What to Do When They Say, 'Tell Us About Your Research'

December 11, 1998

Question: So I walked into the room and they said, 'Tell us about your research,' and within two minutes I could see the committee members' eyes glaze over and I was pretty sure this job was a lost cause. How can I do better at my next interview?

Julie: Think about what excites you about your research and why your work matters to your field. Then practice talking about it in response to those two points with an answer that takes only two or three minutes. That's how you open.

Mary: Actually, I'd say that's the goal. We probably need to talk some more about how to achieve it. It's entirely possible that absolutely nothing excites you about your research as you slog through those last chapters or data sets or final revisions. However, lack of interest in your work is a luxury you can't afford if you want a job.

Think back to what interested you about the topic when you chose it in the first place, or at an "aha" moment along the way, whatever it takes to recapture a sense of freshness about the topic.

And here's a trick: Practice making your first response to a question about your research a change in posture and expression that makes it look as if you're happy to have a chance to talk about it. Don't grab the arms of the chair or slide backward in it. Concentrate on a "I'm glad you asked" expression and posture, and then begin to speak.

Julie: As you speak, establish eye contact with each member of the committee. Each will be more interested if it appears you are talking directly to him or her. If you can engage them, they won't "glaze over."

Keep those beginning remarks brief but then say something like, "I can explain that in more detail if you'd like," or "Would this be a good time for me to elaborate on that?" or something that means, "I have a lot more to tell you about my exciting research but if you need to cover other issues or want to ask questions, that's fine with me."

Mary: Remember that the your goal is, if you possibly can, to interest them enough in what you're saying that they'll begin to ask you questions. If you're interrupted before you've finished your planned remarks, that's success, not failure. Change your focus and concentrate on responding to questions.

As you speak, make sure to pause often enough to encourage conversation, but be prepared to keep talking if the group merely looks at you expectantly. If they look at you with a dead-fish expression, try something, anything, a little different, to pick up the pace. Move on to the next part of your discussion, change posture, or ask a question of the group.

Julie: Speaking of the group, it's a good idea to find out ahead of time what their research areas are so that if there are obvious links between your work and theirs, you can make them. Often you will know who will be interviewing and you can check to see what their areas are. Of course, don't do this if there are no reasonable connections.

Mary: Let me also say something about the importance of your image of yourself in relation to this audience. If you continue to see yourself in the student role and view the hiring committee as faculty members, your discussion of your research may be tentative and, for want of a better word, dutiful.

The committee doesn't want to hire a student; it wants a colleague. Think of yourself as already a colleague of this group and of yourself as the world's authority on the ideas in your dissertation. If you think of yourself as teaching your dissertation, rather than reporting on it, your presentation will take on the appropriate degree of authority.

Julie: There are a couple of things you can do to prepare yourself.

If your department is conducting searches, see if you can sit in on job talks. In an interview, of course, your style will be more conversational, but pay particular attention to how the candidates are presenting themselves.

Arrange and schedule a practice interview with faculty members and fellow doctoral students. (Some departments offer this as a matter of course.) Try to get some people who don't know your work well to be in on this practice. Request feedback about how interesting you sounded, whether you acted like a student or a colleague, and whether you appeared to be someone they'd want to work with.

Mary: You'll be bound to be more attractive to work with if you can make your presentation engaging. One candidate we worked with began by asking a question of the committee, then went on to explain how his research demonstrated that the answers that seemed obvious to everyone were wrong. Another, in art history, brought reprints of some of the paintings discussed in her dissertation.

Another approach is to present your research question like an intriguing puzzle, and then to show how your research answers it. The goal is not to be gimmicky, but to find ways to engage the interviewers' genuine, rather than polite, interest.

Julie: You will probably also be asked what the next step in your research will be. Make sure you have thought about that. It's likely you have been so busy trying to complete your dissertation and manage a job search that you haven't had the time (or energy) to contemplate the next phase. But search committees want you to have plans for future research so be prepared with a solid response.

Mary: If you're in the humanities, probably your next step is to publish your dissertation as a book. It's fine to mention you intend to do that, but publishing a dissertation is tying up loose ends, not "future research," so also be prepared to talk about new work.

If you're in a field where your work requires, or is enhanced by, grant money, talk about your plans for obtaining funds. The more specific you can be about potential sources of money, the better. Feel free to run your ideas by program officers; talking with potential applicants is part of their job. If you can honestly say you've gotten encouragement from foundations or government agencies so much the better. In scientific and technical fields, also be prepared to discuss what kinds of lab support you'll need from the hiring institution.

Julie: If you're particularly interested in teaching, and interviewing at a place that emphasizes teaching quality, also consider grants that might enhance a department's teaching capability. Also remember that now many schools want to know how you will involve undergraduates in your research. If you have ideas about that, include them as part of your discussion of future research plans.

Mary: This all sounds like a lot of work, and it is. However, one of our faculty members stresses to her students how much this process of discussion enhances completion of the dissertation and development of future research goals. Don't see your job search as separate from your research, but as an integrated part of it, and you may find you actually enjoy talking about your research with hiring committees.

Each month we'd like to briefly discuss a response to a truly difficult interview question or situation. Please send us the oddest or hardest questions or situations you've encountered in your own interviewing to

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms.Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.