On serial dating and job interviewing

Something that I discovered in my year of job-hunting was that it’s a bit like online dating – first you have to convince somebody on paper (metaphorically speaking) that you are worthy of a second look and at least one in-person meeting. Once you’re past that hurdle, you then have to show up and then hope that there will be chemistry and that the promises made by both sides live up to reality. You also have to acknowledge that you may have to kiss quite a few frogs and go through the process multiple times before something clicks! Patience, therefore is a key requirement for surviving the process although this is something that I found really challenging during my own job-hunting saga.

My key goal for 2015 was to find a permanent role in project management to help me get out of the limbo of fixed-term contracts, I was also keen to change location and move back into West Midlands. Most importantly, I was also keen to stop procrastinating on getting a new job as I made a number of half-hearted attempts in previous years, usually around the time that my contract got dangerously close to running out. It did get extended on a number of occasions and a couple of times I had the carrot of a potentially permanent position dangled in front of me, but that never materialised. At the same time, because I hated the job-hunting process so much, I continued feeling stuck in what felt like limbo of fixed-term contracts but last year I finally decided that enough was enough and I needed more security. That meant addressing the root cause of my procrastination, fear of job interviews and as it turned out, I had plenty opportunities to tackle that fear as I ended up going for fifteen interviews before I managed to secure my current role.

Now, there probably aren’t that many people who would say they enjoy job interviews and I haven’t become one of them, but here’s some of the things I learnt during those six months of what seemed like endless interviews:

Prepare, prepare, prepare: This is something I can’t emphasise enough and something that took me a while to learn. I did go into the first couple of interviews not really knowing what to expect and feeling completely out of my depth, bit like trying to pass an exam you haven’t studied for, a rather stressful experience! I also realised that the lack of preparation meant I was rambling and only remembering what I really meant to say after I left the room so I definitely needed to change my tactics. I started out by preparing answers to the inevitable question – why do you want the job? And then moved on to close inspection of the job description to be able to identify potential questions. For instance, if the job specification said that excellent team working skills were essential, I would make sure that I had an example that demonstrated good teamworking skills.

It’s all about the story: You may have heard of the STAR approach to interviews, S-Situation, T-Task, A-Action, R-Result and the advice that this is how you should frame answers to the interview questions. I must admit this is something I really struggled with in the beginning and found the format extremely artificial. It helped when I realised I could approach the process as a way of storytelling where the key character was myself and I was trying to tell the interviewers about the things that happened thanks to me and explain how I made the difference. Some models do mention the second R for Reflection and so I tried to ensure that each story mentioned what I learnt from the experience and if there was anything I’d do differently in the future. I wrote out all stories on index cards and then practiced them a couple of times a day, occasionally timing myself to check I didn’t go over the 3-4 minute limit as that seems to be when interviewers lose interest.

Interviewing is a skill that can be learnt: As mentioned above, I still don’t like interviews and am really relieved that I don’t have to do one for a long while. However, I feel that I am now much more confident and competent and when the time comes to look for a new post, I will not be held back by fear of interviews anymore. Something that did help tremendously was doing practice interviews with the Careers Service at the university where I was working and it might be worth checking out if as a former PhD student you can still access this kind of help, the cut-off is usually have between two to five years. I also invested in some private interview coaching and whilst the cost was quite steep at £125 per session (I ended up doing three), I felt that the coaching was worth every penny. This is where I learnt how to decipher the person specification and translate it into potential job questions, how to create powerful stories to tell to interviewers and how to get in the right mindset from the get-go as you only get one chance. The private coaching was also helpful in terms of getting more personal support and staying sane through what felt like a never-ending stream of rejections and was something that I would definitely recommend but am aware that this can be quite cost-prohibitive option.

It is a two-way process: This was a piece of advice that kept coming up in various articles I read about the job-hunting process. Initially, it didn’t quite sit right with me as I quite often felt powerless and didn’t feel like I had any agency but I came to appreciate that in a way, I was interviewing the future employer as well. To start with, the interview was a chance to check if the role was indeed suitable for my skills and needs and there were a couple of instances where I could feel a resounding “no” inside me as the interview progressed. For instance, initially I decided to cast my net quite wide and applied for some support positions in university administration but then the questions during the interviews made me realise that I would struggle with a purely administrative role and that I was much happier as project manager.

Ask for feedback but don’t take it too seriously: Job-hunting, like dating is not an exact science and sometimes it all comes down to luck and who turns up on the day (which is why turning up and not giving up is so important!) and so sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why you didn’t get the job or that second date. However, I would still recommend to ask for feedback from unsuccessful interviews and take it with a pinch of salt. Some feedback was helpful and gave me pointers for things to work with or to re-evaluate where my job search was going. For instance, some of the initial feedback was that my answers were often too long and so I worked hard on making my stories more concise. Other feedback showed me clearly that I wasn’t perhaps best suited for roles that involved a lot of strategic planning and preferred working as project manager with a more defined brief. Then there was other feedback which I chose to ignore, including a comment about demonstrating “lack of enthusiasm for the role”. Given that I had travelled for five hours to the university and took part in various assessment activities which took half a day, I felt reasonably confident that this was not a sign of lack of enthusiasm.

There were a number of other lessons learnt which I hope to share in future posts. In the meantime, if there is one thing that I would like to share with others is not to lose hope. It felt like it would never happen, but perseverance finally paid off. After all, all I needed was that one successful job interview; just as in the case of online dating all I needed was that one special person (and dear reader, as a result I’m happily married but that is a different story…)


About Anna Gruszczynska

Dr Anna Gruszczynska completed a PhD in sociology at Aston University and has since worked in a variety of project management roles in higher education sector. She is currently working as an IT project manager at Birmingham City University where she is responsible for software projects and developing good project management standards. In addition, she is a qualified coach and brings her understanding of post-PhD transitions into her part-time coaching practice where she supports people who have big goals such as finishing a PhD or transitioning into a more fulfilling job. She is also a keen runner, with a passion for ultra-long distances and running round in loops and is training towards her first 24-hour event. She blogs at chasingyourgoalscoaching.wordpress.com and tweets at @akgruszczynska.

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