How To Handle Difficult Interview Questions.

January 22, 1999

Question: I want to go into interviewing with my eyes wide open and with as much preparation as possible. I've heard that sometimes interviewers will ask illegal and or just plain obnoxious questions. What can I expect? How do I handle them if they come up?

Mary: We hope you won't be asked inappropriate questions, but if you do a lot of interviewing, you'll probably get at least a few. Brace yourself. Here are things some of our students have been asked.

  • What does your husband or wife do?
  • Do you plan to have children?
  • I've heard strange things about the goings-on in your department. Are the rumors true?
  • Are you pregnant?

Julie:: Those questions are truly gauche and cover information that prospective employers generally have no right to know. While you might understandably want to storm out in a huff without answering them, such a response will not help you get a job, whereas several other strategies will. You can:

  • Try to elicit an employer's concerns and address those rather than the literal questions you are asked.
  • Cheerfully and repeatedly stonewall when asked for negative information.
  • Respond to a question that sounds hostile in a way that conveys empathy with the interviewer's concern.
  • Reframe the question or minimize a negative comment or situation.
  • Use humor and a light touch, particularly if you typically have good judgment with it.

Mary: For example, inappropriate questions about partners and children often reflect employers' legitimate concerns about whether you will accept and keep a position. An employer who asks what your spouse or partner does is perhaps trying to figure out whether you'll accept the job if it's offered, worrying that if you have a spouse, it might be harder to get you to take it.

How seriously interested you are in the job is a legitimate question for the employer. If in this example you would decline the position unless a second person gets an offer in the same city, then you'll need to mention that fact fairly early in the interview process, perhaps at the time you're invited for a campus visit. However, if you'll take the job no matter what, then you're not required to volunteer personal information unless you want to.

Julie: Another reason to elicit the employer's concern is that it may not be what you think it is. Someone might ask "do you plan to have children?" because he or she wants you to know that the institution has great maternity benefits and a day-care center, and that the tenure clock will be stopped while you are on leave. Or because the last new hire promptly became pregnant and decided to take an indefinite leave after the baby was born. Or because the interviewer has a new baby and wants to crow about it.

The point is, you don't have any control over the reasons you are being asked this question, but you do have control over how you answer it and redirect the conversation.

Mary: Here's an example of how you might try to elicit the interviewers' concern about your plans to have a family and deal with that directly, whether you choose to answer the question as it's asked. For example,

  • "What an interesting question. Has it been hard for members of the department to balance professional and personal responsibilities?"
  • "I've heard the city is a great place to raise a family. It seems to me it has a lot to offer people in any stage of life."

Julie: Let's turn to a situation where stonewalling may be your best bet: "I've heard strange things about the goings-on in your department. Are the rumors true?" Well, perhaps there are a lot of problems in your department. In fact, some people are spreading rumors about their colleagues and others are fighting right in the departmental office.

Whatever the situation is, don't discuss it. You'll come across sounding as if you are siding with or against someone. Worse, the interviewing department will surmise that if you will speak ill of your department, you'll speak ill of them, too. It's best to claim lack of knowledge of these problems because you have been too busy finishing up and haven't been around the department.

Mary: On the other hand, I don't think there's a need to sound like an ostrich. If the troubles are truly well-known, it's also possible to give a minimizing answer, such as "I guess when people passionately care about a topic, there are often heated disagreements. I think it's enhanced my graduate education to see both sides of the issue so forcefully articulated."

Julie: A hostile-sounding question is another situation where you really want to avoid being lured into negativity. It's better to pleasantly surprise the interviewer with an empathetic and non-defensive response. For example, if you come from a highly selective institution, someone might sneer at you something like, "Of course you're used to teaching the cream of the crop. Why would you have any interest in teaching our students, who've really had to struggle?"

Mary: However it's phrased, this is another legitimate concern. Begin by trying to look pleased that you've been asked and therefore given a chance to answer the question. For example, "Actually, I'm excited about the possibility of teaching students who can't take a college education for granted. I'm sure I've got some things to learn and would be interested in ongoing conversations about the teaching strategies that work best."

Julie: And what about such truly difficult and off-the-wall questions as "What is the meaning of life?" and "Who you are?" -- both of which have been asked of candidates. Try to keep yourself from getting ruffled. While these questions may appear to have nothing to do with the job for which you're interviewing, how you handle such curve balls does. Can you think on your feet about something for which you have probably not prepared? Can you respond with good questions asking for clarification? Can you answer with humor without making fun of the questioner? (Unless you're normally very good at this, don't risk it in an interview.)

Mary: "What is the meaning of life?" gets my "worst question" vote, and the best I can think of is to do a bit of reframing. "I'm still refining my answers to that one. It's easier to tell you that one of the things I find meaningful in my work is challenging and supporting students as they explore their own questions of meaning and value."

However, this answer could make you sound overly earnest. Another strategy is to respond lightly, "I'm not entirely sure, but I think chocolate is probably part of the equation," or something along those lines. This risks seeming to make fun of the interviewer.

Your best bet is probably to rely on the style which usually works best for you, whether serious or humorous, and to console yourself that any answer given calmly probably earns you points with other members of the interviewing committee who find this question as silly as you do.

Julie: Ideally, most interview questions will be about your current work, future research plans, and teaching experience and plans. Devote most of your interview preparation to considering how you'll discuss these predictable and important topics. Spend a little time thinking about how you'll answer more troublesome questions should they arise, but keep your main focus on yourself as a potential colleague and emerging scholar, and that's where most interviewers' focus will be as well.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms.Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.