Beware of the Canned Answer

When it comes to academic job interviews, practice doesn’t always make perfect, warns Robert Simon.

April 12, 2016

When you pop open a can of soda, you expect some fizz, then a little calm, and finally a sweet -- if not laughably unhealthy -- drink to follow. You do not necessarily expect to have a 1983 Bordeaux come pouring out onto your unprepared palate. In the context of an academic job interview, when you conduct an interview with a candidate you expect the opposite: a relatively refined, multidimensional and satisfying question-and-answer experience during which future colleagues may learn something more profound about each candidate than simply that they “like to teach,” or that their dissertation “is about a cutting-edge theory.”

Yet I have seen this “taste test” go incredibly wrong in ways which could have been avoided, and it does not take a psychic to figure out that there may be a problem with the mentoring they receive. Indeed, poorly mentoring a student to give concise but overly scripted answers can simply go too far.

As member of almost a dozen search committees in the past 10 years and at two different institutions, I have found that the ability of a candidate to answer a question both appropriately and thoughtfully, without seeming overprepared, is vital to that candidate’s survival as an eventual finalist in the search. When mentoring potential candidates for the academic job market, we all need to make them aware of the process, the realities of the jobs for which they apply, an awareness of self which we may not have offered them in the past and a solid idea of what types of questions they may receive both during phone/Skype/MLA interviews and campus interviews. Usually, we then tell them to practice their answers, paring down an entire dissertation into a 30-second sound bite or their teaching philosophy into one or two very brief examples, enough to fill the time while riding the elevator from the first to the fifth floors.

Yet this final approach can be taken too far. In a variety of experiences I have witnessed, the candidate ends up giving the impression that they are less aware of the nuances of the question asked and much more interested in popping off quick responses and getting the interview over with.

For example, in 2014 I chaired a search committee tasked with finding the best possible candidate for a lecturer of Spanish position. We had pared down the 80 or so applications to a list of five interviewees, all highly qualified and, at least in theory, equally able to perform admirably in the position. For this search, we chose to forgo interviews at the Modern Language Association; we preferred to try Skype interviews. I scheduled each interview and, with the committee’s close guidance, prepared a series of questions we felt best reflected the position’s realities.

Let me tell you about one particular interview. The candidate looked on paper to be on the verge of overqualified: a Ph.D. in a teaching-oriented field, heaps of experience and a very motivated (and even moving) statement of teaching. But when the day for the interview came, we realized quickly just how underprepared the candidate was for the interview itself. This potential colleague performed the interview via handheld iPhone, slightly shaky, and had obviously not thought to clean up the area behind him. To say it looked like a bomb had gone off would be an understatement.

That was not, however, the worst part. When we asked about the candidate’s teaching experience, the first line out of his mouth was, “I have a passion for teaching.” Pause. Eyes to the left, gliding, then back. “I believe teaching is important.” Pause. Eyes to the left, gliding again but slightly lower. Then back.

To anyone who has been on the committee end of a Skype interview before, this behavior should seem all too familiar. After about 10 minutes of this, my colleagues and I realized that this candidate had, in essence, so overprepared that he could not come up with a single original idea concerning teaching. After the first question we had already made up our minds, although the issue wasn’t limited only to the first question; the canned answers continued. The answer on research and its relationship to teaching was also scripted, to the point that the candidate ended up going on about the dissertation and future publications but not actually answering the question.

Now this may seem cruel to those who are going onto the market, perhaps even overly picky. It speaks, nonetheless, to the kind of series of mistakes that can make the difference between a successful candidacy and an unwanted nickname among the search committee members. (A few of us started calling this candidate “Dr. Messy.”)

So it is really a mistake to practice your answers? Of course not. You should have some idea about what you would like to say, and maybe even a set structure for saying it. Yet, to rely on a script in these cases would be to limit you to your own (or your adviser’s) impressions of what a real interview should look like.

Know yourself, your achievements and your aspirations, and take in what your mentors tell you … to the point it may be realistic. (When I was interviewed for my job at the institution, my own response to the teaching question, for example, was something like: “You’ve probably heard everyone tell you they have a passion for teaching; I won’t tell you that. I’ll just go over what I do in and out of class for my students and how I inject my research into my teaching, and then you decide.” I don’t really remember it word for word as, frankly, it was not scripted.)

For those colleagues mentoring graduate students, please heed these words of caution as well. When preparing your candidates for interviews, we only ask that you prepare them for interviews, first, at universities not like your own (which probably make up around 91 percent of all institutions in the United States and Canada), since the research/teaching/service balance will almost always differ from that to which you have become accustomed, and second, in dialogue with potential future colleagues, rather than a theoretically charged list of sound bites and key words you have heard floating around or believe will sound impressive to potential search committees. Please, ask them to study the interviewers’ institution and its salient characteristics and then to speak from experience and the heart -- not from a script.

For you graduate students or freshly minted Ph.D.s going on the market, please take this message to heart: no matter what your well-meaning mentor may tell you, for my sake and for my colleagues’ peace of mind, please don’t just pop open a can of response whenever someone at an interview, conference or anywhere else asks you a question. It’s a soda we’d rather you not just hand over in the hopes we’ll drink it down, fizz and all.


Robert Simon is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Kennesaw State University.


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