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Worried about academic interviews? Here’s how to handle tricky questions

Colleagues wearing masks I’ve trawled the archives to pick out common yet tricky questions, and I offer some ideas for how to handle them.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list. You will always get unexpected questions. The trick is to take a deep breath and let go of the anxiety that you need to find the “right” answer. Interview questions have countless plausible and convincing answers, but what sets good candidates apart is their ability to deliver structured answers, to articulate their thinking clearly, and to speak to the concerns of their interviewers.

1) Why do you want this job?

It’s amazing how many people struggle to give sensible answers, which creates a dreadful impression – particularly if it’s the opening question. Prepare your response, which needs to be confident, specific, and well structured. For example, “There are three main reasons why I see myself as a good fit for this role”.

When it comes to the content, avoid being generic (saying the same as everyone else). And don’t sound selfish: the panel want to know how they will benefit from having you on their team as much as, if not more than, how you will benefit.

2) What’s your best paper?

This might be your highest-impact paper, but it doesn’t have to be. What counts is that you give a sound rationale for your choice. Perhaps you’re proudest of the paper which marks a transitional moment in your research or your career. Or perhaps it’s the paper that you know had a direct, positive impact on someone else’s work. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve thought it through.

3) Why do you work on X? Surely, Y is more important

Try not to interpret this sort of question as an attack. Fundamentally, interviewers want you to address their concerns. You work on gibbons – I work on gorillas, so how is your work relevant to mine? You study Shakespeare – I study Marlowe, so what can I learn from you?

Take a structured approach: “Let me break that question down into two. The reason why X is an important topic is […]. I understand that what Y is trying to achieve is […]. What I think that the two studies have in common, therefore, is […].”

4) What will you do if something goes wrong?

What happens if your hypothesis is wrong? Your experiments fail? You can’t get access to the archive you need? Your grant is unsuccessful? Don’t pretend that your research is impervious to failure. Doing so will probably come across as denial or, worse, a lack of self-awareness. What matters is how you handle setbacks, and how you plan to overcome predictable hiccups.

5) Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Lots of people tackle this question by naming the job title which they hope to have attained, for example: “10 years from now, I want to be a professor.” This is OK (provided you can explain how you intend to get there), but it’s awfully predictable. Think about achievements rather than status. This question also gives you an opportunity to show that you have a vision for where your field is going. What’s the next big question that, in a decade’s time, you expect to be working on, or even to have solved?

6) How does your work fit with the group/department/university?

Interviewers don’t recruit candidates who see themselves in solipsistic isolation. So, based on all your preparatory research into this employer, identify the specific ways that your work aligns with their needs and priorities. Think about: particular specialisms, research clusters, possible collaborations, undergraduate or graduate curricula, interdisciplinary links with other departments, outreach initiatives, etc. Don’t turn this into a conceptual answer – ground what you say in a couple of specific, tangible examples.

7) Describe a course or topic that you would teach

Too many candidates talk about prospective teaching as if its value were entirely self-evident, or they simply lean on the intrinsic intellectual interest of the topic. Instead, think in terms of outcomes and learning objectives, because evaluation is integral to good teaching. What will the students get out of the course? What work will you set, and how will it be assessed? What skills will they acquire? How will it complement the rest of their studies?

8) What does collegiality mean to you?

Panels are recruiting someone to work alongside themselves or other members of their institution, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that working relationships are on interviewers’ minds. In truth, some people are simply not good colleagues. So, what kind of a colleague do you intend to be? How are you going to help others to be successful?

9) If we offered you this job, would you accept it?

This isn’t a trick question, and the best response isn’t necessarily just to say yes, without hesitation. There are innumerable factors that could have a bearing on what you might say, not least the vexed issue of waiting to hear back about other applications. But let’s not assume that being honest is always a bad thing. The crucial point is that, before you get in the room, you should take time to think through whether you would accept the job, and to discuss it with peers and mentors.

10) Do you have any questions for us?

This will almost certainly come up and is generally taken as a measure of how interested you are in the role. You should therefore be prepared with a couple of questions. Bad types of question to ask are: essentially selfish (e.g. asking about benefits, annual leave, sabbatical entitlement); ill-informed (i.e. things you could have found out for yourself if you’d spent a few minutes on the employer’s website); or downright naive (e.g. “Would you say that the Research Excellence Framework is important to this department?”).

Do you have any tips to add? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Best Ways to Sell Yourself and Get the Job You Want

We’re all in sales. To sell is to be human. Whether you’re selling a product, a service or yourself, it’s all the same underlying concept: to make something sound as good as possible.

And even if you’re not applying for a sales position, you should learn the basics of sales so you can learn to sell yourself—for a new job, for a freelance gig or for whatever else you’re working toward.

So, how do you sell yourself to land a professional opportunity? Here are a few ways to do it:

Don’t sell features; sell benefits

This is the golden rule in sales, and it’s the same concept when it comes to interviewing. Yes, you can tell the employer about your impressive GPA, Ivy League education and vast experience in the field.

