Saturday, November 17, 2012

Job Search - Interview Questions

Once again, here's another in the continuing series about the job search from the searchers' point of view.  (And again, the caveat that I'm writing from my necessarily limited experience.)  Folks at community colleges, SLACs, and research schools will likely have different experiences (and I hope will tell us something about those in comments or their own blogs).

Application Advice
Search Meetings

After the focusing meeting, which led our imaginary search committee to focus on 10 candidates the searchers want to interview, things sort of disappear into a black box.

For one thing, the chair of the committee may have to go up the chain of bureaucracy to get approval for the interviews in some way.  (Someone higher up may have to look over the list to approve it, especially if the department has had problems for whatever reason.)  Someone may have to approve the conference interview plans, or the phone interview situation. 

So the candidates aren't hearing yet.  But things are in the works.

Meanwhile, the search committee is busy figuring out questions.  I'm not sure if this happens at other places, but here we prepare a few questions, say 5-8, and every single interview candidate will get those questions in the same order.  We'll also allow for follow-up questions, but the point is for every candidate to get a fair shot, so if a question is really hard for someone, it may be hard for everyone.  Or not.  And the follow ups will go along depending on what the candidate says and how our time looks.

We usually email around our list of potential questions, often starting with the list that was used in a different search a year or two earlier.  Typically, we may start with a question that asks about the introductory course in the field.  Let's imagine in our deepwater basketweaving course we have a GE intro that a lot of students take.  We'll ask the candidates to talk about how they approach teaching Introductory Basketweaving to general education students.

Then we may ask about the intro to the major course, Baksetweaving Fundamentals.  How do they approach that?

We want to signal that we require and support research, so we may ask about their current basketweaving projects and what they see themselves doing in their next project.

We want to hire faculty who are committed to multiculturalism, so we may ask about their experiences in multicultural basketweaving.

We then almost certainly ask if the candidate has questions for us.

What we don't ask, but others might?  The first thing that comes to mind is graduate training.  R1s are way more likely to ask how you think about teaching a grad class in your field, or something similar.

Let's talk about these questions a bit, and I'll try to say what I'm looking for, which may help candidates prepare well.  [Edited to add: there are really helpful comments below, some of which have different opinions, so they're very useful.  Please look.]

How do you approach teaching Introductory Basketweaving?

I'm looking for someone who has ideas about what's important to teach in Intro Basketweaving, and who can be adaptable to our needs as well.  (We don't have lots, but we do have some.)  I want realism in the amount of weaving required, a sense of how to approach general education, and a sense of how to teach.  Talking about the general outline, a specific assignment, perhaps, these all work.

My department sometimes sends candidates information about the school.  Otherwise, you might want to check a website and look at how the school does general education.  Is everyone required to take Intro Basketweaving?  Is it only water-based majors that take it?  You don't have to be an expert on the school, but having a sense of how our general education works, and being able to compare that to how things worked at your undergrad/grad institutions may be really helpful.  Be aware that at any given time a school may be in the process of rethinking its GE requirements, so don't be totally wedded to an idea.  And don't talk about how superior your own program is.  If the ad has asked for a secondary asset or specialization, think about balancing that in here.  For example, in our imaginary ad, we talked about multicultural basketweaving.  You'll convince people you are committed to multicultural basketweaving more if you include multicultural basketweaving as a component of the intro course.

How would you approach teaching our intro to the major course, Basketweaving Fundamentals?

You'll find it really helpful to look at the major(s) the department serves in order to answer this.  Does the department's fundamentals course serve the Reef Management majors as well as the UB majors?   How does that change your approach?  What does the course description in the catalog say?  (If it's not on-line, your library may well have a copy in microfilm.)  Again, if we've put multicultural basketweaving in our ad, think about how that belongs in the fundamentals course.  Think about what majors need, and how you can get them started learning it, and then design your imaginary course based on our description, the organization of the major, and your sense of what UB majors need.

Tell us about your next project.

You should have a rough idea for a next project in your mind.  You may be revising a major basket, producing a new series of baskets, revising your dissertation into a book, writing an article, whatever.  For an R1, I suspect the book thing is pretty standard, at least in book fields.  You need to sound like you're going to be a realistic and productive scholar/basketweaver.  If the school you're interviewing with talks about faculty/student collaboration (and a lot do, these days), and you have a project that would work well for students, think about including that, too.

