Picture of a line of people sat in chairs holding up question marks

Interviews can be daunting but preparation really does help! I’ll outline some difficult but common academic interview questions

Today’s blog is all about something that I know people really struggle with, which is interview questions. 

Our focus for today is academic interview questions. We’re going to do a quick dive into the five key interview questions. These are the ones that I know come up time and time again when I am helping people prepare for the next post.  I want to highlight these as you need to have them prepared but fore warned is fore armed!

Question 1 – How does this lectureship or fellowship fit with your career aspirations?

Quite often, this is one of the first questions you’re asked and it’s a BIG question! It is really important to be clear and concise about where this job is going to take you. A lot of people go back in time to answer this question but it’s about the future. Some of your responses might be: 

  • This position will be an ideal springboard for me to become an independent researcher or to create my own research group or
  • To work on my own projects but also provides a scaffolding for a successful start on an academic career.
  • In five years’ time, I hope to be senior lecturer (or reader or whatever that promotion might be).

You’ve got to give an indication what the optimistic future looks like for you. They want to employ ambitious academics. So, if you just say “I’m not quite sure” then they’re not going to be very convinced, are they? 

It’s important to say where you’re aiming. Don’t just give them past history although you might need to do a bit of that. A good start would look like:

“All my experience to date has given me the teaching, research and administration skills

to be able to take on a lectureship.”

Question 2 – What is your greatest achievement to date?

This next question that does trip people up! We seem to be much better at talking about our weaknesses. While carrying out mock preparation interviews (this is a service that I offer) I’ve come across all sorts of answers.  It needs to be something aligned with the role that you are applying for. If one of your greatest achievements has been a brilliant teaching session but there is no teaching in this role, it would be better to pick a research-based achievement. Likewise, if it’s a teaching only role, then don’t pick a research achievement, pick something teaching related. 

They want you to prove that you can do the job. They’re giving you a chance to shine but within the confines of that job. If one of your greatest achievements is climbing a mountain and is not strictly relevant to the job, frame it as relevant. 

Great answers to this would be to perhaps talk about the paper you’re most proud of, a collaboration that you instigated and worked on. It might be a workshop or a conference that you developed and delivered. Do you notice the really active verbs here? 

An answer that I hear quite often is about research supervision. You need to make sure you emphasise your role in that. It’s not just good enough to just say all my PhD students graduated.  They might have done that with or without you! Your part in that achievement was your excellent mentorship and research supervision. Make sure you focus on you and not other people. As the majority of researchers that I work with work in teams, it can be quite hard to untangle the ‘you’ from the ‘we’.  If it was a collaboration, what did you do?

“I was responsible for coordinating a team of seven international researchers. I coordinated it, I ran the meetings, I kept everyone on track. I was corresponding author on the resulting paper.”

As an interviewer I now know your picture your place in that picture. So do make sure that you don’t leave anything out. You need to state it, even if it’s on your CV, even if it’s on your application, you need to state it.

Question 3 – Where do you see yourself in x number of years?

The timeframe of this question changes. It could be 10 years. It might be 3 years if it’s a 3-year fellowship. The idea behind this question is to probe. Do you have a plan? Ideally, you’re wanting your answers to be one or two minutes long. Don’t get everyone lost in an overlong answer! 

So, thinking about 10 years, how are you going to break that up? If it was a lectureship, let’s focus on what they need to know. They need to know you have a research plan, they need to know you have a funding plan, to know what grants you’re going to fund, they need to know how big your research group is going to be. They want you to think about your career ambitions. 

I would always start with the end first. In 10 year’s time, I will be a reader with a group of 10, which includes five postdocs, five PhDs. Then you can unpack how you are going to get there but you start with headlining the key achievements.  

Then you’re going to say how you’ll fund it because most universities are very interested in the money! For example, I will apply to an ERC grant, I will apply to the Royal Society Fellowship.   

What’s the typical career trajectory where you are applying?  Have a look and understand what is possible where you’re applying. If you’re applying to research institute that will be different to a university. It also demonstrates an understanding of what you’re getting into. They know that you’ve done your research.

Question 4 – what has been your most challenging teaching experience?

This one of course is only relevant if you are applying for a role with a teaching element.

This is a great time to showcase the fact that you’re a thoughtful teacher. That you have a teaching philosophy. Refer back to the job description. Think about your challenging teaching experience, what does that then evidence that you can do? Does it match what they are looking for? 

Quite often, recently, people have said, teaching during the pandemic. I think interview panels are probably a bit bored of that answer now but you still need to highlight what you did. It’s not enough to say we had to switch online. So did everyone! What did you do specifically that made that successful? 

Here is where you can use the STAR framework, which stands for Situation, Task, Actions, and Results. 

Situation – having to move all our teaching online very, very quickly. 

Task – what were you given explicitly? For example, I was in charge of the MSC module and providing enough provision online for students. 

Action – you then think, okay, what was my action? What actions did you take? I assessed what could be put online, then we took that up with live video lectures where people could ask questions. Think very specifically about the software that you used, consultations that you did? How did you know you were on the right track? 

Result  – this is your happily ever after part of any interview question. Pick something positive. As a result, the student feedback was nine out of 10, or whatever metric you have. Or you could give an anecdote. One particular student said that this work, this format worked much better for her for various reasons. Or you can pick several bits of evidence, it’s important to have that happily ever after part, to the question. 

The STAR framework is your friend for this type of question.

Question 5 – Where do you think our students might struggle?

The last question thinks about students. The reason that I’ve put this in is that this really points to the type of preparation you should be doing. You cannot answer this question unless you understand who you will be teaching! I put this in here to make sure that you go and do your homework. 

How do we find out about that? Normally, when we’re looking at jobs, we might look at research groups and look at how we might fit in there. You also need to be looking at the undergraduate facing pages. What do they promise their undergraduates? Is there a focus on employability? Is there a focus on skills development? Is there a focus on becoming chartered for instance, in an engineering degree? Is there a focus on becoming a researcher? What are the aspirations that they’re selling to prospective undergraduates? 

What grades do you need to have? What subjects do they need to have to get on the course. All those will give you a great idea as to the rough ability of the students.  Also look at where your students come from and their diversity – are they international, local, mostly one gender?  These figures are readily available in most universities. 

If you’re going to be teaching on a masters course, look at how they attract their masters student. What do their masters students go on to do? That will inform your teaching, all those things will be what you need to do in your preparation. 

I do hope that has been useful. If those questions were new to you then that’s giving you something extra to prepare and hopefully it underlines the importance of preparation for an academic interview. 

A great source of questions for interviews is jobs.ac.uk they have a brilliant bank of interview questions which are really helpful. 

If you need help with applications or mock interviews just contact me below.

Are you ready to leave academia?

Try our quick quiz ...

You will also get weekly career tips from our newsletter

Success! enjoy the quiz