Academic Recruitment: Tricky interview questions


Academic recruitment: tricky interview quesitons

Interviewing for group leader/faculty positions – what are your selectors’ concerns?

At a recent workshop on interviews for group leader/faculty positions, STEM postdocs were asked to share any tricky interview questions they had been asked or had heard about.

Participants came up with the following questions. For the ones that had most interest, I have tried to address why an interviewer might ask this, and what preparation you could do to be ready for something similar.

How will you contribute to the university outside of your research?

UK higher education is a marketplace. What are the university’s priorities right now and how can you help them achieve them? Get insights by looking at how the university presents itself (on its website) to prospective students.  Are they still trying to fill places?  Are they keen to increase diversity or to support students with mental health difficulties?  For UK universities, find out more about their students’ typical educational backgrounds and what they like/dislike about their course (for example, whether they feel they get timely feedback) from the Discover Uni website.  Once you know the context, you can come up with examples to show how you could engage with the university’s top concerns.

What is your mentoring approach for Master or PhD students?

They are asking this because they want you to be able to support your students and for them to submit on time and pass (important for future funding).  Think about any mentoring you have done to date – what worked and what didn’t.  If you have never mentored others, what has your experience (and your peers’) been as mentees?

What are your plans for attracting research funding in this role?

They want to know you have already thought about this.  Know what your first (and second) grant application would be and where (and when) you would apply.

If you have been shortlisted, they must have seen something in you

How will you ensure that your research will be impactful?

Recognise what impactful might mean to them – refer to the job advertisement.  In the UK, familiarise yourself with the REF definition and look at a range of REF case studies in this institution and others who may be doing related work in your field.

Who are your main competitors?

They want to know that you are familiar with the field but have a niche.  You should be able to say something like: my current supervisor’s focus is on x and Dr B at 1111 is also working in my field but with an interest in y, but my own work will address z (which needs to be sufficiently distinct from x and y to attract additional funding).

New lecturers often struggle with the load of teaching in their first year. How will you manage this?

Try to find out before (or in) interview what the expectation is (often reduced for appointees new to lecturing).  The key word is ‘manage’ – how do you manage conflicting pressures currently?  Is there anything you could drop to focus on grant applications and teaching?

You have not published many original articles in the last year. Why are you a strong candidate?

If you have been shortlisted, they must have seen something in you.  Your answer should reflect your value to them – are you bringing new methodology, can you generate lots of undergraduate projects?  You may be able to point to exciting unpublished results that are waiting on further experiments/collaborators/patent applications – update the panel on any new outputs since you applied.

Interviewers will be impressed if you are up to speed with the latest challenges facing them

What do you understand by leadership?

They are asking this because they want to recruit someone with leadership potential.  Think about people you admire for their leadership.  What qualities have they shown? (use traits that you can also demonstrate in yourself!)  If you have had leadership roles beyond the lab, think about how you could transfer the skills, for example, if you have experience of coming up with a strategy for an outreach activity, or motivating and encouraging sports team members, you may be better placed to lead your research group.

Would you encourage a student to pursue a formal complaint of sexual harassment?

They may have had a recent issue and be testing whether you are aware that policies should exist and need to be followed.  You need to show appreciation that this is a serious matter, that you would listen to the student but also seek advice from senior staff and/or HR and refer the student for appropriate support for example, student union, counselling.

Keep up to date with topical issues to impress at interview

Interviewers will be impressed if you are up to speed with the latest challenges facing them. Cambridge University postdocs can use the University’s subscription to the Times Higher Education magazine to keep abreast of issues in Higher Education.  New, topical, concerns for academics include:


I’ve posted some other popular questions below. Why not use the Comments box below to share why you think an interviewer might ask this, and what preparation you could do?

Have you had any conflict in your last position? How did you manage it?

If offered, would you accept this position?

Given that you lack formal management experience, how would you approach managing and motivating a research team?

What would you do on your first day in the job?

How would you motivate first year undergraduate students in your discipline?

By Sally Todd, Postdoc Careers Adviser

Academic Recruitment: Chalk Talks

Academic Recruitment - Chalk Talks

You’ve been asked to give a chalk talk as part of the interview process for a long term academic role.  Your mind is probably buzzing with questions – how do I structure it? what should I include? how long should it be? and what is the point of including it anyway?

