50 Interview Questions for Academics – and How Not to Answer Them

For much the past decade, I have sat on nearly every academic promotion and senior appointment panel at a previous university, been an external panel member for other universities, and also worked in executive recruitment for senior academic roles. I have made it my rather sad hobby to collect and curate interview questions for academics, and some corkers of (bad) answers.

As a non-statistician, and now ex-academic, I make no claims about the statistical representativeness of these questions, nor the probability of you actually being asked any of the questions at your own interviews (but drawing on my qualitative brain, I could hazard an intelligent guess). All findings are anonymised.

The interview questions here are primarily targeted at senior academics and executive roles, but there are some important questions here that any academic moving into a leadership role may consider and translate to their own context.

If you are sitting on the other side of the desk as the interviewer, we also have some tips for how to run an effective academic interview panel.

Before you start

You don’t need to answer all of these questions, and you can’t be expected to have strengths in all of these areas. Focus your answers on the areas that are in the job description, and anticipate the obvious interview questions.

Prepare your answers.

Ensure that you can answer any of these questions, ideally, in two minutes or less.

Let me say that again – try to answer these questions in two minutes or less! A long, rambling answer suggests you don’t really have the answers; you are not disciplined in your thinking; you were unprepared for the question; you are nervous; or you talk too much. It will also limit the time you have to answer other questions, reducing your ability to showcase the areas where you really have strengths.

Why do you want the job?

This is normally the first question you will be asked by the interview panel – or the ‘ice breaker’. It can be asked in a range of different ways. In general, make sure you prepare an answer that says “what’s in it for you” and “what’s in it for them” and “why are they (the organisation) so special that you want to work there”.

Flattery works well – within reason. I have been on panels where the interviewee flattered the members of the panel (and know of others). I didn’t fall for it, but others did and the candidates got the job.

This might be framed as…

  1. Why do you think this role could be the right opportunity for you at this point in your career?
  2. Why do you think you might be the right applicant for us now?
  3. What attracts you to the opportunity and why do you think it is the right time for you to take on this leadership role?

What not to say….

  • I’ve always wanted to live in [insert location of university, noting that my last institution was very close to Byron Bay which is actually why I came here]
  • I need to get away from my current institution
  • There are some real problems at the place where I’m working at the moment
  • I see this as the perfect stepping-stone to [ultimate job]. (Even if it is, I can already hear the interview panel saying “too ambitious” and “won’t stay”)
  • Because I didn’t get a promotion
  • Because I didn’t get a job at [superior institution up the road]
  • I hate my boss

You might instead consider….

  • This role is interesting / exciting because [insert details of your previous excellence that have led you to this position]
  • This is the right job for me now because [as above]
  • This job at this institution is a great opportunity because [how do your skills / expertise complement theirs?]
  • This role fulfills my ambition to do [what great things]
  • I will bring [unique expertise / skills] that will take this role [to places you had never expected] and complement the existing [strengths of the place you’re going].

Strategic alignment

Most senior academic roles will include questions about strategic alignment

At a senior academic / executive level you will, of course, start by reading the strategic plan of the institution and / or faculty / department you are applying to. You will also be considering the wider global context and how that will impact on your future role. Sometimes the strategic plan is not publicly available – you should push hard to get a copy before interview.

Interview questions might be framed as….

  1. What are the key global trends impacting on [field] and how will this impact your portfolio in the new role?
  2. What challenges do you see in starting up a new program / project / school and how could you turn those challenges to the advantage of the organisation? 
  3. What strategies would you employ to differentiate our institution from those of other universities / providers?
  4. In respect to the strategic plan, what aspects are you enthused about and how would you interpret these in your role; are there any that cause you concern?
  5. In recent roles, how have you reconciled institutional agendas with the priorities for your school/faculty/unit?
  6. What results have you achieved in previous strategic roles?

What not to say…

  • I couldn’t find your strategic plan on the web
  • I think we need a new committee to [insert strategic issue]
  • Where I come from, we always do [insert non-strategic answer]
  • I always defer to [someone else] to make my decisions for me

You might instead consider…

  • Having closely studied your strategic plan, I see that you are striving to achieve [goal]
  • The key national, global, policy issues that are relevant to this role are [what]
  • These are the opportunities arising from above
  • These are the threats / considerations
  • This is what I have experienced and achieved previously
  • This is what [amazing opportunities / changes] I could offer in [this role]
  • I have experience developing and implementing strategy, for example [specific example of a strategic innovation; role on strategic committee, actions and outcomes]

Leadership, performance management and accountability

Interview questions for academics will often include questions about leadership

This old chestnut will inevitably find its way onto your academic interview question list. Don’t run out and read the One Minute Manager before your interview – or it will show (although I read the initial version in the 80s and it was quite influential then).

