Unusual Academic Job Interview Questions


Over at The Philosophers’ Cocoon, Trevor Hedberg (Arizona) is soliciting examples of unusual questions asked of candidates for academic philosophy positions.

It’s part of his preparation for a workshop he’s helping with to get graduate students ready for the academic job market.

He knows the common questions, but he also knows that it’s not so unusual to be confronted with a weird one. Or two. So let’s hear (either in the comments here or there) about the odd questions you’ve been asked during interviews (or odd ones that you yourself have asked of candidates).


Related: “Campus Visit Horror Stories

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John R. Goss, III
John R. Goss, III
16 days ago

“Are you willing to be trained?” I thought that’s what my PhD did.Report

Gah-Kai Leung
Reply to  John R. Goss, III
13 days ago

I actually laughed out loud.Report

Douglas Portmore
16 days ago

What does bioethics mean to you?Report

Trevor Hedberg
Reply to  Douglas Portmore
15 days ago

This is structurally identical to the “What does ‘social justice’ mean to you?” question I listed as an example on my Cocoon post. But this one’s somewhat worse because I’d expect candidates to give extremely similar answers. I’m not sure what insight a committee could gain by asking this question.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Douglas Portmore
11 days ago

Surely neither a tough nor a weird question. It’s an invitation to dilate on why you think bioethics is interesting and important. It would be weird only if you were not up for a job in which you might be expected to teach some bioethics.Report

Douglas Portmore
16 days ago

Isn’t that just wildly implausible?Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
14 days ago

Isn’t that just the standard response to all of your talks, Justin?Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
14 days ago

Or maybe I’m thinking of my talks.Report

TJB
TJB
Reply to  Douglas Portmore
16 days ago

1st q: So, on page n of your writing sample, you say X. Why the f*** would anyone believe that.Report

BulletSweater
16 days ago

In other industries, this kind of question isn’t so unusual, but in the context of the philosophy job market (where jobs are scarce and one is lucky to get any offer), and this particular school (a school no one had ever heard of, in the middle of nowhere–call it “Mystery College”), I will admit it caught me by surprise:

“So, why do you want to work at Mystery College?”

I’m not saying it’s an unreasonable question, but it felt like an odd one. Still, a candidate should be prepared to answer it, no matter how obscure the school, with more than just the honest answer of, “because… the job market!”Report

Jordan
Jordan
Reply to  BulletSweater
16 days ago

This is not a question that should take you by surprise. Maybe you think it’s in the middle of nowhere and no one’s ever heard of it, but THEY sure have, and some of the applicants might too. They’re understandably looking for someone whose honest answer is something more than “because the job market.”Report

Ryan
Reply to  Jordan
16 days ago

Right. Isn’t this question a standard way of asking ‘have you adequately researched our institution? how do your values/research/teaching fit with this institution/department/student population?’ And maybe also, ‘are you a flight risk?’
I also think it’s highly plausible that there are applicants out there who are specifically looking to get jobs in the small regional state schools or SLACs that others haven’t heard of, and the search committee would be trying to figure out if the person they’re interviewing is one of those applicants.Report

manny
manny
Reply to  Ryan
16 days ago

But they surely know that, except in the rarest cases, you don’t particularly want to work at _that_ institution. You just want to work at an institution that has a pretty generic set of properties, which that institution happens to share: a good phil department, people working on (vaguely) related issues, engaged students, a fair teaching load etc. (Which, I stress, is all compatible with you being genuinely excited about the job.) That should all be common ground for anyone who’s thought about things a little. And given it’s common ground, it should also be common ground that there’s no good answer to that question: you can either lie or you can say something very generic, but true. And given that’s also common ground, don’t ask it. More generally, don’t ask questions that are best answered with (unverifiable) BS.Report

