Most interviews contain several types of question structured around the job criteria. You may have a less formal or less structured interview in a small firm without human resource specialists, or where interviewers are inexperienced, or for more junior or temporary jobs in any organisation.
Higher education, as with most public sector employers, usually has highly specified job criteria and a transparent recruitment process with structured interview questions. The Concordat encourages this approach, not only for ‘permanent’ posts but also for temporary research posts.
Seven types of interview question are described here. Whatever the job, interviews often begin with biographical and career awareness questions to relax you before moving on to the more challenging technical or skill-based questions.
1. Self awareness
This type of question tries to get at your insight into your personality, skills and attitudes.
- What are your main strengths and weaknesses; how would they affect your performance?
- How would your friends describe you?
- What have been your main achievements and why?
- What has been your greatest disappointment? How did you respond to this?
- What kind of situations do you find difficult to deal with?
2. Career awareness
These questions explore your career motivations and career awareness.
- Why did you choose your university degree course/thesis topic?
- What led you to become a researcher?
- What are the key things you are looking for in a job and why?
- What attracted you to this job?
- We haven’t employed a university researcher before. What would you bring to us?
- What are your career goals in the medium and long term? How do you intend to meet them?
- How would you decide between two different job offers?
For technical positions, the interview usually has a high technical content. You may be asked quite detailed questions about your research, eg ‘explain how you have overcome a particular technical problem?’ Not all the interviewers will necessarily be experts in your field so take care with language/jargon and check for understanding of your responses. You could take with you a synopsis of your recent project – a handout that can be given to the interviewer(s) to help illustrate your answers.
‘What would you do if ...?’ questions are not always the best predictors of future behaviour, but these may be asked.
- How would you tackle the project if you got the job? (offering you a chance to show the interviewer that you have thoroughly understood and thought through your potential new role)
- What would you do as team leader if one of your team was not performing well?
This type of question is regarded as a better predictor of future performance than other types of question and is now widely used in interviews. These ‘competency’ questions are based on the job criteria and concern a real scenario drawn from your own experience. They can be challenging, but give you the chance to show your merit. Through your answers, you can give concrete evidence that your skills and abilities match the job criteria.
- Give an example of a time when you had to make a decision quickly
- Describe working on a project with a team of people who didn’t always see eye to eye
- Describe a situation when you had to get a job done in spite of an unforeseen problem. How did you react and what was the outcome?
- Describe an occasion when you had to persuade others to your point of view
- Give an example of how you used your negotiating skills
- Describe a presentation you have given. What aspects were you pleased with? What would you have changed and why?
- Describe a time when you worked under pressure.
6. Anything goes …
Not all interviewers are well trained and sometimes they will spring on you off-the-wall questions that bear no obvious relation to the job criteria, perhaps just to see how you react. It is important not to be fazed by such questions. Answer honestly – and if you don’t know, say so.
- What is the Chairman’s/Vice Chancellor’s name?
- What do you think of … (the headline news of the day)?
7. Your own questions
It is important to have thought about this before the interview. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the employer or industry, perhaps after reading published articles.
- Take a prepared list in with you
- Include questions of genuine interest to you, not designed to impress or outsmart your interviewer(s)
- Avoid questions to which answers could easily be found on the website or in public documents (that should have been uncovered in your research)
- Topics you might explore are the structure of the organisation, aspects of the work that are unclear, the appraisal system, training opportunities, career development or current policies in relation to issues in the sector or industry. For ideas, see information interview questions
- Don’t ask too many questions!