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I think how I would answer the "tell me about yourself" question would depend on the context. If it was at the actual interview table I would say something about my academic history, area of research, or teaching if at a teaching school. If the question was when you were only with one other person walking across campus or something, I would still probably say something about my education history, but would also add more tidbits about where I grew up or some of my hobbies.

Some "interesting" interview questions I have gotten include, "So what is philosophy?" and "What is religion?" (I do not work at all in the philosophy of religion, by the way). I didn't mind these questions they were just a little offbeat. Also I was once asked, "What was the worst job you've ever had?"


I think that question is perfectly fair game, although it’s not very well posed. These people are likely hiring a colleague for the rest of their professional lives, they want to know if you’ll be a fun person to have around or not.
Think about it like a date: “tell me about yourself” is just code for “I don’t know how to start a conversation, but if you start talking, maybe we’ll find something in common to discuss."

Marcus Arvan

For what it is worth, my spouse (who specializes in this stuff academically) tells me these kinds of questions are known to be among the worst kinds of interview questions for predicting anything having to do with job-performance or hiring outcomes. The most predictive questions are those pertaining directly to job-tasks.


Marcus that might be true, but I don't think it's unreasonable for hiring committees to be concerned about things that might not directly correlate to "job performance." This is especially so given the nature of academia. As much as some may disagree, I think being a professor is really more of a lifestyle than a job. It consumes you in a way very few careers do. And who you work with is a big part of that. I could see why committee members would want to know if the candidate is a general pleasant person to be around, and if he/she is a good social fit for the particular dynamics of the department. After all, the hire is someone who could be a huge part of one's professional and even personal life for the next 25 years!


"I could see why committee members would want to know if the candidate is a general pleasant person to be around, and if he/she is a good social fit for the particular dynamics of the department. After all, the hire is someone who could be a huge part of one's professional and even personal life for the next 25 years!"

I strongly disagree. It's unjust to discriminate against people based on their personalities, so long as their personalities are compatible with doing the job (in the narrow sense). So, yes, you can discriminate against people with serious psychological issues who just can't cope with the work they are required to do.

However, it's immoral to choose candidates based on qualities irrelevant to the job that you are hiring them for, so for example, based on which you think is the more fun, cheerful, funny, etc. You're hiring an employee, not a friend or a spouse.

The analogy between personality discrimination and racial/sex discrimination is very strong. In both cases we are discriminating against people based on a property that they have no or little control over that is irrelevant to performing the job in the narrow sense, meaning irrelevant to doing the specific things they are being hired to do.

Further, if we allow personality discrimination, we may very well implicitly be allowing race/sex discrimination. Consider an employer saying this, "Most of our employees are men, so the man was just a better social fit for our particular dynamics." If we can choose candidates based on personality, this reasoning must be accepted. Men tend to be more aggressive than women, more assertive, etc.

The reality is that personality discrimination is morally on par with race/sex discrimination. We need to stop excusing it as a society.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous: I am sympathetic with the overall thrust of your comment. However, I want to defend a more carefully qualified position.

There is empirical evidence that personality traits are related to "work success", at least in a broad sense (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits#Work_success ). Here are just a few known relationships:

"Openness is positively related to proactivity at the individual and the organizational levels and is negatively related to team and organizational proficiency...

Agreeableness is negatively related to individual task proactivity.

Extraversion is negatively related to individual task proficiency.

Conscientiousness is positively related to all forms of work role performance.

Neuroticism is negatively related to all forms of work role performance.[173]"

And indeed, I'm willing to wager that anyone who has worked at an organization or university will tell you that certain types of toxic personalities can tear apart departments, make it impossible to get anything done on committees, make it more difficult for others to get their own work done, and so on. This isn't about being "chummy" or "likeable", or someone who fits into a department's culture, or someone who can (as you put it) "narrowly" perform certain job-tasks well (such as publishing). It's about being the type of person who performs the job well in a *broad* sense, viz. being a colleague who gets their work done well in a wide-variety of job-relevant tasks and doesn't sabotage other colleagues' abilities to get their work done and perform well on the job.