Matt L
Reply to  manny
16 days ago

There have been pleanty of times when, when I was asked a question like this, the honest answer was, “this is a job, and I need a job, so I’d take this.” But, that might not be the answer for everyone, even on obscure places. Someone might really like the area for various reasons. Others might have family ties, or really want to teach in a particular type of setting. If a school is one where they are worried that people will try to leave, or will be unhappy, it can make good sense for them to try to find someone who will be, or is more likely to be, particularly happy to be at that place, especially if they are worried about not being able to file a line again if someone leaves soon. So, the question makes perfect sense to me.Report

manny
manny
Reply to  Matt L
16 days ago

Amazingly, I’ve always really wanted to teach in a large state school in the mid-west (because x); in a small, leafy liberal arts college in upstate New York (because y); in an elite school on the east coast (because z); ……………..Report

Shocked
Shocked
Reply to  manny
16 days ago

manny, read the room. You’re being asked the question to see if you are a team player who knows that the academy is mostly saying the right kind of BS to the right people. The academy is like any occupation. It’s not about honesty. It’s a game and it’s your job to show that you know how to and are willing play it.Report

Michel
Reply to  BulletSweater
16 days ago

I was asked this by a fancy school in a very desirable city. Since it was the only job in my AOS that year, I said it was the only job in my AOS that year.

After a dramatic pause I added some stuff about some cool UG specializations they have which are nicely complemented by my AOS.

(I wouldn’t have called this a weird question, though!)Report

Jackie
Reply to  BulletSweater
16 days ago

If a job candidate were asked this by a member of my department and replied, “Beggars can’t be choosers”, I would see that as a strong reason to offer them the job.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  BulletSweater
11 days ago

“So, why do you want to work at Mystery College?” (where Mystery College is situated in Nerererdovit City, Boondock State). 

Okay, they asked this question for two reasons: 

a) because they want to know whether you have taken the trouble to find out something about the job to which you have a applied or whether you are an arrogant so-and-so who basically thinks that such a job is beneath him; 
and 
b) because they want to know, *if* they appointed you whether you would be likely to stay for a decent length of time or whether you are you are likely to be an imminent flight risk. 

The reasonably honest but effective answer goes something like this: ‘Well to be honest, because it is a job in philosophy and because I want a job in philosophy. But Mystery College ticked several of what might be called my generic boxes … Yadda, yadda yadda … And there are a couple of things that I particularly liked about Mystery … [Then find some feature that is vaguely attractive about either the Mystery Department itself or its environs. Unless it is a department populated by obnoxious idiots and situated in a snakepit in an industrial wasteland far away from any undamaged civilisation and without access to nature this shouldn’t be impossible to do.] 

If you a can do so honestly you might say something like this: ‘As an adjunct/graduate student /serial post-doc, I am a bit fed up with moving around and would like to stay in one spot at least for a while in order to catch my intellectual breath.’ Report

Fritz Allhoff
16 days ago

When I was in grad school, we had my roommates’s brother–a non-philosopher–help us get ready for our interviews. He basically had two questions after we’d explain our dissertations:

  1. “Yeah sure, but what *hangs* on that? I mean, like, why does it *matter*?” (emphasis original).
  2. “Pretty sure Schopenhauer said that, but I can’t remember where. But assume he did; wouldn’t that make your project redundant?” (N.B., no, none of our work had anything to do with Schopenhauer.)

Keep meaning to roll those back out next time I’m on a hiring committee. Report

Sealgaire
16 days ago

What gets you pissed off?Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Sealgaire
11 days ago

This question is a real poisoned chalice.  I don’t think that as I am now or as I was when I was young, I would have had any trouble coming up  with an informative and entertaining  answer.   But then as now, I would have found it next to impossible to come up with an answer that was informative entertaining *AND PRUDENT*   since there is a good chance that the search committee would contain at least one partisan of the things that piss me off.  (Examples: Nauseatingly self-serving justifications for studying the history of Philosophy of the kind put out by Pasnau; dishonest  attempts to win philosophical arguments by inventing bogus conceptual truths; moralistic attempts to defend either human dignity or the moral verities by doing down science; Wittgenstein worship; etc etc). So I would probably have been stumped. The safest answer is a frivolous one (not connected with any issue of moral, political or philosophical substance) eg; ‘On-hold messages saying that our operatives are busy but that our phone call is valuable to them; I want to reply “if it were that  f*%#ing valuable to you, you would have paid enough operatives to answer it promptly'”.   Politically anodyne answers  – ‘Injustice’, ‘Persecution’, ‘Climate change inaction’ – either make you sound like an aspiring beauty-queen or invite requests to be specific which might lead to responses that would offend somebody’s political prejudices. 

