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To be frank with you, I like it when a candidate is honest and says they need to think about something. Clearly if that is their answer to all questions, then there is a problem. But admitting one does not know something or needs time to think about it demonstrates honesty. And it will lead the committee (at least me) to believe that they would seek assistance when things are not going right, rather than wait until they have a major problem on their hands.

anonymous III

Honesty is good. On the other hand, if we say in our ad that the candidate would be teaching courses x,y, and z, then I would expect them to be able to talk competently about how they would teach these courses. Would it be a deal breaker if they didn't? No, but given that we'll be interviewing 15 other candidates, many of whom will actually have thought about how they would fit the job description, and prepared accordingly, it would most likely substantially hurt the candidate's chances.


Thank you, Frank!

And that sounds very fair, anonymous III. From the candidate's perspective, it's really difficult to prepare for every possible course question search committees might ask about - especially when one has multiple interviews back to back for jobs at schools with very different teaching needs, including courses far outside of one's AOS/AOC. I realize that this is a good problem to have (I do not mean to complain!). But did want to add this context to show that it's not that I'm being lazy or not reading job descriptions. It's just really easy to run out of time.


Would it be bad to hire an excellent teacher who did not prepare the course at all until two months before it had to be taught? I find it puzzling that job candidates are often asked to behave in ways totally unlike most dedicated faculty members. This is especially so because I know they are all desperate for jobs, and most are applying for 50+ positions. I would want to hire someone with competence to teach a course (i.e. some background knowledge of the subject), and a proven history of being a dedicated and well-liked instructor. I would want a job seeker to talk to me about general teaching strategies. I find it odd so many search committees ask about specific courses, especially given the reality of both the market and also how at least I have been known to prepare my own courses.

anonymous III

DCandidate, I agree that there are lots of good reasons for not being able to answer questions. But, from the perspective of the search committee, two things will operate: 1) we don't know if you have good reasons or not, and, more importantly, 2) we may very well have at least three interviewees who have good answers. Does that mean you're out? Nope, there could be all sort of reasons for the committee to keep you in their pile. But there are man candidates who are discarded on the basis of one question, regardless of why they gave the response they did.

Derek Bowman

Anna: Yes, this is especially ironic when the same institutions regularly hire part-time adjuncts less than a month before the start of the semester without requiring a syllabus in advance.


Ha yes that is true as well Derek. The whole thing is very odd. Since I am hardly interviewing everyone, I guess candidates must prepare for courses they will likely never teach, and if they do teach it, by the time the course rolls around they will have likely made many changes to the syllabus. We, of course, never check the syllabus before they actually teach the course.


This is all very helpful. One of my mentors said to me a while back when I was preparing my teaching dossier: "if you have a million sample syllabi and course descriptions prepared for courses you have never taught and may never teach, then search committees might legitimately wonder about whether you're spending your time wisely. Shouldn't you be focusing on finishing your dissertation, publishing, and other things?"

I thought this was wise.


I really don't mean to be overly negative, because I understand being on the job market is a harrowing experience given the stakes. But flubbing one interview question on the non-academic job market is almost always enough to rule out a candidate, and that's true even though the non-academic market is usually much less competitive than its academic counterpart. Why should botching a question in an academic interview be any less serious, especially given its notorious competitiveness?

Sometimes I wonder if academics should have spent some time on the post-Great Recession non-academic job market in order to know what it's really like out there. There are a lot of skills involved in interviewing that one learns. And reading many of the comments on these blogs sometimes gives me the impression that graduate students are under the illusion that jobs outside of academia just fall into people's laps. The truth is that it's all much more cut-throat than that. I say this having botched many non-academic interviews after giving just one bad answer.

My advice: accept that you probably botched the interview, learn the lesson about the importance of prep (we're all short on time, after all), and move on. If you're pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't in fact botch it, then all the better for you.


I don't think it's a question of what is fair to the person being interviewed. It seems more of a question of how does a search committee know if they are making the right choice. It seems like a bad idea to tank someone for one botched interview question. The person is not being hired to be interviewed on a regular basis. Their overall record of a teacher and academic is much more relevant.

Sad Monday

Am I the only one who thinks that "How would you teach X questions?" are preposterous in the context of 20-minute interviews? I mean, there's only so much you can say about a full semester syllabus in what is probably less than a minute.

Sad Monday

"How would you teach X?" questions

Dang, Mondays are like Fridays, except they're bad.


