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illegal questions

Bharathi Jagadeesh bjag at u.washington.edu
Mon Jan 28 04:52:32 EST 2002

I think it's an illegal question, anywhere in the US. We in academia aren't 
usually told about the legalities, and so go by our own guts on what we ask 
in interviews. I try to remind people of this -- because we could get in 
trouble asking questions about spouses, children, age, etc.

But, I also know why it gets asked in a graduate school interview. When you 
interview someone for a job, your responsibility is to get the best 
possible person for that job; the degree to which your candidate will get 
something out of the job is your responsibility only so far as it 
influences her ability to do the job. When you interview someone for 
school, you're trying to get the best students for your program, but you're 
also trying to contribute to their decision about whether your school, 
graduate school, is the right decision for them. You could have an 
incredibly great student, for whom it would bad decision to come to 
graduate school (of course, that's their decision to make, but they need to 
have the right information to make it). I usually spend quite a bit of time 
talking with our candidates about what it's like to work in a lab, be a 
student, etc.

And the reality of an academic career (if that's a goal of the student) is 
that a whole lot of things that aren't appropriate to use in admissions do 
make a difference in your ability to pursue a career, including age and 
children (two biggies). It's never easy, but there are things that make it 
easier and harder, and I like students to be aware of that. I also try to 
tell them how I absolutely love the science that I do, but that there are 
no guarantees.

Good luck to your friend -- and both of you might enjoy this article in the 
chronicle of higher education: 

>Hello everybody! I'd appreciate some perspectives on something that
>just happened.
>My partner just returned from an interview for graduate school (a
>Ph.D. program in biochemistry). During the interview, one of the
>interviewers said "You're going to be 42 when you graduate... what
>will you do with a Ph.D. at that age?" She graciously replied that
>since she was going to be 42 anyway, she might as well be doing work
>that she loved.
>She doesn't think it's a big deal, but I'm sort of upset. Is it
>okay/customary for a grad school interviewer to ask a question like
>that? I know it would've been illegal if it had been a job interview,
>but I guess grad school interviews are different.
>I still think it was stinky. It's not like she doesn't know how old
>she is. Going back to school and getting her BA after 15 years took a
>lot of guts and a lot of hard work, and I'm extremely proud of her.
>Her focus and dedication make her a lot better suited for graduate
>school, IMO, than most fresh-faced undergraduates (certainly better
>suited than I was when I went to graduate school right out of
>college!). Or am I just being overprotective?
>Thanks for any input.


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