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Hi Marcus,

Can you give examples of the types of questions to ask at the end of interview? I think that this part of the interview is really silly, tbh. Because any questions I might have - say about how to get involved in ethics bowl coaching, are things I could easily find out when hired. There is really no reason to ask that question now, before I am hired. It is not like I wouldn't take the job if there is no ethics bowl team. Maybe it would be a bit more honest if the closing line was (rather than do you have any questions), "Can you briefly explain why you think you are a good fit for our school?" That seems to be what the famous, "do you have any questions" is really getting at. But enough of my rant, what are the sort of questions that come off well, and what are those that don't?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: My experience is that good questions are unexpectedly thoughtful, and show genuine *curiosity* about features of the job and the people interviewing you that the candidate couldn't easily gather by other sources.

I don't think it would be a good idea to give a bunch of examples, as that might lead every candidate reading to ask the same types of questions (which is honestly a general problem in interviews, as there are "stock" answers to many interview questions that candidates often seem trained to give). [NOTE: I just updated the post with this, as it just occurred to me its an important addition].

But let me give you one possible example. Most universities have 3-credit-hour classes. My university has 4-credit-hour classes. My experience (which was verified by a tenured professor from another university who taught here temporarily) is that this seemingly small difference is *immense*. I always got excellent teaching reviews until I came here. Then, my first two years, they were dreadful. I had to entirely RELEARN how to teach to be successful. The amount and kind of preparation three 4-credit classes takes is totally different than 3-credit classes. I also had to learn how to teach courses I didn't specialize in (which I had never done before). All of my colleagues I work with have expressed similar sentiments: our teaching environment is a unique challenge.

With that in mind, suppose someone were to research this and ask the following question, "What were the most unexpected or difficult part(s) of transitioning to your job at your university? How would you advise a new hire to best handle it?" Given my experience in this job, these are GREAT questions. Even if they didn't mention the 4-credit classes explicitly, chances are people in my position would regard it a *very* thoughtful, saavy question, given our own experience finding it a difficult transition.

This is why the questions are important. Good questions *don't* just give the candidate another opportunity to show why they are a good fit for the school. They give the candidate another opportunity to (i) show they've done their homework, (ii) show educated curiosity about the *people* interviewing them and their experience at the place they work, such that (iii) the questions show that the candidate has actually thought about relevant features of the job not necessarily discussed elsewhere in the interview. These are all important things.


Lol great that is the question I always asked :)


By the way, when I asked that often the faculty members seemed put on the spot, and ... well, uncomfortable that they had to give an answer. So much so I considered not asking it anymore. But I guess it was a good move.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: interesting! I want to emphasize that I think it would be a mistake for all of the candidates reading this to go out and ask that question. The more candidates that ask it, the less effective it will become. Further, I think for some jobs, it might be the wrong question to ask, potentially raising questions about the candidate’s preparedness for the job (e.g. if it’s just a run of the mill university that doesn’t differ in any clear way from other universities, the people interviewing you might think, “Difficulties transitioning? This is just a normal job—I didn’t have any trouble transitioning. Is this person worried they might not be able to cut it if we hire them?”). Indeed, I don’t think it would be smart to ask the same question of every committee. What counts as a good question will differ from school to school. This is why a *really* good question stands out: it’s one that shows the candidate has given some thought to the specifics of the university and job they are applying for. So, I’d say, do the research. Learn about the university. Learn about the people on the committee who will be interviewing you. Then think creatively about which question(s) might strike those people as thoughtful and relevant to their place of work. In addition to impressing the committee, you might just find that the answer you get to the question is useful to you as a candidate (in our case, just about any candidate would probably benefit from knowing the things about our 4-credit system I mentioned above - I certainly would have. Instead, I learned the information the hard way only after starting the job!).

Steven French

Two stock questions that are often asked in my experience:
If you had the choice, which of our courses would you most like to teach?
If you had the opportunity, what new course would you most like to develop and teach?

