The Convention Interview for philosophy jobs

Most, but not all, jobs for recent Ph.D.s involve an interview. These are usually conducted at the Eastern Division meetings of the APA.

This page will cover how interviews are arranged, what happens in interviews, and, most importantly, strategies for giving a good interview.


Interviews are arranged by phone calls or, increasingly, email during December. Calls are usually made in the second and third weeks of the month, though anything is possible and just about everything has happened at one point or another.

There is no correlation between the desirability of the candidate or job and the time when calls are made. Nor is there any known correlation between the number of interviews received and the timing of phone calls. Each department has a committee in charge of reviewing dossiers and they operate at different speeds, depending on a variety of factors. Finally, there is not as much of a correlation between the number of interviews received and the probability of getting a job as one might expect.

In short, trying to reach any general conclusions about one’s prospects at this stage is a waste of time.

When an interviewing committee calls, it will be brief. They will want to set up a time to meet you and that’s about it. Have a schedule ready. If two interviews come very close to one another, they will move theirs: they would rather change their plans than wait around while you’re stuck in the elevator Note: this happens, so give yourself time to get from one place to the next.

You can ask if there’s anything in particular they’d like to talk about. They will probably just say your research and teaching (i.e. they won’t say anything). But they will sometimes tell you about classes that they’re especially keen to have taught or other unusual aspects of the job, such as its connection to some other program or unit.

It can’t hurt to ask. More importantly, asking can be a way of indicating your interest in the job; this is especially the case if the job has some unusual aspect such as, say, being split between the Philosophy Department and Human Rights Program. The more you can do to signal that you will take advantage of and do something productive with an unusual arrangement, the better. It’s like any other job: a prospective employer wants someone who will bring some extra energy or interest to the job.

What happens?

Interviews are held in a variety of places: hotel suites, hotel rooms, and big cavernous hotel meeting rooms. Interviews for very desirable (and less desirable) jobs are held in all three kinds of location.

There is a similar variety in the number of people who will interview you. Sometimes you will meet with one or two people, sometimes over ten. Some departments bring graduate students along, though most do not. Often, a particular person on the search committee will be responsible for having read your work and asking you the bulk of the questions.

An interview will typically start with an invitation to you to give a brief description of your thesis: we will call this “the spiel.” The spiel serves as a platform for questions about your research; in fact, the questions occasionally start before you are finished. About half to two-thirds of the interview time is spent discussing research: your thesis and the general area of philosophy in which you work. The rest of the time is spent on teaching: how would you teach this or that course, what would you like to teach, and so on. Finally, you are invited to address any questions you have to them.


An interview gives you a brief time to make an impression. It is unlike pretty much anything you have encountered in graduate school, where time seems limitless and everyone knows you reasonably well. Paradoxically, in order to convey a true image of yourself, you will have to behave in slightly unusual ways.

While everyone is different, here is the one rule that is almost universally true: you cannot be enthusiastic enough.

Well, of course, you could. But it is very unlikely. Most interviewees run into trouble by seeming evasive, not forthcoming, or even uninterested. Of course, we all know that you are desperately interested and sincerely trying to answer as well as you can, but you would be surprised how often candidates fail to seem that way.

Again, this is not a familiar situation and you need to do more to project yourself than you normally would. That is why we will practice practice practice.

Thesis spiel

The spiel should be brief: 3-5 minutes at most. That is a long time but I’m sure you don’t believe me. Fine. Put everything down and sit silently, ideally with another person, for three minutes.

That was a long time, no?

Of course, it is not a lot of time to explain a whole dissertation. Obviously, you cannot cover everything. The test is whether you can identify the very most important, illuminating, or interesting points in your project. This requires a lot of thought. And practice in front of other people.

Treat it like a news story. There is a lead paragraph of absolutely vital information (“War was declared against the Republic of Ruritania”) followed by paragraphs that explain the lead (“Tensions with Ruritania over grazing land have been growing for months … ”).

This brings me to a bit of advice about your presentation: think about how to vary the tone and speed of your spiel so it doesn’t come across as canned. To see how to do this, try watching the evening news. Listen to the way the anchors will articulate certain words: they punch particularly significant words just a little harder than the others and leave pauses after them that are just a little longer than the normal ones. That’s the sort of thing you should do with your spiel: certain terms and ideas are central, others are used to explain them, so punch the central ones to make them stand out.

Another thing worth thinking about is how to use your spiel to encourage the questions you would most like to answer. This is generally done by strategic and partial omissions: leave room for them to pursue an issue and engage you in a conversation about it.

You will be tempted to say something like “I would be happy to answer questions about that.” I have never seen this work. Questioners want to find things that others have not seen. Where’s the challenge in following up on such an obvious invitation? Well, perhaps interviewers shouldn’t look for challenges, but it’s human nature to do so and, for that reason, you need to be more subtle. Set the point up and lead them towards the question if possible.

Similar tactics are important in lecturing, by the way: if you are explaining the premises clearly enough and have your audience engaged in your presentation, they will think they have reached the conclusion on their own just a little ahead of you.


