For PhD students preparing for an interview, the internet is both a treasured resource and, at times, a frustratingly superficial archive. Websites like Connected Academics have lists of possible questions in non-academic job interviews, but sometimes finding examples of good answers to these questions can be tough or seem too vague. I’ve perused numerous self-help sites for interview prep, and I’ve interviewed for many jobs with varying degrees of success. My most recent interview for the Graduate Research Internship at UCHRI went quite well. So well, in fact, that I’m writing this article from my desk at UCHRI (I got the job!) So with that success fresh in my mind, I would like to offer some practical tips on how to prepare for interview questions, and also some examples of how I answered. (I’ve confirmed with my boss that my interview went well, so these responses have been vetted by a higher-up.)
Interviews can be nerve-wracking, especially if you feel like you’re interviewing for your dream job. That’s understandable, but it’s important to try to approach interviews calmly. Nerves are to be expected, and I don’t think there’s a decent boss out there who wouldn’t forgive a bit of an embarrassed blush during the interview, but if you’re inexperienced with interviewing and get really flustered, I’d recommend setting up practice before your big day. The Career Center is a great place to look for help, and you might consider your department as a resource as well. Once you’re in the interview, you want to have a series of questions pre-answered, so that you can present yourself in the best light possible. Think of this as a prelim or qualifying exams–you study as much as you can, and then prepare answers. The trick is molding the answer to fit the question.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]What draws you to this job/opportunity/internship/etc.?[/su_pullquote]One guaranteed question that you need to have an answer for is: “What draws you to this job/opportunity/internship/etc.?” For graduate students in the humanities, this is especially important because of the stereotyping we face going into most job interviews. I, for example, study the writings of women antifascists exiled from Italy in the 1920s and ‘30s–not surprisingly, there aren’t too many professional opportunities that dovetail nicely with my research topic. But the question is really more about demonstrating your passion and excitement for the opportunity at hand: if your answer can’t effectively communicate your genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity to interview, why are you in the room/on the skype call? Is this really something you want? These are certainly the questions your interviewers will have, and you want to ask them of yourself first.
[su_quote]My answer to why I wanted to work at UCHRI pulled from my extracurricular activity during my PhD at UCLA. Career development for humanities PhDs–a key component of UCHRI’s programming–has been a side-project of mine for several years, and I highlighted the longevity of my interested in the topic to communicate how natural it would be for me to fill the role of research intern at UCHRI. I focused on, and played up, the seemingly natural narrative of my work preparing me for this role, and how ready and eager I was to step into it.[/su_quote]
[su_pullquote]How does your background and experience speak to the qualifications for this position?[/su_pullquote]Next in line for any interview: “How does your background and experience speak to the qualifications for this position?” For many graduate students–and I’m included in this group–starting a PhD (or MA) happened in lieu of full-time employment. I briefly held a sales job in San Francisco before becoming a server/bartender between my MA and PhD, but that full-time employment was 8 years ago, and not really relevant to my current job search. Which is to say my resumé is 100% made up of PhD-related employment that is de facto part-time. This sometimes makes grad students uncomfortable, because it’s easy to assume that if your only job experience is being a grad student and (maybe) teaching, you’re lacking some key skills needed for the job market. But there are numerous jobs out there that require solid research skills, ability to creatively analyze data/information, and the communication skills to share your findings. If I can do that work for my dissertation discussing women exiles (in a foreign language, mind you!) it’s just a brief tweak to make the case that I can do that work in any job. Remember, you’re learning job skills as a PhD within a certain discipline. You can apply your skills to different disciplines at any time.
[su_quote]Once again, I pulled heavily from my extracurriculars to answer this question (if you don’t have extracurriculars, stop reading this article right now and figure out which club/group/volunteer organization you can join immediately–the interview process will be much easier if you have something additional on your resumé). As a graduate student advocate who has been involved in conference planning, journal management, and fundraising, I knew that I had a base in the core skills being looked for for this job. Presentation is key for this answer though. Rather than diving into the specifics of the theme of the conference you planned for your department’s graduate student association, talk about managing the funding application, reaching out to scholars, and scheduling the program, three concrete skills that you developed and could repeat on a different project.[/su_quote]
[su_pullquote align=”right”]UCHRI is a collaborative workplace, but this position also requires someone who can work independently and take initiative. Could you give us examples from your previous job experiences of collaboration and independent work?[/su_pullquote]After you and the interviewer(s) have warmed up with some general questions, you should expect a few organization-specific questions to see if you’re a good fit for the company. Fit is hugely important: you can be a stellar candidate, but if there isn’t a personality match with the other employees already at the company it won’t make sense to add you long-term to the “family.” Given the nature of the internship position I was applying for, this fit questions centered on my ability to work well with others, but also guide myself on my own: “UCHRI is a collaborative workplace, but this position also requires someone who can work independently and take initiative. Could you give us examples from your previous job experiences of collaboration and independent work?” While this combo of teamwork and independence is unique to UCHRI, you should definitely prepare to speak to your abilities to work well in a collaborative setting–companies want to know that the lone-scholar-in-the-library stereotype doesn’t apply to you.
