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Postdoc Interview, What to Expect?

  1. Nov 11, 2013 #1
    Hi All,

    I'm a PhD student in Computational Condensed Matter who is pursuing postdocs in fields closer to industry and semiconductor physics. I have a couple interviews for these positions and I was wondering if anyone could give me some advice on what to expect and how to prepare.

    My current plan of action is to try and get as cursory a background I can in their field (since it's a little different from my own) with an eye towards being able to have a qualitative conversation about it, and then to go through their publication record and pick out what I think are probably their most prestigious publication as well as a couple of their most recent ones and then read them and make some notes about them.

    Is this the way to go about it? Are they likely to ask me a lot about their field (I have not misrepresented myself, they know I am from a more theoretical condensed matter background)? The bulk of my work for them will be to use a specific computational method which I am not an expert with, should I focus on understanding this method better?

    What kind of things will I be asked? Will they focus more on my current work?

    I know it's a lot of questions but I'd appreciate any advice.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2013 #2
    Based on what I have heard from my friends, postdoc interviews can be very different depending on who is interviewing.

    However usually people are asked about their previous work and about what they will be doing. I suggest preparing for both. Familiarising yourself with their papers and the computational method that you will be using is a great start, but also don't forget to prepare talking about your previous work. You should be able to explain it in detail and in terms that they can understand (it may be not that trivial if they are from a different field).
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2013
  4. Nov 12, 2013 #3
    Most of the interviews my friends and I did for post doc positions consisted of a 'job talk' and then an interview and tour of the facilities. The job talk was a talk on whatever research you were most recently a part of. Graduate work if you were about to graduate, and postdoc research if you moving onto your second postdoc. Obviously, depending on how far you were straying from your previous research, you need to tailor the presentation to the expertise (or lack thereof) of your interviewers. The interviewee was obviously given a heads up about the expected presentation and given a chance to prepare for it. It often occurred as a departmental colloquium or something similar.

    The interview part always seems pretty standard for academia. Relatively casual, etc.

    Of course, your experiences might be totally different. It sounds like it might be if you haven't been told to prepare a talk.
  5. Nov 14, 2013 #4


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    One thing you should do is to look at ALL the research that is being done in the groups where you are applying for a position. Sometimes this means looking into topics that are very different from what you've been working on, or would be expected to be work on if you get the position.
    Hence, no one will expect you to be an expert; but some "general knowledge" (look up any high-profile publications, look at their website etc) goes a long way if you are given a tour and asked to talk to various people, especially since the decision to hire you (or not) will often to some extent be taken collectively.

    One guy I work with -who now is a perment member of staff- very nearly did NOT get hired. The reason was that he spent a lot of time during his talk explaining some fairly basic stuff about magnetic properties, and then weren't really able to answer some specific questions about that part. If he had done is homework (looked at our website) he would have known that about 1/3 of the people in the group I belong to happens to work on magnetic nanomaterials and they were not at all impressed by his talk.
    Luckily he had excellent recommendations and a good publication record, so he still got hired in the end.
  6. Nov 15, 2013 #5


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    I had interviewed several candidates applying for various postdoc positions, and I'll tell you what *I* look for during these interviews.

    First of all, within a national lab setting, the candidates go through almost a similar scenario that kinkmode described. However, the two most crucial part of the process are when (i) the candidate meets the person/s in charge of the actual project and (ii) the candidate presents the seminar.

    When we advertise for the position, we try to describe in detail what we are looking for. In our case, we often state the expertise that we are looking for. As a candidate, since you were called for an interview out of the many applications that we received, you should try to highlight those skills that most closely resemble to what we are looking for. This means that you should have done some background search of the project (it is always available on the web), and have tried to study what exactly we are doing and why.

    When I conduct the interview, I will tend to ask a general question on what your thesis research was on, and then I will try to ask questions on your skills, and will try to prod you into telling me about the skills and knowledge that would be beneficial to our project. If you had done your homework, you would have been prepared for this, and will try to highlight and emphasis those knowledge and skills that you know will be relevant to what we are looking for.

    You'd be surprised how many candidates just don't do that! They rattle on and on about their research project and why it is important, but they never realized that half of what they say was not even relevant to what we want.

    And as for the presentation/seminar, this must be thought of very carefully, because you need to know the type of audience you are presenting to. In my case, you will be presenting to not only people within the group that is hiring, but also to everyone else in the division that do not have the same expert background. So your presentation should not be some generic presentation, or even the one you used for your thesis background. It must have some elementary stuff that other physicists can understand and at least put into perspective, and it must also have detailed stuff that those who are experts in the area can find interesting.

    But again, as I've stated earlier and as stated by others, you must, MUST do your homework and figure out what is it that you have that they find desirable. You need to find this out, and then spend time emphasizing this in your presentation. These presentation must be customized to the nature of the job. Or else, this desirable quality that you have might be lost, or buried.

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