What questions will a search committee ask candidates for a faculty teaching position?

A former teaching assistant of mine who graduated and went to work in the news industry contacted me last semester to ask how she could get into full-time teaching. I offered advice about finding and applying for jobs in higher education. She now is a candidate for a faculty position and e-mailed me about the next step — the job interview.

Here’s her recent e-mail:

I am now scheduled for a telephone interview next week. I was just wondering if you might be able to give me a clue about what the committee might ask, so I can prepare? The job is very teaching-intensive. Phone interviews are a challenge because I can’t see the peoples’ faces.

These are questions that many job applicants for higher ed jobs have, as almost always in today’s tight economy and competitive job market, a phone interview is a required step before a campus interview.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the questions a candidate might be asked in an interview. I’ll make another post about some tips for participating in a phone interview.

First of all, most college faculty interviews should have more consistency than they might have 10 years ago. College and universities should have an Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action offices to help make sure the hiring process is fair for all. Part of that process is helping those involved on the search committee realize that equal treatment of all candidates is a must. Many colleges require that search committee members take a training program to serve on the committee, such as the online training program at the University of Virginia.

An outcome of having a fair and equal approach for all candidates is asking the same questions during a phone interview. In other words, one candidate shouldn’t be asked about skills with computer software that would be used in teaching or research if all candidates aren’t asked that question.

The committee should develop a list of questions for the phone interview and not just be thinking of questions off the cuff. That’s an advantage for the job candidate, as you can be thinking: What would be the standard questions a committee would ask candidates?

Some of the questions will vary depending on the kind of faculty job. For example, if you are interviewing for a position at a Research 1 institution, many of the questions will be about your research, grant-writing experience and working with graduate students.

My former teaching assistant is preparing for an interview for a teaching-intensive position, so I’m going to focus on the teaching-related questions. Typical questions might include:

Why are you interested in teaching here?

What they want to know: What do you know about the program, the faculty and the students? Know what typical classes are like in terms of class size and what the demographics of the students are. You want to know if you would be teaching the traditional college student (i.e., 18-24 and single) or if you would be teaching non-traditional students who might be working full-time or be parents. The committee wants to make sure you would be a good fit with their program. Dean Dad, in his Confessions of a Community College Dean, offered Hints for Job Seekers, noting that some candidates with doctoral degrees don’t get community college jobs as they convey that their prime interest is conducting research. That person is not a good fit for a community college job.

How do you plan for courses you teach?

What they want to know: Do you know how to develop a syllabus and select textbooks? Will you be attuned to the established curriculum and how your course fits into the sequence of courses? How do you tie your course into industry trends?

Which courses do you see yourself as prepared to teach?

What they want to know: Have you taken the time to review the curriculum? Have you analyzed the program and how you would fit? Do you realize you can’t just teach the one course you really want to teach? Are you over-confident in saying you could teach everything or perhaps too limited by saying you would only feel comfortable teaching one or two courses.

What kinds of assessment activities do you use in your teaching?

What they want to know: Higher education is more concerned about student learning outcomes (SLO). This is reflective in part of the national trend in pre-college education to determine learning based on standardized testing. University faculty are being asked to be more attuned in their teaching of the connection of teaching and learning and how that can be measured – and sometimes measured in ways that can be evaluated outside the teacher’s own assessment, such as student portfolios that could be evaluated by people in the industry.

What do you consider is important to be included in your syllabus?

What they want to know: What do you know about syllabus construction? Most universities have guidelines of what faculty must include in their syllabi to provide a fair and established learning situation for students. The University of Florida’s syllabus guidelines provide an example of what faculty should include in a syllabus, from how grades are determined to alerting students to the Office of Students with Disabilities.

Tell us about a challenging situation you’ve had with a student and how you resolved it?

What they want to know: How you work through challenges with students. Every teacher has those. It could be a one-time discipline problem, such as a student who falls asleep in class, or it could be an on-going problem, such as the student who frequently misses class. Over time, you may have to work with students who have major health issues or financial problems. A student who is bi-polar or has a roommate who has committed suicide, or is being stalked by a former boyfriend. If you’re just starting your teaching career, you, hopefully, haven’t had too many big challenges. But you should have had a few challenges. Have one or two in mind to discuss that show you can analyze and respond to a student challenge. You don’t want to begin a listing of multiple problems you’ve handled. But if you say you’ve never had a student challenge, that would sound insincere. Almost every teacher has had to deal with a student using a cell phone during class.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

What they want to know: The committee (your future colleagues) want to hear that you enjoy working with students and that you enjoy sharing your own enthusiasm for the field that you are teaching. They want to hear that you would enjoy working with them in having a curriculum that prepares students to be thinkers and problem solvers in addition to being future employees in your field. They don’t want to hear that you like the summer vacation or days off during the school year.

What has made you decide to move from your current career into teaching?

What they want to know: They want to hear that you understand what’s involved in a teaching position – time, enthusiasm management, creativity, being an on-going learner yourself, etc. I’ve been on search committees where candidates from the industry make it sound like a move into teaching is a move into leisurely hours and not as much work as they have in their current jobs. That conveys that they don’t realize the time involved in planning lessons, grading papers, holding office hours, serving on committees, etc.

What questions do you have for the committee?

What they want to know: That’s one of the last questions they will ask. They want to know that you’ve thought about the job and have specific questions. Those should not be questions about health benefits or vacation time but questions about the curriculum or facilities (i.e., computer labs for students). When I hear a candidate in a phone interview say he or she doesn’t have a question, I think they haven’t prepared adequately for the interview. I realize that if you’re on campus and have been in a dozen meetings and meals with faculty and administrators that you may have had all your questions answered. But for that first phone interview, you should have a few questions.

If they don’t ask you about your questions, that may mean that they have run out of time. Often phone interviews are set up to interview one candidate after another. So they need to wrap up with you to move to the next call. So don’t persist in asking your questions. If this stage of the interview has gone well, you’ll have another opportunity to ask questions as the process continues.

I’m interested in hearing from you.

If you’ve been on a faculty search committee lately, I’d be interested in hearing the questions you asked job candidates related to teaching.

If you are in the faculty job process, what are questions you’ve been asked?

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