Interviewing for a faculty position in Sweden

by Amy Parachnowitsch

Last week I interviewed for a faculty position in Sweden. Given that it is my second of such interviews and that the process has had me fairly distracted me, I thought I would write about how it works. This might be of interest to those applying for these kinds of jobs or as a comparison to other systems. I was certainly surprised by the process when I first applied because it was such a stark contrast to what I expected from North American hiring.

Applying: First, in my experience applying for a position in Sweden takes much longer to put together than a North American tenure track job. The application process is all on-line with various attachments, rules, and instructions. The general requirements are similar; you need to present your CV including teaching experience, publications (ten are attached), research plan and teaching philosophy. However, how these pieces fit into the various components can be different. The devil is in the details. For example, in my recent application there were no fewer than three places that I was to enter something about students I have supervised. It was challenging to know exactly how these should differ as well. Further, teaching was broken into experience/merits, supervision and a self-reflection on the role of a teacher (all separate sections). There was also a section where you were to describe your personality. This also came back in the interview process where all candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word. Quick, try to answer that one without dwelling on the positives and negatives of any given word too much (I answered optimistic). Another big difference in the application process is that letters of recommendation are not requested, only contact information (perhaps to avoid wasting people’s time?). Publications are of course in your CV and you attach 10 publications but you also need to describe your role in all publications you attach and your motivation for choosing those 10. After you send in your application, you wait, but we (the applicants) were given a timeline of when the decision about interviews would be conducted shortly (~one week) after the closing date. Thus you know precisely how long to wait (about three months). Unlike North American jobs where it is sometimes unclear what stage the search is in, all the applicants receive the information at the same time.

The interview/review committee: in an effort to control nepotism in Sweden because it is a pretty small country, departments do not actually decide who is going to be hired, even for permanent/tenured positions. The idea seems to be that they want the best person for the job and that an independent panel can assess that. It is also so that people can be judged fairly. At a certain point it seems difficult to do this and tough when some candidates are known in the department (with so few universities, it is not uncommon for people to have done their PhDs or post docs in a department they are applying to). So although I haven’t seen the interview process from the other side, my impression is that although fit seems to be considered, no one making the decision has a vested interest in who is hired. Depending on the university the committee can be from across sciences or a more narrow group (within biology, for example). Externals are brought in to review all the candidates first and determine the five (at least in both of my experiences) who are invited to interview. For my non-tenured position there was one external reviewer, two for the tenure-track position. The external reviewers do not have a final vote for the candidates but inform the decision. There are also student representatives on the board and others representing the union, for example. So far, one interview brought in the external reviewer for the day while the other did not.

The interview: The interview is short, over the course of a single day, with all five people interviewing on the same day. The interviews are back–to-back (with coffee breaks (fika) and lunch, of course! This is Sweden after all). You have a short presentation of your work. Seriously short—in which you should discuss your research program, short and long term goals and demonstrate your teaching abilities (“The candidates are requested to prepare a 20-minute presentation of their research program and plans for the future, emphasizing both short- and long-term goals. This is an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate their teaching skills”). Yeah. My experience has been 15 mins for the non-tenured position, 20 for the tenured (but maybe a difference of the universities rather than the position type). In the interview for my current position, the talk was only for the committee and was immediately followed by a ~30 min interview. The one I just did had a 20 min talk followed by 5 min of questions; it was open to the public but in practice was mainly attended by the committee. The interview for the tenured position was in the afternoon for 45 mins. Fairness is taken very seriously here so they keep to the time. It seems that the same basic questions are asked to all candidates with some variation. Mostly these questions are not about your science but about everything ranging from teaching, conflict resolution, how do you see yourself in the department, etc.  Following all talks and interviews, the committee sits down and ranks the five candidates.

The day: unlike North America, you don’t end up meeting with people in the department in an official way. Both my visits included a tour of the department and meeting with the department head but the people who you meet will not influence the decision or even have an opportunity to do so. It also means that you often meet the other candidates. This last interview was even strange because I collaborate with two of my fellow interviewees. Like I said, Sweden is a small country. So all the candidates had a joint lunch together with a few people from the department.

The wait: Waiting for an answer is also short. Generally the committee decides on the day and they will let you know within the week (<24hrs for one and <48 for the other). Unlike in North America, the process is transparent. So you receive the comments by the external reviewers (this is for all the candidates that apply) and all candidates are informed of who is invited for the interview and then they also receive the final ranking of the interviewees. So you immediately know not only whether you got the position but also where you rank compared to other candidates. All the other candidates also know this about you. So that can be a little disconcerting. However, despite being transparent, you really have little idea about why you are ranked as you are. The external reviews reflect two opinions but don’t tell you how the committee considered them. As for the final assessment, there was no real indication of why they made the final choice. So similar to my impressions for NA position, you are left to wonder why you weren’t given the job and whether or not you should have done something differently.

I was the top choice in my current position (few people refuse offers here, maybe because there are so few) and I was down at the bottom for the latest (they ranked the top three). Tough to know why and now it is time to lick my wounds, reflect on what I have learned, and get back to work. I’m grateful for two more years of salary to do just that.

6 thoughts on “Interviewing for a faculty position in Sweden

  1. A friend of mine interviewed for a faculty position in England several years ago. Her interview experience was very similar. All candidates interviewing and presenting short talks on the same day, little interaction w/ faculty outside the search committee, and a rapid decision. I really like the rapidity of that process. The limited interaction time between the faculty and interviewee makes me more uncomfortable.

    • I think it is more difficult to get a sense of whether the job is a good fit for you with this kind of process. You can extend your stay of course but I think you would have a better idea if that part was more like a common North American interview. Maybe it comes from many people already having a good sense of the universities because there are so few in the country? It might become a more serious a flaw to the system as more non-Swedes (or non-Brits?) interview for these positions though. I wonder if they lose top foreign candidates this way (so far my experience is no, in both searches I’ve been in the job was offered and accepted by a non-Swede). I’m guessing that would have to happen for the system to change. But the rapid decision is great, even when the answer is no–at least you don’t hold out hope for a long time afterward.

    • I have some amusing anecdotes about interviewing in the UK, which I can be convinced to share after a couple of beers. :-)

      Basically, I assume that British search committees prefer to test the candidates’ tolerance for social awkwardness, rather than their endurance. :-) The awkwardness arises because you often meet the other candidates, and sometimes get to watch their talks and even (in principle) have the opportunity to ask questions after their talks. Indeed, sometimes the candidates are obliged to interact even more extensively… :-)

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