If you don’t already have some well prepared and thought through material for this one, it is worth giving some real consideration to your own leadership approach, your strengths and weaknesses, and finding some supporting material (such as a recent 360 degree feedback review).

Do not pluck a generic leadership style from a popular text book. The trend in leadership these days is authenticity (that means you make up your own style and support it with some real evidence).

Another hint – especially for the clever narcissists out there – try to give others’ perspective on your leadership style. If your answers are “all about you” the narc-radar will start flashing.

Apparently the best way to spot a narcissist is just to ask them, according to this paper. My contribution to the higher education sector will be the addition of this very question to the essential list of interview questions (and, in fact, every other sector in which people aspire to be leaders). I have added it to the list below, but have never, ever heard anyone ask this interview question on academic panels.

Interview questions might be framed as….

  1. Please describe your leadership capability, specifically addressing where you have faced significant leadership challenges and dealt with resistance to change? How did you resolve the issues and bring people along during change?
  2. How are you still developing as a leader, and what support do you think you will require from our organisation?
  3. What key performance indicators do you regard as the most significant for you and this role?  How will you measure success?
  4. Describe how you have taken a contentious issue through your current/previous organisation, with particular reference to tactics deployed in winning over doubters and opponents?
  5. Can you tell us about a time where you have had to handle dissension or conflict in a group? How did you go about bringing people together?  Were you successful?  With hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?
  6. Can you briefly outline for us the most challenging time of your professional career and how you handled it?  What did you learn from it?
  7. What’s the most challenging change you’ve faced at work? What did you do? What were the outcomes?
  8. When have you been most successful in overcoming initial opposition and eventually winning the support of peers/executive leaders for your strategic recommendations?
  9. Tell us about a time when you have had to tackle underperformance or inappropriate behaviour.
  10. How would your colleagues describe your leadership style? What areas might you need to work on?
  11. What set of expertise/style would you need in your team as a complement to yourself?
  12. Are you a narcissist?

What not to say…

  • I don’t have any leadership training needs. Yeah, I think I’m pretty good in that space.
  • I don’t deal well with conflict
  • I leave that stuff to other people / defer to human resources
  • I am a [insert leadership 101 text-book label] leader, (without any substance to back it up)
  • I haven’t really experienced any challenges in my career
  • All of my successes are down to me (you also need to credit your teams)
  • I can’t take credit for my successes they are due to my teams (you need to own some of your successes.. with humility)
  • I think, I am, I do [without insights about how others perceive you…. narcissist alert!!]
  • I am disorganised. I depend totally on my EA [honest but scary answer.. I recall that he got the job, and an EA]
  • Yes I am a narcissist (no-one actually says this)

You might instead consider…

  • I pride myself on my leadership skills because [approach, achievements, outcomes]
  • I have evidence of good leadership from [challenging experience with resolution and clear outcome]
  • My colleagues describe me as [be honest, perhaps slightly humorous, have humility, show some self-awareness, no need to be perfect]
  • According to my last performance management review these were my strengths; these were my areas for improvement [have your results supported by metrics]
  • I could benefit from some specific leadership training in [explicit area that won’t cost you the job]
  • Through my leadership I have evidence of [these] achievements and innovations which were of course, supported by my excellent team. Good leadership is ensuring that I bring out the best in others.
  • I always try to employ people who are smarter than me (right answer, but if your panel aren’t up to date with the current trends in leadership, you may alienate them, unless of course you succeeded in flattery at the start of the interview).

Diversity

Diversity is more than a binary issue and is often poorly answered

This is a question that is likely to come up, but that most people are really poorly prepared for. At a strategic / senior level, you need a strategic answer. Understand the local, national and global context and issues around diversity. Find out whether the institution you’re applying to has a diversity strategy and department. Read the strategy. Prepare your answers.

Note that diversity is more than just a single issue. I know that might sound obvious, but the number of sensible candidates that have said things like “what, you mean, like gender” when I raise the issue of diversity – and the totally inappropriate answers below reflect society’s binary perspective on this topic.

Chances are you will have had some direct or indirect involvement with diversity issues. For example, supporting students around disability and accessibility, Athena SWAN and Reconciliation Action Plans, and Universities Australia have some useful material are topical at present. The US Department of Education published this report on Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education. The UK Higher Education Policy Institute gives this perspective.

As the different reports above show, diversity issues are contextually specific. The diversity drivers will differ in each country according to their social, historic, political and economic contexts and issues. There is not a one size fits all. Understand the micro (organisational) perspective and issues, and the relevant macro (national) issues.

