When I get calls or emails from current or former academics, they’re often concerned with how to handle themselves in an interview. This is perfectly natural, especially when you consider that interviews in an academic setting are very unusual and highly stylized exercises. In an interview for a faculty position, a lot of information can be left unsaid. Everyone knows pretty much everything about the job, what qualities a successful job applicant should have, and so on. This is not true at all for many interviews in the private sector, and so academics have to adjust their thinking about what needs to be said and what doesn’t.
In an academic interview, you don’t really have to broadcast your qualifications or your values. Your qualifications are on your curriculum vita, and it shouldn’t be necessary to say things like “I enjoy teaching”, “I enjoy thinking about problems in my field”, or “I often read about my field when I’m not at work.” So an academic interview is more like an audition — you’re trying to demonstrate that you’ve really got the qualities that everyone knows you should have, which is why you have to do a job talk, perhaps have a little teaching audition, and “talk shop” with potential colleagues.
By and large, interviews in the private sector are not like that (of course, the line isn’t perfectly clear, but I’m speaking in general terms here). In an interview, the potential employer is trying to discover facts about your qualifications, your values, what you know, and what your professional goals are. Your task as a job-seeker is to communicate those features of yourself as clearly, truthfully, and unambiguously as possible.
Paradoxically, the academics I’ve spoken with about the private sector overwhelmingly possess a lot of the qualities that employers are looking for, but they don’t realize that they need to communicate those qualities explicitly. For example, every academic I know who is seeking employment in the private sector has a lot of intellectual curiosity, and places tremendous value in having opportunities to learn. This is a great quality for someone who is seeking work in any kind of fast-changing environment, whether it’s finance, technology, health care, consulting, or what-have-you. Any intelligent employer will want this quality, and most will be frustrated with how difficult it is to find people like that. If an employer doesn’t want someone like this, then that employer is stupid and you don’t want the job, anyway.
So how do you communicate that (e.g.) it’s important for you to have continuing opportunities to learn and develop professionally? The answer may shock you: You should come right out and say, “it’s important to me that I have opportunities to learn and develop professionally.” To take another example, suppose you don’t have experience with technology X, but you want to learn it. Then you should say, “I don’t have experience with technology X, but I want to learn it.” If you value collaboration, you should say, “I value collaboration.” See the pattern?
But how do you convince employers that you’re telling the truth? This is easy, and it has two components, both of which are necessary: (1) you should only say things that are true; and (2) you should provide evidence that those claims are true. For example, many academics I’ve spoken with are frustrated by the lack of collaboration in their academic fields, and that’s one important reason they’re leaving academia. I certainly felt this way. If this describes you, then you could say, “I place a lot of value on collaboration; it’s how I’ve learned the most in the past. In fact, part of the reason I’m making this career change is because I’ve been frustrated by the lack of collaboration in my academic field.” If you’ve got some sort of ongoing side-project, it’s a pretty good bet that your project reveals a lot about you. So you should talk about it.
We can distill this advice down to, “Be overtly authentic.” Being authentic means letting people know what kind of person you really are, not pandering to others’ expectations, and not trying to display values that you don’t actually have. Doing so overtly means not forcing someone else to guess or infer what kind of person you are, and what values you actually hold.
This interview technique (if we even want to call it a “technique”) has several practical benefits. First, it’s easy. Being authentic is easier than being inauthentic because it’s distracting to try to convince someone of something that’s not one-hundred percent true. Second, it wins over your interviewer because people appreciate it when others are straightforward with them. Third, it helps ensure that if you do get the job, you’re a good fit for your employer. After all, the worst possible outcome to a job search isn’t failing to get the job; it’s getting a job that you end up hating. Overt authenticity during an interview will help prevent that from happening.