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Your questions answered about job interviews, part 1

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Alaina G. Levine

On 4 February 2015 the American Institute of Physics Career Network and its institutional partners* hosted a webinar entitled "The interview: What to do before, during, and after to get the job", featuring me as the speaker. You can watch the webinar here.

I wanted to use this wider forum to answer some of the great questions posted during the webinar. Below you will see part 1 of the Q&A. As always, if you have additional questions or suggestions, please email me at alaina [at] alainalevine.com. Part 2 will appear in next month's column. Questions have been edited for clarity, grammar, and spelling.

Q: For a faculty hire, when do I bring up the possibility of a spousal hire?

A: You can handle the timing of a spousal hire request in several ways. There is no one right answer for everyone. I used to recommend bringing up the request only once you have an offer and begin formal negotiations. However, I recently spoke with a physical sciences department chair, who shared the following case. His department interviewed a scientist, and during the private interview with the chair the candidate revealed that her partner was also a scientist in a different discipline. She asked whether is was possible to find a position for him. The chair told me he was happy she brought it up at that point in the interview. It didn't impact this search committee's ultimate decision, and it gave the chair time to explore available resources for the partner, if the search committee recommended that the candidate be hired.

So in some cases the question of a spousal hire can be raised during the formal interview. I generally recommend against addressing it in the first communication with the department—that is, in the cover letter—but I have heard of cases where such an early overture has been advantageous for both the candidate and the employer. Whenever you chose to bring it up, you will need to weigh the benefits with the possible negative effects it could have on your candidacy. But if you think creatively, you might even orchestrate a new opportunity for both you and your partner, such as offering to share a faculty line. For more resources on this subject, check out this article in which a pair of faculty members who solved the two-body problems for themselves analyze the costs and benefits of asking about the spousal hire at all stages of the interview.

Q: Do you have any specific advice for dealing with panel interviews?

A: When you are being interviewed by a panel or a committee, it is vital to look at everyone as you answer each question. If Dr. X asks you something, state Dr. X's name in your reply but address it to all the people in front of you, not just Dr. X. Everyone on the panel is evaluating you and they each need to know that you recognize their presence and authority even if they don't ask you a question. You should also offer extra copies of your résumé/CV and publications list as you begin the interview. Smile and maintain eye contact. Finally, request contact information for everyone on the panel so you can write each of them an individualized thank-you note.

Q: What do I do when I receive two equally good offers around the same time, but one is for a short-term job, such as a postdoc, and the other is for a longer-term duration, such as a permanent job in a company?

A: You will have to make a personal choice. Make sure you have all the information about each offer in order to make an informed decision. Carefully compare the offers analyze the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) associated with each position. What strengths will you be able to leverage and expand? What are the position's weaknesses, and can they be remedied? What opportunities will come your way to improve and learn skills, gain access to new networks, and collaborate with professionals? What threats might there be to your career? That is, could you lose time away from what you really want to do? Is it in a location that for one reason or another can't work for you? These questions apply to both short-term and permanent positions.

You might also choose to tell the interviewer that you have received other offers and that you are carefully weighing your options. However, if you do this, your interviewer might think you are employing a negotiation tactic. As I recommended in a previous column, the best time for negotiating is after you have received an offer, not before.

Q: What is the best way to introduce myself for an industry job, especially an entry-level position?

A: The answer depends on where you are in the hiring process. I will address this question from two points of view. On the one hand, let's assume that you are trying to get an interview and you are either applying for a job after seeing an ad or you are speaking with someone at the company with the hope that they will invite you for a formal interview. The key here is to share in the initial email what it is you can do for the other party and their organization by exemplifying problems you have solved, detailing the results of your solutions, and concluding how your experience uniquely prepares you to add value to their team. For an entry-level job, you are not expected to have tons of experience in a company setting. That said, the experiences you have had as a student are valuable and can be articulated in such a way as to demonstrate your ability to add value to their organization quickly. For example, if you were a leader in your local chapter of the Society of Physics Students, you can share specific examples of your leadership and team-building experience that will enable your prospective company to advance its mission, as I discussed in my column about volunteering. You should also explicitly tell the reader of the letter what it is about the organization that excited you, and how you and the organization have aligned values and interests.

