Botching the Interview

Eliza Woolf recounts her mistakes when going up for a nonacademic job.

June 23, 2010

"Can you tell me about yourself?" This is the most common – and, for me, dreaded – question asked of job candidates during nonacademic interviews. And since finishing my Ph.D., I’ve found myself invited to answer it on several occasions. While such an open-ended query need not be intrinsically more challenging than pointed questions about research or teaching interests, I nonetheless find it incredibly difficult to sell myself in terms unrelated to my advanced degree.

Like many other would-be scholars contemplating Plan-Bs outside academe, I’m still learning how to construct a compelling and legitimate employment narrative, one capable of both justifying my life choices thus far and translating skills learned in the academy into terms understandable and attractive to a potential nonacademic employer.

For example, my response to this soft-ball question in a real one-on-one interview setting for an editorial assistantship at a commercial publishing house began something like this: "Well, I hold a Ph.D. in history and have received several postdoctoral fellowships since completing my doctoral program last year. While these positions have enabled me to continue researching and writing history, I’ve come to realize that I’m much more interested in pursuing a career in publishing rather than in academe...."

I honestly don’t remember what else I said as I struggled to describe my circuitous career path and lack of nonacademic work experience, only that my initial opening statement was flawed from the outset. Rather than demonstrating how my educational background, career goals, and personal interests made me an ideal fit for the position, my off-the-cuff response raised more questions than answers. If anything it demonstrated a questionable commitment to the world of commercial publishing. Given that this was my first foray into the unfamiliar realm of full-time nonacademic employment, this impression wasn’t too far off the mark: I was more curious than committed.

Things got worse for me as the interview progressed. When asked if I would miss university teaching, I admitted that most students write atrociously and don't want to come to class anyway, and that consequently I would greatly prefer to read, edit, and discuss the work of educated scholars and other authors on a daily basis. During the copywriting test I not only corrected typos and misspellings as instructed but also pointed out poor grammatical constructions and sloppy writing. I don’t think this is what they were looking for, however. I also openly acknowledged that I had no intention of giving up my scholarship but planned to continue it on the side or even during periods of down time at the office. (A very serious no-no as it turns out. But for the reason this issue came up in the first place, see question 7 below.)

Other questions asked at the editorial assistantship interview included:

  1. What three words would your references use to describe you?
  2. What three words would you use to describe yourself?
  3. What is your greatest weakness?
  4. Can you meet deadlines?
  5. Are you detail oriented?
  6. Can you handle a busy office environment?
  7. Some aspects of this job will involve repetitive or dull tasks. Will that bother you? How will you cope if things start to lag?
  8. When can you start, and what are your salary expectations?

While these questions may seem like no-brainers in comparison to those asked during interviews for tenure-track academic positions, they're most certainly not. Nor are they to be taken lightly or answered without preparation, especially by Ph.D.s such as myself lacking real-world employment experience. Hiring managers take initial interviews very seriously; they're looking to employ someone who fits the bill precisely, and there are plenty of other candidates for them to choose from if one mucks up, like I did, during the first round of interviews.

For me, performing well meant coming up with six well-chosen adjectives on the spot to describe how I am perceived by others as well as how I perceive myself (see questions 1 and 2 above). Again, I answered these seemingly uncomplicated questions all wrong, choosing adjectives like determined, ambitious, and motivated rather than friendly, hard working, and likable — attributes better suited to an entry-level position. I characterized my greatest weakness as a difficulty letting go of projects, an answer that prompted additional questions about whether I was truly capable of meeting deadlines. As countless former Ph.D. job seekers have since warned me, employers in the private sector are always concerned that academics cannot or will not meet deadlines, so my self-proclaimed weakness turned out to be a poor choice indeed.

I also took missteps as the interview wound down and they opened the floor for my questions. First, I inquired about internal advancement opportunities and how quickly they occur, and then I asked whether or not editorial assistants have any real input in the publication process or are more or less office gofers during their temporary stint at the bottom of the totem pole. (The latter question came across much less abrasive at the time.) Worst of all, I accidentally dropped my poker face when the hiring manager revealed the shockingly low, non-negotiable salary details for the position. No one wants to hire someone who thinks they deserve better than the job in question, particularly if the job entails working as the primary interviewer’s personal assistant.

At this point I’m sure I could catalog this experience under the “What NOT to say during a nonacademic job interview” category; although it is true that my performance sounds worse in retrospect, and that I’m selectively revealing my most appalling moments. I did have the entire contents of the publishing house’s 2007 and 2008 catalogs memorized; a firm grasp of the company’s history, current market, and potential for growth; and an understanding that the future of commercial publishing lay primarily in e-books. In this sense, I was well prepared.

But what most depressed me about the whole experience was actually not my lackluster performance but the fact that my potential boss and her colleagues were all the same age as me, if not younger, and that the rest of the candidates lined up to interview for the position were 21-24 year olds. I may have had a Ph.D. to distinguish myself but I no longer had my youth or a recent internship or coursework, or any relevant work experience for that matter, to set me above these fresh-faced college graduates. Additionally, I had serious post-Ph.D. debts to pay off and couldn’t afford to leave the ivory tower on a permanent basis for less than $25K per year.

When a slim rejection letter arrived in my mail box several weeks later, I was already convinced that an editorial assistantship wasn’t for me. In fact, I was convinced the moment the interview concluded and I saw the other young, genuinely eager job candidates waiting in the wings. Yet I learned a great deal from this experience. I realized that preparing for a nonacademic interview doesn’t mean simply memorizing details from an organization’s website or checking out books from the library: I’d have to learn to sell myself too.

Readers, do you have any embarrassing nonacademic job interview stories you would like to share with Inside Higher Ed? Or am I the only Ph.D. (or A.B.D) out there who routinely puts her foot in her mouth in untried, high-stress situations?


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