Interviewing

Information on this page includes:
 

Overview

Interviewing is a skill.  Job candidates who go into interviews with the attitude that they will simply respond to questions off the cuff are taking a passive, unprepared approach that impresses no one, especially in this day and age, when markets are tough.  You should prepare yourself thoroughly for every interview and identify your purpose in advance.  What do you want the employer to remember about you?  What messages will you send, and how?  Taking some ownership in the process will enhance your performance while also reducing angst and feelings of powerlessness.

Academic Interviewing versus Interviewing Beyond Academe

Academic Interviewing Interviewing Beyond Academe
Somewhat predictable Less predictable
Generally speaking, longer—more time to make a good impression Generally speaking, shorter—more pressure to make a good impression quickly
You know the language, culture, and people of academe You are venturing into new and perhaps unknown territory

While interviewing beyond academe is somewhat less predictable, the essence of the process is similar, and your purpose going in should be the same.  Above all, you want to show those on the hiring side that you are “job ready,” that you are a forward-thinking professional whose future is compatible with theirs.  Let them see how invested you are in the opportunity and what you find interesting about their job opening.  GSAS Career Services offers programsannually on interviewing beyond academe.  Check our Current Events for a schedule of upcoming programs.

A job interview is an exchange of information between an employer and a potential employee.  Generally speaking, if you have been invited to an interview, the employer assumes you can do the job.  The interview allows the employer to evaluate your potential “fit.”  Thus, in addition to your qualifications, the employer will judge you on your personal qualities, such as your interest in the job, your enthusiasm and commitment, and your ability to get along with others and adapt to the organizational culture.

Your job in the interview is to get your messages across and to gather information in order to decide whether or not to accept an offer if one is made.  You play a major role in keeping the conversation flowing and engaging.  You must be able to make an argument for your fit in a short period of time.
While the academic job search has the advantage of relatively established customary protocols, in job markets beyond academe, procedures are less standardized.  After you have applied for a position, you may or may not receive an acknowledgement of your application.  You may or may not receive word when the position has been filled by another applicant.  You may hear nothing initially from the employer only to receive a call months later requesting an interview.  Be prepared for all of these scenarios, do not take silence personally, and keep your expectations realistic. 

Graduate Students Interviewing Outside of Academia

If you wish to enter a field that is not heavily populated by PhDs—regardless of the level of the position for which you are applying—avoid academic language and jargon that may be inaccessible to interviewers.  Sometimes people with advanced degrees are perceived by others as too abstract to be able to solve real-world problems, lacking in people skills, and unable to meet short deadlines.  You may want to provide information in the interview to dispel such (sometimes secretly harbored) notions. Dust off your social skills and send the message that you are focused on outcomes and easy to work with. 

Graduate students who apply for entry-level positions often compete with younger job candidates.  Older candidates with advanced degrees have the advantage of their greater maturity and more highly refined skills and training.  Be careful, though, not to come across as too critical, demanding, or rigid.  You must show that you are flexible, since most employers seek entry-level employees whom they can train and mold.

 

Before the Interview

Prior to any kind of interview, a job candidate must do homework to perform well.  Learn as much as possible about the employer with which you will interview.  Doing your homework will take at least some of the mystery out of the process, and it will relieve some stress.   You will be able to ask good questions and thoroughly evaluate (and argue for) your fit only if you know something about the context you would be fitting into.

Return to the research stage of your job search and dig deeper.  Remember—research is where graduate students excel!!  Play to your strengths.  You may want to look into the following variables for each employer with which you interview: 

  • History, mission, philosophy
  • Geographical location/s
  • Size, number of offices/branches
  • Products and/or services
  • Contributions to the field
  • Current issues/recent news
  • Priorities/strategic plan
  • Potential for future growth
  • Organizational culture and structure
  • Annual production
  • Organizational chart (including names of executives)
  • Financial status
  • Competitors (i.e. “benchmarks”)

It is imperative to know your audience when interviewing for a job.  Thoroughly research the employer and—to the extent that you are able—the people it employs.  Also know the employer’s context, by researching general trends in the industry.  Look for recurring key words and phrases in the employer’s communications.  Be sure to use this language in the interview.

In preparing for a job interview, remember the value of people.  Reach out to people who may have knowledge of the employer or industry and ask for their advice.  Talk to friends, professional contacts, and U.Va. alumni and alums of other institutions you have attended who may have the inside scoop.

Find out as much as you can in advance about the nature of the interview.  How long will it last?  With whom will you meet?  What will you do?  You may receive this information shortly before the interview.  Build time into your schedule for last-minute research.

