QUESTIONS ONE SHOULD BE PREPARED TO ANSWER FOR JOB INTERVIEWS
Mary Corbin Sies, Dept. of American Studies, University of Maryland,
This is a list of job interview questions I compiled when I was
applying for college or university positions in American studies,
history, and architectural history. I have kept it up to date;
every category of question I have ever been asked at a job interview
is represented below. You are welcome to link to and use these
questions so long as the above credit line is included and that
you do not alter the content if you choose to reproduce this page.
I would be interested in receiving feedback about the usefulness
of the list and I will maintain and update it as I hear from you.
Good luck in your job search.
1. Describe your research. (Have a good articulate rap down pat
in short and longer versions, for experts and non-experts).
What audiences are you addressing, what are the other hot books
or scholars in your field, and how does your work compare w/theirs?
(Rephrased: what is the cutting edge in your field and how
does your work extend it?)
1aii. (Answer this question on your terms, not those of your
1b. How will you go about revising your dissertation for
publication?1bi. (be able to answer this in both general
and specific ways).
1bii. Question may imply: do you have an interested publisher
and where do you stand in your negotiations w/said publisher?
1biii. Question may also imply: we thought there were
some significant shortcomings in your thesis, but we
so we're giving
you this chance to redeem yourself by indicating that
you're in the
process of addressing these shortcomings in ways that
we think appropriate.
1c. What you've said is all very interesting, but doesn't
work in your field sometimes tend to border on the
esoteric, antiquarian, (and if postmodern) ridiculous?
What is the broader significance of your research?
How does it
expand our historic understanding, literary knowledge,
Remember that this is a legitimate and important
question--may be the toughest one you get.
1cii. Usually asked by someone outside your field.
Can you explain the value of your work to an educated
1ciii. Asks you to grapple w/limitations in your
research. Don't be afraid to acknowledge these,
particularly if you can use such
an acknowledgement to indicate where you intend
to go in your research after this. (My doctoral
2. What is your basic teaching philosophy?
2a. Question might be
answered quite differently for the small liberal arts college,
state branch university w/heavy service teaching load, or graduate-degree
3. How would you teach...?
3a. basic service
courses in your field
3b. any of the courses on your C.V. that you say you can teach.
3c. What courses would you like to teach if you had your druthers?
how would you teach them?
3d. (many committees will want to know which specific books you
3di. this may be an indirect way of ascertaining whether
you already have the course in the can.
3dii. Do you, for ex., know what is and is not in print in pb form?
3diii. Which text would you use (have you used) for the U.S.
Survey, for English composition, for Am Lit 101, etc.? (Beware:
turn into a great test of your poise and diplomatic skills
when one search committee member says "I love that book" and
the next says "I wouldn't be caught dead including that text
on MY syllabus.")
3e. Be prepared to talk about several courses, after having sized
up the institution's needs.3ei. Do your homework to anticipate
what the department needs.
3eii. Be prepared to talk about teaching its basic service course(s).
If you're applying to a small liberal arts College, this could
include things like Western Civilization, Western European
art history, Brit Lit., etc.
3eiii. Be ready to talk in detail about an innovative course
or two that you think the Department might really go for--something
new and w/in your expertise.
3f. Take course X. As you would teach it, what three goals
would the course achieve? When students had completed your
what would they have learned that is of lasting value?
4. Tell us how your research has influenced your teaching. In what
ways have you been able to bring the insights of your research
to your courses at the undergraduate level?
5. We are a service-based state branch university with an enrollment
of three zillion student credit hours per semester, most of them
in the basic required courses. Everyone, therefore, teaches the
service courses. How would you teach Hist Or Lit or Art 101?
(what they are asking is are you willing/experienced/ mentally
stable enough to teach a heavy service course load to students
who've likely read fewer than 3 books in their entire lives).
5b. (they may also be saying) No one on the faculty (much less
the students ) at Mediocre State U has even heard of the figure/subject/method
of your research. How do you think you could fit in here? Could
you be happy or at least useful in a backwater? (i.e., can she
survive in Timbuktu with idiots for colleagues and morons for
6. Your degree is from Prestige Research University--what makes
you think you would like to (or even would know how to) teach
in a small liberal arts college?
6c. What experience do you have teaching or learning in such
6a. Depending on the college,
this may be one or two questions:6ai. (can she survive in Timbuktu
with idiots for colleagues and morons for students?) same as
6aii. do you understand the liberal arts college mission, are
you a dedicated teacher, and will you give your students the
personal attention that we demand from all our faculty members?
