Academic job interviews typically conclude with the interviewer(s) asking the candidate what questions he or she has about the position. It is a mistake to tell your interviewers you don’t have any questions -- this can signal lack of preparedness and lack of interest in the position you are interviewing for. Asking the wrong questions can be just as problematic as not asking any questions at all. So what questions should you have for your interviewers, and how can you find out what you really want to know without asking questions that might seem inappropriate?
First, let’s address what not to ask:
- Don’t waste the committee’s time by asking questions that you can easily find the answer to on the department Web site or in the course catalog. Any questions asked should be to learn information that you couldn’t find out by doing your own research. In other words, you should have already done your homework before coming to the interview. If you haven’t, don’t let your questions give that away.
- Don’t ask questions about salary or attempt to make negotiations during an interview with the search committee. If you get as far as an interview with an administrator, details about salary, benefits, workload and other logistics will be explained at length, and you will be invited to ask questions about these topics then. Note that asking questions is not the same as negotiating -- you should not try to negotiate on any of these issues until you have been made a written offer.
- If you have concerns about the position, avoid asking about these in ways that might lead the committee to think you may not accept an offer. Search committees are worried about having to declare a failed search if they extend an offer to a candidate who then declines it, so you don’t want your questions to leave them wondering if you really want the job. Rather than saying something like, “Your teaching load is quite heavy. Do people manage to get much research done?” phrase questions in ways that suggest you are imagining yourself in the position despite its drawbacks: “Can you tell me how faculty here balance the responsibilities of teaching and research?”
As the above example suggests, it’s not just a matter of having questions to ask, but asking the right questions in the right ways. The ideal outcome of asking a question is not (just) to get answers to things you want to know, but to further convince the committee that you are the right person for this position. Here are a few tried-and-true approaches:
- Ask about long-term opportunities and expectations. The specific questions you might ask here depend on the position you are applying for: if you’re a candidate for a visiting professor position, you might ask what sorts of professional development opportunities there are for non-tenure-track faculty. If you’re a candidate for a tenure-track line, you should ask about tenure timelines and the publishing and service expectations for tenure and promotion. Regardless of what the position is, it’s good to ask questions that suggest that you have long-term career goals and are seeking to continuously develop as a professional.
- Have a student-focused question: at small liberal arts colleges, community colleges and other teaching-oriented institutions, in particular, it is worth demonstrating that you want to know more about the students you will teach if you take the job. Again, don’t ask questions that are easily answerable by browsing the college Web site (e.g., “How diverse is the student population here?”); instead, ask questions that suggest you are digging a little deeper and really thinking about what it would be like to work with students there. Questions such as, “How does the department mentor students who are majoring in this discipline?” or “How many students participate in the service-learning courses the department offers?” suggest that you are invested in student success and interested in innovative forms of teaching and learning.
- At an interview with an administrator, especially, ask questions that show you are interested in the campus’s unique attributes and in opportunities to collaborate with faculty outside of your discipline. Every campus has a center, an institute, an initiative or an annual event that its administrators are particularly proud of and which draws upon the resources of faculty from various departments. Asking questions about these particular points of pride not only shows (again) that you have done your homework, but also demonstrates that you are interested in becoming involved in the institution’s most exciting, important and interdisciplinary activities.
Whether you are interviewing with a search committee or with an administrator, you may find yourself wondering how many questions is too many. In some cases, you may have a long list of questions you would really like to ask, but it is not uncommon for committee members to begin to fidget or check their watches toward the end of a long interview.
If you can sense that the interviewers are ready to wrap things up, ask the one or two questions that you think will leave the best impression (even if they are not the ones you are dying to learn the answers to). Save your other questions for after you have received an offer, at which point you can and should ask as many questions as you see fit.
Melissa Dennihy is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.
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