candidate interviewed by committee

27: The 8 mistakes you shouldn’t make in a job interview

Are you applying for an academic position? A successful interview is always a major step on the way to becoming a top-candidate. But, you’ve got to be careful with how you answer interview questions and what effect your answers will have on the selection committee. Read through our handy list of 8 mistakes you’ll never want to make and land your dream position! 

A job interview is always a delicate situation. As an applicant, you are super nervous because there is a lot at stake and how you answer a particular question can influence your chances of being hired.

You may be surprised to learn the selection committee is also nervous. They’ve got to make a decision soon and want to get the best candidate for the job. So both sides are clearly under pressure, and in this situation, applicants sometimes make statements that do not quite hit the mark.

This can take shape as an answer that leaves more questions than it answers, or the answer may shed doubts on the candidates’ abilities or skills. The answer can also reveal a weakness in the candidate’s personality or show that they are not quite confident enough to tackle the challenges of the position. These answers have the opposite effect of what candidate wants to achieve: They make the committee doubt that they are a perfect fit for the job.

How to avoid answering the wrong way? 

With one poor answer or wrong statement, you can diminish your chances of being hired. But since we’re always keen to see you succeed, we want to help you be at your very best during a job interview In our courses “How to apply for a post-doc position” and “How to apply for an academic staff position” we put our participants in a mock interview situation. There, they are interviewed by a selection committee composed of other course participants – believe us, everyone acts as if it were the real thing! Afterwards they get detailed feedback and instructions, on what to improve. 

We know that not all of you can get the benefit of our courses. That is why in this blogpost, we want to share a few common observations we’ve made during these job interviews, so you all can benefit from that experience. We sometimes hear answers that we know participants should avoid or at least not give in the way they do, because it torpedoes their chances for getting the job. 

The mistakes we present in this blog-post are quite a mixed bag, but we feel that together they shed considerable light on the way in which you should communicate during an interview. We think that it will help you in your next job interview to be more conscious about HOW you answer a question and what effect your exact wording or phrasing may have on the search committee. This can give you a strategic advantage over other applicants, and also help you to mentally prepare the best answers!

For those of you who are new to the academic job hiring process, have a look at our SMART ACADEMICS blogpost no. 16 “Your job talk: 5 tips to make it a success!”, where we give a short outline on the individual steps. If you’re the one who finds it very challenging to write a compelling cover letter, get our Free Expert Guide : “8 common reasons why cover letters fail.” And another good one: If your academic CV looks rather messy, see our SMART ACADEMICS blogpost no. 18 “CV-makeover: revamp the design of yours!” But for now let’s focus on the situation during the job interview:

1. Struggle to answer a simple questions during the job interview

There will be easy and also tricky questions for you to answer during an interview. For the difficult ones, it is perfectly ok, to pause and think a moment before you come up with a succinct answer. But if it is a simple and straight-forward question, you should be able to pullout an answer right away and communicate it in a clear and understandable fashion. 

For example: 

The committee asks a candidate to give a short summary of his main research achievements in 5 sentences. Then he starts with “Ahh, … hmm,…” and struggles to come up with a concise story about his own research. He gives some mentioning of an interesting result, a few details about various approaches, but at the end of the answer, the committee does not have an overview of his key achievements. 

Instead:

If you’re asked an open question about your own research, you should regard it as a friendly invitation by the committee to ‘get going’. In this case, you are the expert, and it is a great chance to present yourself and your achievements. Giving concise and to-the-point answers is an essential skill required by any academic job. If you are not a natural in this, you can practice beforehand. Prepare succinct answers for the most common interview questions. Jot down a few keywords beforehand that you memorise and then you can formulate answers around during the interview. 

2. Doubting your own abilities

In a job interview, a few questions will touch on the candidate’s background knowledge or skills set in respect to the job profile. This is how a committee can further gauge the suitability of the applicants in comparison to one another and get an idea how a candidate would tackle an upcoming task or challenge. If you give an answer that shows you are not confident that you could fulfil one of the job’s essential roles or tasks, the committee will also start to doubt that you are the right person. 

