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« This Week's Acquisitions | Main | How the University Works »

January 26, 2008



Hi, Miriam. I take your point about the question generally, and particularly about the institutional status-anxiety that it can betray. But I wonder whether there are times when the question, perhaps restructured, can still be useful. My institution, for instance, is an elite small liberal arts college with a low teaching load and a great big endowment, and we're all quite confident about the benefits we offer. But there are nonetheless significant differences between a job at my institution and a job at an R1 that are important for candidates to consider. And given that the ethos of the place is, in theory if not always in practice, that we want to tenure the folks we hire, and that we want them to spend long fruitful careers with us, it's important for us to have some sense that the folks we're hiring would actually be happy at an institution like ours. "Why do you want to work at an institution like ours?" is undoubtedly a stupid way of trying to get at that issue, but surely there's some way for hiring committees to gain some kind of confidence that they're not going to be doing this search again in three years when their hot new hire moves on to that R1 they really always wanted to be at?

Luther Blissett

The academic job market is not a meritocracy. Coming out of an Ivy League Ph.D. program, I've had plenty of friends who were interviewed at Columbia, Princeton, and Berkley but not at community colleges or other teaching-centered institutions.

I've heard of interviews where the candidate was not only asked why she wanted to work at that school, but where the candidate was essentially told, "We don't believe you want to work here."

This is why third and fourth rate Ph.D. programs still place their graduates in academic jobs.


Kathleen: perhaps it could be more of a "how do you see yourself contributing to a LAC environment" question.

Luther: teaching universities generally think the major R1s don't produce Ph.D.s who can handle undergraduates of the non-R1 sort, let alone handle a 9 or 12-hour load. (I ran into this problem the first time I went job-searching; one chair gave me informal feedback to the effect that my interview was brilliant, but he was horrified at the idea of sticking me in front of their students.) Plus the whole "she's interested in research, so she won't stick around" thing. Obviously, a lot of this has nothing to do with reality--especially given what adjunct work looks like--although there is sometimes a smidgen of truth involved (e.g., private R1s that really don't give their students any sort of pedagogical grounding).


Interesting. I used to work in instructional technology at a fairly prestigious university, and we did ask candidates for staff positions why they wanted to work for our university. Anybody who couldn't come up with anything better than a starry-eyed, "Because you're STANFORD!" got dinged on that question. It's just a job, after all, and there were good things and bad things about the place. We wanted people to have some concept of why it would be a good place for them - or at least to know enough to ask the questions that would help them find out.

Jonathan Dresner

It's even worse when you're starting from a seemingly desirable position: not only does it question your sanity at moving, but your judgement about moving down.... So you have to make a good case without saying anything negative about your current position (because that tags you as a complainer).


Hmmm. I'm not sure "how do you see yourself contributing to a LAC environment" gets at the thing a committee would be trying to figure out; more like "how do you see a LAC environment contributing to you?" Though we don't expect folks to be all starry-eyed about the institution before they arrive (the indoctrination test is given about three years later), we do want, as oliviacw suggests, to know that the candidate has at least thought about why an LAC might be good for them...

Richard Madeley

After many years of having job interviews inside academia, I've come to the conclusion that the interviewer is almost as nervous as the interviewee. I don't think there's much a person can do when asked these foolish questions other than not make a fool of themselves. The blandest answers often win the day, which doesn't say much for the state of education.

Paranoid PostDoc

At a recent job interview I was asked this very question. I answered truthfully - the specialization was very attractive to me, and my parents lived 2 hours away. Later I learned that I did not get the position - but to this day I don't know why. Was I TOO honest in my answer to this question?

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