In fact in the job interview that eventually resulted in my current position,  I expressed a hatred for verificationism which was luckily shared by my interviewer (I was being interviewed in the UK for a couple of jobs in New Zealand). When I give seminar sessions on ‘How to Look for  job in Philosophy’  I preface them with Paul Kelly’s song ‘I’ve done all the dumb things’  Report

Ryan
16 days ago

“What is the *one big idea* that you will be known for?”Report

Rex II
16 days ago

I was once asked to describe and then discuss a philosophical problem that interested me but that I didn’t study. And, no, this was not about areas of teaching competence, at least not in any straightforward way.Report

Kapto
Reply to  Rex II
16 days ago

Was this a particular problem, or were you just asked to come up with *any* problem that fit that category? If the latter, isn’t it kind of softball?Report

Rex II
Reply to  Kapto
16 days ago

It seemed an unusual request, one that surprised me, that’s all. I’m still not clear on the point of it. I wasn’t ever asked something like this again, and I haven’t ever asked an interviewee something like this. YMMV.

Was it difficult? Coming up with a problem wasn’t but discussing the problem — saying something helpful about its significance, different possible responses, and so on — was more challenging.Report

Jeremy
16 days ago

“How come it took you *so* long to finish your dissertation?” (It took me 6 years. I was baffled.)Report

Boat unrocked
16 days ago

“Do you think a liberal arts education is a good thing?”

“You seem to have excellent publications and lots of good experience. Why don’t you already have a tenure-track job?”Report

Lu Chen
16 days ago

This comment is probably redundant, but I just want to chime in by saying that—if only for statistical purposes—I haven’t encountered any weird questions in my handful of interviews. There are standard questions, and there are very specific but normal questions about my teaching, my research/writing sample, and my fit with the institution in question. Some slightly funny questions about my research always come from nonphilosophers, but addressable if you have prepared:)Report

feministphil
16 days ago

“Suppose, just suppose, women are inferior to men, then what?”Report

Kapto
16 days ago

“What’s concerning us, or a number of us in here, about what you said, is…”
The questioner, of course, did not survey or even consult with the others present, to see if they share the concern/question/difficulty, but is happy to publicly present the speaker as disappointing multitudes of people already…Report

Eric Steinhart
16 days ago

My colleagues and I devised some wild questions intended to just see how candidates would think on their feet. Two memorable questions were these:

(1) In a cage fight between Kant and a monkey, who would win?

(2) Which is more useful in the classroom, a ball or a stick?

The differences in responses were often stark. Some candidates would stare like deer in the headlights. Others would pick up the questions and very quickly give cogent answers. (e.g. “The monkey is the evolutionary heritage of humanity. Kant is human rationality. The cage is the moral antinomies. The monkey wins.” Or they’d explain how to use either stick or ball to illustrate various philosophical points.) Some of them gave really brilliant, striking answers.

