My Experience Being Interviewed Part 4: What Happens When the Job You are Interviewed For is Different to the Job Advertised

Leading up to the interview

They say that a job interview is as much a chance for the applicant to showcase themselves as it is an opportunity for the workplace to showcase themselves. There may be issues in moving from PhD to post-hoc and the job market may not be fantastic, but universities still have to convince applicants to work for them.

This particular story is about a job I applied for at a large Australian university that did not showcase themselves well. I had been resilient through my failed job applications, used what I had learned from these failures to improve myself and showcase my experience and passion. This lead me to applying for a post-doc position described as a 40/40/20 breakdown. The research was half post-doc and half independent research. It was a perfect set up. I applied and I scored an interview. I prepared as thoroughly as I could. In the first 2 minutes of the interview I realised I was completely wrong about everything.

Making the wrong first impression

The interview panel included people I had not seen on the university website. Maybe the department website was out of date, that’s fine. Then the first question I was asked was “Why did you apply for this job”. I showcased my understanding of the job, the department, and how I fit in. I talked about grants and a 3-year research plan. I spoke to the skills I had and how they could contribute to a post-doc project. The response I received: “well… we are offering a full-time post-doc position. You might have some time for independent research, but that’s on your own time, not ours. Teaching is a maybe if we are short-staffed”.

The job advertised was not the job being offered to me.

I made it to the second round of interviews

The next question was “so what do you know about this project?”. I had no idea. I drew on where the industry was headed and what I knew of the staff members research. In the end I wasn’t too far off the mark and, somehow, was invited into the round two interviews. I was told it had come down to myself and one other person. The round two interviews were much more organised than the first.

What I learnt

Ultimately, I walked away confused and deflated. It left me wondering whether I would take the job if I received an offer. But ultimately, I learnt that while planning is important it’s not everything. We need to be able to adapt to the unexpected and be flexible in how we approach stakeholders – a one size fits all will not always work. I learnt that a lot of this could have been avoided if I reached out to the head of department and asked for more information about the position. It was a poor interview process, but ultimately, there are things on both sides that could have been done to avoid it.

In the end, though, I received a job offer from another institute, the interview process with them was amazing and extremely professional, and I have been unbelievably happy there ever since.

~ Chris

You vs. the PhD

One of the best decisions I made when I started the PhD was to treat it like a job. I would attempt to only work Monday to Friday during business hours. I didn’t realise at the time how radical this idea was (I was not involved in academic twitter at the time).

I wanted to put some emotional distance between me and my PhD. If my life was nothing other than the PhD, I knew that the minute I hit a setback I would crumble. I wanted to make sure that I had a “professional distance”. This would help not only to be more critical of my own work but also allow me to attempt to have a “work/life balance”. I needed to foster my friendships (this would also benefit my PhD, see here) and focus on my mental health.

I’m not lazy. The thought of only working during business hours can appear lazy to some. I just like to think I’m efficient. You can give yourself 8 hours to write a methods section or you can squeeze it into 3 hours. For me, the time pressure helped. I would block out sections for my day to write and I *had* to get my writing done in that time.

Sure, there were times when I worked late and worked weekends. Especially when I was cramming teaching into my schedule and marking assignments late into the night. Or if I had over-committed that semester. But this was an exception and not the norm.

Now I understand that sometimes we can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. Some PhD-ers work in competitive labs and your worth is apparently only measured by your constant presence, productive or not. I’m sorry if this is your situation. Or perhaps you have other challenges that prevent you from setting these limits for yourself. For me, I was just working alone with my supervisor so I could set my own rules. This was isolating sometimes, so I had to foster my friendships and seek support. But overall it taught me how to be independent, to manage my time effectively, and I finished my PhD in 3 and a half years.

Was I so radical? Did you set limits to your PhD work like I did? Or did your PhD creep into everyday of the week?

My Experience With Being Interviewed Part 3: Preparing for the Interview

The Recap

So far I have shared my experience with receiving the ‘sorry, we found someone with more experience‘ rejections. I also have spoken about showcasing your passion in applications for work and how this translates to the interview room. But now I want to turn my attention to talk about that period between when you have scored the interview and just before you step into the interview room; I want to talk about preparing for the interview itself.

