What 10 things do you need to know before entering a job interview?
It has been 13 years since I published my article, “The 10 Knows,” in Psychiatric Times to assist clinicians in preparing to get a new job. It is now time to take stock of the 10 Knows again in this contemporary era of Zoom interview meetings, heightened social media communications, and the invariable refinements in the interview process and candidate appraisal.
The “10 Knows” are:
1. Know elements of the organization
Not knowing basic details about an organization is not a smart introduction to the search committee. Although an interviewing candidate might present a compelling application, the search committee can easily become wary of the candidate who appears to be job shopping and has only vague knowledge about the job. Conversely, being able to recite key components of the organization’s strategy or some recent events (eg, new program accreditation, national or local research awards, recent major research grants) goes a long way to help the search committee understand your level of interest in this specific position as opposed to the search committee thinking you will leave your current job for any opportunity, and not specifically this position.
2. Know about the position
When a job is posted, the search committee has often revised the job description in response to some perceived weakness in the role. Alternatively, the job title may be unchanged from before, yet the scope and expectations might be changed as a result of an organization changing, such as a merge or new relationship with a community hospital. Since much of the information is now readily available online, it might be possible to get access to the prior job descriptions and to compare this with the present job description. The job description will often list challenges and opportunities for the role. Spend time preparing for questions about each of these, particularly, as sometimes the challenges and opportunities may form the basis for some of the questions that will be posed by the search committee.
3. Know the area/location
Search committee members are often eager to “sell their city,” as well as to promote the job. Candidates who are serious about a position should also acquaint themselves with the city by reading the local newspaper and perhaps even visiting before the actual job interview. The latter sends a powerful message to the search committee members.
4. Know a friend or colleague who works at the institution
It can be enormously helpful to gain the perspective of a friend or colleague who currently works for the organization. This approach of “doing your homework” can add depth to a candidate’s answers. It can also help to better understand the culture of the organization and what the search committee is really looking for in a candidate for the job. On the other hand, the search committee may be wary of a candidate who appears as if they have been in receipt of “insider information” about the job and the interview process. Moreover, the opinion of the friend might be just that of a single person’s opinion, which may or may not be representative of the organization.
5. Know the challenges of the job
It is impressive when a candidate can rattle off strengths and accomplishments of an organization, but it is even more compelling when a candidate can speak confidently about the challenges that are facing the organization. As with all aspects of the interview process, humility is essential. Inadvertently representing yourself as someone who knows all the answers is a turnoff at an interview. Thus, your recommendation about how to address the organization’s challenges should be prefaced by remarks such as: “Although I would need to know more about the organization, my impression at this stage is…” or “Based on my current level of understanding of your organization, I would suggest….” It is always welcomed to state what your prior experience has been as you address whatever challenges you may be asked about during the interview. After all, you are being considered for this position based on your prior experience and how that will benefit the organization.
6. Know who is interviewing you
In the era of the internet and social media communication, it is easy to get a sense of the professional identity of the colleagues who are interviewing you. Knowing something about the individuals in front of you in the interview will help you connect better with the search committee. Also, as obvious as this may appear, the composition of the search committee can tell you about the organization’s leadership culture, based on the roles and representation of the search committee. Most search committees are comprised of 10 to 15 individuals, and you can be sure that the organization has put effort in selecting who serves on this search committee. Even more key are those who you might expect to be on the search committee but are not represented. Absence of a key leader could also mean that they are also under consideration as an internal candidate for the position.
7. Know the logistics for the interview
If you can, it is preferred to check out the site before your interview. It can bring to light some transportation or other related difficulties that might not otherwise be apparent, and that could cause disruption to you on the day of the interview. Being late for an interview is a real turnoff for a search committee. Everybody understands that situations can arise, and travel is not controlled by the candidate, yet search committees are evaluating the candidate. If they are disorganized and arrive late (or even miss the interview), it invariably raises other questions as to whether the candidate will also be late and disorganized on the job.
It is also important to be prepared now that organizations are most often conducting first visits via Zoom. The same basic preparation is still important, whether the interview is in person or on Zoom. Be sure to check the web link for the Zoom before the interview. You will already have the meeting codes, so if you join the meeting late, the search committee might suspect you are disorganized. Also, be careful about what Zoom background you use. Showing off your messy bedroom during an interview is not a good idea. You should consider a background that is appropriate and ideally blends in. I remember a colleague at work typically had a mini video of a barista preparing coffee in his background, and it was highly distracting. It is better to just play it safe.