Prepare and Practice

Before you interview for a job, know in advance what points you want to make about your fit with the position.  Do not depend on the interviewers to draw these out.  Sometimes interviewers are inexperienced at interviewing, and in any event, you want to play an active role in the process—not a passive one.  You should familiarize yourself withinterviewing techniques, prepare for frequently asked interview questions, and practice your interviewing skills.  This effort is essential to performing well.  There is no excuse for not thinking about your answers in advance.  Practice them—preferably with someone else—to ensure that you can present your ideas clearly without rambling or getting off track.  Take care not to sound scripted.  Know by heart all materials you submitted with your application.  If asked to clarify a point you made in your cover letter, for example, you would not want to have to refresh your memory on the spot.

In the interview you will need to address:

  • The skills you would bring to the job.
  • Past accomplishments that demonstrate those skills.
  • Your interest in the employer/industry.
  • Your interest in the job.
  • Your fit with the organization.
  • Your potential to make contributions and grow with the organization.

Seize every opportunity to practice your interviewing skills.  You may conduct a mock interview at any time of the year with a graduate career adviser at GSAS Career Services.  Although this mock interview service is not industry specific, it helps with many of the common interviewing challenges that job candidates face.  To request a mock interview with GSAS Career Services, call 434-243-4014.  You will need to provide copies of your resume or CV, cover letter, and a job announcement at least 3 days in advance.

Dress

Everything is a text.  Keep in mind that how you groom and dress yourself sends a message to others.  There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dressing for interviews.  Cultures vary from one industry to the next, but observance of some basic customs conveys that you respect the interview process.  Following are general recommendations:

  • Always go for a professional look.  This usually includes a business suit (or at the very least something with a jacket).  Even if professionals in the field dress casually, it is advisable to dress more formally for a job interview.  Find out how employees dress on the job, and take that up a notch or two.
  • Avoid overdoing accessories, jewelry, make-up, etc. that detract. 
  • Exercise good hygiene.  Hair and nails should be clean and neat.  Clothes should be pressed and well-tailored.  Avoid perfume and cologne.
  • Carry your materials in a portfolio or briefcase, not a knapsack.  Carry as little as possible.

What to Bring

Below are items you should always bring to an interview:

  • Name and phone number of your contact person
  • Itinerary and hotel information (if applicable)
  • Extra copies of your application materials (e.g. resume, cover letter, etc.)
  • Supporting materials (e.g. writing sample, portfolio of your work, list of references)
  • Your list of questions for the employer
  • Pen and paper for note-taking

 

Interview Types

  • On-Grounds Interviews (OGI) at U.Va.

Employers interviewing on Grounds through University Career Services often sponsor information sessions for interested students, usually the evening before interviews.  If you are selected to interview with an employer recruiting through OGI, check to see if it is offering an information session the night before.  If so, it is imperative that you attend this session.  Your attendance demonstrates your interest and enthusiasm and provides you with valuable information for the interview.

  • Telephone Interviews

Telephone screening is a cost-effective way for employers to narrow the pool of applicants to a short list.   A recruiter or division head may call you to chat one-on-one on the spur of the moment or to schedule a more formal discussion with several colleagues at a later time.  While you are on the job market be prepared to take such calls at any time, including evenings and weekends.  Stay “on your game” and be ready to make a good first impression.  Keep organized materials close at hand for speedy recall, and do not be afraid to reschedule the first conversation if the call comes at a bad time (or if the telephone reception is bad).  This pertains especially to cell phone users.

Following are general tips for phone interviews:

Before the Call

  • If your line has “call waiting,” disable it. 
  • Take the call in a quiet place with no background noise or other distractions.
  • Have your materials handy for easy reference.
  • Prepare questions in advance, and have your list by the phone.
  • Be prepared to take notes (with pen and paper—the sound of you furiously pounding on your laptop will probably not impress).
  • Have drinking water close at hand.
  • Many job candidates feel that dressing for the part during a phone interview helps them project confidence and professionalism.

