Robert MacIntosh is Head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University. He trained as an engineer and has researched strategy development and strategic change for twenty years in a range of public, private, family and charitable organizations. He has published extensively in top rank journals including Strategic Management Journal. He sits on the Council of the British Academy of Management, is a board member for the charity Turning Point Scotland and for Heriot-Watt University Malaysia as well as being a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. His latest books include “Strategic Management: strategists at work” published by Palgrave and “Research Methods” (2nd Ed) published by Goodfellow. His status as a shareholder in Aberdeen Football Club demonstrates his sense of optimism.

Kevin O’Gorman is Professor of Management and Business History and Head of Business Management in the School of Languages and Management in Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. He trained in Glasgow, Salamanca and Rome as a philosopher, theologian and historian. His research interests have a dual focus: Origins, history and cultural practices of hospitality, and philosophical, ethical and cultural underpinnings of contemporary management practices. Using a wide range of methodological approaches he has published over 80 journal articles, books, chapters, and conference papers in business and management.

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1) Know the format of the interview

Academic interviews vary from institution to institution but there are some things that tend to be common practice. On the day, your first interaction will normally be a well-worn welcome ritual from the Dean / Head of School / Head of Department’s PA. Remember that the senior academic will already be doing pre-interview preparations, agreeing who will ask which questions, reminding the members of the panel which post they’re recruiting to and sometimes effecting introductions between members of the interview panel.  A common second step is a short presentation to academic colleagues from your prospective department. Often there is some ferrying back and forth between different parts of the campus before the third and final part of the process which is the interview itself.  This will typically be with a panel of about 4 to 7 people who usually have not sat through the presentations. Finally, some institutions, perhaps for their own merriment, engage in the academic equivalent of psychological torture. This sometimes takes the form of a lunch or pre-interview dinner. Occasionally, this involves all of the other candidates for your job.  You have been warned.

2) Do the correct presentation

If you’ve been asked to present to a group of prospective colleagues, there should have been a presentation brief, make sure you follow it! If there isn’t one, phone up in advance and ask for some clarification. Remember you will be much better briefed on what the presentation should be about than your audience, there is a fair chance they will not know / remember what you are meant to be talking about, or even the nature of the vacancy involved. It might be a good idea for the first slide to comprise your name and the brief that you’ve been given just to jog your audience’s memory.  Remember there will be a mix of people in the room with differing levels of familiarity with your topic area and indeed differing levels of interest in the outcome. If the brief asked you to presenting on your research interests be wary of using all of the available time to explain the nuances of your latest and most exciting ‘Structural Equation Model’ lest your audience fall asleep/start reading their email/start surreptitiously texting each other about how the presentation is going. Tell some stories, amuse people and stick firmly to the time.  Specialists in your audience want to know that your research is up to scratch. Generalists want to know if you’ll be a good colleague and whether you can teach. Sticking to time and to a well-honed message in an engaging way should help both groups give you a positive rating.

3) Prepare for the interview

There will be some curveballs but equally there will be some well-rehearsed favourites amongst the questions that you’ll be asked.  Making some notes in advance on the following questions would be a good starting point.  Such questions often have hidden meaning and examples are shown in brackets.

  • Why did you apply for the job ? (i.e. are you so desperate that you’ve applied to every available vacancy in the land? Please tell me that you’ve at least researched me/the Department/the University and that you can fake a level of interest in us)
  • Tell me about your research plans? (i.e. I’m responsible for our REF performance and you need to convince me that you’re going to be an asset)
  • What would you like to teach? (i.e. First, do you show any interest at all in teaching or are you telling me that it is an impediment to your envisaged future as a star researcher who rarely visits campus? Second, I have a very specific hole in my teaching plan and I need you to fill it. Are you up for the task of teaching introductory statistics to the numerically challenged?)
  • Tell us about your links with the world beyond the university? (i.e. I’m also responsible for our “impact” in the world and do you have contacts that we don’t have?)
  • If appointed, where would you see yourself in 5 years’ time and what’s your strategy for getting there? (i.e. you’ve already told me about your ambitious research plans, so now I’m asking, are these in any way plausible and is managing your expectations about levels or resource, remuneration or promotion going to take up a lot of time?)
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4) Watch out for any lunch or dinner!

Don’t worry, no one enjoys these meals neither the extant faculty or the other candidates. One of the few side benefits of a global wave of austerity is that some enlightened institutions are beginning to phase them out. If you have to endure one of these meals eat little, drink less, keep the small talk witty but noncontroversial, and focus on your escape plan. Leaving too early could be read as a lack of enthusiasm but staying on to the bitter end could engender bitterness from your host. Oh, and if you get any pre-warning of trial by tapas, ask who will be there, read up on them and think of ways of connecting your interests to theirs.

5) Know your audience

As with the advice for pre-interview nibbles, if you know who is going to be on the interview panel you’ll level the playing field a little. Your interviewers have the benefit of your application form and CV. They may even have looked up your H-index, research profile, twitter and other information in preparing for your interview.  Do the same in reverse. It shows that you’re organised, thoughtful and really want the job.  This isn’t just a premeditated form of flattery: with a little thought you can demonstrate to your potential employers that you’ll hit the ground running with innovative, collaborative research.

6) Know the Institutional Strategy

You’ll be applying for a job in a part of the university, be it a department, school, institute or centre. What are the key points of the wider university’s strategy? Doubtless the university will have one and you’ll find it on their website. Read it carefully. Are their interests global or more local? How do the institution balance research priorities with the provision of a great student experience? How does the particular part of the university where you hope to be employed fit with this wider strategic narrative? Think through these questions and use answers to the obvious questions (see point 3 above) as an opportunity to demonstrate that you’ve been thinking about them. Your interview panel will be impressed by the extent to which you can link your current and future teaching and research with the wider aims of the organisation.

7) Be enthusiastic for the job

You really want to work for this university. Okay, maybe you don’t and you would rather work somewhere else. Perhaps you’re facing financial ruin and any job would do.  That’s not what should come across during the interview! Some of the people interviewing you might not want to work there either but your interview is an unlikely setting in which to share your true feelings about the iniquities of life.  You must be enthusiastic for the job; this particular job, the job you are being interviewed for and you must demonstrate that.

8) Don’t overplay your hand

It is your first job, you have just completed your PhD, no one expects you to have resolved world hunger or collected a Nobel prize, at least not yet.  Be honest about your achievements in teaching, research, publishing, generating income, etc. Resist the temptation to embellish (see point 5 above) lest you discover that your interviewers have cross-checked your claims.  It should go without saying, but just for the avoidance of any doubt, NEVER lie on your CV; if found out things will not go well for you!

9) Ask one question – just one

Normally at the end of the interview you will be asked if you having any questions for the panel. It is both polite and a good idea to ask one.  In many ways it is a bad idea to ask more than one!  Administrative details, salaries, relocation expenses, research budgets, training, etc. are best discussed with your prospective employer at the point at which they have already decided that they want to offer you the job.  A string of demands, thinly disguised as questions at the tail end of an otherwise successful interview can undo all your good work.

10) Don’t Panic

We have seen successful candidate who have said ‘I don’t think I can do this…’ We have also seen many successful candidates who answered some things very well but fluffed other questions. You don’t have to knock every question out of the park. Never talk the panel out of offering you the job, breathe deeply and keep focused on the task in hand.