Ideally, you should use an image of your current institution. Doing so reminds the search committee of where you work and of your pride in the institution. Another obvious practical consideration is to ensure that you interview in a quiet and professional place where you are comfortable. Also be careful that you sit close to your computer/camera; if you sit at the end of a long table, the committee will have more difficulty connecting with you, as they will be unlikely to properly see your facial expressions.
8. Know how to dress and how to present yourself
It has been observed that work dress codes post COVID-19 have become more casual, especially with employees working from home. With that said, an interview is an interview, and casual clothing is not appropriate. Also, be sure that your entire outfit is presentable and appropriate. We have all heard about—and occasionally seen—the colleague who appears well dressed on Zoom but actually has casual shorts on. You should avoid wearing colors of the institution that you are interviewing with; although it is a cute touch to wear the colors, you will look like you are begging for the job. Always be professionally dressed. It is better to err on the side of conservatism.
9. Know your story
It is highly likely that your interview will start with a question such as: “In a few minutes, please summarize your career to date and how it has prepared you for the role you are interviewing for.” You know how to answer this question well. And yet, at least from my experience in serving on multiple search committees over the years, it is surprising how frequently candidates can botch this simple question. They talk for far too long and provide irrelevant and/or extraneous information about a prior experience earlier in their career. They leave out formative experiences, even those experiences that may be directly pertinent to the job under consideration.
Perhaps the most common error in response to this question is that the candidate fails to make the link between their prior experiences and the competencies that the search committee are seeking in this new role. The astute candidate will avoid repeating the details of their curriculum vitae and what has already been written in the application letter. The interview is an opportunity to dig deeper and to explore whether they have the background and experiences that the institution is looking for. This is best achieved when the candidate tells the story about their career and experiences that (inevitably) leads up to how the candidate prepared for this job and interview. Doing this and doing this well is powerful. Conversely, if the candidate does not come across on this first easy question, it sets a bad tone for the rest of the interview, and it risks losing the interest of the search committee right from the beginning of the interview. Candidates should be well prepared and well practiced to answer this first question thoughtfully and with vigor to get the interview off to a good start.
10. Know why you want the job and what you will do with it
Earlier in my career while I was a dean interviewing to become a second-time medical school dean, I got asked the following provocative questions: “You are already a dean. Why do you want this job?” “If you got the job, what kind of baggage would you bring with you?” “Why should we give you the job?”
Just as you should be well prepared to answer the question about your career and how it relates to the job application, you should also be ready to answer the question: Why do you want the job you are interviewing for? Of course, there are a wide range of reasons why someone wants a new job. You should articulate with confidence 3 to 5 reasons that are specific to your situation. It is reassuring to the search committee to be able to understand the longitudinal arc of a career and how the candidate views this position as a great fit for them. For example, “This job is now where I can apply all that I have learned over the past 20 years to work on challenges at your institution.”
It is also important for the candidate to make explicit why this is the right time for them to consider this position. Additionally, at the end of the interview, it is helpful to the search committee if the candidate explained a little about the city and why the city is an attractive place for them to move. Additionally, there may be a concern among members of the search committee as to the candidate’s motivation for interviewing. The committee may be wondering whether the candidate is motivated to interview because of a troubling situation at their present job rather than the opportunity for which they are interviewing. Is the candidate just interviewing to see what is out there? Are they going to use this leverage to improve their situation at their current institution? Is this job just 1 of several that they are looking at, or is the candidate truly interested in this position?
The job interview process can reveal to candidates what opportunities might be before them in a new position. Although this evolves throughout the interview process, candidates should be able to at least articulate some specific thoughts at the interview about what they think they could achieve if they were given the opportunity of this appointment. The more specific the candidates can express these details at the early stage, the more powerful they will come across to the search committee.
As clinicians, we have received meticulous training on how to practice our specialty. We received surprisingly little guidance about how best to prepare for an interview, which is key to advance one’s career and work. Interviewing via Zoom has added nuances to the process of selecting candidates for further evaluation in person and on campus. Moreover, search committees have become more discerning. If you want this job, you should come prepared. It can be a lot of work to prepare properly for an interview. Accordingly, this is my sound advice: If you are not prepared to be prepared, do not interview!
Dr Buckley is a psychiatrist and serves as Chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and with health science campuses and affiliated partnerships across the state of Tennessee. He is a member of the Psychiatric Times Editorial Board.