During the Call

  • Do not use speakerphone.
  • Jot down the name/s of the person/people interviewing you.
  • Speak clearly and slowly.  If you are soft-spoken, you may want to raise the volume of your speech slightly. 
  • Convey your interest and enthusiasm about the position.  Smiling while you speak helps you sound more positive and confident (you may feel silly, but no one can see you).
  • Do not ramble.  It is more difficult on the phone to gauge the attention and interest of the people you are speaking with, because you cannot see them.  Keep your responses concise.
  • If anything is unclear, ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase. 
  • Offer to send additional information or supporting documentation at the end of the call, if appropriate.
  • Close by reiterating your interest in the position and ask about the next step.
  • Send a thank you letter after the interview.
  • Job searches typically culminate in the on-site interviews of the top several candidates.  These interviews can vary in length, from several hours to a day or slightly longer.  They usually consist of a series of multiple interviews.  Job candidates are carefully scrutinized to assess their fit with the division and organizational culture.  Put yourself in a good frame of mind for the interview.  Imagine yourself as an employer.  What qualities would you look for in a job candidate?  What would impress you?  What emphasis would you place on:
  • Aptitude/qualifications?
  • Interest?
  • Attitude?
  • Keep in mind that hiring (and then training) new employees is a huge investment of time, money, and effort for the employer.  Show that you take the opportunity very seriously.

Logistics

  • When you are invited for an on-site interview, you will likely be contacted by a recruiter or hiring manager, who will go over the general contours of the interview and work out the date/s with you.  Try to obtain as much information about the interview format/itinerary as possible beforehand.
  • It is customary for the employer to pay for your travel, lodging, and meal expenses.  Be clear on this, as some employers do not cover expenses.  Do not offer to pay your own expenses but be prepared to do so if the employer does not.  If the employer pays, you may be required to make your own travel arrangements, or the employer may make them for you.  Clarify these details and save all receipts.
  • When traveling to interviews:
  • Pack extra copies of your application materials, references, itinerary, etc.
  • Always carry the name and phone number of your contact person.
  • If you are traveling by air, carry your clothing and interview materials.  Do not check necessary items.
  • Common components of interviews beyond academe are:
  • Meeting with direct supervisor/s
  • Meeting with head of division/unit
  • Meeting with co-workers/staff
  • Tour of facility
  • And perhaps…
    • Presentation/test of some kind
    • Shared meal

During the Interview

The interview is the critical moment for you in the job search process.  You will be “on stage” for the entirety of your interaction with the organization.  Employers often arrange several meetings/interviews with various stakeholders in the search (i.e. senior management, co-workers, staff).  Be prepared to sustain a high level of energy.  Remember that every new person you meet is hearing you speak for the first time.  Keep in mind that a good interview does not feel like work to the interviewer.  You may be nervous or shy, but do not make the interviewer pry information out of you.

While interviewing for a job is stressful, you may enjoy yourself more than you expect.  People are generally very welcoming and friendly.  You will impress them if you put your sharply honed interviewing skills into practice and show them that:

  • You have done your homework
  • You are productive
  • You are forward-thinking
  • You are excited about the prospect of working with the employer
  • You are comfortable in the employer’s environment—very important!
  • You have thought about what it means to hold the position in question
  • And last but not least, that you are a pleasant person

Consider what you have to offer from their perspective—what has meaning to them?  Also remember that the interview is a two-way street.  You are evaluating the opportunity, too.

Interview Structure

Every job interview is different, but most interviews share a basic structure that includes most of the following:

  • Welcome and Chit-Chat

Interviewers often try to put job candidates at ease and build a good rapport with them by engaging in small talk before the process gets underway.  Do not let nerves prevent you from participating in this exchange.  By acting relaxed and natural, you will convey confidence. 

  • Position Clarification

Usually interviewers will open with a brief overview of the position to make sure you understand what the job entails.  You can make a good impression here by showing that you have done your homework.

  • Discussion of Your Qualifications

The bulk of the interview will be devoted to discussing your background and qualifications.  Interviewers will pay close attention to your preparation and how you respond to their questions.  They may employ one or more interviewing techniques.  Familiarize yourself with these techniques and practice your responses to common questions.  Many interviewers also inquire about the future plans and outside activities of job candidates.  In addition, you may be asked about your authorization to work in the US, your educational history, your willingness to relocate or travel, and so on.  Depending on the industry and position, occasionally job candidates are asked to perform a task, in which case employers usually inform candidates ahead of time. 

  • Meals

You may be asked to meet with one or more stakeholders in the interview process over a meal.  Even though meals are intended to be more relaxed than the formal interview, you should still act and speak professionally.  Remember that social situations are part of the screening process, and you are being evaluated at all times.  Be diplomatic, polite, and cautious.  Do not let too much personal information slip.  Make small talk but avoid topics that may be considered personal, inappropriate, or touchy.  Try to resist messy food (e.g. baby back ribs) and observe proper table manners even if others do not—they are not interviewing for a job.  Do not eat or drink excessively.  Drink alcohol in moderation only if it does not affect you, and do not hesitate to refuse alcohol.

