Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Re-rehash: Interview Questions

It's that time again: time to start thinking about what questions interviewers will be asking at the APA, should you be so fortunate.

Here's the list from two years ago, with some additions:

Course content

1. What kind of intro do you teach and why? As Anon. 1:58 puts it, "What do you cover in Intro and why? Do you give a historical or problems course? Do you emphasize methods or content? Primary sources or textbook?"

2. Inside the Philosophy Factory's got a broader take on the same idea. She asks, what's your "vision for 'normal' philosophy courses and your methods for teaching logic? Here you'll want to explain the kinds of exercises you'll do to keep students engaged. You'll also want to explain your assessment methods for those courses."

Interdisciplinary and cross-department teaching

3. What would you teach if you got to design your own course integrating material from other disciplines?

4. From Sisyphus, "How would you teach our cross-listed courses with gen ed./the Core Curriculum/some other department/the writing program?"

Engaging students

5. How would you engage students that are required to take philosophy courses but who otherwise would not have?

6. Here's a variation from Anon. 1:58: "How would you get students at our school interested in your class X? Why would our students want to take it?"

7. John Turri's talking engagement too, but he's going a different direction: "What techniques would you use to engage students, in the same class, of very different levels of ability and interest?"


8. Back to Sisyphus: "How would you work with our students as opposed to the ones at your current institution" (i.e., differences in diversity, age, college prep, money, types of feeder schools, a religious mission, they are all huge b-ball fans, etc.)"

9. Here's Inside the Philosophy Factory: What are "your methods for adjusting to different preparation levels in the classroom? Here is where you'll have to explain how you'll deal with the kid who can't read and the kid who had to come home from Princeton sitting next to one another in your freshman Ethics course."

Teaching practices

10. How does your research inform your teaching?

11. From Anon. 1:58: "What is your strength/weakness as a teacher? What is special about your classes? What do you feel you need to work on?"

12. John T again: "What incentives do you build into the course to encourage your students to actually do the reading?"

13. What technology do you use in teaching? Besides chalk, I guess.

14. From Inside the Philosophy Factory: How would you "deal with a few students who are doing badly in the class -- and how you would deal with a significant portion of the class that is doing badly? She recommends, "The key with the student is to offer more help and to understand what resources are available to help students who need more assistance. With the class who is doing badly, discuss how you'd do some review to reinforce some important concepts AND to do classroom assessment techniques like asking about the 'muddiest point' etc."


15. From Sisyphus, "what sorts of limitations do you see yourself working around in your research here (i.e., how will you deal with our heavy teaching load and research requirements at the same time?)?"

16. And Michael Cholbi underlines the point: "Be ready to talk about how you'd teach large courses (50+) on your own."

Michael C. also recommends having a handful of memorable points to make about your teaching. Now, nothing makes a talking point go down smooth like a charming little anecdote. . . .

Regarding Faculty Interaction (from "Use"; in comments last year)

17. How do you plan to deal/how have you dealt in the past with disagreements with other faculty members?

18. How do you think you would fit in with our current faculty?

19. If you were on a search committee within our department, what would the three most important qualities of a candidate be?

20. What is the most exciting prospect about working with our current faculty?


21. From Anon. 1:58: "What was your worst/best moment as a philosophy teacher and why? How did you react/respond?"

22. Sisyphus again: "Describe a time you had to deal with a problem student."

23. And back to Inside the Philosophy Factory: Describe "your most challenging teaching situation and your most rewarding experience. Here is where you tell the story about little Jimmy who was sure he couldn't do logic -- who had talked himself out of being able to pass the class and who finally ended up passing the class"

24. Anon. 1:58: "From a religious school: How would you get along with our students?"

25. Inside the Philosophy Factory Again: Talk about "your professional development. Here is where you'll want to talk about the teaching seminars you're attending via your grad university, how you are a member of APT etc... This is not where you give details about conference papers, publications etc -- unless there is a research element to your position. Then you make it about 50/50."

26. "Suppose someone (perhaps a community member, and not necessarily a student) came to you and asked how to resolve moral problem X. What would you tell them to do?"

27. "Which do you see as you primary focus--teaching or research?"


28. What is philosophy? (from R. Kevin Hill, in comments last year)

You might also want to read the comments on this post, this post, this post, and also this and this.

Any additions? Any resources I've overlooked?

--Mr. Zero

Update: In comments, anon 1:53 points us to this article in IHE.


Xenophon said...

That's a good list. All I'll add is good luck to those of you who have APA interviews.

Anonymous said...

"How do you feel about us dumping all our administrative work on you until we hire someone more junior than you to do it? Will you do it with a half-smile or a full smile?"

Anonymous said...

What a good list of questions. Many thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Ummmm, so: Anyone have any research-related sample questions? I hope I get asked one or two of those. (And not just about how my research relates to my teaching or how I will manage to do research while teaching a heavy load.)

Anonymous said...


Most of the research questions I've been asked were specific to my own projects. So unlike teaching questions, it's difficult to give an example that would be generally helpful to anyone else.

