your timing—going over the allotted time is a big faux pas.  If you hand out copies of something, do not give yourself one—this prevents looking like you need to review your material.  If your talk is interrupted with a question, do not act annoyed.  Answer it directly. 

Teaching Demonstration

You may or may not be required to give a teaching demonstration during your visit.  This practice is more common in some disciplines than in others, and more frequent at small teaching colleges than at large research institutions.  When making arrangements for your visit, ask questions about the group of students to whom you will be presenting.  If they differ considerably from the students at U.Va., take this seriously into account.  You may teach a session of an undergraduate class while faculty members observe you.  Be sure to know the scope of the course, the level of the students, and what they will have previously studied.  Request a copy of the course syllabus.  During your demonstration, try to engage the students in discussion, when possible, and be prepared with a back-up plan if no one speaks up.  Remember that you will be judged on your:

  • Content
  • Public presence and rapport with the students
  • Ability to think on your feet

Meals and Receptions

Some of your meetings with campus stakeholders will take place over meals.  Some departments host small receptions or gatherings at which the job candidate is the guest of honor.  Even though these events are intended to be more relaxed than the formal interview, you should still act and speak professionally.  Remember that social situations are part of the screening process, and you are being evaluated at all times.  Be diplomatic, polite, and cautious.  Do not let too much personal information slip.  Make small talk but avoid topics that may be considered personal, inappropriate, or touchy.  Try to resist messy food and observe proper table manners even if others do not—they are not interviewing for a job.  Do not eat or drink excessively.  Drink alcohol in moderation only if it does not affect you, and do not hesitate to refuse alcohol.

Be very careful not to let down your guard at any point in the interview.  For example, during car rides and meals, even if your host adopts a casual tone, remember that s/he is not your friend or confidant but rather someone who plays a role in the interview process. 

After the Interview

Campus visits are tremendous feats to coordinate, and it is always courteous to send a thank-you letter to the search committee chair or department head afterward to express appreciation for the hosts’ efforts.  It is more professional to type rather than handwrite your thank-you letters, and email is acceptable in some disciplines.  Thank your hosts for the interview and the opportunity to learn more about the position, and ask that your appreciation be conveyed to others.  If someone else played an especially prominent role in the interview, or gave you special attention, it is a nice gesture to send a separate thank-you letter to that person as well.  If you are still interested in the position, let your hosts know that, and refer to a few highlights of the visit that make the institution attractive to you.  If you consider the job to be a particularly good fit for you, tell them so and explain why.  If you were not impressed by the visit, make whatever positive statements you can.

 

Interview Questions

Below are lists of questions frequently asked in academic interviews.   No one candidate will be asked all of these questions; however, one should always be prepared.

Research Questions

  • Tell us about your research.
  • How did you select your topic?
  • What audience/s are you addressing?
  • How does your work engage others in the field (e.g. relative to a hot, recent book or article.  Are you on the cutting edge?)
  • What is the value of your work to an educated person outside the field?
  • What methods did you use?
  • What theoretical approaches have had the most influence on you?
  • How much of your dissertation is completed?  If incomplete, give a solid completion plan.
  • How will you revise your dissertation for publication?
  • What publishers do you think may be interested?
  • What journals best suit your work?
  • What are the limitations of your work?  Use this as an opportunity to discuss where your research may be headed.
  • What’s your next project/research plan?
  • What resources will you need?  Start-up costs?  Space?  What are your plans for securing funding to support your research?  (Especially important for major research institutions.)
  • What do you think of X’s work?

Teaching Questions

  • What is your teaching philosophy?
  • What would you like to teach?  Think of the department’s needs as well as your interests.
  • Which of our courses are you prepared to teach?
  • What is your dream course?  Think both practically and creatively—something that would fit with the department’s standard course offerings and something that shows your innovative flair.  Size?  Level?  Course goals?  Methods?  Graduate/undergraduate?
  • What books would you use to teach X?  Are they in print?  Which textbook would you choose for X?
  • How do you address diversity in your courses?  Diverse ways of learning?
  • How do you motivate students who think the topic is boring? In your X basic service course, what three lessons of lasting value would non-majors come away with?
  • How will you adapt your research to provide opportunities for undergraduate research (especially in the sciences)?
  • What experience do you have in an environment like ours?
  • How has your research influenced your teaching?
  • Tell us about your most difficult teaching situation and how you handled it.
  • How do you feel about mentoring and advising?
  • How would you encourage students to major in X?

