The Benefits of Career Storytelling

By Sharon Fleshman

Recently, I saw that Penn Nursing will be part of a Story Slam where some students and faculty will share brief stories about their nursing experiences and insights. Not only does it sound like an innovative and engaging event, but it also reminds me of the power of story in the development of careers.  A career story allows you to develop a narrative around highlights, catalysts and defining moments that occur as your career unfolds.   To that end, career storytelling can be of great help in several ways:

  1. Career storytelling offers clarity for your career planning: The first person to whom you should tell a career story is you.  As your story unfolds, notice when you are the most energized.  This process will leave you with clues about the work and the environment that you will want to pursue for your career going forward.
  2. Career storytelling boosts your confidence and resilience: As you recall moments when your work produced great results or had a positive impact on a person’s outlook or situation, you will be reminded why you are on a given career path even when times are challenging or when you are tempted to second-guess yourself. 
  3. Career storytelling allows you to shine during interviews: Stories offer concrete and engaging examples of your work that serve as excellent answers to behavioral questions during interviews. As you share your stories, you will be able to communicate your strengths from an authentic and compelling place.

To identify good career stories, you can utilize our Behavioral Interview Prep Sheet.  To prepare your stories, the following S.T.A.R. method is recommended:

  • S = Situation: Describe the situation or challenge you were facing
  • T = Target: Describe what you wanted to achieve
  • A = Action: Describe what you did
  • R = Results: Describe how things turned out, what impact you made, what you learned, and/or perhaps what you’d do differently if presented the same circumstances

If you would like more assistance with developing and honing your career stories, feel free to consult with a career advisor.

Acing the Reverse Interview

Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director

After the hard work of putting together application materials for a job, or many jobs, it is always a welcome reward to be contacted with an invitation to interview. For most people, this euphoric state is quickly replaced by the realization that they now have lots more work to do in order to ace the interview.

A good starting point for this preparation is to generate a list of questions that you might be asked. A website like Glassdoor.com provides some of the actual questions that other people say companies where you might be interviewing have asked them — although, of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get the same ones. On the Career Services website, we have sample questions that are commonly asked in interviews, including a list of questions that Ph.D. students and postdocs who’ve had screening or on-campus interviews for faculty positions have shared with us. You can also reach out to alumni or other contacts in your network who work or may have interviewed at your target companies and organizations. You can certainly ask them about their experiences being interviewed and the types of questions they were asked.

Additionally, by looking at the job description, and from discussions with your networking connections who may have similar roles in similar organizations, you can also create a list of skills, experiences and knowledge areas that are likely to be essential for the role you are applying for. The more important they are to the role, the more likely you will be asked about them. Usually, these types of questions come in the form of behavioral-based ones. Here are 12 pages of them — some very similar to each other, some positive leaning and some negative leaning. With a list of “behaviors” from the job description, you can narrow down this list to the most relevant questions. And the best way to prepare answers for these questions is by coming up with examples and stories to share about how you have engaged in such behaviors. We’ll come back to those examples and stories a little later.

I’ve previously written about the five key questions you can always expect in any type of job interview. They are:

  • Who are you? Tell me about yourself.
  • Why do you want this position?
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • What do you bring? What is your greatest strength? What are your relevant strengths?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

And I have also encouraged everyone to answer this last question with a excited and definite “yes!” But what happens when, rather than being the last question that is asked, this question is the only question that is asked?

I have heard about this happening in all types of career fields and industries from the many students and postdocs I have worked with and advised. But it does seem more frequent in several specific settings. In small start-ups, without much of a structured HR department or process, interviews often feel more like informal conversations, and that seems to result in this question popping up more often. The other situation occurs during campus interviews for faculty jobs. During such interviews, candidates may be scheduled to meet with many individual faculty members from the search committee and beyond. I have seen interview agendas with 15 to 20 of these one-on-one interviews scheduled!

The reasons that interviewers may not ask a formal set of questions, and instead just let you ask them, are likely to be diverse. But they probably fall under one of these explanations:

  • The interviewer wants to be helpful.
  • The interviewer wants to ascertain how interested you actually are in the role and the organization by seeing what questions you ask.
  • The interviewer didn’t have time to prepare a list of questions.
  • The interviewer neither had time to prepare questions nor had the opportunity to look over your application materials — and will be trying to do the latter as you are asking your questions.

This last one is probably the most likely in working environments where everyone is busy and people are involved in multiple searches each with multiple candidates.

