Help me not suck at job interviews
April 17, 2011 3:31 AM   Subscribe

I have an interview for my dream position this week. Help me ace it/not ruin my chances.

I recently found out I've made it to the final round for a killer position with my dream company in the industry I want to work in. Yay! Only problem is I haven't interviewed for a job since I was 20, and I'm nervous. I've worked in the university sector for my entire career as a PhD student (and now I can say I'm officially a doctor of philosophy), so, even though I'm deeply committed to my this new step in my career, I feel a bit uninformed about the way hiring and firing works in the 'outside' world.

They were a bit vague about when the interview is. I can expect a call on Monday, basically, and I'll either go into the office or speak to them over the phone. The interview is for a creative role. This weekend I'm focusing on learning as much as I can about the company and writing down all of my concerns and questions about the position, and also managing my expectations.

Here are my anxiety points:
- I have a strong tendency to speak very quickly and apologise for myself when I'm nervous. I'm trying to prepare now by keeping up with mindfulness meditation, biking and running, things that help keep my anxiety in check, but I'm really concerned that in the heat of the moment I'll start talking a mile a minute. How do you keep your cool in these situations?

- I'm working on moving between two very, very different industries, and I'm not sure how to respond to the inevitable question of why I want to work in this industry and not in research/academia. The honest answer is a combination of burnout and an almost gut instinct that I'd be great in New Industry, but I'm not sure if that's what this company wants to hear.

- In addition, my research was highly theoretical/philosophical, and I still struggle to explain it to people outside my discipline. I'm proud of my dissertation and my work, but I still cringe when someone asks me about my PhD. What do I say when this comes up? I'm very concerned about appearing rigid and pretentious.

- Last but not least, holy cats, what do I WEAR?? I skew rather feminine in my style, ie I have long hair and regularly wear skirts/dresses/makeup. I know a number of people who work for this company, and they seem permanently dressed in jeans and Cons. I also have a tattoo on the inside of my upper arm. Do I aim for 'professional' or do I am for 'casual'? What do grownup women wear, anyway??

- Snowflake concerns aside, if you've been in the position to hire people I'd really love to know what an interviewee absolutely shouldn't do/say, and what they should, bearing in mind that I'm kind of an idiot at job interviews.

Thank you, hive mind!
posted by nerdfish to Work & Money (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Congratulations on getting to the interview stage!

I had done a similar transition from the research / academic world and while not going into a creative field, some advice and observations:

- Speaking quickly is a sign of quick thinking, which is a very good thing. That said, preparation is key for keeping your cool, as well as remembering to pause before answering. Say you get a 'perfect question', one you've prepared extensively for; but before you dive in and knock it out of the park, simply take a few seconds to take a moment to think before answering. And then start at a similar pace as your interviewer (mirroring their speed), and then allow yourself to speed up as you go along. No need to apologize for being nervous, but even if you do, the most important aspect of an interview is to honestly present your strengths in your best light. (Frankly if you don't make a good 'match' you wouldn't be happy there anyway, even though you believe it is the perfect position in the perfect company. There are lots of different company cultures that can have a huge personal impact with a lot of uncontrolled variables in there.)

- It's important for you to think through the positive side of 'burnout', say to 'look for a new challenge', to better align with your interests, rather than the 'I worked myself to death in my prior field and got bored with it'. And for the instinct that you'd be great in New Industry, you need to back that up with whatever concrete examples from your past that support it, even if it were to be from your childhood or summer camp. Honesty is great - and the work to do now before the interview is to do some research on your past experiences, and then package that up in a way that makes the interviewer feel 'we better hire this person ASAP before any of our competition does!'

- More work here to do. I work in a technical field with M.D.s, Ph.D.s, and a number of M.D./Ph.D.'s, and you really need to think through how to explain your theoretical field in language a 3rd grader can understand. And then think through how to explain it to an average high schooler, and then to a college undergraduate. Write it out, test it as much as you can with your friends and others who you've just met, and come up with the ideal answer suitable for your prospective interviewers. It's great to be proud of how you spent many years of hard work (and getting a Ph.D. is no mean achievement); you also need to think thoroughly through how your Ph.D. achievement will be an incredible asset for your prospective employer. And then explain what you did in that light.

- I'm not a woman but being the nicest-dressed person in the room is not a disadvantage in just about any situation I can think of.

- In the interviews I've conducted, there were considerations that often went beyond what the particular candidate did or didn't say in the interview, but were most certainly influenced by how the candidate described it. For example: Two other positions only 6-months and 10-months prior to applying? Usually a major red flag, and that candidate did a very poor job of addressing our concern that this person would find something else 12 months out. (A 'flight risk' as we used to say.) If this person had identified our own concern and addressed it head-on? It would have been very different.

Lots of advice on Metafilter on handling interview questions. Tell me about yourself, interview tips, interviewing the CEO. But my own advice is for you to have a short list of insightful questions for the interviewer. It demonstrates your interest in the different field, as well as what you've been able to grasp so far. It can clearly differentiate you from the others they are looking at, and make you memorable.

You want to be memorable, for all the right reasons. Best of luck!
posted by scooterdog at 5:10 AM on April 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Dammit, you stole my AskMeFi question! I have an interview with the local steamfitter's union, and I wanted to get some interview tips as well.

Anyway, I've been on a few interviews recently, and I've also received some counseling on taking interviews. What I can tell you, first off, is that you need to research the company you're applying to. Even if you're part of the industry, you should know what the company does, as well as how they're set up (where they operate, what they specialise in etc.) Be prepared to ask questions about the company's future plans, and what they expect of new hires. And if you're vague about what the interview is for, you might be better off asking for clarification at the interview itself rather than asking when they call. Getting in the door is what matters here, even if the company or the job is not exactly what you had in mind.

