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I'm interviewing for a university faculty position. I would like to ask the committee why they are interested in me.

I would like to learn about the possible implications of this question.

My initial motivation for asking this question is that faculty positions (especially in multidisciplinary fields) have complex requirements. At the same time, my CV also contains many diverse aspects. Sometimes it is not obvious why they consider me an eligible candidate and which of my skills they care about. I hope to learn more about the department and its needs.

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    Would you be happy getting an honest answer along the lines "personally, I do not want to hire you, but I prefer the job candidate we had a week ago"? I know people who would say staff like this. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 16:28
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    @MoisheKohan Yes, I would be happy to get such an answer. The committee consists of people I might work with for a long time. And I would learn something important about them.
    – Jiro
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 16:34
  • Clarify if the job is at your current institution. This has implications for the question and the putative answer.
    – Trunk
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 15:50
  • I'm curious what "diverse aspects" means. Diversity is often a hiring term related to things like race and gender, but it could mean something totally different like skills and expertise. Also, I would not expect an answer where the thinking behind their hiring is openly explained, but you could get an answer that is nonetheless useful. I sometimes ask slightly awkward questions to find out how the person lies or otherwise evades a question, it doesn't give me data but it gives me some "feel" for what's going on as much by what isn't in the answer as what is. Here I think "don't" is wiser.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 16:43
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    @uhoh Yes, I meant diverse skills. I have done technical work as well as artistic. The reaction from committees ranges from excitement to confusion. Yes, there was an intention to ask an awkward question to learn more about the people.
    – Jiro
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 19:53

9 Answers 9

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I think a more traditional way to phrase it would be for you to ask what they are looking for in a candidate for the position or what they expect this position to add to their department. I'd expect answers to include both aspirational and practical goals: e.g., the type of person they want to work with versus they need a body to teach Basketweaving 101. You might learn they are expanding the department to cover a particular research area, or that this is a replacement position after someone else has retired or left.

It's up to you to communicate how you might fill those needs.

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    what they are looking for in a candidate — that's usually written in the job opening, isn't it?
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 8:11
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    @gerrit: The answer you can get asking in person can often be more detailed, nuanced, and candid than the original description.
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 9:12
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    @PLL Still good to reference the job opening somehow in the way to phrase the question. My instinctive reaction to the question would otherwise be "gee, did they not read the job opening"? Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 12:40
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    But I doubt if the committee will offer a response to this that is both factually true and credible to the candidate. Besides, they may well feel that this matter is really their business and not Jiro's.
    – Trunk
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 16:39
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I guess I'd suggest that you hold that question until later. At least until you get an offer, but maybe even after you accept it.

It would be uncomfortable for an interviewer who wasn't wildly enthusiastic about your application to reply in the moment without pausing for a bit, trying to come up with something, anything, to get out of that position.

It also doesn't project confidence, though that would depend a bit on how you ask.

Instead, for a multiple-discipline position, ask about the various aspects and if there are others you haven't noticed. This gives you useful information that you can use in making decisions about any offer that does occur.

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    Thanks for your viewpoint. Interestingly, you speak of the uncomfortable situation for the interviewer. I see this as the reciprocal question of 'why do you want to work here'? I would hopefully learn about their ideas and attitude (not only about me in particular). By this, I would hope that the 'bidirectional' nature of the interview becomes clearer.
    – Jiro
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 16:20
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    In any case, from your answer, I also read that it is not a standard question to ask as an applicant.
    – Jiro
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 16:21
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    Candidates usually expect and are prepared for the question "Why do you want to work here?". Or they should be.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 16:51
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A reasonable approach to asking questions is to wonder "why do I need to know" and "how does this lead to action".

For your question, I can see that it would stroke one's ego to hear why a department is interested in oneself. But it fails the two questions above: You've clearly been selected as one of the better qualified candidates, and you're unlikely going to learn anything beyond that. And whatever you get as an answer has no actionable consequences. So I would skip the question.

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    I disagree, it is not only about ego. My CV does list a couple of topics I worked on. If I am proud of topic A or did like working on it or it felt natural to me, I would be a bit worried if they are eyeing for topic B, which I consider a dull duty and I don't want to extend on it. Sure, I can do that, but I imagine my future different.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 7:45
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    @usr1234567 In that case, maybe, stop putting topic B in your CV? Your CV is as much a marketing tool for you to get the job you want as a job listing is a marketing tool for an employer to get the work they want done. Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 11:37
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    if you want to ask about the projects you might work on in the job, that is totally different from the question posed above. Asking about the projects they envision you working on would be a very appropriate question in the US
    – Mike M
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 20:58
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If you ask your interview committee "Why are you interested in me?", your question could be taken very poorly in at least one way -- which recommends against asking it at all.

