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

Craig Zelizer

July 16, 2023

Interviewing for jobs can be roller coaster of ups and downs. If you’re lucky enough to have your application pass through the shredder of hell then getting an interview can be an exhilarating as well as nerve-wrecking experience.

Landing an interview is great step, but often one's mind will run into overdrive and ask questions such as:

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? Am I qualified? Am I prepared? What will they think of me?

There is something inherently disconcerting about sitting down in person or online via Zoom 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, interviewed many candidates for jobs, consultancies and internships, as well as serving on countless fellowship review panels.

Interviewing for a job (particularly in the first round)  can be like going on a blind date where you don’t really know the other person, the organization and sometimes can be incredibly uncomfortable, while in other instances there can be moments of inspiration and connection. It is also essential to acknowledge that the entire process usually involves a huge power imbalance with employers often having more control over the process than the interviewee. There are ways to reduce this imbalance, first on the employer side by offering a humane interview process, being transparent, treating all candidates with respect, following up with the status of the process in a timely manner and more. There are also some great examples of employers who are trying to change the paradigm to help ensure that candidates feel empowered, as well as to realize that an interview doesn't always have to be a yes or no decision. Sometimes the person may not be the right candidate for a particular job opening, but can be considered for future job postings. Even if the person isn't ultimately selected there can be ways to build a beneficial relationship and allies on both sides.

Here are Seven Key Tips for When Interviewing for Positions:

If you’ve made the cut, here are some of my key reflections (and stories)  for my job searches in the past.

The # 1 thing in landing a first interview is to take a deep breath a breath and congratulate yourself on making it this far. Most job openings are getting hundreds of applications and only a tiny fraction are selected for first-round interviews. Take a minute to appreciate that you’re doing something right (maybe it is your great experience, your amazing resume, a key mentor connected to the hiring organization recommended you, or a combination of all the above).

If you aren't selected for an interview and have been applying  for multiple positions don’t despair. Take a deep breath as well and take a look at our Career Series on preparing for your job search, resume development and networking.

1) Enjoy the journey – I’ve often found when I’ve searched for a job, if I adopt an attitude of curiosity as to what opportunities are available and that the process is usually more of a marathon than a sprint, this can make it a much more positive experience. In the journey there will be ups and downs, moments of great frustration, inspiration and this a chance to learn, see the amazing possibilities out there across sectors, meet some interesting people and enjoy the process as much as possible. If I approach the job search more out of desperation, which I know can often be the case as we all need money to survive (particularly in terms of economic and societal crises), it is bound to be much more frustrating. If one has the luxury to not "need" a new job today, but your needs are met and income is coming in, then trying to enjoy the process is a huge opportunity to learn.

2) It is hard to assess how one does in an interview – It is critical to do your homework and prepare for an interview.  I’ve often found for me reading, thinking, writing down possible questions (and answers), doing mock interviews helps tremendously. But in the end there is the actual performance in the interview.

I’ve both highs and lows in the interview process throughout my career. When I was a senior in my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to interviewed for a Fulbright Scholarship.  I was the last interviewee of the day and the entire review panel looked exhausted and wasn't highly engaged. I walked away thinking I performed poorly and beat myself up some.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that I was fortunate to be selected for the opportunity and it led to a life-changing two years in Hungary.

Another time I had a single phone interview for a job at a prestigious international NGO based in Europe. The next day I was offered and was delighted to accept.  However, even though I believed this would be would be a dream job, it turned out not to be the right match for me (which is another lesson). After several months in the job, even though the organization was satisfied with my work,  I decided to leave (it was a very difficult decision). Subsequently I was delighted to land a truly dream job opportunity as a professor at Georgetown University where I stayed for a decade.

On the interviewer side, I've had both great experiences and challenges. One of the worst experiences was for a part-time position I was hiring for several years ago. It was a phone interview  (she was outside in a very noisy environment) and the candidate asked us to tell her about the work of PCDN. It was clear she hadn't done any research for the position. Obviously she didn't make it to the second round. Other times I've been part of teams hiring for full-time positions and one of the most challenging times is when there are 2-3 outstanding candidates for a single position and working as a group to reach consensus.

3) Don’t take it personally- While interviewing I’ve had people treat me kindly and had amazing conversations. I’ve also had interviews with people who appeared to be bored out of their minds. I’ve learned not to take it personally as it may be the interviewer is bored, tired from a long day, or thinking about the 20 other things he/she needs to do before going home.

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 be selected for the opportunity. However, I had a third interview with a Vice President of the organization. While it wasn’t a disaster, in my opinion the final interview didn't go well. The interviewer appeared quite uninterested and I didn't walk away with a positive feeling and assumed I would not be selected.  However, I did get the position.

There are other times I had what I thought were brilliant interviews, but then my candidacy didn't move ahead in the process.

4) Enjoy the ride – Each organization has its own process for hiring. As I previously highlighted  for one organization I had a single phone interview (and had to do a very intensive application) that led to a job. Another time I was interviewing for a very cool job at an international development organization. The organization's process was very, very slow. I had three interviews (all by phone) over a period of two months. At the same time I was lucky to be interviewing for two other positions.  I was really interested in this position with the international development institution and they required a fourth interview with a very senior person in the bureaucracy. During the time waiting for this to happen I received a different job offer. I did try to move ahead with the fourth interview before making my decision but the organization refused to speed up the process. Thus I took the other job offer.

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of the job search. As it can be months of applying, networking and not having a single interview (which is very disheartening). Then sometimes interviews for several different positions can happen in the same time period. The frustrating part is each organization is own its own schedule in terms of the hiring process. Several times, I’ve had to make choices without knowing if the other positions I was in the process of interviewing for would led to offers or not.

5) Trust your intuition – I remember once in high school, when I used to ski race I interviewed for a job at a ski shop. I  had one interview and took the job. But before starting I realized that it would have been too much to do with my schedule and backed out before starting.  I realized later I should have trusted my intuition and not taken the job before being in the uncomfortable position to back out.

6) We are competing and we aren’t – I want other people to succeed and have amazing opportunities to build their careers and change the world. I am deeply committed to sharing  professional opportunities as widely as possible  (that is one of the core values of PCDN ensuring everyone can have equal access to information and opportunity). However, there have been a several instances during an interview process that I've run into friends who have been 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 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. I will admit there was another time this happened and I did want to have the position for myself and it was deeply uncomfortable to run into a perceived competitor who I knew (luckily I did get the position).

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 there are things you can do to have a more positive experience . 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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