The Question Is Not The Question, Postac Version – Langer

by Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Following her (really, really important) post on the academic interview, “The Question Is Not The Question“, Karen asked me to write a version for alt/post-ac life.

Interviewing, as Karen has said many times and as I concur, is in part an information-gathering session and in part a performance. Karen’s suggestion that “‘yourself’ is the very last person you want to be” in an academic interview is similarly true in a non-academic interview, but in some ways it’s even more so. Performing the academic self is a little easier if you’re an academic by training; performing the non-academic self if you’re trained as an academic takes some doing.

You’ll need to get over whatever impostor syndrome may dog you from your years as an academic. Everyone in the non-academic world feels like an impostor, too – but the difference is that outside of academia, you really do just have to fake it til you make it, and everyone’s taught that pretty early on. (As Oliver Burkeman says, “everyone is just totally winging it, all the time.”

So this is your guide, dear reader, to “winging it” effectively in a non-academic interview when you’ve been trained as an academic. And the way I’m helping you to wing it today is by teaching you what interviewers are really asking you when they’re asking you questions in your interview.

“Hi! Welcome. How are you?”

“Hi! Welcome. Let’s exchange pleasantries.” The only appropriate answer here is “Hi! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m very well, thanks, and yourself?” or some variation of such.

You would be shocked at how many people start the interview off on the wrong foot from the first words. Please don’t tell them how you actually are. They don’t want to hear that you’re five minutes late because you got stuck in traffic or couldn’t find parking. (You should never, ever be five minutes late.) They don’t want to hear how you got there. They don’t want to hear that you’re sick but still make it in (if you’re sick with a cold, then take a gallon of Dayquil and bathe in Purell, and if you can’t, then try to reschedule the interview). Don’t tell them you’re tired or hungry. Tell them that you’re very well, thank you, and ask about them. This is pure performance. They want to know whether you’re going to be pleasant to deal with or not on a daily basis.

“Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult situation at work.”

For example: let’s say you successfully managed to help a student worker who had poor time management skills to better plan their time and improve their performance. Here’s the wrong way to explain it:

“I had a student who was really disorganized and missed a ton of deadlines, and it really held up the rest of our work. We couldn’t do anything because he couldn’t meet deadlines. Eventually I showed them how to keep a calendar effectively and it helped a lot.”

Here’s the right way to explain it:

“One of my student workers had some challenges around time management, and found it difficult to meet deadlines. I worked with the student on calendaring, prioritization and daily planning to help her use her time more effectively. This assistance has improved the department’s efficiency, and has also helped the student to be more successful in her academic work.”

See the difference in tone? It’s more positive. It’s not accusatory. It talks about poor time management as a problem in the student’s approach, not in the student’s character (“disorganized” vs “some challenges around time management”), and suggests that you see problems as solvable, not intractable.

Remember: no one wants an excuse, and no one wants negativity. No one wants to hear why you couldn’t do something. Everyone wants to hear why and how you managed to be successful in the face of difficulty.

“What’s your biggest weakness?”

I really dislike this question, because it almost never gets the responses a company is looking for. But I understand why interviewers ask it, and if you answer well, then it can be effective in helping them screen for whether you will fit into the workplace well and can help you screen them as to whether you think the job will be a good fit for you. (Remember, you’re not just looking for any job – you’re looking for a good fit.)

The conventional wisdom is to answer with a “weakness” that’s actually a strength; i.e. “I’m a workaholic” or “I’m a perfectionist”. Most interviewers will see through this, though, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours.

The best approach with this question is to answer honestly, with a weakness that is relatively minor but real, and follow this up immediately by telling the interviewer how you mitigate this weakness.

For example:

“I find sometimes that I focus on my work so much that I’m slow to develop relationships with my colleagues. I find, though, that taking scheduled breaks and being open and friendly really helps with this, and this approach has helped me to develop great relationships with my current colleagues.”


“I struggle sometimes with organization, because my default mode is to synthesize information rather than to organize it. Organization doesn’t come naturally to me. Because of this, though, I developed a very effective system during my doctoral work that helps me to organize my tasks.”

The other benefit of this approach is that you won’t be hired for a job that you simply can’t do and/or will make you miserable. If, for instance, you’re generally disorganized and it’s a job that requires a high level of innate organization (and enjoyment of organizing things), you won’t be happy in the job anyway, and you employer won’t be happy with your work.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

The unspoken end of this sentence is “…at our company?” They don’t want to hear about how you’re planning to make a career change in five years. They don’t even really want to hear about how you’re hoping to get your foot in the door at their company in Accounting so that you can move into Marketing.

This question is a question about where your interests lie and what you hope your trajectory will be at their company and in the trajectory they’re hiring you for.

To make sure you can answer this question, do some research before the interview about the company. (You should research the company anyway.) Check out the LinkedIn profiles of people at the company who are in similar roles to the one you’re interviewing for, or who are further ahead in their careers, and look at what their career paths look like. If it’s a small company, think about how you might be able to use your skills to grow the business in your area of expertise.