Most universities publicly list the members of any faculty, department or school on their websites. Together with Google Scholar (or other tools), this means it should not take more than a day's work to (1) look through a list of all the faculty members you will be working with, and (2) determine what their areas of interest are, and how your areas of interest will intersect with theirs, leading to potential collaborations and benefits to the department.

Your interview committee will probably assume you have done this, and at least one other candidate to your position will have done this. So if you ask "why are you interested in me?" your interview committee may take this to mean that you haven't "done your homework" in working out what your potential department will look like (which you will have to do eventually, when e.g. giving a trial introductory lecture). This will give your interview committee a very poor impression of you.

Your question can be better asked more specifically (to show that you have done your homework). For example:

  • I noticed that Professor Goodenough is coordinating three courses, out of curiosity, would you be particularly interested in me helping with their course in Introductory Basket-Weaving?
  • I can see that Dr Whichowhat is interested in coral reef restoration. Do you think they would be open to working together on underwater basket-weaving for producing coral polyp-beds?
  • I happened to find your department's "My Thesis, but Interpretive Dance" videos online. Are any of your students interested in dance-weaving as an addition to their thesis?

In general, anything that makes your question more specific and therefore makes it clear that you have done research will be better than "Why are you interested in me?" -- especially if it also stokes the interviewers' ego by painting their department in a good light.

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    There are plenty of activities within a faculty, you cannot see from outside. One answer could be, we try to shift our focus to topic A, and you are strong with A. Professor X and Y would love to collaborate to gain knowledge regarding A. Or: We all hate teaching topic B, you seem to be experienced we are looking to properly cover B in our faculty.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 7:48
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You say you are considering this question because you want to know more about the department and it's needs. In which case ask this directly. Or find a question that will directly tell you what you want to know.

Perhaps ask about freedom to set your own research agenda, or how they'll prioritise projects for you, which courses they are keen to be filled, which new directions they are interested in taking. Or if you absolutely need some facility for your research you could ask about that.

The question "why are you interested in me" is likely to get the answer "you meet the person spec for the job". Worst case it would seem like you are questioning your fit (which you would be), which could make the panel question your fit.

Final thought, "not going to cause trouble" is quite an important criterion for many job interviewers, so asking questions that might lead to awkward exchanges is best avoided, when there are other ways to find out what you want to know.

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There's another angle that's not covered by the other answers, which is that the question has value in and of itself. How an organization looks at candidates speaks volumes about how they look at the people that work there. I'd like to know in advance about how my prospective employer will see me as a person, but lacking a crystal ball in good working condition, I think this question is the next best thing.

In that light, the question is, in fact, the exact counterpoint to the standard "why do you want to work here", and in fact, I'd expect any organization to have a prepared answer for the question as well. And just as an answer to the tone of "I just want to work somewhere" would probably be frowned upon by the interviewer, I would equally dislike it if said interviewer replied with "we just need a warm body to fill the seat".

(More or less a propos, there's a Groucho Marx joke where he retracts an application to a club stating that he would not want to be part of any club that would accept him as a member.)

That said, yes, the tone and phrasing of the question are important. Ideally, I would want it to mean that just as they are interviewing me, I'm interviewing them, and they need to sell themselves just as much as I need to sell myself. To that end, it's important to project confidence and a bit of a challenge when posing the question, and to not sound like you're asking for confirmation that it's really you they should be talking to. In that regard, asking about "a candidate" seems a bit weaker, and ultimately less informational, than asking about myself specifically.

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    Thank you for your answer which is one of the few which reflects the intention of my question. I see however that it seems largely in the minority. This is exactly what I wanted to know with this post.
    – Jiro
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 19:48
  • Would you really expect an institution to have individually prepared answers to this question for everybody they interview for a faculty poistion? Have you ever done this when interviewing faculty? Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 6:49
  • This would probably not be feasible for an undifferentiated position, but for faculty, yes, I'd expect an interviewer to at least have a fair idea of why they are interviewing me in particular. If they don't, then I'm probably just a warm body to them, which does not bode well regarding how they view individual faculty members. Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 8:59
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You simply need to choose the wording carefully

Other answers seem to assume that you will bluntly ask, "Why are you interested in me?" Then they go on to say that is a bad idea - which it is.

However you have already told us what you want to ask:

"... faculty positions (especially in multidisciplinary fields) have complex requirements. ... my CV also contains many diverse aspects. ... which of my skills [do you] care about. I hope to learn more about the department and its needs."

What you need to do is to find a concise form of words that covers all of the above and takes into account their point of view. You don't have to ask one long, complex question. It is quite possible to split this into a few one-liners.

  1. Start by putting their needs first
  2. Ask in general how they chose candidates for interview - are they looking for a precise profile to fit into an existing project or are they looking for an individual to suggest and explore new avenues.
  3. Depending on their answer to 2, lay out your skills but not in a boastful way. Say, I have done X so I'm guessing that would be useful for your requirement Y.
  4. Make it a conversation with clearly defined questions rather than a blunt open question that requires them to do all the work to answer.

