It’s job talk season again and so I’ve been going to a few. Overall, there seem to be four types of questions being asked of candidates. Since their degree of preparation varies across types, I thought it might be useful to discuss them.
1. Poking holes. These are the questions most candidates prepare for. How does the theory work? How do the methods stand to scrutiny? How strong is the inference drawn? What about this alternative explanation? And this endogeneity problem? These are all common questions, which all candidates seem somewhat prepared to address. They come mostly from people in the same subfield in which the candidate works — people who know the ins and outs of the question and literature the candidate is addressing.
2. Pushing boundaries. These are questions about how well the story travels. How does your story about X apply to Y? How does a story about one country, or region, or timeframe, or outcome, or whatever apply to another? You’ll get a bunch of these from people in your field, and most candidates prepare for these. But you’ll also get a few of these from people outside your field — people you may think know nothing about your area of expertise but still have to vote for your appointment. These latter questions are often harder because they stem from parallels you wouldn’t necessarily establish. So it’s harder to prepare for these — unless you can persuade your friends across subfields to attend your practice talks.
3. Going deeper. These are questions aimed at finding out how much you really know (and care) about the topic you study. These are the best questions at separating the geek from the intellectual. So you have a theory about some phenomenon out there in the world that you test using your cutting-edge methodology. Well, someone will ask you to elaborate on how your theory explains case A, which they find particularly important. You better know your cases well. Answers about how your theory is probabilistic, not deterministic, how there are always outliers, how a game is a stylized abstraction of the strategic interaction at work, etc., usually don’t reveal deep knowledge and, therefore, do not bode well.
4. What’s in it for me? Often someone who knows little about your expertise area will ask you some version of the same taxing question your grandmother has been asking you: What’s in it for me? Why should we care? What have we learned? What is the broad meaning of your work? What, in sum, can people who don’t care particularly about your neck of the woods learn from your work? You may get this from one person only, but this is the question in the minds of many in the room — many who, again, do not have a particular interest in your area and want to know why your work is relevant.