Preparing for the academic interview

DECEMBER 16TH, 2020 AT 4:10 PM

Prerna Bhargava is the manager of the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab and an Instructor in the department. She did her PhD at Harvard and postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. Prerna now spends her time thinking about how to help scientists communicate their science and advocate for themselves. She has gone through the faculty application process herself and supported many people on their journey as well.

Congrats! You made it to this exciting milestone. The academic interview process is exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. Below are some thoughts and tips about the interview process. Your experiences will vary based on the types of interviews you are going on and your specific field. Spend time talking to people in your field that have gone through the process to get more feedback about what to expect.


The academic interview typically consists of several parts spread over two days.


1.    The one-on-one meetings with professors in the department and senior administrative personnel that are important to the hiring decision

2.    Meeting with trainees in the department (graduate students, postdocs, and sometimes undergraduate students)

3.    Research presentation

4.    Chalk talk presentation

5.    Teaching lecture (some schools will ask for a teaching demo instead of or in addition to a chalk talk)


Through all of these events, the search committee is looking to answer several critical questions, including, but not limited to:



1.    Are you doing exciting science?

2.    Are you passionate about your science?

3.    Do you know what you are talking about?



1.    Would students join your lab?

2.    What collaborations would you establish on campus and with other institutions?

3.    Would you make a good colleague?



1.    Would you make a good teacher and mentor? What classes would you teach?

2.    What equipment/space/resources will you need?


Your answers to these questions should reflect and align with what you wrote in your application package. All of the answers to these questions will help the search committee determine if you are a good fit for the department and the position.


Tangible Tips


  • Do your homework. Read about the institution, the department, and the faculty members. Look at the language that exists on the institute and department webpages. Look at what each faculty member is working on (and make a cheatsheet for each person you will meet with!). Check out any publicly available undergrad, grad student, and postdoc pages to see what these groups are currently thinking about. Talk to people you know at the institution. Gather as much information as possible.

  • Prep for 1:1s. Do your research about what the person you are meeting with is excited about. Read some current publications. Think about how you might be able to collaborate with them. Write down a list of questions or themes that you can think about when talking to them.

  • Be prepared to ask questions too. Remember you have to work at the institution at the end of the day, so you need to see if it is a good fit for you, too! Be prepared to ask all of the questions that will help you make your decision. And do your research about who you should ask about specific topics.

  • Prepare for a marathon. Wear comfy shoes, get as much sleep as you can, bring all the dongles, chargers, etc. that you will need, pack snacks, and ask for bathroom breaks – even just to get away for a minute and take a deep breath. Don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t let your guard down. Even if it is a relaxed setting, you are being judged and what you say will be considered.

  • Research presentation. Most people who have reached this stage feel very comfortable giving a presentation about their work. But the research presentation during a faculty interview is slightly different. Instead of talking about the most impactful story, you want to focus on the science that excites you and your scientific story that brought you to that scientific focus. Don’t talk about every project that you have ever worked on. Instead focus on the skills that you bring to the table that will allow you to be successful with your vision of scientific success. At the end of the day, you want to put your work in context with the bigger scientific questions you are excited about and where you plan on going. Because the research presentation tends to be public-facing with a wide range of experience levels present in the audience, you need to think critically about how you want to talk about your work, what background information you want to provide, and how you want to present your material so that everyone can follow your work and get excited about you as a scientist.


  • Chalk talk. The chalk talk is a closed door talk that gives the search committee an opportunity to interrogate the details of your research plan. Search committees will often give you the option of using slides or chalk. Either way, you are really using your props as a means to support your defense of your research program. Often you will only prepare a few slides to summarize the high-level themes of your research program. Your committee will likely interrupt you with questions about your science and the logistics of your research plan. Similar to your thesis defense or qualifying exam, your chalk talk will force you to defend your research program without getting defensive or argumentative. And because it is so unpredictable, you should expect that your chalk talk will never be the same between any two interviews. The only thing you can do to help prepare is to practice. Practice with members of your lab, members of other labs, PIs (especially recent PIs), practice as many times as you can. Focus on the big picture of your research plan and also on the details. Think about who is in the room and what they will want to know. Practice presenting your ideas in different ways to support those differing viewpoints. Lastly, a big part of the chalk talk is time management. When you are preparing, think about the key takeaways that you want to make sure that your committee walks away with. And make sure you hit those points when you are talking about your work. If your committee gets stuck on your first aim for the entire time, make sure you can summarize the other main points in the last few minutes. At the end of the day, you want to go into your chalk talk confident that you have a strong idea and you know what you are talking about. After all, you did get to this point.


Useful Resources


This is a nice resource on the questions that you should be thinking about and planning for when preparing your materials for your interview.


These are some really nice tips about etiquette and reframing a stressful process.


Some nice tips on the chalk talk


Some thoughts on what types of questions to ask different people you might be interviewing with.




There is a lot of advice out there on how to prepare for an on-campus interview. At the end of the day, if you have a compelling scientific program, you can convey your passion for science, and are a good match for the program, you will excel at all of your interviews. In preparing, the chalk talk is by far the most elusive component – both because they are usually closed door and because no two chalk talks are ever the same. Practice your presentations as many times as you can with as many people as you can. Get feedback and think about answers to all the questions you get during your practice. Most importantly, be confident. You put a lot of hard work in to get to this point and you should be confident and proud!

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