"Do you have any questions for us?"
August 17, 2010 6:22 PM   Subscribe

Meta-ask: How can I learn to ask better questions? Specifically: how I can learn to ask natural, un-contrived questions in job interviews?

You'd really think I'd have picked this up somewhere along the way. My dissertation was an ethnography, for crying out loud. But I completely freeze up when I have to ask questions, especially when they're Big Important Questions.

Specifically, I'm worried about job interviews (although this is a problem for me in both personal and professional parts of my life). I'm about to go on the academic job market (again) with my brand-new PhD. I look good on paper, so I expect to at least get some initial interviews. I interview okay--not great, because I am shy and get really nervous, but if I practice my answers ahead of time I can make it through, more or less.

But then comes that awful moment when they ask, "Do you have questions for us?" And one of two horrible things happens: either I shake my head (interview death!) or I pull out my pre-written list of questions (also interview death, but in a way that will make them mock me later). If I try to memorize appropriate questions ("What is the tenure process?" "Can you tell me about the research facilities?") I just sound stilted and contrived.

Probably unnecessary background info: I am an enormous perfectionist who HATES looking stupid. I know that this is irrational in the context of asking questions at an interview, but it's hard to shake.

So how do I look interested and still look...well...smart?

(And yes, I'm having a hard time hitting "post" because...well, you get it.)
posted by devotion+doubt to Human Relations (26 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I've always found the best way to ask questions is to know at least something about the answer before it's given. Informed questions are the best kind.
posted by elder18 at 6:29 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

My old job had me conducting lots of interviews. At least weekly, sometimes daily.

- Not having questions is not interview death, IF you've been engaged during the interview process and there's been some back-and-forth dialogue. A lot of times successful candidates would say, "I did have some questions about X facet of the industry, but I think we covered it in the interview." Totally fine.

- "The list" is fine, as long as it isn't clearly pro forma and / or super-long. A lot of candidates jot notes during the interview and then refer back to them. Some come with a prepared list, which is a little neurotic, but shows you've been doing your research at least.

Some good questions that are adaptable to (almost) any industry:

I was reading your website / materials / laudatory news articles, and I saw that you had recently accomplished X. What role-- if any-- would someone in [position you're interviewing for] play in that kind of project?

How do most people come into this field of work? If it's relatively informal, asking how an interviewer in a similar position to you got where they are is generally ok, too.

What is a typical day like for employees in [position you're interviewing for]?

What kind of training or professional development does [company] offer?

Questions to avoid:

Anything that makes it seem like you assume you'll get the job. Administrative questions like office hours, dress codes, etc. can almost always wait, unless you have an unbendable need for flex time or something that would prevent you from taking the job if it were offered. Even then, better to wait for an actual offer and then negotiate than to bring it up in the interview stage. Similarly, don't bring up salary until they do.

Anything that makes it obvious that you have no idea what the company does, or what the industry is about. Always, always do some background research.

Bottom line: the questions you ask or don't ask don't make or break the interview. The overall impression and the rapport you build with the interviewers does, along, of course, with your accomplishments, prior experiences, and references.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:37 PM on August 17, 2010 [17 favorites]

I like this question: "What do you like best about working for this company?" I'm interviewing the company as well as being interviewed. And sometimes, the answers are really surprising (like the time I talked with 3 people, and all 3 responded that they hated their jobs and the company).
posted by Houstonian at 6:40 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I truly empathize with the "self-presentation tied up in perfectionism" struggle; it's rough, but I think scripting—not memorizing, but getting clarity about your question and the concept behind it— beforehand an idea of what you want to say is a good angle to overcome it from.

Also, I find a worthwhile exercise can be to ask yourself whether you'd find a rejected phrase, or way of expressing something you deemed too "unintelligent" or "unimpressive" to use, sounding "stupid" from someone else. Would it really be frowned upon or an invitation for disdain if a person you consider competent said it? As a fellow perfectionist, I sometimes have to force myself to do this thought-experiment, but the result lowers my inhibition, and I know I interview better in a relaxed state—and probably come across more accurately for it—than when I'm scrutinizing every possible phrasing. All the best.
posted by alexandermatheson at 6:40 PM on August 17, 2010

Why do you think that they will laugh at you if have some questions written down? It shows that you are thoughtful and prepared. I've done this for every job I've ever gotten and I have the impression that it made me stand out from other, less prepared candidates.