Wrt the first, we once had a candidate who admitted he hadn't looked at what we taught - needless to say, he didn't get the job.
Wrt the second, we had a candidate give an answer that was so 'out there' it shot past 'innovative' and embedded itself in the land of 'wtf?'

Here in the UK interview panels are mostly composed in such a way that deptl reps are outnumbered by e.g. the Dean (or his/her rep), HR, Someone from Another Faculty ... and the questions tend to follow the same format: there will be on on teaching, one on research, one (usually from the Dean) on grant 'capture' (past, if any, if not, future possibilities ...) and yes, almost always ending with 'do you have any questions for us?' ("Yes, how do the various research centres interact?", "how might I get involved in your 'Philosophy in Schools initiative?", "what funding do you have for PhD students?" etc etc)

jolyon wagg

If I may, I would like to add a small point to the first comment about doing your homework. Suppose that a dept is hiring in order to *add* to the existing faculty. In this situation, merely showing that you can teach "your PHL-XXX module" isn't going to be enough - what you'd also need to do is to explain how you would contribute to the design and delivery of new modules. And showing that you've thought about how to do this (e.g. to add strength to existing lines of teaching expertise, or to fill any gaps in a programme) is a great way to indicate that you've done your homework.


Marcus, I had to laugh at the suggestion of a question about handling difficult colleagues. Is the difficult colleague the one asking the question? Or is he/she on the other side of the interviewing table? Or did they just leave the room for a moment? Clearly, this is a skill too many of us will need, but I cannot imagine the question arising at an interview. Perhaps most people are so desperate for a job that they would say anything to get a job.


It's my sense that interviews are often (largely?) a formality. Who will be hired is often (largely?) determined in advance of the interview.

My wife has had 6 interviews (not in philosophy but another academic subject) and in most cases it seemed that fit decided the issue, and this was of course known before the interview based on the application. How do I know this? The questions they asked her, and the comments they gave her about her interview performance. For example, 'your research isn't focused enough on subject x.' Well, that was known prior to the interview.

My PhD institution hired a few people on short term contracts while I was there. They were people who worked with and were friends of the HoD. Something tells me that interview performance didn't have a whole lot to do with why these people were hired.

I had a few interviews for philosophy jobs. Every time I was told I aced the interview, but the job went to someone with more teaching experience or more relevant research. All stuff known in advance based on application materials.

My friend who works in a big US state university says that for almost every job, they know who they are going to hire before it's even posted. Interviews he says are a sham. He also says that in his experience 50% of hires are internal applicants.

This is just anecdotal data and testimony, but has caused me to form the sense that interviews don't matter much. It's about connections or just being the right fit. Don't go into an interview unprepared or act like an idiot, but don't stress about them that much either.

Now maybe this is utterly wrong. What do others think?


"My friend who works in a big US state university says that for almost every job, they know who they are going to hire before it's even posted."

If this friend is a philosopher, I find this incredibly hard to believe. I have a lot of experience with big state US universities - and if it is a junior higher, I just don't see how this could happen. That would imply the school has some random junior person - out of thousands - that for some reason they want to hire? I mean I am sure it sometimes happens if the school has a VAP they like, but I think this is rare.

I find it much more plausible that there is a ranking of candidates before interviews. I think this is especially true for skype interviews, i.e., committees know who they want for flyouts. I find it less likely for flyouts that hey know who they want to hire. I think this is true, but only sometimes. The main reason is I committee members will disagree on who they want to hire, so the interview process can serve as a means to resolve that disagreement. Also, even if there is some ranking before interviews take place, it is very possible to screw up your first candidate ranking by doing something dumb on the interview. Besides, the first person might decline the offer, and hence the committee must have a second choice. I know a committee who after the flyout, decided they would rather not hire anyone than hire the third ranked candidate. Well the first two candidates declined the offer, and hence it was a failed search.