This is very important to understand, in my view and experience. A tenure-track academic job does *not* (at least not at many universities) merely involve a very narrow set of job-demands. One is not merely expected to publish or teach classes effectively. One is expected to serve meritoriously on committees, go out of one's way to mentor and supervise students, mentor other faculty members, and so on. I know people who have fulfilled various "narrow" job-characteristics well (publishing) who nevertheless fail miserably in their job-demands (as outlined in faculty handbooks, tenure & promotion standards). For instance, whereas I've known conscientious faculty who read their students' theses/dissertations in a timely fashion, I've known others who have failed to read submitted work for upwards of 9 months. However well this person may have published, this is a dereliction of professional responsibility--and a hiring committee has every legitimate interest in discerning whether someone they are considering for a job has this kind of personality/behavioral profile. I could give many other examples where "personality" can significantly negatively effect job-performance in an academic job--and the empirical literature broadly bears this out for jobs in general. As you can see in the empirical stuff I briefly summarized above, neuroticism is known to be negatively related to work performance across a wide-variety of constructs.

Consequently, it may not be discriminatory to take into account certain types of personality traits when making a hire. An individual's personality *may* be relevant to their capacity to fulfill features of the job. In fact, this is a large reason why organizations are increasingly utilizing personality measures to screen candidates. There is good science behind it.

All that being said, you are absolutely right that a great deal of care must be taken to ensure that people are not being discriminated against on the basis of personality/behavioral features that are *not* predictive of success on the job, broadly (not narrowly) construed. For example, it is known that hiring committees tend to be biased in favor of people who score high in agreeableness and extraversion, and against people who come across as disagreeable or introverted. People naturally gravitate toward agreeable and extraverted people, judging them more competent and more attractive job-candidates. The only problem is, agreeableness and extraversion are *negatively* related to job-task proactivity and proficiency. Yes, you read that right: two traits that hiring committees are known to favor relate *negatively* to features of job-performance. Even worse, as you note, individuals on hiring committees are likely to judge people's personalities and likely success on all kinds of job-task-irrelevant features, including:

speech style

Worse still, hiring committees are known to be terrible at detecting candidates lying/misrepresenting themselves in interviews.
(http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2018/01/replying-to-odd-interview-questions.html#comment-form ).

On that note, I know at least one person who served on a committee who hired someone who "seemed perfect for the job"--who came across as agreeable in interviews, was effusive about working at their teaching university--who then showed up for work the following fall completely disinterested in teaching, a constant jerk to people in the department, and who clearly wanted the job only as a stepping-stone to a research job elsewhere.

Consequently, it is important to be aware of and correct for *biases* in judgments about personality and job-performance. Does an introverted candidate seem "remote" or "difficult to relate to"? Does an extraverted candidate seem "warm" and "likely to attract students"? Take note: the empirical literature is very clear here--we should be very skeptical about these kinds of judgments, pointing out to our colleagues that they may be judging candidates in ways that do not reliably predict performance or peer/supervisor evaluations.

On that note, allow me to end with an autobiographical story. I have a decidedly "odd" personality. In the Big Five Traits (an extremely well-validated measure), I score in only the 6th percentile in Agreeableness and the 22nd percentile in extraversion. By a similar token, in this (https://personalityfactors.com/en ) personality measure (the validity of which I don't know) I measure only 13 (out of 100) in three different measures: 'warmth', 'friendliness' and 'gregariousness'.

