Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Ask Cloud: Interviewing

Last week, I posted a wrap up of my non-academic job search posts, and asked if anyone had any topics they thought I'd missed.

One of you pointed out that I hadn't written about interviews yet. There are two reasons for this, one good and one not-so-good. The not-so-good reason is that I feel much less confident in my own interviewing abilities than in my resume and cover letter writing abilities. However, I've seen enough bad interviews to have some ideas about what usually doesn't work, so perhaps I can distill some tips out of that.

The good reason is that the details of interviewing vary widely in different industries and jobs. If none of my other arguments have convinced you that you should be networking and doing informational interviews, maybe this will. The only way to find out what is expected in an interview in the industry you're trying to enter is to ask someone in that industry. Even within an industry, there is a fair amount of variation from company to company. I think the best advice I can give on preparing for an interview is to try to be well-rested and ready to think on your feet!

Still, here are some pointers that might be useful:

1. Be prepared to demonstrate that you know what you say you know

If you are applying for a hands on technical job, you might be asked to demonstrate those technical skills. It is particularly common to be asked to take a code test if you are applying for a job that
involves coding.

Even if there is no actual test, you will probably be asked questions that attempt to confirm that you know the things your resume says you know. Never try to fake your way through a technical answer. If you do not know the answer, just say so, and say how you'd go about learning that information if you needed it on the job. Also never inflate your role in a project when asked for details about something on your resume. It is dishonest to do so, and you never know who the person asking the questions knows. I once interviewed with the wife of one of the collaborators on one of my graduate school rotation projects. I'd never met her, and she had not changed her name when she got married, so I had no idea who she was when I was interviewing. However, she'd asked her husband about the project before the interview, and would have caught me in an instant if I'd tried to pretend my role had been bigger than it was. I didn't inflate my role, and she told me who she was. We had a laugh about the smallness of the science world. I got the job, and look back on that job as one of my favorite jobs ever. It is a good thing I didn't let a mistaken need to look more important on a project than I was short circuit that interview!

2. Know the basics about the company but come prepared to ask questions to learn more

Make sure you've read the company's website and know the basics about what the company does. Do a web search, too, and see if you can find any articles or other information about the company.

Come prepared with 3-5 questions to ask during the course of the interview. You want to have good, interesting questions for two reasons:
(1) It shows curiosity and engagement, which is a good thing to show in an interview
(2) You should be using the interview to determine whether or not the job is a good fit for you, and the best way to do this is to ask some questions.

You need to do the work to figure out what you want to know about each company. However, you can always ask your interviewer to tell you about the company culture. I particularly like to ask multiple interviewers this question and compare their answers (interviews in my industry are usually a string of 1:1 meetings).

3. Think about how you handle the "soft skills" and be ready to talk about it

I hate the term "soft skills," but I can't think of a less annoying catch-all for the work skills that involve interpersonal interactions. If you are interviewing for a position that involves management of people or projects, you will almost certainly get a lot of these sorts of questions. In fact, I would be nervous about a company that didn't ask any questions about management style and methods for a managerial position. Unless it is a former colleague who knows me well, the failure to ask me about this would be a huge red flag to me, possibly indicating that the company doesn't know what management is and why they need someone who knows how to do it.

Even if you are interviewing for a non-managerial role, you will probably get asked a couple of these questions, particularly about how you handle conflict at work. Examples of these questions are:
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult colleague
  • How would you handle it if you had a disagreement on technical approach with a coworker?
You can find example questions online, but I think the best preparation is just to think about how you handle conflict, and how you want to handle conflict, and be ready to talk about this, with a couple of examples in mind. Then you can react to any version of this question. In my experience, most of the "soft skills" questions boil down to how you handle conflict. 

And of course, there is the every popular "tell me about your biggest weakness" question. You might as well practice an answer to that one now, because you'll almost certainly run into it. Pick something that is actually a weakness but not an irredeemable one and talk about how you mitigate its impact on your work. I never ask this question myself, but I've been in panel interviews where it has been used. I've seen perfectionism and difficulty letting go of a project used as weaknesses to good effect. In recent interviews, I have used my tendency to get buried in operational details, and I talk about how I specifically set aside time on my calendar to come up for air and think about broader, more strategic issues. Note the form of that answer: I'm a middle manager- I'm supposed to be buried in operational details, but I should also be working on thinking strategically as I look ahead to future growth and I am most effective at my job when I have a clear view of the bigger picture of what my department and company are trying to do. I've picked a real trait of mine that has aspects that make it a weakness, but that has positive aspects, too. And I've said how I mitigate the weakness aspects. You'll need to think hard about what trait you can use- this is an answer you won't be able to crib from anyone else.

