Asking the Right Questions

By Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong
Chronicle of Higher Education
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors

Jenny: As career counselors, we do a lot of mock job interviews with Ph.D. students and postdocs, and often film them. Two questions prove difficult for almost all of our interviewees. The first is, "Tell me about yourself, your research, or your teaching." After viewing their interview tape, most are able to fix the problems with their response to that question. However, they find it much harder to fix the second question that gives them trouble -- the point at which the interviewer asks, "Do you have any questions for me?"

Many job candidates struggle to come up with engaging questions to ask the professors, students, deans, and other administrators whom they might meet in the course of interviewing with academic institutions. In this month's column, we'll discuss some strategies for that nerve-racking problem.

Julie: One of the most important rules of the game: Don't ask questions about things that you could find out yourself on the college's Web site or in the material it sent to you. Take the time to do a bit of research into each institution where you are interviewing. That might seem like a daunting task if you have multiple interviews; however, showing an active interest in an institution can make a significant difference in a search committee's perception of you as a candidate.

Know the basics about the place and don't ask questions like, "How many undergraduates are there here?" Before your interview, ask yourself why you want to work at that institution and come up with questions that reflect your enthusiasm.

Jenny: Before your campus interview, get a schedule of the day's events and the names of the people with whom you'll be speaking. That is an essential step that many job candidates forget in the exciting of getting called to interview. If your initial interview is by phone or at a conference, chances are you won't have too many interviewers to keep track of, although we have had candidates interviewed over the phone by four individuals simultaneously.

If you are going to be visiting the campus, you might be meeting with everyone from faculty in the department, to deans, or even the president of the university, depending on the size of the institution. In that case, you will need to think of appropriate questions not only for your potential colleagues, but also for upper-level administrators.

Julie: Let's deal first with good questions to ask during a telephone or conference interview. Once you have the names of the people who will be interviewing you, do some digging. Find out their research specialties. Find out what they teach. Use that information to ask them questions: "I notice that you collaborated on a class with Professor Y from religious studies. How did that come about? Are there often opportunities to teach courses with faculty members from outside the department?"

You can also ask faculty members broad questions about their experience at an institution:

What do you like best about the University of X?

How would you describe the students at Z College?

How does X University help to support your research? It's also appropriate to ask questions that will help you understand how things work in the department: "What is the teaching load?" and "How are departmental (or divisional) duties divided among faculty?" You can learn a lot about a department by how people respond.

Jenny: If you're interviewing with an institution that has a particular mission -- a religious college or a military academy, for example -- you might want to ask a few questions about the role that that mission plays in faculty life.

Before the conference interview ends, you could certainly ask department members what their time frame is for selecting a shortlist and making a final hiring decision. Search committees might not always stick to their word, but having an idea of when you might hear about whether you landed a campus interviedw can help calm your nerves as you wait.

Julie: If you're invited to campus, be aware that you'll be meeting with a wide range of people -- not just department members. In order to show how interested you are in the job, you're going to have to post engaging questions to all of those different people.

Jenny: The first people you will probably interact with are professors from the department. They will certainly have questions for you, but they will also expect you to be curious about them. Ask what the students are like, what kinds of courses the department hopes to offer in the future, and how the department is viewed by the administration. Ask the department head about the opportunities for research support and about the path to tenure. Ask what would be expected of you in terms of teaching and service. You can also ask the professors what they feel their department does well and what they want to improve.

The American Political Science Association has compiled a list of questions that a large number of departments have agreed to answer.

It's an excellent list, and would be a good starting point for job candidates in any discipline as they brainstorm questions to ask departments.

Julie: If faculty members from outside the department are part of your interview schedule, you can ask them some of the same questions -- about their research, about their experiences with students on the campus, and about what they like about the institution. If the department has included people from other departments on your schedule, it could be that it envisions a possible collaboration between you and these professors. So, it would be appropriate to ask questions not only about the links between the two departments, but also about possible links between your research interests.

Jenny: You might be interviewed by the dean of the school or college in which your department is housed. In preparing for that conversation, keep in mind that the dean's field might be very different from your own. Ask the dean about his or her goals for the department or about the department's place within the school. You might also ask a dean about the institutional requirements for tenure.

Julie: At a small college, you might interview with the provost or even the president -- a person directly involved in defining the institution's vision. Ask about that vision. How is the college changing? What challenges is it facing? Ask about the relationship between the institution and the community that surrounds it. Try to turn the intimidating moment of meeting the president into an opportunity to gain a wider perspective on the institution.

Jenny: Students can be the most intimidating audience for many job candidates. Students might have varying degrees of influence as to whether you get hired, but you absolutely want to engage them as much as possible. When you're talking to undergraduates, ask which classes have been their favorite, why they choose to attend the college, what they like least about the institution, what teaching styles they find most effective, and what they would hope a new faculty member would bring to the department.

Julie: When you meet with graduate students, you might begin by asking about their research projects. Remember, graduate students will be evaluating you not only as a teacher, but also as a potential mentor; they might even want your feedback about their project, especially if your research areas are closely aligned. Ask why they chose the department for their doctoral work and what they hope to achieve after graduation.

It's sometimes difficult for young job candidates to talk with graduate students, since mamny candidates still feel like students themselves. However, it's important that your questions (and answers) reflect that you see yourself as a faculty member. You don't want to appear snobbish, but you do want to convey confidence in your ability to teach and be a mentor to students at the graduate level.

Jenny: Once the interview is over, it's time for you to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Would I be happy here?
  • Could I be a productive scholar here?
  • Would I enjoy my teaching responsibilities?
  • If I don't plan to stay here long, could I get enough done to move me to where I want to be?

Career counselors often tell job candidates that an interview is not just a time to be evaluated, it's a time for you to evaluate an employer. So, be inquisitive. Make a department realize that you really want to work there, and not that you're just another name to be crossed off the list.

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