Torturing job candidates is not the only purpose for interviewing.
In fact, there are multiple purposes. For the employer, the purpose is to identify the best candidate for a job and convince that person to accept an offer. For the job seeker, the interview is an opportunity to show off his or her skills and expertise and to see how well the potential job and employing organization fit his or her current professional needs.
At its core, an interview is a conversation in which both parties want something. It is part marketing, part negotiation, and part research. Think of it like a dance of words. And like many dances, there are a few tricky steps.
To navigate these steps, you must understand where your conversation falls in the interview process. Typically, recruiters engage in four stages.
1. Exploratory Interviews
Exploratory interviews are simply informal conversations. They could happen at a party, after a research talk, at the gym, or at any other place where two people meet.
Many companies send employees to technical events to scout for potential job candidates. In the scouting role, they attend research talks at conferences and start conversations with students and other researchers who appear promising for a particular job or research area.
A real job may or may not actually exist at this point. Sometimes, companies just want to know who and what is available as they size up new markets.
2. Screening Interviews
Screening interviews are usually done over the phone by a recruiter or by someone in the human resources office. They serve to help narrow the pool of applicants for a specific position down to a manageable number.
During the screening interview, the recruiter will be actively trying to eliminate candidates by assessing their eligibility. Eligibility will be based on predefined qualifications, skill sets, and experiences. It is unlikely that the recruiter will have detailed technical knowledge about your field, so prepare your answers accordingly.
There are often hundreds of candidates for a single posted job listing. By phone screening candidates, the recruiter will narrow that list to no more than three to five people.
Screening interviews only happen after you have applied for a position, so the recruiter will make a few assumptions. They will assume that you are familiar with the hiring organization and that you know what you are getting into.
Screeners will also assume that you will remember that you applied for the position and that you believe that you are a good fit for the job as advertised. Therefore, you should prepare by building an application file for each position to which you apply. The file should include a copy of the job listing, a copy of the resume or CV that you used in the application, and any other materials submitted, including your cover letter, reference list, etc. The file can be an old-school manila folder that you keep in your backpack or a digital file that you store in the cloud; just make sure that you have one and can find it readily when the recruiter calls.
Be prepared to ask the recruiter about both the organization and the position. Your questions should probe deeper than just the job listing. Rather, you want to indicate that you cared enough about the organization to do some research. Look at their website to read about their strategic plans, and examine their stance on issues important to you.
You can also look up their employees on LinkedIn and other employment-related sites to see if the organization has a high turnover rate or if employees tend to stay and progress through a series of positions. Write down (or type) a set of questions for the recruiter and have them ready for when you get the call.
3. Preliminary Interview
Once the field is narrowed by the screening interview, the surviving candidates are referred to the hiring manager for a more detailed review.
The hiring manager will usually call high-potential candidates for further screening. You should regard this as a preliminary interview.
The hiring manager will be technically literate and is likely an expert in the field. You can expect this person to dig more deeply into your technical competencies.
This manager is also looking to see if you would be a good cultural fit with the team and organization where you would work. Cultural fit refers to the degree to which you would conform with the behavioral norms and values of a team or an organization. Be prepared for questions that probe your problem-solving skills.
4. On-site Interview
After preliminary interviews, no more than two to three candidates will be invited for an on-site interview. But first, this PSA:
If you’ve made it this far, take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. It takes a lot of money and time to usher candidates through the on-site process, so the privilege is reserved for a very small number of the most promising candidates. More specifically, THEY LIKE YOU!
Depending on the type and level of the job, the on-site interview could have any (or all) of the following components: introductions, you giving an oral presentation, a meal (lunch or dinner), a series of interviews that probe your behavior (e.g., your ability to problem solve and how you act under stress), a facilities tour, project discussions, a meeting with human resources, and a debrief and wrap-up.
The length of an on-site interview depends on the importance and responsibilities of the position. The higher the position is, the greater the amount of time dedicated to the interview process will be. The interview time for an entry-level position may be only an hour or so, whereas an interview for a senior research position could last a couple of days.
Every interaction you have with the company is part of the interview. This bears repeating and special type treatment: Every interaction you have with the company is part of the interview.
