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Your questions about job interviews answered, part 2

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By: 
Alaina G. Levine

On 4 February 2015 the American Institute of Physics Career Network and its partners* hosted a webinar entitled “The interview: What to do before, during and after the get the job,” featuring myself as the speaker. The webinar focused on various actions you can take during the job interview process to ensure an offer.

It was recorded and you can view the webinar on YouTube.

I answered some of the great questions posed during the webinar in my previous column. Here, I answer a second set of questions. These have been lightly edited for clarity, grammar, and spelling.

Q: Do you have specific tips for telephone interviews?

A: Treat a phone interview as seriously and professionally as you would an in-person interview. Set a date and time that allows you to conduct the interview uninterrupted. The location for the interview is also important: You want to ensure that background noise, interruptions, or a bad connection do not impact the quality of the call. If this is not possible in your home, consider requesting a conference room at your local library.

If you will be using your cell phone, make a few test calls from your chosen location. Verify that you can call out and others can easily call in. Practice using a headset instead of holding the phone or using speakerphone in order to take notes and limit any background noise.

As you prepare for the interview, place all of your research materials in front of you for easy access during the call. Provide yourself pens and a pad of paper for taking notes. I discourage taking notes on a computer because the interviewer might be distracted by the sound of keyboard clacking.

Since phones prevent you from seeing the facial reactions of your interviewers, pace yourself, speak clearly and loudly enough for them to hear you, and keep your answers succinct. Don’t rattle on for 10 minutes when you can answer the same question in two.

If the phone interview involves multiple people, it is OK to ask at the beginning, “Who will join us on the call today?” Then write down their names so you can refer to individuals. If you are unsure which interviewer asked a question, it’s fine to say, “May I ask who asked this question?” And then you can follow up with something like, “Thanks, Bert, for asking that question… .” In that way you acknowledge the individual but address the answer to the whole group.

One more thought about phone interviews: I discourage you from conducting a phone interview at your current place of employment. Your boss might interrupt you, you could cause bad blood with your supervisor, or you could risk losing your job. Furthermore, the interviewer is observing your behavior throughout the interview; choosing to interview during work time on the company’s dime gives a bad impression to a potential new employer.

Q: How do I turn down a job offer after showing interest in the interview?

A: Most employers, even in this economy, expect that job seekers will interview with multiple organizations. So it might not come as a huge surprise if you turn down an offer. But in general, when you reject an opportunity following an interview that was especially positive and with interviewers who were respectful and enthusiastic, your number one goal is to ensure that you maintain your cordiality and positive connection. You want them to know that you were sincerely interested in the job, and not just wasting their time and money. Just because you turn down the offer today doesn’t mean you are forever turning your back on the organization.

So here’s how you finesse this situation. First, it’s best if you can get the interviewer or search committee head on the phone to tell them personally that you are turning down the offer. Let them hear your emotion—that you are appreciative, energetic, and genuinely disappointed that, for a variety of reasons, you had to reject their offer. They should know that you are still interested in their enterprise, and, although it didn’t work out now, you envision that the possibility will remain open to collaborating in the future. Express gratitude for them taking the time to meet with you. And then connect with them on LinkedIn. That way, they will still be part of your network of contacts for future opportunities.

In some cases, you can solidify the relationship even more if you refer them to another candidate (but only if you know for a fact that they would be a good employee, of course).

Q: Is there any way to frame lack of experience as a good thing?

A: Most early-career professionals, as well as those switching vocations or sectors, may think they don’t have “experience,” but that is usually not the case. The “experiences” that you had as a student, conducting research, participating in class and independent study projects, contributing to the success of a team or a club, are valid. Yes, you may not have run a factory before, but you have quite a collection of skills that are transferrable (as I discussed in a previous column).

For those of you who are later in your career and are switching fields or industries, the experiences you had in career 1.0 are also relevant to the job you are applying for. The key in both early-career and switching-career cases is to do advance research and know the problems the job will ask you to solve, through informational interviews, and by reading the company’s literature and website.

Additionally, during the interview itself you can and should ask questions about the job and its strategies. When you answer inquiries during the interview, frame your comments so as to communicate how the “experience” you received doing X, researching Y, or in industry Z is relevant to the position you are seeking. For example, you could say “Oh that’s so interesting, because when I did X in my university project, I was able to gain expertise in Y and Z which will help me add value to your organization in such-and-such a way.”