6b. At our college, teaching is the first priority. Do you like
teaching? Would you survive (and thrive) under those circumstances?
7. This is a publish or perish institution with very high standards
for tenure review--what makes you think you would be able to
earn tenure here? (see next question).
8. Tell us about your research program. What are you working on
currently? (now that you've completed your doctoral work)? What
do you plan to look at next?8a. Having a paper or a talk ready
that showcases a topic different from your doctoral research
demonstrates research prowess.
9. Why do you especially want to teach at Nameless College or University?
How do you see yourself contributing to our department?
real answer to this, of course, is "because I need the job,
jerk!" But don't be caught without a well-considered answer.
This is a hard question to answer if you are unprepared for
it. Be sure you've done your homework).
9b. (for small colleges) We conceive of our campus as one large
community. What non- or extra-academic activities would you be
interested in sponsoring or participating in?
10. Are you connected? (If you were organizing a special symposium
or mini-conference on your topic, which scholars could you pick
up the phone to call?)
11. For women only: (Hem, haw) What does your husband think about
you taking a job in another state?
11a. How long do you (do you
really) plan to stay? The correct answer is "at least until
my tenure review." These days, no one expects a longer
commitment than that.
11b. How will you handle the separation? (This is asking for
reassurance that you plan to live at Nameless U rather than commuting
your husband's home base. The last woman they hired did that and
it didn't work out; she was never around).
11bi. they may be trying
to ascertain whether you have children w/o asking directly.
11bii. you may want to offer a strategy for how you're going to
manage your marriage (we've done this before--it's no big deal;
my husband has a more marketable career and can't wait to follow
me to your wonderful location; it's none of your business).
11biii. if you're not obviously married (if you're straight
or gay and have a SO), committees probably will not bother
these sorts of questions. It will then be up to you to raise
them if they are important to you. Would there be any chance,
of landing a joint appointment for my "fiancee" or "companion"?
I don't recommend this unless it's a decisive issue for you.
If it is decisive, and it's a job you want, then by all means
it at the time of the campus interview.
11c. An enlightened and clever search committee might raise this
question with a candidate, acknowledging that it's a personal matter
but will weigh on your decision to take the job, should you get
11d. Whether you're male or female, a search committee (assuming
they find you an especially attractive candidate) may try to ascertain
this sort of information to 1) inform you (because they feel it's
only fair) what their institution's policy is on joint offers,
or 2) see what it would realistically take to land you (is a joint
offer the only terms you'll accept).
11di. (As someone who has been
stuck in a commuting marriage for 7 years now, I am obviously
not the best person to give advice on how to pull this off).
11dii. A wrong answer to such an inquiry may disqualify your candidacy.
You've seen our (religious) mission statement. How would you see
yourself contributing to our mission and campus atmosphere?
technically, asking about your religious affiliation/ beliefs is
an illegal question. Committees will be more or less direct with
you about this question and you can perceive the degree of conformity/support
they expect according to how they broach the subject.
12b. they are also trying to tell you that character (defined in
their traditional, conservative way) counts at the institution
and in town as well; they want you to withdraw from consideration
if you won't fit in.
Academic Job Interview Advice
Mary Corbin Sies, Department of American Studies, University of
Maryland, College Park, email@example.com
The following is the text of a talk that I gave at the American
Studies Association Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, as
part of the ASA Students Committee-sponsored session on Job Interviewing,
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1996. You are welcome to link to or to reproduce
this page so long as you include the credit line above and do not
alter the content. Please let me know how useful you find the advice.
I will try to adjust and maintain the content according to your
I was on the job market between 1984-87. During those years I applied
for about 140 jobs. I participated in a couple dozen convention
interviews and about six campus interviews. The advice that follows
is based on those experiences as well as my experiences more recently
on the other side of the fence, interviewing job candidates.
Job Interview Workshop
American Studies Association Annual Meeting
November 3, 1996
Good morning. My job this morning is to give you some general advice
on interviewing for academic jobs, with a special focus on graduate
degree granting institutions. My first piece of advice--and probably
the most important one I give--is that you should market yourself
for the specific job and come to the interview prepared to talk
knowledgeably about what you have to offer that specific institution.