Be very careful not to let down your guard at any point in the interview.  Even those of us who do not usually confide in strangers may—under pressure—fall prey to the temptation.  Watch this.  For example, during meals, even if your host adopts a casual tone, remember that s/he is not your friend or confidant but rather someone who plays a role in the interview process. 

  • Conclusion

You will be given the opportunity to ask the employer your own questions, usually at the end of the interview.  Be prepared for this moment, and never go into an interview with no questions at all.  Employers often say that the questions job candidates ask reveal the most about them.  In addition to asking your questions, you may have the opportunity to make concluding remarks.  Restate your case for your suitability for the job, perhaps touching on qualifications that you did not have a chance to discuss, and refer to something positive or interesting that you learned from the interview.  Inquire about the next stage in the process.  Again express your enthusiasm for the organization and the position.

  • Departure

Shake hands when saying good-bye, if possible.  (This applies to meetings throughout the interview as well.)  Offer to provide additional information or answer questions if the need arises.

If you want the job, be sure to make that known.  If you do not or you are unsure, make whatever positive statements you can in thanking the employer.

After the Interview

It is always courteous to send a thank-you letter to the employer after your interview to express appreciation for the employer’s efforts.  It is more professional to type rather than handwrite your thank-you letters, and email is acceptable in some industries.  Thank-you letters should be sent within twenty-four hours of the interview.  Thank your interviewer for the interview and the opportunity to learn more about the position, and if others were involved, ask that your appreciation be conveyed to them or send each person a separate thank-you letter as well.  If you are still interested in the position, let the employer know that, and refer to a few highlights of the interview that make the organization attractive to you.  If you consider the job to be a particularly good fit for you, tell the employer so and explain why.  If you were not impressed by the interview, make whatever positive statements you can.

If you have not heard from the employer by the end of the time frame given, it is generally acceptable to inquire politely about the status of the search.

 

Employers may use one or more of the following techniques to interview and evaluate job candidates:

  • Resume-based interviewing
    Straightforward questions about material on your resume or CV.  Needless to say, you should be prepared to elaborate on all of the information you presented.
  • Behavioral Interviewing
    Questions requiring you to describe past experiences as a means toward predicting your future behavior.
  • Case interviewing
    Used mostly in business and consulting, you are given a problem to solve on the spot.  You may be presented with a “brainteaser” or a real case.  Consult the list of valuable resources on case interviewing for advice and tutorials.

Behavioral Interviewing

Behavioral interviewing requires job candidates to describe past situations that in some way resemble situations they might face in the new position.  This approach is grounded in the theory that past performance is the best predictor of future behavior.  Your past experiences may involve work, graduate school, teaching, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, leadership roles, etc., and your discussion of these experiences should directly relate to the job for which you are interviewing.

Behavioral interview questions/commands typically begin with such phrases as:

  • Tell me about a time when you...
  • Describe a situation in which you were faced with a problem related to...
  • Give me an example of an instance in which you...
  • Have you ever dealt with a situation that involved... ?

The most common behavioral questions/commands evaluate such attributes as:

  • Problem solving
  • Decision making
  • Integrity
  • Leadership
  • Initiative and creativity
  • Communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Adaptability
  • Ability to deal with ambiguity

Behavioral interviewing is more structured and less conversational.  You will likely receive set questions, and the interviewer will probably take notes on your responses.  He or she will be assessing your answers in terms of desired behaviors considered necessary for success.

Structuring Information

A very effective technique for communicating information in an interview is to cite a specific example or story to illustrate a point.  Interviewers have a great deal of information to process, and stories are often easier to remember than general statements or platitudes, because they are more vivid and accessible.  Consequently, they can also persuade effectively.  You can apply this technique in discussing any accomplishment (research, part-time job, volunteer work, etc.).  It can also make presenting your strengths easier for those of you who are uncomfortable with talking about yourselves.

In using examples/stories, it is very important to structure them tightly so as not to lose your listener’s attention.  Strip away all unnecessary information.  Focus concretely on:

  • The situation/problem
  • Your action (not the entire team’s)
  • The result/outcome

Always be sure to address the results of your efforts.  Remember that in a job interview you are being assessed on your potential to make contributions.  Outcomes are very important.

Following is an example of an effective response to a behavioral question:

Question

Give me an example of a time when you demonstrated initiative and creativity in getting a job done.” 