I think these questions provided us with real insights into how candidates did real-time problem-solving.Report

non-tt faculty
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
16 days ago

I think it’s nice that some institutions value real-time problem-solving. I believe that quick-wittedness is an important and useful skill.
I am also grateful that not all departments use this criterion to judge candidates. I haven’t done my research, but my intuition is that quick-wittedness may not reliably track whether someone can, with time, provide deep and insightful answers to other important questions or research problems.Report

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  non-tt faculty
16 days ago

Well, we did ask other questions! I’d like to think our goals were always charitable – you want to get to know the candidate, not just hear canned answers. You want to see the power of the mind at work. And there were so many great answers!Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  non-tt faculty
13 days ago

Non-tt faculty: You may be right in thinking that *quick-wittedness may not reliably track whether someone can,
with time, provide deep and insightful answers to other important questions orresearch problems*. But quick-wittedness is really important in TEACHING.If you are any good at all, you will be getting lots of objections and questions in small-to-medium classes, often out of left-field or phrased in anodd way or expressing a worry that the questioner cannot clearly articulate. It’s your job to take that question, to turn it into something cogent (but acceptable to the questioner) and to formulate a helpful answer on the spot. You can’t do that unless you are quick on your feet. As for the ability ‘with time’ to come up with ‘deep and insightful answers to other important questions or research problems’, well, your students by and large, don’t have time to wait. So if you are going for a research post, quick-wittedness might not be a desideratum, but if you are going for a teaching post it is a major Plus. [Even in a research post it is decidedly useful.  In a staff seminar you won’t be much help to your colleagues  if you only come up with your profound response long after the seminar has broken up and the speaker has gone home.] 

Thus there are excellent reasons for Search committees to pose questions designed to test for quick-wittedness – which is what some of the supposedly ‘weird’ questions’ discussed on this  thread are obviously designed to do.   Report

mark wilson
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
15 days ago

I struggle to think of a more pointless thing to do than to waste time in an interview with questions like that. It sounds like the sort of idea that might have been stolen from a scene in the Office – by chance, is that where you got the idea?Report

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  mark wilson
14 days ago

If you think it’s pointless, then I’d say that proves the point. If you are unable to see how questions like these allow people to really get into philosophical conversations, which, in fact, they always did, then perhaps you are interested in something else.Report

Trevor Hedberg
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
13 days ago

I’m skeptical of the epistemic value of asking such questions. If I were asked a question so far afield in the context of a job interview, I’d assume the committee wasn’t taking me seriously. It’d feel like I was being trolled. A lot of candidates’ internal response to these questions would be, “Wait, are they serious?” Many people who have good senses of humor and are quite creative will have that reaction, so I think these kinds of interview questions serve to distort the results of job searches rather than provide any meaningful information about the candidates.

If the goal is to learn about candidates’ real-time problem-solving skills, there are surely better ways to do this. In the non-academic world, it’s common to present job candidates with a workplace scenario and ask how they would handle the given situation. (Often, this is related to the STAR method of responding to interview questions.) In the academic context, I’ve been asked questions like this in the context of my teaching or how I engage with colleagues or students outside the classroom. In those cases, I am actually presented with a problem (e.g., student behavior, conflicting commitments in the workplace, observing questionable behavior from a colleague, etc.) and expected to work out how I’d respond to the problem given the details the committee has presented to me. That’s a way better method of testing real-time problem-solving ability and more relevant to how well the candidate could actually do the job.Report

krell_154
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
12 days ago

What monkey are we talking about? Those small ones that people keep as pets? Or does it include baboons, or maybe even chimps? Can’t answer without that info. I’m serious.Report

Clement
16 days ago

How old is your twin brother?Report

Bill Harrison
15 days ago

Here are three questions asked of me in private by the department chair during an on-campus interview.

(1) On a scale of 1-to-10 where 1 is least courageous and 10 is most courageous, how courageous are you?

(2) Do you have any skeletons in your closet?

(3) Suppose that the department is running a job search and a member of the committee who is otherwise eligible for the tenure-track position but who is merely on a year-by-year contract decides the day before the application submission deadline to submit his own application for the tenure-track position. Up until that point, he had been having conversations with committee members and he had been reviewing submitted applications. Is this person acting ethically?

[When I returned home after the interview and told my friend these three questions, my friend said that in response to (1) I should have punched him and yelled, “10.”]Report

Zac Cogley
15 days ago

“Do you have any baggage that would keep you from being successful here?”