Now of course, there will be aspects of the job you will have yet to learn. But every job on the planet has elements that the incoming professional must learn once they are onboard. So one of the most important ways to position yourself as an exceptional candidate is to demonstrate your positive, can-do attitude, natural curiosity, and continuous interest in improving your skills and helping those around you do the same. Then, if you do possess certain weaknesses, such as a lack of experience with X, you can demonstrate to your interviewers that although you don’t know X now, you can and will learn X quickly and be ready to contribute to the team immediately.

Q: How do I show that my research fits into an academic institution’s culture without appearing pushy?

A: You can do that in multiple ways during the interview. In each case, communicate that your research experience, interests, and passion align with the mission of the organization or department by sharing them in the form of a suggestion and an inquiry. For example, while discussing your expertise in the question-and-answer part of the interview, you could say something like “Given my goals associated with X, I think this might allow for the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. A and Dr. B.” Or, when the interviewers ask for your questions, you could pose the following: “I recently completed a project in which my team and I analyzed C and D and found a specific correlation that leads to E. Has any of your faculty looked at E? Would E be something that your department would consider exploring?”

Phrase your abilities and desires in the hypothetical and clarify that you would like to pursue them further with certain individuals. Don’t presume they will necessarily want to work with you, but rather point out parallels in your work that suggest a potential foundation for an alliance to form.

You can take similar actions during your chalk talk. As you discuss the problems you have solved, the solutions you have come up with, and the results of the solutions, you can include this sort of addendum: “This experience has given me a better appreciation for Z, and since I know that Dr. G and Dr. H have been looking at Z and Z +1, I would be eager to discuss this particular area of my work with them. Perhaps this would be the formation of a joint grant proposal.”

Q: What is the importance of keeping the talk in the set time limit?

A: Very important! If they say you’ll have 45 minutes for your talk and 15 minutes for questions, make sure you stick to that. It’s important not to inconvenience busy interviewers and audience members. Also, consider every part of the interview as a test of what you’d be like to work with and what kind of an employee you’d be. If you can’t follow your interviewers’ instructions, they may reconsider hiring you.

There are also logistical issues to consider; for instance, your next appointment might be with the department head, dean, search committee chair, or some other decision maker. You don’t want to make anyone wait for you during the interview process.

So as you prepare your talk, confirm all time limits with the hiring manager or administrative associate. Practice often to ensure that your talk stays within that boundary. Aim to finish early in order to solve for unforeseen complications or impromptu additions. In the end, most audiences will appreciate your finishing early.

Q: Is it appropriate to articulate using my hands while answering questions?

A: In interviews, it is vital that you feel comfortable and confident. You are aiming to project a polished version of yourself. So if you generally use your hands to speak, then do so at the interview. Just be careful not to move too fast—this isn’t Zumba, after all. On the other hand, no one likes looking at a statue. So if you’re more of a Tai Chi kind of person—someone who either remains extremely still or uses his or her hands in very slow, deliberate movements—see if you can find a happy medium. The idea is to use your hands to emphasize a point and to demonstrate your energy and passion. Invest in the time to practice for your interviews, so you can feel comfortable using your hands in a strategic manner. But do be careful not to point at someone or flick a middle finger in your excitement.

Q: Is it OK to tell the interview panel a personal goal that I set and achieved?

A: Generally, you should stick to sharing information about goals that are relevant to the job and the work ecosystem. So when an interviewer asks about a specific skill or experience, your best strategy is to provide a detailed example of your using that particular skill, or solving that kind of problem. This naturally leaves you with stories that happened in a professional setting, such as your previous jobs, education, or training.

For example, if I was interviewing you and asked you about a time when you had to manage a conflict on a team, your best bet would be to tell me about a workplace conflict. Similarly, if I asked you about a goal that you achieved, your most strategic move would be to share with me a story about a professional goal you accomplished, and indicate how that will enable you to be a productive member of my group. Since this is a common question in interviews, you can prepare for this by identifying professional and workplace goals you have achieved ahead of time.

But if, after thoughtful self-analysis, you realize that you are excellent at X but the reason has little to do with work experience, or the reason you are so good at X is because of something you faced in your personal life, it is fine to share this as a personal story—provided you feel comfortable with it, and can tell it in a way that keeps your interviewers comfortable, too.

*American Association of Physicists in Medicine, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Physical Society, American Vacuum Society, IEEE Computer Society, Physics Today, Society of Physics Students.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Networking for Nerds, her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers, will be published by Wiley on 22 June 2015. She can be reached through her website, www.alainalevine.com or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.