I’ve got another job interview on Friday. This one will be interesting because I’m not sure exactly what I’m interviewing for; it’s the result of a personal contact rather than applying for a posted position. I do know I’m supposed to bring writing samples. I’m still trying to decide between the bodily fluids survey I did on the blog and the poem about a parasite busting out of a crab’s gut. Tough call; they both have their separate charms. The more gore the better, right?
Nervousness isn’t much of an issue for me. Usually, good things result from job and networking interviews that I do. I walk away with some kind of offer– not always the job I applied for, but something (once I got offered a better job, but usually it’s a worse one).
Since I have such positive outcomes, I thought I’d share my magical interviewing secrets with my fellow unemployed stalwarts, sitting in their cold garrets memorizing commonly asked questions. First, I never memorize other people’s lists. Instead, I memorize my own self. There are four big wicker laundry-style baskets kept in my mind’s work-related storage area. They are labeled “Values,” “Skills,” “Characteristics,” and “Stories.” Almost any work story, good or bad, can be useful in an interview, so long as it has a little drama. I keep three or four items in the first three baskets, and six or seven in the fourth. I like to have everything out where I can see it mentally, without too much piled up.
My first goal in an interview is to project an accurate picture of myself by emptying those baskets during the course of the questioning. For any question that is asked, I quickly decide which two things from the baskets I can emphasize best in my answer. Then I pick a story that includes those elements. It’s a simple mix-and-match formula.
For example, let’s say an interviewer prompts, “Describe a time you overcame a challenge.” I look in the values bucket and pull out “clear, honest communication” I look in the characteristics bucket and pull out “learn quickly.” From the stories bucket I grab that time I went ahead on a project without clear direction and had to do it over afterwards.
My answer will be pretty short. “I have always valued clear communication between me and my colleagues. Its importance was highlighted for me when, for the sake of efficiency, I moved ahead on a two-week project to develop the new cheesy snacks policy without clear direction. Two days before deadline, my boss told me I had gotten it all wrong. Though I initially felt discouraged, I listened carefully to her advice. Then I did some extra research in the academic literature and gained a new understanding of the melted havarti situation both historically and worldwide. With these two sources of knowledge, I quickly learned and applied a new strategy and was able to complete the project by the deadline.”
My second goal is to be relaxed and real. The question-answering technique is a bit formulaic, which could work against me, especially in a long interview. So my style of interacting is to behave as I would among friendly colleagues, or with a boss with whom I have a good relationship. Interviewers are trying to imagine how they would feel about sharing an office with me or supervising me, and when they sense authenticity, they like it. They don’t have to guess about what my real personality is.
I crack occasional jokes, I talk about poetry, I make eye contact, I look for ways to connect with my interviewers. Before and after the interview I make small talk and ask advice about the area–hikes, home-buying, whatever. When the interviewers ask something difficult, I just say, “Wow, that’s a doozy. What an insightful question. I’m going to have to mull it over for a second.” Then I take a drink of water to stall until I can come up with a response. After all, in my past jobs, I have never been afraid to admit I need a little time to figure something out. Why should I pretend otherwise now?
My third goal is to help both the interviewers and myself imagine my future place in the organization. I want to get a feel for how it would be to work under or alongside them, and I want them to imagine me doing good work with them. This part is a little trickier. There are three steps. The first is doing research on the company in advance (yay internet!). The second is decoding the values of the interviewers from their questions and interviewing style. The third is asking good questions.
Research is simple– I look at an organization’s whole website, as well as anywhere it appears in the news or academic literature. I look for quotes from the CEO or people that will be over me. Sometimes I even work the info into my answers, where my values and the organzation’s values match up.
Decoding the culture of a workplace is a little tougher, but it can be done. For example, at one interview, I had an exact number of minutes to answer each question, and they were taped to the table in front of me so I could read along with the asker. I could guess from this situation that the department would be unlikely to view tardiness or vagueness kindly.
At the end of an interview, I ask the questions I really want to know the answers to, although always couched in neutral language. “How would you describe the culture of the workplace?” “Who would be my supervisor?” If the person interviewing me would fill that role, I ask, “What is your management style?” I ask how long people typically stay in the position, and what they move on to next. I also ask if they are anticipating any major changes in the mission or organization of the department, and where they expect it to be in the next few years. Usually, they won’t tell me the real answer, but they’ll hint. I stop after about three questions.
If they answer me by referring to me personally, rather than a hypothetical employee, I know I’ve met my goal. “Oh, you would get to sit by the window and eat our experimental sharp cheddar fortnightly.” Yes! I’m in! Sometimes people are surprised to find themselves being interviewed by me. But hey, I gotta know what I gotta know. No point in signing myself up for 40 hours a week of total mystery.
So that’s it. One, two three, shazaam! They dub me Assistant Vizier of Tasty Cheeses, if I so choose. Now, if I could just figure out how to GET interviews for the jobs I want most…