Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Do you have any questions?"

In the "Waiting Around" thread below, a Smoker relays an anecdote about a job candidate who seems oddly incurious about the job and school, which doesn't make a good impression on the interviewers. One of the things you get asked constantly on a campus visit (in my experience) is if you have any questions about the college/U/job, etc. This question typically comes from almost any/every person and/or committee you spend any time with during your visit, including the faculty members who pick you up from the airport and take you to meals. It can get kind of awkward, especially since you don't really want to keep asking the same question of everyone (in case they compare notes, so to speak), but at the same time, you don't want to come off as if you really don't care or have no interest or curiosity at all. Charming people skilled at small talk can probably do this easily. But we're philosophers. It's a tricky situation to be in, and one a candidate should be prepared for, i.e. you need to have ready a bunch of sincere questions you can ask that show that you're interested in the school and job. To some extent, asking the right questions comes down to having a feel for what your possible colleagues think are important considerations. For instance, if they are really trying to sell you on the location or community, you might ask some substantive questions about that, starting with ice breakers about how long they've been there and how they like living there. If they are really interested in knowing how you would approach the job, questions about what kind of multidisciplinary research and teaching opportunities are available, and so on can be appropriate.

I'll turn it over to the Smokers: What questions do you ask when you're asked "Do you have any questions?"



Anonymous said...

One very useful tactic is to turn the question on its head, and make the questioner be creative. It also is a very useful way of getting good insights. Ask them to tell you (a) what is their favorite/least favorite thing about working at the institution/in the department/in the city, (b) what surprised them the most about the job after having arrived, (c) what they wished they had known before taking the job. These are nice and open-ended, and will be useful for any interviewer. They also won't be in a position to re-answer a question with non-speaker-relative answer. I've gotten my most useful information / sparked great discussions with this tactic.

Other useful questions are: (d) what their vision for the direction of the department is, (e) whether/how they integrate philosophy into other units.

KateNorlock said...

I've asked many schools what their opportunities for pre-tenure research leave are. This has yielded highly informative answers.

Like 4:59, I've also found asking about the future/vision/directions for the department (and for the college) quite useful.

Depending on the school, it may be helpful to ask if they have a standard teaching portfolio development process, or if the word 'portfolio' sounds nerdy, ask them how people there generally go about demonstrating teaching excellence at review-time. This is, of course, a more welcome question at places that actually care about teaching. (But of course we ALL do! Heh.)

WV: supsive (I was so tired I lay down in the rain at the bus stop, supsive to the world.)

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound more cynical than it is, but asking people about their research is probably a good tactic. The non-cynical side of it is that you learn more about what people in the department are doing, which is obviously a legitimate subject of interest for a job candidate. The cynical side of it is that you get people talking about themselves, which takes the pressure off of you and probably gives them a warm fuzzy feeling about you, even if they don't realize why they feel that way. It's also a question that you can ask of everyone who asks you if you have any questions.

Other helpful follow-up questions would be whether they've received feedback on their research from their colleagues, whether they've had opportunities to present their research on campus, whether the department has supported them financially in presenting their research at conferences, etc.

Anonymous said...

After a certain point, I think it's appropriate (and wiser than asking sincere questions) to say something like "I think I've asked all of the questions that are most important to me at this stage in the process. But obviously if I get an offer from you, a lot more questions will quickly become relevant..." It's a perfectly honest way of saying you've run out of questions without conveying the impression that you're uninterested. In any case, often enough people are asking you if you have questions not because they're testing you but just because it's a way of getting you to set the topic of conversation. (Remember, most of the people you're dealing with are socially awkward academics who would feel a lot more comfortable having you set the conversational agenda than trying to do it themselves.)

Anonymous said...

If you are on a campus visit, you can ask for everyone's take on local housing. Where do professors live, what are the best neighborhoods, what would you be able to buy on an assistant professor's salary, etc?

Everyone has opinions on the local housing market, so you can ask everyone.

Anonymous said...

A word to the wise: Don't buy a house until you've secured tenure. You might want to leave in years 2 or 3 and a poor housing/rental market could stop you from doing so.

Anonymous said...

Ask about the ways the department sees itself changing or developing over the next few years. Ask about how the administration (esp. the dean) feels about the department's goals. Ask about how the department supports and encourages teaching and research. Ask about sabbaticals, how long, what are the terms. Ask about the service expectations for jr. tt faculty.

--SC member at a research university.

Anonymous said...

Ask how many philosophy majors they have, if they have a philosophy club etc. If no club express interest in starting one and volunteer to be the faculty liason.
--SC member at an undergraduate-teaching-matters-only school

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I've asked the do you have any questions question and, on numerous occasions (especially with meetings later in the day), been told "I think all my questions have been answered satisfactorily." This never bothers me in the least.

Anonymous said...

"Why does everyone keep pestering me about questions?"

Anonymous said...

Stock answers to this kind of a question are like jokes you know someone has been practicing -- they usually come off as socially awkward and uncomfortable.

You said: "Charming people skilled at small talk can probably do this easily. But we're philosophers."

What's interesting is that you seem to imply small talk is a skill, but then instead of thinking "Maybe we [philosophers] should work on that!" You go to the exact opposite place: don't work on it at all, and maybe make it worse by having a stock of situation-insensitive responses you can use.

It is possible to become more charming and get better social skills. Becoming better at human interaction really is one's number one job-search asset, and its one that's surprisingly underemphasized in the job search process. I've done it -- once I was super awkward, socially inept, badly dressed, mostly unlikable as a person, despite being not-awful on most days. Now I'm only sometimes awkward, equipped with slightly-better-than-mediocre social skills, dressed a bit better, and find that people [students, coworkers, cashiers at Starbucks, random strangers] seem to like me and want to to talk to me, like, actively. And it only really took a year of practice. (And some work with a really great therapy for social anxiety, which for many philosophers is probably not such a bad idea.)