If you really want to have a good look at this space, look at the concept of intersectionality which, as the name suggests, explains the way that multiple facets of a person’s identity impact on their diverse perspective and own experiences.

Interview questions for academics might be framed as…

  1. What successful strategies have you implemented to promote diversity and inclusion in the portfolios you have led to date?
  2. What programs or initiatives have you been part of to address diversity issues and specifically what was your role in those efforts?

What not to say…

  • I don’t have any problems working with [insert minority group]
  • I have promoted women [or insert any other minority group] in my time
  • Some of my best friends are gay
  • I’m not racist but….
  • This stuff is all hype
  • In my opinion [insert minority / disadvantaged group] are not disadvantaged
  • Political correctness has gone too far
  • Oh – you have a diversity department?

You might instead consider…

  • I have been involved with / led / have a good understanding of [insert title] diversity agenda (eg Athena SWAN, Reconciliation Action Plan… others)
  • When I read your [insert title] diversity / Reconciliation Action Plan I was particularly impressed by [insert intelligent comment]
  • I am passionate about [issue/s] and this is what I have / intend to do about it
  • I noticed you already do [diversity strategy], but have you considered [even better diversity strategy]
  • I look at this from an intersectional perspective and believe that while we are addressing [one issue] we are ignoring the [other important issue/s]
  • I have experienced [insert diversity issue], this is how it impacted me, and this is what I did about it

Work health and safety

Health and safety questions can make or break an interview

This is an oldie, but a goodie. In my early career as a health practitioner / manager, this was the question that got – or cost – people their jobs.

Again, if you are applying for a senior leadership / strategic role, you need a strategic answer to this question, rather than an answer about how you managed the student risks on their marine biology excursion to the outer reef (but understanding the risk to this level is a big advantage).

You can see the Australian national and state perspectives at Safe Work Australia. To understand the local issues If you should be able to read some university Council / Senate minutes where you will see the high level risk issues facing the university. These are likely to be bullying, environmental risks (facilities and maintenance), student accommodation (awful issues), and sexual harassment.

Student and staff mental health are, sadly, the issues du jour. Covid has created some new and topical issues which you will need to be on top of. Working from home is likely to create a whole new set of challenges (frankly, I think that not working from home will create even more).

Questions may be framed as…

  1. What experience have you had managing work health and safety issues?
  2. What do you see as the big work health and safety issues now and into the future?
  3. What experience have you had managing work health and safety in the context of Covid?

What not to say

  • Yes I understand risk. I took students to the outer barrier reef (this is not a strategic answer)
  • I don’t believe in Covid / vaccination (this is a university after all)
  • Isn’t that the responsibility of the workplace health and safety manager?

Instead you might consider

  • Having looked at your [strategic risk document] I understand that the main issues facing the university now are [strategic risk issues]. This is what I would do to address them.
  • Based on my previous experience of [strategic risk expertise] I have implemented these changes to [reduce risk].

Student experience

Interview questions for academics are likely to ask about improving the student experience

Someone once said to me, admittedly, not in an interview setting, that universities would be so much easier to run if they didn’t have to deal with students. Was it Sir… Sir…. Humphrey ? Oh no, that was hospitals (note that I could NEVER say anything that contentious if I was actually employed by a university).

Your gig, let’s face it, is to work out what students really want, make sure they get it in the most effective and high quality way, return a good profit to the university, come up with some measures that shows what you did and how effectively you did it, and repeat (I’m seeing a Netflix movie title in this).

If you can crack that one, I’ll offer you a VC position – right now. In fact, you’ll have university councils all over the world fighting for you. An added bonus will be ensuring that the students can actually get jobs and that employers are happy.

So, given that students all over the world are the core business of universities, why are people SO POORLY PREPARED for this question? It’s a bit like forgetting that the patients are the reason that hospitals and health systems actually exist.

Here are some questions that you might want to think about:

  1. Students have increasingly high expectations. What innovative opportunities have you pursued to improve the student experience?
  2. What opportunities can you identify for interdisciplinary and cross-faculty programs?
  3. How have you prepared students to manage the transition to online learning?
  4. What opportunities do you see for international students in this institution / role?
  5. Where do you see the big growth areas for future students for this institution / role?