Example questions

(These are hastily concocted off the top of my head. You should invent your own)

I have been looking at some of the work your department is doing at the moment (make sure you have read at least one paper by each person on the panel that interests you and name some of it*).

I'm wondering which of those areas I could contribute to most if I'm appointed.

What sort of person are you hoping to find?

Are you looking for someone who will slot nicely into an existing project or are you looking for someone who is self-directed and will explore new avenues? I am capable of doing both.


Personal note: I'm retired now but I speak as someone who did very well in interviews. I failed only once and that was where I was an external candidate and they had already chosen an internal application but had, by law, to advertise generally.

  • To know who will be on the interview panel, phone up the department's admin department and ask them nicely. Say you would like to read up on some of the panel's work so as to be prepared. Have a smile in your voice. Thank them. If you don't your reputation for being rude will precede you. Everyone (and I mean everyone) you talk to in a department is part of the interview process and gossip gets around very fast.
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No you certainly should not ask that question.

You applied for this job and weren't headhunted. So there were criteria for the position described on the job advert - criteria that the hiring staff clearly feel you meet, at least to a large extent.

You haven't said whether or not the job is at your current university, e.g. the university where you have been working as a fellow until now. Obviously this would have a bearing on your application for a faculty position since you would already be known - at least professionally and to some extent personally - to the faculty there. The fact that you have make the first 'cut' shows that this may have advantaged you. But do not see this as the only possibility: you may also be included as a makeweight, as a sop to 'one of their own' who might sulk were he not at least interviewed, as a comparison candidate to gauge unknown but equally well-qualified candidates, etc.

The foregoing answers detail a shoal of reasons why asking that question would give a bad impression. I agree with many of them, particularly the fact that you should have parsed the job spec, explored the research & teaching profile of the department's groups and considered for yourself the matchability of your own candidacy. That's the prima facie answer: take it or leave it. If you adjudge yourself to have not met these criteria but applied anyway and somehow got a first round interview, then it is not even a question.

That brings me to perhaps the greatest reason for not asking the question. It is that by asking this you are showing yourself to be the sort of person who always tends to look behind the veil. And this naturally says something adverse about your own character and socio-professional outlook - something I daresay that hiring faculty would prefer to avoid: academia already has an ample proportion of such people and their nature does not help collegial relations. While there are times when we all have to lie, few lies/false fronts are constructed for altruistic reasons or towards a happier end state of human relations: they are said for the advantage and satisfaction of the teller.

If I were you, I'd wait till the initial interview was complete and hear some additional criteria that the committee perhaps might not have seen as wise to include in their job advert: it might attract the wrong type of candidate or deter those they might want to hire. For example, in applying for a Research Assistant + PhD programme position once it was said at the interview that the institution would train me in electron microscopy so I could better support existing researchers 9 - 5 Mon - Fri while I could work evenings and weekends on my own project. This training would be superior to that available commercially for ~ £10k - £15k. Obviously, if this were listed in the advert the institution would likely hire someone whose intentions were simply to take the training and then move elsewhere without completing their PhD project.

So go to the first interview even if you don't now see the fit entirely. There may well be more to this job that they can describe in the advert.

And do not ask that dumb question !

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  • "you are showing yourself to be the sort of person who always tends to look behind the veil. And this naturally says something adverse about your own character and socio-professional outlook" OMG no wonder I'm such a "failure"! Silly me I thought that's what academic pursuits were all about - trying to see below the surface and look for underlying patterns and causes. Now I discover at the end of my life that all this time I was supposed to be the kind of person that doesn't look there.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 16:34
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    @uhoh Mistake you are making is assuming that human relations can be treated along the same lines as academic research. In HR, we all have to make a move towards mainstream communication, saying what we mean and vice-versa.
    – Trunk
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 16:36
  • I understand that many are comfortable in the academe for the intrigue and political hooliganism as much as for the pure pursuit of their studies, but I think that if a department doesn't want an open, transparent person then that person should not want the department either! For some folks, "shouldn't ask" or "shouldn't want to know" is pure poison; for others it can be titillating. Underlying principle is "find your tribe" and if it's not a good fit, run away!
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 16:49
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As someone who has sat on hiring committees (a very junior member, I might add), I have observed that candidates who have seriously read the job description and tailor their responses to the description are favored highly compared to those who do not do their homework. This question would be interpreted as you not doing your homework.

I suggest carefully studying the job description and seeing how each part of it applies to you. Then, during the interview, try to sell yourself using those details.

In other words, they did not invite you to interview for a specific thing on your resume, it was exactly the fact that you have "many diverse aspects" that caused you to be invited. I could speak more about STEM R1 hiring and what specifically they look for, but I'm not sure that if that is applicable to your specific situation.

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