[su_quote]The bonus to answering this question is that if you’re a humanities grad student, you can definitely work well on your own! Dissertation, course papers, grading, etc. are all (painfully? wonderfully?) solitary tasks that we do well. Coming up with a convincing teamwork example can sometimes be harder. I chose to talk about my long-distance collaboration on the Executive Board of one of my national organizations. Geographic separation meant that we collaborated after periods of independent work. I could have also talked about my work as a conference organizer within my department, or my work as a TA.[/su_quote]
[su_pullquote]Tell me about a time you failed.[/su_pullquote]Another question that you should anticipate coming up will be one that focuses on challenges, failures, or difficult relationships. These questions feel like a trap, because you’re expected to discuss a negative experience, but without damaging your credibility as a candidate. While this isn’t easy–and let’s just face it, it’s going to be uncomfortable–it is definitely possible and within your abilities. Remember, just like with previous questions, the idea isn’t to focus on the details of the issue, but rather to highlight the ways that your reaction in that specific situation could be repeated and applied to a situation at your new job. So if the question is “Tell me about a time you failed,” you don’t want to talk about the time you applied for a grant and didn’t get it because that situation is somewhat unique to grad school and doesn’t have a professional-office equivalent. During my UCHRI interview, I was asked to talk about a time I faced a challenge, or a new project, but didn’t have the skill set at the outset to tackle it.
[su_quote]While I wanted to answer simply “That sounds like every day of grad school,” I focused instead on a time I collaborated with the TA Union while I was VP of Academic Affairs in the Graduate Student Association. I chose that example because I didn’t handle the situation that well. While you might be thinking that’s a bad idea, because then I end up looking bad, let me explain: the reason I didn’t handle it well was that it was the first time I had been in a situation where I needed to collaborate with people who philosophically disagreed with me, and I made a few initial mistakes on how to manage that relationship. The positive take away was that it was a learning experience, I was able to end my answer with what I had discovered through the collaboration, and how I would act differently in a similar, future situation.[/su_quote]
[su_pullquote align=”right”]What questions do you have for us?[/su_pullquote]The end of any interview should have a few minutes for you to answer the quintessential “What questions do you have for us?” This question is important, so try not to dread it! Having questions for the organization shows that you’re interested in the position and have done at least some basic research on your role there. You want to aim for questions that demonstrate your informed curiosity about the company (so if you already know the answer to something, don’t ask the question). If you’re in a one-on-one interview, it’s common to ask the interviewer what she enjoys about her position, and what she has found to be the most challenging. In a group interview, you might take this opportunity to get more clarification on who would be you teammates, who would be your direct boss, etc. You don’t need a lot of questions here, and you generally don’t have much time remaining at this point, but you need at least two good questions to ask.
[su_quote]A long time ago, when I was interviewing for my first job out of college, I read somewhere that it’s a good idea at the end of the interview to ask, “Is there any reason you wouldn’t hire me?” I’ve had a version of this question in my arsenal ever since, and I have only ever received positive feedback when I ask it. When I got my sales job all that time ago, the interview had gone OK, but there were some missteps on my part. So I asked The Question, and the boss/interviewer told me what her concerns were, but ended with “I appreciate you asking this question, it demonstrates your desire to get the job and excel.” I was able to write a solid thank you/follow up note, and got the job. When I applied for the summer internship at UC HRI, I was a little unsure of how things would go; I felt that the interview was a great success, but I had applied just a month before to be on a committee with HRI and wasn’t chosen. So I asked The Question: “I want to be conscious of our time, so in these last minutes I’d love to address any hesitations or concerns you might have in offering me this position that haven’t come up yet in our interview.” No one had a single concern to bring up, and we all left the interview feeling very good about the 30 minutes we had spent together. In all fairness, that was not a guarantee that I would get the job–there may have been other, more qualified candidates who interviewed; there may have been someone on the hiring committee that really didn’t click with my personality, but didn’t feel it an appropriate topic to bring up for me to address (really, how would I have responded to that?)–but I knew that I had given it my best, and that I wouldn’t be plagued with what-ifs regardless of what decision was made.[/su_quote]
Interviewing takes practice, and unfortunately by the time you get to the interview you don’t want that moment to be your practice moment. To prepare yourself for the big day, take advantage of your network, and ask friends who have gotten jobs to give you mock interviews. Look up the STAR and PARADE methods of responding to questions (they make you sound more accomplished). Schedule an appointment at the Career Center on campus and do personality question mock interviews. Recite your answers in your head as you commute–practice really will make perfect! And don’t forget that as humanities PhDs we are incredibly interesting–our skills and research can sometimes leave people feeling bewildered, but at the same time we have the ability to bring creative thinking and alternative problem solving to situations. You want your interview skills to reflect that worth, so tackle the Interview with the same drive and determination that you tackled grad school–you have all the know-how to succeed.