What's your experience with multicultural basketweaving?
I'm going to say right now, if you're a white person (as I am) and you don't have anything to say, you need to go get some experience with multicultural basketweaving.  If you have time, take a multicultural basketweaving course, or request to TA for one.  Take some time and make sure you do some reading (Beverly Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria is a start, as well as Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."  Go at these with an open mind.)  And if you're a person of color, don't depend on just presonal experiences.  Take time to read up a bit, too, and be ready to talk about being a person of color in the classroom, teaching, and as a colleague.

What I'm looking for when we ask this question is a colleague who will contribute positively in our community, both within and without campus.  I don't care if someone's white or a person of color; I do care that they've thought about privilege and teaching, and why it matters that our students need to be taught to think about privilege, racism, sexism.  This isn't just about race, either, or ethnicity.  Think about LGBTQ, second language learning, and so on. 

You may want to look up information about the community, and if the school has any information up about social justice issues, check that out.  Keywords to look for are: Diversity, multicultural, equity, social justice, anti-racism.  (There are probably others, too.)  You want to be aware, for example, if there's a major Somali refuge community in the area, and think about how you're going to work with first generation Somali students.

I can imagine at some schools, this question is sort of pro forma.  At other schools, not.  I'd say, if the school website talks about these issues, then it's important, and you should prepare.  And just, if you're a human being and want to understand social justice issues, you should prepare.  (I'll get off that particular soap box now, but do take it seriously.)

What questions do you have for us?
  You should have a couple questions, at least.  What do you want to know?   I would ask about the students.  What do your potential colleagues think of their students?  (This may be less something to ask of R1s, but I'm not sure.  I think my R1 colleagues think about teaching and students a lot.)   Ask about the school's committment to multiculturalism, perhaps.   Ask about the major or majors.   Ask about the department, local recreation opportunities, the library, research support.   Don't ask if there's a Whole Foods in the neighborhood.  No, really.   What I'm looking for in these questions is a chance to tell our candidates about what's good about our department, campus, and community.  This is where we get to try to sell our candidates on the good things we do have to offer.  And we do, even though there's snow and budget problems (sure, ask about those if you like).   Here's where, if you have a trailing spouse, you can ask about adjuncting opportunities or local employment opportunities.  If you have a kid, you can ask about child care or the local schools.  If you're a person of color, you can ask about how the community is for people of color.   Here's my experience:  I don't think there's anyone in my department who will hold those questions against anyone, nor who will feel they don't want to hire someone with a partner or kids.  In my department, there's no one who would be unwelcoming to a gay or lesbian couple.   I can't say that's for sure true everywhere, but I know it's true here.  We have gay and lesbian folks, married folks, parents, and we value each other.  And we'll be happy to have one of the parents on the committee talk about the local schools or day care, or one of the people of color talk about being a person of color in our community.   We won't ask you questions about your personal/family status, but we're happy to answer yours.     I'd really appreciate hearing about the interview questions other schools ask, and what you're looking for that I've forgotten or don't think to look for.  And also, if you're on the market or preparing to go on the market, please feel free to ask questions.  You can ask by email if you don't want to put it in the comments. 


  1. I actually think that the questions for the committee--at the convention interview--should focus more on professional considerations and less on personal matters (like local recreation opportunities or child care or schools). The point of the convention interview is to generate a campus interview; if the campus interview doesn't happen than everything personal is moot. At the convention interview stage, I'm most interested in getting a sense of how someone thinks about professional issues.

    Other good questions: ask about how the department supports junior faculty; ask about mentoring programs on campus; ask about how research and teaching are weighted in P&T matters; ask about community engagement programs. Maybe ask about work/life balance....but I think, given that the convention interview doesn't allow all that much time for questions from the candidate, I'd be more impressed by questions that focus more on the professional side than the purely personal.

  2. EngLitProf8:04 PM

    In my department, we tend to ask research questions before teaching questions, and teaching questions before everything except research. The name of our university can suggest that we are purely a teaching school, and it probably is best if we remind candidates that research is very important in our department (as the ad says, we have a 2/2/ teaching load).

    On at least two searches in which I was involved, we finished with “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

    The question I found most thorny when I was interviewed for assistant professorships was the last one: “Do you have any questions for us?” I found it most prudent to make my questions as professional as possible, figuring that more personal concerns could wait for the campus visit. Here I agree with Susan.

  3. I've been asked how one brings up disability issues during the application/interview process. I have invisible disabilities but it doesn't much matter because I work full time online teaching. I don't have to go to campus to teach classes; in fact, none of the colleges where I teach are even in my state! Still, there are applicants who have disabilities and wonder how/when to self-disclose. Any suggestions?

