Here is some advice on interviewing for faculty positions based on my experience.
Last year I promised that I would put a few words together about my experience in the faculty job market. Many people have done so in the past and I benefited a lot reading about their experiences. So I hope this helps some people as well, especially as the season is quickly getting under way and interviews are about to start.
To lighten the mood I will also share an interesting observation I made during last summer. So, while trying to unwind from a crazy winter and spring, enjoying views like the attached photo in a remote Greek island, it hit me: interviewing for faculty positions is very similar to getting married!
Maybe this observation helps some people prepare for one of these events if they have done the other one first. My experiences are specific to interviewing for computer science positions in universities which are roughly in the top 20 (whatever this means) and also specific to Greek weddings. However, I do not know if this matters much and I think they should nicely generalize.
The basic differences between getting married and interviewing were mainly that (a) I did not have to kiss anyone during the interviews and (b) I did not have to prepare a presentation for the wedding. I did have to speak publicly during the wedding but with no slides or white board and I took most of the questions offline with wine. For the rest, it is pretty much the same; everybody wants a piece of you, there will be no time to eat anything, you need to be happy and full of energy for a stretch of 12 hours or so, there will be a lot of quick one-to-one discussions where you better connect with and impress people you have not met before, you need to ignore and be gracious with any strange comments (e.g., by distant relatives or not so easy-going faculty). Clothing can also be similar. So to sum up; it is great fun!
OK so here it is:
Rule1: There are no rules.
That’s the only thing that you should keep from this post. There are really no rules. I came to this conclusion since for many of the processes which are part of the job search, different people (all successful and in similar ranks/schools etc.) will often give a different advice. So my conclusion, after going through the process myself, is that you should read as much as possible about the experiences of other candidates, ask for as much advice as possible but in the end just go ahead and do it your own way, i.e., a way that represents your personality, your passion about research and your ideas for the future. Also, if people like you for who you really are, chances are you are going to be happy if you accept such a position (my first weeks at Harvard have strengthen this opinion a lot).
Rule2: Just go for it.
Do not obsess about things you cannot change. Pedigree does matter. However, inspired, visionary research matters more.
The stories are true. This is like nothing you have done before. It is a brutal period. You are going to get exhausted, you are going to get sick and you are also going to lose your luggage a few times. But similar to a wedding just go with it…and it is actually great fun! You are going to see many new places. You are going to meet numerous super smart and experienced people. This part alone is invaluable. And similar to a wedding everybody is going to want to talk to you, to learn more about you and your work. You are going to be the center of attention in a good way.
Schedule your trips in a way that it does not stretch your limits; maybe even pay yourself for an extra night or two at the hotel so you can be more relaxed. I always asked whether the school could cover 1-2 extra nights since I was mostly traveling from Europe and all schools tried to help as much as possible. It really made a big difference.
When to interview.
Some people say that this matters. I am not really sure it does. I got offers both from the first and from one of the last places where I interviewed (February and April). There might be a point in interviewing as early as possible so that faculty in a school you like are not tired already from all the other interviews and so there might be more energy and anticipation which helps bootstrap the whole process. But I would suggest to not overthink these issues; just be full of energy yourself, give an energetic talk and people will be excited.
Some also say to not schedule your favorite school first. It is a valid point. But, I found that you will only know which is your favorite school when the season ends. Do not underestimate this; it is a very serious point. Do not assume you know a school just because you visited the campus once, or because you have a PhD friend there, or because of its reputation, etc. You are going to be pleasantly surprised by many schools that you were not sure what to expect from and vice versa. For me, my best interview was the very first one and then one of the last ones. I was certainly more relaxed and knew better what to expect as the season progressed but a great interview is a combination of several factors including how good you connect with the faculty. Also, do not underestimate the fact that as the season progresses you get tired physically and mentally. So bottom line: it is OK to interview first.
I had anything between 1 day to 3 day interviews (very similar to Greek weddings as well). There is a common pattern though. That is (a) the talk which is probably the most crucial part of the interview and (b) the one-to-one meetings with faculty. Then there is one or more dinners and breakfasts as well as meetings with administrators, e.g., for information on housing. Expect that at least one of the days might start at about 9am and finish late at night.
You know yourself better and you know what it takes to go through such long days. Maybe bring with you a small bottle of water, some pain killers, some vitamins, take bathroom breaks often to freshen up; anything that will make you feel more comfortable just do it. And faculty know and understand that you need a break, etc. The program which you probably won’t get until the very last day will not include any breaks and you will end up going from meeting to meeting non-stop unless you ask for a break or a faculty member remembers to ask if you need one. In any case, the program is going to slip down regardless and that is OK.
If you think that people are going to ask deep and detailed questions about your work and you are stressing about the little details, then this is probably one of the last things that you should be doing. Nobody is going to understand your work as deeply as you do to ask you questions about the crazy corner cases, etc. One thing that I found very useful is to study how my work connects with other areas of computer science (and even beyond). This helps tremendously in one-to-one meetings, it shows more maturity and of course it gives ideas and triggers for possible collaborations. Talking to smart people from other research areas is enlightening to say the least! One more reason to enjoy the whole process.
This is probably the most important part of the interview. Do all your usual tricks to be as better prepared as possible. It is important to remember that this is a talk to a general audience that has little knowledge of your own research area. There might be a faculty or two who understand as much as you about your area but that is about it. If this happens, these faculty members are probably your hosts and they are not the ones you are trying to impress with the talk…they like you already and if they have any detailed questions they will do it offline. By the way, if your host gives you any kind of advice, listen carefully; they are trying to help and they know what would appeal to the department!
There are many strategies out there about how to give a great talk. Many people seem to suggest that a good talk contains a few separate parts, i.e., one part that everybody can understand, one part that only experts can understand and so on. The intuition is that everybody will understand something and also the experts will see what a great work you have done.
I strongly disagree with this approach. Put is simply, I do not see a point in having a part of my talk not accessible to 99% of the audience.
Also remember that the experts (if there are any) most likely already know very well both you and your work (you would not have been invited otherwise!).
So my approach was to make the whole talk accessible to everyone. It was 2013 and I was giving examples from papers I wrote in 2006-7. The trick of course is to have an engaging introduction about the overall problem and after a while to make people see that things are not as simple as you describe them. That is, there are many cool problems to solve and then you can give hints about some of the great things you did. At this point, you will probably get a lot of questions (because people actually understand what you are talking about) and then you may have back-up slides to go deep into some of the details. I honestly think this approach worked great and it also does one more thing: it shows that you can be a good teacher as well.
Another great advice which I got from Natassa Ailamaki is that the whole talk should be well connected and should discuss a single and engaging high level story that everybody will be able to remember afterwards.
Then there is the issue of how to prepare the slides. More and more people tend to like simple slides that basically work as an aid to you talking. My advice is to use a lot of photos and figures and as less text as possible. Your slides should be practically useless without you giving the talk. This ensures that people are actually paying attention to you and they are not going constantly back and forth between you and the slides, eventually getting tired and lost.
Here are my slides if it helps anyone.
The dinner (the reception).
Both during your interview dinner and during your wedding reception the food is going to be great but you are probably not going to eat much. In both cases relax and enjoy the people!
Do not obsess about this. No you do not have to wear a suit (CS). Be decent. But also be respectful and show that you understand that this is a special event and you treat it as such. Be professional. I bought a suit (my first) and I bought a nice coat as well. The chances of losing your luggage are high. Make sure you have all your interview clothes in your carry on. Same for the return trip unless your next interview is at least 2 weeks away.
You have been selected among several hundreds of applicants. Have fun, be yourself, enjoy all the attention and meeting all these great people!