4. Know what you want in a job and be ready to talk about it

You will probably be asked to describe your perfect job, or where you want to be in 5 years, or some other nonsense. These are hard questions, since you want to sound ambitious, but not so ambitious that you sound like you view the current job as nothing more than a stepping stone. Also, I always think in my head that it is none of the interviewer's business what I want to be doing in 5 years- they can't guarantee me a job in 5 years, after all!

I usually answer these questions by talking about the main qualities that make me happy in a job: to feel like I am learning new things and to feel like I am making a valuable contribution. These are my happiness criteria- you should think about what yours are.

My third big criteria, by the way, is that I strongly dislike a confrontational/adversarial/overtly competitive environment, even one in which the confrontation is not meant to imply disrespect- but I don't usually talk about that in an interview. I try to suss out their culture, and if pushed about what I like in a culture, I talk about valuing strong teamwork, which is the positive corollary of my dislike of an adversarial environment.

5. Dress appropriately but in something in which you feel comfortable and confident

Dress expectations vary widely by industry (another reason to find a contact within your target industry!) but in general, you can't go wrong by dressing more formally. I personally always wear a jacket, because I think a well-tailored jacket is flattering on me, so it allows me to not worry about whether my stomach bulge is showing. I'm in a somewhat casual industry, so I don't always wear a full suit- but I have on occasion.

I think it is unfortunate that we judge people on their attire and I try to fight that tendency in myself, but it is reality, and not everyone even fights the tendency. So it is worth spending some effort to get your attire "right." In general, that means that women have to worry more than we'd like about the length of skirt and the cut of shirt (another reason I wear a jacket- I am large-busted, and the jacket keeps that from being an issue). I think nice trousers are fine, and I've interviewed in them. In some industries, though, the more conservative older men will frown on trousers on a woman. You have to decide for yourself if you care about that.

Men generally have an easier time. They can almost always do fine by wearing a nice suit, or a dress shirt and nice trousers. They are not completely off the hook on attire, though. They need to make sure their suit actually fits- particularly if they are going with a double-breasted style of jacket. An ill-fitting suit is noticeable and distracting at best.

6. Decide ahead of time how you'll handle inappropriate questions

Note that this answer, more than any other, is strongly geared towards the American job market. I've never worked anywhere else, and while I know there are different laws and norms, I don't know enough about them to comment on them.  Any readers who do should feel free to chime in on this in the comments.

If you are in a protected class (as defined by anti-discrimination law) you'll probably get an inappropriate question or two over the course of a job search. Actually, I think that if you are anything but a white American man, you'll get an inappropriate question or two. Well, maybe white male Canadians will get a pass- but the rest of us will get asked things that the interviewer shouldn't ask. Unless the only people interviewing you are human resources staff, you will probably run into at least one interviewer who doesn't know the rules and that one interviewer will always be curious about something he or she shouldn't ask about.

Over the course of my career, I've been asked about my marriage plans, my plans to have children, and how I handle child care arrangements. There was also one memorable interview where the guy asked me if I'd gone into my field to meet men. (I answered "No" and then said nothing more and waited for the next question.)

There are also well-intentioned questions that stray into difficult territory- when I was interviewing when Pumpkin was still a baby, one person asked me what I did for fun. The honest answer right then was that I slept for fun. (I stammered a minute, then answered that I spent my free time with my child, but also enjoyed playing music and reading. I got that job.)

There is no great way to handle these questions, and I think everyone has to figure out their own boundaries. Many men have no idea that women generally try not to talk about family when interviewing- they are completely unaware of the fact that research shows that there is a motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus. They have never experienced any negative impact from discussing their family at work, so they don't think these are potentially harmful questions for a woman. Some people are just bigoted jerks, and are trying to trip you up. Some people view themselves as strictly fair and honestly think that these questions are relevant and that they need to know the answers to be "fair." The optimal answer will depend on which category the interviewer is in, and of course you have no way of knowing that.

Personally, I generally answer honestly but briefly and with as little detail as I can. If I am then hired into the company, one of the first things I tell HR is that they need some more interview training. If I know the HR person, I might tell him or her at the time of the interview, but this can be awkward because it introduces the risk of a lawsuit if the company fails to hire me.

Other people might prefer to decline to answer- but be aware that the more clueless interviewers might be very confused by this and you might find yourself in the awkward position of explaining why those questions aren't appropriate, so include that in what you practice ahead of time.

Those are the tips I can think of. Any specific questions you wish I'd covered? Other advice you'd like to offer? Leave me a comment!


  1. I'm female, late twenties, and it never occurred to me to wear a skirt when interviewing for jobs. I think I wore a fairly nice sweater and black slacks to my most recent interviews (which were a year ago). I'm large-busted and fairly curvy, but not strikingly so. I also don't remember being asked any inappropriate questions. All but two of the people who interviewed me were men, aged between mid thirties to mid sixties.

    Your comment about "culture" makes me wonder about how to ask about what the accepted behavior is when people get sick. It seems that in some places, people are expected to stay home when they are sick to avoid getting coworkers sick. In other places, I get the sense that people tend to come to work even when they are sick (say with a cold) because they don't want to be "lazy." Or because they need to be physically present at work, e.g. in a lab.

