Perspectives: The Academic Interview

Perspectives: The Academic Interview

From the standpoint of a former department chair and current Associate Dean for Research, here are some things that are important for a faculty candidate to explore.

First, what are the requirements for tenure and promotion? Ask the chair, some senior faculty, and be sure to ask some junior faculty. Look for consistent answers, and find out what help or mentoring the newer faculty (your “would-be peers”) are getting. Find out the recent tenure and promotion success rate; try to assess the departmental climate.

Second, assess the infrastructure for your research. If you will be directing graduate students, ask to meet with a couple on your interview trip and assess the quality of the students. Ask them what they expect of their faculty. Likewise, ask about necessary support, including facilities, that you may need to be successful. Look for potential collaborators.  You may look for potential collaborators outside your department; it is OK to ask to meet with some of them during your interview.

From the other side, here are things I look for in a candidate.

The first characteristic is good communications skills, as witnessed by the quality of written communications, ease of conversation, insightful and relevant questions, thoughtful and relevant answers to questions, educational value of the interview seminar, and quality and likely impact of the research startup plan. I look for evidence of well-roundedness: will the candidate be an effective teacher as well as a researcher and representative of the department? I like to consider the NSF Merit Review Criteria, relevant in my field: what is the likely intellectual merit of the work that the candidate is proposing to do, and what are the likely broader impacts of the candidate during a lengthy career at USC? From a collegiality standpoint, does the candidate appear to be a lone wolf or ivory tower type, or will the candidate be comfortable interacting with others? Do we have the supporting resources (e.g., equipment, facilities, and collaborators) to help make the candidate successful? If the candidate’s field is new, can we afford the startup and provide adequate mentoring and support to get the candidate up and going?

And, finally, here are some questions that you should be ready to answer:

How do you plan to become nationally or internationally prominent? (Read: what is the intellectual merit of your research work and how will you make an impact on your field?)

What is the impact of your PhD (and/or post-doctoral) work on the field?

What do you think is important to improve the education of our students?

Other things being approximately equal (such as salary, startup package, tenure and promotion requirements), what will make the difference in your choice of a faculty position? What is it about the departmental or university climate and culture that will attract you to join us?

Dr. Michael Matthews is the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education, Chemical Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of South Carolina. He also is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Computing. He has been on faculty at the University of South Carolina for more than 22 years. View his faculty profile at

Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at


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