General Questions (think “fit”)

  • Why are you interested in our institution?
  • What do you consider the proper balance between research and teaching?
  • How do you see yourself enhancing our department (specific) and institution (general)?
  • How will you make the transition from a research institution to a small school?
  • What kind of service would you expect to be engaged in?
  • What specifically would you like to address in your professional development?
  • If you get more than one job offer, how will you decide? Our mission is X (say, at a denominational or single sex institution).  How would you contribute to that and to our community?
  • Our students aren’t as academically gifted as the students at U.Va.  How do you feel about that?
  • What extra-academic activities would you like to participate in (for small schools)?
  • How do you feel about:
  • Teaching adult students?  All women?  Evening courses, etc.?  This is where knowing about the students comes in handy.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?  Think in terms of the job description.
  • (Toward the end of the interview) What do you think of us?

Also be prepared for icebreakers and random questions that may arise, especially in social situations, such as:

  • What do you do in your spare time?
  • What do you think about the war in Iraq?
  • Who is the new provost at U.Va.?
  • What’s all this I hear about U.Va.’s capital campaign?

U.Va. is one of the country’s premier universities, and you may be as close to it as interested interviewers will get.  Staying current on U.Va. news can pay off by enabling you to come across as an informed citizen of your academic community.

Handling Illegal and Inappropriate Questions

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, interview questions are illegal if they pertain to an applicant's gender, race, color, religion, age, disability, family or marital status, or national origin.  Examples of the sort of questions you should not be asked are:

  • Where were you born? What is your native language?
  • Are you a US citizen?  (It is legal to ask if you are authorized to work in the US).
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?  How many children do you have?
  • Do you have any disabilities?  (It is legal to ask if you are able to perform the functions of the job).

That being said, some people may ask illegal or inappropriate questions, especially in social contexts, and you are certainly free to volunteer information that would be illegal for an employer to request from you.  If people ask you illegal or inappropriate questions, it is best to react calmly and politely, and respond in a way that addresses the concerns they may have without necessarily giving them the specific information they are fishing for, unless you are comfortable doing so.  You are well within your rights to refuse to answer a question, but remember that people are human—and this might not win them over.  Graceful dodging, on the other hand, can allay worries and even impress.

Questions You May Ask

Asking questions during an interview shows interest and preparedness, and interviewers will usually incorporate time for your questions into the interview session.  Having no questions at that point looks very bad, so you should be prepared.  Use this opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the institution/department, play to your strengths, and gather information.  Avoid questions that may come across as confrontational.  Questions that refer to information you have gained during the interview will reflect your attentiveness and interest, thus scoring points.  Perhaps you learned about a program that particularly interests you and you would like to know more.  Below is a sampling of questions you may wish to ask:

  • How does the department (and institution) define a good faculty member?  Very important!
  • Is this a new or a replacement position?  If new, how does it factor into the department’s larger plans?
  • What support is available to junior faculty for research and conferences?
  • How would you describe your students?
  • What role/s do faculty play outside the classroom/research?  Service?  On average, how many hours per week are devoted to committee work?
  • What does the department or campus do to orient new faculty members?
  • Does the campus or department have formal faculty mentoring programs?  Informal mentoring?
  • How would you describe the culture of your department/college/campus?
  • Why do you enjoy working here?
  • What are the biggest challenges facing the campus and/or department?
  • Are faculty evaluated annually?  What is the evaluation process like here?  How is promotion and tenure handled?
  • What is the process for tenure?  Does family/maternity leave affect the clock?  How are faculty evaluated? 
  • What is the department’s tenure rate?  What is the percentage of assistant professors in the department who have obtained tenure?
  • What are the teaching responsibilities, course load?
  • How much freedom would I have in designing a survey course?  What requirements (major, general education, graduate) would my courses need to fulfill?
  • Are there opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration?
  • In what direction is the institution headed (for the dean)?  How do you envision the department five years from now (for the department)?
  • Does your department/institution collaborate with others in the area?
  • What formal and informal structures are there for faculty to interact?
  • Describe the ideal assistant professor's first year.
  • Describe the community.
  • What is your timeline for making a decision in this search?  They will usually tell you, but if they don’t, feel free to ask.

