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10/28/2020

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Rosa

I think you generally want to ask questions that you genuinely want answers to. Otherwise your questions are likely to come off canned or insincere. That said, it's also great if you can ask questions that will allow the committee members to say good things about their department/university/etc. Even better if it lets them say good things about parts of the job that others might see as a downside. So if it's a state school that has a really high acceptance rate, you could say how much you like the idea of teaching a really broad set of students with a really different set of opportunities pre-college, and you could ask them about their experiences with that. If it's a really small department, you could ask about how faculty members have integrated themselves into the broader life of university, and what kinds of connections/projects they have developed with other faculty outside the department. If it's a remote school, you could ask something about whether there is good hiking (but don't ask that one first!).

anon

I asked this question to a senior faculty member who has been on a lot of search committees, not a philosopher, although I'm not sure if that's relevant, and I was surprised by his answer.

He told me that he liked it when people asked about housing prices and that sort of practical thing, and that it signaled serious interest to him.

Part of why it surprised me is connected to what Marcus writes above: "As a general rule, I think questions about the philosophy club tend to be cringeworthy (as it can seem to betray a kind of laziness in terms of learning anything more substantial about the institution before the interview)."

This question about housing seems potentially lazy sounding in just the same way to me, in that you could ask it of any university and you could also Google it yourself. But maybe people like it. Curious to hear what anyone thinks about this advice or my thinking about it.

rutabagas

I second Rosa's advice to ask questions you think will have good answers! It's especially important imo if you're coming from grad school at an R1 and interviewing for non-R1 jobs. Asking Directional State U. how much money there is for travel or how many majors have gone on to grad school will embarrass your interviewers if the answer is "none"--plus, they may think you haven't calibrated your expectations right for a job like theirs.

Former Chair, Regional State U

-- I'm interested in what candidates really want to ask. Also, what they want to ask but worry they shouldn't. Do you really care about the club or want our advice on housing? I doubt it. But what *do* you really want to ask us? And what real question do you have that you fear may go over the line?

-- I've never held it against a candidate that they didn't ask questions. If they say, sincerely, "no, I was able to find answers on the website," that's fine with me.

-- Questions about class size, number of preps, pay, summer work, leave time, research support, service, seem fine. Probably shouldn't ask them all. (See my final comment.)

-- Take care not to leave us with the impression you're expecting a lot more than we can do in terms of the above. The limits here will depend a bit on the school, R1, R2, teaching school, etc.

-- Questions about the club or housing or the local beer situation don't really bother me. I take it that the candidate doesn't want to ask any questions, but feels pressure to say something. No big deal, to me.

-- Has a question ever struck me as "good"? No, not good enough to remember. No question has ever made me think, "wait a minute, maybe I should rate this person more highly than I have."

-- Has a question ever made me cringe? Not really. One time a candidate asked me and my colleague each a question about our research. The questions showed that the candidate had read our school webpages and found a "big question" for each of us, but that was it. We didn't have time for or interest in answering questions like this.

-- Candidates sometimes ask too many questions. Please, don't.

anon

"I'm interested in what candidates really want to ask. Also, what they want to ask but worry they shouldn't. Do you really care about the club or want our advice on housing? I doubt it. But what *do* you really want to ask us? And what real question do you have that you fear may go over the line?"

For me, some questions that I'd be curious to ask but probably wouldn't feel comfortable asking would include: How's the financial health of your institution looking? Are admin happy with philosophy enrolments and how they've been trending? How about enrolments across the university more broadly?

Marcus Arvan

Anon: Speaking as someone who has served on multiple search committees, I think these are entirely legitimate questions to ask, and indeed, that candidates have the right to know the answers! However, I wonder whether readers would think it wise to wait until, say, the on-campus visit (or the Zoom equivalent thereof). I will say this: candidates should find out the answers before accepting an offer. I know of several people who got 'permanent' jobs in recent years whose jobs were in jeopardy more or less from the moment they were hired.

