Non-academic job interviews: convincing your interviewers that you’re “just the job”

‘Just the job’: [British. Informal. Idiom] – exactly what is needed. E.g. ‘I was so thirsty, that cup of tea was just the job.’ Synonyms: excellent, ideal.

This post is based on a recent interview with Grad Chat for PhD Balance on top tips for PhD career transitions beyond academia, available as a podcast or to watch on YouTube.

I can’t remember exactly how many interviews I’d had by that point. About 8, perhaps? Maybe 12? In truth, by the time I received the email below, the jobs I was applying for were all blurring into one, and I was becoming more and more disparaged. My PhD funding was due to run out in September 2011, and I’d been on-and-off looking for jobs since January of that year.

On the 24th June 2011, this arrived:

Good Afternoon Holly,

Thank you for attending recently for interview in respect of our <XX> vacancy. I regret that on this occasion you have been unsuccessful. However, we have some feedback for you in the hope that this aids you in future ventures:

“Holly came across a little too “academic” with regards to every answer seemed to be an essay. If she could be more succinct with her answers she will be more successful.  We also questioned whether she actually wanted this role due to her previous experience and ambitions.

We did consider her a good candidate, however there were candidates with more working knowledge and experience for this particular role.”

Please accept our thanks for your time and interest in <XX>, and our very best wishes for the future.

On the one hand, I was grateful to have some kind of personal feedback that would (although I din’t fully realise it at the time) end up being pivotal to me turning my job hunt around. On the other hand… I was super-confused. I didn’t want to be ‘an academic’, but somehow I was coming across as one…? Even though I had said in my cover letter I was now seeking roles in the arts and cultural sector, my audience still seemed to be thinking: ‘why is she here going for our job in the arts/ cultural sector when she quite clearly wants to be doing something academic?

I was so frustrated; I’d invested all this time, effort and money into becoming one of the 1.4% of the UK population with a doctorate, now people didn’t want to hire me? I’d get stuck in spirals of negative self-talk saying that despite being told I was so ‘promising’ from a young age, that ‘promise’ ultimately wasn’t going to amount to anything. I wasn’t going to amount to anything.

Since the mental toll was so great, let’s go through the feedback bit-by-bit (with the privilege of hindsight) to see what this was really saying:

  1. ‘Holly came across a little too “academic” with regards to every answer seemed to be an essay’: The interview was for an arts organisation who were looking for someone to help them grow and diversify their audience. One question they asked was ‘what does equality and diversity mean to you?’ Completely bypassing the focus of the job and how this question linked to it, I launched into a diatribe about the outgroup homogeneity effect and social identity theory. In fact, whenever I got a difficult question in a job interview, the only comeback I had was what I had learned to do at academic conferences, as endorsed by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye: ‘All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.’ Safe to say I can’t imagine Holden landed many jobs beyond academia with that strategy.
  2. ‘We also questioned whether she actually wanted this role due to her previous experience and ambitions’But I’d told them that I didn’t want to continue in academia! True… but I hadn’t told them why I now wanted to work for a small arts organisation, in an audience development role. In fact, I barely talked about them at all, or why their programming excited me. As a result, they knew what I didn’t want to do, but they didn’t know what I did want to do, and how they fitted into that.
  3. ‘There were candidates with more working knowledge and experience for this particular role’Before going to the interview, I hadn’t spoken to anyone doing this kind of job before; I just thought it sounded fun. The fact I had no idea what was involved in the job day-to-day meant that I couldn’t connect up any of my previous experiences with how they’d make me good at this job. Did I tell them that I’d set up a research forum and paired up with an LGBTQ+ society to promote it, meaning that I already had experience of tailoring messages to attract different and diverse audiences? NO. but I did talk about Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus.

Ultimately, what happened in this interview was that, in the absence of any substantial research into the organisation, the sector I was targeting, and the role I was going for, I flipped into my default factory setting: academic research in literature and cultural studies. That was the mindset and the language I’d been embedded within for the past four years. Those were the types of problems I was used to solving. Unfortunately… that just wasn’t where this employer was coming from, and it certainly wasn’t he direction they were heading in with the advertised role.

To summarise then, and to break down my mistakes to try to help you avoid them too…..

  1. What I did was…… I approached interview questions from the perspective of a researcher in my niche academic field, wearing my ‘academic hat.What I should have done was…… consider how their interview questions, like the one about equality and diversity, related to the job and answer them within that context
  2. What I did was…. talked about academic approaches to equality and diversity, taken from sociological and psychological theory. What I should have done was… talk about equality and diversity as it related to this employers’ needs, e.g. why it is important for artistic and cultural programmes to reach diverse audiences in the local community
  3. What I did was… use lots of technical theoretical detail. What I should have done was… shaped my answer around examples like promoting my research forum across LGBTQ+ societies, or my volunteering experience with refugees and disadvantaged young people, to show my practical experience of applying equality and diversity in my work

I hope those lessons that I’ve now (with considerable hindsight and training) been able to extract from my interview faux pas are more than a cautionary tale. If you’re going through the often-demoralising process of applying for jobs beyond academia and getting knock-backs like I did of being ‘too academic,’ ‘overqualified’ or anything similar, that you can use the pointers above to switch up your interview prep and avoid those pitfalls.

So pivotal was this feedback to my own post-PhD job hunt, that I talk more about it in my recent interview with Grad Chat for PhD Balance, which you can listen to as a podcast or watch on YouTube. Watch or listen for more tips on how to switch from wearing your ‘academic hat,’ to your ‘here’s how I can solve this employer’s problems’ hat. And more vague, extended hat-metaphors.

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