Interviewing Them – Postdoc Notes

A postdoc in Singapore can not be a PI for most grant submissions. I wish I asked the question: ‘Can I apply for grants for my own research?” when I was applying for this job. In fact, I wish I asked a lot more questions like this to the brand new Assistant Prof hiring me. That may have resulted in me sensing that he was open to going elsewhere, which he promptly did after I left my research group in Australia and moved to Singapore.

When a PhD student, I was advised ‘to interview them’ as much as they interview me. I was not sure what that meant or what kinds of questions to ask, even after trial-and-error of several interviews. I was reminded of this when I went on the market past fall. I was not sure what the interview was for, because it is not the real job interview, but it also somehow is. It is both the time to market yourself but also to figure out what is on offer, really. The trouble with ‘interview them’ was that I just did not know how. That is, how could I as a newly minted PhD, somewhat crushed by several years of continuously facing my limitations in trying to implement my ideas, exhausted by revising the texts for several months, and still learning to deal with constant discomfort of knowing how little I knew, how could I find the confidence to put myself out and find the power to claim my privilege ‘to interview them’?

For me, the short answer was when I realised that they need something, as much as I do. The task for the chat is not to ace the marketing part, but to approach this as a two-side problem, where two sides have their needs to succeed. We both want the same thing: find the best person/place to suit our needs. So impressing someone who has an expectation that would not help me, may overall be useful, but is not the ultimate goal here. The goal is shared – find the right place to make the best out of your current research direction and improve your career prospects.

My confidence to ask questions came through during my year of postdoc. Mostly because the Assistant Prof who hired me, left to another uni, and I was forced to communicate my value to all sorts of people. That helped me understand what it is I can do and want to do.

Among things critical for ‘interviewing them’ I find it important to ask

  1. Why are they hiring this person? What do they imagine this person to do? What kind of skillset do they lack and are hoping to bring in with this person?
  2. Who will this person be working with? What units/faculty/individuals? Can I meet them now to learn more about their work?
  3. What vision or goals does the prof/department/unit have? What are the expectations for the new hire? For a postdoc, what would a success look like for your PI?
  4. For the academic jobs, you can also ask who is on the search committee, and connect with some of them to find out more about the position. Again, for the same purpose – to know why they are looking for the new staff member, what do they want to bring in that they lack?
  5. Is there teaching? Are there grad students/community of practitioners available? Talking to some of them may be a good idea, as well.
  6. What funding is available, both in terms of research and travel?
  7. What mentorship can they offer to you? (If you are choosing to work with an Assistant Prof who has never taught full time (not a TA), and never supervised a master student, no talk of a PhD, I’d say, be very cautious, and ask yourself how much you really care about this person’s research, or whether you can learn from him/her through collaborations.
  8. If a postdoc, clarify how much time you can have on finishing your phd write-ups, if any, how much admin work you would be expected to do (if a postdoc hire).

I also found it important to ask details (and negotiate the pay or at least try to). Also, I tried to talk to more than one person, if at all possible. As months of my postdoc went by, I found the confidence and clarity to sit down and say: I do this kind of research, I am interested in solving these kinds of problems, and if this is a match, let’s follow up. I realised that this process is a little like a beginning of a long-term relationship. I you need to know what you care about and what you want, and what you can compromise. You also want to find the place where you can do that best (and if going for a research position, where you will have most time and resources to get your research done). And that is why you need to ask them questions. Because poor choice of an employment partner will stall, will demotivate, will not bring you forward, unless you have set your expectations clear even before the hiring process is over. And oh yes, probably a good idea to ask them if you can apply for independent funding…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *