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:
- How many students can they accept? The cap on the number of students UK universities can recruit has been removed, and France and the Netherlands have also recorded higher pass rates in school-leaving exams.
- If they let in students who might not have qualified in previous years, how can they support them?
- How has the pandemic affected their university’s appeal to international students?
- How much of their teaching will need to be delivered online?
- Do they need to adapt the curriculum in the light of BLM?
- Will the UK join Horizon Europe?
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