Refrain from asking questions about salary and benefits during the interview.  Doing so may be seen as presumptuous.  It is also best to respond evasively if someone asks you about your salary requirements.  Postpone such discussions until you have an offer, at which point the negotiation process begins.

Think of the job interview as a conversation among colleagues.  You want to present yourself as a professional, so try hard not to act like a graduate student being grilled in an oral defense.  Remember that non-verbal cues and body language will be scrutinized as much as what you say.  Greet everyone with a firm handshake and make good eye contact.  Keep nervous habits under control, such as tapping your pen, twirling your hair, looking away or looking down.  Maintain good posture.  Below are more general interviewing tips to follow: 

General Tips for Successful Interviewing

  • Be yourself (corny but tried and true).
  • Project a positive attitude—avoid making negative statements.
  • Be enthusiastic about the job, the institution, and the contributions you can make.
  • Be poised.  Smile.  Maintain a sense of humor.  Doing so puts people at ease.
  • Be confident (but not a know-it-all) and sincere.  Do not act as if you are trying to give the “right” answers.
  • Ask for clarification if you do not understand a question.
  • Address people as they are introduced.
  • Be cordial to everyone; shake hands (practice this).
  • Do not hesitate to take a moment to pause and think before you respond.  Doing so conveys confidence.
  • Use the present and past tenses at least as much as the future tense to underscore your accomplishments, not make promises.
  • Make eye contact with everyone in the room, not just the person asking the question.
  • Show that you would “hit the ground running” in every aspect of the job if offered the position.
  • Listen and observe. 
  • Be flexible in unexpected or problematic situations.
  • Do not take things too personally and do not let strong opinions rattle you.

Structuring Information-SAR Method

When answering questions and when communicating generally in an interview, be succinct and do not ramble.  You want to show people on the hiring side that you can listen, focus, and organize your thoughts quickly.  Also be careful not to speak too rapidly, which some are prone to do when nervous. 

A very effective technique for communicating information in an interview is to cite a specific example or story to illustrate a point.  Interviewers have a great deal of information to process, and stories are often easier to remember than general statements or platitudes, because they are more vivid and accessible.  Consequently, they can also persuade effectively.  You can apply this technique in discussing any accomplishment (research, teaching, etc.).

In using examples/stories, it is very important to structure them tightly so as not to lose your listener’s attention.  Strip away all unnecessary information.  Focus concretely on:

  • The situation/problem
  • Your action
  • The result/outcome

Always be sure to address the results of your efforts.  Remember that in a job interview you are being assessed on your potential to make contributions.  Outcomes are very important.  An example of a general point one might wish to make is:

I took a creative approach to my research.”  
In addition to making this general statement, one might add:

  • Situation/problem:  In June 1940 the Nazis seized all of the archives of the organization I wanted to research.  Because of this obstacle, no history of the movement had ever been written.  A preeminent French scholar had recently given up his plans to tackle the subject because he could not overcome this problem.
  • Action:  I decided to rise to this historiographical challenge by seeking other, extra-institutional sources.  The task was difficult but very rewarding.  I obtained unprecedented access to secret freemasonic records and major archival collections held in private hands.  I found massive amounts of valuable material in attics, barns, closets, and basements of government buildings, not to mention material in the National Archives that had never before been scrutinized by scholars. 
  • Result:  The problem of sources ultimately pushed me to employ methods I had not originally intended to use.  By remaining flexible and open to where leads took me, I was able to tell the story of the largest left-wing movement in France in the first half of the 20th century and argue for its central role in fashioning the collective memory of the French left, which still stands fast today.

After the campus visit, interviewers may not remember a general statement about a candidate’s “creative approach,” but they would probably recall images of Nazis seizing documents, the candidate uncovering historical treasures in attics and barns, making innovative strides in the field. 

This technique takes practice.  Before your interview, think of a few stories/examples that illustrate your strengths and achievements, and rehearse them.