Anonymous said...

As far as research questions go, be prepared to discuss the most basic, foundational issues related to your work.

You have probably spent 90% of your recent efforts defending what to those outside of your specialty may look like very minor points. Be prepared to engage in the big picture stuff. (For example, if you're working on something technical in formal semantics, be prepared for questions as general as "Why do you take the study of language to be of philosophical importance?") These kinds of questions may look like softballs, but can be very hard to answer on the spot if you're not prepared!

Anonymous said...

Prepare for questions about grants and other outside funding. It's not something that philosophers usually consider, but it is becoming an important factor at some institutions.

Anonymous said...

Fab questions. Thanks a bunch.
How long are those interviews on average? (Am I a complete idiot to ask this question?)

Anonymous said...

A question for folks who've interviewed in the last couple years: How often have you been asked for a dissertation spiel? I've heard that it's not as common these days for SC to ask for the spiel as it used to be.

Anonymous said...

Did people see this:

Anonymous said...

Also wanted to add: Be prepared for surprises.

My university thought they were preparing us for interviews, but they were preparing us for the interviews they would run--which were all about research, as they saw it.

They had the dumbest--absolutely the dumbest--teaching prep questions.

Xenophon said...

To add to Anon 12:46's useful observations about specific versus general research questions:

In an interview with an R1 school a couple of years ago, I was talking to three profs who had no idea what my research field is about, but for some reason they thought they did. So they kept asking what they thought were biting questions, and my response was always of the form "Well, that's an ill-formed (or simply non-sensical) question because X." Needless to say, they didn't appreciate that reply, and they tended to cut me off before I even finished my reply, just to ask another equal odd question.

The funny thing is, there was one prof in the department who had done work in a related area, but she wasn't on the committee and apparently they hadn't asked her about the field, or what questions to ask me.

So they thought they were asking technical questions, but my replies had to get down to foundational issues that I hadn't thought much about for a long time.

Asstro said...

Xenaphon's and 12:46's are probably the most helpful comments so far. (The list is great, btw.)

Bear in mind that even if you're interviewing at R1 schools, there's a high likelihood that you will be interviewing with people who are only tangentially familiar with your AOS. One reason they may be hiring someone with your AOS is because they don't already have someone with your profile or they are weak in that area. What this means is that you need to find a way to make your answers to their research questions relevant to their interests, clear enough to them that they can follow your position and not think that you're completely insane (this happens), resonant with the needs of the department, and transparently cogent enough that they'll find you to be the emerging expert in your field without thinking that you're so deeply ensconced that you can't dig out of the technical jargon.

The latter bit may be less true at non-R1 schools, but I suspect everyone will want to see that you're deeply familiar with your AOS and capable of relating your core thesis in a succinct and approachable way.

Plus, and this is a biggie: you've gotta show that you can address, accept, or at least grapple with their pet issues. Xenaphon is correct: to downplay the significance of your interviewer's core concerns is a surefire way to lose an invitation to the party.

Anonymous said...

A question for folks who've interviewed in the last couple years: How often have you been asked for a dissertation spiel? I've heard that it's not as common these days for SC to ask for the spiel as it used to be.

I was asked for it in every single one of my interviews (10+, if you want to know my sample size). You definitely have to be prepared with that. Plus, it's good practice: you really do get asked about what you work on very frequently in your early career, at conferences, meeting new people, etc.

And I second what's been said: be prepared to answer foundational questions, and for goodness sakes, take the interviewers' questions seriously! Even if their question is technically ill-formed, given the intricacies of your field, they are asking it because there's some real worry behind it. "It's hard to formulate your exact question in this field, but I think what you're getting at is..." is much better than "That question is ill-formed." Alternatively, you can say why it relates to foundational questions - what it is about the field and its assumptions that makes the question ill-formed - and then talk about what you think about the assumptions of the field. Treat every question as a way to teach someone something interesting about your topic.

Also: search committees aren't necessarily trying to "stump" you or ask "biting" questions: they are trying to learn more about your work / your field / you by having a philosophical conversation (which, of course, often includes objections). Their goal is to hire someone, not to prove to themselves that you are not worthy. Don't treat them like the enemy.

Anonymous said...

Although we have an opening and are interviewing, my insistuion is being very selective in hiring.

Don’t be surprised if a question like this comes up -

“In these financially challenging times what skills or talents can contribute to the university as a whole?”

Provosts want the most bang for their buck.

Anonymous said...

A question for folks who've interviewed in the last couple years: How often have you been asked for a dissertation spiel? I've heard that it's not as common these days for SC to ask for the spiel as it used to be.

I've had about 10 APA interviews (over a few years). I have never once been asked to give my spiel.

Anonymous said...

I'm the person who said I had to give my spiel every time in 10+ interviews, so the comment from 2:31 surprises me. Maybe the difference is in primarily research vs. primarily teaching places? Almost all of my interviews were at research-oriented places. In fact, questions about teaching were usually consigned to the last 10-15 minutes of the interview, if they were asked at all (in one interview, we talked about my writing sample the entire time). So maybe the real answer is that in this, as in everything, it depends on the school. (But you should have your spiel ready just in case, anyway!)