Academic institutions fall into four general categories and we're
going to cover at least three of these this morning:
2. State university or college branch campuses (non-flagship
universities), many of which will be excellent places to
be but which will often
carry heavier teaching loads
3. Small universities or colleges offering a liberal arts curriculum
4. And community colleges, most of which have very local constituencies
and a large percentage of fully mature students.
Each institution will be interested in different qualities in its
job candidates; this will become evident in the types of questions
you're asked at interviews.
Carolyn de la Pena, Chair of the ASA Students' Committee, asked
me to speak about the competition for tenure track jobs at a graduate-degree
granting university. What does it take to land a job at the University
of Maryland, College Park, or a similar place? I don't have to
tell you what a depressing subject this is--the nature of the market
right now makes the competition ridiculous. And it's worth remembering
that it's ridiculous because you need to develop coping mechanisms
for dealing with what seem like and are impossibly high standards,
especially for entry level jobs. Search committees interviewing
candidates for a tenure-track entry level position at a graduate
degree granting university will look for the following credentials,
as a general rule:
1. Ph.D. in hand (or 3/4s of your dissertation
to show by December-January)
2. Book or book contract (no, this is not fair. I was once told
that I did not make the short list of 10 for a tenure track job
because I didn't have a book published or nearly finished).
3. Other publications--placing publications in refereed journals
is especially important. One article in a well-thought of academic
journal makes a real difference.
4. Teaching experience--you need something in addition to teaching
assistantships. Search committees will want to know whether you
have lectures written, whether you can teach their department's
service courses, and whether you can manage graduate students.
They will prefer that candidates have some teaching experience
post-Ph.D. or outside of a graduate assistantship and theywill
look for evidence that you can you handle a full load of teaching
(anywhere from 2/2 to 4/4)
5. Some evidence that your work has been recognized by others.
This evidence usually comes in the form of honors, awards, grants,
and fellowships that you have received. In these times of tightening
budgets for higher education everywhere, a streak of entrepreneurship--the
ability to bring in money to support your research or some other
academic enterprise--may seem very attractive.
6. Recognition of your work by scholars in your field outside of
your home university. This may simply come in the form of letters
of recommendation from scholars outside your home university in
your credentials file.
7. Evidence of connectedness. Have you been asked to do the sorts
of things that come by networking--write book reviews, serve as
a commentator on panels, serve as an officer in the local chapter
of your professional organization, organize panels, etc.?
8. Administrative ability--such as service on program committees,
organization of conferences, academic advising, etc. What is the
evidence that you work well as part of a team?
9. Collegiality. Do not underestimate the importance of "the
10. Firm plans for future research. This is important for a department's
assessment of whether you're likely to achieve tenure at their
institution. Being able to go to an interview and give a first
rate paper on a subject other than your dissertation is especially
A good 5-20 people per job may have all or most of these credentials
(at least in quantity if not in quality), That's what you're up
To get to a campus interview, most job applicants have to survive
interviewing at a convention. The convention interview is challenging
because you must present yourself so strongly in such a short time.
The logistics are as follows: You will generally be called in advance
to schedule the interview, but "in advance" may be as
late as 2-3 days before the conference starts. It is important
that you try to agree on a time and place before the conference
starts--it's surprisingly hard and stressful for the candidate
to try to reach search committee members during the convention--no
one is ever in his/her room. The interview will probably last from
30-45 minutes. It may go longer if they like you.
Convention interviews are usually divided into four components:
questions about research
2. questions about teaching. These may very well predominate
and will often take the form of specific questions like "what
books would you use to teach ..."
3. They'll tell you about the school and the job
4. They'll let you ask questions
My survival advice for convention
1. Be prepared. Be sure that you have researched
the school so that you have ascertained their needs and can direct
your remarks to what they appear to need. This includes knowing
who's on the staff, who teaches what and how territorial the place
is. You don't want to outline a course that someone else is already
very invested in teaching. I prepare a cram sheet for each interview
that records my research for the job, my analysis of their needs,
and the anticipated questions I'll need to address. It also includes
the questions I want to ask them.
2. Strike fast. Try to establish
your candidacy in the first 5 minutes of the interview. The standard
pieces of advice for business
interviews apply here, too. Look people in the eye. Answer questions
succinctly. Have ready good snappy short and medium length answers
to the standard questions. DO NOT drone on for 15 minutes about
the minutiae of your dissertation.