Your Application

Let’s start with the obvious one; review your application. Every job requires your application to highlight specific skills and abilities that meet the requirements of that specific job. As such, each application you write will ultimately be a touch different. But the last thing you want is to mix up your applications. So, I studied my own cover letter and CV. When studying these, I did so with the job description next to me with highlighters in hand. I colour coded different parts of my application and matched it with the respective part of the job description. I took these with me into the interview so I could easily source this information if needed.

Know the Hiring Panel

This one is not always a possibility, but in some cases you will be told who the interviewing panel will be ahead of schedule. This information gives you a lot to work with. Learn everything you can about the hiring panel, what their research is, what work in the community have they done, are there videos of them presenting their work or lecturing? All of this can help you to not only understand the interests of the panel but also to glean a little about their personality. I found this particularly helpful because it did mean I could position myself in such a way that hiring panels found me personable and relatable.

Know the Staff and How You Fit In

This is a must, in my opinion, but is also a great fallback strategy when you don’t know the hiring panel. Almost every institution will have staff profiles. These, for the most part, will be up-to-date with photos, descriptions of staff research interests, and descriptions of what staff teach. Sometimes it also includes administrative roles of staff. All of this information can be paramount in knowing exactly how you will fit into the institution. But, as an added bonus, if you do not know who is on your hiring panel, you now have a bit more of an insight into who might be on your panel. In fact, this is exactly what happened with most of my interviews. I did not know who would be on the hiring panels but was able to know each panel member by face because of the research I had done prior.

Rehearse Presentations

Some interviews with universities will require a research presentation of some kind, so obviously, practice and prepare. However, I have been to other interviews where I was told “no presentation is required” and then in the first 10 minutes or so of the interview I get “please tell us about your research”. Luckily, in my case, I had already prepared a presentation on this topic and presented it to a number of interview panels and had feedback from each to improve the presentation. When I was caught off guard in this particular interview I simply gave that presentation. So it may be worth having your story rehearsed and ready to perform even if there is no explicit request for this.

What are Your Strategies?

Use the comments below to share your own thoughts and strategies for preparing for interviews. Do you do something different? Perhaps you have tried something I have suggested and it did or did not work – what was your experience?

My Experience With Being Interviewed Part 2: Expressing Passion

You Have To Show Them You Are Passionate

The first few times I applied for a job, I had a colleague read over my applications. The colleague was an established figure in academia and was involved in the hiring of academics at their institution. The advice they gave me was that I had to show my passion for the position I was applying for, especially since I was trying to skip a post-doctoral position and bee-line directly into a lecturer position. Now, passion is not everything (and I don’t think anyone hires someone just becuase they’re passionate), but I think it was an integral part of getting to the interview stage.

How I Expressed Passion In My Applications

CVs are pretty dull to read. I tried to inject my own passion in them by highlighting all the extra stuff I was doing around my passions. Society involvement, awards, community activity, and so forth. But where I really brought out my passion was in my cover letter. Every sentence was worked and reworked to highlight just how excited and motivated I was to be working psychology. That I had thoroughly enjoyed every experience thus far and was anxious to continue. Now, this was not a lie. I love what I do. But the point is that I used my cover letter to express that excitement and dedication.

Cover Letters vs CVs

I guess this is as good of a place as any to briefly talk about how I distinguished my cover letter from my CV. All too often cover letters read like mini-CVs: “Here are the key lines of my CV related to this job”. But another colleague of mine recommended using the CV to spell out the connection between the lines in my CV or, as they put it “your cover letter should read between the lines of your CV for the hiring panel”. As such, my cover letters rarely mentioned content that was in my CV, but rather, spoke about what I had been doing in the different roles listed in my CV and how they were interconnected. How my research was feeding into my teaching, how my passion for supervision and disappointment in ECR support (at least, the ECR support available to myself) pushed me to take on roles where I could to try and provide ECR support for others or to support those who had the means to provide ECR support. This kind of qualitative detail just doesn’t come across in a CV. But it works well in a cover letter and provides many opportunities to bring out your passion.

