Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stupid Interview Questions

I'm on a hiring committee again. My college has a canned set of interview questions that are, in a word, lame. I'm actually in a position to make some changes to the list. I've been thinking about questions I've been asked in the past, ranging from the offensive ("You're a girl. We've never hired a girl. Why should we hire you?") to the illegal ("So, are you planning on having any kids? We'd hate to spend time working you into the schedule then have you take maternity leave"). What are the worst interview questions you've been asked? And what have been some of the best questions? It's stressful enough going through an interview process--how can it be shaped so each applicant feels he/she has gotten a fair shot at demonstrating strengths and suitability for the position? I've read the horror stories here about awful application processes. I want to do what I can to ensure that applicants for this position have as positive an experience as possible.


  1. There was a time when I wanted to be the first person on the hiring committee to meet the applicant, so that I could say, "Hey, nice to meet you. Thanks for coming. I'm really sorry you have to be subjected to all this bullshit. You're going to be asked some questions that don't make sense. Trust me, there are enough of us who know that a lot of this is bullshit. Just play along."

    But I've sat through enough interviews now to know that there are some applicants who look great on paper but have no common sense or people skills. I'm glad I didn't get to greet those people at the airport. I'm glad I didn't roll my eyes when they were asked bullshit questions. I'm glad I didn't get the opportunity to apologize for anything, because I wouldn't have wanted those people to return home and tell their people that my school was so awful that even our very own hiring committee members apologized for how awful we were.

    The hiring process is almost always fucked up for somebody involved. My soul dies a little bit when it's 8:30am and I'm struggling to keep a straight face while scribbling a note to a colleague during an interview, asking hir, "Why is this person on our campus?"

    So, if some fucktard on a hiring committee says, "We've never hired a nigger before. Why should we hire you?" That's when the applicant has an opportunity to say, "I've got these skills and this experience and I've published this, etc...." Later on, if the applicant is offered the job, then she can investigate and find out whether or not that fucktard was an outlier at the school and in the department. It was a fucking stupid thing to say, obviously, but sometimes stupid things are said when anybody on the hiring committee is allowed to improvise. The alternative can be bad, too, when the committee is required to adhere 100% to the scripted questions. It can be absurd either way.

    Regarding the question of how the interview process can be "shaped so each applicant feels he/she has gotten a fair shot at demonstrating strengths and suitability for the position?" Unfortunately, it's possible to give your best applicant just enough rope to hang hirself. I know I can't be the only one to sit at a conference table listening to an applicant recite an entire--and entirely irrelevant--poem from memory (for a position that isn't in an English/literature/poetry/MFA department). Sometimes the applicants misinterpret the invitation for more info and feel like they need to give more than is necessary.

    I look forward to reading comments on this. My answer is that I just keep reminding myself to treat the person like I would treat a mentally ill guest in my own house.

    1. Of course, I'm a little inebriated and very sleepy.

    2. Um, Bubba, don't you think this is a bit much?

    3. @Frod: Using the N word? Indeed, more than a bit much. But I have actually heard the word used during an interview. And it's the most offensive thing I could think of. No matter how much a person prepares, there is the possibility that s/he will have to respond to the most surprising, offensive, disheartening things during the interview process. When I wrote that, I was remembering some of the most awkward moments at conference tables during interviews, and it seemed appropriate to express in a very concrete, tangible way how absolutely awful it can be to be trapped alone in a room far from home with peculiar people, and suddenly feeling the need to respond to a profoundly disturbing utterance by attacking the idiot who said it... or by getting up and walking out. That's the awfulness of it. In that horrible moment, the person has to decide what to do. To water it down would be watering it down. It's useful to imagine the worst and be prepared for it.

    4. The thing to do in that case would be for the interviewee to end the interview. One needs to be very desperate indeed to put up with nonsense of this magnitude, which is quite actionable, not that many seekers of academic jobs have the money for a lawyer, or the time for a lawsuit.

