Monday, November 17, 2014

Do you have any questions for us?

This is the question I dread, the capstone of the interview, where I am to show (I guess) my interest and enthusiasm for the job/students/school/department, but NOT ask any questions that I could have looked up myself by perusing the department's website.

I always default to some variation on: Tell me about your students. And everybody always says the same thing about their students. And frankly, I have found students to be more or less the same at every school where I've taught. They're diverse. They range in ability. Blah blah blah. I mean, I've never taught anywhere that the undergrads as a whole were just radically better, or worse, or different, than anywhere else.

That stupid question does not seem to have hurt me, so I'm kind of inclined to think that it's just a rote question everyone asks to finish up the interview, but the answer doesn't matter (unless you massively blow it somehow).

So, open discussion here, as first-rounds approacheth: what questions do you have for them?



Anonymous said...

Good God, this is the post I've been waiting for. I never have any questions for them. At least, I never have any that one should ask in an interview. Waiting with bated breath.

Anonymous said...

is it appropriate or recommended to ask any of these (I'm a first time marketer):

what's your campus like?
How many majors do you have?
What do your majors go on to do (law school, grad school, straight to the job market?)
What do your grad students tend to work in?
what courses are popular with your majors (feminist philosophy, logic, etc.)?

Anonymous said...

I once asked about coffee-shops in the city, because I'm a big believer in weekend work in coffee-shops. Didn't get the job. Make of that what you want.

Anonymous said...

What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of your job?

zombie said...

1:40 -- department websites often have info on all/some of those. So, do your homework in advance, and don't ask if the answer is actually on the website.

Anonymous said...

There's a risky question that can be posed productively:

What is your department's vision?
(Risky -- many departments just don't have any "vision," and fail to see their plans in this light.)

This translates into:

What sorts of goals are your department trying to achieve?
What kinds of projects or initiatives are faculty or the department as a whole hoping to undertake?
If there was a wish list of things you'd hope the department can accomplish, what would be on it?

zombie said...

I had an interview once for a job that was in one of the most expensive areas of the country, so I asked about the affordability of housing. That question seemed to go over well, as the university had several programs/benefits related to housing for faculty, and the SC bragged about that. (Caveat -- the position ended up being withdrawn, so I can't speak to the actual success of my question.)

Normally though, a fly-out would be where they take you on the real estate tour and talk about housing and the standard of living in the area. I've had people brag to me about the size of their house on those drive-arounds. Which is a little weird.

Anonymous said...

I'm a dumbass and asked, 'Tell me about the culture of your department,' meaning that I just wanted to know in a general and benign way what it was like to work in that particular department. What else were they going to say but that it was collegial and 'very nice'? Then the grad student rep present at the interview proceeded to talk about how they don't get as much time with / feedback from their professors as they'd like, and it just got more awkward from there. No job. Lesson learned. I'm a dumbass.

Anonymous said...

1. Don't ask ANYTHING which could be political or taken negatively. "What is the climate like?" etc.
2. If you can ask something that shows you have done research, do that. "I see you have XX program--can you tell me more about that?"
3. If you can ask something that shows you want to contribute to the department, do that. "I see you have an Ethics bowl--can you tell me more about that, and if I'd have any role working with those students?"
4. Don't ask questions easily answered on the website.

Ask questions that show (1) you are interested to the point of knowing something specific, (2) you want to hear how you can contribute, (3) gives them a chance to feel good about their program.

Anonymous said...

I used to ask questions like 'How many majors do you have?' or 'What's the most common double-major?' I like these questions because they demonstrate interest but also because the answers actually are interesting (especially the second).

But I've stopped asking them, after I discovered that at least half the time the SC members don't know the answers. This is super awkward, as (a) you make them feel bad for not knowing much about their own students and (b) they shrug and ask you to ask a different question, which you might not have prepared.

Nowadays I don't have a standard question. I try to think of a different one for each SC. I agree that this exercise is stupid and pointless.

Anonymous said...

"Ask questions that show (1) you are interested to the point of knowing something specific, (2) you want to hear how you can contribute, (3) gives them a chance to feel good about their program."


Also, I know people (at different programs) who admit they use that question to see how much research on the programs/colleges the applicants have done.

It's a trap, but it can be diffused.