Practice making small talk with people who are not philosophers and not about philosophy. At the bar. At the store in line. In the elevator. At the coffee shop. Waiting to cross the street. At the library desk. With the secretary and staff all over your campus. Smile at them. Say something -- anything -- that sounds friendly. Rinse. Repeat. You will have about a million awful socially awkward instances (at first people will think you are creepy, so you'll have to work on being not creepy), and somewhere will figure out how to do it. Then the sixtieth time someone asks you, "Do you have any questions?" You'll be able to say something charming, flattering, maybe a little bit funny, and make the asker like you more.

[You, bee tee dub, doesn't necessary apply to you, zombie, but to the broader audience of youse - those awkward philosophers I meet at every turn.)

Anonymous said...

Handling this "do you have any questions for us?" question is awfully stressful, I think. I think I destroyed what had been a good APA interview by asking a question (in response) in a way that, I've since heard, put the wrong idea in the interviewers' heads.

(It didn't occur to me that they were looking for someone who would teach all and only courses in just one of my AOS areas. (That's gotta be rare, right, unless you work in, say, ethics or logic, and even then. . . . ) So I used this question as an occasion to inquire about teaching opportunities in one of my other areas. This wasn't merely some bit of interviewing strategy, since I really did want to know what sort of teaching duties would come with the job, but I also wanted to draw attention to the fact that I wasn't only qualified to teach in the area we'd been talking about.

As it turns out, the other area I teach in is something their department's oldest and most unpleasant faculty member was extremely territorial about. So they were looking for someone who would be happy teaching X and only X, and my question scared them. I'm sure I scared them in other ways and that the other candidates were smarter and better, anyway, but still--this destroyed what had seemed like a good interview. They immediately seemed concerned, but they also avoided answering my question. And it wasn't like "there might be other opportunities down the road, but...." or "that's great--should professor L ever actually retire (please, dear God), then it would be nice to have someone who could do that," or "probably not--we're hoping to find someone who will be happy just teaching such-and-such." Instead, they just said "Oh--hmm, interesting question.")

So part of the challenge is thinking of a question that won't scare anyone.

zombie said...

Anon 6:33, you're correct, of course.

But anyone who has interviews in the next month or so can probably use some helpful pointers while they work on the longterm charm offensive. I find, personally, that having well-rehearsed responses helps me to be spontaneous. That may sound counterintuitive, but consider an analogous situation: when I teach a class for the first time, even when I have extensive notes for my lectures, I feel less spontaneous and extemporize less. After I have taught a course a number of times, I know the material, I know how to pace my lectures, and I'm free and able to ad lib much more. I have taken a similar approach to interviews. Not an approach that works for everyone, of course.

Anonymous said...

"When you go in for a job interview, I think a good thing to ask is if they ever press charges"(J. Handey)

Anonymous said...

My program-of-current-employment had gone through an accreditation and had posted the documents - most relevantly, the self-study - online. This gave me a ton of concrete information to bolster the general questions. I got the job, and my impression was that they liked the fact that I was already thinking about helping the department's future in concrete ways. That's one twist one could put on the "What do you see as the future of the department?" kind of questions, supposing that there is enough info accessible to you ahead of time.

Jason Brennan said...

I ask, "What does it take to be a good colleague in your department." It always reveals a lot about the department and signifies a desire to be a good colleague.

One time a department head--incidentally, a catholic priest, responded, "Son, that's a damn good question."

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:26 gave a useful anecdote. They want you to ask questions in part because of what those questions reveal about you. If you ask about teaching courses in a particular area, this tells them you want to do just that (a problem in the case reported by 7:26). If you ask about the philosophy society, this tells them you are interested in running it (a problem if there already is a faculty member who likes doing that). If you ask about pre-tenure research leave, this tells them you value research more than teaching (a problem at a teaching-oriented college.) If you ask what it takes to be a good colleague in their department, this might warn them you have had trouble being a good colleague before. I could go on, but you get the idea. Many seemingly innocent questions will tell them what they need to know in order to eliminate you from consideration.

Jason Brennan said...

@ Anonymous 4:59 pm:

People can take any question the wrong way. But I can tell you from experience that I usually am complimented on the spot for asking the question, and I did rather well on the job market both times I tried it.

Anonymous said...

@ Jason Brennan
Good for you on doing well with that question. I still would not use it, considering that it invites the thought that anyone who needs to have collegiality explicitly spelled out is announcing they have a problem in that area. The very fact you cannot control people's interpretation poses specific problems for that and some other questions, but not all questions.

Anonymous said...


Don't you think specific positive evidence that a question works well defeats your speculative, unsubstantiated mere conjecture that it would backfire?

Anonymous said...

Jason Brennan (whom I once interviewed -- he did very well indeed) has nailed this question.

"Do you have any questions for us?," when asked at a first interview, is not an opportunity for you, the interviewee, to figure out how much you want the job. Rather, it is yet another opportunity for you to sell yourself as someone to hire.

Btw, it strikes me as paranoid to worry that someone who asks this question -- note the clause, in your department -- doesn't know how to be a good colleague. Anyone reasonable understands that departments differ in their expectations. And trying to placate the unreasonable, when you don't know in what respects they are unreasonable, is a mug's game. Please note that I don't mean this as an insult to an anonymous commenter who worried about this; the process is designed to feed paranoia.

I'm just saying: this is the best answer to the question that I've ever heard. I will admit that I don't take this sort of thing very seriously myself, and don't mind if an interviewee just punts it. But then I don't read letter of application, either. Others do.