Response

Situation/problemIn June 1940 the Nazis seized all of the archives of the French organization I wanted to study.  Because of this obstacle, no history of the movement had ever been written.  A preeminent French scholar had recently given up his plans to tackle the subject because he could not overcome this problem.

ActionI decided to rise to this challenge by seeking other kinds of sources.  The task was difficult but very rewarding.  Once in France I tapped into networks to obtain unprecedented access to secret freemasonic records and major archival collections held in private hands.  I found massive amounts of valuable material in attics, barns, closets, and basements of government buildings, not to mention material in the French National Archives that other historians had never examined.

Result:  The problem of sources ultimately pushed me to employ methods I had not originally intended to use.  By thinking outside the box and by remaining flexible and open to where leads took me, I was able to tell the story of the largest left-wing movement in France in the first half of the 20th century and argue for its central role in the political culture of French left, which still stands fast today.  Although I was just a graduate student, I produced the first scholarly history of the organization in 100 years.

Even though this example is academic in nature, it is effective because the elements of the story are accessible and appealing to general human interest.  It has the added benefit of debunking myths about graduate students lacking people skills and boldness—instead it shines a spotlight on the candidate’s problem-solving skills, focus, resourcefulness, interpersonal aptitude, confidence, and methodical approach to getting the job done.  Most employers after the interview would easily recall images of Nazis seizing documents, the candidate uncovering treasures in attics and barns in a foreign country, making innovative strides in the field.

This technique takes practice.  Before your interview, think of a few stories/examples that illustrate your strengths and achievements, and rehearse them.  You can fashion these stories into answers to a wide variety of interview questions.  Remember that not all examples have to be work-related, but all should highlight a skill or attribute that could be beneficial on the job.  Do not reach too far into the past for your examples.  Also be sure to bring your responses directly back to the job at intervals throughout the interview (e.g. “…and these skills would enable me to be highly effective in performing…”).

Some graduate students may initially be challenged to come up with behavioral responses.  Step back and think broadly about your skills and instances in which you have demonstrated them.  Draw upon all of your experiences, including research and teaching, managing multiple tasks, extracurricular activities and temporary jobs, etc.  Limit details to what is essential and keep your story focused.  Practice with someone who has never heard the story. 

Interview Questions

Below are lists of questions frequently asked in job interviews.   No one candidate will be asked all of these questions; however, one should always be prepared.