Wrong answer

  • There are students?
  • I’ve managed to avoid student contact for a while
  • I don’t really work in the student space
  • Universities would be easier to run if they didn’t have to deal with students

Instead you might consider

  • My understanding of the current student environment is [these are probably your core business – directly or indirectly. Have a position]
  • My understanding for your university is [evidence of local context]
  • Innovations I have implemented include [example, context, action, outcome]
  • Changes I have made… and impacts I have had ….
  • The vision I have…
  • Opportunities and risks for the future are…

Teaching and learning

Consider your teaching and learning approaches, philosophies and wins

Following on from the theme of students above, the way that universities prepare students for the real world is through appropriate methods of teaching and learning. Given the standardised nature of most professional training curricula, the main thing differentiating the quality of the student experience between universities these days is the innovation in teaching and learning.

If you are an academic you will have a core content of unique expertise. You may be a long way from the coalface of teaching and curriculum development, but you need to have some strong tools to get your message across to the right audience. Whoever you are, whatever your discipline, and however far removed you are from the students at the front line, you need to be able to articulate your key messages and your program and approaches for delivery.

Some interview questions for academics to consider…

  1. What is your philosophy of teaching / learning? How do you embed that into your pedagogy? How would you bring your approaches / philosophies into this role?
  2. Can you give us an example of when you have developed and implemented a teaching and learning strategy and provided advice on reviewing and implementing a strategy around its direction and its alignment to a more overarching strategy? 

Wrong answers

  • See ‘wrong answers’ for student experience
  • I’ve never really thought about my teaching philosophy, I just get on with it
  • Students are pretty interested in whatever my research topic is at the moment
  • Student feedback is a waste of time (especially if you have something to hide)

Instead you might want to consider

  • I have always approached my teaching with [clearly articulated] approach and found that it was successful as measured by [student metrics, which were presented in your job application]
  • I am reflexive and learn from feedback, for example…
  • I have driven pedagogical changes in [name ways] with [what outcomes]
  • I am passionate about enhancing the student experience of learning and this is how I approach it
  • Even when I have been in senior leadership roles, I have remained close to the student learning experience by [participating in first year lectures, tutorials, school board, academic board etc]
  • I have driven improvements in student learning by applying [strategic approach] resulting in [measurable changes]

Research leadership

Research leadership

Not all senior academics are researchers, but alongside teaching students, the role of universities is to create and curate new knowledge to benefit society. However you have reached your current position, you have played a role in that in some way. If you haven’t led research or been a star researcher, you need to understand the logistics of building research capacity and capability in your team and your staff.

If you don’t have the skills or expertise to do that (which sometimes occurs as a result of the pathways into senior academic leadership roles), then know that, and understand that your first collaboration / recruit will be a strong research partner who has the skills and ability to build research activity alongside your other excellent leadership skills.

Questions may be framed as…

  1. What success have you had in driving outstanding research performance? What have you learned about this during your career that you would apply if in the role?
  2. What experience do you bring of promoting research excellence across a diverse set of disciplines, including those with non-traditional research outputs?

Research Impact

  1. Tell us about your research
  2. What have been your most significant impacts / outputs to date?
  3. Can you tell us about a key achievement related to your research?
  4. What do you see as the future direction for your research (particularly if you are successful in achieving a senior leadership role which will occupy most of your time)?

Wrong answers

  • Well I’ve got an H-index of [any number] and X citations
  • When I benchmark myself against my peers I’m better than all of them
  • My publications speak for themselves

Instead you might consider

  • I notice that your institution has strengths in [research field], my research can contribute to that by [solution]
  • I am passionate about making a difference by [goal of your research]
  • I have done this through my research by [impact of your research]
  • The main influences I have had have been [on the greater good, other people, your students, other students, your personal growth, etc]
  • I still intend to do [what] by [when]
  • Or, my strengths have been in (teaching or leadership). I understand what needs to be done to drive research capacity and capability and I would do it by…
  • I have managed to keep my research portfolio active in senior roles by engaging with strong collaborators, recruiting excellent PhD students, and I still like to stay involved in my field

Financial management and business development

Financial management and business development is a key interview question for senior academics

Following on from the themes above, in case you haven’t noticed, universities have joined the neo-liberal bandwagon of profits and performance. You might be skilled and trained as a something-ologist but your role now is to identify and create new opportunities and business (read, students and research income) for the university.

This is obviously an extremely good fit for someone who has spent their entire career looking down a microscope and perhaps managing some small research budgets. The mini MBA embedded into your PhD in microbiology or first nations mythology will set you up well for this next phase of your career.

The reality is that many people who apply for roles like this haven’t even managed their own household budget. Then we put them in charge of $500M + research centres, schools, faculties, departments, or, heaven help us – universities.

OK, well you need an answer to these questions.

