The Stress of Interviewing and Negotiating

Joseph Barber offers some suggestions to help you harness the excitement of these experiences to achieve career and professional success.

December 9, 2019
 
 
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Does your heart pound in your chest in the moments before you call an employer for a phone interview? Have you received a job offer (hooray!) yet then felt stressed out because you knew you should negotiate but dreaded the thought of doing so? Are you looking for ways to keep calm during these periods of high excitement?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then you are in the majority. Interviewing and negotiating are crucial aspects of any job-search process, but they are also topics that don’t normally get taught as an integrated part of a typical Ph.D. experience. It is no wonder that something like negotiating can feel stressful when you haven’t been taught how to do it effectively.

But just because something is stressful doesn’t mean it is negative. Take it from someone who has a Ph.D. in animal behavior: if we change our perspective slightly and see stress as a state of being physiologically and psychologically activated or excited in response to important stimuli in our environment, then we can acknowledge the stress of these career experiences without it becoming an obstacle.

Some of the stress we feel lives in our heads. My rich imagination has always served me well when I need to escape the less desirable aspects of reality from time to time. But sometimes my imagination can also amplify some of my worst fears. One would think that I could imagine all the ways that interviewing and negotiating could go well, but apparently the default setting in my brain gets stuck on catastrophizing all the worse-case scenarios.

And as I think of them, they feel emotionally real -- as if I am living through the experience itself. Neuroscientists have long known that our brains can generate emotions with just our thoughts, without any external environmental triggers. That is why I often end up running back up the stairs from my basement whenever I have to go down there at night: my mind decides to think about clowns or zombies. My fear response is a consequence of my thoughts, not a consequence of there actually being clowns or zombies in my basement, luckily.

If I can control my thoughts, I can control my basement fears, and the same is true of the job-search experience. Rather than dwell on the negatives, if we can train our thoughts to be more positive, to picture what success will look like and imagine the how great we will feel when these job-search situations go well, then we will be better positioned to make the most out of them.

In this essay, I offer a few tips and tricks that have helped me and other people I know harness the excitement of these experiences to achieve career and professional success.

Interviewing

Interviews don’t always have to be stressful. But one reason we tend to see them this way is that they serve as the main obstacle to us getting a job, so we tend to invest a lot of emotion into the process. The preparation you can do before any interview is key to managing the negative stress and promoting the positive energy you feel. For starters, it is important to be prepared for the questions that almost always tend to pop up in an interview, and you can explore some of those here.

Also, before the interview, you should think about some real-life experiences that you want to share during it. Think of specific examples of your work, research or skills in action that made you feel positive, satisfied or accomplished, and then think about the stories you can tell about these experiences. What was the drama that you had to overcome?

The trick when it comes to giving such examples in an interview is that they are directly connected with positive emotional states in your mind. By talking about times when you were at your best and felt at your best, you are keeping your mind focused on the positives. The more you talk about experiences you enjoyed -- going into the right level of detail to illustrate some of the key skills the employer is seeking -- the more confident and enthusiastic you will seem to the interviewer.

A common physiological response to the stress of interviews is blushing or flushing -- and for some people, that response can spread over their face, chest and neck. It is an involuntary response to many types of stressful (and randomly nonstressful) situations. It can make the person blushing feel uncomfortable from both a physical and emotional standpoint, and often nothing can be done in the moment to stop it.

Sometimes, it can help to directly address it, because once you have brought it up, you can get back to focusing on your answers: “You will have to excuse my blushing. Sometimes my body just has a mind of its own.” (One of my thesis committee members at the University of Oxford swore by beta blockers as an effective approach to minimizing blushing. But as I am not a medical doctor, you should seek out one if you want to explore this.) In general, since it can be hard to control blushing and flushing responses, focus on what you can control: your voluntary body language (e.g., sitting up straight, confident hand gestures), the clothes that you wear and the quality and positive nature of the answers you are giving.

Negotiating

The process of getting a job offer can certainly be tough in some cases. So it can sometimes feel especially draining -- and daunting -- to then be faced with the prospect of negotiating for more at the end of the experience. How often have any of us had to ask someone for, say, $2,500 to $10,000? In many cases, never!

Still, it is important to negotiate. It is an outward expression of your ability to advocate for yourself, which is a competency that should be a lifelong goal for all of us. There are some nuances relating to when and where negotiation is possible (e.g., not for some unionized or state positions) and acceptable (more commonly in some industries and countries than others). But generally it is a mutually beneficial experience for the candidate and the employer, since it helps to promote a sense that the job is the right fit for both parties.

You can take many different approaches to negotiation, such as one described here. And while negotiation is not always about asking for more money -- it could be about some other benefits or perks -- money is usually the most common focus area.

One way to address your fears is to practice the ask out loud in front of a mirror or willing friends or family. That way, you can hear yourself say the words over and over and over again until they sound like something you might say every day. You can make your ask into statement, such as “I am looking for $X.” Or you can frame it as a question: “Thank you so much for this offer. I took some time to research salary for this role at similar-size organizations, and spoke with several alumni from my college who work in this field. I got some great insights from them about ideal starting salaries that were closer to $X. Since I able to bring knowledge of this tool/resource, and have experience doing XYZ, what can we do to get my offer closer to $X?”

Some of the secrets to negotiating are to, first, make sure that you do background research into salaries and, second, identify and restate the value you bring. Then, make the ask in the most natural-sounding, optimistic and confident tone of voice that you have -- which is easy, because you have been practicing this! And finally -- and most important of all -- after making your ask, stop talking.

Bio

Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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