Among the toughest interview questions faced by professional-level job hunters are the ones asking about the applicant’s handling of past problems or situations. This kind of interviewing, often called behavioral interviewing, is based on the premise that past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior. It offers managers a way of judging the fit between the applicant and the style of the hiring organization.
Behavioral questions, as described by Katherine Hansen in the blog My Global Career, probe candidates’ approaches to solving certain kinds of problems, both positive (‘Tell me how you handled multiple projects’) and negative (‘Describe an experience when you failed to achieve a goal’). When faced with these questions, Hansen recommends framing your answers as 3-part stories, describing:
– The situation (or problem or challenge)
– Actions you took to resolve the problem
– Results of your actions, with metrics if possible
To answer these questions well, applicants need to become good story tellers. Hansen offers a series of steps to prepare for behavioral interviews, including the identification of 20 such stories from your work, divided between positive and negative situations. Positive stories tell about your accomplishments; negative stories tell how you made the best of a bad situation or learned from the experience. Make the stories as recent as possible, advises Hansen, although you may need to reach back into non-job experiences, such as volunteer work. Write down your stories, not with the intention of memorizing them but as a way of crystallizing them in your mind.
In the interview, listen carefully to the questions, Hansen advises, and try to find the best match between the question and your prepared stories. Expect the interviewer to probe for details and pose follow-up questions.
In a Tooling Up column for Science’s Next Wave (the predecessor to Science Careers), Dave Jensen says behavioral interviews are sometimes uncomfortable for scientists because scientists are trained to to talk about their science and not themselves. “Someday soon you will sit across from an interviewer,” Jensen writes, “who wants to know more about your interactions with certain people and events than he does about your thesis or research experience.”
Jensen wrote that column 10 years ago. That “someday soon” is very likely here and now.