Anonymous said...

Maybe this question calls for a new thread, but I'll pose it anyway. Do schools ever worry about a candidate's being overqualified? Hypothetically, (cough) suppose one thought one's self to have a good shot at an APA interview for, say Duke, but failed to get an APA interview at, say, Sam Houston it time to abandon hope, or plead overqualification?

Anonymous said...


I'm the person who has never given the spiel. I think that you are correct that research schools will be more likely to ask for the spiel than teaching schools. But, you can be asked research questions and not be asked for the spiel. Indeed, at one interview (decent MA program) the first question I was asked, "How will you contribute to interdisciplinary research at [our university]?" Moral: not all research interviews warm you up by asking you to rehearse your spiel.

I think that many of us are tempted to think that all hiring institutions can be ordinally ranked (by philosophical goodness? by desirability of position?) and that all candidates can be ordinally ranked, and that the ideal distribution of candidates to jobs would just match the two lists. Then, any deviation from the ideal mapping would be an injustice of some sort, attributable to some sort of practical-reasoning fallacies on the parts of hiring committees.

There are several errors in such presuppositions. How a candidate fits at a particular school is paramount to the process. Someone better at some aspects of a job (say getting published in highly regarded journals) may not be better at other aspects (say teaching philosophy of film, or attracting students to the major, or getting along with the dean, or being a promising candidate to chair the department in a few years). I suppose that some few schools (yer Princetons, yer NYUs) look to rank candidates by acumen and grab the top ones. But, in my limited experience, many schools are looking for a fit, not the highest ranking schmuck on the list, and they know that fact.

I'm not claiming that committees don't make errors. Only: the fact that a school interviews someone with less, say, raw philosophical talent (whatever that might be) than you is no indication that there is any injustice (or even unpredictability) in the process.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:41--You're right, of course, and I kind of felt like a schmuck immediately after posting that comment. I absolutely don't feel that any injustice has been done, it was just a surprise and got me a little nervous. I should be clear: I'm not at all confident that I'll land a job this year, TT or otherwise, despite having applied as broadly as possible. So I got nervous and posted a silly question that I quickly wished I could unpost. Thank you for your response, though, you are quite right.

Anonymous said...

Over the years, I must have had at least 30 APA interviews and don't ever remember NOT being asked for my dissertation spiel. Have one ready, without doubt.

Anonymous said...

I was told by an interviewee last year that s/he was asked, "Do you have a Facebook account?". Now there's an interesting one, especially if one does...

Anonymous said...

The question I've always asked (because it was asked of me during my dissertation defense) is "how is your research enterprise of worth to people outside of that very narrow topic and/or outside of philosophy?"

R. Kevin Hill said...

Since you were kind enough to cite me, a follow-up. The "how would you teach intro" question is also best responded to by *handing* them a syllabus right then, even if you mailed them one already.

I cannot emphasize enough the similarities among, and differences between, how one is asked about research at research job and teaching job interviews: one must have *two* shtiks (and know who one is talking to--we are 4th tier but care a great deal about research). The research job answer to "tell us about your research" should put you in dissertation defense mode--the interviewer will attack, but not necessarily knowledgeably, and the same ploys (topic steering, allusions to vast secondary literature) that work in a defense work here, though the key is to be in control of your material of course.

The teaching job is not really interested in your research, and responding in the above way (which is how most useless job market prep at your home institution is oriented) will kill you by making you seem boring, and thus a boring, and thus, incompetent, teacher. Here the key is to enable the interviewer to peg you quickly, while anticipating standard stereotyping reactions that operate on a much more general level (for example, if your topic were something in Husserl, a follow-up question might be some punditesque complaint directed at a stereotype of all Continental philosophy where "Continental philosophy" is third-hand Derrida as written about by a Republican journalist, say; similarly, your "question" if you are working in analytic metaphysics might be "how do you respond to the objection that philosophy has lost touch with the people and wisdom?"). This means responding should be *easy* if you aren't blindsided by the question's irrelevance and stupidity. But far more important in the teaching interview is *demeanor*--they want you to get in and out of the question quickly, cocktail party style, while manifesting enormous *enthusiasm* for talking about philosophy. The assumption is, if you're excited, you'll be exciting, and exciting means charismatic teaching. Most teaching interviews go badly because the candidate takes so long setting up the project that they've bored the interviewer to death before they can ask a follow-up question, and the demeanor is cold and defensive, raising doubts about teaching charisma and colleagiality.

On the research interview, especially the on-campus interactions: sometimes it is best to respond to a really tough question not by being evasive and tying yourself in knots trying to seem like you have an answer, but to simply concede that the question is a deep and serious one you've been thinking about for a long time and have no answer to as yet. This shows seriousness, and at the same time flatters the vanity of the interviewer.