For example:

It’s evident from the CV that a candidate has experience in teaching, but mainly smaller seminars in her field. In the interview, she was asked if she could also teach a bigger introductory course in her field. She answers: “I’m not sure I can do this, I’ve never had to teach such a big crowd of students before.” Or, in another context: A candidate is asked if he could join an existing project, but answers “Well, as you know, I am not an analytical chemist by training, but I could give it a try!” Or a candidate that says: “I am not sure I am the right person to do this … it would take me quite some time to get into it!”

In the interview, you want to give the impression that you can handle whatever challenge the job will bring with explicit answers about it. If you are not confident in yourself, how do you expect a hiring committee to trust that you can handle your future tasks?

Instead:

Emphasise your strengths and bring these forward. Give evidence or mention an example that shows how well you handled a similar challenge – based on your existing skills set. In the above example, the candidate could have said: “I have extensive experience in teaching smaller seminars, but I’ve also had to take over bigger classes a few times already when a colleague was absent, and that went very well. I would look forward to teaching the introductory course.” Deliberately search for a way to answer that will confirm your suitability and convince the committee that you can handle the requested task! 

3. Talking negatively about colleagues

Naturally, during an interview, questions often touch upon your current work and responsibilities. So, when answering, candidates often refer back to how they’re working now, or whom they work with, and occasionally it happens that someone makes a negative remark about a current colleague, boss, or supervisor. 

For example: 

The committee wants to hear about an applicant’s current PhD project and his supervisor. Then the applicant says something like: ”Prof. Meyer was my supervisor, but in fact, he did not give any supervision”. Or, the committee knows that the candidate is employed in the lab of Prof. Smith, and asks about current work, and then the applicant says something like: ”Well, actually she’s one of the reasons I want to leave …” Ahh, right. 

Most candidates don’t intend on saying anything like this, it just slips out in a tense moment. Some may also feel they should give the most honest answer, and reveal their true reasons for seeking a job. But that is not a good idea. The interview is a very formal occasion. If you say something negative about a former colleague, a search committee will come to the conclusion that you’re going to talk negatively about others in your new workplace as well. No one wants that! 

Instead:

Always remain on your guard and never, ever make negative comments about your current or former employer, colleagues or supervisors. You may have had poor supervision or a challenging boss, but the interview is not the place to discuss that.If you are in that situation, deliberately list a few positive experiences you’ve had at your current workplace and stick to those in the interview. 

4. Being critical of the hiring institution

In the interview, discussions often arise around certain workflows, ways of doing research, or a particular method employed at the institute. As a candidate, you may have another way of doing the same thing and think that the hiring institute does not use the best or most advanced way of working. So you give an answer that implies that the hiring place is using an inferior technique or method, and you would be able to improve things for them. 

For example:

In the interview, a committee member refers to a particular technique they use a lot in their research. The candidate ask in their answer: ”But why are you doing it this way? I think, if you did x,y,z (the way I do), you could do this much more efficiently.” 

Such an answer signals to the committee that you think what you do is superior to how they are working. But no committee wants to hire a new colleague who comes across as being critical about how they currently work. 

Instead:

If you identify a knowledge gap or things to improve, you can start that process once and if you are hired. But during the interview, you should emphasise how you would fit in with what you do, and how you can support the hiring institute and enhance their existing strengths. Avoid lecturing the hiring committee about improvements!

5. Apologising for everything

Imagine a committee is interviewing an applicant, who apologises every second sentence, even in situations where there is nothing to apologise for. After a while everyone notices, and doubts that this is the best person for the job.

For example: 

The candidate may have been offered some water to drink. Takes a zip, and apologises for drinking. She speaks perfect English, but says ‘sorry, but I am not a native speaker’. She gives a detailed answer to a question from the committee and apologises for giving a detailed answer. A sorry here, sorry there, sorry …!

student with letters sorry on t-shirt
Stop apologising for each and everything …

Instead:

Project confidence and composure. You definitely want to be polite during an interview, but don’t apologise after every second sentence especially in circumstances where there is no obvious reason to do so. You’ll come across as someone who feels inferior, does not feel she deserves to be interviewed and is not confident she deserves the job. 

