The Inverse Interview

About to interview for an academic position? Elizabeth Simmons suggests how to ask questions that convey your enthusiasm and readiness for the role.

December 12, 2014

I recently read Edmond Lau’s terrific article for engineering job candidates, which stressed that the interviewee must ask thoughtful questions of the interviewer. Being in the middle of the faculty search season at my college, I was struck by the soundness of the advice – and the need for an article tailored to candidates for academic positions.

When I interview faculty candidates during their first visit to campus, I both ask them open-ended questions and give them time to pose some in return. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed that the matters about which the candidate quizzes me are nearly as informative as the candidate’s answers to my own queries.

Unfortunately, certain patterns among a candidate’s questions can convey negative impressions about the individual’s understanding of the academic unit’s mission or degree of preparation for a faculty role.

Some candidates offer essentially no questions or ask only about simple factual matters that are discussed on the department or college’s website. This makes it appear that the candidate is not terribly interested in pursuing a career at our institution. 

Perhaps, in truth, the candidate is just nervous or worn out from a long day of interviewing. Perhaps they have already asked every question they’d brought to the campus interview of other people.  But the candidate is passing up a prime opportunity to gain an inside perspective, get a sense of how the unit’s leader approaches academe, and convey enthusiasm for joining the college.

Some candidates focus their queries entirely on one area of faculty responsibilities.  For instance, they may ask a cluster of questions about teaching “loads,” course releases, support for research assistants, and availability of research or travel funds. These are certainly important matters. 

But since the primary mission of my college is undergraduate education and since the faculty members are expected to be passionate teachers as well as engaged scholars, asking only this kind of question feels off-kilter. It implies that the candidate either does not understand or does not share the college’s priorities. 

Some candidates ask about matters that are most appropriately addressed when an offer is on the table: salary, start-up packages, and space assignments. This suggests that the candidate is either overly confident of receiving an offer or does not understand the typical stages of the academic interviewing process. 

Since I suspect that most candidates who make these basic errors may simply have received insufficient mentoring about how to approach academic interviews, I hope this article may provide some useful guidance.

A campus interview (or nowadays, a phone or videoconference interview) clearly has two sides: the overt interview by which the institution assesses the candidate, and the reciprocal interview by which the candidate assesses the institution. But there is also an “inverse” aspect, in that each side’s efforts to evaluate the other are visible to both participants and become part of evidence under consideration. Search committee members and institutional leaders tend to choose interview questions that reflect the institution’s mission and values; interviewees should, likewise, be aware that their questions reveal their own priorities.

Moreover, the chance to ask questions offers candidates a striking opportunity to demonstrate their readiness to assume the position for which they are interviewing.  Whether the job would be an upward or lateral move, candidates can show that they are prepared to immediately take on its essential responsibilities and eager to learn about the more complex aspects of the role.

Many kinds of questions can suggest the sort of engagement and maturity that future colleagues are seeking, while providing you with significant information about what your academic life would be like on this campus. Notably, these queries tend to relate the advertised position to a broader institutional context or to underscore the candidate’s interest in contributing to the unit’s mission.  Here are examples of a few categories and questions to consider.  

The trajectory of the department or college:  While the website may show what the department members are doing now, it can be valuable to learn about the unit’s history and goals.

  • Why does the unit incorporate the particular range of scholarly disciplines or subfields now represented among the faculty?
  • Why is the unit hiring at this time? Is the unit in an expansion phase? Are more future openings anticipated? If so, in what areas?
  • Is the size or composition of the student body (graduate or undergraduate) changing over time?
  • What initiatives is the unit undertaking in its teaching, research, or outreach missions right now?  Is this position related to any of those initiatives?

The unit’s relationship to the campus: Joint ventures and interdisciplinary enterprises are increasingly common in academe – but they are handled very differently on different campuses.

  • Are there any jointly appointed faculty members, cross-listed courses, or joint degree programs involving partnerships with other units?
  • Are there core research facilities or topical research centers that are co-sponsored with other units?
  • How will the holder of the new position be expected to contribute to the college’s relationship with its partners?

Assessment of faculty performance: The norms against which an institution evaluates faculty members show what the institution values – and how you should spend your time if you work there.

  • How is faculty performance assessed each year? Does this relate to the evaluations for reappointment and promotion?
  • How is teaching quality evaluated? What kinds of evidence are considered?
  • How are interdisciplinary efforts assessed? What about activities that cut across the research, teaching, and service missions?
  • What separates a good faculty member from a great one at this institution?  What kinds of attitudes or work habits make people successful here?

Settling in: Answers to these questions reveal how you would go about establishing your academic life on this campus.

  • How are new faculty oriented and mentored during their first year?
  • Are there faculty development programs about technology, teaching, grant-writing, or lab management? 
  • What kind of guidance is provided about the tenure and promotion process?
  • Is there a standard way to meet faculty outside the unit who also work in your area?
  • Are there existing cross-unit collaborations or campus resources that touch on your scholarship or teaching specialties?

While these examples are by no means exhaustive, they illustrate the sorts of questions that will demonstrate your sincere interest in the institution while helping you determine whether it is a good fit for your professional aspirations

Finally, I would like to note that it can be helpful to bring a written list of questions along to the interviews. Even if you find yourself feeling tired or nervous, you will still have the right questions for the conversation at hand. The list can also remind you to ask multiple interviewers about some of the same topics, to get a sense of how consistent certain practices or perceptions are across the unit.

Best wishes for your next academic interview!


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College, acting dean of the College of Arts & Letters, and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.


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