Academic Job Interview Questions
January 30, 2006 2:49 PM   Subscribe

What are likely questions to be asked at an academic job interview?

I have a job interview for a tenure-track professorship coming up very shortly. I've been in university non-stop since I graduated high-school, and I've never had a serious job interview of any kind. What kinds of questions can I expect to be asked? How should I prepare? What kind of questions can I ask in the interview to let them know that I'm seriously interested in the job?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This kind of thing varies tremendously by field, I imagine. In my field, you would be expected to have a research program planned, to explain what agencies fund this kind of research and how you would be eligible for said funding, and to give at least a rough idea of what resources you would need to make the research work.

There are a couple of good books about this: Tomorrow's Professor by Reis (for scientists and engineers) and The Academic Job Search Handbook by Heiberger and Vick (for a more general audience).

Your advisor/mentor/supervisor should also be a good resource for answering these questions, as they know more about the specifics of your field and your situation than we could ever hope to.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:09 PM on January 30, 2006

You don't specify your field, but in the humanities there are several no-brainers to expect. Note that a job interview at a Research I or II will, in all likelihood, emphasize scholarship more than one at a teaching-intensive college.

1) The "discuss your dissertation/current research project" question. You should be able to answer this clearly and concisely (I was told to aim for three minutes max. to begin with; if the committee has questions, they'll ask them). Remember that your interview committee will almost certainly consist of people who are not in your particular specialty, especially if it's a small department. Be sure that you convey the "so what?" factor--why is your project interesting, how does it contribute to the scholarship, etc. You may be asked to describe your future research plans, so have some idea of what to say. Interviewers from a doctoral institution may have some pretty searching questions here; you should expect that they'll want to know how your work addresses Major Scholar X, etc.

2) Teaching questions. Before you go to the interview, check out the department's website & look at the courses offered. It's a good idea to prep syllabi for different types of courses: a lower-division survey, an upper-division course in your field, a graduate course. (If you like, you can bring sample syllabi to the interview; this always goes over well with us, at least.) Many interviewers like to ask the "dream course" question, and you definitely should be prepared to answer it. Other FAQs include: faced with problem X, how would you solve it; how do you teach (lecture, group work, multimedia classrooms, etc.); which texts do you use and why; on an average day, what would your students do in one of your classes; what assignments do you require and why; discuss your grading policy.

Be specific at all times and give examples whenever possible.

3) Questions to ask the committee: again, check the website, and note if the department has anything special going on. Ask about the students, the library, the locale. If you're interviewing at a comprehensive college that has an MA program but emphasizes undergraduate teaching, do not spend all your time asking about the number of grad courses you'll get to teach. Similarly, at this stage in the interview process, it's not kosher to ask about $ (whether salary or travel money), sabbaticals and release time, or the course load (which, incidentally, you should be able to figure out from the website, even if it wasn't listed in the job advertisement).

4) Preparation. Do mock interviews; see if you can get at least one professor to participate, perhaps someone on your dissertation committee. You want to think of the interview as a conversation, not a monologue--learn how to answer questions without "lecturing" or otherwise noodling on. Definitely prep your dissertation spiel ahead of time, as well as your course descriptions. Get your friends to ask you tough questions about your scholarship or teaching.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:29 PM on January 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

It really would help if we knew your field. (Why is this anonymous? There's no shame in asking for advice about this, and no shame in it being your first real job interview.)

Here's a bunch of links, some of which have a mathematics focus. Even if that's not your field, though, some of them might be useful.
posted by gleuschk at 3:32 PM on January 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I am on two search committees doing exactly this right now. Here are some of the questions we have been asking on the phone interviews , with some notes towards good answers. Keep in mind that these are from the perspective of a small public teaching college, a research university would have a somewhat different set of questions.

Q: Tell us about you dissertation and its significance in two minutes or less.

A. Just be sure you can do it two minutes. Practice with a stopwatch--you'll be amazed at how you jabber on.

Q. Why are you interested in this position? Alternative: How will you complement our program?

A. The key here is showing some knowledge of the institution and arguing it is the place you want to teach. Example: "I myself am a first generation college student, and I think I could relate to the students at your institution..." Bad answer: "I need a job."

Q. Where do you see yourself in ten years?

A. "A tenured professor at [name the university]!" Then go on to talk about long term book projects, teaching goals, etc.