To help answer these questions, Prof. Jason Carroll, a speaker at a postdoc event, gave a talk addressing these common concerns.

Why a chalk talk?

Although the chalk-talk isn’t always required, it is an important part of the recruitment process in many institutions.  You need to prepare for it as fully as the research seminar and other parts of the interview.

The panel will be observing how you respond to getting your work pulled apart constructively.  When you are interrupted, do you get flustered?  Can you think on your feet?

It is a chalk talk, not a Powerpoint presentation

Don’t turn up with a slide deck – you will be using a whiteboard and marker pens or a blackboard and chalk. It might sound informal or an afterthought but it’s not. Jason said it’s tough, even for group leaders, referring to it as: ‘The dreaded chalk talk’. He was careful to stress, though, that no one does it perfectly. So, If you are feeling nervous, you are not alone.

Talk about your future plans…

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.  Outline your five year plan clearly and succinctly.

Ensure that you get your key messages up front

Knowing that you will be interrupted means that you need to stay at a high level.  Ignore the specifics, such as details of the experiments that you intend to run.

Jason suggests an opening such as ‘I am going to be looking at x in the context of y, and here are my three goals.’  He suggests that the three goals should be broken down into safe, medium and higher risk objectives.  These goals should not be interdependent – if one goal fails you should show that  plans will be flexible enough for your research to continue.

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.

Make sure that these aims are realistic within the timeframe. Also, ensure that the plan fits with the remit or goals of the institute/department.

Don’t come across as dogmatic.  As the project progresses and the scientific landscape changes you need to be able to show to the panel, through contingency planning, that you will be able to adapt to these inevitable changes.

Worried about forgetting information?  You can use a cheat sheet to remember key figures.  Just don’t copy it out onto the whiteboard.

Remember that you are going to be leading projects for multiple people

Make sure you can justify the composition of your lab.  Why do you need a clinical fellow, technicians or a lab comprised solely of postdocs?  How will this change during your research?

Think about the questions you might be asked and practice answering them

These may include:

What is you first project going to be?

Why you?

Why this institute?

Who are you going to work with from within the institute?

How will you measure success?

Where are you going to get grants from?

What differentiates you from your Postdoc supervisor?

Can you bring your research with you or will you be starting from scratch?

Be excited

Be enthusiastic about your work and what you can offer the institute.  Understand your audience.  Also think about what the institute can offer you.

You need to come across as a good fit.  In addition to good research, the panel want to select the best colleague – you will probably be spending a lot of time together.

Chalk talks are not just for interviews

In fact, the chalk talk in front of peers is often a regular and important exercise for group leaders at an institution even though, as Jason says, it doesn’t feel like it at the time!  You’ll get brilliant minds offering you input on your work,  So, it is a useful skill to have if you are planning an academic career.

For more info on academic careers

By Heather Smith

Taking on a fellowship interview panel from your home

Fellowship interview panesl

Despite a national lockdown, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely.    Anne Forde gives some tips for defending your proposal from home

Postdocs tell us it’s intimidating entering a fellowship panel interview in the hallowed halls of the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Research Councils and other funders.

Despite the lockdown and public health emergency we’re living through, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely. Last week we’ve been working with postdocs to help them prepare.

So what do you do if you have to defend your proposal from home?

Here are some tips we hope will help in our brave new online world. Some of the advice applies to face to face fellowship interviews too.

Make every minute count

Fellowships interviews are short. Most are done and dusted in 30 mins so make every minute count.

Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it. Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Everyone who gets to a fellowship interview has an excellent proposal.

What counts at the interview is getting the panel excited about your research questions. It’s impossible to be memorable if you don’t look or sound like you believe in the work. With stress levels understandably high, you may come across as dry or uninspiring.

Introverts fear not, you don’t need to fake an upbeat personality. Try to imagine how happy you’d be doing this work and making your discoveries… so look like you actually want to do the work.

Practise the tech

This will ease your nerves on the day.  Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it.  Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Try to do everything humanly possible to make sure you are not interrupted at home during the interview (mobile phones, deliveries etc).

