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I am in the field of neuroscience/immunology, and I am applying for an academic group leader position. During most of my interviews so far I've been asked general questions about my fit into the department, funding acquisition, collaborations, how I would distinguish myself from my competitors, etc. Once, a person asked me the following question:

Is your research going to be in biology text books one day?

This is obviously a provocative question because none can tell upfront if their research will have such a strong impact on the scientific community; and speaking frankly, anyone making such a bold claim cannot be taken seriously. Of course you need to show that you feel confident with your topic and your research plan is promising and innovative. How did you answer weird questions like the one above during your faculty interviews?

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    I am a immunologist, not a futurologist, Jim! Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 0:16
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    As a sidenote, a variation of this question I have received in the past is "Can you see yourself have a Wikipedia entry eventually? What would it say?". Answering these questions pedantically that you can't predict the future ... also communicates something to the hiring committee, but it's probably not the message you want to send.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 8:14
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    If you plan on writing a textbook and making students use it for your class, then why not? I had a calculus teacher who did this...
    – user4574
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 21:35
  • @user4574 A book requires much more (time and work), than a couple of papers. As an example, the 416 pages of Modern Fortran by Milan Curcic is a work of 3 years, briefly described in Writing a technical book with Manning in 2020. The free excerpt Exploring Modern Fortran Basics and a tutorial video are very welcome, yet were not anticipated.
    – Buttonwood
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 9:29
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    "Chances are -- if I get this job!" Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 12:52

7 Answers 7

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The question is clearly not please accurately predict whether your research will be mentioned in standard graduate texts for biology students in the year 2050.

Rather, the question is presumably I am giving you an opportunity to explain how your research relates to topics of fundamental importance that can be appreciated by everyone in the field.

You can give an anodyne answer to the effect that nobody can predict the future and blah blah, but I imagine that the impression that this might create in the person asking this question is that your research, while valuable, is of a more specialized nature and its importance is limited to a particular subfield.

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    An anodyne answer is precisely not what OP should give. They can be assertive about the work they do and they should be, even if they can not vouch for textbook-level achievements. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 12:53
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    To expand on this: an honest but substantive answer can draw a line from your own work to something textbook-level: “Realistically, my own current work on mutation rates in roadrunner feather mites is too specialised to directly appear in any textbook. But we hope it will help to resolve current uncertainties about roadrunners’ placement in the cuckoo family, and perhaps give new insights for parasite-based taxonomic methods more broadly. So it contributes to refining our overall taxonomic classification of birds and other vertebrates, as presented in textbooks now and in the future.”
    – PLL
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 16:02
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    These questions aren't only about the value of OP's subfield, they are also about ambition - answering "well, I don't think my research really goes to the level of standard textbooks" may sound a lot like OP doesn't really have ambitions beyond making reasonable contributions to their current sub-niche-in-a-niche. Which might well be true, but it's frequently not what a hiring committee wants to hear.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 8:21
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    @ScottishTapWater All the obvious low-hanging fruit has been picked. It is - retrospectively - quite surprising that much low-hanging fruit is seen only today. Some becomes only accessible with the right tools, but then is easy to pick, once identified. Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 11:09
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    On a similar tack I once read - possibly written by Hamming himself IIRC - that Hamming used to ask candidates: "What's the most important open question in your field?" - followed by: "Why aren't you working on that?" I believe that wasn't to tell the candidate he was lightweight by not tackling the most important question in his field but instead to give him an opportunity to explain why his interest was important and worth working on.
    – davidbak
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 17:50
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This question is similar to "where do you see yourself in five years?". It's an invitation to explain what is important to you. They are asking about your personal values and ambition. You state "Of course you need to show that you feel confident with your topic and your research plan is promising and innovative." but I don't think there are many wrong answers, as long as you are sincere.

Maybe you value making science aproachable; in that case, you could talk about how high-school biology text books are too convoluted and how you would use tiktok to teach biology to kids.

Maybe you want to do niche, theoretical research; in that case you could joke that you would pitty the poor post-grad student if they had to study your papers. Explain that you hope your real contribution will be elsewhere (medicine for example).