Q. What is your teaching philosophy?

A. There is no right answer here, except to show that you take teaching seriously and have given it some thought.

Q. If we were to hire you, and allowed you to develop any course you like, what would that be? What is your dream course?

A. Be creative and interdisciplinary here. If it is a campus interview, be prepared to reach into your bag and pull out a syllabus for your dream course.

Q. If I were to come into your classroom, what would I see? What do you do that is unusual or particularly effective?

A. Wrong answer: "I lecture for 8 weeks, then I give a test." Show how you engage the students.

Q. Do you have any questions for us, about the institution?

A. Again, show knowledge of the institution and position. It is proper to ask about teaching loads and the tenure process, but premature to discuss salary. Ask about the community too, it shows a sincere interest in the position.

A few other points on the phone interviews, since those are fresh in my mind. Make sure you take the call on a good phone with a good connection--never a cell phone, VOIP, or a speaker phone. For God's sake quit that mumbling! Remember the names of the committee members and use them. Remember that few or none are experts in your field (that is why they are interested in you) . Answer fully but concisely--don't go on and on (a VERY common mistake). Strive to keep a tone that is friendly, open, and animated. They are looking for a teacher and a scholar, but also a colleague who will be sitting just down the hall for the next couple decades.

For endless neurotic discussions of just such questions, go to the Chronicle of Higher Education website and look at their Job-Seeking Experiences forum.
posted by LarryC at 4:09 PM on January 30, 2006 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised that you haven't been coached by your department. Helping you find a job is generally in the department's best interests (having a high job placement percentage does wonders for attracting good graduate students).

Go to your graduate coordinator and ask him to put together a mock interview for you with members of your department's hiring committee.

At my department we not only get mock interviews, the professors give us written comments on our performance (yes, we have a very good job placement rate).
posted by oddman at 5:59 PM on January 30, 2006

This isn't a direct answer to your question, but it's some things that someone in your position should learn.
You will not get this job unless there's someone in the department who's excited to have you there (ideally a great many people), and for whom you're their top choice or nearly so.
In fact, you wouldn't have gotten this far if this weren't the case. So if you don't know already, figure out who your personal champion is.

Then tell them everything. What other interviews you have, offers you have, salary, everything. (And ask them what these interviews are like in their department and what you should say.) A key thing to realize is that the people you talk to are your agents, not your adversaries. (Salary negotiations will generally end up between the chairman and the dean -- she's your adversary. If you meet her at all, all you're supposed to say is "I consider teaching very important" and walk around the room while chewing gum simultaneously.)

The fact that you don't have to approach any of these meetings adversarially makes the whole process so much more pleasant.
posted by Aknaton at 8:19 PM on January 30, 2006

Kissing butt is a good strategy. Do some research about the people you will meet and figure out what their interests are then figure out how your research might interest/complement theirs. Academic departments are looking for different things in a new prof: prestige, money, excellence.. but as people they are also looking for someone they will like and they might develop a professional relationship with. Someone to potentially write a grant proposal with is a great asset.

Also, while the ads typically lay out a list of possible subfields of interest for prospectives, typically understanding what subfields they prefer and linking them to what you are offering is a good strategy. For example, in any science there is always something that is currently hot and the buzz. Departments will want new people with those research directions as they make their department more attractive in terms of getting students and money. Take the time to position your research in that context.

Sorry for making this sound a little cynical, but academia is inherently political. You are not being hired for particular skills that will be useful for successfully completeing a project. You are being hired to fit in and increase the reputation of the department.
posted by blueyellow at 9:26 PM on January 30, 2006

Why is this anonymous?

I think it's perfectly reasonable to not be interested in having a hiring committee be able to connect you up with some miscellaneous online profile. That's probably also why the person didn't put the field in -- in any given field, there can't be that many job interviews going on in the next week or so (since they typically involve a very intense multi-day visit with a public job talk etc). In my subfield, for instance, there are perhaps 3 or 4, and this is a big year for jobs in this specialty. In fact I was even half wondering if the poster was someone I knew or not, though this isn't so likely.
posted by advil at 11:10 PM on January 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I am aso on an academic search committee for a tenuredtrack assistant professor (social science) and these are the questions we plan on using. There will also be a series of one on one interviews, and interviews with Deans, etc. The "job talk" is very important as it makes the research accessible but also -- very important -- it gives a sense of "can the candidate teach". Make sure you find out what level you are meant to pitch the job talk at - lower undergrads, grad level, prof. conference. This is a medium sized, 16,000 student, comprehensive university. My comments may only apply here. LarryC and others also provide excellent advice. Don't be too intense, be serious but good natured if possible. All else being equal, you will usually be hired based on the "do I want to work with this person for the next 35 years" test. Good luck!