On the other hand, let's say you have already made it to the interview and are now being asked about what you can do for the company if you are hired into this entry-level position. As above, you should share various examples from your experiences that illustrate how you will advance the mission of the organization. But you should also ask questions, such as what projects you will be working on, or how the teams are organized. In that way, your interviewers will see that even if you are a little green, you are already thinking about how you might fit in and contribute to moving their company forward.

Q: What specific advice do you have for international students?

A: For international students looking for a job in a country where they don't have the correct work visa yet, it is important to clearly demonstrate that you and your set of experiences, expertise, skills, networks of contacts, pedigree, and credentials will provide the company a competitive advantage. Give them examples of what you have achieved that is unique to you and connect the dots for them by then explaining how this experience will benefit them—that you'll be able to solve problems more efficiently, more quickly, in novel directions, and so on. Why? If the company wants you—which they will determine and finalize in the actual interview—they will do what they need to do to get you, before the competition gets you. So look for opportunities in the interview to share exactly what achievements you have had that demonstrate your unique skill set. And remember: A company might have to go to the trouble of obtaining a work visa for you, but if they like you and see your value, they will do what is necessary to get you the job.

Q: What is the best way to keep my nerves under control during an interview?

A: This is actually quite simple—though not always easy—to do. Interviewing will get easier the more you do it, so if you are just about to graduate or are mid-career and haven't interviewed in a while, practice in advance. Do mock interviews with friends, family, and colleagues. If you have access to a university or community career center, check to see if they offer mock interviews. When you attend career fairs, approach first the booths for companies for which you are certain you don't want to work and practice introducing yourself there before moving on to your dream companies. All this practice will benefit you tremendously in easing your nerves and giving you confidence.

Next, prepare. Extensively research the organization, learn their research goals and projects, and, for nonacademic environments, their products, services, customers, and competition. Read its websites, pore through its annual reports, and understand media coverage about it. You can even use LinkedIn to search for the decision-maker (if you know who this person is) and senior members of the company, and read their postings on this site and others. Know the organization, and be able to articulate why you are the best candidate to solve their problems. Be prepared to speak in their language. Refer to the data that you have collected so they know how committed you are to the organization.

Thirdly, prepare for typical and so-called behavioral interview questions by finding them online and practicing answers to these. Get in the habit of being able to answer these questions in a natural, conversational style as opposed to reciting answers from memory. Fourth, go in to the interview with a sense of joy! It is a rare and enjoyable privilege to have a conversation with someone who is passionate about your subjects and with whom you could be a potential collaborator. Such an interview is not a chore. It is a fun enterprise and even though you will maintain your professionalism, you should adopt a mindset that it is an enjoyable activity. Smile. You will notice as you interview that the more you adopt an attitude of enjoyment, the more the interviewer will mirror that attitude right back to you.

Finally, recognize that if you have made it to the interview, the decision-maker is intrigued by something special about you. They would not waste their valuable time interviewing you if they didn't think you were a viable candidate who could deliver greatness. So use this knowledge to give yourself a boost of confidence.

Q: At what point in the interview process should a disability be discussed, if ever?

A: : For the most part, I don't think you need to bring up a disability at all. In general, it is none of their business if it doesn't impact your ability to deliver excellence in the job. However, let's say your disability will affect your ability to take on certain tasks of the position. For example, say you have to be able to lift 25 pounds in order to operate a telescope or some other instrument, and your disability precludes you from doing that. In this instance, you can indicate the issue, and how you would work around it so as not to impact your ultimate productivity.

Q: At the end of the interview when they ask "do you have any questions for us?", what should I ask?