Eustace, you write that "flubbing one interview question on the non-academic job market is almost always enough to rule out a candidate." This is not true, in my experience. My partner has a good non-academic job, hires people regularly, and confirms that people mess up in interviews all the time and still get the job. For what it's worth, I also did hold a good, full-time, non-academic job after taking a break from graduate school (because of the market and my own need to explore other possibilities)--so I do have some sense of what it's like out there. It's competitive and difficult, sure. But that doesn't make the academic job market any less awful.

But I do take your advice to heart. It's good advice.

sometime search committee member

I think the only answer to the question is "It depends." Any of the following things might be true, or might not:

1. The committee really cares more about your research and is not going to be too bugged about the answer to a question about teaching.
1a. The committee thinks it's getting better information about your research than about teaching, for reasons like what Sad Monday said, but feels the need to ask about it anyway.
2. The course was listed in the ad because the dean made them do it, and the dean wants them to ask a question about it in the interview, but they really just want to hire the person they can like best who they can make teach that course.
3. The course was listed in the ad because they *really need* someone to teach that course, and flubbing the answer is bad.
4. The committee will be really annoyed at a sign that the candidate didn't prep for that particular interview like it was their absolute dream job.
5. You were one of the committee's favorite candidates going into the interview and one flubbed question isn't going to hurt your chances.
6. Other people were the committee's favorite candidates going into the interview and your main hope was always that one of them blew it. (I would add that I don't think 5 and 6 are illegitimate at all--whatever the committee learns from the interview shouldn't always override what they already learned from the dossiers.)
7. There was really one specific concern the committee had about you and wanted to learn about in the interview. It may or may not have had anything to do with the question you flubbed.
8. There's someone on the committee who really liked you all along and is going to forcefully advocate for ignoring your flubbed answer.
9. There's someone on the committee who really didn't like you all along and is going to use your flubbed answer against you.

And of course you can't know which, if any, of these are true. If it seemed like the committee really liked you before then, that's a good sign. Although it's also possible that they seem that way because they're nice people who are interested in the work of their interviewees and want job candidates to have as nice an experience as possible in a stressful time (it happens!) When you're waiting to hear about callbacks you may have to repeat the Serenity Prayer a lot.

One thing about this: In my experience, when you have a stack of 300 applications to look at, you're looking for reasons to disqualify people; you just do not have time to read all those writing samples as closely as they might merit. But by the time you've got the candidates down to an interview list, you're not just looking for excuses to get rid of candidates, even if it is very very difficult to pick the finalists. The committee has already put some time and effort int the candidates, and positively making a good impression is more important than failing to make a negative impression. So that might be a reason that flubbing an interview question is not as harmful at this stage as doing something equivalent would be in the initial application stage.


This confirms my suspicion that the search committee usually have 3-6 strong favourites going into the skype interviews. This is so even if they will interview 12 candidates. I have gone into a few interviews where things felt hostile from the beginning or I just got the immediate impression they were not interested in me. I think if you are not already on the favorite list at skype interview time you have very little chance. The only hope is if a few of the favorites really blow it.

sometime search committee member

Amanda, what I'm thinking of is more that search committees don't always work with a unitary mind. I can only speak to the committees I've been on, but I'd guess that often the people who do the interview aren't exactly the same people who did the most detailed review of the dossier before the interview (often just because there are so many dossiers that the procedure becomes something like "these people will look at this bunch of dossiers, these people will look at that bunch, each group will prepare a list of candidates, and everyone won't necessarily do a detailed review until we've already done the interview list"). Which may mean that the person who's being hostile in the interview may not be the same person who wanted to put you on the interview list. I think it probably is very rare that a committee gets together and says "These are our four favorites, and oh yeah, we'll also interview these people"--though it may happen that in the meeting everyone agrees on four people and then there's more dispute about the other eight. But given the amount of material that has to be read, the number of people involved in the process who have different interests and agendas, and the incompleteness of the information involved, the process is going to be chaotic and unpredictable. Which I did not find to be any comfort when I was on the short end of it.

I do think, again, that it is fine for the imporatnce of the Skype interview to be downplayed--which does effectively mean that some candidates aren't going to make it to flyouts even if they nail the interview, unless other candidates blow it. That's no excuse for being jerks in the interview, though, and I'm sorry you had to put up with that.


Thanks sometime search committee member. What you says makes sense and isn't too far off from what I was thinking.

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