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

Sound check – don’t sound like you are talking to dolphins

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

You may have sounded great in your room but your connection might not be doing you any favours.

I had a practice session last week with a postdoc going for a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. With a great project and an articulate and convincing candidate, what could go wrong?

The connection was poor on the postdoc’s side so about every 5th word dropped on my end and this detracted from an otherwise great delivery. Have pity on the panel members who say interviewing all day is exhausting. Video interviewing is even harder work for them. If you lose their understanding, however briefly, their energy and interest levels will drop.

Using a decent style headset and a microphone will go a long way. No one likes listening to a distorted voice which sounds more like you are underwater talking to dolphins.

Aesthetics and poise matter

In our world now turned upside down, this seems superficial and trivial but it matters. Stand up when you give your talk. This is a natural way to present and you will look and feel more confident.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

You can look at the interviewers while they speak, but focus on the webcam when you reply. I’d recommend answering their questions standing too. It’s hard to get a good visual angle sitting down, and many people look like they are just about to go downhill on a rollercoaster, or unwittingly rock back and forth as they answer questions which can make the viewer feel unnerved or even seasick.

Don’t have a messy background.

The panel are distinguished but even intellectuals can be irritated by a view of an untidy bedroom or distracted by your intriguing book collection. If you would like to have notes, limit it to key words and consider using post-it notes near the camera. Otherwise, you could end of shuffling papers or reading notes during the interview, which will be obvious to the interviewers.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

Keep your talk to time

Do not dare overrun on the intro talk.

The funder will give you an allowed time limit. It’s better to have less content and be under time. Panels are notoriously irritated by people who run over. Don’t incite their wrath or give them the opportunity to cut you off.

Get a grilling from academics and peers

90% of the questions will be project specific so ask people in your dept and those outside your specific field to give you a tough online practice.

It probably won’t be fun but you’ll be primed if the panel start to pick holes.

Book a practice with the Careers Service Postdoc team

We’ll push you on the broader questions of ‘so what’ and ‘why you’.  Activate your Handshake account and book an online session with us and we can practise on the platform you need to use. We also have a hoard of specific feedback and interview questions from most of the fellowship schemes. Email us and we’ll send these and you can browse the perennial fellowship questions online.

It’s over and you’ve survived

When it’s over, make sure your video and sound links are off before you do whatever you need to do to relax. When you’ve recovered, we’d love to hear how it went.

Good luck.

What we know as of 30 March: Royal Society is interviewing using Zoom. The MRC were proposing online interviewing but have changed to the interview candidates providing written feedback on referees’ comments.

Anne Forde, Postdoc Careers Adviser

Building resilience for your career

Whether you’re worried about having a temporary contract, applying for long-term academic jobs or making the leap out of academia, having a good supply of mental toughness to cope with the career uncertainties of postdoc life is essential.

But how can you build repalm trees in windsilience?

We were really taken by some recent examples of former postdocs who demonstrated the much- prized ability to ‘bounce back’ in real-life situations and even surprised themselves how resilient they were.

When exploring the subject of building resilience, it’s good to draw inspiration from Stoic philosophy  – a central principle of which is that we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our reactions.  Or as Seneca succinctly put it: “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”

Resilience in action

Take former postdoc Stacey Jamieson, a speaker at our recent ‘Careers in R&D in biotech and pharma’ event . Stacey didn’t have the ideal circumstances to land her first choice job.  In her video she describes how, due to her immigration status, she had to think around the issue of getting a job where a company would sponsor her.  Unfortunately, the companies that offered this sponsorship were in technical/scientific roles and not in Stacey’s preferred area of Medical Scientific Liaison, (MSL).

By being resilient – researching her options and being open to opportunities where she could use her skillset – Stacey was able to ‘bridge the gap’ between academia and industry for a year in a technical role until she got permanent residency status in the UK.

Things have worked out well for Stacey who is now in MSL, a role ‘where her heart lies.’

At the same event, Winnie Yeung urges you to be brave and apply for industry positions even if you have the challenge of not having all the skills listed on the job description.

You’ll have to be resilient to handle the inevitable rejections, but by highlighting your transferrable skills you may also get the job.  As Winnie says: ‘usually the company will see how your skills will fit with the role.’