  1. What has been the most difficult financial decision you have had to make and what did this entail?
  2. What experience do you have in launching new programs, schools, projects or innovative teaching delivery to diversify and grow revenue?
  3. Tell us about your budgetary management, any challenges or successes you have faced, and how you have overcome those?
  4. Do you know the price of a loaf of bread? (OK, just testing…)

Wrong answers

  • I always let someone else deal with the budgets
  • Isn’t that the finance department’s responsibility?
  • My wife / partner always does the shopping

Instead you might consider

  • I have managed budgets worth $X over my career, across [insert different types] of portfolio areas
  • I recently had to make the difficult decision to close [program, course, school] due to budgetary challenges, and I did it [this way]
  • In [role] I successfully grew revenue by doing [insert activity]
  • I understand that you are in [financial position] and anticipate responding by [doing something amazing]
  • I am a strong financial manager and not afraid of making difficult decisions as evidenced by [previous experience]
  • I don’t eat gluten

External engagement / partnerships

University Engagement

Most senior strategic roles within universities involve a large amount of engagement – with industry, local communities, peak bodies, government and sometimes the media. Know your audience for engagement and have some strong strategies up your sleeve to answer these interview questions for academics. This is an opportunity to bring in your outside achievements too – directorships of boards, involvement in local committees or community organisations are all valuable engagement approaches and networking opportunities that people often forget to include.

Questions you might expect include:

  1. What experience do you bring of successful outcomes in developing and nurturing relations with governments, alumni, donors, industry, community and international partners?
  2. What successes have you achieved in terms of establishing collaborations/partnerships? Using a particular example, tell us more about the outcome and your role?
  3. What opportunities/challenges do you see in this context?
  4. Please provide us with an overview of your external engagement experience and approach, providing examples of what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, and how you would approach this in our organisation?

Wrong answers

  • I am on a lot of university committees
  • I don’t have time for that / leave it to someone else
  • I am well connected with [name drop without substance]
  • I’m not great at talking to the press

Instead you might consider

  • I have worked closely with [government, industry, community etc] external partners in [what way] and achieved [what outcomes]
  • I am well aware of the engagement issues facing your institution and this is how I would approach them [with specific examples of the types of groups and approaches you would use]
  • I am well connected with [appropriate people – be careful of contentious politicians] and could bring these opportunities to this role
  • I have [name strategic networks] which I have worked with successfully to achieve [change]
  • In my role as a [board director, volunteer, lifesaver etc] I have raised [money for good cause] through my networks and I would use those skills in this role

Concluding questions

Alright – so there are actually 52 questions…

  1. What impact do you expect to make in your first 100 days?
  2. What do you envisage would be your achievements after 5 years in the role?
  3. What achievement as a leader are you most proud of?
  4. Give us one reason we should give you the job

Wrong answers

  • Because I am the smartest person in the room (note: if you actually give that answer and get the job, then you were probably right… )
  • The first thing I will do is [implement radical change, unless you are the incumbent and have a mandate to do so]
  • I expect to be the Vice Chancellor in 5 years (even if you do, you will threaten the fragile egos in the room)

Instead you might consider

  • See answers to “why do you want the job”
  • I will listen, learn see what is working well and what needs to be changed before I implement any global changes
  • Having fully immersed myself in [role / institution], these are the great strengths and opportunities I can see and this is how I can contribute positively to enhancing the [role / institution]
  • Based on my achievements of [excellent achievement] in my previous role, I believe that I would bring these strengths to this role to make an amazing difference to take this role / institution to a [new place that the interview panel haven’t even envisaged] within 5 years

Wrap-up

In concluding your interview questions, you may be asked:

  • Anything else the panel should know about
  • Availability / Relocation
  • Questions of us…
  • Referees

Wrong answers

  • I’m not available to start for [insert any period longer than 3 months, and you’ve probably blown it, unless previously discussed or arranged]
  • Can you get my wife / husband / partner / child a job here [not unreasonable, but wait until you’ve landed the job]
  • Your car allowance won’t be enough to cover the cost of my [insert luxury car title]
  • Can I work from [completely unrealistic location] (I knew of someone who applied for, and got a job in Sheffield, UK and chose to work in Oxford instead – so they could tell their friends ‘back home’ that they were working ‘at Oxford’)

You might instead consider

Yes, I have some questions for you. Ask them if there is time and they are really relevant. If time appears tight, tell them you have some questions and you’ll ask them if you’re offered the role.

Conclusion – Interview questions for academics

Good luck with your pursuit of your new role, or perhaps new career. If you are applying for a new position, you might be interested to see our post on how to get noticed by academic recruiters, how to prepare your academic CV – and what to do about your CV photo.

If you’re unsuccessful and want to look at other options, then you’re in the right place. Have a look at ways to repackage your skills to find new audiences.

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