But expand on that. Expand on how your education and experience will benefit the employer if they hire you. What can you do that would make the company better? What can you do to make the company more money?

Be the solution

Companies have job openings because they have a hole in their business. Your job (if you are hired) is to fill that hole.

For example, if the job opening is for a network administrator, tell them why you are the perfect solution to their network woes. Or, if during the interview they tell you they’ve been experiencing DDOS attacks on their servers, you can cite past experience working with hacked servers or even tell them you’ve been on the other end of DDOS attacks. Remember, sell benefits. Use specific examples from your past to illustrate how you will solve inherent problems in their database infrastructure and network security.

A job listing will usually indicate what the job responsibilities are and what you will be tasked with. Use this as an opportunity to brainstorm solutions to some of the problems they list on the job announcement.

Communicate nonverbally

Nonverbal communication is extremely important during interviews. How you communicate via body language is just as important as what you say—at times even more so. You need to portray yourself as a competent and confident employee who knows what you’re doing. That means no profuse sweating, slurring of the words or looking away.

Instead, sit straight up, maintain eye contact and smile often. Don’t underestimate a smile. A sincere smile shows that you’re comfortable. But, more importantly, it shows that you’re friendly. Friendly people are typically easier to work with and have better people skills, which translates very well in the workplace.

Talk about specifics in your resume

Everything you put on your resume should be a talking point that enables you to extrapolate a story you can tell. The more interesting and specific the story, the more you will be able sell yourself.

Going back to the network administrator example, instead of putting something like “managed day-to-day network operations at X company” on your resume, you can spice it up a little bit by writing something along the lines of “averted numerous cyber-attacks by employing state-of-the-art cyber security at X company.” Your potential employer will be a lot more interested in how you prevented cyber-attacks than the fact that you managed day-to-day network operations.

Show some passion

You need to have passion in your work. After all, you spend approximately a quarter of your life working. If you show passion in what you do, it will give you a big advantage over others.

Employers like those with passion because they know you are working for more than just a paycheck and are willing to put in the time and effort to provide quality. If you do not have any passion in what you do, at least learn how to fake it.

It might be called an interview, but it’s really a sales presentation. You’re selling yourself and why you would be a good match for the company. So remember the above points next time you go into an interview. If you do these things well, there’s little reason why you won’t get the job. Good luck!

 

Source: http://blog.brazencareerist.com/2013/03/08/the-best-ways-to-sell-yourself-and-get-the-job-you-want/

How to Answer “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?”

The point at which your interviewer asks you to share your greatest weakness is the portion of a job interview that you dread most, and for good reason: Lame answers like “I’m a perfectionist” or “I care too much” are well-worn clichés, but how can you intelligently answer that question? Developer and blogger Ash Moran offers this thoughtful approach.

Humans are creatures of habit, and creatures of ritual. These habits and rituals are comforting to us, and give a sense of structure to our lives and how we behave. But these rituals can crystallise, and we often work through them so religiously and mechanically that to an outsider it might well appear that the ritual works us through it, rather than the reverse. Sometimes they can take on a distinctly pathological character, as thinking about the true purpose of the activity stops, and the ritual starts serving some other end.

One activity I believe is in danger of being so far ritualised, if it hasn’t been already, is the job interview. This is generally structured as being beckoned into a room with several (relatively) senior staff members. They will shake your hand, the purpose of which is usually to determine your chances of defeating a stone crab in an arm wrestling contest. Then there is a brief moment where the interview panel forms 90% of their opinions about you. After a short pause, when any awkward smiles have subsided, and it has been confirmed that you are not, in fact, a hipster, the panel launches into the main event: the questions. Now the focus is squarely on the least important person in the room: you, the candidate.

The questions

The questions start innocently enough, usually with something mundane and autobiographical. In the modern era, this often requires you to recall the order you listed the events of your life on LinkedIn. But as the questions unroll, progress through the interview begins to resemble a life-threatening run through an increasingly deadly gauntlet. You may be faced first with the leg-piercingly sharp but nevertheless predictable floor spikes of What do you know about our company? No sweat! You read the company website, after all. You do know they’re in the insurance business, right?

A little further down the platform you encounter a pair of menacing swinging axes, out of sync and leaving perilously little opportunity to slip through. What else is engraved on them but Why do you want to leave your current job? Restrain yourself with the negatives, build up the positives (just enough!) and… dive right through!

Almost at the end now, just one more challenge. What’s this in front of you? A cold sweat breaks out on your brow. Before you rotates a giant wooden column, from which swing deadly morning stars, interspersed with serrated blades that leap out at all heights. The sound of cold, hard steel slicing the air makes you weak at the knees. You’ve reached: The Death Column of What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

The man behind the curtain

It’s at the point of What is your greatest weakness? that I believe most interviews unhinge from reality. Because, as quality guru W Edwards Deming pointed out decades ago: most variation is in the system, and a bad system will defeat a good person every time.