Twelve Standard Interview Questions

  1. Tell me about yourself.
    • Often the opening question/command in a job interview.  Think “Why should we hire you?” 
    • Take care not to dash out of the gate here and talk too long.  Keep your answer to one or two minutes at most.  Cover a few topics: education, work history, and recent experience and interests as they directlyrelate to the job at hand.  Emphasize this last point.  At the same time, remember that this is likely to be a warm-up question.  Do not exhaust your best material on it.  Prepare for this question/command in advance.  Keep your response simple.
    • How not to respond:
      • Bad:  Uuuhhhhh, what do you want to know?  You know what the employer wants to know.  Why you?  Why that job?
      • Not good:  Rambling on out of nervousness, talking off-topic about information that does not relate to the position, the employer, or your interest.
      • Could be better:  Getting too specific; saying too much too early; exhausting your best material too early.
      • Good: Smile and make a few general points about your qualifications and how they would allow you to make contributions on the job.  Express your enthusiasm and interest in the position/employer.  Be poised, and start off the interview strong. 
  2. What do you know about our organization?
    • Discuss products or services, revenues, reputation, image, goals, management style, people, history, and/or philosophy.  Do not act as if you know everything about the employer, though.  Just show that you have done some research that has stimulated your strong interest.  Do not overwhelm the interviewer; make it clear that you wish to learn more.
    • You might say something like: "I've researched a number of companies in the industry. Yours interests me because..."  Give your answer a positive tone.  Do not degrade the competition.  Be careful not to spotlight problems—even if you feel you can solve them—unless you do so in a very upbeat, proactive way without offending others.
  3. Why do you want to work for us?
    • A good answer comes from having done your homework.  Speak in terms of the employer's needs.  You might say that the employer is doing things you would like to be involved with, and that it is doing them in ways that greatly interest you.  Highlight your interest and what you can contribute.
    • If you feel that you have to concoct an answer to this question or stretch the truth—then think seriously about your reasons for pursuing the job.  It is difficult to con people in a job interview. 
  4. Why you? What can you do for us that someone else can't?
    • Here you have to toot your own horn.  Create your answer by thinking in terms of your skills, ability, experience, and energy.  Talk about your record of getting things done (focus on outcomes and results), and mention specifics from your resume or list of accomplishments.  Say that your skills and interests, combined with your history of getting results, make you valuable.  Mention your ability to set priorities, identify problems, and use your training and energy to solve them.
  5. Your resume suggests that you may be over-qualified for this position. What's your opinion? Why do you want this job? Are you over-qualified (read: over-educated)?
    • These are common questions for first-timers with advanced degrees on the market outside academe.  Emphasize your interest in establishing a long-term association with the organization.  Say that you would hope for new opportunities to open up for you if you were to perform well in this job.  Mention that a strong company needs a strong staff.  Suggest that since you are so well-qualified that the employer will get afast return on its investment.  A growing, dynamic, and productive company can never have too much talent.  Your specialized knowledge will add value to the position.
  6. What important trends do you see in our industry?
    • Again, you should be good at this one. 
    • Show off your research and analytical dexterity.  Be prepared with two or three trends that illustrate how well you understand the industry.  Trends may include opportunities for growth, changes in the market, technological challenges, economic conditions, regulatory demands, etc.  Think big picture and where you come in.
  7. What do you find most attractive about this position?  What seems least attractive?
    • List three or four attractive features of the job, and mention a single, minor, unattractive item if you can identify one.
  8. What do you look for in a job?
    • Focus on opportunities at this organization.  Talk about your desire to perform and be recognized for your contributions.  Make your answer oriented toward opportunities to show what you can do, rather than personal comfort and security (e.g. “I like to work with nice people.”)
  9. What features did you like the most about graduate school/former position/project?  The least?  What did you think of your boss/adviser?
    • Be careful and be positive.  Describe more features that you liked than disliked.  Do not bring up personality problems. 
    • If you make your previous work sound bad, an interviewer may wonder if you are difficult to please.
  10. What are your weaknesses?
    • Other versions:  Have you ever failed?  How do you think you could improve?  Tell me about a time when you disappointed your supervisor or yourself, etc.  
    • Be prepared to discuss a weak point in an area that is not of high value in the position you are applying for.  For example, if the work is collaborative, you may say that you thrive less in isolated working environments. 
    • Be honest, though.  If you have a weakness that relates directly to the job in question, be sure to convince the interviewer that you plan to address your shortcoming (e.g. if you are a foreign national with limited spoken English skills, and the job requires a great deal of verbal communication, be sure to discuss your concrete plan for improving those skills.)
  11. What are your long-range goals?
    • Show that you are thinking forward professionally.  Do not answer, "I’d be happy forever in this job."  Relate your goals to the employer/industry, e.g. “in an organization such as yours, I would like to...”
  12. What do you feel this position should pay?  What are your salary expectations?
    • Defer tying yourself to a precise figure for as long as possible.  Ideally, you should wait to discuss salary when an offer has been made.  At that point, you know that the company is interested in you and is thus more likely to be flexible in salary negotiations.
    • Prior to that point, you may say, "I understand that the range for this job is between $______ and $______."  You might answer the question with a question: “Is there a range for similar jobs in the organization?"
    • If asked the question during a screening interview, you may say that you need to know more about the position's responsibilities before you can give a meaningful answer.
    • Investigate salaries for similar positions at peer organizations.  Remember that salary is only part of the compensation package.  Be sure to gain information about benefits.
    • Do not give the impression that salary does not matter—that you will accept whatever is offered.  Continue to stress the fact that the job itself is the most important thing in your mind.  The interviewer may be trying to determine just how much you want the job.  Link questions of salary to the work itself.

Other Common Interview Questions

  • What has been your toughest challenge?
    • Pick one that you have risen to and overcome.   Say how.
  • How do colleagues describe you?
  • Why did you choose your field of study?
  • What has been your most rewarding academic experience?
  • What have you done that shows initiative?
  • What motivates you?
  • What frustrates you?
  • What new skills have you developed in the past year?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?
  • What qualities do you admire most in others?
  • How would you describe your work style?
  • How do you manage time?
  • How do you deal with pressure?
  • How do you resolve conflicts?
  • Where do you see yourself five years from now?
  • How do you define and evaluate success?
  • How would you define a good manager?
  • What is your leadership style?
  • How do you think we could improve?
    • Be careful not to sound too critical.  Focus on what you can contribute.