The Follow-Through

I think almost every interview I had opened with “please tell us a bit about yourself and your passion” or something to that effect. In all my post-interview discussions with the hiring committee (usually about why I was unsuccessful), I was praised for the passion I had expressed. So whether or not this is something that the hiring panels were looking for, it was certainly something they were taking notice of. So how did I express this passion in the interview? I was emotive, I was excited, and I was confident. Most of the interviews I went for involved a presentation of my research to date and, for me, that was where I expressed my passion the most. As academics, I don’t think we spend much time considering how we present. But tonality, speed of delivery, movement, the rhythm with which we talk, eye-contact, humour, and the level of casualness all influence how a presentation is received. The combination of these things that work best for one person differs to the next.

Have Your Say

I hope you guys have found this interesting and, perhaps, found a new idea or two. Use the comment box below to suggest ways that you bring passion into your applications and interviews!

~ Chris

Shifting mindsets from competitive to collaborative

In Australia, if you are a psychology student, this is the process:

  • Step 1: Get into a psychology degree
  • Step 2: Get consistently higher grades
  • Step 3: Get into the one year honours program with your fabulous grades
  • Step 4: Go and do a professional masters (e.g., clinical, neuropsychology, or organisational) or a masters of research (which leads to a PhD)

(N.B., there are variations between institutions, but steps 1-3 are fairly universal. And I’m certain that this experience probably extends beyond just psychology students.)

This process puts into a competitive mindset.

I have to get good grades to get into Honours. 

I have to do better than all my friends or I won’t get into honours.

I can’t ask for help from my friends or they will steal all my good ideas.

Although you are jovial with the people you sit next to in class, you moan about lecturers and assignments together, at the back of your mind you are constantly thinking “are they smarter than me? Will they get into honours and I won’t?” And, if you’re not careful, this mindset persists even once you make it into honours and beyond. I’m fairly certain some people spend their entire academic careers thinking like this. 

This mindset is so unhelpful. I’ve found that you get infinitely more out of your education when you think about the people around you as collaborators rather than as competitors. Once thing I loved about doing the honours program was that everyone was working on a different project and writing a thesis. We could explain the methods of our studies to each other and offer advice. We could ask each other for help with statistical analysis. This is because we didn’t feel like we were competing anymore. One person might have been conducting a longitudinal study on anxiety and gut issues and another person might have been researching decision-making under pressure, both of which have completely different methods and different ways of analysing the data. There was no way to “steal ideas” from each other so it felt safer to share and ask for help.

It was during honours that I realised it takes a village to write a thesis. Apart from the support from non-academic friends and family, you need your nerdy buddies around you. I set up weekly coffee sessions where we could discuss our projects and ask “the hivemind” for help. This continued throughout my masters and PhD. From the outside we just looked like a bunch of PhD students eating lunch and whining about their PhDs. But the sessions were so good for our mental health and often for our PhDs. Sometimes your supervisors don’t have all the answers, but one of your friends might. Sometimes you’re just too close to the problem to see the solution. Your friends have more distance and might be able to help. Foster your friendships and shift your mindset. It will help you get through the PhD.

A final caveat: Some people are in labs or research groups that don’t have the best culture. They are very competitive for a variety of reasons. Check out this post for some advice.

– Alessa Teunisse

My Experience Being Interviewed Part 1: We Found Someone With More Experience

This Series

This is the start of a series of posts on working through difficulties in finding employment following your PhD. I have previously written about my personal experience with feeling like there was this gaping space between PhD and Post-Doc, I have also written about how academic jobs are advertised in diverse places. But for the next few weeks I want to talk about some of the struggles and my personal strategies for once you have scored an interview. Today will be about the ever soul-crushing “we found someone more experienced” justification for not getting a position and some reasons why this might be. I also recommend that you read up on my resiliency and rejection in academia series on dealing with the emotions of being rejected, becoming resilient to rejection, using rejection to improve yourself, and what it is like being the rejector.

A Tale As Old As Time

I had heard the good old “we found someone with more experience” statement plenty of times throughout my life, not just in academia. But it was a statement I associated with applying for positions above your capabilities. I also knew well in advance that the academic job market has become extremely competitive, so over the 10 years or so of study I had put a lot of effort into accruing experience. By the end of my PhD I had nearly 10 publications to my name (some of which I was first author), five years of experience in a research team where I was involved in all aspects of the research process, and five years of teaching experience across all aspects of teaching which, near the end, included lecturing, content development, and co-convening. Yet despite this, I was still being told “There was someone with more post-PhD experience than you” by multiple universities.

