Is it OK to ask at a job interview whether I'm suitable for this position?
December 17, 2012 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I have a job interview for an academic position. In the interview, is it OK to ask them what they think they are looking for? Details inside.

I've been shortlisted and am being preliminarily interviewed for an academic position which is pretty clearly not quite in my direct field, and I know the search committee thinks so. I don't plan to try to convince them that I'm something I'm not. The job description is fairly flexible, though. In the part of the interview where they ask me if I have any questions, can I ask them a question like "What exactly are you looking for in this position?" to try to elicit a more concrete statement from them about whether I would really count as a candidate, and to try to see whether there are dissenting opinions among them about what they're looking for? Or would that annoy them coming from someone who is clearly one of the marginal job fits? I would basically be trying to ask them why they shortlisted me when I'm such a weird fit to the job description. Suggestions on, er, better and more elegant ways to ask this would be welcome. Also, any ideas for other questions for interviewers would be great. Thanks in advance.
posted by starcrust to Work & Money (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
That's actually a brilliant-sounding question.

Imagine yourself as the (dubious) interviewer. This (possible) job-fit guy comes in and asks, in polite language, "What exactly are you looking for? Let's not waste each other's time; I want a job I can be good at, and you want a qualified new employee."

You are phrasing correctly, of course, while I am not. But the question is an excellent interview question IMO.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:41 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I like to ask "So what are some things that would constitute absolute success for a person in this position? What are the biggest problems that need solving?"
posted by Rock Steady at 9:43 AM on December 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I suspect it would be a big elephant in the room worth, at the very least, getting out of the way and the way you've phrased it already sounds fantastic. It'd be weird if you pretended you wern't at least curious.

It is kid of awkward to ask though so you might try being a bit indirect? As in,

What goals do you have for this position in terms of contributing to the department in $[field context where you think you don't quite fit]?
posted by Blasdelb at 9:43 AM on December 17, 2012

Best answer: I'm rarely a fan of waiting until being asked to ask questions. Interviews go both ways. Asking questions demonstrates your interest in your job and shows that you are actively participating in the discussion. I also think that asking the question "what exactly are you looking for in this position?" is a fine way of asking the question. Again, interviews go both ways, and it gives you a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to them where you meet their desires, where you might need some help, and if necessary, why you might not be able to meet their desires if you no longer think you are appropriate for the position.

On preview, IAmBroom has the same idea I do. It's a good idea to communicate your strengths and weaknesses. As someone who occasionally does interviews on the employer side, I am much more impressed by someone who is honest about what they can and can't do than someone who tries (and almost always fails) to impress on all fronts.
posted by saeculorum at 9:44 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been steadily climbing the (admittedly, corporate) ladder with a resume that looks like it was constructed in the dark by someone who never knew what he wanted to do when he grew up (I still don't).

I've gotten my last two high-level positions after interviews where I've directly said, "I would like to understand why you're going with a candidate who has such a weird skill set instead of a more traditional candidate."

Interviewers hear so many standard, "safe" responses and questions that I think it's refreshing when you're honest and up-front.
posted by xingcat at 10:03 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Asking "what are you looking for" is a standard phone/skype interview question in academic interviews.

I've found it to be very helpful to learn about things that aren't in the job ad but can be helpful in future conversations -- like they really need coverage of a certain course or they're looking for someone to bridge between 2 methodologies or someone with more X background to instruct graduate students.

If you can, I'd suggest reading The Professor Is In's blog for more tips.
posted by k8t at 10:03 AM on December 17, 2012

...any ideas for other questions for interviewers would be great...

I'll throw in the approach that I formerly used to prepare for academic phone interviews, and then you can go from there.

Poke around the university or college website; visit the website because 99% of the time, during the interview, someone will ask you "why college X or uni Y?"

But for your own questions. The approach that I used to take was to look closely at both 1) the department websites (did they receive any grants or do they have a teaching philosophy that meshes or fits with what you do?) and 2) look a the courses that they offer. Do you see any gaps that you could fill and/or would like to fill?