Also, rehearse your responses to questions like: "what are your weaknesses?" (admit what you need to work on, but follow up with some strengths to end the response on a high note) and "where do you see yourself in five years?" (have an idea of where you want your career to go, and how that applies to the company you're talking to). If you tend to speak quickly and panic during interviews, now would be a good time to practice slowing down your responses.

If you're changing industries, there's nothing wrong in saying that you have something to offer in the new industry. But be sure to reference your experience in your previous job(s) and connect that to your new position. Being older can be an advantage in terms of experience, knowledge and maturity, and you need to sell that accordingly.

As for how women should dress for an interview... well, I should probably keep my mouth shut on that topic before I get myself in trouble :) But as a rule, overdressing is always better than going too casual.

Good luck!
posted by spoobnooble at 5:16 AM on April 17, 2011

Make a conscious effort to slow down. You always have more time than you think. Try to make a couple of clear points with each answer, then stop talking. Have some points you want to get across in the interview and, like a politician, get them over regardless of the question if necessary. Don't talk about your weaknesses (don't say 'burnout' at any point for any reason) but demonstrate how you can do the job and make their lives easier and their firm more efficient. Don't at any point start telling them how to do their job though. Stress your practical skills rather than academic qualifications. Wear sleeves that cover up the tattoo.
posted by joannemullen at 6:04 AM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding taking time to think before you answer. I just finished a round of interview, and we were commenting on the fact that everyone just dove into their answers and found themselves stuck or down a track that was clearly not their best option. Besides, appearing to be thoughtful will help counteract the impression that you fast talking might leave.

Also, watch your energy level - you want to appear energetic and enthusiastic without seeming manic. The two worst interviews I have ever conducted included one woman who seemed like she might be about to fall asleep and a man that was so all over the place that we couldn't possibly imagine having him in our small office despite the fact that he had a strongly matching skill set.

As for dress, if it's a creative place and everyone is quite casual, I wouldn't worry too much about your tattoo, but don't assume you can dress as casually as they do. I would go for a simple skirt and a nice blouse or top, maybe a funky accessory or two. You should be the best dressed person in the room, but not so far ahead of everyone else that they think you don't understand the culture (e.g - we had a woman show up in 6 inch heels and designer wear for an outdoor, garden-based position - not a deal-breaker in itself, but an indication that in transitioning from one sector to another as she was, she didn't really get what she was in for).

FWIW, being well prepared for the interview is a huge advantage - I find it a bit shocking how little preparation the majority of people do.

Good Luck!!!
posted by scrute at 6:58 AM on April 17, 2011

Dress: Nice pants are fine too, I simply mentioned a skirt since you stated you liked dresses and skirts!

sorry about the typos - need to edit before I post!
posted by scrute at 7:00 AM on April 17, 2011

If there is an HR professional in the loop, you should be able to ask her or him what attire is customary for candidates for this position. You CANNOT infer the answer to this question from the attire of people working there day to day. In my industry, for example, people will dress down as far as sweats and t-shirts if they feel like it, and rarely dress over oxfords and khakis, but a recruit who showed up in anything other than a suit would have no chance, unless they were leveraging a pre-established reputation as an eccentric genius.

Regarding the industry switch, it is the most obvious and predictable question you will be asked and you must have a clear, succinct answer which is confident in its content and its presentation. Make your transition appear logical, a win-win for employer and you both, but not a contradiction or reversal of the fundamental values and interests that brought you to the program.
posted by MattD at 7:19 AM on April 17, 2011

I think a nice suit is always appropriate. It's a PITA to buy if you're not the type to ever wear a suit outside an interview, but it's worth it. Even if the company is very casual, recruits are expected to wear a suit. (FWIW you can get some cute suits at The Limited, and the individual pieces work well on their own as well.)
posted by radioamy at 7:28 AM on April 17, 2011

Rehearse. Get dressed and drive to the interview location. Make sure you know where you'll park. Be sure your clothes are clean and pressed a couple days in advance. Ask someone to help you rehearse typical interview questions, and practice your answers. Get plenty of sleep the night before. Good luck!
posted by theora55 at 10:19 AM on April 17, 2011

While it would help to know what role and industry you're in, I can understand why you have remained vague.

First of all I want to point out that the comments above offer some really great practical advice. So here is my 2 cents on interviewing for a "creative role". It totally depends on who the interviewer is but try to walk the line between practical and creative as best you can. One of my first "real" jobs was as a web designer and after I got to know my managers better they confessed that I almost didn't get the job because I didn't come off as creative enough in the interview.

You seem to be doing all the right things (researching the company, being prepared to answer certain questions). While in my opinion there is no such thing as over-preparing, try to reserve some mental space for taking some risks in the interview (but not too many and with caution!).

Creative types like to hear other creative types talk about the "process". If you can build some sort of narrative about a particular problem you once faced and how you solved it (and try to keep it entertaining yet relevant), you'll be in great shape.
posted by jeremias at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, guys, this is exactly the kind of advice I was after. It's now Monday and I'm waiting for the phone to ring (sigh!), but I've taken extensive notes on the company, their work, their competitor's work, and questions I have about the position. Now I just need to chill out and manage my expectations.

Apologies for remaining vague, Jeremias, I just didn't want to give out too many identifying details.

Thanks again!
posted by nerdfish at 12:55 AM on April 18, 2011

Response by poster: UPDATE: they called for the first interview when I was out for a run. I took the call anyway, even though I didn't have my copious notes with me. The next time I spoke to them they offered me the job. I'm totally elated. FTW, AskMefi!
posted by nerdfish at 10:51 PM on April 21, 2011

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