    I really don't like it when my coworkers come to work sick and then get me sick, especially when it seems like this is done out of macho-ness and not out of a real inability to work from home (this happened in grad school quite a bit, resulting in the entire lab getting sick). But I also don't like feeling that I might be judged for being lazy when I stay home when sick. I know this isn't strictly related to interviewing, but do you have any thoughts on the topic of sickness at work? Surely it can't be good for productivity to have a whole group catch a cold?

    1. I'm early 40s. It is my impression that people are asking fewer amazingly inappropriate interview questions, but I do still get asked about my kids a lot. The busty thing mainly just means that I can't get away with just wearing a button up shirt and nice trousers/skirt... which makes me favor a jacket as a way to look like I dressed for the interview. I think the skirts vs. trousers thing is mainly an issue in stodgier fields.

      On the sick thing- I strongly prefer that people stay home when sick, and I always try to do that. However, the practice of just having "paid time off" days instead of separate vacation and sick days means that people tend to hate to waste a day off on a cold. Also, parents often exhaust all of their time off on sick kids, and have little choice but to work through their own colds. I can usually work from home, at least, so that I can minimize spreading the germs. But I think that people coming in while sick and spreading the illness is just one of those things that modern office life makes happen.

      I wouldn't ask about it in an interview unless it would change your mind on whether or not to take a job. You can ask about the work from home policy and the PTO vs vacation/sick day policy, though. Those are great questions to direct to HR. You could also ask one or two of the more junior interviewers about these policies when they ask if you have any questions. Chances are they won't think to base any opinions of you on the question, and their answers might be quite illuminating about company culture.

  2. The biggest things I look for when hiring people are 1. Technical competence, 2. Personality, 3. Dedication. To address 1. I usually ask some simple questions related to problems we're encountering and how they would handle it. So make sure you're confident thinking on your toes. Also, if you have no clue, then say "I really don't know, but I would try...". Even if the first thing you would try is researching the topic on the net. Addressing 2., try and joke around and make things a conversation. One of my favorite questions is "What's been your favorite project?". A candidate answered and once asked me afterwards what MY fave project was. This turned it into more of a conversation. For most lab jobs, you'll be working closely with other people. Meshing personality-wise is really important to that. To address 3., I usually just try to figure out how much fun the person truly has doing the science. If the work seems more like a hobby then they'll be more dedicated. Also, if they're truly in it to help people it comes out pretty easily by how excited about the projects they get. While I've interviewed and filled out the personnel of mine and other research teams, this is just how I operate. But even when I was trying to find work years back I followed this advice and got a ton of job offers. Just please don't forget that you're also interviewing THEM. This is your chance to find out if you want to be spending the next few years with these people!

  3. Though I am in a vastly different industry, I still would offer this suggestion to your point about #1: one of my favorite questions to ask the hiring manager is "what are the key projects and benchmarks that you want the person in this role to hit at 6 months? At a year?" I've found that this can be REALLY telling--I've had answers that veer wildly from what the job description implied, and I've had answers that show that the really key things are things I'm not interested in/good at, or that I'm totally jazzed about. I've also gotten answers that show me they don't really know what they're going to do with the role, or that the role is going to be overworked/expectations aren't realistic (I interviewed one place that expected the role to get them 1 Million Facebook likes in 2 months. I...declined a second interview). That can be really useful for you in determining if you want to work for them.
    If you really listen to the answer, you can suss out a fair amount about the role and the person you'd be working for. It can also be a good jumping off point for being able to further speak to what you can bring to the role, such as: "I recently completed a project like what you're talking about with X, and here's how that went."

  4. Hi Cloud and other commenters -

    I know this post is a bit old now, but I wanted to throw out a question and see if anyone has any advice!

    I've had a phone interview for a job that I heard about through a mailing list and applied for somewhat on a whim, because it sounded interesting and I wanted to increase my options. The interview went well, and now they've invited me to come back for a second interview in person. Which is exciting - the only problem is, it's in a location I don't really want to move to, and after speaking to them on the phone, although I had a good impression of my interviewers and the company overall, I'm not sure the position is what I really want to be doing.

    I'm not completely sure that I wouldn't take the job if they offered it to me, but I have some big doubts. Is it really rude to go to a second interview (they're offering to pay travel expenses, etc.) if I'm not sure I want the job? I don't want to turn it down too soon - maybe I'll love it once I'm there - but I don't really know what the protocol is here. I'm also hoping to hear back from some other places I'm more interested in, but this is the first time I've gotten such a positive response. Thoughts??

    1. Hi SC- I think that unless you are certain you would NOT take the job under any circumstance, it is fine to go an interview. The practice will be good for you, and maybe they'll convince you that you should consider their position.


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