Things I’ve been asked in job interviews

In the months since I started my job search, I’ve gotten interviews with about half a dozen companies in London. I haven’t gotten a job offer yet, but I have gotten plenty of unprofessional questions and comments.

“So what do your parents do for a living?”

They root out class-obsessed bigots like you and educate them on appropriate questions to ask in a job interview. It doesn’t pay super well, but tbh they’ve never been in it for the money.

“I can tell by your accent you’re not from here. American?”

OMG how smart are you!!11!!! But pro tip for the next time you’re feeling super nosy: guess Canadian instead. Canadians don’t like it when people assume they’re American – and who would want to offend a Canadian? Well, actually, you might, you tactless jerk.

“What brought you to London?”

None of your damn business, that’s what. If it weren’t for my accent, this would be the stupidest of stupid questions: One-third of the population live in and around London because this is where all the jobs are. But since I’m marked as a foreigner, you feel entitled to ask about my personal life. And I have to give you a rundown, because I’ve learned that a simple “for personal reasons” won’t satisfy your unprofessional curiosity.

[I briefly explain that my partner is British, so we decided to move here when he got a job, and then, when pressed for even more details, I give an overview of his career trajectory] “Wow, he’s got a PhD! He must be so smart! Maybe he wants to work here?”

I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. But I might. Which is the whole reason we’re all here right now. And if it’s a PhD you care about, that’s great, because I’ve got one too, which you’d know if you’d glanced at the resume sitting in front of your fucking face.

[looking at my last name] “Ooh, where’s that from, if I may ask?”

No, you may not. But now I have to answer, don’t I?

[still looking at my last name] “Ah yes, I could tell it was something Eastern European! All those consonants. Were you born there or did your family move from there?”

We seriously haven’t moved on from this topic yet?!

[looking at the description of my previous role on my resume] “Tell me about your last role – it certainly sounds like a big job!”

No, please, finish your thought: “It certainly sounds like a big job for a little thing like you!” Any other condescending musings you want to get out of the way up front? Or did you want to sort of sprinkle them in as we go along?

[required questions on an online application form]
“Do you consider yourself an individual with a disability?
“Which ethnic group do you most identify with?
“What is your religion or belief?
“Which of the following statements best describes your sexual orientation?”
[only two of these had the “prefer not to say” option]

Shut. The. Fuck. Up. How on earth are are these required questions?!

“Hi dear, lovely to meet you.”

OK, that’s not a question, but I think it fits right in. One (male) hiring manager addressed me exclusively as “dear.” Because he seemed like a nice guy otherwise, and because I haven’t entirely shaken off my socialization as an accommodating, polite young lady, I tried to be open-minded and attribute it to a regionalism or an unfamiliar cultural tic. But when I asked around, everyone told me it was neither of those things, just an inappropriate – though not unheard-of – habit.

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Starting over, again

It’s been more than three years since I finished my PhD. Almost three years since I last posted here. And just over three years since I entered the post-ac job world. But I feel like I’m back where I started: I’ve left a job that felt familiar and now I’m unemployed in a city where I don’t have much of a network.

I spent exactly three years at the company where I was hired in October 2013. About six months in, and after discussing it with some trusted colleagues, I decided it was the right time to tell my manager that my SO and I were planning to move to the UK at some point in the next couple of years (time TBD, depending on when my SO decided to leave his postdoc and also make the leap from academia to industry).

I was super apprehensive, worried that my manager’s reaction would be, “Thanks for the heads-up—now I know to start looking for your replacement.” But he didn’t: He was very receptive and said that he was happy to help me start laying the groundwork for an international transfer. My role wasn’t one that could be done overseas, but since I’d come highly recommended, would have a very visible record of good work, and was in a good position to network, I should be all set when the time came.

The time came: July 2016. I started applying to UK-based jobs in October 2015. Over the following year, I applied to eight roles in all different areas of the company.

I was rejected for every single one.

Some people rejected me outright on the basis of my resume. Others put me through the full, grueling complement of interviews. But the feedback, when I got it, was consistent: I was a great candidate, and they would happily recommend me for another role, but I was not suitable for this one because I didn’t have (enough) direct experience.

It’s discouraging to be told this at any time; but it’s a special kind of discouraging to be told this at your own company, where you’ve assembled a solid record of work and come with trusted references. Any time I so much as applied for a job, I’d ask my former and current managers to drop the hiring manager a note on my behalf (something they were very willing to do, especially as, in many cases, they knew the hiring managers very well). But it didn’t matter.

The one thing I was able to work out, thanks to all that networking, was keeping my salary for an additional three months, from August to October, while working out of the UK to cover for someone on parental leave. When I still didn’t have a permanent role after those three months, I was offered the option to stay on as a contract worker until the end of the year. It would have meant a salary cut and loss of benefits, but it would have been something, and I could have continued looking for a permanent role.

But I decided it was time to cut my losses and go. I’d spent a demoralizing twelve months applying to every position I could conceivably be suited to, and I’d had enough rejection for one year. I was mentally exhausted from working so hard on so many applications, building relationships with all the right people, trying to prove myself in the temporary role I was in, and keeping myself optimistic and confident so that I came across well in conversations and interviews.

Coming to terms with this was a process. I’d felt so sure that my company would find something for me—I was in a role with a lot of visibility; I had a clear record of important contributions I could point to; I worked directly with people at all levels all over the company; and I had important, well respected people singing my praises. (Plus, there was the economic argument: It’s cheaper to keep an existing employee than it is to hire someone new!) Friends had all sorts of stories about people they knew having a tough time transferring, but it all working out in the end (and I saw it happen to a few of my coworkers, too).