Another trick is to ask questions throughout the interview. Think of it as a conversation with your potential future colleague, not the third degree. Reframing the interview in your head as you-interviewing-them can help with overall nervousness.
posted by donajo at 6:41 PM on August 17, 2010

Having done a fair number of interviews myself, I think that seeing an interviewee pull out a list of questions would definitely not be interview death. I would think that they had taken time to prepare, and were taking the interview seriously. I say bring 'em.

Not asking questions wouldn't be a deal-killer, but I'd think the person might not be very interested in the position.
posted by fixer at 6:46 PM on August 17, 2010

I've been on a number of interview committees, and several candidates showed up with written lists. As far as I was concerned, good on them. Heck, it might help you avoid mixing up your colleges (which I did at one interview--yikes!).

We've always appreciated questions that demonstrate that the candidate has looked at our website and/or has checked out something about the community. Anything from "Could you tell me more about this particular service course that everyone teaches?" to "What's the commute like from Rochester?"
posted by thomas j wise at 6:58 PM on August 17, 2010

Best answer: Think about laying a predicate for your question. Ask yourself which question produces the more useful answer ...

Do you want to go to the movies?


When we were talking the other day you mentioned you were interested in seeing [insert movie]. I saw in today's paper that there's a 7:35 show at the gigaplex at the mall. Would you like to go?

Now, you don't have to make your predicate THAT long, but when you give the other person some sense of what's behind your question, you typically get a more useful answer. Ergo ...

NOT: What is the tenure process? BUT: What should I expect when it comes to your tenure process?

NOT: Can you tell me about the research facilities? BUT: I'm interested in continuing my research on X. What can you tell me about the strength of the research facilities in that area?
posted by John Borrowman at 7:02 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't know the best way of describing the how of doing this, but I've found that if I am genuinely interested and engaged in what's being discussed, I have no trouble thinking of a million questions to ask. So, can you try forgetting about the context (a BIG IMPORTANT INTERVIEW) and concentrating on the content instead?
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:03 PM on August 17, 2010

Research the company you are working for. Ask questions which allow a hiring manager to think of the question in the business sense as well as allow them to imagine you as a key player in the company's future.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:14 PM on August 17, 2010

I've interviewed a lot of people for a number of organisations, so some experience but not necessarily a magic solution. Circumstances vary widely!

I've never interviewed someone and given them more weight than other people I've interviewed because "they asked good questions" (important aside - unless of course the job involved asking questions ... like an academic job would I'd presume!)

Towards the end of an interview I invite people to ask questions partly because its polite and routine, and its no big deal if they don't have any. A polite "Thanks but I think we've covered everything I need to know" is fine. Generally I have a settled view of them by that stage of the interview anyway.

Inviting them to ask me questions can be useful to give interviewees a bit of room to show something different, particularly if the interview format hadn't been too conversational, and there were some sort of 'capacity to have a conversation' element to the job in question.

When helping friends prepare for interviews, I really encourage them to take the opportunity when invited to ask questions to genuinely 'interview the other guy'. "Why did I get an interview over others?" "Why do you want me to work for you?" "Why would I want this job?" (all couched a bit more diplomatically, depending on the environment).

A job you don't want is not much good to you - even if you are desperate now, you will be wanting to leave and that just messes yourself and everyone else around. At the least, if you hear answers you don't particularly like, you can still take the job but your eyes may be more open from day one.

So just as the interview is their chance to go beyond the paperwork you've provided, this is your chance to go beyond the paperwork (job description, company website) that they've provided.
posted by jjderooy at 7:15 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I pull out my pre-written list of questions (also interview death, but in a way that will make them mock me later)

I think you are being hard on yourself. In my experience both conducting and observing interviews, pulling out a list of questions (as long as it's not a huge long list) is just fine, in fact, many people do it. And it's not a common habit for interviewers to "mock" their interviewees after they leave unless they are OUTSTANDINGLY clueless doofuses. As in, picking your nose during the interview or bringing your mom with you. Trust me, the worst thing they might say about you is "I don't think devotion + doubt will work for this job."
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:17 PM on August 17, 2010

Reminds me of an interview a few years ago. I said, "It's always best, with volunteers, to get there first with a better idea, to save them from wasting everybody's time."

She said, "Oh, I know. These people are sheep and they need to be led."

posted by Short Attention Sp at 7:20 PM on August 17, 2010

Response by poster: This is all reassuring...thanks, hivemind.

