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Part II: On-Campus Interviews and Second Visits

Interviewing for academic jobs was one of the most intellectually and socially enriching experiences that I have ever had. In a series of two blog posts, of which this is the second, I hope to demystify various aspects of the academic job search so that you can focus your efforts on enjoying all of the fun that the experience has to offer. The focus of this blog post is on the on-campus interview and second visits.

The Campus Interview

The typical campus interview will consist of 1.5-2 days per department and include a job talk, 1-on-1 meetings with faculty lasting 30-45 minutes each, meetings over meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) with faculty, meetings with graduate students, and occasional bonus talks (e.g., chalk talks).

The Job Talk

You will typically be allotted a one-hour time slot for your job talk. Aim for a 45 minute talk to leave plenty of time for questions and the possibility of the talk starting a few minutes late. The (very) general template of a good job talk is as follows:

  • Motivate your sub-discipline and the problem your work addresses for a broad departmental audience.
  • Put your work in context of other related work.
  • Dive deep sufficiently into technical details so that experts in your research area can appreciate your technical contributions.
  • Give an overview of your future directions.
  • Conclude by reframing your impact and why your work is important.

Prepare to Answer Questions

As in the video conference (VC) interview (from Part I of this two-part blog post), prepare to answer questions on a variety of topics:

  • Research. Be able to give a brief overview of your work to faculty members who you meet with before you have given your job talk. Prepare to comment on what the most technically challenging aspects of your work have been and what your next steps and future research goals are.
  • Diversity. Be prepared to discuss how you will work to promote diversity in the department among students, faculty, and staff.
  • Teaching. Be ready to comment on your teaching experience and any strategies/philosophies that you have developed. As in the VC interview, be able to discuss which undergraduate/graduate courses you would be most excited to teach and develop.
  • Deans. Be ready to motivate and communicate your research to deans who may be farther removed from your own research area. Additionally, deans will often ask you more logistical questions, such as what your plans are for acquiring funding and what kinds of research special equipment you will need.

Prepare to Ask Questions

Faculty will typically set aside time in your 1-on-1s to answer your questions about the department. I have provided example questions below for inspiration. However, think about what questions are the most meaningful to you and aligned with what you are trying to learn about the department.

  • Admitting grad students. What is the process through which graduate students are admitted? Are they admitted to the department or to individual faculty? As a faculty member in the CS (resp. EE/ECE) department, will I have the ability to additionally advise EE/ECE (resp. CS) students?
  • Advising grad students. What is the cost to fund a graduate student/postdoctoral scholar for a year? Are there any internal funding or fellowships available to students? What are the qualifying exam and thesis defense processes like for graduate students?
  • Tenure. What is the tenure process like? About what percentage of hired faculty typically receive tenure? How are collaborations viewed by the department/school?
  • General department. In what areas is the department looking to grow over the upcoming years? What is the interaction like between departments on campus, for example EE/ECE and CS? What is the biggest challenge faced by the department? What does the department disagree on? What is the best feature of the department?
  • Teaching. How many courses do faculty generally teach per year? What is the typical breakdown of undergraduate versus graduate teaching? What are the average class sizes?

Know your Interview Schedule

When you are notified of your interview offer, ask your host about the format of your interview schedule. For example, learn if there are special components such as a chalk talk or graduate student meeting. Once you receive your official interview schedule, make a list of your interviewers and take some notes on each one. What is their research area? What aspects of your work do you suspect they will find most interesting? For faculty in your area, read/skim some of their recent work and record notes to spark meaningful conversation. Keep a copy of your interviewer information list on your phone as a reference during your visit.

Other Advice for 1-on-1 Meetings

In your 1-on-1s, try not to ask yes/no questions. You are trying to learn more about the department, and getting people to discuss and to elaborate is the best way to do that. Also, take a notebook with you and record notes on your discussions with each interviewer (this will come in handy for thank you emails).

Grad Student Meetings

This is an opportunity for current graduate students to determine what you would be like as an advisor or teacher. Some questions you may be asked include: What would you do if you have fundamental differences with a student you are advising? What will your advising style be like? What will your ideal research group be like? What sort of teaching experience have you had so far? What kind of advising experience have you had so far? How do you plan to ramp up students in your topic area? Additionally, this meeting allows you to learn more about what the graduate student experience is like in the department you are visiting. Some questions I have asked include: Do you feel students are happy with how they are matched with advisors? Do students feel that they are generally involved in research projects that they feel ownership of?

After the Interview

At the end of each interview day, take a few minutes to transcribe your notes from your 1-on-1 meetings, and use these notes to write personalized thank you emails to each of your interviewers.

Second Visits

You already have an offer. You are now trying to decide which department will be the best fit for you. This means you are largely in control of what your second visit schedule looks like. Since I was going to be a junior female faculty member, I requested to meet with as many junior and/or women faculty as possible during my visit. This time, you are going to be asking slightly different sorts of questions to the faculty you meet. For example: How do you feel supported? What are the things that came through that were promised and what are the things that didn’t? How is the support for grant writing? How is the support for teaching? For people who leave, why do they leave? For this visit, I also brought a budget of my expected research expenses to compare with my startup offer. 

Other Useful Resources

This two-part series of blog posts summarizes my personal academic job search experience, and others have produced similar resources [1], [2], [3]. However, there are other great resources available for you to learn more. In the winter of 2018, right after submitting my applications, I read, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I highly recommend this book to anyone on the academic job market. Additionally, I greatly benefited from past applicants who were kind enough to share their application materials with me (I am happy to share mine with you upon request) and then-current applicants with whom I exchanged interview experience.

Wishing you a fun and successful job search!

About the Author: Caroline Trippel is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University.  Her research on architectural concurrency and security verification has been recognized with IEEE Top Picks distinctions and the 2020 ACM SIGARCH/IEEE CS TCCA Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the Computer Architecture Today blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGARCH or its parent organization, ACM.