A Short Interviewing Guide

Navigating the interview process in a competitive academic job market.
By Florence Neymotin

Having gone through numerous interviews as both a candidate and as an interviewer, I know the different types of questions candidates need to prepare for, as well as those that interviewers often ask.

The last time I went on the market as a candidate, I had eleven first-round interviews. One university gave me an offer without even requesting a second interview; three on-campus visits resulted in offers and two additional visits were scheduled but canceled after I accepted another offer. Normally, in my field of economics, first-round interviews result in an approximate 25-30 percent flyout rate, and flyouts result in an approximate 50 percent offer rate. I believe that my particular choice of interview techniques, outlined here, helped me greatly in securing callbacks and offers.

In what follows, several types and categories of questions are grouped by level of difficulty of response. This difficulty varies from person to person, so it should not be taken as dogma. They are categorized as “easy,” “medium,” and “difficult,” partly in my own estimation and partly based on the difficulty in preparing for and answering these questions after having been prepared for normal questions by outside mentors.

Easy Questions

In academic jobs, there is a large amount of contact between colleagues. Although the “easy” questions may not require as much intellectual capacity as some other more technically based questions, they are often just as important in the interview process.

One goal here is to establish in the minds of your interlocutors that you are someone who is easy to get along with and will fit in well with other members of the department. Generally having a positive attitude or being able to relate to others with a sense of humor will help to ease the tension inherent in the process. Joking should be done carefully, however, since, as we all know, a joke can offend someone just as easily as it can bridge the emotional space between individuals. Joking about another person’s intelligence—even if it helps win over some of the other members of the hiring team—is a good way to gain an enemy in the department.

A second purpose of the easy questions is to help determine how the interviewee will relate to other people more generally. This can include an ability to interact with students and administrators as well as colleagues.

It is not necessary to try to be best friends with the interviewer—and in fact this strategy could backfire—but being overly deferential or formal is probably not the best strategy. An academic hiring committee might conclude that being perceived this way by students could make it difficult, for instance, to increase the number of majors, establish research relationships with more advanced undergraduate or graduate students, and generally establish a reputation among the student body for being a “good” professor.

Interacting with individuals in positions of authority is a significant part of most jobs. Faculty members sometimes need to have an amicable, yet pointed, discussions with department chairs, deans, and other administrators. Show the hiring committee that you can interact as a good employee rather than solely as an independent agent, that you can contribute to the department while also respecting the current structure.

Answers to the easy questions cannot seem too rehearsed. You should practice with this “style” of question, but answering such questions effectively requires an ability to let conversation flow naturally.

There will be gender differences in the hiring committee’s expectations regarding how the easy questions are handled. Whether appropriate or not, people generally expect women to answer questions in a slightly different fashion than men. An answer that may appear to be arrogant when spoken by a woman  can be perceived as reflecting confidence when uttered by a man. Since hiring committees often consist of older, white males, this bias has to be considered by female interviewees, changing cultural norms notwithstanding. Attitudes toward women may vary, of course, by the type of academic institution and region of the country.

Examples

How are your interviews going?

While this question is straightforward, it seeks to assess both how well interviewees are doing by objective standards (for example, how many other interviews they have) and also how well they “believe” themselves to be doing. It may also help interviewers to determine whether the candidate is interviewing with comparable institutions. Answering this question requires positivity regarding one’s prospects, although overconfidence may be penalized. However, if the department values confidence, overconfidence might not hurt.

How does the weather compare to where you are from? What do you think of the weather?

Revealing a hatred of snow when interviewing with a college in Minnesota will probably make the interviewee appear a bad fit. It will seem as if he or she may not be interested in taking the position or would be unhappy when winter arrived.

It is best to remain positive about whatever bad weather occurs during the interview. Showing flexibility will be beneficial. Location can be a big concern, particularly for colleges in small towns or in other areas with few amenities. It is possible, however, to take this strategy to an unnecessary extreme. When I went to an interview in the midst of a blizzard, saying that the weather “wasn’t that bad” would have been ridiculous. Making a joke and admitting to the difficulty presented by the weather probably wins points for honesty.

Medium Difficulty Questions

This set of questions relates to an individual’s preference for and knowledge of the institution and maturity as a teacher or researcher. Researching the institution and the individuals who work there will help you prepare for these kinds of questions.

