How (Not) to Fail while interviewing for jobs in the social sector

To start off let’s put all the cards on the table. Interviewing for jobs can be roller coaster of ups and downs. If you’re lucky enough to have your job application pass through the shredder of hell or the never hear back pile (of course there are many concrete steps one can talk to help increase your chances of making it through the initial screening see our previous entries) then getting an interview can be an exhilarating experience. See our February focus on resumes and March on networking

Landing an interview is great but often one’s mind (at least mine does) will run into overdrive and ask questions including what should I do to be competitive? Who else is being interviewed? What will the interviewer ask? Are they actually interviewing me as a serious candidate or have they already picked their ideal candidate and just need to do a few more interviews for show? There is something inherently disconcerting about sitting down (or via the phone/Skype) with a person or a group of people who will be deciding your professional fate. I’ve sat on both sides of the aisle, having been interviewed for many jobs, consultancies, fellowships and also having interviewed many candidates for jobs, consultancies and internships, as well as serving on countless fellowship review panels.

In some ways job interviewing can be like going on a blind date where you don’t really know the other person, the organization, it can be awkward, or fun, or a bit of both.

In our April blog series we will be hearing from leading experts on how to best prepare when you land the interview, some concrete tips, etc. This post is more a reflection on failure and success and some random tips.

The # 1 things in landing a first interview is taking a breath and congratulate yourself on making it this far. As we have discussed in previous posts , many job openings are getting hundreds of applications and only a small fraction are selected for first interviews. Take a minute to appreciate that you’re doing something right (maybe an amazing resume, a key mentor connected to the hiring organization recommended you, you networked with the right people, etc.).

If you haven’t gotten an interview and have been applying don’t despair. Take a deep breath as well and take a look at our previous posts on preparing for your job search, resume development and networking (all of which are key factors in landing an interview).

If you’ve made the cut, here are some of my personal stories and reflections from being on the job-searching end. I will do a separate post later this month from the hiring perspective.

1) Enjoy the journey — I’ve often found when I’ve searched for a job if I adopt an attitude of curiosity, that this is a great opportunity to see what opportunities are out there in the world, to meet interesting people and see how my skills match up to the market this is very helpful. If I have the attitude that I need a job today and am desperate (which sometimes is the case we all need to make money to survive) that can be detrimental.

2) It is hard to assess how one does in an interview — It is critical to do all of your homework (as will be outlined in one of our upcoming posts this month) and rehearse (I’ve often found for me doing mock interviews, writing down questions the interviewee committee might ask and responses I might give), etc., but in the end there is the actual performance in the interview.

I’ve had the highs and lows imaginable in my career. I remember when I was fortunate to interview for a Fulbright Scholarship as a senior in my university I think I was the last interviewee of the day. The review panel looked exhausted and I was very nervous and thought the session didn’t go that well. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I was fortunate to get the opportunity.

Another time I had a single phone interview for a job at a prestigious international NGO and was offered the position I think the next day However, even though I believed this would be would be a dream job it turned out not to be right match for me (which is another lesson) and I decided to leave the position after only a few months even though the organization liked my work.

3) Don’t take it personally-While interviewing I’ve had people treat me incredibly kindly and had amazing conversations. I’ve also had interviews with people who appeared to be bored out of their minds and actually annoyed by the conversation. I’ve learned not to take it personally as it may be the person is annoyed, or while interviewing me is actually thinking about the 20 other things he/she needs to do before going home, or I may be the 10th candidate they’ve interviewed and they are just bored, etc.

For one organization I was lucky to land a position after having two amazing interviews that went very well. I was almost certain I would land the position. However, I had a third interview with a VP of the organization. While it wasn’t a disaster it really didn’t go well, there was no chemistry and the person appeared quite uninterested. I walked away thinking there is no chance I will get the job after being elated form the first two interviewees. However, I did get the position.

4) Enjoy the ride — Each organization has its own process for hiring. As indicated for one organization I had a single phone interview (and had to do a very intensive application) and was offered an amazing job. Another time I was interviewing for a very cool job at an international development organization. Their process was very, very slow. I had three interviews (all by phone), which took place I think over two months. I was interviewing for other positions at the same time. I was really interested in this position but the organization wanted to schedule a fourth interview with a very senior person and myself. However, they wouldn’t rush the fourth interview and I got another job offer. Despite my request to see if we could move ahead they didn’t’. I wasn’t able to find out if I would’ve been hired or not as I took a different position.

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of the job search. As it can be months of applying, networking and maybe not having interviews. Then it may be several possibilities all at once, which are on different schedules. For instance, one place may make an offer while the other opportunities are only in the initial stages and not possible to push them ahead. Often, I’ve had to make choices wishing I could know if all the opportunities would work out, but only having limited options with the offers on the table.

5) Trust your intuition or gut — I remember once in high school when I used to ski race I interviewed for a job at a ski shop. I took the job but then realized it would be too much and backed out before starting. I probably should have trusted my intuition and not taken the job before being in the uncomfortable position of having been hired but never starting the job.

6) We are competing and we aren’t — Honestly I want other people to succeed and have amazing opportunities to build their careers and change the world. I share professional opportunities usually as widely as possible (that is one of the core values of PCDNetwork ensuring everyone can have equal access to information and opportunity). However, there have been a few very awkward times when I’ve been interviewing for positions (more on the academic end) and run into good friends who are interviewing for the same position. These have been momentary uncomfortable experiences when we both realize that we are in competition for the same position. However, one time (maybe not the first time happened) I was able to genuinely wish my colleague that I hope she gets the job and she wished me the same. Thus, we were both rooting (of course my ego still wanted me to get the position) for each other. In the end although we both made it to the final, final stage of a competitive tenure-track academic job a third candidate was selected so I can only laugh.

I think in today’s even more fast-paced, gigifying and competitive job market interviewing can be even more challenging than in previous days. However, remember that this is a process and that as the job searcher you do have influence, power and are amazing. Even if you don’t get the particular offer or interview, see this as part of the process, what can you learn, can you develop a new contact, maybe someone will keep you in mind for future positions.

What are your lessons for success or your failures in being interviewed for positions in the social sector?

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