I’m spending a bit of time these days working with people who are looking to make career transitions, sprucing up (or making) a resume, and getting prepared for the great Job Hunt. This recent article deals with preparing for and attending an interview, and the advice is very sound. I wanted to add to some of these points, based on my own experiences as an interviewer and as a candidate.
1. Put time and energy into your preparation.
Make sure this is quality work. An interviewer can tell if the extent of your preparation was to look at the website homepage. You should know more than just the mission statement. Recent news, line of products and services, organizational structure – all are important. Don’t go too far back in history; I had a candidate in 2015 who, when I asked what she knew about our centre, said, “well, I know that you guys sequenced the SARS genome.” (Yes, we’re very proud of that, but that was in 2003. We’ve done a lot of other cool stuff since then.) Try to have a few questions prepared based on your research. If you look up your interviewer on LinkedIn (and they may know if you have), you can mention or ask about their history, too. Just remember you are looking to work for the company, not just this person (and too much advance knowledge about one person can be creepy).
2. Be aware of your posture and body language. And 7. Consider your appearance.
The interview is not that long – sit up straight and minimize your fidgeting. Don’t play with your hair (I had someone start to braid her hair during our meeting). Don’t bite your nails (yes, someone did this). Don't doodle. Remember you are communicating with your whole body. Be aware of your own physical “tics” and try to minimize them, at least for the hour of the interview. I remember someone who, when he was nervous or uncertain about an answer, would take off his glasses and clean them on his sweater (ew); he did this 6-8 times during the interview. It clearly made an impression, but not the one he wanted.
Practice with someone who will be honest with you about what you do, and work on minimizing these actions, or at least having a variety of them (no silly walks, please) so it’s less obvious. And of course, dress appropriately. This is a job interview at a place of work/business/academia. It is not a prom. It is not a sporting event. And it is not date night.
Somewhat related is your physical demeanour with the interviewers. Introduce yourself and offer to shake hands with each person. Try to remember their names, and call them by name (“that’s a interesting question, Frank.”) Look people in the eye when talking to them. If there are multiple interviewers, start your answer to the person who asked the question, but include the others as you complete your questions. One of the worst interviewees I had directed all of her answers to me, regardless of who asked the question, incorrectly assuming that I was the only one who mattered in the interview. Wrong.
3. Don’t talk too much. And 5. Don’t mumble or rush.
You want to answer every question fully and completely, we get that. But don’t fill up every silence in the interview with more talking. Most interviewers are taking notes (written or mental), so give them a few seconds to process your previous comments before speaking again. If you’re unsure if they want you to say more, ask: “would you like another or different example?” You also want to respect the clock; the interviewers have allocated XX minutes with you (if they’ve done a good job, you have an agenda for your time with them) so pace yourself for the time you have. Practice answering the basic and expected questions, and time yourself so you’re not taking 10 minutes to answer, “why are you a good candidate for this position?”
Take a few beats before answering, to give a bit of thought to what you’ll say. That few seconds can also help you avoid verbal tics (um, er, ah, like, so) and bad verbal habits (run on sentences, answers that never end, starting every answer with the word, “well” or “okay”).
I will add to this one: pay attention to the question. It demonstrates both attention to detail and respect. Half of answering correctly is in getting the question right. If you’re not sure you understood it, ask to have the question repeated (but don’t do this for every question). One of the worst things you can hear from an interviewer is, “that’s great, but if you could please answer the question.” Interviewers hate saying that, but not half as much as you should hate hearing it. Consider it a warning: I usually give one opportunity for someone to re-do an answer like that; after that, I just write down, “did not answer question” on my interview sheet.
4. Revisit questions and answers.
You shouldn’t do this with every question, but if you have one or two that you think you can improve or expand on, take advantage of a pause or your time at the end for questions to ask if you can return to a previous topic. Be sure that your additional time is worth it – don’t just repeat what you already said (implying that the interviewers didn’t get it) or add something tangential to the question but a point you wanted to make regardless (“If we can return to the question about my experience with financial management, I’d like to tell you about my excellent customer service.”). You should have some key vignettes to use when backing up your answers, but if you don’t get to use one of your favourites, don’t force it in to the interview – it’s not the interviewers’ fault that you didn’t find a way to use it.
You can also revisit questions and answers when you send your thank-you notes (yes, you should definitely send these and yes, it is fine to send them by email). Like your interview answers, your thank-you note should not be overly long, but it can include additional information or experience examples that you think are important for them to know but did not get used in the interview.
6. Support your answers with facts and data.
How many projects have you managed? How many people have you trained/supervised? Your answer to, “do you have experience supervising others?” cannot just be, “yes.” Elaborate to emphasize the scope and scale of your experience. And avoid superlatives and hyperbole, or at least be prepared to elaborate. If that last project of yours was “very difficult”, explain what made it difficult – if you don’t, it sounds more like you were ill prepared or unwilling to work hard.
8. Have meaningful questions. And 9. Explain your value and why you are a good fit.
Related to item 1 above, your research will give you lots of information but also some questions. Alternatively, the questions you’ve just been asked might raise some for you. If the job description did not mention supervision, but many of the questions were about that, you could ask about the extent and type of supervisory responsibilities. If the interviewers failed to introduce themselves at the start, take the opportunity at the end to ask them about their roles or their history with the organization. Your question time is also the opportunity to revisit past questions (see item 4) and to talk a bit about how you see yourself fitting in to the project/department/organization (this requires that you’ve done your homework – see item 1).
It is also your opportunity to get a glimpse at the people and place that you’re contemplating spending a third of your time and dedicating a considerable portion of your life. You are learning about the company almost as much as they are learning about you. So take advantage of that inside opportunity to learn and form impressions. Is this a place you want to work?
I once decided shortly after an interview (as a candidate) that it was just not a good fit for what they or I wanted. After the interview, I called the HR manager and said I did not want to be considered further. It was scary but necessary, and fair to the company and interviewers not to have to spend more time with a candidate who was no longer interested. But I could do that confidently because I asked some questions during the interview that told me important things about the position that I couldn’t learn from a job posting.
Do NOT ask about salary, benefits, vacation time or professional development allowance – those are things to ask about during the position negotiation.
10. Be as calm as you can. You got this.
Being nervous or stressed is perfectly natural. The interviewers know that you’re likely to be nervous, especially if you don’t have extensive experience. Be cool – they will cut you some slack for nerves. BUT, that slack doesn't extend to sloppy answers, appearance, or attention. In addition to practicing the specifics, spend some time practicing being present – paying attention, focusing on the process and the questions. Plan to end on a high note – a lot can be recovered with a strong finish. And always say thank you to the interviewers at the end, offering a handshake to each.
Job interviews are not easy, nor should they be. A company is making a decision to hire someone – be responsible for their salary, benefits, promotions, career development; allow them to interact with their customers and other employees; represent them to the rest of the world – for what may be a long career. And they are deciding that based on a two-page resume, a few hours of conversation, and some follow-up. Companies take the interview seriously, and so should you.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.