Marcus, I agree that if every candidate asked the "what should junior colleagues know about working here"question it would be ineffective. However, I disagree that it is not a good question for every university. Each university/department is unique and has its own way of doing things, hence there are things that would be helpful to know about working there. There is no one better to ask than current faculty.

Marcus Arvan

“It's my sense that interviews are often (largely?) a formality. Who will be hired is often (largely?) determined in advance of the interview.”

My experience is that this is wrong. Sometimes there are clear favorites heading into interviews. If none of the favorites screw up or no one lower on the list gives a spectacular interview that blows the favorites out of the water, then the favorites will probably be invited to campus. But if at least one favorite does blow it or someone lower on the list gives a far better interview, then the person lower on the list may get the flyout and be hired. Then there are cases where there are no clear favorites—where the search committee is split on the candidates. In that case, interview performances may be a main deciding factor.

In other words, interviews matter, and matter a lot at that. If you have a great interview but don’t get a campus invite, it could be a number of things (see the rest of this series). I would absolutely not advise “not stressing” over interviews. You should prepare for them like your career depends on it. It very well might.


Amanda, my friend in question is not a philosopher but works in a much bigger academic discipline. If it's true for his discipline, I'd think it even more true for a small discipline like philosophy. I have no reason to think he's lying or making it up. He's a tenured professor and has worked there over a decade. It's a big US state university. I won't say which one. His view, to state it again, is that in his much larger academic discipline they already know who they will hire before a job ad is posted and the entire hiring process is a formality/sham.

I have no idea how much interviews matter or don't matter. It's not really relevant to me, as I am not on the job market. I just have never personally encountered a situation or been told of a situation where it seemed the interview made much difference. But this is all anecdotes and testimony, not good scientific data. I'd be interested in seeing any empirical research on this.


'His view, to state it again, is that in his much larger academic discipline they already know who they will hire before a job ad is posted and the entire hiring process is a formality/sham.'

I should qualify that he says they usually already know who they'll hire before the ad is posted. Sometimes they don't get the person they want, but the market is so bad that they usually get to hire who they want.

It's just testimony from one professor from one university and the subject isn't even philosophy, but it seemed to match with other anecdotes.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous: Not all disciplines are alike. Teaching philosophy is very different than teaching biology. Although all we have are anecdotes, I have never once heard a philosopher who has served on search committees say interviews make no appreciable difference, or that it is all but decided who will be hired before interviews occur.


FWIW, I think that what Amanda, Marcus, and others have said is compatible with a somewhat weaker version of what Anonymous is reporting their friend says--namely, that there's often a clear ranking before the interviews, and that the ranking continues to dominate discussions afterwards and doesn't typically change all that much. And that's because it's hard to move the dial very much in an interview, beyond absolutely tanking. Especially when horse-trading is in play.

(My own experience has been that campus visits really shake up the ranking, but that's n=1.)


I agree there is often a ranking. It just isn't true that there is usually someone chosen before they post the job ad. That makes no sense for junior hires in philosophy. They don't even know who will apply. How can you possibly know who you want to hire if you don't know who will apply? (might be rare exceptions to this.) And I work at a large state university - and have worked at two others in the past.


Answer the question you are asked! And, if you are a candidate who tends to ramble, stop yourself and ask the committee: "would you like an example?" or "would you like me to elaborate?" This is much better than rambling until someone must cut you off due to time. I was surprised, as someone who served on a search committee for the first time this year, how easily candidates got off track and took far too long to finish a thought. Get to the punch line :)

Also, interviews are terrifying and search committees know this. We feel for you! We were there once, too.


I would add something to AnonX's helpful comment above. One challenge when being interviewed is determining how much detail to go into with an answer. This is exacerbated if you don't know how many questions the committee has planned. For instance, you don't know if in asking about your research, they also want you to discuss current/future particular projects (because they don't have a specific question about projects), or whether they'll have a further question along those lines. For this reason, I think saying something like, "I'd be happy to talk more about (topic/s), but let me start with....".