Sometimes the resilience-building technique of ‘reframing,’ (a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives – Wikipedia), is needed to check if a perceived challenge or difficulty can be turned to an advantage.

José Teles, a speaker at the event, worried that his diverse background in academia would hamper his chances of moving into industry – a concern that wasn’t borne out in reality.  As José explains in this video, his wide-ranging experience ‘…. turned out to be an advantage in my current role.’

José’s story highlights the importance of ‘reframing’ – seeing your situation from all angles, to build your resilience.  What you might think of as a disadvantage in your career history, may actually be seen by employer as a benefit.

Moving forward

Seneca said that ‘we suffer more often in imagination that in reality.’ By deploying resilience to interrogate challenges -moving problems from the imagination and into the cold light of reality -positive, creative ways of moving-on can be devised.

Have a good supply of resilience is essential to overcoming life’s inevitable hurdles as a postdoc.

Getting help

If you are looking to increase your resilience, the Researcher Development Programme at Cambridge University run workshops which focus on building mental toughness by developing coping strategies to overcome challenges.

Come for an appointment at the Postdoc Careers Service if you feel that the rollercoaster of job hunting and career decision making is depleting your resilience.

Heather Smith

Postdoc team

What salary should I ask for?

The salary expectation question is something we are increasingly coming across at the Postdoc Careers Service. Employers are asking for this information in online applications, cover letters, phone interviews, way before it feels appropriate to talk about money.


You are asking us how you should handle it. Here are our tops tips to help you navigate this tricky question:

tower of coinsUnderstand why they are asking it

Why on earth do they need to ask such an awkward question before they’ve got to know you?

Well, organisations have salary budgets and the recruiters who first come across you probably have a budget they need to stick to. So, it’s one way of ruling out people who have unrealistic salary expectations. On the other hand, they don’t want to put you off with an offer so low that you’d reject the job out of hand.

Appreciate that they are not setting you a trap, just doing some broad reality checks.

The best tack is to do some salary research before you apply

How much do I ask for?

Yep, it’s the million dollar question but in truth they are not really asking you how much you’d like to earn but what are you worth to them.

The best tack is to do some salary research before you apply.

Our Careers Service alumni platform, Alumni Careers Connect, gives you access to Cambridge graduates who could give you an idea what someone with your experience might expect in this role and sector (as opposed to what they earn).

If you are stuck for time, ask around colleagues or friends for what they reckon people starting in the role should expect. The website Glassdoor is useful to get some insights – people post salary info anonymously. If that doesn’t yield results, the online careers education website Prospects gives average salaries for the entry and longer term progression in a wide range of job types.

How do you present this information to the employer?

If possible, it’s best to give the employer a range, let’s say £5K range rather than one figure.

This gives them a bit of wiggle-room so they don’t feel in a corner. If it’s a conversation rather than a digit to fill in on a form, give them reasons why you think you justify this salary.

Your reasons should be about your value to them and not about your increased costs or inconvenience taking the position.

What’s wrong with asking for more or less than they expect?

Asking for too much means that you sound unrealistic or even arrogant, especially if it is a lot more than your current salary.Happy person

If you are asked about your current salary, though, do mention the benefits of working for your current employer (e.g. pension, annual leave, subsidised childcare).

Asking for too little could give the impression you are not ambitious, and invites them to make a low offer. Keep in mind it takes time to climb up the salary scale.

Your reasons should be about your value to them and not about your increased costs or inconvenience taking the position.

Cultural expectations

Whereas in the UK and a lot of Europe, salary negotiations are uncomfortable for many people, in other countries it’s a must.

For example, in the US you will be expected to negotiate. Do your research on the salary range and also the cost of living in the area.

A former postdoc now working in biotech in the US Bay area said UK based postdocs will be shocked at how much you need to ask for!

It’s a package and not just a salary

Sure, a salary figure is a headline, but what else are they offering?

Many organisations offer other benefits: training, share options, flexible working, health insurance, gym membership. The greatest benefit of all, though, is how the role will help your confidence, career and employability in the longer term. Some people take a lower offer with the prospects of longer term salary benefits and employability.