Candidates should also be wary of departmental and institutional politics. For instance, an interviewee for an academic position may choose to show his or her knowledge of institutional structure by bringing up the fact that the teaching load is changing from 3-3 to 2-3. While this does show a commitment to understanding the inner workings of the department, this change may not have been unanimously approved. It even could be a point of contention among members of the committee. In this case, bringing up course loads will put the interviewee in an awkward position. As in politics, openly taking sides with one faction at a job interview is probably a bad idea.

Finally, when there is only one interviewer, it is acceptable to talk about that interviewer’s relationship to your research. However, when multiple interviewers are present at the table, it is important to focus on all of the interviewers. Leaving an individual out can be detrimental.

Casting a wide net for your potential collaborators is important; your future collaborations could be a political decision, so this approach establishes that you will be able to work with others in the department and contribute to the department in important ways. This approach also helps when answering questions such as “How do you see your research evolving?” or “With whom do you think you could establish research collaborations?”

The question now arises, “What if I really don’t want to take a job at a small college located in the middle of nowhere?” Unless you want to make some very painful decisions later on, it is probably best not to accept interviews with institutions where you would be unwilling to work. Some people will tell you to take any interview offered to you, since you might be persuaded to accept a position at an institution you had earlier ruled out. Wherever you interview, behave as if you might take the job and would be excited to do so during the course of your interview. Otherwise, the entire exercise is a waste of energy.

Examples

What do you know about our institution? What drew you to apply for a position here?

At a minimum, interviewees should visit the home page of the institution’s website as well as any pages devoted to the department or division where they are applying. It is useful to have at least cursory knowledge regarding the background of everyone in the department. If possible, familiarize yourself with the work of members of the hiring committee before the interview.

Keep notes as a reference at the interview rather than memorizing them. While it is expected that interviewees know their own research flawlessly, expectations are lower regarding the candidates’ memorized knowledge of the job specifications and institutional details. It may help to pepper the conversation with facts and figures about the institution so that it is clear you have done your homework.

Finally, while it is useful to tell people what you like about the institution and department, you should also know what matters to people in the department. Reading the department newsletter and trying to understand why certain achievements may be valued is a good first step in understanding the general climate and emphasis of the department.

How do you see yourself contributing to the department? What value would you add?

While this question might initially appear to be focused on the interviewee, it is mainly about the interviewers and their organization. Answering this question well will show an understanding of the department and university structure as well as how you would contribute to those structures. If you respond by enumerating all of your merits without any reference to the department, you may impress some people, but more likely you will seem tiresome or self-centered.

In order to answer this question, consider the ways each of your individual strengths fills a gap or hole in the department. Alternatively, relay the message that your abilities contribute to and further strengthen an already dominant area. When bringing up dominant areas, however, the interviewers may wonder what you will add to their already strong department. Potential contributions may include (1) a research agenda that helps to advance the research agenda of the department; (2) service work (although be careful here not to overcommit or sound as if you are too focused on service at research-oriented institutions); and (3) teaching methods that further student education and involvement.

What do you think of university policy “X”?

Open-ended questions regarding opinions and preferences can be difficult to answer. The type of questions included here range from the teaching-research split to the optimal methods of increasing student involvement to strategies aimed at university accreditation. Often these questions may be another way of saying, “We just recently did X or are considering its implementation, what is your position on the matter?” Unfortunately, the position may be unknown to you beforehand and the interviewers may not be in agreement regarding this particular policy. It is likely that at least one question of this form will come up during the course of a normal interview. Tread carefully in responding.

A good way to handle this kind of question is to probe for more information. Ask the interviewers whether the policy is being considered currently or whether the department recently discussed it. A polite inquiry will normally yield good results.

When forced to respond to a question on an issue currently under debate in the department, present the pros and cons carefully. Show fairness and an ability to consider issues both clearly and rationally.

What types of research most closely align with yours and influenced your work? What types stand in starkest contrast to your own?

This question tests the interviewee’s understanding of his or her subspecialization and maturity as a researcher. Knowing the answer to this type of question implies that one’s future work and ability to perform in this subfield will be substantial. Not knowing the relevant arguments and discussions in one’s area of research means a research paper may be a “one-shot” contribution with little to come.

