Academic Job Interview Questions: Amazon Review

Learn what interview questions can tell you about the job

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Interview season is almost here and I wanted to give you a review of the interview questions I got. I’ve written already a few posts on interviews (the right mindset and what not to do). I’m trying to guess why and I believe it’s the degree of insecurity it generated for me. Job materials (the cover letter and the gazillion of statements you need to get ready) are… writing. Different from writing papers, but still writing, something we have a lot of experience with. Many academics, myself included, started school when we were 3 and we liked it so much that we never left. We beat the game of school, there were no more levels after the Ph.D. Job interviews are not really part of that game. So this new process can fill you with self-doubt.

Out of the 23 jobs I applied for, I got 10 Skype interviews and 6 campus visits. I should have probably documented better the campus visits, but I did a pretty good job taking notes of all the interview questions. Spoiler alert: they are not that different from the lists that you can find online or that your department has shared with you to prepare you. However, I do think it is important to know which ones are likely to show up on a specific interview based on the type of job and the institution. Why? Easy, you need a different mindset for each institution.

Let me start with practical issues. Interviews usually last between 20 and 45 minutes. Most will involve a video call with the search committee. Be ready for multiple platforms (Zoom, Skype, Teams, Hangouts, you name it) and try to have a backup plan in case your computer or internet connection decides to go on strike. For instance, have your iPad or phone handy (with the appropriate app already installed) or be ready to set your hotspot. You don’t want a technical problem to make even more of a train-wreck. One of my interviews was over the telephone. It is kind of awkward because the committee is together in the same room and you are not sure who you are talking to, you miss all the visual cues. But I made it to the campus visit after that interview, so the phone was not a big issue.

Now to the juicy stuff. I list the type of job and institution, followed by the interview questions and my thoughts on them. Some repeat, just remember you’re like a politician campaigning to get the committee excited and voting for you. I should also add that some of these questions were in Spanish. If you’re interviewing for a language position, the interview will probably be in both languages (or more if the job asks for more languages).

Tenure Track - R1 Institution

  1. Why are you interested in this job?
  2. What are your research plans?
  3. What funding would you apply for research?
  4. How would you teach a translation course at the undergraduate and graduate levels?
  5. What pedagogical approach do you have in your classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels?
  6. What [insert your field here] theories would you use depending on level and type [specific field]?
  7. What undergraduate and graduate courses would you teach related to linguistics (beyond the courses we already teach here)?
  8. How do you use technology in your [X field] and [Y field] courses?
  9. How would you connect your research and your teaching to service in our university and our community?

The first question is usually to warm you up, very open, make sure you take advantage of it, and add interesting information. For this one, I would mention how my training and education prepare me for the job and what I like about the job, department, and university. A trick I learned from @jvcasill is adding a line to pick their interest. Something along these lines: “I would also see myself creating a research group on X. If you are interested, I could elaborate on this”. This gives you the possibility to highlight your strengths but also makes sure you don’t ramble and make them bored with the information they are not interested in. Ask your advisor and other professors to tell you what is “attractive” in you as a candidate. That will give you hints about what you need to highlight. But please, whatever you do, don’t ramble. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. The last thing you want is to make the search committee bored to death.

In this particular interview, you’ll notice there is a balance between teaching and research questions. Also, they are asking about how to bring in money, which gives you a hint that they don’t have a lot of money there. This is field-dependent, some fields rely 100% on grants, but the Humanities… not so much.

If the job involves both graduate and undergraduate, make sure you have an answer for how you would do organize/teach those courses differently.

For the technology question, you don’t need to go crazy. Just explain how you use it or how you plan to use it in the future. Remember that you might not have experience with every single detail they ask for, but you need to show that you can do it if they ask you to, you have a plan. If your field uses special software, make sure you mention them. They might be interested in online teaching. Check their course offerings to see if they already have some. If you feel lost with online teaching, check out this other post.

Lecturer (Non-Tenure Track) - Ivy League

  1. How does a class from Cristina look like?
  2. How is a typical student-centered class?
  3. How would you create an interactive activity related to food? (I had given an example related to food earlier)
  4. Could you tell us about your M.A. thesis? (My M.A. was in teaching, more related to the job than my Ph.D. Research)
  5. How do you use technology in your classes?
  6. Would you say your teaching approach is communicative? What’s the role of technology within the communicative framework?
  7. Do you incorporate literary texts in your classes?
  8. Have you ever used short films in your classes?
  9. Which textbooks have you used?
  10. How do you apply your research to the class? (plus lots of specific follow-up questions)

This interview was entirely in Spanish (the three elite universities I interviewed for were like that). Do you see how different these questions are? Here’s when the mindset shift needs to take place. Before you start this interview, think about someone you know (Paco González) who has a similar position and repeat to yourself three times (magic always happens with the number three, right?): I’m Paco González.

I didn’t do it and unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job. The literature questions throw me off and I wasn’t ready to discuss textbooks at different levels. Why? I was still thinking like researcher Cristina, not like teacher Cristina, and this job was for teaching Cristina. Also, I emphasized what I do in translation classes, and this institution couldn’t care less about teaching technical (legal, medical) translation. Knowing the department’s culture or approach is crucial to avoid this mistake (I wrote about it here).

