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As a career developer for graduate students and postdocs, I often discuss with them how to succeed in interviews and talk through potential questions. One question that arises during those discussions is how to handle when your interviewers ask you if you have any questions.
Looking back at my own experiences with interviewing when I went started to search for a full-time position, I did not understand that I could or should be asking questions of prospective employers. When I first started to interview for academic jobs, I walked into my interviews focused more on what they would ask me and less on what I would ask them. Well-meaning people also advised me that when interviewers asked if I had any questions, I should ask questions that show that I am as interested in them as they were in me.
At the time, though, I saw this as just another task that I needed to do: ask good questions so that they saw how good a candidate I was. But I’ve realized since that when you can ask questions of those you may one day work with or for, it is a perfect opportunity -- one I didn’t recognize at first but that has helped me to grow my own career.
In a previous article, I discussed my own identity and journey as a person. In 2012, I had finished the coursework phase of my Ph.D. and needed to find a full-time position in academe sooner than expected. I was also afraid to share my gender identity with anyone, though I knew that I would most likely come out wherever I found a position.
I never asked my interviewers directly if they accepted people like me. But as I learned how to ask questions of my interviewers, I asked those that helped me learn how people at that institution treated one another, how they dealt with diverse identities and what they valued in a team member. Such questions helped me to apply for and accept a job that I thought would support me, even if they found out who I really was. Only through asking good questions, and not just for the sake of asking them, was I able to find a good fit to begin my current career journey.
Sometimes interviews can easily feel like a one-way street. The human resources professional or search committee asks questions. They set the schedule for your interview and any other parts of a visit to their building or campus. They determine what happens when, because they are trying to learn as much about an applicant as possible -- to see if we are a good fit, an honest employee, a colleague that interacts well with co-workers and many more aspects of who we would be as an employee or academic at their company or institution.
At the same time, we as applicants are willing participants who choose to accept a request for an interview. Yes, they may be evaluating the types of questions that you ask them, but we are doing the same. They are looking for a professional match -- a good fit -- and so are we.
As someone who has served on search committees, I consider professional skills and experience when I interview a potential colleague, but I also think about how an applicant will work with other people in an office, considering both job expectations and team dynamics. Part of the process of searching for a job is searching for the people, places and tasks that are part of a job, and to search for those well, we need to observe and ask questions. We cannot discover everything we want to know about a potential workplace. But recognizing that an interview and a visit to a company, campus or other worksite is a data-gathering visit as much as an examination of you as a potential employee can help you to focus on not just if you are the right fit for the job, but if they are the right fit for you.
Taking that approach can help you learn about:
Potential job asks and expectations. First and foremost, we can learn more about the tasks and the type of work that would be involved in a job. A job description can only characterize a job to a certain degree. For the position that I currently have, I thought I understood the job based on the job description. Once I interviewed and asked the search committee about what different items meant, I learned much more.
Also, we can learn about workplace expectations, the pace of work, attitudes about deadlines, shared goals and many additional workplace or institutional values as part of asking questions. Granted, once I started the position, I learned that what I did on the job, how I did it and the implicit and explicit expectations of my office were even more nuanced than what I learned in the interview. But the questions I asked during that interview helped me evaluate whether or not I wanted the position, wanted to work in that environment and wanted to take that step in my overall career journey.
Potential colleagues and superiors. Interviewing involves people, and interviews expose us as job candidates to people whom we may be working with or working for. This is an opportunity, even if feels artificial at times, to meet people whom we may be spending at least one third of our days with for years to come.
What are these people like? Could you see yourself collaborating with them, working with them or wanting to avoid them? Does the workplace culture seem healthy, or is there a sense of fear or silence that you detect? Are people connected with each other, or is there distance? Do people feel or seem micromanaged or left to do what they decide is best? And most important, does what you learn through what you observe and ask -- sometimes carefully and in a politically savvy way -- tell you what it would be like to work in that job or with those individuals?
Fit and your career journey. Asking good questions as an interviewee can also be a chance to see whether or not a position fits with your career goals. When I was looking for jobs, I knew that I eventually wanted to work in the area of graduate student and postdoc teaching development. I also knew that it would be challenging to move directly into my dream position. Instead, I looked for the next step, which in my case was a position working in a center for teaching and as an instructional technology consultant.
That position was not my ultimate career goal. While I am skilled in the area of instructional technology, it is not my passion. But it allowed me to gain experience in the area of graduate student teaching development over the next three years, and I only knew that it was an opportunity to gain experience in that area because I asked.
Ultimately, that experience helped me to be eligible for my current position, which allows me to spend more time on graduate student and postdoc teaching development. I also discovered that was a possibility during interviews for this job, even though it was not the primary focus of the position -- again, I only learned about it when I asked and was curious.
I know that what I am offering today can feel risky: asking questions of those who are supposed to ask questions of us. I know that what I am suggesting needs to be done carefully. Yet done well, asking good questions -- both during times when you are asked to ask questions or during more informal discussion times -- can be a way to learn more about a potential workplace and colleagues, and how the role fits your goals.
I encourage you to work with career advisers or coaches that you know to talk through potential questions you may ask in potential and upcoming job interviews. See it as an opportunity to investigate and express intellectual, professional and personal curiosity in any potential new position.