On the surface, these results might seem to paint a negative picture of me. Yet I am not ashamed of them in the slightest, nor should I be. Why? For three reasons: (1) disagreeableness and introversion (both of which I am high in) are both *positively* related to job-performance (including supervisor evaluations), (2) I score very highly in conscientiousness and openness to new experience (both of which are strongly related to good job-performance), and (3) disagreeableness and introversion are both routinely misunderstood (particularly as each construct contains within itself different sub-categories or "facets"). Depending on the subcategories one scores highly in, disagreeableness and introversion do not mean one is a "jerk" or difficult to work with. What they mean primarily is that one can come off as "distant" or "awkward" in social settings, particularly with strangers. Which describes me more or less perfectly. I work very hard to be a kind, conscientious, helpful colleague--and have been routinely complimented for my performance in these regards. But you know where I can come across as "strange" or "withdrawn"? You guessed it: in interviews, at cocktail parties, etc.--things that have very little relation to typical on-the-job situations in which I interact with colleagues. While I've often been complimented as someone who is good to work with as a colleague, I'm nevertheless the person who either looks nervous in an interview, or who overcompensates by trying to be overly calm, or artificially formal, or artificially high-energy. I'm also the person who appears ill-at-ease at cocktail parties, has difficulty engaging in comfortable repartee with people I don't know well, and who a result mostly talks with my spouse or one colleague I feel comfortable with the whole time. In other words, in particularly formal, contrived settings (e.g. interviews) or large gatherings, I can come across as a "strange one." For instance, I was once told by a faculty member in grad school who didn't know me that I came off as "the most aloof person he'd ever met", and was once told by someone who interviewed me who knows me very well that I "didn't come off" nearly as well in interviews as I do in daily life. Go figure. In any case, while I have by no means the perfect personality, I've done fine in my job according to the formal and informal evaluations of my colleagues. Which, I think, once again just goes to show (as Anonymous rightly draws attention to) that we must be careful evaluating people on the basis of "personality."

Anyway, long story short: personality *can* be relevant to job-performance--but we must be very careful not to make hiring decisions on the basis of either (A) personality features *not* relevant to job-performance, or (B) judgments about personality that are really just confounded by other factors (e.g. looks, weight, height, race, gender, speaking style, etc.). And, of course, the problem is: a lot of things that hiring people think *are* good predictors of job-performance (agreeableness, extraversion, quickness on one's feet) actually are not at all.


I already said that personality characteristics relevant to performing the job are open game. What I mean by ‘doing the job in the narrow sense’ is doing those things you’re paid to do. I used the term to differentiate between the job proper and broader things like being fun to socialize with during breaks.

We should be careful with discriminating based on personality even in cases where there is evidence that the personality characteristic in question is relevant. This is because personality research isn’t perfect nor are personalities well understood. If a person has a history of success that should count for more than a score on a personality test. One person’s anxiety may make them more careful researchers, while another’s may cause them to make mistakes.

Anyway, most hiring committees aren’t judging personality based on any empirical evidence. They are judging it based on stereotypes and on whether they ‘like’ the person. This is morally akin to sexism or racism. However, it seems many supposed liberals have not yet noticed this form of intolerance.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous: I mostly agree with you. One place we may differ is in terms of our estimation of how well personality and its effects on job-outcomes are understood. For example, certain factors of conscientiousness are apparently known to be very good predictors of occupational achievement across many domains. Second, I don’t think the issues you raise are a distinct problem for “liberals” (though your implicature there is unclear to me). To the extent that I am familiar with the empirical literature, people all over the sociopolitical spectrum are liable to personality biases and biases regarding other confounds (height, looks, race, gender, speech timbre and patterns, etc). The real lesson of the empirical literature, as I know it, is that although certain personality facets may be job-relevant, we should be *very* careful—far more careful than hiring institutions typically appear to be—basing decisions on personality judgments in general and be skeptical of how much we “like” a candidate based on interview performance (instead of other measures that can tell one a lot about job-relevant characteristics, such as clear patterns of effectively mentoring students, working well with others, etc.).



Psychology has not proven itself to be very trust worthy as of late. I guess I'm pretty suspicious of just how generalizable their findings are.

I agree that the issues I raise are not distinct to liberals, but most academics identify as liberals. I am speaking to academics in particular.

Anyway, yea we largely agree on the issues. I think we should be more careful making statements that seem to suggest that employers can freely discriminate based personality. I hear these statements often.

We shouldn't accept this kind of discrimination any more than other forms of discrimination. If an employer is going to look at personality it needs to be particular characteristics shown to be relevant to the kind of job in question.