Why do you think that they will laugh at you if have some questions written down? It shows that you are thoughtful and prepared. I've done this for every job I've ever gotten and I have the impression that it made me stand out from other, less prepared candidates.

I had one interview where the search committee chair actually scoffed at my list of questions (and yeah, I'm hard on myself, but this was a clear and explicit scoff). That threw me, needless to say. I'm glad to hear that the written questions aren't necessarily a bad thing. (I have to say it was not a good interview prior to that, though.)

And yeah, my best interviews have been more conversational, so that's a good thing to remember!
posted by devotion+doubt at 7:23 PM on August 17, 2010

Not sure about your field, but I'm just going to speak about regular corporate interviews - I think all your "pre-prepared" questions will sound fake and pre-prepared to you... because they are. I know people are all about trying to sound intelligent by choosing "intelligent" questions... meh. I think questions should arise naturally from the conversation you are having: the interview is as much for them to find out if you're a good fit as it is for YOU to find out if they're a good fit. In that sense it might be true that if you're not curious enough the company to want to know if you're a good fit there, maybe you're one of those desperate enough to get into "any" company, not specifically "this" company - it's a value perception thing.

Once I was interviewing for an analyst position at a Big 3 (US) automotive firm during the recent automotive crisis and was asked, "in your opinion, what are the best strategies this company should pursue to weather the crisis and come out stronger than the competition". The person asking me was a director in the area of future models / product development, which I thought was ironic.

At the end, when they asked the usual "do you have any questions" I gave the panel my most earnest / curious look and said "in your opinion as a director in future models, what are the best strategies this company should pursue to weather the crisis and come out stronger than the competition." He laughed and said he couldn't talk about that. I got the job.

I'm not saying I got the job because of that, of course. Maybe it was because I started talking about World of Warcraft earlier...
posted by xdvesper at 7:43 PM on August 17, 2010

Fellow grad student here. I'm a couple of years away from going on the market, but I've heard that asking them to describe a typical undergrad at their school is a good one.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:28 PM on August 17, 2010

I had one interview where the search committee chair actually scoffed at my list of questions (and yeah, I'm hard on myself, but this was a clear and explicit scoff

Are you in academia? Interviewing norms are different than corporate interviews. However, I think this interviewer was rude in any field. You don't want to work there - if they're rude and condescending in an interview, I doubt they'd treat you any better if you worked for them.

I still don't think written questions are a bad thing (it's tough to rely on memory if you're going out on many interviews); what I might do is research the company beforehand and have your questions tailored to the specific company, rather than a standard list you take to every interview. But still...your interviewer was a clod.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:28 PM on August 17, 2010

Before the interview, think about what questions you actually want the answer to. Write them down. Memorize them (as general topics, not word-for-word). Of course, they have to be appropriate -- as mentioned above, you probably won't get any points by asking what the dress code is. And don't ask anything that would be genuinely difficult for them to answer. (You don't want their last impression of you to be that you made them feel dumb or unhelpful.)

If you can't think of any questions you actually want the answer to because you already know everything you need to know about the company ... then say that. This has to be supportable; that is, you need to have actually done the research and/or gotten the info you need from them in the course of the interview. But if you can honestly say you have no questions because you've already done your homework on this company, that's not interview death.

Remember, they ask "Do you have any questions for us?" because they have to. They're not necessarily eager to hear your questions. If you can manage to do an impressive interview while smoothly avoid asking any questions, they'll be grateful.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:36 PM on August 17, 2010

devotion+doubt: "So how do I look interested and still look...well...smart?"

The first one is professional conduct: "Can I have your business card?" Its your only proof and way to get in contact once the interview is over, so make sure you get one from every one you meet. Super useful for addressing thank yous and spelling their damn name right. Probably you should get this out of the way at the start of the interview, to establish a rapport with the interviewer(s).

The other questions to ask basically boil down to trying to ferret out workplace dysfunction. In software development, an overly self-promotional ex-Microsoftie has published a list of 12 questions to ask every potential employer. It's basically an inventory of good practices you take because their absence says something about productivity, management and the long term viability of the firm. A small portion of my job involves coding and the truth is we're lucky to get one 1 question "right." If my entire day was coding, this fact would have been a deal breaker. Captain McScoffy there did you a favor, and played their condescending hand. Imagine if that guy approved your hire; how fun would it be when he gets to review your tenure case?

