The Question Is Not The Question

Kellee and I were chatting the other day about her work in Interview Interventions over the past few months. She said to me, “What clients always need to understand is that the question is not the question!  They always think the question is asking XXX, but it’s actually asking YYY, they just don’t know it!”

We talked more.  We came up with some examples of common questions, and what our clients think they’re supposed to say vs. what the search committee really wants to know.

1. Tell us about your research.

You think they care about your research.
You say way too much about narrow, narrow, oh so narrow, tediously narrow interests.

No. They want to learn about how your expertise fits into their departmental needs as expressed by the job ad, and connects with the work of the people doing the interview (which is why your methodology and contribution are actually the most important portion of your answer), and is quickly getting funded and published in ways that bode well for tenure.   At the same time, they observe how you express yourself, how self absorbed you are or aren’t.

2. Tell us about your plans for the next five years.

You think they want to hear about your interests and motivations in the life of the mind in huge, grandiose, boring abstractions.

This is the equivalent of someone asking you how to get to from LA to NYC by car, and you start the answer: “The corn of Nebraska is beautiful in late summer!”

No. It’s not about the corn.  Instead, you’ll need to explain how, leaving on XX date, on XX road, you’ll make it to XX city by sundown.  Then starting the next day, you’ll reach XX by sundown.  You will give the step-by-step route complete with mileage goals and destinations along the way.  They don’t need to know your feelings about the scenery.

Same for tenure. Tenure is a destination that must be reached in careful and well-planned stages.  The search committee needs to know 1) that you get what tenure at their institution means and 2) that you have plan complete with dates and locations to get there. All framed within THEIR concerns. R1 = RESEARCH goals, along with teaching and a tiny bit of service; SLAC = TEACHING goals, always informed by research and more service.

3.  Tell us how you would teach our big survey course.

You think they want to hear how you’re going to make those undergrads finally grasp the point of transnationalism, once and for all.  Or modernity.  They must know modernity.  Or intersectionality, goddammit!  They MUST. BE. TAUGHT. INTERSECTIONALITY.

No.  They do not want to hear that you are going to dogmatically hijack their big intro course and make it into an altar to your personal theoretical preoccupation.  They want to know that 1. you get that you will be teaching big survey courses, 2. you get what the discipline expects students to learn in those classes and have a plan to assure students learn it. They want to know that even though they are hiring an expert in the power dynamics of gender on Mars it does not mean you will hijack their Introduction to Anthropology class and teach it through a Martian gender theory lens. In other words, they want to know that you will not take their courses off the rails and leave them with ill-prepared students in their 200 level courses.

4.  Tell us how you see yourself contributing to this department.

You think they want to know the courses you will propose and how much you loooooooove students (graduate or otherwise)

No. They need to see you making specific connections between your work and the work being done by current faculty in the department, at thematic and/or topical levels.

They also want to know how you will raise their department profile or raise the profile of their students (depending the institution) both on an off campus. Working Groups. Interdisciplinary collaborations. Professional Affiliations. Programs. Initiatives. Field Schools. And yes, courses. But really the courses you propose only go so far.

5. Tell us why you want to work here.

You think they want to know how great their department will be for you and all the great things you will do with all of their great resources.

No.  That is self-absorbed.  This is not the time for more “me, me, me” and how the job is going to serve you.  They want to know that you understand the university, the department, the faculty. That you have thought it through and see where you can connect, build, and engage, giving specific examples and ideas.

6. Do you have any questions for us?

You think the purpose of these questions is to gather information.

No.  These questions are more ways they elicit information about you.  They want to know what you are prioritizing in your academic life. Your questions always reveal your values, and you must manage them for what they disclose.  They are often where your deepest priorities and anxieties come out into the light.  If all your questions are about teaching, and it’s an R1, you look like you don’t belong.  You must show them that you are thinking about what they think you should be thinking about.  Always with an eye to your tenure case.  I wrote some specifics about this in a recent Chronicle Vitae post, Good Question!

Kellee was talking with her brother recently and lamenting how often people they’ve interviewed for positions had clearly failed to prepare in any way to understand the position or the organization. He mentioned a recent search he was chairing for a position in the U.S. Forest Service.  He and his colleagues asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”  The candidates fell into two groups: those who asked something like, “How often am I paid and what are my benefits?” and those who asked something like, “I was looking at XXX project that you did last year, and it really intersects with my work;  I am interested to know if you have plans to further develop XXX?  I would like to be involved.”

To quote Kellee’s brother: “Who do you think made the short list?”