A: Your response will depend on the position and the sector, but in all cases, when they ask you if you have any questions, you should definitely have some ready. The interviewer wants to see if you have done your homework about the organization and are committed to them specifically, so feel free to ask questions about current projects, products, or services that you read about in your research. For an academic job, make sure you ask questions about the department: how it interacts with others, or how interdisciplinary research is supported and fostered, for example. Other possible questions to ask:

  • What's the best part of working here?
  • How will my team be organized?
  • Are there opportunities for professional development?
  • How do you measure of success?

Joe Konop, in his article for Forbes magazine, "10 Job Interview Questions You Should Ask," recommends this question: "What skills and experiences would make an ideal candidate?" This is a great question because it allows you to see how you might fit in with the position; if there is anything that you are lacking (or perceived as lacking), it will be revealed in the answer.

Q: Should I wait for an offer before talking about money?

A: Yes, you wait for them to provide you with an offer before you start negotiating. If they ask during the interview about your salary expectations, you can say, "I am just focused on the position and organization right now and want to ensure that I am are right fit for the job." If they insist, you can ask them what their budget or budget range is. If they really insist, be ready with a range that you have researched in advance (see my column on negotiation). The general rule is that the first party to mention money sets the limits. If you mention a number before they do and it is lower than what they had budgeted, you just did them a huge favor by saving them money.

Q: If I don't get the position, is it OK to ask for feedback?

A: Yes. In fact, I highly encourage you to take this action, for a number of reasons. First of all, you do want to know why you didn't get the job, and often the decision-maker will give you truthful insight. This is especially likely if you networked with her or him before you applied, or when you interviewed for the position you had especially good rapport). The reason you were not selected might have nothing to do with you (perhaps they had to hire someone else for timing or because they are the boss's brother-in-law). Or it might be that another candidate had a superior set of skills and experience. Alternatively, if it was a reason relating to your interview performance, you want to know this so you can remedy it for the future.

Your request for feedback also shows the interviewer that you are interested in their opinion, and, by extension, that you are still committed to the company. So in the course of asking for feedback, be gracious, thank them for their candor, and clearly indicate that you are still interested in working for this organization and hope to help them in a future capacity.

Finally, people respond positively to those who show they want to improve. After all, successful workers seek opportunities to develop skills and improve the circumstances and skills of their team. By sharing your desire to learn how you might have erred in the interview, you demonstrate this important attribute and you keep the door open for you to come back, perhaps for a different job, or perhaps for the same job should the successful candidate not work out.

Q: Should I send a thank-you note by email or standard mail?

A: It depends on the sector. In general, it is always preferable to send a hand-written note by post because the extra mile you put in to express gratitude can give you a competitive advantage in the job decision process. Most people do not send any formal thank-you notes after interviews, so you should always do so. However, I recognize that certain sectors, such as government agencies, labs, and even some academic institutions are difficult to send mail to. In fact, I have mailed cards to professionals in the federal government only to have them get lost in a labyrinthine system of security. So if you think this might be the case with your prospective position, send an email thank-you note. And be sure to send one individually to each person who interviewed you, as opposed to a batch email to a group.

Q: How do I ask for a business card at the end of an interview?

A: You should ask for the contact information of everyone who interviews you. The information can be in the form of a business card, if they have one. If not, you can jot down names, mailing addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. You can ask for this information as you conclude the meeting, or you could potentially ask for it at the beginning. In regards to your own business card, you should offer it at the beginning of each interview or individual meeting.

Your business card should not be from your current employer. Rather, it should be a personal business card, that states your name, your credentials (for example, PhD in particle physics from the University of X), two to three of your high-level skills, your email address, phone number, and address of your LinkedIn profile. Don't include your picture. The card doesn't have to be fancy.


* American Association of Physicists in Medicine, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Physical Society, AVS Science and Technology, 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 in 2015. She can be reached through her website, www.alainalevine.com or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.