So There Must Have Been Some Serious Contendors?

Before I go any further, it is worth noting that I did not want a post-doc, I wanted to go straight into a lectureship. Time and time again I was told that I was too junior to go straight into a lectureship, which I appreciated but I persevered. Ultimately, I received an appointment as a full-time lecturer and I am very happy with where I am. But not every job I applied for was at a lecturing level and that is not what this post is about. This post is about entry-level post-doc positions looking for people fresh out of their PhD but still saying that I did not have enough experience. I actually built up the confidence and asked one employer about what this other person had that I was lacking – I wanted to know how I could improve myself for future applications. “They had a few months extra post-PhD time than you”. Now it is impossible to tell if this person and I had equivalent pre-PhD experience, if the few months extra post-PhD trumped anything my pre-PhD experience counted for, or if this was a decoy to prevent revealing more details about the decision than needed. But this was not an uncommon response from prospective employers.

The Saving Grace

Why didn’t I want a post-doc? Because I already had my own research agenda, I had the connections, I had my own story that I wanted to tell and was ready to tell it. I just needed somebody who wanted to hear it. The place that hired me were more interested in my pre-PhD experience than the time since I had graduated. They were interested with where I wanted to take my PhD work, how I planned to do it, and did I have the necessary support or could they provide the support to help me achieve that. There was a lot more to this on than just research (in the way of service and teaching), but that was the research side of things.

The Takeaway

We know that the academic job market is competitive, I suspect the decision between person X and person Y may not always be completely objective, particularly if two candidates are both perfect fits for the role. Nevertheless keep trying! Being told someone has more experience than you does not mean you don’t have enough experience. Keep trying!

~ Chris

Academic Writing Hacks Part 4: Cafe Surfing and Flow

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

In my earlier posts I talked about setting up a writing schedule or finding a time of day to write that suits you and your brain. However, sometimes we all just having looming deadlines we need to meet and we need to spend a solid day or two on a single writing project.

What do you do then?

For this, we need to harness the power of flow. Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter

I found the video linked below a great introduction to flow.

As this video suggests (at around 6:10), there are five triggers to creating flow

  1. Risk
  2. Novelty
  3. Complexity
  4. Unpredictability 
  5. Pattern Recognition

This blog post describes flow and provides some great tips on achieving it.

For me, the best thing is triggering novelty. So, typically I would start writing in the morning (either at my desk at home or in my office on campus). Then, after lunch, my brain can’t handle any more writing. What I would do then was pick up my laptop and head out to a cafe. I would order a coffee, put on my sound cancelling headphones, and trick my brain into thinking this was a completely different day and I was ready to write again. This way I would squeeze an extra hour or two of writing out of my day when I normally wouldn’t.

For me, cafe surfing was a great way of getting novelty in my day and triggering flow. But right now we’re all confined to our homes. No cafe surfing allowed (thanks, COVID-19). The way I’ve been coping with this is by starting my day on my desktop computer at home. After lunch, I brew myself a coffee, pick up my laptop, and start writing on the sofa. I’ve moved somewhere else (in my tiny one bedroom apartment) to trigger the novelty aspect. But also, this is a pattern my brain recognises: Alessa gets a coffee in the afternoon, picks up her laptop, and changes location. Therefore, it is time to write.

Have you come across flow before? How do you trigger it?

This is the last post in this series for now. I have plenty more writing tips but I’ll save those for future posts in a few months’ time.

— Alessa Teunisse

Overworked then underworked then overworked – The Academic Rollercoaster

A Personal Experience

So this is a reflection of my own experiences with workload within academia as both a PhD student and a recently appointed lecturer. I find that workloads seem to go up and down. There are times where I will sit at my desk and go “oh wow, I can actually breathe, I can finally get to those little things that have sat there for months” and then there are times where I find I need to work crazy hard and really make every hour count for two hours worth of work. Below is how I have started to rationalise this to myself.

The Calm Before the Storm

So, I have started to rationalise the low periods as the calm before the storm. The period where all those little loose ends can be tied up before I am overrun with work and overcommitted to things. But this has also helped a little bit in realising that, during these calming times, I shouldn’t begin to commit too much. I noticed early on that with a slightly less full calendar I would begin saying yes to many things I would otherwise say “I would love to, but maybe another time”. Lo and behold, saying yes to lots of things leads to being overworked (shocker!).