For instance, if they ask you about what sorts of assignments you have for an upper level course, you might say, "I'd be happy to explain in more detail some of my other assignments, which include required blog posts, short responses, and longer papers, but one type of assignment that I find most effective is argument reconstructions...".

This gives you the chance to sketch out all the good things you have to say in an area, to elaborate on a specific example, and invites them to follow up for more detail in a comfortable way.


I'm not sure this is on topic, but...

I wish we could all be a bit more honest throughout this process. The real answer to "why do you want a job here?" is "because I want a job and you're one of only three places to interview me and I'm desperate to work so I can eat." The committee also knows that this is the real answer to the question. So why bother asking it?

A different way of putting the matter is this: what's really being asked (it seems to me) when committees say "why do you want a job here?" is "tell us what you know about our school." So why not just say that? Or, if what you really want is reasons to believe that I'll stay, ask for those. This weird encoding-one-question-as-another-question thing we're all doing is pointless. Actually, it's worse than that -- it's harmful.

How is it harmful? I think one can see the harm by thinking it through like this: each non-clueless committee member already knows what the real answer to "why do you want this job" is. So each thinks that when they ask that, they're actually asking some other question. But I as a candidate have no idea what the individual committee members think they're asking. So I have to guess. Thus, what could have been an actual information-gathering event (where each committee member asked the question they actually mean to ask) has become a crapshoot. I take it that this amounts to harm.

TL;DR: committees: if you know what the answer to a question is, don't ask it. If you're asking it as a stand-in for another question, ask the other question instead.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Tom: Thanks for chiming in. With respect, I entirely disagree.

First, the "why do you want to work here?" question is not just intended to ascertain whether the interviewee has done their homework on the institution. Although that is part of why the question is asked, another part is we really do want to know which candidate(s) want *this* job, and which candidate(s) just want it because it's *a* job. Let me explain why this is important.

Believe it or not, your real answer to the question ("because I want a job and you're one of only three places to interview me and I'm desperate to work so I can eat") is telling. That may be your honest answer to the question if interviewing at my school. But it is not every candidate's honest answer. For some candidates, a job at my school is their *dream* job. This difference matters.

We on the hiring side of things understand candidates are desperate. I was on the market for 7 years. I was desperate. Still, committees have every reason to want hire someone who really wants *their* job, not just a job. There are a number of reasons for this: if you just want a job and our school is not ideal to you, you might be unhappy, not do the job well, try to leave, etc. Believe it or not, this happens. I have a friend who hired someone at a teaching school who then showed up for the job demonstrating no interest in being a good teacher but instead spent all of their time on publishing so they could leave for a research school. That was a disaster for my friend's department--and no one wants to hire someone like that.

So, it is very much relevant whether someone wants *this* job. Believe or not, the place I work is some people's "dream job." They would rather be *here*--in a beautiful city, with a focus on teaching but without an overwhelming teaching load--than just about anywhere else. However, there are other people who *don't* really want to be here. Deep down, they'd rather be at UC Davis, or Georgia State, or whatever - some research school or other. You had better believe search committee members want to figure out which of these types of people a candidate is. And it can come across quite clearly when considering a person's dossier and interview (as a total package). Have they done their research? Are they *enthusiastic* about the institution? Which things in particular are they enthusiastic about? All this matters. Sure, people can lie in interviews, but over the course of a series of questions one can get a decent picture.

So, that's the first problem. The question is posed honestly, and no, I don't think everyone's answer to the question is honestly "I just want a job." Everyone does just want a job...but some people *really* want this job, and others don't: this is a difference that matters immensely.

