How to Nail Common Academic Job Interview Questions

I am often surprised by how poorly job applicants perform during academic job interviews. The questions asked by the interview panel are mostly predictable, so there’s really no excuse for failing to prepare a set of good responses in advance. The key is to anticipate the questions so that your replies are mature and profound whilst at the same time appearing spontaneous and off-the-cuff. A job interview is simply impression management, plain and simple, and one of the best ways to manage impressions is to have a mental script on hand.

“The questions asked by the interview panel are mostly predictable, so there’s really no excuse for failing to prepare a set of good responses in advance.”

Although interview questions are likely to differ somewhat across institutions and academic ranks, you can expect variations on the following queries:

  • Where do you see yourself in X years? Use some subtle humor in the first instance by answering, “Here!” Then explain your career trajectory, not in terms of the number of publications and amount of grant money, but rather in terms of your contribution to, and standing within, your discipline. Make it clear that your future self will be dedicated to mentoring and developing early career researchers. Selection panels love that angle.
  • How has your teaching philosophy changed in light of COVID19? You can expect this question to be asked over the next couple years. Ideally, you’re going to have to frame the pandemic as an opportunity to optimize blended learning and the “flipped” classroom. The key dilemmas centering around online education are how to encourage and maintain student engagement and ensure effective assessment and quality control. Your answers should emphasize the importance of encouraging attendance and participation and well designed (and aligned) assessments.
  • What is your publication strategy over the next X years? As a general rule of thumb, most universities are moving away from quantity and toward quality. As such, you’re not going to impress anyone by stating that you’ll have X number of publications each year. It’s best to say instead that you’ll be “emphasizing quality” by aiming for “a few” very, very high-quality publications per year. You also want to emphasize that you’re keen to co-author with members of the department, especially more junior academics.
  • Why do you want to work here? I see so many applicants needlessly fall flat on this question. All you need to do to nail your response is to do a little background research on the department. Familiarize yourself with the environment. How does your research fit in with existing research centers? With which academics, specifically, would you like to work? You want to make clear that there are more “pull” factors than “push” factors at play in your decision to move universities.
  • Do you have any questions for us? This is a really important question, especially since it is the last one asked and thus remains imprinted in the minds of the interviewers. At this stage, you do not want to ask about salary, benefits, or the possibility of a spousal hire. Save these questions for after you’ve been made an offer. You also don’t want to ask questions that make it clear that you’re not interested in doing teaching. Instead, ask about the wider community in which the university is embedded, as well as the timeline for decision-making. Be sure to take the opportunity to thank members of the panel for their time.

I am (I like to think) a fairly trustworthy source of information on job interview questions. As a Professor of Human Resource Management, I keep abreast of “best practices” in recruitment and selection and have sat on many interview panels in my day. Take some time to think through your responses to these questions before your interview. You can thank me after you get the job.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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