why i am annoying at job talks

At my dept, I am the guy who asks the tough questions at the end of the job talks. This strikes people as aggressive or obnoxious and they are right. But I think there is good reason to be extra tough for a job talk.

  1. Teaching: Can you think on your feet? Most of the time, your students will be asleep. But once in a while, they wake up and they can ask tough questions. You have to be ready for it.
  2. Actual Contribution: Honestly, PhD program prestige and CVs drive most hiring. Thus, if your adviser makes you author #5 on an AJS or ASR article, you have a massive job market advantage. In that case, I have to see if you actually know what you are talking about, or if you got credit for doing the footnotes.
  3. Cultishness and Rigor: I want to see if you “drank the kool-aid” or if you really have given serious thought to what you are doing. For example, I love asking qualitative researchers about causal inference. Do they really believe that ethnography is a magic land where inference doesn’t matter? Or have they really thought about what can and can’t be done within a given methodological framework?
  4. Broad mindedness: Does the person only care about the writings of the two or three most famous people in their sub-area? Or have they thought deeply about what the sub area has accomplished overall? Similarly, are they going off what was the most recent top journal article? Or do they read widely and know they history of their area?
  5. Disciplinary Parochialism: Does the person only care about what sociologists have written about their topic? Or do they understand the value that other academics might bring to a topic? For example, I routinely ask people doing work/occupations and economic sociology about relevant research in economics.

Of course, no Q&A session can dig into all of these issues. But one or two well placed questions can tell me quite a bit.


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Written by fabiorojas

May 8, 2018 at 4:01 am

12 Responses

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  1. There are ways to ask questions that get at these without being “aggressive or obnoxious.” Coming at job candidates aggressively is a good way to test for whether a candidate has a type-A (and dare I say it, masculine) personality – I’m not convinced it’s the best way to get to any of the things you say you care about here. I mean, even the language of “toughness” you use presumes a form of masculinity in the academy that is wholly unnecessary and has to have some effect on the disparate outcomes experienced by women in the job market. I have no qualms with the content of your questions, based on what you write here, but the fact that you see it as your job to be tough, aggressive, and obnoxious really worries me.

    Liked by 4 people


    May 8, 2018 at 2:33 pm

  2. “Drink the Kool-Aid” is an allusion to mass murder and suicide at Jonestown. I prefer different metaphors.

    Liked by 1 person

    Philip N. Cohen

    May 8, 2018 at 2:58 pm

  3. Let me second Justin. If people are telling you that your questions are aggressive or obnoxious it’s probably not because of their intellectual content. Consider finding ways to ask the same questions in a nicer way. I used to be aggressive like this and it really doesn’t help evaluate the candidate, it just turns Q&A into a pissing contest.

    Liked by 3 people

    Charles Seguin

    May 8, 2018 at 3:53 pm

  4. I agree with the above–the tone here is really disturbing. Think of inverting all of these points. So, if someone doesn’t stand up to your “aggressive and obnoxious” questions in the way you’d like (or, as you’ve written elsewhere, if they’ve failed to “grow a thick skin,”) they are

    (1) Unable to teach.
    (2) Not making an effective contribution.
    (3) Unserious.
    (4) Myopic.
    (5) Parochial.

    Perhaps you’re just being terse for effect, but I hope you’ll seriously consider Justin’s comment that this language (and the underlying approach) it reflects, is quite gendered and risks turning Q&As, as Charles S notes, into unproductive grandstanding. There are other, more inclusive, and even better, ways to get at all the issues you’re interested in, but they might take you having to take a route you find less efficient, but with fewer externalities for everyone around you.

    As you are fond of saying:

    “Bottom line: admitting your are ‘annoying’ is an important step; reflecting on the sociological consequences of that is another, more important, step.”

    Liked by 3 people


    May 8, 2018 at 4:26 pm

  5. You better repent your toxic masculinity Fabio or the SJW crown will crucify you.



    May 8, 2018 at 10:56 pm

  6. Only in the present environment can this post be twisted into a discussion of toxic masculinity, Jonestown and inclusivity. Is this the sort of analysis that the sociological tool box is prepping us for? If so, god save us.

