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03/06/2017

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I've done a few interviews

I don't have a terrible interview story, but I have a potentially controversial interview suggestion. I have gone into my interviews with questions about the faculty interviewing me sufficient to occupy _all_ of the relevant time. That is, I have been prepared to hijack the interviews and turn them around. My prepared questions have been about anything I can find out about the faculty: about their bios (as apparent on their faculty websites, no deep searching), about specific things they've written, specific classes they've taught. They aren't questions about the department; they are questions about individual faculty members. I've then worked to include those questions in my answers to their questions early on, flipping who is doing the interviewing.

This does a couple of things: 1) it disrupts the awful interrogation feeling, changing interviews into conversations, 2) it shows that I am really interested in the department, 3) it actually makes me more interested in the department (skimming an article or two really helped), and 4) it leads the faculty to talk about themselves and, in my experience, people enjoy talking about themselves.

When I've discussed this strategy with people, especially when I've mentioned interviews I completely hijacked, where I was 'on the offensive' the whole time, some people have thought either a) that I'm doing something inappropriate or b) that people will reject me because they won't learn enough about me. I'm not an expert on a, but my experience is that b is false.

anonymous

I've done a few,
The language you use of "hijacking" is disconcerting. I do not mind if a candidate asks about me. And I try not to make the interviews seems like interrogations (they are not!) But I would hate for a candidate to think they need to get the upper hand. It is the wrong frame of mind.

Successful job candidate

A have a story from a first-round interview for a job I got a fly out for, so that should provide some hope. Here's the embarrassing thing that happened: I didn't prepare a pitch for how I would teach a course listed in the AOC in the ad (because I had a bunch of other interviews to prepare for, had no time, etc.). So when they asked how I would teach that course, I froze, then said a few stupid things. At the end of the interview, when they asked if I wanted to add anything, I improvised with honesty: I told them that I knew I had more thinking to do about how I would teach that course, but that I would be excited to pull it together with some prep time. I think the search committee appreciated my honesty, and probably laughed about my answer. I was lucky that the interview went so well otherwise that I got an on-campus interview. But learn from my mistake and make sure you have something to say about how you would teach courses they need taught. And if all else fails, improvise like I did, or plan something in advance ("if I mess up, this is what I will say..."). And if you screw up, forgive yourself. We are all imperfect and doing our best.

Marcus Arvan

I agree with 'anonymous.' I don't think candidates should treat interviews as interrogations, even if (as is sometimes the case) the search committee members approach them that way--and I certainly don't think it is helpful for a candidate to try to turn an interview into a power-play.

The best way for a candidate to present themselves to a committee is not as someone seeking to gain the upper hand, but instead as a person who--if hired--will be their *equal* as a faculty member in the department. This is best accomplished not by hijacking an interview, but simply treating it as a conversation among equals: a place to discuss your research, teaching, and interests, and to learn more about the people and institution interviewing you. That's the kind of quiet confidence that, in my experience, comes off the best by far.

job seeker

Once an interviewer turned to grilling me on my writing sample in quite an aggressive way. And, in the course of doing so, this person began attacking a position that I hadn't defended in my paper. "The problem with X is ...". How is one supposed to respond in that situation? I tried to clarify that I wasn't committed to X, and then redirect things back to my main argument while mentioning how I was sympathetic to objections to X that had been raised, etc. But it seemed this was viewed as a weak, defensive response. It seemed that I should have responded aggressively in kind. Though I wasn't prepared to defend X, it seemed that I should have defended X aggressively anyway - That this would have been the way to impress the committee. I raise this experience in general terms because any input on how one should handle situations like these would be useful (especially input from those of you who have been in the interviewer's seat).

I've done a few interviews

For what it is worth, of the people I know who have tried this strategy, only one interview--either first-round or on-campus--did not turn out successfully. I only know of one first-round interview that did not result in an on-campus interview, and I don't know of any on-campus interviews that did not turn into offers. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and the sample size is not n>30 interviewees.

On the other, hand, most people I talk to about this strategy express skepticism or rejection. However, as any good linguist will tell you, people are really bad reporters of what counts as a successful move in their language...

Perhaps a good middle ground bit of advice that I would offer is: be prepared for a real conversation, and a real conversation involves your curiosity about them as much as preparing to answer their curiosity about you. Don't reject their questions, but do prepare to ask real questions about individuals, and not just questions about your role in the department (those are just more questions about you!)--prepare to ask the faculty about their specific research paths, particular papers, courses taught, etc. If you have those questions available, you will be more engaged, you will be able to fill the sort of conversational gaps that often lead interviewers to ad lib questions (and interviewer ad libbed questions are the questions most often to show up in threads like these), and you will end up in something experienced as pleasant by the interviewers.

Marcus Arvan

I've done a few interviews': Interesting. I do think it is important to project confidence, as well as interest in and knowledge of the people who are interviewing you. That shows not only that you have done your homework, but that you think of your interviewers as future colleagues--all of which are good things to project. So I think your "middle ground" advice is probably good.

