Interview advice for postdocs

There seems to be a lack of advice on the web for postdoctoral posts – those jobs between a PhD and a permanent academic position. All the advice is about academic lectureship positions. There’s also advice about getting onto a PhD program. But the middle ground is forgotten about. Nearly all of us in science will go through a postdoc and are generally unprepared for how to interview for it.

In two years since finishing my PhD, I’ve done six interviews and got three jobs. So I’m going to share some of what I’ve learnt in those interviews and this process. All the usual provisos apply & YMMV.

General Principles, Harsh Realities

Many postdoc positions are already allocated and there is no point in applying or interviewing unless you are the person who the position is intended for.

Sorry. This is the truth. Most universities force professors to advertise jobs, even if they have a candidate they want for the job. This is great if you are that candidate, but a colossal waste of time if you are not (I have been in both positions).

Indentifying jobs that are a waste of your time is actually easy. Usually, the requirements are very specific and include things that seem a bit unrelated. This is done so it is easy to say that the preferred candidate is the right person for the job, because they are a perfect fit.

So it’s imperative to contact the PI before you apply for the job. There is always a contact on the job description. Phone them, or email and ask for a quick chat on the phone. Why phone? So they can be more candid with you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “do you have a particular candidate in mind for this job?”. Or “what outcomes are key for this job?”

The other thing you definitely want is a copy of the grant proposal that the job is funded from, and which work package or similar the job is designed to fulfil. This will help you understand exactly what deliverables the job will actually have.

The application letter and CV

As PhD students we think often that a PI wants to employ a great researcher, and we try to show we are that. Actually, somewhat unreasonably, most PIs seem to want to employ an expert.

Trying to catch a postdoc job in an interview.
Trying to catch a postdoc job in an interview.

So what you need to do in the application (and interview) is draw direct links between the experience you have and what the project aims to do. E.g. “The project aims to do X, and I have experience doing X though blah.”

Don’t be afraid to talk about their project. In fact, showing that you’ve read about the topic, the project and them, will help you a lot. They want someone with enthusiasm, that they can trust to be engaged and get on with the work.


The interview itself

Most interviews I’ve done have had three components: a short talk, questions about the talk, then generic questions.


The talk

  • Read what the guidance says about this talk carefully. Does it say, ‘your work and your fit to the project’? Then give 50/50 to each aspect.
  • Don’t overrun. Really. They aren’t timing it usually, but everyone knows when you’ve overrun and is grumpy.
  • Don’t talk about yourself too much. Honestly, they’re not interested in you, they’re interested in what you can do for the project. Harsh but true.
  • Don’t be tempted to go into any detail. The job of this talk to convince them you’ve done some interesting work and you’ve published it (or will publish it). The talk I bombed the worst was when I tried to give a mini summary of several bits of work I did. It overran and was a disaster.
  • Do talk about the project, how you would do it, and what aspects you’re particularly interested in.
  • Do take questions and go on tangents. This is their opportunity to get to know you – show them that you’re flexible and can talk about what they are interested in.

Questions after the talk

This is their opportunity to ask for more details about you and your work. If you’ve done your job properly and intrigued them, this bit should be fun.

Generic questions

In the UK it seems that they have to ask the same questions to each candidate. So expect very generic questions about how you would do the project, and questions that check your basic knowledge of the subject area. Expect and prepare the following:

  • Generic questions you would ask to check basic and advanced knowledge of the subject area.
  • Conventional academic interview questions. They’re a chance to really shine. Things like:
    • What are your strengths/weaknesses
    • What work you are most proud of?
    • How would you manage if this critical thing failed?
  • What are the potential pitfalls of the project and how would you manage them?

At the end and after the interview

If things have gone very well, they might ask you something like, “Would you take the job if we offered it?” or “When could you start?”. It is absolutely fine to be evasive and put in provisos here. Things like, “I’d be really happy to take the job, subject to discussions about pay and conditions” or “If you were to formally offer me the job, in principle I’d be delighted to work with you.” You’ll note that what these phrases do is sound very enthusiastic and give no commitment at all.

Don’t read too much into how long they keep you hanging on the result. Academics are busy and aren’t always considerate.

If you interviewed, it’s always worth asking for some feedback. Even if you got the job – ask what they liked or didn’t like. You won’t always get a straight answer, but it might be something useful, you never know.

A final word

Good luck with your post-doc interviews! And please give me a shout on twitter if there are other things I should add to this.