Anonymous said...

ok, so just brainstorming here and stealing from/riffing off of what several people have said:

ethics bowl (if they have something like that)

applied ethics/cognitive science/other special minors or areas of concentration (if they have something like that, many places do)

special colloquia or series (like
if they have a departmental workshop every year or an ancient phil conference every year)

apparently, from zombie's comment, housing, if there's some chance they'll have special housing subsidies (so maybe for NYC, san fran, *maybe*)

I'm a little worried about embarrassing *them* with specific questions. what if they have an ethics bowl but your interviewers don't happen to be the faculty who do it and they don't have much info?? makes it look like they don't know their own department.

what i would REALLY want to ask them is..

what's the climate like?
what are the power structures in the dept. like (is it a tyrannical chair, are grad students happy, etc.)?
is the town an unlivable shithole?
and seriously, is there some inside hire who's gonna totally scoop this job away from me?

but i guess ill pass on those...

Anonymous said...

Anons 3:40 & 7:42 on the money so far. This question is about *their* fantasy life and whether they can see you in it. The only solid strategy is to do the emotionally expensive thing and *care* about the place like you already work there, research it deeply starting from THE AD (people tend to forget this), the dept site, the fac and their internal institutional affiliations, and the programs, curricula, and other activities and initiatives you can detect. Are there 2-3 people really into (x) interdisciplinary program, or minor, or student assoc? Ask how it works, or what the affiliation involves, or what individual faculty do or have done with it. If there is a program development angle, or more than one, discernibly affiliated with any of your areas or experience, you've struck gold--ask about that, not selfishly but programmatically. If you have had any contact with anything similar as a student or PT staff, talk positively and prospectively about that as it bears on program etc. development.

The message here is (1) I'm not an android, or a major weirdo, and (2) if you hire me I can help you do stuff you want to do, maybe even stuff you didn't know you want to do. Just make sure you are keeping both (1) and (2) in mind at the same time.

Derek Bowman said...

As with all aspects of the interview, the key is not to have an honest conversation among coprofessionals, but rather to have a well-crafted sales meeting where you are both salesperson and product.

Why do we subject ourselves, and one another to these rituals again?

Anonymous said...

One thing to remember about the job market is that it is not at all about the candidate; it's about the institution.

The market exists to help departments fill their needs, not to help candidates get jobs. Remember this when you go to campus, especially when you are asked if you have any questions. How can you serve them?

Anonymous said...

I've been on about a dozen search commutes, first at a SLAC, and now at a regional state university--both teaching-focused appointments. I think you should always ask about the students, even if the answers are not helpful--you are showing your interest. You could also ask about the majors and how active they are in the department (Philosophy Clubs? Ethics Bowl? Do they come to department events? What areas of philosophy do they tend to want to pursue?) If there are parts of the curriculum that are unique that you would like to know more about or be involved in--say a joint program with another department or a study abroad program--ask about it. It is always good to show you've done your research and to express interest, even if the answer will be that you will never have a chance to be involved. You could ask about interaction with other schools in the area, about what it is like to live in the are, about how the department is perceived by the rest of the school.

The "questions for us" part is still part of the process of narrowing the candidates, so you should come off informed and interested. The real information you will need to accept of reject the job will come at the time of being invited to a campus visit or after the job offer.

Anonymous said...

As a member of a search committee (at a small school not in a major metro), I would say don't be overly strategic about this question. (In fact, maybe having this whole topic thread is counter-productive.) Here's why. For one thing, there are many specific things I want to learn about our candidates from these interviews. I'll try to get at that information by asking a lot of questions of my own. Your answers to those questions trump whatever vague information I get from your response to the "any questions for us" question. For another thing, insofar as I want to get anything out of this question, it's something like what 9:29 suggests. I want to see that you're not "an android, or a major weirdo" (but, really, the whole interview is also about that). I want to see that you're interested in the job. And it would be nice if you can (again) show that you can help us do whatever stuff needs doing. (That will vary by department, and that's where your research comes in.) I think questions about climate--university, community/social, state/political, or meteorological--are okay. (Department climate could be awkward.) Questions about what it's like to live there are fine (though maybe don't use the phrase "unlivable shithole"). In general, ask something that shows you're really interested in the job, open to living in the place, and are a normal person who can and is happy to help out.

Derek Bowman said...

"One thing to remember about the job market is that it is not at all about the candidate; it's about the institution. The market exists to help departments fill their needs, not to help candidates get jobs."

So why do we continue to subject ourselves, and one another, to the service of these institutions? If they're not serving our needs (e.g. by giving us jobs) why should we be so interested in serving theirs?