So if they just received a grant to integrate technology into teaching (and you have done this in the past and it is consistent with your interest), then ask: I would like to use technology in my class to teach Y, is there support available or do other faculty do this,etc. (It also gives them a chance to talk about their grant and what they are doing).

If you see classes that are not offered and you would like to develop, ask if they would be open to you teaching course X or Y, or whatever.

Other questions that I sometimes threw in: If you are new faculty (and your interest is in teaching), do they offer services to help you improve? Or do they offer support services for students who may be struggling with Y?

I never asked these questions, but I imagine that other candidates did because it was something told to me during phone interviews: Do they offer tenure and how is this assessed and when? What are the expectations for research, teaching, and service (you may able to glean this on the website, but the conversation can give you more insight if it is important to you).

For the onsite interview, when you are then likely to visit faculty, then ...look even closer at the website (i.e. publications and/or research grants of each person you will be talking to at the interview). If you see things that are interesting (teaching wise, research wise), you can just ... ask and learn about those things. I used to pull the paper of a person or two and ask details during the on site interview when I met with that person one-on-one.
posted by Wolfster at 10:07 AM on December 17, 2012

Best answer: Also, I've been coaching tons of friends on this lately. You need to have essentially pre-scripted answers to the questions that they ask ALL THE TIME.

(These are summarized from my reading of a gazillion academic job search books as well as talking to lots of faculty.)

Decide what you want to convey (AJS). Have a question or 2 for each member of the search committee (CHE).
Smile as you talk (CHE).
As interview ends, briefly summarize your interest in the position and what you feel you could contribute (AJS).


Current research:
- Could be a diverse group, be prepared to explain to people completely unfamiliar with the context. Concise and relevant (AJS).
- Start with a brief summary – 4 sentences. Leave the impression that listener knows what you did, thinks that the work is interesting (mention interesting findings early), thinks that the work is important (relate to other work or future exploration). Once you’ve reached this level, further discussion is easier (AJS).
- Approach as a colleague, not a grad student looking for approval. No one who is interviewing you knows more about your topic than you do. Think of yourself as teaching about the research to sound more confident, lively and interesting (AJS).

Possible questions about current research:
- Tell us about your current research (AJS).
- Why did you choose this topic? (AJS).
- What theoretical framework? (AJS).
- Of course you’ve read [insert obscure citation]…. (AJS).
- If you were to start again, would you make any changes to your diss? (AJS).
- Why didn’t you…. (AJS).
- What contributions does your diss make to the field? (AJS).
- You realize that XXX and YYY approach this topic very differently…. (AJS).
- Why don’t you have more pubs? (AJS).
- How do you see your research fitting in with that of the department? (AJS). How would you contribute to our department? (AJS). Who would you collaborate with in the department? (AJS).

- Appear to have some (AJS).
- Be enthusiastic (AJS).
- Mention probable funding sources (AJS).
- Projected startup costs (AJS) (if you're in the sciences)

Possible questions about future research:
- What are your research plans for 2/5/10 years? (AJS).
- Plans for external funding? (AJS).
- What facilities do you need for future research? (AJS).


Possible questions about teaching:
- Are you a good teacher? (AJS).
- How do you feel about having to teach required/intro courses? (AJS).
- How many students in courses – grad and undergrad? (KM).
- What is your approach to teaching intro? (AJS).
- How would you encourage students to major in this field? (AJS).
- How do you motivate students? (AJS).
- Our students are more/less academically talented than what you’re used to, how would you deal with that? (AJS).
- Teaching philosophy? (AJS).
- What’s your optimal balance between research and teaching? (AJS).
- How would you involve undergrads/grads in your research? (AJS).


Interest in the institution:
- Research institutions may consider your interest in them obvious. Liberal arts colleges probably won’t. The less prestigious, the more you need to convince them of your interest (AJS).
- Be enthusiastic for the department and the university (AJS).
- They want a good colleague (AJS).
- Research the faculty, the department, the school (AJS).

Possible questions about interest in the institution:
- Committee work? (AJS).
- Why are you interested in our school? (AJS).
- What institutional issues interest you? (AJS).



