How to Interview When You Don’t Have Job Experience

One factor that seems to block people from taking the first step toward a life outside of academia is the fear that they’ll fall on their face if they’re ever lucky enough to get a job interview. This fear is unfounded, for a number of reasons. Don't be afraid, you can prepare for the interview in advance. For example, you can buy letter of recommendation, where professional writers will describe your preferences correctly. 

First, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, interviews in the private sector aren’t like interviews in academia. If you can get one interview in the private sector, you can get many. And this means that if you do fall on your face, you have the opportunity to learn from the experience and do better next time. This isn’t really true in academia, where the number of interviews you can count on getting is so tiny. So if you can change your mindset to see interviews as learning opportunities, a lot of the stress will go away.

But more importantly, it seems to me that many people worry about a very specific scenario happening. You apply for a job, even though you lack many of the specific qualifications. But you manage to somehow get an interview despite your lack of experience. Then, during the interview, you’re peppered with questions that could be answered only by someone with that exact experience that you lack. You stammer and apologize for a few uncomfortable minutes or hours, and walk out humiliated.

This is an easily avoidable scenario. But in order to avoid it, you have to effect a small change in the way you think about yourself and your qualifications. When you interview for a position in academia, you are expected to be an expert in your field. Presumably, you’ve studied, taught, and conducted research in your area of specialization for years. Thus, it’s perfectly fair for an interviewer to expect that you know a great deal about your chosen area. If it turned out that you couldn’t answer basic questions, you’d (justifiably) be in trouble.

The worry that you’ll fall on your face during an interview outside academia comes from projecting that scenario from your academic experience. Academics unconsciously assume that they’ll be expected to display the same level of specific expertise in any profession. But this is simply not true. Which is not to say that you can be an idiot and nonetheless succeed in an interview; but you have to succeed in a very different way.

No rational employers will waste their time interviewing someone if they’ve already ruled-out the possibility of hiring that person. Assuming you’ve been honest on your resume (which you always should be!), an opportunity to interview is a solid indication that the employer sees something valuable in your experience. And if you lack specific experience in that industry, or in that profession, it’s an indication that you’ve got some quality that potentially outweighs your lack of experience.

Assuming you find yourself in this scenario, you already know a good deal about the employer and your potential role in that organization. Unless the employer is actually stupid (in which case you don’t want the job, anyway), you know at least these things:

  1. They think you have the ability to be trained on the job.
  2. They think that you may have other skills that are valuable, but which might not be specifically mentioned in the job advertisement.
  3. The organization has some need, or needs to solve some problem, that could potentially be addressed by someone like you.

You have two tasks during the interview. First, you have to find out what those skills are that they’re looking for. Second, you have to confirm that you’re the kind of person who can be trained, and who therefore is worth the extra time and effort that such training would entail.

Let’s take those in turn. How do you find out what the skills are that they’re looking for? This is pretty easy — prior to the interview, you do your homework. Look up any news articles about the company; check out their funding history if they’re a startup (using a service like CrunchBase); ask around. Then, when you actually have the interview, you come right out and ask them, point blank. I’d usually ask something like, “What are the needs that your group is trying to satisfy with this role?”, or “What are the major problems your group is facing right now?”. These kinds of questions can lead to a very natural and informative conversation about the job. Furthermore, they’re almost guaranteed to teach you something interesting.

How do you convince them that you’re the kind of person who can be trained? Well, assuming that you are the kind of person who can be trained, you have to let them get to know you better. If you’re an academic, you’ve probably got two qualities that are in high demand: (1) You’re smart enough to learn quickly and independently; and (2) You’re intellectually curious. You demonstrate that by showing genuine (not fake!) interest in the business and its problems; you make it clear that you see the position as an opportunity for professional development; and you come right out and say that part of the appeal of the job is the opportunity to learn. Demonstrate that you’ve already taken the first steps by doing your homework prior to the interview (e.g. by researching the company’s history), and use your academic experience as evidence that you’re the kind of person who enjoys learning.

In conversations I’ve had with my colleagues in the private sector, we’ve often weighed the strengths and weaknesses of many different job candidates. The consensus has always been that a lack of experience can be outweighed by other skills that are much more difficult to train. You can train someone to program in C++, but you can’t train them to be intellectually curious, smart, collaborative people. As an academic (or former academic), your task is to convince a potential employer that you’ve got the right set of skills — namely, the ones that can’t be trained.

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