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Job applications - interviews
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In this playlist you’ll find easy to follow resources on how to prepare for a non-academic interview by Dr Elizabeth Adams.
I’m Elizabeth, I’m one of the Prosper career coaches. This video is intended to help you preparing for job interviews by doing mock interviews. By that, I don’t just mean thinking through what you might want to talk about, but actually doing it, and roping someone else in to help you with that, and help you improve on your answers and get some feedback and some reflection. So I’ve included lots of resources for the person who is interviewing you as well, as well as yourself, and some mock interview questions, so that you can really go through that process and start to build your confidence in doing the interview. Before we start, I want you just to pause the video and write down what it is that you want to be proud of when you leave your next job interview.
So before you’ve heard anything about outcome, what do you want to know, ‘Yes, I nailed that thing, and that was my objective’, because that will be your objective going forward, to really improve on that one thing, or to really know that you’ve got it in the bag and feel happy and proud that you’ve achieved that. So pause now and think about that. Okay, hopefully now, you’ve got some clear ideas for what you want to achieve out of your next job interview, and they could come up at any point at short notice. So in an interview, you might end up with lots of different things, lots of different aspects to prepare for. The key thing is to understand what to expect in the format of the interview.
Now, some companies might share a lot of information in advance about what to expect. Some of the larger companies, they might have information on their website or even sometimes run sessions that you can go along to where they explain what they’re trying to get out of different approaches and question styles. There might also be a test, some sort of practical activity you have to do. For example, if you’re working, or if you’re interviewing for a publisher, they might give you a writing task, or there might be something to prepare in advance, or a presentation to give. This talk’s primarily based on the interview questions and how you prepare for those, but understanding where that factors in the rest of the interview format’s really important. Then when you’re thinking about the questions. Is there a particular style that the organisation might be likely to adopt? They might tell you. Bigger organisations will probably talk to you about things like doing competency-based interviews or strengths-based interviews.
If it’s an SME, they might never have interviewed before. They might never have hired anyone before. They might have a very structured approach, or actually, they might just have more of a conversation. I think if it’s a large public sector organisation, they’re much more likely to have a very structured approach to how long the interview lasts, exactly what questions they ask each candidate, and the process they do that, and who in the panel would ask those questions. That’s generally quite well-documented in the larger organisations. Just understanding what to expect is pretty important, and that’s the kind of thing you can try and find out in advance either by talking to HR contacts in the organisation or looking at their website, or talking to other people having those informal, informational interviews. Definitely draw on that, and I know you will as a researcher.
Also, looking at the company website to understand what their strategy is. If they have value statements or mission statements, what does that tell you? What does that connect with in you? Are there particular competency frameworks that they’ll look for? What does the job description tell you about what they’re looking for? What other clues do you have, and how can you piece them together so that you know what to expect. So I’ve put down here some example role-specific questions that you might be asked in an interview. These are ones that you probably have to practise and really think about for every role that you apply for. It’s not just something that you can bring out of the bag for different roles. I just wanted to mention, though, that those first two questions aren’t the same question. So quite often, a nice warm-up question might be, ‘What made you want to apply for this role?’ Sometimes, people use that as a springboard to say why they suit the role or why the role’s perfect for them, and that’s not actually the same thing. I think, if you want the interview to be a two-way street, then you need to think about why do you want it? What are they going to see that’s in the way that you talk about this job that makes them think, ‘Yes, this person really wants to work for us’? That’s maybe where some of the research you’ve done about the company and the organisation will give you some insight for those questions.
The third one down about, ‘What do you need to learn to be good at this role?’ They’re trying to find out if you have some self-awareness of your own skills and your own learning needs. It’s also a chance for you to demonstrate that you can learn things. So if, for example, in the job description, you read that they’re looking for a particular coding language, you might not know that or have any experience of it, but maybe you’ve already taught yourself a different coding language. So that would be your chance to say, ‘Well, actually, I’m not so hot on this one, but I know that I’d learn it, and this is the approach that I would take to learn it.’ So you’re demonstrating that you’re aware of where you’re not as strong, and no one’s good at everything in a job description, but you’ve got a plan in place for how you’d address it. Then, ‘What else would you like us to know?’ That’s just being aware of what’s really important about you for this role? So it’s a bit like the first two.
Then the final question about, ‘What questions do you have for us about the role?’ That’s the one that usually comes at the end and it’s your opportunity to leave the interview on a positive note, to ask any questions that you have, and find out a bit more about the team you might be working with or the organisation itself, the strategy, the role, if it’s a new role. I think it’s your chance to show that you’re interested, and be careful not to ask questions that could easily have been read in the information on the interview. Yes, just have a conversation. It is a two-way street. You have to want to work for this organisation, so ask them the questions that will help you make that evaluation. I mentioned at the start about strengths-based interview questions and competency-based questions. So these are some examples of strengths-based interview questions, and these are more commonly used, I think, in larger organisations, often where they do a lot of graduate recruitment and where they don’t feel that people maybe have as much experience to draw on. Also, because they think that people are going to work well where they’re playing to their strengths and their values and the things that are important to them. Those are all things you’ll have considered a lot, I think, during the Prosper programme.
So being able to actually think about what are you proud of? What do you do well? When are you in a good flow state when you’re working? What is it that makes that happen? How would other people describe you? Having this self-awareness will really help you with all of these questions, but also with other types of questions. You can find out more about that on the Prosper website, but practise a few of these. Competency-based interviews, on the other hand, can be quite complex. We’ve probably all had some experience of them, where they bring a particular competency from a framework and say, ‘Tell us about a time when you’ve had to do x.’ Give an example of something. There’s a way to answer these, and it’s drawing on evidence. I would say the strengths-based interviews are also drawing on evidence. It’s not a fluffy approach. It’s thinking about, who am I, what is my evidence for that? It’s the same for competency-based questions.