Finally, though, I think your skeptical point about self-reports raises good questions about how we can know what works in interviews. I don't think many people would self-report that they would like a candidate behaving in an arrogant manner--but, at the same time, I've heard occasional anecdotal reports of such behavior working to a candidate's advantage. One example I heard of was of a candidate many years ago interviewing at a top research university. Apparently, when they were asked about the work of a well-known person in the field, the candidate flatly replied that they wouldn't talk about that person's work (implying it was so bad as to not even be worth discussing). Apparently, or so I'm told, the hiring committee was so impressed by the candidate's chutzpah that decided then and there to hire him. Now obviously, this is just a story I heard of a case happened years ago, and times change (and I certainly wouldn't advise candidates to try it!)--but still, it wouldn't surprise me if, in at least some cases, what actually works in interviews might be very different than what people (including search committee members) *think* works. And indeed, if I recall correctly, empirical psychology suggests human beings are pretty systematic confabulators, giving reasons/explanations for behavior that don't match up with their actual behavior (e.g. few people think they judge candidates on irrelevant factors, when they science shows they do: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2016/01/more-reasons-why-interviews-shouldnt-matter.html ).

In fact, I think these are such good questions that I'm going to open up a thread on the topic tomorrow! ;)

James

I'm reluctant to complain, because in this market I feel lucky to have gotten any interviews at all, but I had a number of lousy interviewing experiences this year. Some examples of questions I got:

- About a paper coauthored with a grad school friend "Did you really do any of the work on that paper?" (but no substantive questions about it, which might have been a good way to find out)
- "We read your research statement. Now sell me on it."
- "People have been writing about your topic ad nauseam for decades. How could you have anything interesting to say about it?"

Other cases are harder to describe because the issue was primarily the tone of the question, an inappropriate remark after an answer, or obvious digging around for my political views. I'm sure many incidents can be chalked up to nerves, exhaustion, or innocent slips of tongue. But sometimes the problem was obvious insecurity, poor coordination among committee members about what should be asked, or political paranoia.

I've been skeptical about the value of interviews, for reasons Marcus has discussed here. These experiences largely confirm my concerns. Friends interviewed by the same departments that gave me strangely worded questions reported getting very different wording. It feels paternalistic, but maybe HR should be giving these people standard question sets.

I don't think I'm great at reading people, but at places where I advanced to the next round, the interview seemed almost a formality. At many of the places where I didn't advance, it was clear from the first 90 seconds that 20-60% of the people were dead set against me. Small N, but I'm not sure these interviews even matter. If you're #12 on the list, you won't jump to the top 4.

After some interviews I couldn't believe the (to be frank) bozos I'd just spoken to were deciding who would stay alive in philosophy. Please, bring on the robot overlords. They can't possibly be worse than some hiring departments.

anon

I have been off the market for years, but I had a particular type of bad experience twice. I interviewed at two places that had Masters' programs (not well known ones). While at the on campus interview a graduate student told me that there was an inside candidate (TWICE this happened!). It was completely irritating. You still have to stay enthusiastic, because there is always the slim chance that the inside candidate gets a better offer somewhere else. Then I may have been offered the job.

Amanda

I agree with James that I could quickly get either the impression that I had a chance, or that there was no way in hell. I haven't been wrong yet. It's not a big deal for a first round. But flyouts are a lot of work and it can be rough knowing that it is all a waste of time.

Sam Duncan

Two things: First, I want to say I've had a few experiences similar to job seeker's and it's really frustrating and tricky. What do you do when someone on the committee throws an objection at you that's based on an obvious (or what seems to you an obvious) misreading of your position in the writing sample or job talk? I had an on campus where someone pressed me for not defending X, which they thought was an obvious and highly counter-intuitive implication of what they took to be my position. Now the thing is X wasn't an implication of the view put forward in my paper, but was instead an implication of a fairly serious misunderstanding of what I was up to, and one that I'd hope would be obvious to anyone with a serious background in Kant, who was the subject of the paper under discussion. What's more since the paper was a historical paper focused on how to interpret Kant's claims about radical evil; I didn't personally hold the view I attributed to Kant (I thought and still do think that it's the best reconstruction of his views but that it has some serious problems considered on its own merits). So what to do? I tried to both defend X on the spot and pointed out that since the paper was about Kant's view I didn't necessarily hold it. But in retrospect I think I flubbed the question doubly in the eyes of the committee by giving a weak answer and sounding like I was trying to cover for that weak answer. But is there any good response in those situations where the interviewer just doesn't get what you're doing? Can you just say: I see why you think that but you're wrong? Even said politely and gently I worry about how well that would work.

Second, I wonder if there's something to be said for making interviewers stick to a script and ask all candidates the same or similar questions? It has its drawbacks, but it may be fairer. I get the sense that some candidates have been asked some extremely unfair questions in interviews. For instance, I've mostly avoided it myself but I know that friends of mind have fielded questions that bordered on attacks on their personal political and religious views or that were at the very least attempts to sound them out to see if they personally held the "right" views. I've had some very subtle questions that seemed to have that intent, but they weren't that aggressive and they were in situations where such questions are arguably fair game (Maybe you don't want a moderately liberal Protestant like me at your self-consciously conservative and Catholic school) but I've heard stories where there was really no good excuse for them.

Lauren

Sam Duncan: I think this is tricky. As someone who also works on history of philosophy, I think it's totally fair to disavow holding X, but I would do that before I say anything else about X, with something like, "Let me say first that I am defending this as an interpretation of what Kant believes; I actually do not defend X, and am sympathetic to some of the objections you raise. But here's what I think Kant would say in response..." Using this "this is what Kant would say" response reminds them that this is not your considered philosophical view, but what you take Kant's to be. Nevertheless, you're still engaging with X instead of totally dismissing it. I've tried this tactic in paper presentation Q&As with success, and although I only encountered this once this year in an interview, I think it went over well.

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