Questions to ask your interviewers

Several friends and acquaintances have recently asked what they should ask in an interview when the search committee or director inevitably asks “Do you have any questions for us?” (Hint: You should always have questions for us.)

If you’re looking for a really good job that’s a great fit for your skills and goals and interests (as opposed to just looking for a job, any job, one with a salary and benefits, really, any job will do), the interview is crucial to knowing whether or not you’re going to fit in there. And asking questions is one way to bust through the veneer of polish that we all put on for interview days. Seriously: you’ll never see more ties and jackets and heels than on days when we have a candidate coming. We’re all on Best Behavior, because we know we’re selling ourselves as much as you’re selling yourself. And you want to know more than our Best Behavior if you want to know if we’re a good fit for you.

So test us on that. Find out if we’re a good fit.

Here are a dozen questions that I a) enjoy asking, b) enjoy answering, and c) think can reveal something about the institution and the staff of a library. My brief commentary on why I would ask or what I suspect you might learn follows each question.

1.  What do you think the successful candidate’s first project will be?

What the heck do they really want this hire to DO? Do they have the same kind of vision when they talk about the job as they have when they write about it? Consistency of response can tell you something about their certainty of purpose.

2. What is the greatest challenge that the successful candidate will face?

This can pull some unspoken and unexplained information to the fore, about staffing, culture, money, vision… And that can be either absolutely exciting or it can be horribly discouraging.

3. What one thing on my CV made you think I’d be an interesting candidate to interview?

What about you intrigues them? Is that the thing you want most to be? Or is it something you did as a one-off project that you’d rather never do again? Do they want you to be something you want to be, or something you would rather avoid?

4. What skills do you think I would need to build up if I were hired?

Find out where they think your weaknesses are, and where they think their needs are going to be evolving. And then follow up: “What do you have in place to help staff learn new skills?” or “Will that be something I can easily do here?”

5. Why do you like working here?

This is just a classic “tell me a little about yourself” question, and a great way to get people to gush about what’s awesome about their workplace. What they don’t say here is also just as important. No one mentions the great community of colleagues? Pause to wonder if there is one… etcetera.

6. What is this library’s greatest challenge in the next year? 3 years? How do you plan to meet that challenge?

Where is their vision set? Do they have realistic understandings of the future of libraries? Of their own weaknesses? How do you feel about their answers?

7. What does the library’s hiring plan look like for the next 3 years? What’s the retirement forecast? Have you done succession planning for that?

Because holy crap this can completely change a place — what if four senior librarians plan to retire in the next two years, and there’s a hiring freeze, and no one’s been crosstrained? Do you wanna work there? Flipside, what if there are four open librarian lines, being collaboratively designed by the library staff, and should be hired in a staggered plan over the next two years. Do you wanna work there?

8. What’s the most innovative thing you’ve done in the last year?

This is just another great “tell me about yourself” question. Judge the answer for yourself.

9.  How would you describe this library’s management culture? If I were the successful candidate, who would be my supervisor? How is that relationship managed and organized?

You need to know this. Full stop.

10.  If I came up with a new idea that had never been implemented here, what is your method for getting that underway?

You need to know this too.

11. How does the library get its budget? What’s that process like?

This is an easy way to get a concise crash course in institutional politics, the library’s resource pool, the library’s relationship to campus powers that be, and how the library staff feel about it all. Very little is as telling as money.

12. What’s your approach to supporting professional development?

This is particularly relevant in tenure-track librarian lines, but for anyone who expects that librarianship’s gonna be changing continuously from now on (duh) and thinks that updating skills is a vital part of succeeding. What’s the answer? “We gots no moneys” vs “You’ll get $2000 annually” vs “We have lots of grants to apply for” are all very different scenarios.

So. There’s a list from me. What do you like to ask?

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