If you are engaged in risky experimental research, you might answer truthfully: "I hope so, but I knew I took a big risk when I started this line of research." The interviewer should appreciate your capability to critically self-reflect.

In short, this is a great question to get to know you as a person, as long as you are willing to open yourself up.

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    I like this answer (+1). "where do you see yourself in 5/15 years", even though I word it differently, allows me to let a candidate (Industry, not Academia) talk about their mid and long term goals. I specifically highlight the fact that this is not a tricky question (none are, which I also clearly state) and allows me to see my replacement ("your position"), or anything but my replacement ("whatever happens, not your position") or something in between ("manager") or something outside the typical path ("research in X"). If the candidate trusts you it is a wonderful way to get to know them.
    – WoJ
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 14:23
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    (cont'd) I had cases where the answer was "your position" (not that blunt of course) and all but two changed their mind when faced with the position (I was giving them opportunities to see how it is). The ones who stayed are now CTOs of large companies. The absolutely key point, however, is to make sure they know this is not the idiotic "what are your weaknesses" kind of question which mostly shows that the interviewer is really, really junior (or that the company has a fucked up hiring process)
    – WoJ
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 14:23
  • "where do you see yourself in 5/15 years?" -- "In your seat." Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 12:53
  • "Where do you see yourself in 5 years" is a very common question during the interviews. I've heard of a guy interviewed for a postdoc position in our institute who replied: "I see myself as a full professor and winning the nobel prize"... he didn't get hired. 😀 Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 0:20
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I might be tempted to go with something like:

I'm not a crank. I subscribe to the tentative hypothesis that the current consensus understanding of <insert discipline> at the level that's in the school curriculum is very probably correct. Therefore, I expect the content of <insert discipline> textbooks in the future to be much the same as the content of <insert discipline> textbooks now. My research inhabits the post-curricular, beyond-textbook territory where there is no consensus understanding yet and there's more room for developing original insights.

Fans of Kuhn might put that more succinctly as "we're in an era of normal science, not currently in a paradigm shift".

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    +1. I would add to the answer: the chances of being in an era of normal science are much higher than the chances of being so lucky as to land in the narrow regime of a paradigm shift. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 12:52
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"I will work toward the end that it might, hoping that it does, but expecting that it probably won't. Prediction is hard, especially about the future."

What more can you say? But laugh when you say it.

Such questions require speculative answers. Be positive.

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    «One can certainly plan research, but not the results!» Seebach, D. Organic Synthesis—Where Now? Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Engl. 1990, 29, 1320–1367. doi.org/10.1002/anie.199013201 (the author's copy) right on the first page.
    – Buttonwood
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 11:29
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Say something like: I have discovered what the co-receptor CD8 actually does in regulating the antigen-recognition pattern of the TCR; and this will undoubtedly enter the textbooks, but probably not under my name.

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This is the type of question that can be used to test your type of personality and your abilities to frame your research in a larger picture.

  • Are you a specialist, or a generalist?
  • Do you think in the details, or do you think big?

Basically, Can you think of hypothetical outcomes that create a path of how your specific research might influence general textbook topics in the field? You are asked to speculate here, so do it as good as you can. Just don't overdo it and make sure you show your sense of reality, by framing it as a speculative possibility.

The right strategy is also case dependent. In general, when you apply not all chefs like generalists and people that think big, some times they just want a worker for the dirty details, a PhD/Postdoc who does exactly what they say without having too much initiative and ambitions. But sometimes they do want independent researchers who are able to write their own Funding proposals, and who can frame realistic research in a way such that it sounds important enough to get funding.

Probably it's best to be yourself, give your natural answer, but keep the context and interest of the other party in mind.

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Answer: I don't know about textbooks, but I'm convinced that in 100 years' time, my research will feature in the high-school curriculum in whatever medium they'll be using at that time.

Background: When I was learning German at the end of the previous millennium, I was given some old German books from the 1930s and they happened to be university-level Chemistry text books and they contained Secondary-level education Chemistry by that time, and that was just 60 years, so yeah!

Note: My grandmother who gave me those books had no idea about the value nor their content; she only knew that they were German. 😁

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