Want to work with Kellee on a live Skype Interview Intervention?  Here’s the info:

The Interview Intervention and Job Talk Intervention are both  50-minute Skype appointments with TPII colleague Kellee Weinhold, who specializes in communications and presentation.  The latter is a practice job talk.  The former is an intensive mock-interview.  The cost for each is $250.

For the Interview Intervention. we take you through a set of 6 basic interview questions (several of these are described in my blog post, The #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview) in a mock interview, stopping after each question to evaluate every answer for its strengths and weaknesses in terms of brevity, spin, word choice, tone, body language, etc., and refining it for effectiveness.  For some basic questions, you may repeat your response 2-3 times until perfect.  It’s grueling, but very effective.   Read some of the testimonials on the Testimonials page to learn more.

For the Job Talk Strategy:

Don’t understand the job talk or not sure what your talk should focus on, In this 30-minute Intervention, Kellee will walk you through the mission, ethos, structure and goals of a Job Talk with SPECIFIC attention to your research as it relates to the job call. We will brainstorm key sections of your job talk, including introduction, results and conclusion with guidelines on what you need to be sure to include and avoid. THIS IS ONLY FOR THOSE WHO NEED TO WRITE A TALK AND NEED HELP CONCEPTUALIZING IT. If you need a job talk edit, contact Dr. Karen at

Once an I-I or Job Talk Intervention has been scheduled it is non-refundable. It can be rescheduled up to 48 hours in advance; after that the slot cannot be changed.

Both kinds of Skype Interventions are currently scheduled through an on-line calendar. Please go here to schedule and pay:

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The Question Is Not The Question — 19 Comments

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  2. Thank you. I flubbed an interview at last year’s AHA by failing to listen for the question behind the question. One question asked was: “What do you think your colleagues say about you when you aren’t in the room?” I took it too literally, but too late, I realized that this was just a screwy way of asking, “Tell me what kind of colleague you are,” which was supposed to be an opportunity to sell myself. “What do you think the relationship between a university and its surrounding community should be like?” was likewise code for “Do you understand, accept, and have enthusiasm for the mission of OUR university vis-a-vis OUR surrounding community?” Yup. Missed that one too. Rookie mistake. Now I know why we are supposed to wait a few seconds before beginning to answer. It is not to formulate a cogent answer to the question. It is to figure out what the real question is.

    • Thanks for these marvelous examples. Can I ask, how DID you answer them? And, how do you WISH you’d answered them? (preserving anonymity of institution of course)

      • How did I answer them? Well, let’s just say, haltingly and unhelpfully. How do I wish I’d answered? To the first, I could have mentioned how, the previous year, I had picked up a course mid-semester on 48 hours’ notice when a colleague became too sick to carry on teaching it, and how the campus president (with whom I’d never spoken before) made a point of coming up to me to thank me for “saving the semester for those students”. To the second, this was a mid-ranked public institution with a substantially regional student body and a strongly local mission, so pretty much anything about educating the workforce for the 21st century or public engagement (service projects, tutoring, partnership with the local high school, free lectures for the general public) would have been better than my mumblings about town-gown relations, which was how I construed the question at the time.

  3. It’s a great article, and everything you say is true, but some of the blame must fall on the interviewers rather than the interviewees. If you want to know something, freaking ask it!! Why beat around the bush with questions that are non-questions that ask about X when you really want to know about Y? If a university wants to know if a candidate is on board with their mission, why not ask “What appeals to you about our mission and how would you further it?” instead of “What do you see yourself doing here?” What’s with the caginess? It’s really dishonesty on the part of the interviewers. Ask what you want to ask. Be direct. Don’t play games. Don’t waste time. Don’t make candidates translate or interpret your questions (what are they *really* asking?). If candidates did this, they would be skewered, so why is it okay for the hiring committee to do it?

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  5. A new gem, asked by the head of an elite prep school: “If you could have any piece of music automatically played as your theme song when you walked into the classroom each day, what would it be?” (I came up with “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus.) But I got something unusual from this particular exchange: the rationale. The head explained that bright high-school students sometimes ask bizarre questions, and being able to field them with good humor is an essential characteristic of being a good teacher. Some candidates, he explained, bristle (his word) when he asks them this question, and that tells him right away that they would not be at home in his school. So here is a case where the actual answer to the question was largely irrelevant: the interviewer was far more interested in the spirit in which the answer was given.

  6. Your tips have helped me immensely as I prepared for the job market away from my campus and cohort.
    How can I schedule a practice interview on skype? I have a campus visit on May 12, 2015.

  7. How do I answer the question “What would you see as your greatest challenge here at out institution?”. I was caught off guard and answered “your low student diversity” – probbaly not what they wanted to hear. Anyone have a good answer, and what are they actually asking?

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