But here’s the truth: None of the jobs I applied to was anything I was really passionate about. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have been thrilled to have one of them, or that I wouldn’t have done a kick-ass job if I’d been given the chance. But when I imagine, “What if I’d been offered X role?” I don’t feel like I’ve missed the opportunity of a lifetime. I just miss having the salary, stability, and benefits that my company had been providing. That’s no small thing—but it was important for me to identify that as the real source of my anxiety.

And that realization made it possible for me to come to terms with the unemployment that I had been utterly dreading. I now have the chance to find a role that I’m excited about. And I can leave behind the company that didn’t value me enough to keep me.

So, technically, I’ve been unemployed for almost two and a half months. But I’m only really counting from January 1: I decided to take a break for November and December, not worry about a job, and just get to know my new country. (Something I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do, thanks to my savings and an SO who makes enough to cover us both for awhile.) Between lazy days at home, day trips to new places, and long walks around town, it has been a luxurious couple of months. (Though I confess that, in a fit of restless anxiety, I did apply to a couple of jobs that I happened to notice on LinkedIn [no response]).

Now it’s the new year, and it’s time for true job-search mode. Just like I was doing three and a half years ago. Here come the cover letters, resumes (ahem, CVs), and awkward attempts at network-building. Fingers crossed that this time won’t take quite so long.

The entry-level MBA, or, Why I don’t even feel bad about not getting an interview

A few weeks ago, there was a job opening at one of the major performing arts organizations in my city. (I’ll call it the Metropolitan Hand-bell Choir.) I would really like to work for the Metropolitan Hand-bell Choir, and this was an entry-level job that, really, anyone with a brain could do. But it was in the industry that I’d like to work in, which I’ll call TPS reporting, so it was a great match.

It gets better: I have some connections at the Hand-bell Choir. I know one of the ringers in the choir (P.), and I know someone on the administrative side (W.) who works with some of the TPS reporters. And I know another person (S.) who knows the head of the TPS reports department.

The unemployed hiring manager

I was recently in the exceedingly ironic position of hiring  someone while unemployed myself.

The organization I volunteer for wanted to create a new part-time position (5-10 hrs/week). This organization has only 2 (now 3) paid positions, all of which are similarly part-time; the bulk of the work is done by volunteers. We talked a lot about this new position, but no one was moving forward, so I took the initiative to write up a job description, post it for free on local university career websites, and, when that wasn’t working, get approval to post a paid ad on Idealist.org.

Our ideal candidate was someone with an interest in nonprofit management and knowledge of our specific sector. Over about a month, we received 25 applications. They came from a wide range of applicants: there were a few people right out of college, some who were very advanced in nonprofit management, and some who had a good deal of experience in unrelated fields.

I wish I could have written back to many of the candidates with my feedback on their resumes and cover letters; instead, here’s where I turn into Ask a Manager:

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Nope, no job yet

My job search is going horribly.

That first company I phone-interviewed with gave me the silent treatment. The person I spent an hour on the phone with never got back to me, ignoring the 2 or 3 emails I sent. Game over. Fine, I didn’t really want that job anyway, but at least have the courtesy to get back to me and say no thanks.

The company where I had the other phone interview may schedule me for an interview next week. This has dragged out for weeks now, with responses to my emails and voicemail coming very slowly. The hiring manager does seem genuinely interested in bringing me in for an in-person interview, and has been very nice to me, but the hiring process has been slowed down due to client needs and managers on vacation.

The week before last I felt bad/guilty about my very low number of job applications, so I really buckled down on that. I sent out 10 (targeted) applications in one week, which was an exponential improvement over what I had been doing. Then last Tuesday I went to a workshop at my local JVS and was told, not for the first time, that networking was really where it’s at, and job applications are basically useless. So this past week I sent out over a dozen cold-call emails to people, based on the strength of some common affiliation or both being PhDs, asking them if they’d meet with me and tell me about how they got started. I’ve gotten 3 responses so far, which seems pretty low to me.

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From the archives

Here’s a post I wrote late last October, when I was in my receptionist job. I was working on perfecting this when I got laid off, at which point it seemed irrelevant. But I’m posting it now as a record of what that job was like.

I’m six weeks into my new job.

At first I was really happy: having a real job made me feel needed and valued, and it was really good for me to have a legitimate reason to get out every other day. I was no longer isolated and felt like I had a purpose, however minor my contribution.

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My second phone interview

On Monday I interviewed with a second company. I did the set-up all right this time: asked who I would be interviewing with (ZC), and for how long (about 30 minutes). Incidentally, the admin assistant who was setting this up via email didn’t make it at all clear that it was going to be a phone interview rather than an in-person interview, so I’m glad that that got cleared up during our back-and-forth. As it’s a smaller business, it seems they don’t have an HR person, so this interview was with one of the hiring managers.

I didn’t have a great feel for how my first phone interview went, since I don’t have much interview experience, but I know that this one went really well. It was completely different, and makes the first one look pretty lame by comparison. Even though many of the questions were similar, it felt much more like a conversation than an oral exam (which is how the first one felt). The interviewer, ZC, was super friendly–not in a chummy way, but in a work-colleague way–and this really put me at ease. I think I was better at answering questions because of the rapport. (I’m wondering if perhaps the difference stems from the interviewers’ own relative levels of experience: BA is about my age and has maybe six years’ experience in hiring, while ZC is mid-career, at a senior level, and is clearly very comfortable with the whole process. Then again, it could also just be personality, or company culture.)

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