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.