There are other reasons why I think it's worthwhile asking somewhat ambiguous questions. First, it can give you more insight as to how the candidate thinks. I don't just want to know what a candidate knows about my school. I want to know what, of all the things they know about my school, *they* actually value, which is why I ask the question, "Why do you want to work here?" Second, a whole lot of academic life is ambiguous and involves reading between the lines. Try working in a committee or talking to a dean. People don't always come out and say exactly what they mean. There are a lot of implicatures all over the place, and a faculty member has to have enough saavy to pick up on them and respond appropriately. This is a part of what it is to be a professional: to not always have things spelled out clearly and explicitly.

Long story short, many/most candidates may just want any job that comes their way. Still, for all that, the kind of job a candidate *really* wants (their ideal job) is entirely relevant on the hiring side of things, and the question "why do you want to work here?" is one of many ways of getting at the real answer.


I see where you're coming from, but I disagree with you. Here's why: every job I've ever interviewed for I've been able to talk myself into it being my dream job. Maybe I'm weirdly unstable, but I don't think so. When I was desperate for a job and the prospect of getting one was put in front of me, I was entirely capable of changing (at least my perception of) my wants and desires to the point where that particular job became my dream job. So for that moment, in that interview, maybe the job was my dream job. But if I were being honest, the reason it was my *dream* job was because it was *a* job.

I also don't buy that thinking about how I answer "why do you want to work here?" will give a committee any insight into whether I'll be able to "be a professional" and work on a committee or work with a dean. There are two reasons for this: (1) for that to happen, the committee would have to ask the question with the aim of gaining that kind of information, and I just doubt that's going on in most cases. (2) different people work with committees/other settings in which information is vague in different ways. You know how I do it? By asking whether a question is meant in this way or that and getting clear on things. (And no, I'm not an ass about it; people like working with me on committees.) So observing how I answer a vague question gives you no insight into how I would deal with that kind of situation because the normal way I deal with it is by not answering the question!

Finally I have extremely strong doubts about your assessment of how much lying happens in interviews, the ability of interviewers to catch it, and (for these and other reasons, some of which I mentioned above) the extent to which you can determine who was, prior to getting the interview, actually and honestly excited about *this* job. I do believe that committees can convince themselves that a given candidate is genuinely excited about *their* job; it seems unlikely to me that they can do so in a reliably accurate way.

But hey, maybe I'm wrong about all that. I mostly just think these alternatives are plausible enough to throw some serious doubt on the points you've raised in defense of asking vague questions.

Oddly, I think you and I agree about the value of interviews generally, and disagree only about whether this sort of question is on the bad end of interview-badness or the good end of interview-badness.


Another thing to keep in mind is that when you’re desperate enough, the most appealing thing about even your dream job might be the fact that it’s a job. I think that’s really honestly the case for most candidates. Between this and my previous comments I think it’s reasomable to maintain that for almost all candidates, the honest answer to “why do you want this job” is “because it’s a job”. The exception will be people who are financially secure in ways that don’t depend on their having a job.

Number Three

I agree with Tom. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I have been able to deceive search committees in the past without much difficulty. Maybe I'm a sociopath... :/

No. 4

I am inclined to agree with Tom and No. 3, that any job can look like a dream job. I was quite prepared to move almost anywhere. Once I had a TT job - in a place many would not have liked (but many others would like) - I became much more discerning. The map of possible places to apply in the USA shrunk from 50 states to maybe 20.
But unlike Tom and No. 3, I was not able to "pass" as interested. In fact, I was generally terrified and sometimes even perceived as being indifferent (It got back to me via others). I was far from indifferent. I was truly trying to look at these places objectively, and determine if there was a chance for me to have a good life there. I gather I was to keep those thoughts to myself.


I have to say that I agree with Tom 100%. I feel the exact same way he does. This is one of the stupidest and most insulting questions asked at interviews. Most doing a PhD in philosophy have learned, if they didn't know already, that they don't have much if any choice about where they will live or for which university they will work. So, as none (or very few) of us have the freedom to choose for which university we will work, we are all under severe coercion to work for whoever will offer us a job. In this kind of environment, asking us 'why do you want to work at this university' is like asking a beggar 'why do you want ME to give you some money vs. someone else.' This is like saying, 'if you want ME to give you some money, then you better make me feel really important and special.' Does it ever occur to committees that they can't trust anything us desperate beggars tell them? We'll say whatever we think you want to hear.