Hiring an employee isn't picking a friend. It's not just or moral to exclude someone that's well qualified because someone else was wittier or funnier or whatever.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous: again, I mostly agree. As for your aside about psychology, there is indeed a replication crisis in certain parts of the field. However, the findings that I've reported here--on conscientious and the superiority of algorithmic methods of evaluation over human judgment--have been replicated repeatedly and then systematically confirmed over several decades of studies and experiments (including a number of meta-analyses). Not all areas of psychology are equal. Some areas (social psychology in particular) are notorious for utilizing dicey methodologies and dicier statistics. Other areas (I-O Psychology) are not perfect, but far better methodologically and contain a number of well-confirmed and widely replicated results that are accepted in the field in more or less complete consensus (given, again, the robustness and reliability of certain findings). For example, the general superiority of algorithmic employee-selection methods has been repeatedly confirmed across many different job-types and predicants for over four decades.


I think given the nature of academia, it is hard to separate "liking" someone and *indirect* job performance. As having spent times at many different departments, the ones where the faculty like each other are better and more effective in every way. I find they run grad programs better, they have better research environments, and they collaborate on teaching more. Spending time at a department where members disliked each other made for a sad department in almost every measurable way. And I do not think personalities clicking are going to correlate greatly with the big 5 personality traits, because what matters is how people mesh and that can be fairly idiosyncratic. Hence the importance of the elusive "fit" in hiring decisions.

As far as socializing is concerned, I hate it. But I also think real research can be done at a bar, so I do not think how well one socializes is completely irrelevant, even though I personally am a horrible at socializing.


I agree that we should use algorithmic methods of evaluation. I don't know about the personality research, but just urge caution.


I will add that sometimes it seems as though people are suggesting that the goal of search committees should be to come up the most objective way possible of evaluating job candidates so as to do justice to those candidates. But the goal of search committees is to benefit their department, not job candidates. While it is wrong to purposefully exclude someone for irrelevant reasons, requiring that committees do everything they can to eliminate any possibility of bias seems to be asking too much. There is bias in almost every facet of life and it overly demanding to suggest we are under the responsibility to do everything we can to eliminate all of it. Search committees primary focus is in doing what benefits them. If two candidates are equally qualified but one is more pleasant, I see nothing wrong with choosing the more pleasant candidate.

Marcus Arvan

Amanda: one big problem with that—and there is a lot of empirical work on this—is that people on hiring committees tend to find candidates “more pleasant” the more they are demographically and physically like themselves (viz. race, gender, political orientation, geographical background, etc.) than people who are different. In other words, perceptions of “pleasantness” don’t track actual pleasantness so much as they track personal and demographic biases. Moreover, as I already noted, clinical methods (I.e. interviews) are notoriously terrible are tracking these things. Someone may appear pleasant in an interview or on campus but actually be a miserable colleague, whereas someone who doesn’t seem pleasant or fun in an interview or on campus can be very much those things on a daily basis in an actual job.

Marcus Arvan

Addendum: fwiw I totally agree with you that it’s important for faculty in a department (and college) to get along. The problem is just that standard hiring practices (open ended interviews) don’t track that very well. Again, I’m not a person who comes off particularly fun or pleasant in an interview...but everyone in my department gets along totally swimmingly.


Well I was thinking letters and perhaps previous personal experience might be included in evidence about pleasantness, but I see your point. Actually I think a case could be made for a search committee arriving at a list of say 6 finalists and then picking via lottery. I don't think this would ever actually happen, but perhaps it should.


Here are two questions from the chair of the department on one of my on-campus interviews:

Chair: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how courageous are you?"

Me: [punched him] 10.

Chair: "Do you have any skeletons in your closet?"

Me: "... You mean, other than my response to the previous question."

(Questions from chair are real, but the responses are not.)


You made my day, and it is only 7:02 in the morning.
At first, when I read I imagined you punching the chair on the shoulder, in a chummy way. I though "This Joe guy is amazing ... we should hire him." When I got to the bottom, I saw another option. Best of luck on the market.

Post Doc

@ Anonymous. But making hiring choices based on your own perceptions of one's personality doesn't engage with the scientific literature on personality traits and job performance, so that whole line of thinking is a non sequitur.

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