Given that you will have prepared some questions to ask during your interview, the fact that a 30-minute interview with a member of the hiring committee starts with “do you have any questions for me?” shouldn’t be too much of an issue. However, you probably don’t have 30 minutes of questions prepared, so you will need to think up more on the fly. More important, if you just spend 30 minutes asking an interviewer questions and listening to their responses, you will run the risk of not leaving enough about you — and your skills, experiences and knowledge — in their consciousness.

In an interview, your goal is to make a good impression and to leave a clear enough image of yourself in the brain of the interviewers that they can imagine you in the role they’re trying to fill. You want them to be able to superimpose the impression you left onto the day-to-day tasks of the job. If you ask a lot of questions but don’t talk about yourself, the image you leave behind will not be clear. It will be hard for one hiring committee member to advocate for you and the value you’d bring to the role with the rest of the committee if they only have an intangible sense of who you are and what you can do.

So, whether the interview involves a formal set of questions that you are asked, is an informal discussion or follows the “what can I tell you?” approach, your goals are actually the same: you need to know before the interview what you want to say and how you are going to illustrate that with examples from your experience.

In fact, the best way to prepare for any interview is to come up with examples in advance that illustrate your relevant skills in action. With a few such examples prepared, you will have a much easier time answering any behavioral-based question that comes your way. Examples make your skills and experiences come to life — especially if you add a touch of drama to your story.

For example, rather than just telling people what you have done, you should show how what you did was challenging (and exciting and enjoyable), and the steps you took to overcome the challenge. Everyone loves a bit of drama. Without drama, the many pages of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy become nothing more than “a hobbit finds a magical ring, which is eventually thrown into a volcano.” Make sure the descriptions of your experiences don’t come across like this.

But how do you share your examples if people don’t ask you about your experience? After all, it would be awkward if the conversation went like this:

Interviewer: So, what can I share with you?

Candidate: Er … well, actually, let me first tell you about a time where I worked collaboratively in a multidisciplinary setting.

Interviewer: Um …OK.

You have to be a little more strategic than this. The goal is to ask questions to get the interviewer to respond with answers that you can then respond to with your own examples. The questions need to be answerable by the interviewer, so picking the right ones for the right person is important. 

Interviewer: So, what can I share with you?

Candidate: Yes, I have a few questions today. I saw from your online profile that some of your project work seems to cross different departments here. Can you tell me about how your teams are set up to promote this type of cross-disciplinary work?

Interviewer: Well, I think you are talking about my work with … [answer continues]

Candidate: Thank you, this is helpful, and actually, it is very similar to the approach I have taken in my work as part of the student writing group on our campus. One of the challenges we always faced was the fact that we collaborated with over 27 different departments, which made coming up with marketing materials relevant to all those groups very hard. So, what I did was …

You want to leave each interviewer with a solid image of you, whether they ask you questions and have looked at your materials beforehand or not. That way, you are maximizing the potential that all the hiring committee members can share in the same experiences when they discuss the candidates after the interviews are done. If they can share the same experiences, then they can also get excited about those experiences. And the more people making hiring decisions who are excited about you, the greater the chances are that you will get the offer.

Wrap Up Your Interview with Smart, Well-Prepared Questions

This entry was written by Blair Canner, a Graduate Assistant working in Career Services this year.

Picture this: you have just spent the last half an hour answering every question thrown at you. Walk me through your resume? What are your strengths? Tell me about a time you failed. Finally the interviewer looks at you and asks “Do you have any questions for me?”

While you may be inclined to shake your head and end the interview as soon as possible, having questions prepared will prove your interest not just in the role but in the opinions of the interviewer.

While any question is technically fair game, you should use this time as an opportunity to:

  • Reemphasize your fit in the job

Asking what qualities are most common in successful employees gives you one final opportunity to demonstrate that you possess those critical skills. Alternatively, ask what skills the team is seeking in a new hire. Specifically connecting your experiences and skills to their needs will reemphasize that you’re the right candidate for the job.

  • Understand the culture from a personal point of view

If an interviewer has been at the company for a while, ask them what they like the most about the organization. Find out why they joined the company and what has convinced them to stay. If you’re interviewing with a specific team, ask about the team’s culture and find out if they hold any team-building events. Culture can differ across teams – make sure your team’s culture suits your work style.

