Strategies for a Successful Interview

Melissa Dennihy offers eight tips for job candidates.

December 6, 2017

In a previous “Careers” essay, I offered advice to job candidates on acing a first-round interview. In this essay, I expand on that list of suggestions with some additional tips and strategies for interviewees.

Hide your nervousness. It’s natural to be nervous during an interview, particularly when you find yourself facing not one interviewer but rather a search committee of five, six or seven people. But there are simple ways to hide how nervous you feel. If your palms are sweaty, take a second to wipe them off before you walk into the room and shake your interviewers’ hands. If you know that your hands shake when you are nervous, keep them tucked in your lap rather than on the table. Many candidates tend to “settle in” to an interview, becoming less nervous as they get warmed up, so try to get past the first few minutes without giving away how nervous you are.

Answer the questions you are asked. That may sound obvious, but it is easy to get off topic when answering interview questions -- only to realize too late that you have failed to fully address the specific question asked. It may be helpful to start off your answer by repeating or rephrasing the question, both as a way to let it sink in and to buy yourself a moment to think. (For example, “What challenges do I see facing the field in the future? That’s an interesting question.”) As you give your answer, make sure you respond with enough depth and substance but also stay on target: check in with yourself as you’re speaking, asking yourself if you are getting to the question asked or are getting off topic.

Also be sure to answer all of the question: two-part questions that are really two questions in one are not uncommon, but they can be more difficult to answer completely. If a committee member asks you a follow-up question that sounds like a rephrasing of the original question, they may be trying to get more information from you or prompting you to answer the question more directly or in more detail.

Pay attention to your interviewers. As you respond to questions, be aware of both the verbal and nonverbal feedback you are getting from committee members. That can help cue you in to when interviewers may be confused by your answer or want more detail or clarity about something you’ve said. It can also help you determine when to wrap up your answer or alert you to the fact that you are rambling -- nonverbal cues such as yawning, looking at one’s watch or looking off into the distance may all indicate that you are losing your interviewers’ interest or attention.

Know when -- and how -- to end your answers. After taking several minutes to respond to the question asked, clearly and authoritatively wrap up your point. Conclude firmly and don’t add on an unnecessary final sentence such as, “So, um, that’s my answer.” Also avoid seeking affirmation by ending with a question or comment such as, “Does that answer your question?” or “I hope that answered your question.” You should know that you have answered the question and should exude confidence in your answer by wrapping up firmly and effectively. Make your final point, give a brief nod or smile if you wish to further emphasize that you’ve concluded, and wait attentively for follow-up questions or comments.

Don’t apologize for your answers, either. Resist the temptation to say things like, “Sorry I went on a bit of a tangent,” or “I apologize if that was a little unfocused.” Even if your answer felt unfocused, you needn’t call further attention to that by announcing it.

Keep in mind that rambling or appearing unfocused when answering questions also reflects upon your skills as a teacher. If you are losing your interviewers’ attention by giving unfocused or confusing responses, they may also wonder how well you will be able to engage your students and hold their attention during class lectures and lessons.

Frame yourself as a potential colleague, not a graduate student. Interviewees who are still in or recently out of graduate school tend to use language that makes them sound more like students than potential colleagues. Instead of using the phrase “my dissertation,” you should stick with “my research” or “my current project.” Rather than saying “I majored in” or “I concentrated in,” say “I study” or “my work focuses on.” Be sure that your language conveys that you see yourself as ready to move on to the next stage of your career: you are no longer a graduate student, but a colleague, a peer.

These can be hard habits to break if, like most Ph.D.s, you’ve been in graduate school for at least five to 10 years, so start practicing in advance. Instead of dreading conversations with friends and relatives about how that Ph.D. is going, use them as a chance to practice talking about your work -- provide updates on “your research” rather than “your dissertation.”

Don’t be self-deprecating. Impostor syndrome plagues many academics, whether they are graduate students or not, and candidates often show signs of that syndrome by being oddly self-deprecating as they talk about their research and teaching. Do not be afraid to talk confidently and with pride about your accomplishments as a scholar and an educator. Exude confidence and a sense of composure, not self-doubt.

Don’t use materials as a stand-in for your answer. Bringing printed materials to an interview can be a good idea. In fact, I encourage bringing a teaching portfolio for teaching-oriented positions. But I don’t recommend passing out materials midinterview in response to a question. You may want to distribute a sample assignment to speak to a question you’ve been asked about teaching, but looking at that assignment may mean the committee members aren’t really listening to your answer. It can be distracting and may also be viewed as a way of evading the question. Give your answer verbally and, if you have related materials, say, “You can refer to X document in my portfolio for more detail on that.”

Have questions for the committee. The interview will end with committee members asking if you have any questions. At the very least, ask a question about requirements for tenure (if it’s a tenure-track job) or something distinctive about this particular department or institution -- whether that is the student population, the course offerings or a particular initiative or program that is of interest to you. Especially if you are interviewing for a tenure-track position, it may be viewed as a red flag to come to an interview without any questions about what could potentially be a lifelong position.

Finally, I encourage candidates to always respond to emails or phone calls inviting you to interview, even if it’s to let the committee know that you’ve accepted another position and have to decline the interview offer. Ignoring emails or voice mails is unprofessional, and academe is a small world. Keep your reputation spotless by being polite and professional throughout the entirety of your job search.


Melissa Dennihy is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.


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