A similar kind of question tests breadth of knowledge relating to the choice of an intended journal for a job-market paper. Advisers will typically tell students where to target their job market papers, but the students may not know why a particular journal is a good fit. Interviewees can prepare for this question to some extent by asking their advisers or mentors why they think the journal targets are a good choice. While not giving a complete picture of the field of journal choices, this will show that the interviewee is starting to think in terms of journal publication and the correct methods to achieve this goal independently. Typical points to consider are the rank of the journal, the publication rate, time to publication, whether the editors publish in the same area, and whether it is useful to establish credentials with this particular journal.

Institutions must also consider the chances that the interviewee will accept a job offer. Since an offer to candidate X means that the department may lose its second choice of candidate Y, candidates are chosen carefully. If candidate Y is more likely to take the position than candidate X, and candidate Y is almost equally desirable as candidate X, sometimes the institution will opt for candidate Y over candidate X.

Difficult Questions

Difficult questions take one out of one’s comfort zone. While the easy questions may be new and can encompass a wide range of possible values, they do not generally directly assess research and teaching ability. Easy questions may give the interviewers a sense of the interviewer’s ability to establish rapport and get along with others; however, they also tend to be a bit less “substantive” in nature.

Difficult questions remain difficult only the first time you hear them. Unfortunately, there will always be “difficult” questions, no matter how many interviews you have attended as an interviewer or as an interviewee. Because the questions take various forms, I have listed the general structure of questions rather than particular examples of questions that could be asked. The “form” of the questions that I have found most difficult—and I would give the caveat that these are most relevant for my particular area of applied economic research—fall into categories each of the examples below address.

Examples

Questions related to the policy or “real-world” implications of your work or findings.

Here are a few suggestions when facing such questions. Limit the scope of your response to those areas in which you would be comfortable taking a stand and do not talk above people’s heads. There is a difference between limiting the scope of discussion and simply being abstruse to the point of being impossible to understand. People, and particularly academics, don’t like to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they do not understand something. While it may be standard in the field to be pedantic, even pedants will generally prize someone who is easy to understand.

Do not change the subject. While the question may be uncomfortable or difficult, most people do not forget what they asked and are liable to be annoyed or insulted if their question is ignored. You may be able to tactfully avoid or ignore some questions, but you miss an opportunity to establish rapport and trust when you exercise your right not to answer the questions asked of you.

It is possible that you will be unaware of the information your interviewers are referencing. Interviews may bring up facts that you should “presumably” know in order to unhinge you. Being unperturbed but showing that you would like to know more is probably the best strategy. You will undoubtedly not know about every bit of information your interviewers consider relevant to the topic at hand. Fielding questions such as “Can you tell us what the effect of your analysis would be on this particular policy of interest?” should be handled with diplomacy and calm.

It is acceptable to respond to the interviewers’ questions with the following question: “Can you please tell me more about the specifics of this policy so that I can answer your question more accurately?” Your interviewers will appreciate the respect and acknowledgment you are according them by asking them this question as well as your clear interest in answering the question carefully.

Reframing your question and discussion for a new audience.

The most difficult task I faced was responding to a question asking me to reframe my job talk on the spot and to “sell” my paper to individuals responsible for grants and funding. If you are asked such a question, remain calm, ask whether you can take a minute to write down some bullet points, and then address the topic in a structured fashion. The majority of what you will say for a new audience will sound remarkably similar to what you said in preparing your initial job talk. Differences will generally be minor and will mostly consist of framing. If you are comfortable with the general flow of the material and the reasons that you have chosen to structure your job talk in this fashion, then this particular task, while difficult, will not be completely unmanageable.

Conclusion

These are the main points to consider when preparing for and interviewing for academic positions:

  1. Research the institutions and the individuals at the institutions.
  2. Make an effort to show flexibility and an ability to get along well with others.
  3. Be wary of the intradepartmental implications of your statements and stances.
  4. Do not generalize beyond the scope of what you are comfortable defending.
  5. Showcase the strengths of your work even if you are asked to present it in a different format.
  6. Ask your interviewers for additional information or clarify the points for you.
  7. Make sure that you are not simply parroting back your adviser’s suggestions about where you should submit and what your work means and that you are capable of showing independent thinking and maturity.

Following these steps will likely increase your chances of landing your preferred position, whether during your first academic job search or as you advance in your career.

Florence Neymotin is as an associate professor in the department of finance and economics at the Huizenga College of Business at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Her research spans several different subtopic areas in applied microeconomics and includes work on entrepreneurship, credit unions, altruistic behavior, and social capital, as well as various topics in education. Her e-mail address is fneymotin@nova.edu.

 

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