Just One Question

Faculty job interviews focus on the match between candidate and institution, and Thomas Wright offers ideas for making your best case.
February 9, 2011

Interviews are a funny thing. Every interview is such a different animal – every college is so different, every interviewer has such a different style, everyone responds so differently to the same sorts of statements … and yet, the same question keeps popping up in interview after interview:

Why do you want to work here?

No matter what type of college you are discussing, who is doing the interview, or how the interview is being conducted, this question is bound to come up in some form.

Of course, the question can be put in different ways. An interviewer can say, "What attracted you to our school?" He or she could ask, "Why are you a good fit for our school?" The interviewer could even roll it into another question with a more direct, "Why should we hire you?", forcing you to explain both why you want to work for them and why you’re a good candidate. Whatever the phrasing, you have to be ready for this question – it's the single most obvious question (one interviewer called it a "rite of passage" in one of my interviews), and it's the one that differentiates someone who wants this specific job from someone who just wants a job.

Well, why do you want to work there? Your answer should indicate three things. First, you have some understanding of the school. Second, you understand what you’re looking for in a school. And third, the former and the latter have to overlap in some non-trivial way.

Fortunately, in the digital age, finding info about a college or university isn't too hard. For one thing, you can get all kinds of information in a hurry by simply going to the institution's website. You can also check out a college guidebook to get a more honest view of what a college is all about (plus, it's always fun to dust off those college guidebooks that have been sitting on your shelf for 10 years, especially the weird ones like the Lisa Birnbach College Guides that tell you all of the campus slang that was hip when the book was written in 1992. Off the heezy fo’ sheezy, indeed.). The problem is actually quite the opposite; there is too much info, and it is up to you to sift through it for the important parts.

To help with this, I've listed the primary things I like to think about when I'm going through campus literature and guides. If you can find matches between you and the school in any of these categories, you’ll have something meaningful to discuss. Of course, everyone has different goals, and everyone relates to schools in different ways, but these are certainly a good place to start:

Location. We'll start with an easy one. If you are from the area or have family or collaborators in the area, let them know. Colleges want to know that you would actually seriously consider (or even accept) the position if offered, and letting them know that a move to their area would fit in with your life plans is a good way to indicate that you are truly interested. This can be particularly true if you’re interviewing somewhere remote and far away; if you’re an East coaster and the college is in East Oatmeal, Montana, your interviewers want to know that they're not just wasting their (and your) time. This certainly shouldn't be a large part of your answer, but it can put some of the department's initial concerns about your seriousness as a candidate to rest.

Type of institution. Check to see if the institutions are a liberal arts college/large research university/state university with an emphasis on teaching/service school/clown college. If the type of institution is one that intrigues you, that would probably be a good thing to talk about in the interview. If you can articulate what it is that attracts you to that sort of school, even better.

Types of courses. A college where I once interviewed had a course called "Surprises at Infinity." I think we can all agree that that’s a pretty awesome name for a course. You’d better believe that came up in the interview.

In general, most courses are not so flashily named. However, you should still consider the types of courses you would teach. If you like to teach students of all levels and you notice that the department has courses ranging from pre-algebra to graduate level, that might be a good match. If the courses are technology-heavy and you think that’s fantastic, mention that. If the department has upper level seminars that interest you, that would be good, too.

I have one word of warning here, however. You should realize that most professors like teaching upper level courses in their area. Such courses are closely related to things that the professor is already thinking about, and they're generally only taken by motivated students who understand the subject at a high level. In other words, for someone with a reasonably strong research pedigree, they’re easy. Before going on a soliloquy about how much you love teaching Very Advanced Topics in Upper Level Extra-Abstract Category Theory, realize that colleges that aren't strictly research institutions take pride in their lower level courses, too, and they don't really want someone who views lower level courses as necessary evils. You can certainly mention that you'd like to teach their upper level courses, but that shouldn’t be your whole reason for wanting to work there, so don’t belabor the point.

Types of salaries. Just kidding. I have a friend who claims that if a candidate were ever to answer “Why do you want to work here?” with “Because you pay in U.S. or equivalent dollars,” he would hire the candidate on the spot. This is not the norm. You probably want to stay away from this one.

Types of students. Motivated? Diverse? Polite? Assertive? All male? All female? Many guidebooks and institutional websites will give good (albeit overly flattering) descriptions of the types of students you will encounter.

Types of things they do for undergraduates. Is there an active math club? Undergraduate research? Problem of the week? These are important things to consider for two reasons: colleges are often excited about these things, and departments want new faculty to indicate that they're willing to get involved with these activities.

Colleagues. Do you want to work with someone specific in the department? Mention that person by name, and say what it is about their research that appeals to you (it's related to your thesis, it’s an area you'd like to branch into, etc). Do you want a department with a diversity of backgrounds so that everybody has their own niche and no one’s fighting over who gets to teach the upper level course in your area every semester? That can be appealing for some people, too.

It's good to indicate that you've thought about the people you’ll be working with because at an interview, those people are the ones sitting across the table listening to words come out of your mouth.

And perhaps most importantly….

Programs or attributes of which the college is proud. If an institution has something that committee members really seem to highlight, be it a religious affiliation, a January term, a summer research program, a calculus course with elaborate use of technology, an unusual freshman seminars class, an honor code, a noteworthy study abroad program, or anything else that makes that school different from other schools, you should absolutely mention it and how you would fit in. These really get to the core of a college's self-identity, and giving a nod to that goes a long way in showing not only how serious you are about their job but also why you'd be a great fit for it.


Thomas Wright is a visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Lawrence University. This essay is adapted with permission from a piece he wrote for the graduate student blog of the American Mathematical Society.


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