    5. You changed your response. This is an important point. In that strange interview situation, a person has a few seconds to decide what to do, not two hours.

      It's a horrible and stupid word to use in an interview.

      It's can also be extremely difficult to know how to react to the truly amazing variety of offensive, pointless, and unpredictable things that are said and done during interview processes.

    6. I hear your point, Bubba. I'm hoping to have enough control to have thoughtful, useful questions...but am dreading that open question period at the end.

    7. I was at a job interview, out for lunch for 2 of the committee members, both old silverbacks, and they began to have a highly politically incorrect conversation with lots of inappropriate language and offensive insults to various groups of people. I sat there wondering "is this a test? are these guys actually that over-the-top redneck, or is this a test to gauge my response." I just shut the hell up and ate my corned beef sandwich like it was the best one ever made.

    8. @Bubba: But I always did have more than two hours to decide that this isn't the place for me, even if the interview had been over for a while, and even if I was abjectly desperate. I did that when I interviewed at the place across from where Mike Huckabee got his degree, but what made it easier was I also had an offer at a tech school just outside Kennedy Space Center.

  2. Do you have grad students in your department? As a PhD student, I got to witness our department's hire of a new colleague, and the department was good about including us in the process. Setting up an informal grad student meet-and-greet for each candidate, away from the full-time faculty, can be a good way to recruit some eyes and ears in situations that are less pressurized than the actual interviews, but which can nonetheless reveal how the potential proffie envisions hir possible role in the department. (This is especially true if the grad students also teach, as most of us did.) The candidates seemed to be polished but candid on a range of issues that probably didn't come up in the interviews -- opinions on state vs. private higher ed, curriculum building strategies, conference networking, etc.

    Also a plus: this way, we grad students were solidly clued in about the absolute misery of job applications and interviews. That was priceless.

    1. No grad students--we're a lowly cc. We have included a student on the hiring committee. I like the idea of the student-only reception.

    2. Actually, by chance, my undergrad SLAC also hired in my major department while I was there, and I got to participate in those sessions as well (which, curiously, did not turn me off to academia in the long run...). The department included a student-candidate Q&A session, but it was observed/moderated by the department chair. Not quite as freewheeling as it was for the grad students of Eastern State, but still there was the chance to see firsthand how exactly this candidate would endear hirself (and hir research topics) to a small group of majors. I'd think that kind of input would be even more invaluable for a cc -- could the candidate maybe even teach a sample lesson? Some places do ask for that.

  3. My search for a job offer as a tenure-track assistant professor of physics and astronomy took nine years, starting in my last year of grad school. During this time, I applied for over 150 jobs. I worked at three different places as a postdoctoral research fellow, all in completely different parts of the world of course, and as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, where I finally got “real” teaching experience. If it’s horror stories you want, I got 10^6 of ‘em.

    I've been asked plenty of illegal questions. One of the most blatant was: "What is wrong with you, that a scientist like you who uses Hubble Space Telescope can be interested in our humble little teaching college?"

    I sensed that the unvarnished truth, that the job market stinks and that I was desperate, would be a bit much. So, I blabbered, "I see this as an opportunity to do some excellent teaching."

    It did not work. The quintessentially nutty professor who’d asked me that question, remarkably like the one in the Jerry Lewis movie, the next week asked a friend of mine who’d also applied for that job what was wrong with me that I was applying for this job. He also asked my friend illegal questions about his religion and ethnicity.

    My friend blew the whistle on the nutty questioner, reporting his illegal questions to his department Chair. The Chair promised he'd be taken off the hiring committee, and not be put on another such committee in the future.

    In another interview, I was illegally asked if I was married or had kids. Being desperate for a job, I let it slide and said no. I was then asked if I “had a girlfriend, who’d complicate things.” Being desperate for a job, I let it slide and said no. In hindsight, I wish I’d said, “Yeah, your mom.”