Sometimes, it helps to break them down. There might be more than one element in a question. So if you have a question that’s quite complex, you have to make sure that you think about what is it that they really want out of this? In this particular example, there might be three things that they’re looking for. They’re looking for a sufficiently complex example of when you’ve had to analyse data. They are looking for your approach to that. What did you have to take into account? Did you think about different stakeholders, and what might influence them? Then did you articulate the outcome, and were you actually successful at influencing or informing those management decisions? I think, sometimes, it can be tempting to hover around that middle bit about the approach and the data analysis, particularly if it’s really important to you. Make sure you get right the way to that outcome. So what happened? What did you do to influence, because that’s what they’re really asking here. So just being able to break down any competency-based question, and you might just want to write a few notes when they ask a question, so that you remember that you’re going to cover all of those three points. Feel free to ask for clarifications as well, and that maybe gives you a bit of time to think and formulate through your answer.
A model that you’ve probably seen for answering competency-based questions is the STAR model. So you take them through the situation that you were in, you set the scene. What was the task? What was required? Then what did you actually do? So just make sure that you check yourself for answering about ‘we’, or perhaps answering about what you always tend to do. What they want to know is what did you do in this specific example? Which specific action did you take? So if you are practising this, that’s probably the most helpful thing that someone can observe, is did you actually say what you did, and what you specifically did, not just what you might do or what you might always do. Then what was the outcome of that? Don’t forget that bit. Don’t waffle on for the action and then forget to actually them what happened as a result. So you wrote a report, and what happened with the report? What did that mean for people? Just being able to understand the learning in that as well can be quite helpful. So what we did in the workshop was we split into groups to look at how you could practise these interviews. This is something that I’m going to recommend that you go back and do with your friends, your colleagues, your family members.
Get someone to interview you and reflect on it yourself, but also get them to help you improve your interview answer. So I’ll lead you through the process that we worked on. So after you’ve asked someone a question, the observer should be looking for, did this person give an example that demonstrated what they did, rather than what we did as a group? Was there a clear context and action and a result? So there has to be a specific action there. Try and resist the urge to summarise all your experiences in one, or try to resist saying an answer that anyone in the job interview could say. So, ‘I like to lead by being a really good communicator,’ that’s not specific, and it’s something that most people would say. If you think about it, if I said the opposite, would it make sense, or would it be silly? So yes, if you say the opposite, ‘I don’t like to communicate.’ Well, no one’s going to say that, so just try and think about what’s the specific actions, and what does communication look like? If I say that I will be a good listener, what does good listening actually look like? What would people see happening there? So think about a clear context, action and result. As an observer, it’s really helpful if you can notice the level of technical detail. Did the person go off on a tangent that actually didn’t add anything, and took away from the listening, or was it confusing? Did they make any assumptions about your knowledge of academia and how things work? If you’re using publication, this is a proxy for something, is that going to be obvious to the person from outside of higher education who’s interviewing you? If you’re talking about a PI or supervising master’s students, will they necessarily know what that means? If not, it might be worth just spelling that out. So ask your observer just to note down when they’re listening, any assumptions that you’re making. Then the crucial one, did it actually answer the question? Did it demonstrate the thing that they were looking for? The influencing, the communication of complex data, all of those things. So these are your cues for the observer.
For you, as the person being interviewed, you also need to reflect on, was this your best example for that competency? Also, what other examples do you have? Did you talk about the things that you wanted people to know about? Also, you don’t have to talk about the things that you don’t want people to know about. So if, for example, they ask you a question about disagreements, working in situations of conflict or difficult situations, you don’t have to choose the most difficult thing in your life. It doesn’t have to be about a context where you’ve worked with someone that you really didn’t like personally. It might just be where you worked with someone from a different perspective, a different subject area, perhaps, in a collaboration, where you didn’t immediately know how to work together because you had different norms around how you work, how you publish. All of those things. So think about an example that you’re happy with sharing, but it doesn’t have to be something that’s really difficult to talk about.
Think about what else you’re proud of in that example, or what other people might have observed. Think about other examples as well, just in case that you’ve used your best example, and then you need something else. This is a role for your observer or the interviewer, to help you build a better answer. So if you give your answer, the interviewer might also ask, ‘What were you most proud of here? What else did you do? What was it you enjoyed about this? What was the learning here that you would take forward into a future career? What did others appreciate about what you did? What did your research collaborators or your students see you do?’ That actually adds something to this story that you’re telling, and it maybe adds some of the evidence that you had an impact or that there was an outcome to your action. ‘What were the specific skills or qualities that you brought to this situation? Then what happened, and what else? What else have you not talked about already?’ So someone asking you those questions might just help to expand your answer a little bit and give you a different perspective. So just thinking about it through lenses of different people.
How can you make this answer something that really tells a story and draws people in, and really provides that evidence and the depth to your story, rather than just a quick, transactional action? So this is your task, is to go away and recruit someone to interview you and to observe you. To go and reflect on your own experiences, and to help them as well, and hopefully it can be a two-way process. That, I think, is also my take-away for the interview itself. Remember it’s a two-way process, and it has to be a company that you want to work for. If you get a good vibe in the interview, that usually is a good vibe for the future as well. So go in feeling confident and think about it as more of a conversation. Yes, I hope it goes well.
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