And this is the mindset you need to adopt: you're seeking information from them about whether you actually want to work at that place, with those people. There are things you can do to reduce the drama and stress in interviewing. Hopefully you're lining up multiple applications and interviews, so that you're not feeling like you absolutely must impress these people. It might be worth it to pursue non academic positions just for the bargaining and ease of mind. You can always decline or demand more than they're asking for; what's the worst that could happen? You get a job offer that pays too much not to take?

The challenge you have once the interview is on, is framing these questions in a way that elicits the truth rather than what they think the right answer is supposed to be. As an ethnographer, you're probably a billion more times qualified to give me tips here.

Remember the point of asking questions isn't to look smart in front of people paid to look smart. It's to gather information.
posted by pwnguin at 8:59 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I try to memorize appropriate questions ("What is the tenure process?" "Can you tell me about the research facilities?") I just sound stilted and contrived.

I think (having been on both sides of the table in academia only) that most people's responses in this phase of the interview sound contrived. But that's not really important or a problem. One function of this phase is to try to gauge if and in what way the candidate might fit into the department, and what they choose to ask about provides some clues. The real problem is that both of the questions you suggest are very generic and could be asked anywhere, not to mention by reading the department/university website -- you need to come up with specific versions that show some attempt at engagement with the department, and some connection to what you do. E.g. I don't know what kind of research facilities ethnography needs, but you should ask in as specific terms as you can about whatever they are, making reference to whatever research you are aware of currently going on in this area at the university, not just ask about research facilities in general terms.

Also, there are a ton of books on this process, some probably even written by anthropologists. I read 3 or so while on the job market, and they were extremely helpful with issues like this.

On preview: The first one is professional conduct: "Can I have your business card?" Its your only proof and way to get in contact once the interview is over, so make sure you get one from every one you meet.

Probably good advice elsewhere, but not a good question choice in academia.
posted by advil at 9:40 PM on August 17, 2010

Best answer: This is a softball question. You're over thinking and probably projecting some nervousness, which is interview death. This is your time to knock it out of the park by:

A: Making an observation about how wonderful the institution is in some regard. How it fits you perfectly. Just start listing specific things you like. You can even say how much you like everyone you've met so far.


B: Pick a small concern. "I'm really looking for career advancement opportunities, what do you provide?" Or ... "I'm looking for a long term commitment and match, what's the turnover like here?" In other words, even at this part of the question you can position yourself as the employee they want.

You should have a script. You should take control of the interview early on by showing them previous work after being asked to "tell me about yourself", and you should rehearse but improvise with your answers.

The exception is the interview where the interviewee just wants to be listened to. It's rare, but I once got a job by just sitting and listening intently while murmuring "uh huhs". Btw, those are important. Nod, say "Yes, exactly", etc.
posted by xammerboy at 10:00 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

One other piece of advice: Your job in the interview is to get the job. Don't try and be overly honest. Just get the offer and then decide if you want it. If they say "you'll be teaching swedish speaking students only" say "I love swedish, don't speak it personally, but have swedish friends and always wanted to learn." In other words, be enthusiastic, no matter what.

The time to ask your honest questions is after you've been made an offer. At that point, you can say you've thought about the Swedish thing, it's not really you, can you teach in English? At this point, the business wants you and is MUCH more willing to make concessions.
posted by xammerboy at 10:04 PM on August 17, 2010

Nothing wrong with saying " I'll definitely have questions later, would it be alright to follow up with some in email after I've had time to think some mire? I'm excited and want to make sure I cover everything."

Gets you off the hook on immediate pressure to ask, plus gives a perfect way to follow up without being a nag.
posted by anildash at 10:07 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you haven't already seen it, The Chronicle has great a great set of all of the advice they've given for job seekers over the years, including interview advice and lists of questions.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:52 AM on August 18, 2010

What I do for interviews is have a *seperate* a4 folder for each company/position I'm applying to. In there goes all correspondence, (printed emails), and my CV. Put some spare paper, take a pen. A sheet with key points for questions on could easily be brought out. (like the business card idea will add that next time)
I.e. Be prepared and organised.

The questions I ask are along the lines of "what do you see as the challenges for the industry over the next decade" and "what advice would you give to someone starting in this sector".

Best of luck.
posted by 92_elements at 11:17 AM on August 18, 2010

Ask them questions about themselves. Everyone loves talking about themselves, and by opening up to you they will feel they know you better.
posted by whalebreath at 12:02 AM on August 19, 2010

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