    In another interview, a question that alerted me that this would not be a good place to work was when the department Chair asked, "Can you fix this camera [that I recently broke]?" Since I was desperate for a job, I did my best to fix the stupid thing, but my suspicion was confirmed when I noticed that on the wall of this person’s office was a poster of the famous photo of the nearly full Earth, showing southern Africa and Arabia, taken on Apollo 17 by Harrison Schmitt. It was upside down, with Antarctica at the top. Having seen this displayed upside down on purpose, to show that there’s no up or down in space, I observed, “I see you’ve got it upside down.” The answer was, “Whut?” I then noticed the dust on the poster: it’d been hanging that way for years.

    An important question for any interviewee to have a snappy, succinct, plausible answer for is: “If we hire you, what exactly are you going to do when you get here?” It is very embarrassing not to have a good answer for that one. I only stumbled over it once, early in the first year of my job-search odyssey. A good answer will benefit enormously from having done some research on the place to which you’ve applied.

    A good beginning, at least in the sciences, of an answer is, “What kind of budget would I have to work with?” It will help to have given some thought to budgets for equipment, travel, and other needs. If you’re as desperate as I was, be sure to include a contingency plan if your answer is “Zero.”

    If they expect you to bring in all of your research funding from external sources, this is a sign of a woeful place to work. Science funding agencies such as NSF and NASA don’t like to fund researchers who don’t have strong internal support, which helps enormously between big grants. Even worse is if they won’t allow you to be Principal Investigator on grant applications that you write.

    Since at my current job we place so much emphasis on involving students in research, and since it’s fashionable at many places, have a good answer for “How would you involve students in your research?” This is what I always ask. I'm sorry, but we’re not hiring.

    1. Re your worst questions: Yikes!

      Re most your suggested questions: Great for positions that involve research, but Annie's at a CC. We teach 5/5, and there is no support for research. So a good answer to “If we hire you, what exactly are you going to do when you get here?” would be "Teach whatever classes I'm assigned, and learn the campus culture."

      Some questions relevant to community college faculty:

      "If you had the opportunity to propose a new class in your discipline, what class would it be, and why?" The answer would reveal whether the applicant has looked at the present course offerings and understands the primary mission of teaching lower-division classes that are transferable to four-year schools. A recent Ph.D. who proposes teaching hir own specialty does not get the CC mission.

      "Teaching fads come and go. What classroom innovations have you tried that worked? Didn't work?"

      "Who was the best teacher or professor you ever had? How did she or he influence your teaching style?"

      "What topic are you the most excited about teaching, and why? How do you teach that?"

      "What topic have you found is the hardest to get across to students? What approaches have you tried and kept, or tried and abandoned?"

      "How do you stay current in your discipline? What topic would you like to learn more about, and how would you do that?"

    2. Ditto to Proffie Galore's "Yikes"! PG, fabulous questions. These are infinitely better than those asked in our interviews. One of my all-time favorite, poorly written questions: "What would you do if a student tried to talk to you while you were walking to class?" WTF??

  4. In my own experience, the way to ensure a positive experience is in the follow-up. I love those schools that kept me informed about the state of the race, even when I was clearly not in the lead. I hated those schools where they said nothing until the contract was signed. Alas, I cannot convince my current school to follow the more open policy...

  5. I've seen illegal questions asked on our campus too ("how would your husband feel about having to move?") despite our HR department's thorough (incessant, relentless) reminders of what kinds of questions are acceptable, and what kinds could expose us to gigantic discrimination lawsuits.

    How about behavior-based interviewing? It has better predictive value than the traditional haphazard kind and it's harder to ask an illegal question. Questions like, "tell us about a time when you [insert scenario of misery here]"

  6. I find the standard diversity questions to be an idiotic exercise.

    Committee: "Dr. Bison, tell us about your experiences with a diverse population of students."