1. What courses have you taught previously?
a. List:

** what matters is to be enthusiastic about teaching and well prepared to discuss key issues in teaching (below)

2. Which of our existing courses you would like to teach? Are there courses you’d like to develop?
a. List:
b. What might be the interdisciplinary potential of these new courses?
** shows that the candidate has looked over our department and paid attention to the calender offerings and thought about it. For the new courses it can be great to whip out a draft syllabus! Lecture topics, reading list, etc.

3. Our introductory **** course is large (200 students) and takes a holistic 4-field approach. How would you go about teaching this course?

** blah blah mix up discussion blah blah interactive web stuff whatver. look up some techniques if you dont have any. Also, ask about TA support and teaching technology. Is there webCT or equivalent? That kind of thing.

4. Our 200 level Introduction to ******* course normally has 2 hours of lecture plus 2 hours of tutorial taught by tutorial assistants. How would you go about teaching this course?

see above, but modify.

5. What is your teaching philosophy? Could you give examples of how this might work in larger courses, in smaller courses and in graduate seminars

** get a teaching philosophy. You can download one. Not to be cynical but.....

6. Can you give an example of a problem you have encountered in teaching, and what you may have done to remedy it

** I hate this kind of question

7. Which aspects of your teaching abilities would you like to improve?

** retention of knowledge and critical thinking skills are good buzzwords which actually have meaning.


1. Could you describe your current research keeping in mind things you may not have mentioned in your talk?
** be concise, talk about future directions as well as the concrete present, list contingencies, and make sure you mention the things you could or could not do at the new univ. -- e.g., facilities that would be good, colleagues to ask, library or archival resources, etc. Shows you've done your homework, and that you can make a case that YOU, as a unique researcher with unique skills, would fit into THEIR wonderful department -- like, its a match made in heaven. This means you have to know what they have to offer and/or what they might need.

2. What new areas of research (or expansions of existing research) can you foresee? What potential for collaborative research both inside and outside of the Department do you see?
** this may vary between institutions, the dept wants to see that (a) you can do independent research AND (b) you can collaborate. So, somehow weasling this one is good

3. Where do you plan to apply for research funding?
a. Will this involve funding for students and/or collaborators?
*** key to express you want get money and you want to fund grad students and undergrad research assistants. Don't be unrealistic about $$, but do have at least three organizations you would apply to -- shows you can put irons in the fire.

4. What kind of things are you writing now? Do you have anything in press or under review?

** be honest

5. What sort of research space and equipment does your work require?

** don't undersell too much. Be realistic. Also, remember to tell the Dean or chair if you meet with them your requirements. Needing facilities shows ambition. Needing nothing shows desperation. Walk that line! Also, make sure you know whats already available. Shows you can integrate.

OTHER (Citzenship)

1. What past experience do you have with administrative responsibilities both inside and outside of the University?

** everyone likes collegial folks who can serve on cimmittees. Junior people usually don't have too much of this.

2. What strengths do you bring to the University, and particularly our department, if you were to be hired here?

** collegiality, work well with people, good with students, balanced lifestyle, offer field-based courses, offer technical training, whatever

3. How have you gone about making your research relevant to communities outside of the university?

** this is increasingly important. Talks to high schools, outreach, newspaper op/ed pieces, children's books, whatever.


1. You have answered a large number of questions. Do you have any questions that you would like to ask of us?

** don't ask about holidays or salary! Save that for the chair, or until you get an offer! Asking about expectations for tenure, typical career path timings, promotion to associate, influence on library acquisitions, journal acquisitions in your field, how is teaching evaluated, institutonal support for graduate students, institutional support for writing grant applications, is there a new faculty mentoring and acclimatizing program, etc. Practical questions about how to be a great professor, not about your comfort.
posted by Rumple at 11:43 PM on January 30, 2006

I just got a tenure-track academic job in the social sciences in a research university. I was fortunate that I only had to do one interview, so my thoughts are based on that one talk, on what my fellow grad students told me of their talks, the dozen or so candidates that I've watched interview in my own department, the advice I was given by faculty, my department's (home-made) "academic job market DVD", and the comments I got on my job talk. But I've never served on the hiring committee in my department, and I only actually did one job talk.

