20,000 Leagues Under the (Academic) Sea — The Online Interview

Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.
4 min readFeb 7, 2021

This post is part of a series about the academic job search and application process. Find all posts here.

So at this point you sent your application package: your CV, your cover letter, your research statement, your teaching statement, your diversity statement, your references, filled up a bazillion questionnaires about your disabilities, ethnicity, immigration status, … And now you’re sitting tight waiting to receive, hopefully, a bunch of invitations for an initial online interview.

When I went through my job search it was the end of 2019, and the online interviews spanned from October (my first disastrous one) to the beginning of March. I had a total of roughly 20 online* interviews that resulted in 7 in-person interview invitations.

The online interview was not enjoyable . On my screen there were between 4 and 8 people — normally the entire search committee — and since my laptop screen was quite tiny, I wasn’t able to really see any faces clearly. I’m hard of hearing and a non-native speaker, so understanding what the faculty members were talking into a mic that was at least 4ft from them was, indeed, a challenge. It stressed me a lot, but I think overall I was able to overcome those problems. It was embarrassing not understanding, and after my few first interviews I started warning them about my bad hearing and the possibility that I would ask them to repeat themselves a number of times. Clarifying that from the beginning was actually a good idea that made me feel more at ease.

My mistake on my first online interview was not to give it the importance that it actually had. I thought it was a mere chat to assess my character (which it is the point of these interviews, in part), but didn’t count with what it actually entailed.

Prepare for the online interview as the important step that it is. It will be what determines whether you get the invitation for an in-person interview. Make sure you:

  • Have your elevator pitch ready. You should be able to summarize your research statement in 3–5 minutes.
  • Know your science. They will ask questions, it’ll be like the Q&A portion of a seminar.
  • Get to know the search committee. Research the members of the committee and the other faculty in the department. Become familiar with the research they do, and picture how you fit in there.
  • Have your own questions for them ready.

The questions were usually very similar among all search committees, regardless whether they were a medical school, a teaching-oriented institution, or a non-neuroscience department. I recommend that before you have your first online interview, you think about the answers to these questions:

  1. Why them? You should know why you applied for the position in that particular institution, and most likely they will want to hear it.
  2. Why is this a good time for you to apply for independent positions?
  3. How are you and your research different from your postdoctoral advisor?
  4. Whom in the department you see potentially collaborating with?
  5. What are your requirements to establish your lab? I.e. equipment, personnel, access to core facilities, etc…

Some places, especially those institutions that were located in small towns or remote places, asked me if I could see myself living there. Full disclosure: at the time I thought it would have been ok, but now in hindsight I’m not sure if it would have been such a good idea to move to Nowhere, Kansas at any price.

I had a couple of interviews that were more stressful because the committee literally timed my answers, and left barely any time at the end for me to ask my own questions. Though I was the one looking for a job, I was also looking for a place that offered the support I will need to advance my career. I always had questions for the committee, and 90% of the time, committees gave me time at the end and I could tell they appreciated my interest. If you interview in a place where they “don’t have time for your questions”, you may want to re-assess if that’s the right place to kick off your independent career.

I’m still waiting to hear from some of the online interviews. In fact, the chair from my first disastrous online interview told me I was their top candidate. I’m still waiting for a definite response though…

(Side note: why can’t search committees take the time to send us a brief e-mail to let us know? We spent many hours preparing our applications, and feel endless stress and anxiety. The least you can do, dear search committees, is to find 5 minutes in your busy schedules to inform, at least, the applicants you interviewed).

Overall, the online interviews went ok, and I definitely became better with practice. I imagine 2021 in-person interviews have been replaced for a longer version of the on-line interview due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, so I hope this advice can also help with the new format.

Good luck!

*I call them “online” interviews as most were through Skype/Zoom, but I had a couple that went over the phone.



Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.

Neuroscientist, science communicator, ukelele player. I write about brains and sometimes other stuff.