01 January 2009

Interviewing--the awkard question

As I've mentioned in a couple of posts I've been looking for a new position, the next step in my career as it were. I'm not going to go into details on where I've interviewed or specifics, but I thought I'd share some thoughts on things that I've picked up on regarding the interview process in general. I've had experiences from both sides of the table so I think I see things a bit differently than some folks do. I'm planning on doing this over several parts so today is just the first.

When interviewing there are all kinds of bad questions to be asked. Some of them are illegal--such as asking for information about your personal life, others are ones that don't really ask the true question they merely look at the surface and never probe deeper. There are also those questions that are awkward to answer, because you want to give them the answer the interviewer is looking for, but you don't really mean it, but you know that if you don't give the "right" answer you won't get the job. I've never been asked illegal questions (thankfully), but I have been asked those questions that are surface dwelling or are just awkward to answer. And I've spent a lot of time thinking, how do I answer this question? There are countless advice books out there that will give tell you the perfect way to phrase your question, but I've found many of them really aren't good for those that work in libraries or education, or basically anything outside of business.

One question that seems to be a favorite of a lot of places is "Where do you want to be in three (or five) years?" On the surface this wouldn't appear to be a bad question to ask. You get to find out what the person wants to do, what their career path is, and it shows that they have given thought to their future and where they want to go. But here's why I think it doesn't really work as a good question. Figuring out where you want to be in five years is dependent upon far to many variables that most of the time you have no control over, such as family matters. I know when I encounter that question I can only answer it in the broadest sense, such as "I plan to still be working in the public services area. Its what interests me and there is such a wide variety of topics to work on with it." Sure its not a bad answer, but it doesn't really answer the question does it? The truth is I have a vague notion of where I want my career path to take me, but its dependent upon so many different factors that I can't outline where I want to be in 3 or 5 years. I like taking it on the smaller scale, year by year. That way I can assess where I am and what fits me. I still think long term and know that I want to be a librarian in Public Services, but as far as specifics, that might change tomorrow or the next day. I dislike this question for other reasons as well.

We've all had situations where we were working in "stop gap" jobs, such as at the local grocery store. Both parties know that you aren't going to stay, but if you come out and say I'm planning on getting my master's degree in X, it seems to be a big ole' don't hire me sign, cause I'll leave first chance I get. I've had this experience. Right when I started my MLIS I was looking for any job. I had to be honest that I wasn't planning on staying a sales associate for the next 5 years, and tell them that I was going to start a Master's program so the schedule could be planned. I'm sure I could have answered the question in different ways, but as soon as they heard Master's, it seemed to close the door on me being hired.

Or if your career path is to become an administrator it can provide some tension if the person your interviewing with, is in the type of position you want to be in. Sure there are ways to answer the question, but you never really know what that person is thinking or has experienced that will influence how they view you and your answer.

To be honest I've not really come up with a good way to answer that question. Instead I much prefer the question "How does this position fit in the career path that you've set for yourself?" Sure it retains some of the same connotations and asks you to think about your future, but it allows the interviewee to answer the question in a different way. Let's go back to the "stop gap" job. If they were to ask you that, now you can answer something along the lines of "I see this position allowing me to increase my experience in public services and selling items. It will help me to think about how to approach a customer in a different way. Since I intend to remain in public services in my career this will help me take the next step in improving my skills." Sure it's still vague, but now your no longer saying directly, I'm planning on working in X field. You've shown how your going to use the skills that you've learned in that position in your career path, and who knows maybe you'll end up staying with that "stop gap" job. It's possible that you could use this answer the with the 3 or 5 year question, but you wouldn't really be answering the question they asked. To me this question speaks more to the heart of what the interviewer is asking, why this position? How does it meet what you want to do? You've still asked the person to think long range, but you're not asking for them to set "I want to be here in 3 years."

I'm sure you all have had a different experience than I have in answering this question? What are your thoughts? What do you think?


Colleen said...

Actually, I think it's a good question. As a manager, I'd never - or rarely - choose to hire someone who wanted to be in the same position in 5 years. I want a go-getter, and go-getters by nature eventually move on to bigger and better things. Good managers know this, and should be looking to increase the skills and marketability of their people anyway. When an interviewer asks where you want to be in 3 to 5 years, what they're really asking (I think) is whether this particular job even fits into your goal-path, whether or not you've got higher goals at all beyond the job you're interviewing for, and whether you'll be honest enough to admit it. Three to five years is a good long stretch anyway - long enough that you'll contribute to the organization, but they've got to be aware that during those years you will be (or *should* be) increasing your skill set.

Andrew said...

You raise a good point Colleen, but I think it all depends upon what you want out of the person that you hire. I know many people that are in librarianship and all they want to be is a librarian. I know one that's been that way for 30 years. She's taken on different roles, but never gone to the next level of leadership, because she was happy and good at what she did. Folks like these are happy to learn new skills, but they don't want the bigger and brighter lights of what others do.

Over on Friendfeed someone commented that a way to handle this question would be to "reframe the question to show your abilities, perspective, and initiative: "I have these skills [list them] and I am honing them through these processes [list them] which will help me contribute to this organization. during the next five years, Since these skills will become the minimum requirements, I see these experiences [list them] as becoming necessary in the next five years so I have already begun participating in activities such as [list them] so I can be a strong contributor."