Questions about your research will primarily concern your thesis and especially your writing sample. One member of the interviewing committee will frequently take the lead in asking questions about your writing while others chime in. Try to remember to address everyone and not just the person taking the lead.

Questions will often follow your presentation of your spiel, but not always. Questioners sometimes interrupt your spiel and never let you return: you should not think that anything is amiss or improper about this. Other times, the interviewers will announce that they have read your material and want to press straight ahead with it, skipping the spiel entirely.

You will sometimes be asked about the future course of your research: what you plan or hope to do next. This sort of question is not always asked directly, but is often implicit in teaching questions: I will explain that below.

There are two things to be avoided: seeming evasive and not being forthcoming. You are evasive if you fail to answer or appreciate the question. You are not forthcoming if your answers are curt and fail to advance the conversation. You have to keep the two in balance. Going on and on is a way of being evasive, but, of course, being excessively blunt is not a way of being forthcoming.

Be willing to ask questions back: ask questions that clarify the question posed to you. It is sometimes less important to give a definitive answer the question than it is to display the way you think about a question.


Concerning teaching, you should be prepared to describe syllabi for some basic courses in your AOS and possibly AOC: what topics would you discuss and what would you read.

For the most basic courses, and especially any courses they have told you they will ask about, you should be able to rattle these off almost from memory, that is, without having to think about it on the spot.

You may also be asked about what courses you would like to teach: that is different from being asked what you are willing to teach and you should answer accordingly. Think creatively about a course with material that interests you and students will find engaging.

For introductory courses, you might ask faculty members who work in your area if they have any textbooks you can use. Most of us are sent these things by publishers and have them sitting around our offices. I have a large collection of ethics textbooks, for example. These provide a quick way of surveying an area and finding readings that are appropriate for introductory classes.

Teaching and research

One surprising fact about interviews is that research questions are partially teaching questions and vice versa.

When you explain your research, you are putting your teaching skills on display. You are showing your ability to explain philosophical material (often your own) in an accessible and interesting way. That’s what teaching involves.

On the other hand, some teaching questions are really research questions because you are often expected to use your teaching as a way of advancing your research.

This is most obviously so in schools with graduate programs: you are expected to use your seminars as a way of doing your research so the topics you choose are supposed to reflect the course of your research. Don’t worry too much about fitting into a curriculum, as there generally isn’t such a thing in graduate seminars. Your contributions to the graduate program will be measured by the quality of your research ideas. Something similar is true of many liberal arts colleges: a goal of teaching is to learn along with your students. Of course, you are expected to be less mercenary in your choice of topics, but the basic idea that research and teaching go hand in hand is the same.

This really works, by the way. I have gotten a lot of ideas from both graduate and undergraduate teaching. You may be skeptical of that, particularly regarding undergraduate education. But consider two things. First, undergraduate teaching often forces you to address basic issues that are put aside, though not always for reasons that are very good or that are fully understood, in more professional settings. For example, I do not think I really understood metaethical disputes until I was forced to explain them in my introductory ethics class: I knew the positions, but had little appreciation of their importance. Second, those who have the greatest talent for philosophy do not always go to graduate school (Zounds!). You will thus often find, provided that you are paying attention, that you have undergraduate students who are just as challenging and interesting as graduate students.


The prospect of being interviewed makes most of us nervous. However, most students find that the actual interviews themselves are among the most enjoyable things they will have done in their professional lives. You will feel significantly more like a bona fide member of the profession and you will often have genuine and interesting philosophical conversations about your work. So while you might expect to be nervous, take heart: chances are good that you will enjoy the process.

Many people experience insomnia on the night before interviews. One way of combatting this is physical exercise. Bring the relevant clothing and use the hotel gym.

Articulating your fears and other feelings is another surprisingly useful thing to do. Well, surprising to me: I’m on the bottled up side, in case you didn’t know. You can encourage others to do the same by accepting what they say, rather than trying to tell them that their fears make no sense, talking solely about yourself in reply, or offering counsel rather than sympathy.

As for nerves striking in the interview itself, the first thing to say, again, is that this is more rare than you might expect. Interviewers do not want to put you on the spot but rather want to see you in your best light. Second, there is no need to be macho: it’s not an important quality in this profession. You can admit to yourself that you might be nervous and, if need be, you can tacitly admit it to them. “I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling quite right. Would you mind repeating the question?” Again, everyone in the room wants to see you at your best, so this is not a violation of the rules.

Finally, it’s a job, an economic relationship. It’s not your life. A job is just one component in a rich and rewarding life. You will have to make decisions and compromises no matter what job you receive. This is not about whether you meet someone’s standards: life is too short and the standards vary too widely to worry too much about that. You are very good at this. You would not have a PhD from the University of Chicago if that were not so. You’re looking for a place to work where you will fit in and the work will suit you.

I know, I don’t expect that to make anyone feel much better. But it is true.

This page was written by Michael Green. It was posted July 28, 2008.
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