Former Chair, RSU

Anon: I think I agree with Marcus. The on-campus visit might be a better time for questions like these. Even then, pick your moments. These visits are long and people can get chatty, so it's likely there would be opportunities to draw some of this out.

another anon

I have not served on search committees but heard others talking about it. I agree with Marcus. Although these questions do not matter a lot, they can confirm the impression(s) you gave to the search committee members. For example, you might give others an impression that you did your homework and were truly interested in the position. Then, asking questions about some detail of the curriculum, for example, would confirm this impression.

Marcus Arvan

Another anon: I would actually contest the idea that these questions don't matter a lot. I think it's right that they *ordinarily* don't mean a lot. But I've seen two types of cases where they can make a substantial difference.

First, there's the case where a candidate either says they have no questions, or the only question(s) they ask are really banal, seemingly 'canned' ones (such as, 'I see you have a philosophy club...'). In my experience, candidates like this may look unprepared for the interview and/or uninterested in the institution they're interviewing at--neither of which is a good look.

Second, on at least one occasion I know of, a candidate's questions for the committee were so interesting and thoughtful that everyone in the committee remarked afterwards just how impressed they were.

Anyway, I would agree that most of the time, the questions asked probably don't make a big difference--but I guess my point is: don't underestimate the fact that they can make a real difference if they are particularly bad or particularly good.

Questioner

I had a good deal of success on my (many) rounds on the job market. I asked what I genuinely wanted to know and which allowed committee members to reveal bits of their personality.

For example: "I have worked in many different types of departments. What, if anything, is a distinguishing characteristic of yours?"

Another example: "Do the students at [university] who become philosophy majors have anything in common?" Or more simple: "Tell me about the types of students at [university]."

Another example: "What sorts of opportunities for community outreach does the university provide, and would the department support such efforts, if I wanted to pursue them?"

I never asked about the philosophy club, just because of the reputation that question has now. I did want to know about it though!

Former Chair

Marcus: My experience on search committees is different than yours with respect to no/banal questions.

Questioner: I've heard variants of these over the years (except for 2.a about majors). None of these would raise any issues for me at the initial interview stage.

Another anon: No one has left me with the impression that they weren't interested in working with us. I have sometimes wondered why some candidates would want to, given their background and experience. I really like my school, but regional state u's aren't for everyone.

Michel

Once, the position I was interviewed for included taking charge of an "institute", about which there was very little information. So I asked about the institute and its activities, and what the department wanted from the institute's activities.

A couple of times, I've asked why the department decided to hire in aesthetics, given how few ever do. As far as I can tell, the question wasn't poorly received--there were some chuckles, but from my perspective it gets at some pretty important information (e.g. the department has identified room to grow its majors and especially its minors among fine and performing arts students). I didn't get those jobs, but I don't think it was because my question got in the way.

Sometimes I ask how they see this particular position feeds into the department's longer-term planning and goals (e.g. are they thinking of it as primarily a gen ed and feeder position, or have they identified a particular student population they hope to attract, or... etc.). They often haven't thought of it that way, but that's ok--that's valuable information for me, too.

Assistant Professor

In my experience interviewing, for initial interviews my questions tended to land in a few buckets: sincere questions about the job that were opaque from the posting ("I couldn't get a clear sense from the job ad what the teaching load will be" which got a chuckle from the committee because they admitted it was purposefully left vague and then proceeded to explain why); questions that were particularly unique to the job context (opportunities that I saw for my researching and teaching to intersect that I wanted to follow up on and explore with the committee); or as a chance to bring up something that I wanted to underscore to a committee about me/my interests (for example at a job where I worried the committee might assume from my background I was not interested in teaching the particular student population, I might have asked "I am interested to teach students who have different backgrounds and experiences than those I have been teaching, can you tell me what have been some of the opportunities or challenges you encounter in teaching the students at your school?").

I would reserve more nuts and bolts questions for the second round, including relevant questions about living in the area (I also found that the best committees anticipated the kinds of questions candidates don't want to ask/can't ask, and rather than waiting to see if I would ask them, simply offered up information, say, on housing costs/neighborhoods, or observations about area schools and childcare - not to fish around to see if these things were relevant to me, but to make sure I had information and knew which people I could chat more with if I wanted to do so).

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