    Liked by 1 person

    Name not important

    May 9, 2018 at 10:20 am

  7. Agree that tone of voice etc in how questions are asked matters. Exactly the same question can be posed as a friendly request to explore a topic more broadly or as an aggressive attack. I’m not a big fan of the attack mode of question, especially if the target is a youngish person interviewing for a job, but I have been know to ask my own forms of pretty oblique exploratory questions.

    I also think these kinds of broad questions can and should be asked in a one on one conversation and don’t have to be asked in a job talk Q&A.

    However, I also want to stress the public service Fabio is providing, because it is really true that people want to get a broader sense of you in a job interview, not just focus on your research. Years ago I worked with a student who had excellent credentials but was perceived as excessively narrow in job interviews. From his perspective, he thought people were trying to trick him into making a statement his data couldn’t justify. Being mentally prepared to engage in broad open-ended conversations is important.

    It is also important to be able to respond non-defensively to someone whose question seems to be phrased as an attack. Practicing restating the question or asking the person to clarify the question can help. And tactics like “that is a difficult question, and I don’t think my answer will fully satisfy you, but here are things I have thought that are sort of related and partially address that issue.” Based on my 40 years of watching job interviews, I would advise people to be ready for this kind of apparently “out of nowhere” question and have a plan for dealing with it.

    Liked by 4 people


    May 9, 2018 at 5:02 pm

  8. @Name not important

    Yes, that is the “analysis” one can expect from sociologists these days.



    May 10, 2018 at 5:15 am

  9. Folks: when Fabio is being “tough” “aggressive” and “obnoxious”, job market candidates find this “annoying”. (See the title.) That is what a more generous, empathetic, and non-masculine reading of Fabio’s post might conclude. Fabio does not suggest he is degrading or humiliating people. Lets give him the benefit of the doubt, i.e., lets assume Fabio is a self-aware human being who appreciates the consequences of his actions and is attuned to various kinds of everyday discrimination. And consider this: it may well be a reflection of the speech norms in sociology, rather than anything wider, that asking hard questions can be seen as aggressive.

    That aside, there is an important normative position in Fabio’s post: fairness demands we subject job market candidates to rigorous testing. If this results in their findings and arguments collapsing, for all to see, so be it. Rigorous questioning may see candidates feeling annoyed or embarrassed. The risk of our not being rigorous in hiring is much greater. Here is the scenario Fabio alludes to: after a congenial but intellectually insipid exchange, where no-one wants to look too tough or “masculine”, we hire the candidate who confirms our prejudices: they have the right networks, the right cultural capital, and they possess other desirable but more or less randomly distributed traits, like being the fifth author on a top-flight article. Hiring on these grounds is unfair. It is also bad for the discipline. If fair hiring risks annoying and embarrassing job candidates, I propose that Fabio is justified in risking it.

    Liked by 4 people


    May 10, 2018 at 5:26 am

  10. I’ve seen many types of questions at research talks. Three stand out One is the comment posed as question (most annoying). One is the tough question posed fairly (not annoying, generally well liked by all). One is the tough question posed aggressively (obnoxious).

    The critique is not of tough questions. The critique is that tough questions do not necessarily lead to being labeled as obnoxious, aggressive, or annoying.



    May 10, 2018 at 1:21 pm

  11. I spy an emerging consensus:
    1. Tough questioning is good
    2. Don’t think it is mean just because it can
    embarrass people
    3. Follow the golden rule
    4. Are we really arguing about this?

    Liked by 1 person


    May 10, 2018 at 7:29 pm

  12. I think this is total bs. how candidates respond to “the tough question” in a job talk is only an indicator for how good they are at handling this particularly stressful situation. All inference beyond that is just a pseudo-scientific veil for what is ultimately subjective judgment, combined with “the facts at hand” (cv).


    Matthias Revers

    May 15, 2018 at 10:02 am

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