A word on textbooks. You can mention the ones you like, bonus points if you find out the one they use (check course hero, sometimes students upload materials). But be very careful with the ones you don’t like. They might ask you to mention some you don’t like. Refrain from saying you don’t like them and just point out how you would do it differently. You never know whether they were a reviewer for those materials you don’t like. I’ve made this mistake before (luckily not during an interview). I said I didn’t like X publisher to a new colleague only to later find out she was friends with everyone working at the publishing company.

Tenure Track - R1 Institution

  1. What is the important contribution of your research?
  2. What are your research plans?
    1. Why is [specific phenomenon I research] important?
  3. What courses would you teach in the [specific field] program that would meaningfully complement that program?
  4. What courses would you teach for the [specific program]? What undergraduate and graduate courses would you teach in X program?
  5. How would you teach a teaching methods course?
  6. Could you explain what your vision for an ideal language program is?
  7. What are some of the main challenges in directing an L2 program? How would you resolve them?

This job involved language coordination and it shows from the questions that the administrative portion of the job will be significant. Get ready for those questions too. This is probably harder because there is no “Administration Statement” similar to the research and teaching statements. And we thank the academic gods for not having that statement. Writing a statement forces you to reflect, and since you haven’t done it in the area of administration, this probably means you have devoted less time to defining your vision.

People who know me would tell you that I’m very organized. When I was an assistant coordinator, my coordinator was really happy with me, and… well, I just know I’m good at it. However, I was terrible at answering those questions. Why? Because I assumed that everyone thinks like me. Everyone answers emails quickly, puts things on a spreadsheet, documents the process, prepares materials, etc. Experience has taught me this is not the case, at all. What’s the most blatantly obvious thing for me, is not for many others.

Also, I had this idea that my answer had to be perfect for what they needed in each department. This would involve spending a significant amount of time working there to identify the needs and make plans. Of course, if you are interviewing, you don’t have that information. Don’t get me wrong, you need to get as much information as possible about the job, department, and university, but you won’t be able to know everything. And that is ok. Knowing what I know now after having interviewed a few people, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know specific details about the department. What matters is that you show the way you think and approach problems. Your specific proposal for an administration issue might not fit perfectly with my department, but if it is sound and logical, you will be flexible and know how to revise it once you get to know the culture better. However, you do need to show sensitivity to the university’s general culture. For instance, when it comes to teaching if you tell me that you are very strict and enforce draconian deadlines of assignments no matter what excuse the students give, you are telling me you won’t be a good fit with my department. We have a good proportion of students who work full-time jobs and have family obligations. You need to show sensitivity towards them. However, if you were interviewing for a job at West Point, strict deadlines might be the appropriate rule for their culture. I know this might sound contradictory: you don’t need to know everything about the department, but need to know the department. My point is that if you propose a course on Bilingualism in Mexico and they actually need a course on Bilingualism in Paraguay, if your explanation for the course is exciting, don’t worry about choosing the wrong country. They know you will be able to switch gears.

Tenure Track - R2

  1. Why are you interested in this job?
  2. How do you envision working with a diverse student population?
    1. Follow up: how do you deal with the issue of correctness with a very linguistically diverse class?
  3. Tell us about your research
  4. What are your next plans for research?
  5. How would your research results transfer into the X classroom?
  6. What theories have you applied for teaching X courses?
  7. What [specific field of study] courses have you taught?
  8. What are the differences between teaching online and face to face?
  9. How are you involved in the life of your department?
  10. What are your strengths contributing to the departments' life?
  11. Finally, what do you want to tell us about yourself that we haven’t asked you?

These questions show a balance between teaching, research, and service. They also show that the institution has a diverse population and they care about such diversity. There are a couple of questions related to the department, indicating that they expect you to be around and show some initiative. Also, you’ll notice that they had more questions (I haven’t included all the follow-up questions here, but there were a few). By the time we got to the last question, I was exhausted (this was my third interview in one day). Question 12 was a freebie, a very welcoming invitation to shine, but it caught me off-guard. I remember I paused, took a few seconds to think, I even said out loud: “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that question”, but then… I said something surprisingly good, I hadn’t planned it. It could have gone wrong. Have a list of things you want to make sure they know about you and, if they ask you a similar question, you’ll know how to shine.

Lecturer (Non-Tenure Track) - R2

  • What is your experience with [technical field]?
  • How would you prepare students emotionally for a difficult situation in [very specific field] process?
  • How would you structure a minor in [X field]?
  • What courses would you create for [X,Y, and Z technical fields]? (the three tracks they envision for the minor/major)
  • What is your administrative experience?

This interview was straight to the point. They want you to create a program, they care that you can handle things administratively but couldn’t care less about your research. Do you remember I gave detailed plans about my research in an interview with a Provost and it backfired? Well, this was it.

It has taken me over a year to look back and see how the interview questions tell you a lot about what the search committee is looking for. I would suggest that you write down the questions for each interview (right after the interview, to make sure you don’t forget), and then, if you get the campus visit, go over with them with your advisor or someone more senior than you. They will probably see what the questions mean, what they are looking for, and you will be better prepared for the campus visit. Good luck out there 💪🏽

Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Assistant Professor

My research interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, interpreting.

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