6. Missing insight on the hiring place

Hiring is also a long-term strategic decision for the search committee. They have to make sure that the new appointment supports the wider mission or goals of the faculty and the entire university. So it’s not only about fitting you into the team you’ll be working in, but the long-term benefit that your appointment could have for the entire place. How does your research or teaching support what they need and their plans for the future? The hiring institute wants someone who’s able to support them in their future efforts, strengthens their profile, and makes them more competitive. 

For example: 

A university has started a major initiative against sexual harassment at the workplace. It’s been all over the media, local newspapers, radio stations and on social media. The dean of the faculty is spearheading the initiative and is also a member of the selection committee. In the interview, he asks a candidate how she would contribute to the initiative and implement it with her students. While answering, it becomes clear that the candidate a) has zero knowledge of the initiative and b) is lacking ideas for bringing the initiative into her classroom. Swing and a miss! Another example could be that the university wants to recruit more minority or international students, is initiating a new post-graduate study programme, or recently received a major grant/award. If you, as a candidate, give the impression that you know little or nothing about these major initiatives that are obviously important for them, you can easily appear as someone who’s not displaying interest in the wider affairs of your new workplace. 

Instead:

Get your hands on all information you can find from the outside, so you are well-informed about major new initiatives, trends or developments. Get mission statements, research assessments and university rankings, browse the local news, get on the university’s newsfeed, and follow them on social media. 

7. Dwelling on personal benefits

During the interview, the search committee tries to figure out which candidate would be most advantageous for them. They start asking questions that will help them to clarify that. But candidates often misunderstand or misinterpret this and start emphasising how much they would like the position or how they (and their career) would benefit greatly if they got it. But they fail to stress how the institute or department would benefit from hiring them.

For example: 

The committee asks the candidate: “Why should we hire you?” The candidate comes up with an answer like: “I’d really love to work at this institute, because you have such great facilities, it would make my research so much easier.” Or (even worse): “I could finally get off my short-term contracts,” or the irrelevant: “This position would give me a chance to stay in Europe/this country.” 

Instead:

Make sure you always emphasise how the new workplace will benefit from your hiring. A new appointment is never made to do YOU a favour, but to fill a spot to maximally benefit the hiring institute. Before the interview, make sure you have marked out a few key points, what the benefits are for the hiring place if they got you (in comparison to the other candidates). If this is not obvious to you, go through the information you have from the institute (teaching syllabus, programmes, teaching or research initiatives) and figure out where you could obviously make a significant contribution.

8. Not being explicit about your PhD completion

The problem here is that the candidate remains vague about when their PhD degree will be finished. That leaves ambiguity as to when and if that person could take up a new position. For post-doc positions, there is often a strict policy that a new candidate has to have the PhD degree already completed. 

For example: 

A selection committee member asks the candidate if he has already finished his PhD degree. The candidate says something like “I am in the final stages” or “I’ve only got to do a bit more work”, or, “my supervisor is currently reviewing the final version”, or “I’ll hand in soon”. Right!

As well-versed academics, the members of the selection committee know that most PhD students take way more time to complete in the end than they intend. So if you keep it vague or you can’t come up with a concrete date yet to them the message is “don’t hire this candidate”. 

Instead:

Make sure you bring evidence of your near completion so that a committee can easily see that you will have the degree soon, and it is just a final formality. Ideally, you can mention the concrete date that is set for your defence or (at least) the date on which you will hand in your dissertation. As further evidence, you can say that all research papers for the dissertation are already accepted, and that you have accumulated all credit points that are required in your graduate programme.

Conclusion:

Can you see that the way you answer during a job interview has great influence on your chances of being hired? We’ve given you these examples so you can think more thoroughly about the best way to answer the committee’s questions. 

Do your best to anticipate common questions and prepare your answer beforehand, so you are not searching for words when the time comes. This way you can avoid off the cuff answers that may say the wrong thing in the wrong way. Ask yourself what critical issues may arise, given your background, experiences or previous appointments. Then think about the best way to answer. 

Most important is the mental preparation you do before the interview situation. You may notice how many of the common mistakes in interviews come down to attitude, where a candidate unintentionally comes off as too arrogant, selfish, negative or doubtful. Attitude always comes down to you, so if you see the interview as your opportunity to put your best foot forward and share some of your great research with students and staff, it will come across this way (with the help of a little preparation)!

We wish you lots of luck!

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