  4. Anonymous4:05 AM

    I am at a more research-oriented place, and some questions that regularly come up are:

    What is your next project and how would you set up a research team for it (postdocs, PhDs)?

    Where would you seek funding for your research?

    Why are you interested in our university/department?

    What can you bring to our department that we don't already have?

    How would you link your research to [randomly chosen] one of the [specific areas] of our department?
    (our department spans very different research areas, so this question is usually dependent on the search topic)

    The procedure is more or less the same though, with selecting a set of questions that everyone gets in the right order.

  5. Jobseeker7:11 AM

    Thank you so much for doing this series of posts about the job process, Bardiac! And thanks to all of the helpful and informative commenters who chime in, as well. As someone on the job market for the first time, this has been an invaluable resource and extremely useful perspective, and I'm sure that other readers feel the same way.

  6. I don't think I would bring up disability issues during the interview process unless an accommodation of some sort is required for the convention interview (I'm thinking here in terms of English processes, obviously). The people on the search committee aren't necessarily the people who will actually know anything about accommodating disabilities, and in general I think it best to use the convention interview to focus most closely on the job-related issues that will help you move to the campus visit. I could imagine that you could actually get some very wrong answers from a search committee about disability issues.

    I would self-disclose the issues on an as-needed business in terms of what you need to interview successfully (so if you need a chair during a presentation or need interview locations close together because of a mobility impairment, e.g., ask for that). If you get a campus visit, you should get asked if there are any particular people or offices you want to meet with, and perhaps ask then for some time with the registrar or access office or whomever might be a useful resource (although it can be hard to figure that out from afar).

    It might be helpful to reframe the issue here not so much as "when should I self-disclose" but "what information do I need to know about this dept/campus?" and work back from there (who has that info, and when do I need it?) . It's not like the search committee needs to know about anyone's disability. But candidates dealing with a disability might need info about the campus--so is that info necessary before accepting a campus visit? is it info necessary while arranging logistics of a campus visit? or it is info that you need while weighing a job offer?

  7. Susan, I appreciate your thoughts. That all makes a lot of sense. In my case, the disability is mobility-related and, while I can for short periods of time, hide it (i.e. walk normally, stand for certain periods of time, even walk up or down stairs), on a daily basis, working full time would necessitate mobility aids which make the disability quite obvious to all.

  8. The last two searches I've been on we had sufficient consensus based on the file (including a writing sample) to skip the phone interview stage. While our pools were deep, we were all in agreement about our top candidates.

    When we interview -- on campus or at the convention -- we start with a softball about the dissertation, where they see it going. Then we address the ways we are unusual by asking how someone thinks our interdisciplinary contexts might serve their work. Then we ask about teaching -- the basic course, and upper level courses.

    We're eager for questions, happy to talk about our students.

    In all of this we are listening -- how much do you know about us? Will the diversity of our students be an issue? Will you function well in our particular culture? In other words, your answers give cues beyond what you actually say.

    By the way, this is also true with the job talk, where we pay lots of attention to how you answer questions. I've been surprised in recent years that people haven't understood that the job talk is in ways a proxy for teaching.

  9. When I was on the market, the question that I found most revealing to ask the committee was: "What do YOU like best about teaching at X School?"

    That should be an easy question, but boy did I get committees who muffed it--by which I mean, who revealed their own ambivalence or dissatisfaction with their institution, and in some cases their downright contempt for their students. ("'s nice being just a short train ride from New York City!" or "the 2/2 teaching load is pretty nice!") Maybe they were overthinking it, or trying to give answers they thought someone with a fancy degree would like. But I was surprised by how many committee members were really at a loss, and communicated so little warmth or enthusiasm for their students or institution.

  10. Flavia, that is a brilliant interview question--I can imagine it would indeed be revealing.

    Nitewriter, I have been thinking more about my response to your question. My partner, also an academic, has a mobility impairment that makes it difficult for her to stand for long stretches of time. She did a campus visit once that did not result in a job offer. During her job talk, she ended up sitting down on the table at the front of the room, and some people in the dept thought this was very unprofessional. She later wished that she'd mentioned to someone that she couldn't stand that long and would need a way to sit (although as I type this, I end up thinking "really? you didn't like that someone sat at the front of the room?"). So I guess that sort of thing might be a reason to self-disclose. And also a reason to wish for more generous interpretations of others' behavior.