The fly in the ointment here is when you’re interviewing for a job that you have no intention of keeping for five years: if, for instance, you ARE planning to make a career change, or you ARE planning to get your foot in the door so you can make a move to a different department.

My advice in this case is to remember that things don’t always turn out the way we think they will: it’s very possible that you’ll take the job and end up loving it so much that you do want to stay in Accounting. It’s also very possible that the company itself will change and you’ll have opportunities you hadn’t even considered. Try thinking creatively about the best-case scenario for you in the track you’re being hired for, or about synergies between that track and the one you’re ultimately going for.

“Do you have any questions for us?”

My advice here is similar to the advice Karen gives to academics. This question has two purposes. First is what it says on the tin: they want to know if you have any questions that might help you make a decision. And second: they want to hear that you’ve researched the company, you know what they’re about, and that you’re intelligent and interested enough to ask good questions that will help you make a decision.

(Do not ask about salary or benefits here. It sucks, but it’s the convention. Ask about these at the offer stage.)

I hope this has been helpful. If you have any more questions about, well, questions, feel free to post them in the comments and I’m happy to address them.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


The Question Is Not The Question, Postac Version – Langer — 5 Comments

  1. I would never, EVER say “I struggle sometimes with organization…”. Your explanation doesn’t matter at all because that’s the only thing that an interviewer will hear! That’s terrible advice! His/her brain will shut down at hearing that. And what will go into the evaluation? “He said he’s bad at organization” and you’re gone!

    The answer to the weaknes question should be lead by an example. This way you can steer the attention of the interviewer first to the aspect you want to express and not the weakness. Or you should answer with the typical workaholic answer… Or I’m too creative… or any other negativized good quality. Trite, but works.

    NEVER should you lack organization, interpersonal skills, teamwork, creativity, respect for the chain of command/confidentiality (I cannot stress this more), love for your work, or even… grooming. These are the things that you need outside academia. Unless you’re the undisputed expert in your field and the company NEEDS your very unique skills (a very unlikely scenario),… if you lack one of these things, or express a weakness on one, you’ll never get hired outside academia.

    • Author of the post here: I’d like to respond here, because I disagree with a few of your points. Keep in mind that I have been “the interviewer” many times, in many contexts, hiring both for my own company and as a manager for an organization that employed me.

      “I would never, EVER say “I struggle sometimes with organization…”. Your explanation doesn’t matter at all because that’s the only thing that an interviewer will hear! That’s terrible advice! His/her brain will shut down at hearing that. And what will go into the evaluation? “He said he’s bad at organization” and you’re gone!”

      I don’t agree, necessarily. If you’re interviewing for a job where being extremely organized is important, then of course this is an issue (and would be a bad example to use; we all have many weaknesses, and we can choose which ones to use). Potential secretaries or admin assistants should not use this. But in more creative fields, where synthesis of information is important, it’s not a candidacy-killer.

      Keep in mind, also, that the key here is not the weakness but the way in which you have mitigated the weakness. I would be very comfortable hiring someone who is not naturally organized but has created an effective system to manage his or her time and tasks. It’s better to hire someone who is aware of and works to mitigate his or her weaknesses than someone who isn’t aware of them.

      “The answer to the weaknes question should be lead by an example. This way you can steer the attention of the interviewer first to the aspect you want to express and not the weakness. Or you should answer with the typical workaholic answer… Or I’m too creative… or any other negativized good quality. Trite, but works.”

      In the first instance, I’m not clear on what you’re trying to say. In the second… no, sorry, your interviewer can usually see right through that. “I’m too creative” means either “I am trying to avoid answering the question” or “I think I’m a special snowflake who doesn’t have to follow the rules and I’m going to be upset if anyone puts any limits on my creative self.” Neither of these is a good thing.

      And if you yourself are a manager who interviews people whom you may hire: I suppose that someone who explains a real weakness while at the same time indicating how they mitigate that weakness is not a candidate in whom you would be interested. Luckily, there are many companies and organizations in the world.

  2. So, can you mention a job where being “extremely organized” isn’t important, as you state? (please leave the arts aside).

    Your suggestion has also a considerable risk, as the interviewee is gambling on the interviewer being either lax or efficiency oriented. No matter what, between a candidate that’s organized and one that has expressed troubles with it… I would choose the first.

    You see, I’m sure you think I’m isolating my observation by leaving out the “context”. However, you are isolating it by excluding the other (50 or so) highly qualified candidates.

    I’m A+ ok with statements like “Sometimes, when a project doesn’t work I get too focused in it” or “I don’t like paperwork…”. But if the candidate expresses weakness on the points I stated (especially organization). There will be 49 other options before his/her case gets revisited.

    And you must remember, this type of questions may well be asked through a phone screening interview.

    Words should be chosen carefully. It is very important, as you say, to include the context. Unfortunately, this is an extremely self-incriminating question, where numerous mistakes can be done.

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