Carolyn Dicey Jennings said...

"What kind of support do you provide for junior faculty?"

Anonymous said...

As a person who's sat on a lot of hiring committees, I can speak to the importance of this question at every level of hiring in a university--from assistant professor up to president. Having good questions for a department shows you've done your homework and want the job. That can indeed be the difference between getting an on campus interview or not.

Anonymous said...

I've been told not to ask about their students. Apparently it could make them feel bad.

Anonymous said...

I was advised to make it a 'how can I help you?' type question. For instance, do you have teaching needs in x or y, where x and y are areas I can teach, that haven't come up in the interview so far, and that I have reason to believe they DO have teaching needs in. Or, is there interest in developing an interdisciplinary minor in x, where there is evidence that this is possible (e.g., the university has lots of interdisciplinary minors, and there are already a few relevant classes offered) and it is something I could do. The trick is trying to hit something where there is that need/interest, and this gets trickier in small departments where they just need their basic classes covered (unless it turns out you can cover some particular basic class that was not part of the description in the ad).

That's the advice I got last year. For what it's worth, I had lots of first-round interviews (8) but did not get a TT job. For the postdoc I did get, there was an interview but they didn't ask this question. Since I'm on the market again, I'd like to know whether others think the advice I got was good.

Incidentally, the rest of this thread has been very helpful already!

Anonymous said...

"So why do we continue to subject ourselves, and one another, to the service of these institutions? If they're not serving our needs (e.g. by giving us jobs) why should we be so interested in serving theirs?"

Institutions can and do serve the needs of the faculty (though, as it seems, increasingly less these days). But the job market serves the needs of the hiring programs.

The job market exists so that programs can fill needs, not so that unemployed philosophers can find work.

Derek Bowman said...


"The job market exists so that programs can fill needs, not so that unemployed philosophers can find work."

That's just silly. If it didn't fill both needs, there would be no market because unemployed philosophers wouldn't apply. It only seems so one-sided because it's such a 'buyer's market' for employing departments.

Anonymous said...

"That's just silly."

I don't disagree with you on how silly the whole endeavor is.

"If it didn't fill both needs, there would be no market"

That it serves the needs of employment-seeking philosophers is a result of the market's primary function: helping departments fill vacant positions.

Try it this way: assume that next year, not a single program is looking to hire. There are no job openings, no departments initiating searches, no search committees formed, nothing from institutions. What would the job market look like? Would anyone get hired that year, if there were no positions?

"because unemployed philosophers wouldn't apply. It only seems so one-sided because it's such a 'buyer's market' for employing departments."

It always has been. That's the nature of the academic market. Can you or anyone else point to an institution whose search failed because there were no applicants? Searches fail because departments lose funding, or can't agree on a finalist, or lose their top choice(s) and decide to wait rather than fill a position with someone they don't want. But can you point to a department who failed to hire because there were no applicants?

Let's flip my above scenario: let's assume there are tons of open positions but everyone holding a PhD in philosophy is employed in a TT position. What would the market look like? Do we think none of those positions would get filled?

A job market with no positions is a dead job market. A job market with no unemployed philosophers would still be a vibrant market (people looking to move up or make lateral moves).

The market exists to serve the schools, not the individuals.

Anonymous said...

How many questions for them are we supposed to have/

Anonymous said...

For whatever it is worth, I don't think people should spend too much time thinking about questions that are tailored to the institution for the initial interview. And yes, I do have a good deal of experience on the other side of the table.

I'm happy when someone says something like, "Well, I've looked carefully at the website, and at this point in the process, I don't have any questions." If you aren't comfortable with that, then a very general and innocuous question about the students or the campus humanities center would be fine. These won't help you, but they also won't hurt you.

And your questions can hurt you. As has been mentioned previously, seemingly innocent questions can rub people the wrong way. I've seen colleagues bristle when people asked about how much interaction there was with a neighboring school (answer: not much, and why would you want to hang out with those people). Another person asked, "can you tell me about your area of research and current projects?" There were about seven people in the room, and we had neither the time nor inclination to answer this question.

When you are invited for a campus interview, then I think it makes sense to spend a bit of time researching the place and formulating more specific questions. After you are offered the job you can ask all your *real* questions.

Anonymous said...