Sample Behavioral Questions/Commands

  • Describe an instance when you had to think on your feet to get out of a bad situation.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to deal with unreasonable expectations.
  • Tell me about a time when you successfully persuaded someone to do things your way.
  • Give me an example of your ability to think outside the box.
  • Tell me about a time on the job that tested your coping skills.
  • When have you had to cope with the anger or hostility of another person?
  • Give me a specific occasion when you conformed to a policy with which you didn’t agree.
  • When have you had to deal with an ambiguous situation at work?
  • Give me examples of your ability to adapt to a variety of people, situations, and environments.
  • Have you ever had to deal with an unresolved situation on thejob?
  • Tell me about a time when you worked effectively with someone you didn’t like (or vice versa).
  • Tell me about an experience that illustrates your ability to influenceanother person verbally.
  • Tell me about a time when you were willing to disagree with another person inorder to build a positive outcome.
  • Describe a time when you had to sell an idea to a boss, authority figure, ortechnical expert.
  • Tell me about a time when your ability to reward and encourage others created positive motivation.
  • Tell me about a time when you were asked to compromise your integrity.
  • Describe a time when you had to bend the rules in order to be successful or accomplish a goal.
  • Give me an example of a time when you used facts and reason to persuadeanother person to take action.
  • Give me an example of the greatest success you ever had in the use of delegation.
  • Have you ever made an unpopular decision?
  • Tell me about a time when you were proud of your ability to remain objective eventhough you were emotional about a problem situation.
  • Give me an example of a time when your timing, political awareness, andknowledge of how groups work enhanced your ability to generate a change.
  • Tell me about a time when you fell short.

Sample General Questions (think “fit”)

  • Why are you interested in our organization?
  • How do you see yourself enhancing it?
  • What specifically would you like to address in your professional development?
  • You don’t have [X skill] we’re looking for.  How will you address that?
    • Do not apologize for what you lack.  Emphasize what you bring to the position and show how proactive you would be in developing new skills.  You will score points if you show that you have gotten a jump start on doing so (e.g. refer to a book you are reading to educate yourself in this area.  Know the author’s name.)
  • So what do you think of us?  (Toward the end of the interview.)

“Fit” Questions for Arts & Sciences Graduate Students

  • How will you make the transition from an academic environment to a [corporation, small business, NGO, government agency, high school, etc.]?
  • If you were offered a faculty position, would you take it?
    • Many employers worry that market forces alone—not shifts in interest—drive PhDs out of academe.

Other Questions

Also be prepared for icebreakers and random questions in social conversation, for example:

  • What do you do in your spare time?
  • Are you a Mets fan?

Questions You May Ask

Asking questions during an interview reflects your interest and preparation, and interviewers will usually incorporate time for your questions into the interview session.  Having no questions at that point looks very bad, so you should be prepared.  Use this opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the employer/industry, play to your strengths, and gather information.  Avoid questions that may come across as confrontational or that pertain to information easily gleaned from the internet.  Questions that refer to information you have gained during the interview will show your attentiveness and interest, thus scoring points.  Perhaps you learned about a new product or service that particularly interests you and you would like to know more.  Below is a sampling of questions you may wish to ask:

  • Is this a new or a replacement position?
    • (If new, how does it factor into the employer’s overall plans for growth?)
  • How would you describe a typical day for this position?
  • What do you enjoy about working here?  Least favorite aspects?
  • What have previous people in this position moved on to?
  • What is the average stay in this position?
  • How much travel is involved?
  • How frequently are employees relocated?
  • What kind of initial training would I receive?
  • What opportunities exist for professional development?
  • Describe the ideal first year for someone in this position.
  • What are the prospects for advancement beyond this level?
  • Does the organization promote from within?  Fill senior-level positions with outside hires?
  • What is a typical career path at your organization?
  • What is your timeline for making a decision in this search? (They will usually tell you, but if they do not, feel free to ask.)

It is also a good strategy to show that your interests in the job opportunity extend beyond yourself.  Sample questions you may ask to convey this message are:

  • What new product lines/services are being discussed?
  • How does this division fit within the overall organization?
  • What are biggest challenges facing the organization/division?
  • How would you describe [X top manager or executive]?
    • This can reveal much about the employer’s philosophy.
  • In what directions is the company headed?  How do you envision things five years from now?

Refrain from asking questions about salary and benefits during the interview.  Doing so may be seen as presumptuous.  It is also best to respond evasively if someone asks you about your salary requirements.  Postpone such discussions until you have an offer, at which point the negotiation process begins.

Handling Illegal and Inappropriate Questions

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, interview questions are illegal if they pertain to an applicant's gender, race, color, religion, age, disability, family or marital status, or national origin.  Examples of the sort of questions you should not be asked are:

  • Where were you born? What is your native language?
  • Are you a US citizen?  (It is legal to ask if you are authorized to work in the US).
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married? How many children do you have?
  • Do you have any disabilities?  (It is legal to ask if you are able to perform the functions of the job).

