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There are various sources in the internet in which different general questions one may encounter in screening interviews are reviewed. However, sometimes an applicant may face with some questions whose answers can be totally unexpected, and often opinion-based. In such cases, as the applicant (unfortunately!) can't read an asker's mind to know what perspective appeals them more, is there any strategy (for example, based on the clues captured during the interview) based on which an applicant's answer properly converges to what is expected to be heard?

Example*:

A while ago, I was invited to an interview (for a tenure-track assistant professorship position) conducted by a search committee of an aerospace department (in an R1 U.S. university). A panel member asked me the following question:

We have a large body of undergraduate students who are potentially interested in your field of research. What sorts of plans would you have to successfully attract them to this stream of research?

I, initially unprepared to be asked such a question, thought for a couple of seconds and then (kind of spontaneously) responded like:

Nowadays, the surge of coding and programming among undergraduate engineering students is growing. They often, regardless of their majors, get attracted to computing by learning some programming languages. Since the background of the majority of them to do cutting-edge research in my field may not initially suffice, I would try to define some numerical projects for interested students through doing which they can gradually get familiar with the principal components of the theory in my field. Once they are equipped with some solid background, as well as the magnification of their interests in the field, I may hopefully plan deeper steps for the involvement of those students to the mainstream research in my field.

The asker then rolled his eyes staring at me for almost 10 seconds when he finally said:

Well... I don't know about that!

I don't claim that my answer was the best possible line of planning for what that question sought. What I am concerned with is some strategies to handle such not-that-much-standard questions so that the result would be less embarrassing that what happened in that experience.

* The quotes may not represent the exact word-by-word passage of conversation.

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    I don't see anything in your answer that should make anyone roll their eyes and embarrass you, and an interview is a two-way assessment: you might not want to work with certain people.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 20 at 4:49
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    I am not sure the real issue is that the question is "opinion-based" - it is the fact that the question is unexpected/non-standard.
    – Dawn
    Jan 20 at 5:18
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    @Dawn - at the places I did my undergraduate and graduate studies the departments put a premium on involving undergraduates in research with professors. Such a question would definitely come up in interviews. So, no, such a question should not have been unexpected if the OP had done a little homework on the university ethos.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 20 at 14:38
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    Isn't that the whole point of an interview? To peel back some of your formal, studied "face"? Jan 20 at 17:22
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    @MassimoOrtolano I rolled eyes here, it is just hot air and a stream of buzzwords (probably because they didn't know how to answer this).
    – lalala
    Jan 20 at 18:28

4 Answers 4

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When an interview question is non-standard or otherwise unexpected, I fall back on two types of answers:

  1. Reframe the question/your answer more generally. So, if a question is around how you would teach a particular class, you would answer by describing your teaching philosophy or your approach to syllabus design more generally. Often, by the time you have done this, you have developed at least a couple of thoughts specific to the class so you can end with some more specific information. So in your situation, you might start by giving a minute or two about why you are excited about undergraduate research and your general philosophy about working with undergraduates. Then maybe you would have a thought at the end about the specifics of the issue of recruitment.

  2. Turn the question back around (Note this works at most one time per interview.) In this type of answer, you say something like "I think the norms and culture of the department play a big part in how I would approach this. I would probably start by checking what other faculty are doing and what has been done in the past. In general, my goal would be to align with the standards in the department. How are other faculty [handling the situation currently]?"

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If I were in your situation I would have asked for clarification instead of trying to answer right away. In your case, there is ambiguity in what the interviewer meant by

successfully attracting [undergraduates] to your field of research

Are they talking about undergraduate research projects (your answer seems to assume this)? Or do they mean attracting undergraduates to graduate programs? In the latter case, is that at the masters or PhD level? At their home department or a different program?

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Sorry if this starts with jumping into the subject used as your example rather than giving the generic thoughts first - doing this as I feel something useful may be able to be derived from this.