Anecdotal evidence of the importance of preparing for this aspect of an interview:

As part of my on-campus interview several years ago, I had an interview with a senior administrator where the administrator explicitly structured the interview as follows: you ask a question, and then I ask a question, and then you ask a question, and then I ask a question, etc. I was not alerted in advance of this format. We traded questions/answers in this fashion for the full 40 minutes or so. I'm glad I came prepared with a full litany of questions.

After getting the job, I heard that one candidate for the position had no/very few questions for his/her interview with the administrator. As expected the interview went awkwardly and left a very bad impression on the administrator.

Rex II said...

I'm happy when someone says something like, "Well, I've looked carefully at the website, and at this point in the process, I don't have any questions."

I'm happy with this too. We've done a few searches at my school lately, and, with one exception, we have not had any discussions about the questions asked (or not) by candidates.

That said, when I was on the market, I agonized about how to answer this question. I spent a lot of time researching departments. I don't know if it made any difference.

I once asked a question that made the interviewer (there was just one) uncomfortable. The school had five tt/t philosophers, but did not have a philosophy major. I asked if they planned to start one. The interviewer got a little defensive, and explained that they wanted to do that.

Honestly, I didn't care if they had a plan to do this or not. It was just something I noticed when I researched them. Anyway, I thought I was doomed. To my surprise, they contacted me a little later to request more information from me. In the end, though, I did not get invited to their campus.

I won't give details about the exception I mentioned above, except to say that the candidate was pretty condescending during the interview. We were put off by many of his responses, so even in this case, it wasn't the questions he asked us that really got him cut.

Anonymous said...

I've been on three search committees at a school in the lower half of the leiter rankings. My experience may not generalize, but during first-round interviews none of my colleagues care at all about this question. Sometimes interviewees say they don't have any questions, and that's fine. Sometimes they ask some of the questions listed in this thread. This has never had even the most minor impact on the decision.

However: during on campus interviews, and especially at meetings with deans, etc., this sort of thing is going to matter. That's when we'd want to see that you'd done some research on the department and the university. This is probably due to vanity more than anything else, but there's no question that on campus candidates who have read some of the faculty's work, or who are at least aware of what each faculty member works on, etc., have an advantage. And administrators will want to see that you know a bit about the university.

Anonymous said...

Right, can one simply say, "Nope! Not at this stage, but I am sure I may have questions further on in the process." I was also present at an interview in which someone asked a question about the religious orientation of the school. This seemed to me to be a bad idea. He then expressed reservations about the religious orientation of the school, saying he wouldn't feel comfortable "indoctrinating" the students with things he didn't himself believe. I don't know what this person was thinking. It didn't hurt him, oddly enough, but there are a number of ways such a question and the statements that followed might run the committee the wrong way, even if the members of the committee are not firm believers in the school's religion. For instance, it might create the impression that one thinks discussion of religious topics has no place in the classroom, which is a fairly extreme view. So, don't ask about that.

It is this experience which makes me wonder whether it is simply better to not ask anything at all. I also wonder if questions like "Tell me about your students" just give committee members the impression that this person is a poser, insincere, etc.

Anonymous said...

If you don't have any questions - or fear asking them - it's always good to note that you don't have any questions at this point. You can ask if it's OK to contact the search committee should anything come up. Hell, you can even say that you have been given quite a lot of information, and that they have already answered your questions.

Everyone knows that interviews are draining, and that applicants are given much to chew over. Nothing wrong in using that as a way to get out of asking questions, especially if you do so in a way that allows the department to feel as if they've done a good job representing themselves.

Anonymous said...

I would actually be very careful about asking about research support for junior faculty, depending on what kind of job it is. I asked this question at an interview for a branch campus of a state school, and the answer was - I kid you not - "Since we're part of the state university system, we can get you any book you want via inter-library loan." We both knew this wasn't what I was asking about, and it seems to me at least plausible that it made me look like I was a bad fit for their school that I was asking about it.

Anonymous said...

There's a new clear #1 when it comes to awful websites: Metropolitan State University. The first thing it asks is for you to upload your CV/resume. But then it autofills the rest of the application based on the contents of your CV. So I have job experience that includes the time I took a philosophy of mind course. And I attended the university of Dissertation Abstract. What's best is that you have to delete each entry individually. I'm currently deleting 16 unwanted work experience entries.

Anonymous said...

Tell me what's wrong with this ad (posted today)?