Marcus Arvan

No. 4: You seem like a perfect example of precisely why search committees are interested in the truth here. As you note, when you were on the market "any job can look like a dream job." But then once you actually got a job, you started being more discerning. This is exactly what search committees may be afraid of: candidates who temporarily dupe themselves into thinking "any job is my dream job" but who, once they get a job, are immediately looking for greener pastures.

Number Three: No doubt there are candidates who lie. But my sense is that a good many are more transparent than you might think. Based both on their dossier and interview responses, there are cases where candidates give off the "this is just a job to me" vibe, not a job they would be really happy in.

Tom: You note that you are able to "talk yourself" into seeing every job as a dream job. But from the search side of thing, that's precisely the problem. You may temporarily convince yourself you would be happy somewhere, but once you end up in the job--say, in an undesirable place, or with a heavier teaching load than you like, etc.--then that thin veneer of self-deception can quickly fade.

Actually, your response to my point about ambiguous questions seems to me to illustrate my point. You note that you respond in a particular way: by asking for clarification. This seems to me a saavy and professional way to respond.

But, in any case, I want to be clear: I don't mean to assert (or imply) anything about how much lying happens in interviews or how good committees are at measuring any of this stuff. As you seem well-aware, I am generally skeptical of the value of interviews altogether (which the empirical literature generally suggests corrupts and biases decisionmaking more than anything else).

I probably could have been clearer about this, but my point isn't to *justify* this part of interviews but rather merely express why search committees do it and what they are trying to get out of it. In other words, I'm just trying to describe what goes on so candidates have a better inside picture of what goes through committees' minds and why they ask the questions they do!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Pendaran: It may be a silly/insulting question (and interviews themselves may be problematic for reasons I've talked about many times). But it is also a question that in my experience something like 9 out of 10 search committees ask whether it's silly and insulting or not. So, while I think people like you should push back against the practice if you think it's problematic, I also think candidates who want to interview well should be aware of search committees motivation(s) for asking it.


So I suppose, then, that the thing I'm trying to say (though I didn't know it until we had this conversation) is this: search committees should recognize they have lots of reasons to be deeply suspicious of any information they may try to glean from our answers to the "why do you want this job?" question. Even if what they are trying to learn is whether we really want *that particular* job, they are very likely to not get any accurate information about this by asking this question. And, importantly, this is true regardless of whether search committees are good at judging candidates desires' by listening to their answers.

Here's why: committees are either good at judging candidates' desires by listening to their answers or they are not. If they are not, then asking the question doesn't help. If they are, then they will either get the impression that I really do want that particular job or they won't. But the former could happen because I really do want that particular job right now, but will later not want it. And the latter could happen because, even though this is my dream job, the thing about it that is most appealing to me at the moment is that it's *a* job. So since neither impression gives useful information about whether I'm actually going to want the job, the question is garbage.

As I pointed out before, I think the case is worse: it's not merely that the question doesn't do any good, I think it actively does harm. (Pendaran added weight to this with his comment as well.) But I think my argument for this stronger claim is less compelling than the argument I just gave for the weaker claim that the question flat doesn't do any good, no matter what.

Marcus Arvan

Tom: Fair enough. But suppose one grants you everything you just wrote. Be that as it may, most search committees are probably not reading this thread. So, chances are committees are going to continue asking the question and continue looking for particular kinds of answers to it.

I'm all for critiquing standard hiring practices. I've done so many times on this blog myself! If it were up to me, the entire hiring process in academia would be changed (as I understand it, some schools have already changed in ways I think science supports, and I applaud them). My only aim is to help candidates understand what actually goes on in the job-market.


