Kent Smetters

Boettner Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at The Wharton School - University of Pennsylvania

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7 Steps to a Good Interview

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Original Image: dance steps, by jtzl/Flickr

It's interview season in academe, as thousands of newly minted Ph.D.'s (or soon to be) start looking for faculty jobs, postdocs, or nonacademic positions. I have participated in a lot of Ph.D. recruiting over the years and sent many of my own students onto the job market. In my experience, most Ph.D.'s looking for work — especially those seeking their first major job — screw up the interview process unless they have a good strategy.

If you are a candidate who is A.B.D. or fresh out of a doctoral program, here's the basic problem: For the past two to four years, you have been working nonstop on your dissertation or fellowship. This work has been your life, maybe even shaping your sense of self-worth. So you are excited to convey everything you have accomplished to a potential employer.

Not surprisingly, then, in an important job interview, your instinct is to immediately dive into the details of your work and convey all of your cool discoveries.

That's a big mistake that I learned the hard way.

When I was an assistant professor, I came up for my third-year review — the standard checkup to see if you are on track to receive tenure. In effect, the third-year review is like an interview, where you are pitching yourself to your senior colleagues. Afterward, one of my colleagues gave me a helpful piece of advice that I still remember to this day: "Kent, in doing your research you will discover some new insight in which you are convinced that you are the only person in the world who really understands it. But, sometimes, it ought to remain that way."

That was pretty good advice. Put simply, as researchers we all get too fascinated with our own insights and lose sight of the big picture. That can prove a more significant problem in job interviews where you're trying to get your foot in the door.

Most of your interview will typically focus on your recent research and you will have up to 25 minutes to discuss it. Use the time wisely. I am convinced that the best interviews follow a very precise algorithm. Deviating from it reduces your chances of landing a good job.

Here are the 7 steps, as I see them:

  • Step No. 1: The What (1 minute). What is the big question that you are seeking to answer in your work? Before the interview, write that question down in one or two sentences and memorize it. That's all that is needed. But be precise. At this point, do not discuss your results or "the how."
  • Step No. 2: The Why (2 minutes). Communicate in about four or five sentences why your topic is so important. Be specific. For example, in economics, you would talk about the dollar size of the market you are exploring; in genetics, maybe it's the number of people that have the mutation you are investigating. Resist the urge to share your results just yet.
  • Step No. 3: The Context (5 minutes). Review key papers in the related literature. Cite them by name. Reference them in a positive way, but don't be afraid to be very clear about their limitations. You wrote your own paper for a reason -- understanding the limits of previous work sets the stage for the importance of your own. The goal in this step is to create some suspense and get listeners to the edge of their seats.
  • Step No. 4: Say and Ask (1 to 5 minutes). OK, by this point, you are now really eager to let loose and spill the beans about your awesome discoveries. My algorithm up to this point has held you back. Nonetheless, the time is still not right, and, if you followed my game plan so far, you still have plenty of time to strut your stuff later on. Instead, ask this question: "I will now dig into the details of my work but, before doing so, are there any questions so far about the research that I am tackling and the related literature?" Asking that shows you are open to discussion -- the people across from you are trying to hire a good researcher and colleague.
  • Step No. 5: The Simple Example (5 to 10 minutes). Now you are ready to unleash your brilliance. However, a common mistake that I have seen is to hit the most complicated parts of your project first, partly because you have spent so much time on those parts and found really cool things. Resist. If your project allows for it, start with a simple example to build intuition. If your listeners understand your example, you've built their trust.
  • Step No. 6: Say and Ask, Again (5 minutes). Ask your interviewers, "With our remaining time, I will talk about the more general case and extensions. However, are there any questions thus far about my example?" If the interview is going well, you will get peppered with questions, and you will not have enough time to talk about your general case. Relax. That's a good thing.
  • Step No. 7: Generalize and Extend (0 minutes, if you are lucky). Now talk about your general results and extensions. Of course, this is the material that you wanted to jump into from the very beginning. But consider it a success if you never get to it in any detail. If you do run out of time, you can literally wrap it up a single sentence by saying some version of, "the paper itself generalizes the results in many different directions, including X, Y, and Z."

Your life has been consumed by your research and you are eager to share the insights that only you have. But remember the advice given to me -- sometimes those private insights ought to remain that way, at least during the job-interview stage. Instead, discipline yourself by following this 7-step approach and practice it on your fellow graduate students and especially your current professors and mentors, who should be eager to help you find a job.

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