Applicants should submit curriculum vitae, graduate school transcripts, teaching dossier, short writing sample, and three letters of reference to

Dr. Arthur Sullivan, Head, Department of Philosophy, A-3069, Arts & Administration Building, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL, A1C 5S7. (Applications sent by email will not be accepted.) The closing date for applications is 28 November 2014. [VPA-PHIL-2014-001]

zombie said...

Canada's postal service is extremely slow. It'll never get there in time.

zombie said...

There does seem to be a trend of disorganization or something this year, e.g. late-posted ads with very short deadlines. Maybe departments are not getting administrative approvals until the last minute.

Still, more jobs is better than fewer.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if the last-minute posts are places that hope to do an internal hire and don't want to be inundated with outside applications...

Mike Titelbaum said...

There are lots of things you would want to know about a position before accepting it, but many of those things aren't appropriate to ask at an initial interview. Keep in mind that leverage shifts as the job application process continues. At the interview stage a search committee is looking at many candidates; you're still largely trying to impress them. If you get a flyout, the SC is down to only a few candidates, and probably is beginning to get excited about the prospect of hiring them. Of course you still need to impress, but job-marketeers doing a flyout for the first time often tell me how surprised they were at the amount of wooing they received from faculty. Flyouts are a more appropriate time to ask about climate, support for junior faculty, etc. And of course if you're lucky enough to be offered a position, all the leverage is then on your side, and you can ask almost anything you want.

As far as the interview goes, my approach was to carefully examine the department's website. Something interesting usually popped up (an unusual program, feature of the major, etc.), and I could ask about that. Also, SCs should be concluding an interview by informing you about where the process goes from there (when are they doing flyouts, when you should expect to hear from them, etc.). If you aren't told about those things, it's appropriate to ask.

Anonymous said...

What is hard about this? Why *wouldn't* you have questions? These are other people with work-lives you'd like to become a part of. For Pete's sake (and yours, and theirs) I'd hope you'd have enough interest in them to have real, actual meaningful questions about where they work and what they work on.

—"What would you say are the most distinctive attributes of typical students at your school?" (You can suggest the kind of answer you're looking for if you can mention examples from your past. Are they commuters? Non-trads? Big into sports? Big into greek life? Especially loathe to sign up for 8 a.m. classes?)
—(If you're angling for your first full-time job) "What part of the job did you find most difficult/surprising when you were first starting out?"
—(If you're interviewing with just one or two people; know their work) "I know you've done a lot of work on X. What kinds of projects are you looking to do in the future?"

Anonymous said...

"The closing date for applications is 28 November 2014"

Currently the JFP ad says the deadline is December 3, which is short notice still, but doable

Anonymous said...

"How would you describe the relationship between the philosophy department and the administration? Are the higher-ups generally supportive of the department?" I asked variations on these in two interviews and both times was invited back for another interview - for what that's worth. But you can't find the honest answer to these questions on a website, and you're probably going to be genuinely interested in the answers. And, these questions are unlikely to put any of the interviewers in an awkward position.

zombie said...

Ahhh... the sweet, acrid smell of my first PFO of the season.

Anonymous said...

I'm not on an SC, and can't speak for them. But I heard one department was frustrated that their job took so long to appear on JFP, which only gave candidates a short time to submit apps. The problem seemed to be with JFP, not the apps.

Zombie, any chance you're willing to share the PFO school?

zombie said...

Penn State. One of their weird interdisciplinary jobs.

Anonymous said...

Having been on both sides of this question recently, do consider something like, "I don't have any questions that need to be answered now, but if I do later, I assume I can contact the search chair So-And-So?"

Most of these questions are ones to ask on a campus visit. You don't need to know stuff like that at the interview, unless you are actually using this information in considering turning down a campus visit if they offer it.

If you are coming up with a question just to have a question, not because you actually already have something you want to ask that is not covered in the job ad and is germane to know BEFORE the campus visit, then just leave it at that. Otherwise, you run a real risk of sounding like an overeager student who wants a gold star.

Anonymous said...

I do notice that sometimes an ad will get posted on philjobs as long as a week after it appeared on other sites. I doubt departments are submitting their ads at such different times. So there's likely some problem at philjobs.

Anonymous said...

I always ask something like, "What do you enjoy most about working in your department/institution (or with students at your institution)?" This type of format gives them a chance to sell you on the place and themselves without it being a threatening question.

Anonymous said...

The Memorial job has been on the CPA website for along time now.