Yeah, and I think you're doing the right thing and I appreciate you doing it. Thanks for letting me vent about this.

No. 4

To be clear, I was not aggressively looking for a job once I got a TT job. I think I am the sort of person who can be quite happy in many communities. I was, though, sensible enough to know that the philosophy job market is a market, and I had to be prepared to move if (i) I did not get tenure, (ii) I did not like where I was after a number of years, (iii) things soured over time, or (iv) my spouse got an opportunity that would make sense for us both to leave. But I find the world infinitely enjoyable (there is the Leibniz in me speaking).


I think you provide a good service Marcus. I’m really happy you’re around.

More on topic, I’ve heard some faculty say before that candidates that seem to know too much about their university come across as suck ups. Is this a concern?

I think this hasn’t been discussed here before. Personally from my perspective, I would actually prefer someone who gave what I would suspect to be an honest answer, ‘you’re the only university to interview me, and I need a job so I can move out of my dad’s basement’ to a ‘suck up’ answer. If I feel this way, it’s hard to believe that no one else does. It’s a numbers game of course.

I wonder if it could work just being entirely honest? Maybe some committee somewhere will be really impressed with the honesty. I wonder if it could ever work?

Marcus Arvan

No. 4: Thanks for clarifying. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you went looking for another job. I just meant that other candidates like you in one respect (candidates who convince themselves job X is their dream job when it's really not) may be liable to do that.

As you note, you're a unique individual who really was happy where you ended up. In fact, I'm much like you in that regard: I'm the kind of chap who can be happy pretty much anywhere (I interviewed in Alaska, Africa, China, Singapore, the UAE, and even Uzbekestan, and suspect I could have been happy in most of those places, though my spouse is another story!). Still I know many people who aren't like us - people who can only be happy living in very specific conditions (e.g. a big city, etc). It's this kind of person I think search committees worry about: the candidate who really *wouldn't* be happy in the job.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Pendaran: Thanks for your kind words.

I do think coming across as a suck-up is a concern. While I think it is almost certainly (*far*) better to show knowledge of the place you're interviewing at than to come across totally ignorant (like not knowing any of its course offerings, etc., which looks terrible), I do think it is possible to go too far or otherwise come across as pandering.

Unfortunately, it's really hard to put into words what coming across as a suck-up can involve. It sort of seems to me like one of those Aristotelian practical wisdom things: we all know it when we see it, but there are no easy rules for describing it. Avoiding it is one of those proverbial "people skills" (one that, frankly, I'm not that great at myself: I'm a terrible faker!).

Still, I suppose there are some rough rules of thumb like: not turning *every* question into a way to show you know stuff about the institution, not repeatedly saying overly-effusive things about the department or its members (viz. "I really *love* how your department..."), or picking trite, low-hanging fruit ("I see you have a philosophy club..."; yes of course we do - what school doesn't?). Just as in cover letters, etc., it's better to be low-key/understated about things, showing knowledge of the institution when it's natural to do so (viz. "What courses would you like to teach?" "I could teach X, Y, and Z in your minor").

Like Han Solo said to Chewbacca in Return of the Jedi, "I don't know, fly casual." Going out of your way to turn questions having nothing to do with it into opportunities to "show off your knowledge" can seem pandering. In contrast, some questions seem to call out for demonstrating knowledge of the institution (i.e. "how would you attract students to the major?" "Well, I know you have an ethics bowl? Have you ever had or thought about having bioethics or business ethics bowl team? That'd be something I'd be very interested in").

In any case, I think it is almost certainly a terrible idea to be entirely honest and give an answers like "you’re the only university to interview me, and I need a job so I can move out of my dad’s basement." I'm assuming you meant that jokingly, but frankly, I'd be shocked if answers with that level of candor wouldn't immediately destroy a candidate's chances with most committees. But what I do I know? I'd be curious to hear what others say.