  • Identify professional development opportunities

If this is one of your first jobs out of school, demonstrate your commitment to continuous development by asking about available training & mentoring opportunities. Does the organization offer formal support networks and do those networks hold events? What about continuing education – if you want to learn a new skill, are you expected to learn it on the job or are there courses available?

The final part of the interview is just as evaluative as the first 25 minutes. But in this case, it’s also an opportunity for you to determine if this company is the right fit for you. Preparing 5-10 questions in advance will help you come across as genuinely curious and invested in the job at hand.

The most important interview question you’ll ever be asked

By Claire Klieger

Most interviewers make up their minds about a candidate within the first few minutes of an interview. There are a few key questions and responses that form an interviewer’s opinion of a candidate. In addition to the candidate’s introduction, the question that defines any interview is “why are you interested in this position?” While any candidate should be expecting this question, it is amazing how often people seem unprepared to adequately answer this seemingly straight forward question.

 

Why is this question so important? Any person who is invited to interview the employer believes is qualified to do the job. What sets someone apart, then, what makes a truly compelling candidate, is the ability to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for both the role and the organization. This is because interviewers seek caring and dedicated colleagues, not individuals who are merely looking for a job, a resume builder, or paycheck, even if all of those things are of course also true. Thus, interviewers listen carefully to the answer candidates provide to the question “why are you interested in this role?” This question, often more than any other, may determine the fate of an interview performance.

 

What’s the best answer? While there is no single correct response to this question, the more specific the better. Answers that wax on about a role that ideally fits as the next logical step in a career trajectory fall short because there are always multiple other positions that could also fit that bill. Rather, focus on what it is about the organization’s work, mission, culture, or people that specifically resonates. If a candidate cannot answer that question, they are unlikely to be selected for the position.

What’s Your Story? The Power of a Career Narrative

by Sharon Fleshman

You may have career goals which seem clearly aligned with your background or you may be seeking a career transition.  Either way, you will want to develop a compelling career narrative which would include the following:

— An experience that exposed you to a given career and served as a catalyst for you to pursue that career.

— An experience in which you were energized and made a positive impact, confirming for you that a particular career or job is a good fit for you.

With these kinds of defining moments and accomplishments, you can connect the dots between your work history and the next step on your career path.  Consider the following scenarios and career narrative examples:

A student completing a BSN degree and planning to apply to Registered Nurse positions.  
“I became drawn to nursing in high school when volunteering at a pediatric hospital and shadowing a nurse.  I continue to enjoy community service work which allows me to mentor and empower children. In my recent clinical rotation in pediatrics, I was able to bring comfort and clarity to the anxious parent of a patient, which was noted by the parent and my supervisor. This affirmed my desire and ability to offer patient care that has a positive impact not only on children at the hospital but on their families as well.”

An alum who has worked as a teacher, returned to school to study policy, and plans to apply to policy research positions.
“As I worked as a teacher in public school, I began to ponder the best ways to assess student achievement in the classroom. As I did this, I also saw connections to broader and more systemic issues. This discovery led me to attend a graduate program which allowed me to cultivate skills in policy analysis and data analysis to complement my teaching background. I found that in my internship, my track record as an educator paved the way for me to build rapport with teachers and administrators whose participation was vital to my research.   I hope to leverage my mix of experiences and skills to conduct policy research and analysis that promotes increased equity and access in education.”

There are a number of contexts in which you can apply your career narrative:

Cover letters:  Cover letters allow you to address a specific employer about a specific job.  Therefore, you do not want to merely repeat what is on your resume. Instead, adapt and build upon your career narrative to highlight experiences that demonstrate why you are interested in and qualified for the job, and a good fit for the employer.

Career Fairs: Career fairs allow you to engage representatives from various employers, usually in brief conversations.   The career narrative, adapted to a particular employer, can offer a great way to introduce yourself and pave the way to ask a thoughtful question or two.

Networking: Whether you converse with your networking contact at a reception or an informational interview, your career narrative is a great tool to offer a bit about your background and career interests before you ask for perspective or advice.

Interviewing:  Many interviews open with the “Tell me about yourself” question, which can be a bit daunting.  Having a career narrative that connects your key experiences and career goals to the employer and the job will help you begin the interview with enthusiasm and confidence.

Feel free to make an appointment with a career advisor to discuss how to craft your career narrative. In the meantime, take a look at the following articles for more insight:

What’s Your Story? – by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback, Harvard Business Review, January 2005

Younger Workers Need a Career Narrative by Heidi Gardner and Adam Zalisk, Harvard Business Review, February 15, 2013