Was asked by the chair of the hiring committee at a smaller, religiously affiliated university.Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
15 days ago

I was once asked what would be a dream course for me to teach, including topics that I didn’t know much about but would want to learn more about so I could teach it. This is a fine question and I answer it honestly. But later one of my teachers came to me and said that I had bombed the interview. He then said “You said you’d like to teach X, which happens to be in Professor A’s area, and apparently Professor A got really upset because you clearly didn’t know much about X.”Report

Ben
Ben
15 days ago

“So, this won’t affect your candidacy at all, but do you have a religious affiliation?” (Asked at an on-campus at a public regional state-school by the dept chair.)Report

Whitney Schwab
14 days ago

“What’s your greatest contribution to philosophy thus far?”

(Thankfully I had been alerted by a friend who had an earlier interview with them, and just gave my dissertation elevator-pitch. Given that this was at the very end of the still in-person interviews, and I hadn’t slept at all the previous two nights, I’m pretty confident if I hadn’t been warned it would have completely thrown me.)Report

Daniel Hill
14 days ago

‘Are you saying that atheists don’t have souls?’ (I wasn’t.)Report

Alastair Norcross
14 days ago

At an APA interview many years ago (I think Archduke Ferdinand had just been assassinated) one of the twelve (yes, twelve) interviewers in the room looked at my CV, seemingly for the first time, and said “I see you’ve written on incommensurability. I assume you’ve read Lyotard?” I hadn’t, so I made some encouraging noises about being always open to looking at material that was relevant to my subject matter. After the interview, I actually looked into what Lyotard had to say about incommensurability, and discovered it had literally nothing to do with what I was talking about in the paper in question, which was also my writing sample. One of the other interviewers told me later that the guy who asked the question was just trying to make me look bad, because he had a preferred candidate, and that my answer was about the best I could have given, because it neither alienated the faction in the room who would have hated me to have been a Lyotard fan, nor the faction that hated that other faction. Luckily for me, I wasn’t offered that job.
The strangest question I’ve heard of, was apparently asked by one of my colleagues (still a dear friend) at an institution I used to work at, before I got there. At the end of a long day of interviews, at the end of the last interview, presumably a bit punch drunk, he supposedly said, “I have just one more question for you. If you could be any animal, which animal would you be?” After a brief moment, during which the candidate must have looked rather panicked, the other interviewers jumped in to assure them that they didn’t have to answer and that the questioner was just joking, because tired. I can understand being panicked by such a question, but I would quite like to have been asked it. It would have allowed me to expound on the superiority of cats over dogs, which is one of my favorite subjects.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
14 days ago

Wait, why are cats superior to dogs?Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
14 days ago

Cats won’t snitch on you to the cops like dogs do.Report

Charlotte
14 days ago

I’m a non-native English speaker and I’ve been once asked if I’d be willing to teach some language courses (on my first language) as well. It was a pretty small department and while I totally understand the lack of resources, etc., that definitely threw me off balance!Report

hope to never job market again
14 days ago

in the illegal/immoral realm:
do you have a boyfriend? (accompanied by inappropriately intimate shoulder/arm touching)
upon saying no: do you have a girlfriend?
(separate person, same fly out): are you married?
is there anything about your personal life that would prevent you from immediately accepting this job if offered it?
(upon learning the city I grew up in): wow, how did you manage to get out of there?

in the vaguely more real questions realm:
why do you do x (my AOS) instead of y (not my AOS or anything I work on)?
how would you deal with a student’s mental health crisis manifesting in your classroom?
which of these dissertations are you currently prepared to advise?
what do you think you would bring to this department that we lack?

note: I have not done very many job interviews, people should really be more professional!Report

Dale Miller
6 days ago

Leo Strauss said that Heidegger was the only true philosopher in the 20C. Are you a true philosopher?Report

Eric Lewis
5 days ago

I was asked “Do you slice bagels”, clearly an illegal question asking me if I was Jewish!Report