A Balancing Act

The other thing that I tell myself is that it is all a bit of a balancing act. I become overworked for a period of time so that I can then be underworked for a little bit and get to all those loose ends. Once they’re done, the work builds back up and then eases off so new loose ends can be addressed. At least, that is what I tell myself.

Underworked Doesn’t Mean Not Working

When I say underworked, I don’t mean that I am not working. There is always something to do. But there is a difference between feeling like you are on top of everything and know that your normal day will be full without being crammed compared to having to do things much faster than usual or working a few extra hours here or there to make deadlines. But it definitely feels like you can work and breathe vs feeling like you are just go go go.

In Closing

I used to think this was maladaptive, that this was a somewhat abusive relationship between me and my overcommitments. However, with a bigger perspective on this ebbing and flowing of workload I have realised that it actually works quite well, at least for me. Have you noticed similar patterns in your workload or perhaps you have experienced something different? Use the comments below to share your experience!

~ Chris

Academic Writing Hacks Part 3: The Terror of a Blank Page

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

When I started my PhD, I got the impression that people would spend the first part collecting data and reading and the last part just “writing it up”. Although this process sounds like batching tasks (as my last post described) it can actually be quite inefficient.

I can only speak to my experience in psychological research (I have no idea how people in the arts write PhDs. I can’t even picture how to frame a PhD purely in theoretical terms without any data) but for me it was more efficient to be writing consistently throughout my PhD, rather than just writing it all up at the end. How is “present me” supposed to remember all the things “past me” did? Why did “past me” choose this variable/methodology/analysis?

However, there is nothing more terrifying than a blank page.

It is so easy to retreat back to data collection or data analysis or designing the next experiment (especially if your current study produced less than desirable results). But I found ways to make writing easier. I called this “scaffolding” my papers. That is, I set up the framework (which is easy to do) for “future me” to come back later and finish.

In my second post in this series I mentioned chronotypes and how you should organise your schedule around when your brain is most ready to tackle certain tasks. In my afternoon slump, when I needed something monotonous to do, I would open up a Word document and format it correctly to meet APA standards. I would write in the headings I would need for that paper (e.g., Methods, Participants, Measures, Procedure, Results, Discussion etc.) because I didn’t need too much brain power for that. Then I would add in details that I already knew (even if my study was still running), like describing the participants and I would just place an XXX for the numbers that needed to be added in later.

So far, this is what you can do even if you don’t have your data yet and you don’t have too much brain power:

  • Format the word document to the correct formatting standards (e.g., APA)
  • Add in all the headings that this paper/chapter will need
  • Add in easy stuff you already know (like describing your participants)

Then, in another afternoon slump, I would write the procedure section as well as the measures/materials section. This is especially good to do while you’re in the middle of data collection because the procedure is very fresh in your mind as well as all the measures or materials you are using. I just put a XXX for anything I don’t know and that future me will have to fill in.

  • Procedure section
  • Measures/materials section

Then, on another day I would come back and think about what types of analysis I would do and just put in those headings in the results sections (e.g., Descriptive Statistics, Correlations, Analysis of Variance etc.). This will probably change later, but just putting in headings can help me feel more control over what I will need to do later. I know that in my descriptive statistics section I will probably need a table that displays means, standard deviations, and a few other stats for each variable. So I will format up a table, listing all the variables and have it ready to input numbers later.

  • Put headings in results section
  • Format a blank table (with some information added in)

The last thing I do is write in my hypotheses and aims in the introduction section (while the rest of it is still blank). Then, I sometimes list relevant papers or topics there (for example, things I cited in my ethics/IRB application or in the protocol I wrote when designing the experiment). Or even a note to myself e.g., hey, you decided on this because X and Y. Look at these papers to remind yourself later!

  • Write in hypotheses
  • List relevant papers
  • Insert bits from my IRB/ethics/protocol

So by this point, my Word document looks really full and I haven’t done anything too cognitively demanding yet. No data analysis or introduction/discussion section writing. However, in my brain, it looks like I’m just editing some writing I’ve already done rather than writing something new. This trick is enough to get me going on this paper or chapter of the thesis.

Do you do this? What other tricks do you have to get you over the terror of the blank page?

— Alessa Teunisse