A hundred or so questions to think about asking at an academic job interview

The following two lists of questions were accumulated over the course of about 16 academic job interviews I had, as a candidate, across 36 years [1], with some additional input from probably a couple hundred interviews I’ve participated in on the recruiting side. I’ve shared these with an assortment of folks over the years, and as we are hitting the onset of the job interview season in academic political science, figured I might as well post them:

Questions relevant to interviewing for a senior position (5 pages):
Senior.Job.interview.questions (pdf)
Senior.Job.interview.questions (odt)

Questions relevant to interviewing for an administrative position (11 pages):
Administrative.job.interview.questions (pdf)
Administrative.job.interview.questions (odt)

An assortment of caveats:

1. First and foremost, do not take these too literally: I’ve only actually asked a small fraction of these, and some of them could make a search committee or individual interviewer uncomfortable. [2] They are probably best thought of as questions you wish you could get the answers to. If you are aware of them, you can find answers to a remarkable number just by listening, without explicitly asking. Life is also like that.

2. These are not really relevant to an entry-level interview, that is, one where you are not currently holding a job (or a job you want to stay in): the dynamics in those situations are quite different and as importantly, you need two or three years to begin to get a sense of how departments and universities work from the perspective of a faculty member rather than a graduate student.

3. As will presumably be obvious, these are all directed at jobs that have a significant research component.

4. The administrative questions would also be useful if you are externally reviewing a department or institute. Those exercises are time consuming but can be quite interesting, particularly when the fourth or fifth person says “No one else is going to tell you this but…”—or even better “We aren’t supposed to tell you this but…”—and reveals the dirty little secret that accounts for some heretofore puzzling but blindingly evident dysfunction.

5. Not getting answers to a question, of course, says a lot: at one point I was interviewing to head a research institute and no one on the search committee had the slightest idea of the percentage of indirect costs that were returned to the institute, which was [of course] supposed to be self-supporting. I found that stunning. That said, that same committee correctly concluded I was not the right person for the position and offered it to someone far better suited, so one can conclude that despite this oversight they did their job.

6. My favorite questions are those involving coffee and cookie arrangements—which in fact I’ve never actually had the nerve to ask—but in watching the ebb and flow of departmental cultures over the years and across institutions, this is remarkably revealing. The best departmental coffee situation I encountered was where an enterprising faculty member persuaded a wealthy alum to fund coffee from a professional service that was used by the best restaurants in town.[3] The worst was a situation where relations between the faculty and staff were so toxic that separate apartheid-like facilities were maintained, apparently to avoid the possibility of class-based cross-contamination, and the office manager apparently spent much of her time trying to keep staff from quitting.[4]

Again, you need to get some experience to evaluate these: every collective coffee system since the proverbial Arab herder first noticed goats were very frisky after eating those little red berries has had free riders, but just who are the free riders and does the system still function? When I was greeted by the staff one morning with “Hey, Phil, look in the kitchen: someone besides you actually brought in donuts!” I knew the department was in trouble.

7. Oh, and yes, the staff notice these things. The staff (and graduate students) also notice how you treat them during an interview, and that information can become relevant. But you knew that, right?

And those donuts?: a few bucks spent on a dozen donuts once a week is a remarkably small investment for improving your work environment.

Footnotes

1. About half resulted in offers, on two I unilaterally withdrew having concluded the position was incoherently defined, and the remainder went to someone else: I’m guessing those figures are fairly typical once you get past entry-level interviews and have an established reputation so people have a fair good idea what to expect before deciding to interview you. So why didn’t I get 100% offers?: always remember that you might be a perfectly good person for the job, but someone else is even better. It’s really hard to get this across in the U.S. but truly, not everything is under your control.

2. But could also impress a search committee: search committees vary wildly, even within a department.

3. PRIO‘s airport-business-lounge-grade coffee/espresso maker in the lobby (particularly when it was working) and “cake parties” at the slightest excuse are a close second.

4. I had a curious dynamic with the staff at that institution: I tended to arrive about 8 when the staff had to be at their desks—or, more typically, were standing in the hall exchanging gossip—and at that point everyone was very friendly and I was effectively an honorary staff member, as were a couple other early-arriving faculty. But after about 9, the barriers went up and we were treated like faculty.

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One Response to A hundred or so questions to think about asking at an academic job interview

  1. womanstats says:

    Phil, this is one of the most helpful posts ever! I think I got that list from you a few years ago, and boy, did it ever come in handy! I’m glad you are immortalizing this knowledge, so to speak, on your blog.

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