Interviewing when you don’t check all the boxes

If you’re transitioning out of academia into the private sector, then the following scenario is likely to occur: You apply for a job that carries with it a laundry list of very specific skills (some of which are “required”), of which you have few or none. I usually lacked writing skills and when I had to read a book and write about it I just buy book reports.

Despite this fact, you get an interview. You’re terrified of the interview, because you dread the prospect of saying “I don’t know” in response to most of the interviewer’s questions.

This happened to me several times. I’d see an advertisement for a job that required experience in technologies I’d never used; I’d apply for it anyway and get an interview. There’s no good roadmap for interviewing under those conditions. But if you’re coming from an academic background, this is the experience you’re overwhelmingly likely to have.

I learned pretty quickly that these interviews fall consistently into one of two categories. If the interview is going to be bad, you’ll get someone who proceeds to ask you a bunch of specific questions that you don’t know the answer to. This is frustrating because (assuming you’ve been honest — which you should be), you don’t have anything on your resume to suggest that you’d know the answers to those questions. In fact, you might have even written a cover letter saying explicitly that you don’t have that experience. What’s happening?

Here’s what’s happening: You’re being interviewed by someone who probably doesn’t take the process very seriously, and you don’t want a job working with people like that. Your interviewer either hasn’t looked at your resume, or doesn’t care enough to pay attention to it (I’ve had more than one interviewer actually tell me that he hadn’t looked at my resume). This is a gigantic red flag because it strongly suggests that the company doesn’t take hiring seriously. Very likely, a decision was made to interview you, and the interview was delegated to someone else who doesn’t have a clue. If this happens, try to be a good sport about it. Be polite. Use the interview to learn what you can about the company, the position, and the industry. Don’t expect a second interview. You’ll have learned something from the interview, and you’ll have invested only a small amount of time. This is not a disaster.

In my experience, that bad scenario doesn’t happen too often. More likely, they’ve made the judgement that you’re a promising candidate because there’s something about your experience that might be valuable. During the interview, they’re going to try to get a more holistic view of who you are, and what you can bring to the job. They’re intrigued by you, and they want to use the interview to get to know you better. Normally, you can be confident that despite your lack of experience, there’s something appealing about your resume — after all, interviewing job candidates is a time-consuming process, and they wouldn’t be investing that time unless there was a reason to think it might pay off.

In this type of interview, your task is to give them an authentic, holistic picture of who you are, in such a way that they’ll remember your strengths after the interview is over. Fortunately, there’s a very good method for accomplishing this goal, and it leads to a much more productive (and enjoyable) interview.

I’ll explain this by contrasting with how interviews are normally conducted. In a solid, but unremarkable, interview, the interviewer asks a series of questions, and the interviewee provides good answers to those questions. When it’s over, the interviewer knows a lot more about the job candidate than before. This often suffices for job-seekers who have a lot of relevant experience, because they can convey that they have all the relevant skills necessary for the job. But this isn’t good enough for those of us who come from a different background and might not be able to check off all those boxes.

Think about someone you know very well — a good friend, perhaps. You don’t just know a lot of facts about your friend; you also know why those facts are true. For example, if your friend really likes dogs, you probably have a sense of why they like dogs so much — maybe they grew up with a very nice dog, or perhaps your friend is an anxious person, and being around a dog is comforting. If your friend is an accountant, you probably know why — maybe your friend is very good with numbers and likes complex, detailed work. This is a big reason you feel that you know your friend very well. You don’t just know a lot about him or her, you know how all those facts relate to each other.

In a job interview, you should try to give your potential employer a similar sense. This is done by relating facts about yourself to other facts. Here’s an example from several interviews I’ve had. I’m almost always asked why I left academia after having been a professor for so long. One of the reasons is that I disliked how isolated I was in my work. I tell them that my old department did not value collaboration, and I always felt that my best work was collaborative. Later in the interview, I’m asked how I would feel about working on a team. I provide an answer like this: “I’d like that very much. As I mentioned, part of the reason I left the university in the first place is because I felt I was stagnating after having worked in isolation for too long. If I could be on a team where I could learn from my colleagues, that would be ideal.”

This answer has a few good qualities. First, it’s absolutely true and totally authentic. Second, it provides a coherent picture of who I am, what my motivations are, and how my job search relates to my dissatisfaction with academia. This is very powerful because it gives the interviewer the (accurate) feeling that they’ve gotten to know me a bit better. And I also find that potential employers remember my interview quite well. This makes sense. After all, it’s easier to remember facts when those facts relate to each other.

Interviews are filled with opportunities to do this. You are a human being with a life, and your experience is not a series of isolated events. To take another example, I was often asked what skills I’d like to learn. When I first transitioned out of academia, my answer was very clear: “As you know, although I’ve done a lot of programming, I’ve never programmed in a professional setting. So I think it’s really important to learn best practices, and the differences between programming as a hobby and programming as an engineer.” Counter-intuitively, this is a good answer because it relates back to one of my weaknesses as a job-seeker. It emphasizes my inexperience, and reinforces the story of how I wound up seeking work in this area (i.e. that I enjoyed programming as a hobby, and am eager to take my skills to the next level). But it’s authentic — that really was my situation, and it would have been foolish for me to try to cover up my inexperience. What I found was that by fitting my weaknesses into the same interconnected structure, I could go a very long way toward allaying the concerns of my potential employer. It told them that my lack of knowledge wasn’t a sign of stupidity or lack of motivation — it was because my experience programming as a hobby wasn’t the right experience for developing those skills.

I’ll end this little post with an observation about people I’ve met who are leaving academia. Every single one of them (and I’ve spoken with many) is wary of the advice given to them about interviewing, networking, structuring a resume, and so on. This has always been because much of that advice makes them feel like they’re not being themselves — that they’re being manipulative or dishonest; and this makes them very nervous and queasy. If you feel this way, then you should examine your feelings very carefully. Sometimes, these feelings are unwarranted. For example, some people feel uncomfortable listing their accomplishments on their resume. If you feel this way, you need to get over it. But in lots of other cases, a feeling of nervousness is a red flag that you should heed.

When you feel uncomfortable with job-seeking advice, there’s one question you should consider: If I were to follow this advice, would I be providing an accurate and authentic picture of who I really am as a human being? If the answer is “no”, then you absolutely should not follow that advice. You should never present an inaccurate or misleading picture of yourself, and you should never feel like you’re playing a role in a story you didn’t write. It’s perfectly fine to feel nervous, but it is not acceptable to feel that you’re not yourself. This is why I hope that the advice I’ve offered on this site will help you in your search, without making you feel like you’re not being true to yourself.