Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Good Question

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Image: E. H. Elam, interviewer, making personal interviews at Stiner's Store, Lead Mine Bend, Tennessee. (Photo by Lewis Hine for the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933)

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Last week you told us what not to say when we’re asked, “Do you have any questions for us?” But what should we say?

Remember that in this, as in all interview questions, you are still being quizzed and examined. The fact that your responses are being framed as questions for the department makes no difference at all. Your questions can’t simply be candid queries to supply yourself with information. Rather, they need to continue to reflect your fit and preparedness for the job.

That means your questions should show an understanding of the departmental and campus profile and mission, and should also indirectly communicate that you will be a pleasant and collegial colleague.

Here’s an example: “I’d like to know more about sources for research support on campus.” That is a good way to phrase a question because it is open-ended. The department members can take their response in a range of different directions. A yes-or-no question, by contrast, shuts down conversation rather than opening it up.

Furthermore, when asked on the campus of a major research university or similarly elite college, that question demonstrates that the candidate understands the exigencies of earning tenure there, and is already prioritizing the research support that will ensure his or her success down the road. On such a campus, a series of questions about teaching, for example or (god forbid) service, will tell exactly the opposite story: that you don’t understand the requirements of an R1 tenure case, and may well be unprepared.

Finally, this question allows the responders to brag a little bit. They might say: “Well all new faculty on campus get X automatically. In addition, the department provides Y, and then beyond that, you are eligible to apply for Z. All of our assistant professors have been successful so far.”

Now, as you may also surmise, saying, “I’d like to know more about sources for research support on campus,” is a bad move at a teaching-oriented college. Tenure at such a campus will be based on teaching, and the institutional budget may provide for no research support at all. So asking about research support will communicate that you don’t understand the exigencies of your eventual tenure case there. You are also causing the responder to potentially lose face. Far from being able to brag, the search-committee member is forced to state, baldly, “there is no substantial research support on this campus; any support must be found by you independently through grant-writing.” The responder is not going to enjoy that experience, and it is not going to work in your favor as a candidate.

By contrast, you would earn points with a slight tweak to the question: “I’d like to know more about sources for teaching support on campus.” The search-committee members may be able to be eloquent on that question. And they will enjoy the warm and fuzzy feeling that you “get” their college and what they do.

The lesson you should take from those two examples: The questions you ask are not really strictly about the information you gather. Rather, they are – in their substance as well as their form – another way that you demonstrate your preparedness for the job and your collegiality.

The following are just a few sample questions. As you can see, they are open-ended, show a degree of entrepreneurial energy, and clearly communicate (at the subtextual, or metatextual level) the orientation of the candidate toward distinct institutional values. If you follow these general models, you can concoct a lengthy list of appropriate questions for your interviews and campus visits.

Questions for Interviews at Research Universities

  • “I’d like to know more about sources of travel support on campus.”
  • “Could you tell me about teaching-release possibilities on campus?”
  • “I heard that there is a junior sabbatical for tenure-track faculty. Could you tell me more about that?”
  • “What is the breakdown of undergraduate and graduate teaching?”
  • “I’m interested to know how the graduate students are supported. Could you tell me more about that?”
  • “What level of graduate-assistant support is available to support research?”

Questions for Interviews at Teaching-Oriented Colleges

  • “I’d like to know more about the students; what do they tend to do after graduation?”
  • “I’d like to know about some of the ways that students are involved in faculty research (and here are some of my ideas about that).”
  • “Are there opportunities to lead field school or study-abroad programs?”
  • “I’d like to know more about the [fill in the blank] Club. What are some of its activities and how are faculty involved?”
  • “I’d like to hear about opportunities for collaborative (and/or interdisciplinary) teaching on campus.”
  • “I’d like to know more about the advising and mentoring programs in the college. How do faculty work with students outside the classroom?”

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the hiring process, including on preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and becoming an assistant professor. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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