Archive for the ‘Interviewing’ Category

Having prepared answers to frequently asked questions on the job market can make the interview process a lot smoother, but I think that it is also important to prepare good questions to ask.  I first realized this a few years ago when I heard that faculty members laughed when a fellow graduate student asked what their students were like during a phone interview.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this question.  The problem arises when it is asked so often that it becomes hackneyed.  The solution is to ask questions related to this theme that show you have thought about the meaning behind it.  For example, ask how many of the students have jobs, what type of placement (academic and non-academic) they typically receive after graduation, and whether the school’s selectivity affects typical grade distributions.  The answers to each of these questions will help you form an image of what their students are like.

You can also ask questions that show you have done your research.  Rather than asking how many majors they have, when this information is available on the department web site, note that you know how many majors they have and ask if this number has changed over the past five years.  For schools with a religious affiliation, you can ask how that affiliation is reflected in classroom interactions.

Obviously, I have not cornered the market on good questions, but here are some suggestions for engaging faculty and administrators in conversation (also available as in PDF format).

Questions to Ask


Other than graduate school, what types of jobs have some of your students recently received after graduation?

How many of your students have jobs?

What are typical class sizes at each level?

What kinds of faculty development opportunities are there?  Travel?  Computers?

How does advising work?  Does each faculty member advise a certain number of students?

What is the process for deciding the topics and professors for the special topics classes?

What are the tenure expectations for new faculty?  Have those expectations changed since you went through the tenure process?

What is the human subjects process like here?

What is your typical grade distribution/how does your school’s selectivity affect grade distributions?

What is the relationship between the community and the school like?

What do you like most about working here?

What is the anticipated timeline going forward?


What are your tenure expectations for new faculty?

How is the sociology department thought of within the school?

Where do you see the school going in the next 5-10 years?

What is your vision for the college/sociology department?

What would you like to see in terms of teaching, service, and research from a junior faculty member going up for tenure?

How is faculty assessment handled?

What is the school’s financial status?  How is the school responding to the recent economic downturn?

What support exists for faculty research?

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One way to prepare for an interview, whether by phone or in person, is to prepare (and study) answers to frequently asked questions.  This allows you to organize your thoughts in advance and minimizes the likelihood that you will be caught off guard (as I was when asked about my vision for a department).  The questions below have been drawn from multiple sources and, while they are slightly skewed toward liberal arts positions, many of them are relevant to academic jobs in general.

Frequently Asked Questions on the Job Market*


Why do you want to work here?/Tell us about the kind of job you’re looking for.

Why liberal arts?


What are you looking for in a job?

What is your vision for the department?

About You

Describe your teaching philosophy.

What unique qualities would you bring to this school?

What kind of colleague are you?  What are your strengths and weaknesses?

How would you describe yourself to a room full of sociologists?

Can you think of a book in sociology that you’d say has had the greatest impact on your thinking as a sociologist?

In your ideal job, what would be the balance between teaching and research?  What % of time would you devote to teaching and what % to research?

Can you tell me something about your interests and involvements beyond your teaching and research?

What kinds of support would you expect from the university?

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?


Can you tell me a little about how you use engaged learning in your courses?

What do you find the most exciting about teaching?

What do you find most frustrating in dealing with students in general?

What do you think are your strengths as a teacher?

What do you think are your weaknesses?

Can you think of a difficult situation that came up in a classroom that you handled well?

What is your favorite class to teach?

What is your dream class?

How would you teach (a particular course mentioned in the job ad)?

Which five classes would you most like to teach?

How do you usually go about developing a course on something that’s not in your specialty area?


Have you thought about involving students in research?

What do you plan to do with your research (publications, teaching, community presentations)?

Where do you see your research going?


How would you describe your dissertation to an undergraduate student?

Where do you stand with the project now?

What sorts of things are you finding?

When do you expect to finish your dissertation?

What broader literatures do you see your dissertation speaking to?

*Also available in PDF format.

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Phone Interview

Phone Interview

Another mystery of the job market is the phone interview.  While some large schools forgo phone interviews, small and medium-sized schools often use them to help determine which candidates from the short list will be invited for on-campus interviews.  The mysterious part is that, like your application, you cannot know exactly what interviewers are looking for.  What you can do, however, is prepare yourself by practicing responses to commonly asked questions and researching the school and department.  You can also spread your notes about the school and department, job market materials, questions to ask, and even prepared answers around you, as the picture above demonstrates.

I had four phone interviews in my time on the market and each was of a slightly different type, which I discuss below.  From most preferred to least preferred, they were:

The one-on-one interview

While I assume that this type of interview ranges from formal to informal, my experience was at the informal end of the spectrum.  The chair of the search committee engaged me in a wide-ranging conversation about my interests, the school, and his own experiences.  There was no time limit and I was free to ask questions.  I was also fortunate that my interviewer was forthcoming about the perceived positives and negatives of the school.  Our conversation lasted over an hour and I left the conversation with a much better impression of the school than I started it.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-group interview (group members in their individual offices)

My third phone interview experience was of this type, which may appear similar to the type below.  While I might have preferred this type because the interviewers were friendlier or more talkative, I believe that there are advantages to having phone interviewers in separate rooms.  For starters, there is increased comfort as a candidate because you know that interviewers cannot see each other’s reactions to your answers.  This means that if one interviewer is rolling her eyes at the fact that your interests exactly match the job ad, others will not be influenced by her reaction.  Another benefit is that this type effectively levels the playing field in terms of nonverbal feedback.  While group phone interviews are always difficult because you cannot be sure if somebody is done speaking or merely pausing, isolating interviewers in their own offices means that everybody shares this problem with you.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-group interview (group members on speakerphone around a single table)

As I noted above, group phone interviews are always difficult, but in my experience the presence of interviewers around the same speakerphone compounded the difficulties.  While I’m not sure how the interviewers reacted to my statements, the knowledge that they could see each other but I could not see them added to an already stressful situation.  I also felt that I was at a disadvantage because I was the only person who couldn’t rely on nonverbal cues to tell when somebody was done speaking.  I don’t know that these factors affected my performance, but they definitely reduced my confidence.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-one non-interview

One school requested a “phone conversation about your application” before narrowing their list further.  Not knowing what they wanted to discuss, I called the school from the airport on the way to another interview.  Because of this, I did not have the opportunity to fully prepare by researching the school and department and I was not ready to answer questions about whether I had relevant experience in a particular subfield.  I stumbled through a few statements before realizing that I did, in fact, have relevant experience in that subfield.  By that point, the damage was probably done.  If this discussion had been presented as an interview rather than a conversation, I would have approached it differently.  If this contact had come at another time and not on a day that I was preparing to leave for an interview I also think that I would have handled it better.  I was not invited for a campus interview.*

In the end, the interview type is only one variable in your phone interview experience.  Time limits can change the tone of a conversation dramatically by reducing your ability to ask questions and prohibiting more casual discussions.  Another important point is that you should be sure to ask about the commitee’s timeline.  The time between my phone interviews and invitations for a campus visit ranged from hours to two and a half weeks, while a friend was recently invited for a campus interview a month and a half after a phone interview.  A month and a half is a long time in nearly any circumstance, but it can seem like forever on the job market.

*I was invited for one campus interview without a phone interview, resulting in four phone interviews and four campus interviews.

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