That being said, some people may ask illegal or inappropriate questions, especially in social contexts, and you are certainly free to volunteer information that would be illegal for an employer to request from you.  If people ask you illegal or inappropriate questions, it is best to react calmly and politely, and respond in a way that addresses the concerns they may have without necessarily giving them the specific information they are fishing for, unless you are comfortable doing so.  You are well within your rights to refuse to answer a question, but remember that people are human—and this might not win them over.  Graceful dodging, on the other hand, can allay worries and even impress.

 

hink of the job interview as a conversation among potential colleagues.  You want to present yourself as a professional.  Remember that non-verbal cues and body language will be scrutinized as much as what you say.  Greet everyone with a firm handshake and make good eye contact.  Keep nervous habits under control, such as tapping your pen, twirling your hair, using filler words (e.g. “ummm,” “like”), looking away or looking down.  Sit up straight.  Recent research reveals that what an audience remembers most about a speaker is based on:

  • How the speaker looked: 55%
  • How the speaker sounded: 38%
  • What the speaker said: 7%

It is very important to communicate good body language in a job interview.  Do so by:

  • Walking confidently and maintaining good posture.
  • Smiling and pausing appropriately.  You will come across as confident and relaxed.
  • Maintaining eye contact 75%-85% of the time.
  • Using gestures for emphasis (e.g. use your fingers to count off points you are making) without overdoing it.
  • Dressing your best.

General Tips for Successful Interviewing

Below are more general interviewing tips to follow: 

  • Be yourself (corny but tried and true).
  • Use the language of the industry!
  • If appropriate, make a conscious effort to dispel misperceptions (e.g. people with advanced degrees are too abstract.)
  • Project a positive attitude—avoid making negative statements.
  • Be enthusiastic about the job, the institution, and the contributions you can make.
  • Throughout the interview, at intervals bring your responses directly back to the job
    (e.g. in summarizing and making transitions).
  • Be poised.  Smile.  Maintain a sense of humor.  Doing so puts people at ease.  Do not be self-deprecating, though,and be careful with jokes.  Watch this especially at the beginning of the interview, when you are the most nervous.
  • Remember that first impressions are powerful and lasting.  Start off strong!
  • Be confident (but not a know-it-all) and sincere.  Do not act as if you are trying to give the “right” answers.
  • Ask for clarification if you do not understand a question.
  • Address people as they are introduced.
  • Be cordial to everyone; shake hands (practice this).
  • Do not hesitate to take a moment to pause and think before you respond.  Doing so conveys confidence.
  • Use the present and past tenses at least as much as the future tense to underscore your accomplishments, not make promises.
  • Make eye contact with everyone in the room, not just the person asking the question.
  • Show that you would “hit the ground running” in every aspect of the job if offered the position.
  • Listen and observe. 
  • Be flexible in unexpected or problematic situations.
  • Do not take things too personally and do not try to read too much into the behavior of others. 

Answering Questions

When answering questions and when communicating generally in an interview, be succinct and do not ramble.  You want to show people on the hiring side that you can listen, focus, and organize your thoughts quickly.  Also be careful not to speak too rapidly, which some are prone to do when nervous. 

Using “I” and “We”

In talking about your experiences, keep the focus on you.  It is good to show that you are a team player, especially if the job is collaborative, but avoid overusing the first person plural (e.g. “We did X, we improved Y, we succeeded at Z,” etc.)  Your team is not interviewing for the job; you are.

Talking About Your Research to Non-Experts

Think about how you explain your dissertation/thesis to your parents or relatives at family get-togethers.  Do not talk down to the interviewer, but make the information accessible and interesting.  Think big picture and be brief!  Ask yourself—does this information showcase knowledge, a skill, or qualities that the employer can take advantage of?  Does this information have meaning to the employer?

Interpersonal Skills

Be careful not to underestimate the value of good interpersonal skills in interviewing for jobs, even for research or analyst positions that involve little human contact.  Recent studies reveal that employers consider the personalities and interpersonal skills of job candidates as important factors in the final decision-making process.  Generally speaking, if you are invited to a job interview, the employer assumes you can do the job.  The interview allows people to evaluate you as a potential colleague.  Often the top 2 or 3 candidates are relatively equally qualified, and in those cases a winning personality can tip the scale.  While personality certainly does not compensate for lacking qualifications, at times when the market is saturated with brilliant job seekers, even if you are one of them, remember your manners and smile.