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Interview Skills for the Job Hungry


For many of us the first time we face the scrutiny of a 'serious' interview panel is when we try to convince a department to take us on as a PhD student. You may have run the interview gauntlet before then, for summer jobs for example, but the stakes--a career in science, or not--have probably never been so high. And as you progress--applying for postdocs, fellowships, and (whisper it!) permanent academic positions, the pressure just keeps piling on.

In an interview you may have as little as half an hour to give a stunning, or at least solid, answer to the one main question from each panel member. There could easily be six or more of them, and not surprisingly the number of people gazing at you from across the table seems to increase the higher the profile of the job. At the other extreme you could be in for a 2-hour grilling session when the challenge is to stay alert and sharp right until the end. But whatever the format or duration of your ordeal you need to develop a strategy that ensures you come up with the goods on your big day.

You would be amazed at how many people just turn up for interviews and give the first answers that come into their heads. This usually has disastrous consequences for their chances of getting the job. Worse still, some people have a well thought out strategy that vanishes as soon as the door to the interview room opens. Interviews do that to people.

In many ways an interview is like an oral examination. So why not prepare as you would for an exam? You don't know the questions beforehand but you can revise and try to second guess what might be asked. But most importantly, make sure you give the right performance to get the maximum mark--all the revision in the world counts for diddly squat if you lose your self-control when you find yourself 'on the hook'. I find the knack to a successful interview is to practice being both relaxed and alert. Practice is particularly essential if you feel these two states of mind are mutually exclusive.

What the panel is testing is obvious:

a) Do they believe you can do the job well?

How can you expect the interview panel to pin down your good qualities if you're not sure of them yourself? You also need to be able to turn your not-so-positive attributes into something more flattering (for example, you may have chaotic organisational skills, but are finding tremendous help in the form of lists) or demonstrate that they are outweighed by far by your skills in other areas. So get the facts about yourself clear in your mind. You may know you are strong in the lab but weak on writing up. Or you may be an excellent lecturer but poor on project management. However your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis shapes up, make sure you've sussed yourself out thoroughly and honestly before you start. Getting constructive criticism from colleagues will undoubtedly help a lot.

b) Do they like the look of you?

It's true to say it's called an 'interview' because they call you 'in to view' you. Of course this has more to do with your attitude than with your haircut or the colour of your tie or blouse. You could seriously harm your chances with something as trivial as not smiling at all during the interview. This will be interpreted as either that you are not able to cope under pressure or that you were born miserable. Not good.

You are a happy person and you are not under pressure. You are relaxed, confident. You are likely to get lots of other offers. You are on your way to the top. This is the impression you want to create. This is the head-job you need to set in concrete in your mind before you walk through that door.

c) Do you show any strong contra-indications for either a) or b)?

Just one 'no-no' can turn the panel against you even if they quite like you in all other respects.

In a nutshell, for the whole interview never cease to be ENTHUSIASTIC (you're relaxed, so smile a little), ATTENTIVE (you are alert, maintaining good eye-contact and nodding a fair bit), and POSITIVE (give forward-looking answers).

WARNING! Do not go to the other extreme and appear cocky. No one likes a cocky person. Even if your CV is strong and you've already come across well during the interview, a little humbleness is always a very positive thing. Expressing a willingness to learn more or admitting a small weakness will make you appear honest. It will also create the impression that with you, what you see is what you get. They'll believe everything else you've said is fair comment and probably true.

I wouldn't dare to give any advice to women on how to dress appropriately for the occasion, but I am prepared to, humbly, stick my neck out for the men. Are you going for a financial services job? No, so don't dress like it. Yes, wear a jacket and tie, but guys, leave the power suit in the wardrobe. You'll look and feel overdressed. Aim for Indiana Jones at a conference dinner, not a young executive in a big multinational.

My last piece of advice would be to never let your guard down. Your sociability will almost certainly be tested over lunch. They'll ask people who met you on the tour of the department what they thought of you after you've left. Everyone you encounter needs to be impressed, from the porter to the head of department. So be prepared to think on your feet and charm them all. You'll end up feeling exhausted, but if you get your head straight before you start you'll find it much easier to sell yourself. And with the best of luck, you might just get that job.

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