To ask what an individual’s greatest weakness is during an interview to decide whether they should join an organization is nonsense. The candidate will have many strengths and weaknesses, but the only ones that matter are the ones that become relevant once he is embedded as an employee in his new team. He may think his greatest weakness is that he’s too shy, which may be of no consequence if he’ll be working on his own a lot, or if the team includes an especially empathic and nurturing colleague already. Another candidate may feel she’s unduly prone to procrastinate. But again, this may not be a problem at all, because she’ll be joining as a developer in a team that pair-programs extensively and is extremely diligent about daily standups. Quite likely something completely unexpected will turn out to be a problem. The interviewer thinks: did we remember to mention that the team is all Chinese and only half of them speak English?

A case of unexpected situational weakness happened to me recently. I’d been discussing doing some management work at a company, where I expected to mainly be dealing with process matters. Determining appropriate metrics, ensuring team members were communicating the right information, focusing test coverage across existing code – these were things on my mind. Then as the conversation progressed, it became apparent I might have to lead by example with some practices. I became acutely alert—this is a .Net shop! As of writing this, I haven’t worked in a .Net shop for several years, and while I know some C#, I’m in no way qualified to demonstrate the latest testing techniques to an inexperienced team. Suddenly, something that had not been even a slight concern to me for over four years—my knowledge of .Net—presented the risk of being a major weakness.

As it happens, further discussion established that my rustiness with .Net tooling wasn’t a problem. I wouldn’t be needed to demonstrate technical mastery to achieve a useful purpose. And there would be, in any case, people on hand with more knowledge of this while I take the time to learn. But it drove home a real risk in my current skill-set that could become a weakness in future situations similar to this.

Your weakest link

The level you achieve as you try to winch up the obstacles in your new job will be determined, just as with a physical chain, by your weakest link. But the work in a software company (Ed.: in most jobs, in fact) is no simple cargo-hauling. It’s complex work: you need a repertoire of skills, you need to know when to play them, and you must realise that everybody else in the team is doing the same. So your weakest link will be determined as much by the system you’re in as anything about you personally.

Your weakest link may well be hidden from you, simply by the filters you use to see the world. As Goldratt pointed out in The Choice, one of the biggest obstacles to thinking clearly is believing that we know. This is not any individual’s fault. As humans, we are innately subject to a long list of cognitive biases. For the case in point, we all seem fairly well shielded from the reality that our weaknesses are brought out more by the systems and situations in which we find ourselves than problems inherent in each of us. For all the motivational posters and exhortations of “there is no I in TEAM”, we still subconsciously take an analytic, reductionist attitude to the

A disclaimer is needed here, as it’s not always the case that the system creates the weakest link. There still exist some people, who are so spectacularly anti-social, so spectacularly arrogant, so spectacularly lazy, or so spectacular in some other special way, that they will become the weakest link in almost any situation. I’d be very surprised if more than one in twenty people in an organisation fell even close this category, however. They do exist, but they are the exception to the rule. The rest are merely in the wrong place.

Time to ask for your money back

The astute reader may have noticed that by this point I haven’t actually described how you should answer the question What is your greatest weakness? The reason is that to do so would be to commit a subtle failure of logical dogfooding: the “correct” answer will be determined more by your situation that anything about the question itself.

The questions you hear in an interview will reveal a lot about the mindset of the organization. While they are mercifully rare, some firms do run interviews like the gauntlet described above—the principle being that they hire anyone who makes it out alive. If so, it’s likely that they’re primarily testing your ability to dodge flying blades. Maybe a clever twist on the (vomit-inducing) “I’m a perfectionist” or the (mutually destructive) “I’m a workaholic, I never go home on time”, is what they want: after all, there will be many more knives coming your way if you land the job.

Far more likely—and you should always apply Hanlon’s Razor—is that the questions have been merely cargo-culted in from the pool of ritual questions. The interviewer may have recently read the latest “Top 20 Questions to Ask in An Interview” posts. In this situation you have more hope. If you are dealing with genuine and intelligent people, being able to move from a me! me! me! perspective to a system-level perspective could well make you shine out from the crowd, as this mindset is currently still rare. Equally, the biases and filters could kick in, and you might just blur into the background.

The problems with many interview questions run very deep, flowing from our mindset of ritual reductionism. The ideas here may not be immediately useful to you in an your next interview situation, but hopefully they will let you challenge the basis of these questions by seeing the systems involved. If you’d like to learn more about this mode of thinking, I highly recommend Goldratt’s The Choice, which is specifically written about thinking clearly in everyday problems like this. (This is not an affiliate link).

Thanks for reading

Do you agree? Do you disagree? How have you seen people’s actual weaknesses play out, compared to their professed ones? Maybe you have a lot of experience as either a hirer or hiree, and have an opinion on this question, or others.

If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. I’m sure many people reading this have more experience on one side of this fence or the other.

 

Source: http://lifehacker.com/5888646/how-to-answer-what-is-your-greatest-weakness

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