I think the most useful things you haven't heard yet would be two bits of advice I got from my advisor:

1. Be professorial. Remember, they're looking to evaluate you as a potential colleague, so don't act like a student. Discuss your research and theirs as you would with a colleague.

2. Remember, you're not going there "To get a job." You're going there to meet your colleagues. They will be your colleagues for a long time, whether you get the job or not. You will see them at conferences, read their papers, they will read yours, they will be your journal reviewers and you will be theirs. This is an opportunity to meet people who will be important to your career regardless of the job outcome. So meet them, get to know them, let them get to know you. Enjoy.

2b. Have fun. Ok, this advice kind of irritated me. How the hell are you supposed to have fun when your career is on the line, right? Well if go in the spirit of #2, you will have fun. I had a blast. I really enjoyed the company of the people I met (and of course of the people I already knew). That's not to say it wasn't stressful, it really really was...but still, there was a lot of laughter, and I bet I had a smile on my face 80% of the time. And I think the fact that I was having fun really helped, it made a little more relaxed in each meeting so I could interact more easily (the stress welled up between meetings/events) and I could make some jokes in my talk, and in response to questions, and at lunch. Who doesn't want a funny colleague?

Ok, so that was my advisor's most useful advice...Now from my experience and what I know of other people's visits...

Next, though everyone has been talking about interviews and interview questions, there probably won't be "an interview." I've never heard of a job candidate being sat down while a person or committee throws questions at them. It makes more sense to think of it as a "visit" than an "interview". You're there so they can get to know you, hear about what you do and get a sense of how you might fit into the department. So go visit with them and show them what you're like.

The meetings with members of the committee and other faculty members are really more conversations than interviews. Lots of the things that have been mentioned above will come up, but in a conversational way. This means two things: First, it's a lot less awkward and confrontational than you're probably imagining. Second, it's a conversation, and conversations are between conversation partners. You both get to stear the conversation. So be all means, steer towards your strengths, if you have the presence of mind to do so (I'm not sure I did - it all happens very fast).

But they're not just trying to find out about you, they're also talking to you about themselves and the department. Not just at the end "now we've asked you a lot of questions, do you have any questions", but throughout, in a natural/flow sort of way. Like any conversation, it will go back and forth between talking about you and talking about them. Most professors told me about their research, a couple asked me questions about their research. One emailed me ahead of time to let me know he'd want to discuss his research with me.

And of course, conversations and visits aren't quite as instrumentally-oriented as interviews. Which means they get "off topic", at lunch we talked about fiction books (one prof and I were reading the same novel -- not at all related to our field) and travel, and lots of other things.

Finally, I think no one has mentioned the talk. Practice your talk to death. I think I gave mine about 12 times before it actually counted. Probably about 7 of those times were to an audience and the rest to an empty room. Get anyone you came to come, listen, and comment, and ask questions, and make changes based on each practice. Be especially sure to have people who don't know your research and don't know your area -- remember that most of the people who go watch your talk will fit into those categories, so you want to make sure it makes sense to those people.

By the end you should be able to give it barely looking at your notes.

Decide ahead of time what questions you want people to ask at the end of your talk, and design it to stear towards those questions. If people at your practice talks ask questions you think are off base or that you just would rather not deal with, figure out what in your talk brought out that question and fix it. But have an answer for that question, and all others, prepared just in case.

They will give you water. When you need a second to think, take a drink of water. But small sips only...My bladder was about to burst by the time the question period finished.

You may also meet with other people: grad students, deans, undergrads sometimes, real estate agents or related, "Family Services" people, or whatever. These are fairly low-key meetings and I wouldn't worry about them too much.

And back to 2b. Have fun! (Seriously, I know it's irritating advice to hear, but I had fun, and all my fellow grad students had fun on their talks. It's fun to go to a nice hotel and nice restaurants and meet all sorts of new people, and tell people who aren't' sick of hearing about it about your research, and have them get excited about it. It's very reinvigorating to have people get excited about your research when you're getting a little tired of it and it all seems very obvious to you. Enjoy!
posted by duck at 9:27 AM on February 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

To everyone who posted in this thread - thank you so much for the great advice, which I read and took seriously. I got the job.
posted by louigi at 7:54 PM on March 29, 2006 [3 favorites]

congrats! that's awesome
posted by lpctstr; at 8:48 PM on March 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

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