Later stage salary negotiations

The ideal stage to give you salary expectations is when they have offered you the role.

If you are aiming at the highest figure, give the employer clear reasons why you are worth it. Ask how often and what is the process for salary review.

By Anne Forde, postdoc careers adviser

Telephone and Skype interviews – how to prepare with short notice.

Help! I’ve been called for a telephone (or Skype) interview tomorrow, and there’s no time to see a careers adviser. Can you help me prepare?

It’s one of our most common enquiries, and it’s also typical that postdocs get very little notice for these first-round ‘screening’ interviews. So we thought we’d put together some top tips to help you, if you find yourself facing a remote interview at short notice.

A short telephone or Skype interview is frequently used in all sectors – for lectureships and jobs outside academia – as a time and cost-efficient way of meeting candidates and deciding whether to invest in taking them further in to the process. As a result, they tend to be quite broad in scope aiming to assess in some way each of the elements that will be addressed in detail at a later stage.

So time is short, and the scope is broad – what should you focus your preparation on?

Find out who’ll be interviewing you. This could give you some useful clues about what to expect. For example, if you’re being interviewed by someone in an HR function, the questions will probably focus on your career path and CV, but if you’re going to be interviewed by someone in the team you’ve applied to, the questions may well focus on knowledge needed for the role or sector. If it’s a lectureship interview, knowing the research interests of the people you’ll be talking to will help you decide at what level you need to pitch your answers.

Anticipate some questions, and plan your answers.

In lectureship interviews, the questions are usually quite predictable, and you can see an extensive list of examples in our Quick Guide. Be ready to talk about your current research, major achievements, and future plans, as well as your teaching experience, and how you hope to contribute to the University or institution you’ve applied to.

If your interview is outside of academia, it’s harder to generalise, but you should always be ready to answer the question ‘why do you want this job?’, and to talk about the skills and experiences you think you can bring to the role. Check back to the job description for clues about what skills might be most important to emphasise, and have at least one example, preferably more, to show how you’ve demonstrated each skill. It’s also a good idea to read a bit about the company that’s interviewing you – what issues are they currently facing? What recent achievements are they proud of? What’s happening in the wider sector that’s relevant to them?

Be specific

Where a lot of people fall down in interviews is by being too generic in their answers. Your goal in an interview is to show how you stand out from other candidates, and to do that you need to make your examples personal to you. For instance, if you’re telling the interviewer about your experience giving presentations as an example of your excellent communication skills, don’t talk in general terms. ‘I regularly give presentations to a variety of different audiences’, makes you sound just like every other candidate. Instead talk about a specific presentation, and furnish the example with detail. What was the presentation about? Where was it, and for whom? Did you do anything different to address this audience? How was it received? What did you learn from it? By making the example your own, it becomes much more convincing.

Rehearse but don’t script!

You need to be confident in delivering your answers, but you don’t want to sound like you’ve scripted them. It’s a tricky balance, and if you’re nervous or English isn’t your first language, it can be tempting to learn answers off by heart. Instead, try to jot down two or three key points that you’ll cover for each question. Practice saying the answers out loud by following these points – perhaps even record your answers and play them back to see how they sound.

Find a good place to have your interview.

Find somewhere quiet for your interview where you won’t be disturbed – the last thing you want is a colleague walking in on you, or your baby crying next door… If it’s a Skype interview, make sure there’s nothing messy on the wall behind you, dress smartly, with no distracting patterns, and aim to look at the camera when you speak (a good trick is to put the screen with your interviewer right at the top of your screen, under your camera). The advantage of remote interviews is you can have your notes accessible to jog your memory, as long as this doesn’t become distracting. The downside is that you lose some of the useful non-verbal cues that show your interviewer understands you. Don’t be afraid to use phrases like ‘Have I answered your question?’ or ‘Would you like me to talk more about that?’.

Have a question to ask.

Finally, think of a question you’d like to ask them. It’s practical at this stage to ask about when you’ll hear about the outcome of the interview, but it’s also a good opportunity to ask questions about their organisation or the role that show you’re genuinely interested in the job.

By Liz Simmonds, Postdoc Careers Adviser



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