Interview Tips for Institutional Research Candidate

April 6, 2023
8 min

Throughout my career, I have worked at schools with varying levels of institutional research (IR) support. I have worked with other schools that do not have IR personnel at all and instead rely on their Registrar to pull reports from the SIS or ERP to report and examine data. I have also worked at two colleges that relied on a single IR director—though both were small schools, and once one of them began to grow, an additional IR research analyst was hired to support the collection and distribution of data. I am also familiar with schools that have entire IR teams at their disposal, led by a VP of Institutional Research, ready to attack every problem and inform every strategic plan with every type of qualitative and quantitative data possible. For all these institutions—regardless of the structure of institutional research—there are a few key qualities to consider when hiring someone to retrieve, report, and analyze institutional data.

It is important to find out more about how the IR candidates you are interviewing approach data retrieval requests.

If you are leading or serving on a search for a new IR team member or director, read on for some helpful tips and sample interview questions at the end!

As I was brainstorming for content for this blog, I got to thinking about my time working at Millennium and my years working in enrollment in higher education. One piece of advice I have is to find out if the applicant can think about the data in a useful way. I know that might sound obvious, but the ideal IR person is more than an expert data miner—they also can think about different ways to examine data or methods to pull reports so that all sides of an issue are considered. An example of this is summed up in this scenario:

A group of faculty discovered that the overall compensation to university administrators had increased significantly in the 2018-19 FY budget. They requested a report from the IR office comparing overall increases in faculty compensation to overall administration compensation between 2015-2019.

At first glance, the upward trajectory of administrative compensation seemed to increase at a staggeringly rapid pace (+28%), while the faculty compensation had remained relatively flat (+3.2%). However, a high-quality IR person doesn’t stop there but instead takes the initiative to explore this further so that the data tells a story rather than provide only a single source of information. In this case, additional reports were requested by the administration, and the following data story unfolded:

During FY 2011-12, the university cut 20% of its administrative staff due to decreasing enrollment and budget cuts. Between 2016-2018, new Federal Regulations required that the university hire legal counsel, a Title IX coordinator, and a full-time ADA specialist. The Board of Trustees also voted to invest in an enrollment division to focus efforts on increasing enrollment and retention, which included a professional advising department. Once enrollment began to increase, some of the administrative positions that were cut in the 2011-12 FY were also added back into the university staff/administrative units.

Once all the reports were examined and presented, the bigger picture became clear. Because enrollment had either declined or stayed relatively flat, the faculty compensation and number of teaching positions had only increased with the equivalent of the bi-annual cost of living (COLA) raises. However, several new administrative positions were hired due to federal requirements. Additionally, once enrollment began to rise again, several others that had been frozen for more than five years could fit back into the university budget. In the end, comparing the fluctuation in the quantity and compensation of faculty to administrators between 2010-2019, it was discovered that the number of faculty remained static and overall compensation increased by 5.6%. In turn, the number of administrators also remained static and overall compensation decreased by 1.2%.

I tell this somewhat lengthy and detailed story because it is important to find out more about how the IR candidates you are interviewing approach data retrieval requests. This brings me to another point—communication and interactions with others.

When thinking about onboarding a new IR team member, I can’t help but focus on how important IR’s role is to serve as an information pipeline between so many individuals and departments.

When hiring for this position, consider again the size of your college or university. If you are small to medium-sized (under 5000 students), it is likely this person will be the single IR position. They will be invited to many meetings, receive dozens of requests for data weekly (if not daily—especially at first), and be asked to present findings at all sorts of executive cabinet and board meetings. Make sure to incorporate questions that hit on these aspects when interviewing.

To help you with your IR interviews, I compiled the following seven questions to get you started. Feel free to use them!

1. Please tell us about a time you used data to support a positive or forward change in your current or previous position?

2. What systems do you typically use to stay organized when it comes to competing requests and priorities? (software, pen and paper, calendars, etc.)

3. Describe a time you had to share data with a department or person who is unhappy with or surprised by the data you compiled for them. OR: How would you respond to someone who might feel that your data is wrong or different from what they expected?

4. Please describe your experience working with SIS and ERP systems (Banner, Jenzabar, PeopleSoft, etc.) to extract that type of information and perhaps some best practices for identifying different student types and course modalities.

5. What non-SIS/ERP systems have you used to manipulate and analyze data?

6. Identify three key habits or qualities that you think describe a successful IR director.

7. When starting a new position, how do you typically go about connecting with others at your place of work and forging new professional relationships?

Do you have suggestions for additional IR interview questions or advice you’d like to share when hiring! Comment below or reach out to us at to share!

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