What (not) to ask at non-academic job interviews

“Do you have any questions for us?” At the end or, more rarely, at the beginning of non-academic job interviewers, one or more of your interviewers will ask whether you have any questions for them.  Those questions tell the interviewer a lot about you: how much you are interested in the job and its location, how much research you have done, and what you ask on your own, rather than in response to a question.  The answers also tell you a lot about the organization: how readily people answer, how informed and engaged they are, how much they like where they live.

Before you interview, you should at minimum read the organization’s online materials (at least its website, and its LinkedIn presence and Facebook and Twitter feeds if any) and the LinkedIn profiles of the people who will be interviewing you.  Pay special attention to how the organization describes its confidentiality policies and how they engage with the public; trained academics are accustomed to being able to publish their work and attend subject-related conferences, but many organizations guard their intellectual property closely and do not share it, or not until the product incorporating it is available to their customers or their public.  And of course prepare for what they will ask you.

Here are some guidelines for what to ask and what not to ask.  Note that many of the questions you should not ask may be brought up by your interviewer, in which case it is fine to pursue them.  If you don’t find answers to your questions here, feel free to email me at akrook@comcast.net or find me on Twitter @akrook and ask.

What (not) to ask about the position

ASK anything about the position that is unclear from the job description: whether you will be in charge of developing house style just for their web properties or for all their customer-facing material, or whether you will be the Principal Investigator or part of a team, or whether the group you are joining is part of a team working on a larger project; whether travel is part of the job, and if so how much.  Ask what your interviewers like best about the team you’ll be joining; what kinds of problems they like solving, and what kinds of problems they find most interesting, and why.  Ask about the team’s next couple projects and how they are related to or depend on the current one.

DON’T ASK whether your direct manager has a PhD (you may need or want to know, and you can find out from company materials or LinkedIn); how many other people at the company have PhDs, and where they got them; how soon people in your position are typically promoted.  Don’t ask about the next projects if it seems as though you are not interested in the current one.  Don’t ask why they don’t have more PhDs than they do. or if you are the first on your team or in your group.

What (not) to ask about the company

ASK what the organization views as its biggest challenges; whom it views as its biggest competitor, if it is a for-profit company; whose comparable technology, products, or services they admire other than their own; where they see themselves in five and ten years.  Ask the most senior person you talk to what they see as their organization’s biggest external risk (don’t ask about big internal risks at the interview).

DON’T ASK about the organization’s financial position if it is a public company, a regulated nonprofit, or a public-sector organization (you should be able to find that information without asking).  You may ask about the funding of startups.

What (not) to ask about the location

ASK what people like to do in the area.  If it is in a very well-known area with obviously a lot to do (New York City, Vancouver BC), ask what employees like best that others might not know about the area.  Ask about particular interests you have: “do a lot of people in this area cycle-commute to work?” You should ordinarily preface it by a sign that you have done some research, when the information is easily available: “I saw online there’s a local [topic] organization.  Is that popular here?”

DON’T ASK anything about the location from a negative perspective: “I’ve heard some iffy things about local schools.”  You can elicit the same thing by asking, after you have an offer, by asking “I have a nine-year-old; is there anyone I can talk to about schools who has a child around that age?”

As a rule, the questions you should ask at the interview are about the position, the company, its business, and its location; the questions you should not ask are about your individual career.  There is a place for the latter kinds of questions, just not at the interview.  You can ask them, for example, when you have an offer in hand (paperwork or electronic documents, not just a verbal offer).

Typically salary and benefits, including relocation funds, are not negotiated or discussed at the interview, though your interviewer, or a Human resources representative, may give a general summary (“we offer strongly competitive salary and benefits”).  In exceptional cases, you may be offered the job at the end of the interview and given a salary and benefits package.  If you are, do not accept it on the spot, however relieved you may feel to be offered an Actual Paying Job™.  Express pleasure and gratitude and ask when they would like their answer from you; take the information home and think it over and talk it over with your spouse or partner.  Then be sure to let them know via their preferred method (phone, email, signed letter) before the deadline.

Good luck!