I think the candor Pendaran mentions would kill one's chances. But this is mainly because of certain social norms. It is just so out of the ordinary for someone to say such a thing on an interview, that I (and others) would likely worry about the candidates ability to behave themselves in a variety of social situations. The department I know that a had a failed search (because the first two candidates declined and they didn't want the third one) were against hiring the third candidate because he had mentioned how he thought his time at grad school was a waste of his life. Just a completely socially unacceptable thing to say.

As far as dream jobs go...idk - it is a tough market and it seems odd to think in terms of dream jobs. Maybe someone's dream job is Harvard but they still think they would be very happy at middle of nowhere liberal arts university. Is this a reason for the latter institution not to hire this candidate? I don't really think so. Basically, I agree with Tom that search committees could and should be more honest with the questions they are asking. What happens with these not so honest questions, is the best liar wins. Maybe all the candidates interviewed would have research schools as a first choice. However, suppose the first two candidates are not good at hiding this and the third candidate is; hence, the liar gets the job. Seems odd to me.


On the dream jobs discussion: the vast majority of people from my institution that are getting jobs are not choosing among multiple offers. Instead they're just going with the one offer they got (or looking for non-academic work instead). In that sort of environment, it seems weird for me to think in terms of what my "dream job" would be.


Regarding the honesty issue: I'm reminded of a story the logician Raymond Smullyan tells about a job candidate who was visiting Indiana many, many years ago. When asked about teaching, the candidate apparently said 'I don't care for it". When the other committee members later asked Smullyan about why the candidate would say such a thing, Smullyan said "Maybe he dislikes lying even more than teaching." He didn't get the job, of course.

As someone who has served on many hiring committees, I will say that I would never ask a candidate "why they want they want a job here" - certainly not any candidate who didn't already have a permanent job. Now, sometimes people who already have (seemingly permanent) jobs apply for a job here, and they sometimes say something about why they want a job here (spousal reasons, etc.). Sometimes when they don't say anything, one wonders (esp. if the job they're at seems "better" in some way). But I wouldn't ask them if they didn't volunteer.

It is also true that sometimes people apply for jobs when they don't really want your job, they are e.g., coming up for tenure at their own institution and are applying just in case they don't get tenure, etc. But I don't think one is in a good position to know the candidates reasons, and in many cases they may not know themselves whether they want to move.

When I was on the tenure track, I applied for other jobs (and eventually moved) because of my partner's career. Some of the places I interviewed asked me why I was applying there, given that I already had a job. In these cases I would be honest and tell them.

But I don't think this is a great way to get info, and given the empirical evidence about the unreliability of interviews, I wouldn't ask such a question when interviewing others, even if I thought it relevant.


I think this "why do you want to be here?" matters a lot for teaching-focused schools, especially those with a specific type of mission or approach to teaching (religious or otherwise). I did end up at a school like that and though they never asked me outright why I wanted that job, they did ask me specific ways I would/could contribute to their educational mission. That strikes me as a concrete question that is perhaps more helpful in getting at the specifics of what search committees want to know.


I think asking how one can contribute to the school's mission, or what one has to offer the school, is a much better question than why one wants the job. Suppose Jim wants the job because it is the best offer he has. It is also a Catholic school and John is Catholic, it is a school with a competitive ethics bowl team and John has coached ethics bowl for 5 years, and the school focuses in music and John has an AOC in philosophy of music. It seems the committee really wants to know all of these ways John is a fit, not why he wants the job.

Now, some are worried that someone who doesn't really want the job at *their* school will leave, or not do a good job. I think these are bad bets. First, people can do great at, and even love, a job which was not their first choice. Second people can end up leaving for a lot of reasons. Now if there is an obvious mismatch - if the candidate has a PhD from NYU, lots of top publications, and little teaching experience - this would be a reason to worry about jumping ship. But I think the simple fact that a school is not an individual's dream school is a not a reason for that worry. People can come both to love and hate an institution after a few years, and there is no way to predict such a thing.

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