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Asking the Right Questions

The interview questions have been easy to handle and you’ve established a solid rapport with the search committee. They think you are clever and charming, and you feel clever and charming. The interview hour is coming to an end and you are tossed the final and predictable question: “Do you have any questions for us?”

Anyone smart enough to be reading The Chronicle knows better than to respond with a query about the salary range or retirement vesting period, but even those who avoid obviously bad responses to this surprisingly important question may be throwing away an opportunity to shine.

“I’m sure I’ll have more questions if I am invited to continue in this process” does not make you seem modest or presumptuous; it makes you look uninterested or unprepared. This is your time to show that you are eager and curious.

Zinger questions such as “I’ve been told that there are two camps within the department. Can you tell me more about their dynamics?” will make you look like a super sleuth, but not necessarily a viable addition to the department. Scouting out dirt is important, but not especially appreciated. It is best to avoid questions that might cause discomfort or embarrassment. “Do you expect additional budget cuts?” and “Are the members of your board of trustees as dysfunctional as the national press makes them out to be?” will not win you any points.

“What concerns do you have about my candidacy?” could make you look pathetic or desperate for validation. Committees will rarely answer this question truthfully and tend to find the inquiry annoying.

Questions that can be answered by rudimentary research—for example, “How many majors are in the department?” or “What is the percentage of assistant professors in the department?”—can make you look lazy or uninformed. “It’s clear he didn’t even check out our Web site” is a common search-committee complaint.

Some candidates view the final question as an opportunity to engage in additional self-promotion, but responses like “I’ve described my research agenda and extensive publication record, but do you have more questions about the translational nature of my work?” can make you seem insufferable. Let this final question be about them, not about you.

Committees tend to favor questions that demonstrate genuine interest in the position, the institution, and even the community. Questions that have been well received at my institution include:

  • “I understand this department has seen a 30-percent increase in majors in the last two years. How did you accomplish that?”
  • “Your university is known for being highly interdisciplinary. How does this department facilitate cross-departmental collaborations?”
  • “Can you tell more about the university’s role in downtown revitalization efforts?”

If you’ve served as a search-committee member, what kinds of questions have impressed you most? Are there some questions you would definitely add to the “do not ask” list?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user tj scenes.]

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