- What strengths will you bring to the department? (DG).



(don’t ask about salary or benefits until you get an offer (AJS).):

- What are you looking for in this position? (DG).
- What do you like best about the students? (AJS). (Only ask this if it is a university/college that has a reputation for loving their students.)
- How would you characterize the student body? (MF).
- How is teaching evaluated? (AJS).
- Characterize the grad students (DG).
- How do grad students pick advisors? (AB).
- How are grad students funded? (AJS).
- Service expectation? (AJS).
- Tenure reqs? (AJS). (I don't know if I'd ask this at the phone stage.)
- How is the department thought of at the university and what things indicate that (teaching awards, extra funds)? (RR). (Only ask this if you know that they're well liked.)
- What infrastructure exists to support research proposals? (RR).
- Teaching support (TA)? (RR).
- What are the opportunities/environment for collaboration? (MF).
- How is state support for higher ed? (MF).
- What programs are available for new faculty members? (DG).
- How is the university organized? (AB).
- Department’s plans for growth? (AB).
- Is there a research office on campus to help faculty write grants? (AB).
- How important is outside funding? (AB).
- Research opportunities for undergrads?


Structuring phrases (AJS).
Buy time with “that’s an interesting question. Let me take a moment to decide how to respond to it.” “we need to consider several factors. First…” “I’ve never considered it from that point of view, but perhaps…”

(I got a tenure track job last year after going on the market twice ABD and once (successfully) post-PhD, went on a ton of interviews, and now have watched a bunch of job searches from the faculty side.)
posted by k8t at 10:09 AM on December 17, 2012 [23 favorites]

I think directly raising the contrast between the position and your experience is nothing but good. Specifically, it (1) ensures the interviewers actually know what your background is; (2) provides you with information about what they are looking to hire; and (3) demonstrates that you have thoughtfully considered the match between your skills and the job.

I was recently in a similar position, having been short-listed for an opening (albeit a non-academic one) within my organization that was an interesting but not perfect fit for my experience and skill set. In talking with the guy doing the hiring, I directly raised this issue and outlined how I thought my experience would be useful in the context of this more specialized job. The result very positive, because the guy ended up explaining to me why he thought my more diverse background was a strength, rather than me having to make a case for myself.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 10:16 AM on December 17, 2012

I was on the market this year as an ABD (did 6 interviews) and was successful at getting a tenure track AP position. I asked some form of your question at all but one of the schools. I asked them things such as: Is there anything you see as necessary for this position to fill? What did your department have in mind when you wrote the job ad? What classes are you hoping this position will fill? What research areas do you have in mind for this position? Your job ad lists X requirement, how will that be supported? I was of the opinion that if I've made it to the short list, I've already fulfilled their job ad requirements and now was looking for ways that would help sell me over the top.
posted by quodlibet at 10:41 AM on December 17, 2012

Is there anything you see as necessary for this position to fill? What did your department have in mind when you wrote the job ad? What classes are you hoping this position will fill? What research areas do you have in mind for this position?

Yes, these variations are better than a straight-up "What exactly are you looking for in this position?" which is going to risk sounding confrontational or hostile, like you're putting the interviewers on the spot.
posted by redfoxtail at 11:20 AM on December 17, 2012

If someone came into an interview and asked that question, they'd move higher in my list of candidates. At two points in my usual interview plan, I ask, "so, do you have any questions for me?" and questions that show a genuine interest in doing well at the job, or understanding the work done (I'm in an odd industry), then the interview moves on. If they don't have questions or don't show interest, the interview usually ends there. Show that you're interested in doing the work, and asking questions about how the work is done should be a plus in any interviewer's book.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:23 AM on December 17, 2012

I think that Rock Steady is right that asking what constitutes success is a really good way to ask this question. One suggestion I've seen is asking how they would measure your success, were they to give you the job, and how you could exceed their expectations. I think the measurement question gives them something in their actual working practice to hang an answer off, taking things a little beyond the scope of the recruitment process itself.
posted by howfar at 12:42 PM on December 17, 2012

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