Fatimah Williams Castro

Founder & CEO at Beyond the Tenure Track

How to Ace the Screening Interview

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

As a Ph.D. seeking a nonacademic career, you are probably unfamiliar with the corporate hiring process. When a company invites you to interview, that’s the organization’s way of saying:

“We like what we saw on paper. We’re going to invest the time to determine if our hunch is correct. Let's see if there’s actually a fit between what we need and what you do, and if you’ll fit into our organizational culture and team. Oh, and please be the person that you described in your résumé, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile.”

That’s quite a bit of information to gather in one interview. To narrow the pool, many companies will invite job candidates to a screening interview — a brief 15-to-30-minute meeting, usually via telephone or Skype. If the company wants to further explore your candidacy, it may administer a test and offer a second, and possibly even a third, interview.

The screening interview, though, is a crucial opportunity to get your foot in the door, confirm your potential, and secure your invitation to Round 2. You do that by demonstrating:

  • Genuine interest in the organization, its work and its mission.
  • Knowledge of the employer and industry.
  • The value and potential use of your skills to boost its work.

And you do all of that while making some level of human connection with your interviewers. Remember, they need to know that you will be enjoyable to have around the office and agreeable when things are stressful and tough decisions must be made.

The screening interview may be held by a hiring manager, an HR professional, or the position’s direct supervisor. Here are five things you can do to conquer this initial interview and get invited back for the real deal:

  • Conduct online research. Most people know to do that but they fail to gather enough information about the organization and its relationship to its industry. Review the organization’s social-media feeds, corporate descriptions, recent press releases, and staff descriptions. What does the company value? What are its recent programs, projects, or products? How does the organization differentiate itself from competitors?
  • Prepare an effective career-change narrative. That statement should describe you as a confident job seeker with something relevant to offer — rather than as an uncertain, desperate, or rejected academic. If your introduction begins with, “I have a Ph.D. in …,” you will want to revisit your career-change narrative.
  • Inventory your three most relevant accomplishments. Be able to succinctly describe how those achievements demonstrate your ability to be successful in the company’s environment. This inventory is a task of translation. Often it is difficult to do alone. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know, or what you’re missing or misinterpreting. Which brings me to my next suggestion.
  • Enlist the help of others to do a practice interview. And practice in a simulated environment. When I conduct interview-prep sessions for clients, I take a “no do-over” approach. If you go off on a tangent or answer a question poorly, it is important that you know how to recover — meaning, how to get out of that tight spot and save the interview. So practice it. An ability to think quickly and pivot is a key skill of effective interviewing, networking, and work-life in general. Besides suggestions on where to sharpen your message, ask your mock interviewers for advice on how to make a course correction when you flub up.
  • Use tailored questions in your mock interviews. In interview-prep sessions, I make a point to review the job announcement and the exact application materials that my clients submitted for the position. That specific information allows me to create questions customized to the position and find weak spots in your materials that any hiring managers worth their salt are sure to ask about.

A final tip that will save you some stress: Start working on your interview preparation before you receive the invitation to interview.


Job interviews have a tendency to spring up out of nowhere, and your host will most likely want to rush to conduct the screening interview within as little as 24 to 48 hours’ notice. That leaves you very little lead time to prepare and practice, especially if you want to get help from a mentor or coach. If you have honed your job search to one or two career fields, you can rest assured that the time and effort you investment in interview preparation will be well spent.

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