I would not try and attract all of "a large body of undergraduate students who are potentially interested in your field of research" to research in that field. I feel doing that would be prone to attracting, and having to deal with and tediously sort out later, a lot of people who are only slightly interested and/or just looking for "something" to do and who are not really excellent, or have the potential to or interest in being excellent, in the field or specialty. Also running increased risks of missing the really interested and excellent ones by drowning them in a mass of others, and/or turning them off by having to be drowned in that mass.

Thus, if I had to answer that question I would along the lines of saying that I would specifically not try to attract all of these people to doing research in the field, but rather attract those that can be derived to be particularly promising. In order to achieve this, I would probably ... (plan designs here)

I might or might not add, "of course in alignment with the policies of this school and department" but I feel I'd rather be inclined to not add that because I feel strongly that showing some determination and backbone counts more in a responsible position than offering to be a total push-over just in case.

Also, it seems to me to be taking a side-path approach to follow the path you sketched out in your answer (get people to do X by getting them to do Y in an environment revolving around X then hope doing Y will make them good at doing X.)

I wonder if these points may offer some of the expectable explanation of the eye-rolling you got.

Avoid overdoing the urge to give a pleasant answer, if that could be an issue. Focus on what you would want to shape a situation into, or if there's too little time to make up your mind about that in a moment within an interview situation, on what you think a situation should helpfully be advanced into to create advancement to the field.

That said, if you find in an interview situation there's something you are having too little time to make up your mind about in a moment, you may find you have just harvested from that interview situation some insight into the fact that there's a thing you simply haven't thought about yet. When going for a position where you will be able to shape things, I feel you want to have given a lot of explorative and constructive (quasi engineering) thought to the goals and designs you would like to pursue in shaping things, seen from both angles, i.e. both for the good of the field, school and department and, as well, what you as being who you are would really like to do in that quarter.

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Another option to add to the excellent suggestions by Dawn:

  • Decline to offer a solution — Just say you would think carefully about it: (This method should also be used sparingly.) Sometimes when you get a question about how you would solve a certain problem, the best answer is that you would not solve it by making a snap decision in an interview. Tell the panel that you are not inclined to try to develop a solution on the spot; in leiu of this, tell them about your decision-making process and how you would go about thinking about the problem and developing a solution.

    This is a particularly useful response if you have a demonstrated track-record of experience in the field, and a demonstrted track-record of making managerial decisions. (It is less likely to work if you are inexperienced and applying for an entry-level position.) By declining to solve the problem on the spot, and explaining your decision process instead, you can show the panel that you are a decision-maker who takes their time with a problem and is not going to be rushed into making a snap decision when that is not necessary. If you like, you can say to them that you are happy to implement your decision-making process after the interview, and come back to them in a day with some proposed ideas for a solution.

    This method can work well in some cases, if used sparingly, and if you can back it up by showing that you have demonstrated experience making decisions on these types of topics. Sometimes an interviewer may react sceptically if you have not answered the question, and press you for specifics on how you would solve the problem. In this case you have to decide if you can wiggle out some reasonable tentative suggestions (without looking wishy-washy on your original stance) or if you want to hold your ground. If they keep pressing you for an immediate solution you can even be brave and go further --- tell them that any candidate who gives them an immediate solution in an interview is doing them a disservice, since they are making a snap decision on an important matter instead of implementing a longer deliberative decision-making process. Reiterate your managerial experience with this kind of problem and use this as a basis to make an adverse judgment on the proposal that you provide a snap assessment of the problem. But beware: Depending on the attitude of the interviewer, this can go badly and sink your chances for the position (which has happened to me), or it can impress the hell out of them and make you the lead candidate (which has also happened to me).

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    Hmmm. "Refuse" is pretty strong. Probably to strong.
    – Buffy
    Jan 21 at 22:45
  • @Buffy: I've tempered this to "decline". (Also note that the answer allows some wiggle-room to offer tentative suggestions if pressed.)
    – Ben
    Jan 22 at 0:13
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    Still too strong. I wouldn't be happy to hear such from a candidate. "Sorry, I don't have an answer (handy)." is better.
    – Buffy
    Jan 22 at 0:18
  • That is one reaction; I would be happy to hear it. Anyway, I'm happy with the strength of the answer now; your critique is noted.
    – Ben
    Jan 22 at 0:21

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