    Dr. Bison: "Yes, I've had some of those. It's a fun experience, we all grow when we interact with those who are different from us, student and professor alike."


    Dr. Bison: "Could you tell me a bit about your student body?"

    Committee:"Well, they are about 97% white, and rural."

    Dr. Bison: "I'm glad we could pretend, then."

    1. Well, some of my students are diverse, but most aren't. There was one exception about three semesters ago. I had one class where everyone except this one girl in the back row was very diverse. She was only moderately diverse, but in that crowd, she really stood out as being completely standard, not diverse at all really. Like I said, most of my students are not diverse, but sometimes it's hard to tell. Sometimes I ask up front: "Is anyone here diverse?" The students who aren't usually admit it, so it's not a problem. Like I said, where I teach, that's most of the student body. The students in my field are even less diverse than the campus in general. Indeed, some of those who are diverse are only diverse before 3 PM or from the waist down.

  7. Case 1:
    Interviewer: Are you pregnant?

    Me: No.

    (Later on I did find out I was pregnant. Either my interviewer was psychic or a jerk, it's hard to tell.)

    Case 2:
    Interviewer: What are the types of things you do to make people like you?

    Me: I don't know. Talk to them? Not everyone likes everyone.

    (It got way way creepier after that...)

    1. OMG. Jaw on the floor. That is creepy.

  8. My recommendation is that of the research literature on structured interviews - don't try to think of "good" questions - that just capitalizes on the biases of the people writing the questions. Here is the process that is recommended for for-profit organizations but very few actually do because it takes more time than trying to come up with questions off the top of your head (however, it works much better in predicting job success).

    1) Separately, have each member of the hiring committee/stakeholders/whoever list the characteristics that you want any person hired to have (e.g. people skills, interest in taking students to conferences, whatever).

    2) In a group meeting, narrow this down to a core set of knowledge/skills/attitudes that you want to ask about.

    3) Separately again, have each person on the hiring committee draft questions that address at least one of the traits specified by the group in the previous step.

    4) Back in a group meeting, narrow down the list of questions to a final set which you ask every candidate.

    This leads to maximum perceived fairness because you have identified the characteristics that lead to success and then tested them rather than coming up with questions and hoping they produce some vaguely useful information.

    You can also think of it like drafting a list of learning objectives for a class and then designing your teaching plan to meet those objectives versus just dumping as much knowledge as possible into each class period. Planning generally produces a more coherent class and interview.

    1. This is a fantastic idea for those colleges that allow latitude in interview questions. On my last CC hiring committee, the head of HR allowed only questions that related to the state-mandated minimum qualifications for the job. We were admonished that no personality-fit questions were allowed because of the risk of discriminating against applicants not in our gender and ethnic groups. (We had two Northern European-Americans, three African-Americans, one Latina, and an equal number of men and women.)

  9. Worst question evar: "Your name doesn't match at all what you look like, nor the country where you currently live. How did that happen?"

    1. Perfect opportunity to have responded with a question of your own: "Your apparent emotional and intellectual intelligence don't match up with the position you occupy. How did that happen?"

    2. Excellent comeback. Even more remarkable if you could come up with that in the moment instead of on the drive home.

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  11. Worst questions: "Tell us about yourself."

    What, you didn't read my application? Are you trying to find out more about me personally, or are you fact-checking my resume like cops taking a confession?

    "What are your biggest flaws?"

    I don't know; which is bigger: my habitual giggling at dumb answers from students, or the flask I keep in a drawer in the classroom?

    Wait, wait, I know this one: My biggest flaw is that I say yes to committee assignments and administrative tasks so that I don't have time to develop a home life.

  12. I was once asked if I felt comfortable reporting any and all instances where I dreamed about my students, the school, my colleagues, or the administrators.

    I wanted the job, so I said yes. About two hours afterward, I decided that if they offered me the job, I would not take it. That shit is weird.


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