3. It's an old cliche, but try to relax and be yourself. Don't
try to hide who you are. Be careful about creating different
personas for different interviews at the convention. You will
search committee members throughout the weekend and you need
to remember who you are for each encounter. Believe in your
skills and give it your best shot.
4. Dress distinctively (but don't violate too many conventions).
After 2-3 days trapped in a hotel room interviewing, search
committee members are completely fried or bored or both.
It'll be hard
to remember you if you looked and dressed like every other
you are lucky enough to get a campus interview, a "flyback," the
advice I gave earlier about marketing yourself for the specific
institution becomes triply important. Do your homework. Read the
catalog and all the literature you can get your hands on. Call
friends or acquaintances who are familiar with the university.
Pump your networks for the inside dope. Be prepared to be specific
about how you might enhance any one of the department's programs
or initiatives. The logistics are that they will generally fly
you in for 1-2 days. The atmosphere of the campus interview (barring
severe factionalism) is usually quite pleasant. You will most likely
be treated well and given every consideration.
What should you expect for a campus interview at a Ph.D.-granting
institution? Your presentation will most likely be the most important
part of the interview. Have your remarks prepared, after ascertaining
what they want, who your audience will be, how long they expect
you to talk, and whether they want you to give a formal paper or
an informal seminar on your research. How you handle questions
will be closely evaluated. On occasion, depending on the circumstances
of the search and what kind of folks your future colleagues are,
the Q&A; session following your talk may get adversarial. Don't
let them see you sweat. Be prepared to talk about your research
often and in detail to different constituencies of the department
and university. They must evaluate your prospects for passing a
tenure review in 5-6 years. (It may help you to know that at some
institutions, a tenure line will not be returned to the unit automatically
after a tenure denial. Your success, therefore, may be vital to
the unit's ability to maintain its present size and strength.)
Be ready to discuss how you would teach at least 3 undergraduate
courses and 1 graduate seminar. Most of these should be classes
you know they expect you to teach. One should be something special,
entrepreneurial--something drawing on your strengths that could
really enhance their curriculum and that other candidates would
not be able to offer. The inability to talk knowledgeably about
more than one course is unimpressive. Search committees will expect
you to be prepared for these questions. If there is some kind of
special initiative that the dept is working on, being ready to
say how you could contribute to it will be impressive. For example,
my department is using the World Wide Web for a lot of undergraduate
teaching and we're building a virtual museum which serves as the
base for this work. What skills or ideas could you bring to this
Although negotiations concerning the job will be conducted with
the Chair or Head of the department at a graduate-degree granting
institution, you may be booked for an interview with the Dean.
If so, this will be an important interview; deans authorize offers.
Be prepared to explain the importance of your research to someone
who has no training in your field. Be able to demonstrate your "connectedness" and
high regard within your field. If the Chair hires a star, the Dean
will get credit for it. The Dean wants to know whether landing
you will enhance his or her (university's) standing. If you can,
use the Dean interview to educate him or her about the importance
of your subject matter and, by extension, your new department to
current scholarly doings. You may be asked to comment on all kinds
of developments in higher education that the dean is interested
in. There is no substitute for regular reading of the Chronicle
of Higher Education at a time like this.
Be ready to sell your candidacy to the graduate students. Making
the separation between being a graduate student and teaching them
is not easy. Put some thought into how you will handle this before
Exercise good manners and display collegiality at all of the social
occasions. There is NEVER a time when you are visiting that you
are NOT being interviewed. It's an obvious point, but watch your
drinking. It's surprising how many candidates get nervous and overimbibe--usually
not to the point of drunkenness but enough that they don't feel
very well on the second day. Do not let your guard down and confess
things--fears, misgivings, shortcomings in your work, where you
REALLY stand with your dissertation writing to ANYONEwhile you
are there. Last year I was invited to the dinners for all five
candidates for a position in a neighboring department and I was
often the last person the candidate saw that day. Every single
one of them said something to me that he or she shouldn't have.
Here are a few last bits of advice: Search choices are mind-bogglingly
arbitrary. You must develop mechanisms for dealing with this aspect
of the process. (I took to ritually burning my rejection letters
in the fireplace after the first 30 or so piled in. Silly, but
it helped). Thorough preparation for a campus job interview takes
far more time than you may have. Plan ahead and manage your time
to do the best you can. Don't stint on this part of the interviewing
Good luck in your job search.
May you remember that there really
was a reason you went into this business and get a chance to do
what you do so well.