Don’t be too informal, even at events meant to help you relax and feel comfortable during the process. Everyone involved, from the person picking you up at the airport to the people in the audience at your oral presentation, is part of the evaluation team. They will look at the way you dress, consider the way you interact with others, probe your technical knowledge, and contemplate your communications skills.
You are their potential colleague, and they want to make sure that you can do what you say you can do, will be a valuable member of the team, and won’t be a jerk to work with. No one likes to work with a jerk!
It sounds oppressive, but you have to realize that they have a lot at stake. If you are hired, the future of the organization will be dependent upon what you and your new colleagues can do, and their individual happiness on a daily basis will depend on whether you are able to work cheerfully with them or rain on their parade.
At this stage, it is no longer your interview; it is theirs. They are shopping for a colleague, and it is up to you to show them how well you will fit in and contribute.
Preparing for the On-site Interview
Before your interview, you will likely receive a call from the hiring manager to agree on a date and to make necessary logistical arrangements. During the call, they should provide information about their expectations of you in each stage of the process. If they don’t make it clear, you need to do the following:
- Ask for the names and titles of anyone that will be included on your interview schedule and look up their online profiles before you arrive on site.
- Get detailed information about the logistics of your presentation if you are making one. Who will be there? What is their level of knowledge? How long should you plan to talk, and does that include time for questions? Should you bring your own computer or just bring your presentation on a memory stick?
Then, on your own time, you should perform the following tasks:
- Review the job description, and be prepared with brief stories that illustrate ways you have successfully demonstrated the skills and competencies required for this position.
- Practice giving your presentation to real people, not just the theoretical ones in your head. This is extremely important. For your practice audience, choose people brave enough to give you constructive feedback. The process may hurt a little, but it will make you stronger in the end.
- Practice answering behavioral questions out loud (search online for sample questions). Again, this process will be most effective if you practice in front of real people.
What Exactly Are Behavioral Questions?
Behavioral questions are asked because hiring managers assume that the best indication of your future performance is your past performance. Therefore, a question to probe your interactions with others might take the form “Tell me about a time when you had a difficult interaction with a colleague. How did you resolve the situation, and what did you learn from it?”
Your answer will reveal your level of self-awareness, your ability to deal with difficult situations, and your openness to learning new skills. If you say that you have never had a difficult situation, the interviewer knows that you are likely lying or not very self-aware. If you were not able to find a way to resolve the situation and/or you did not learn from it, then it is likely that you still have issues dealing with conflict.
Answering behavioral-based questions requires a story about a specific time that illustrates your ability to resolve the issue and learn from it. Your probability for successfully answering the questions will increase as you spend time practicing answers.
During the Interview
Be sure that you are prompt and dressed properly. If you have doubts about what is proper to wear, check with a trusted family member or mentor. I’m sure that he or she will have something constructive to add on this subject. If you’re interested in more about interview dress attire, you can read my advice at our On the Job blog.
As you meet with people, listen for clues about what is important to them, and make a note for yourself, so that you can follow up later. Tailor your answers to their interests where possible.
Also, remember to ask for their business card, or write down their name, title, and contact information. You are going to need their info after the interview to follow up.
It is also good to leave them with a reminder of your time together. Give them a printed copy of your resume, a business card, and/or a research summary. They will likely see several candidates, so a souvenir from you will help them remember that you were the best candidate for the job.
After the Interview
After the interview, remember to write thank-you notes to everyone involved in the interview process. It is not just a nice thing to do. It is essential. Neglecting this step sends a signal to your potential employer that you aren’t that interested. Your competition—the other candidates for the job—will likely remember this step, even if you don’t.
In each note, refer to what the interviewer expressed as their interest during the interview. Most important, reinforce why you are a good fit for the position, and restate your interest.
If the interview went poorly or you decide that you are less than enthusiastic about the position, follow through anyway. It’s the right thing to do. Besides, you can’t turn down an offer that you never received.
Regardless of how the interview went, congratulations! The ball is in their court now. We hope that they hit it back to you.
For more career advice or to see listings of jobs available in the Earth and space sciences, visit the AGU Career Center.
—David Harwell (email: [email protected]), Assistant Director, Talent Pool, AGU