Sunday, July 17, 2011

Interview questions for people with [applied] anthropology backgrounds


Now that there's a big, bright light (or two) at the end of the job search tunnel, I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of the interview questions I encountered along the way. The positions I interviewed for fall into the areas of entry-level research associate and analyst positions in consumer research/marketing/branding (for small and large firms as well as corporations) and research associate positions with non-profit consultancies in social policy/health, all with a primary focus on qualitative research

I have tried my best to recall the most challenging and interesting questions (in as close to the original wording as possible) and, for each, have noted my response or the direction I went in with my answer, or any other advice that I think might be useful to those looking for similar positions. I would like to remind readers that I applied for these positions as a newly-minted (I graduated a little over two months ago) practicing anthropologist with an applied anthropology/social sciences background. All of the interviews except one were telephone based since I applied primarily for jobs outside my current location.

Tell me about yourself.

Of course I'm going to begin with this one, not because it's anything new or out of the ordinary, but because there is something about this question that I want to point out to people, which is that it's not a question about your personal life or interests, but a question asking for you to summarize what's on your resume. You will more than likely always get asked this question at the start of each interview. The way I approached it was by beginning with my educational background (dates of degrees, universities attended, and specific training that is relevant to the position, examples of research projects without going into too much detail), moving to my current situation (e.g. I'm a recent graduate, I'm looking for x type of position because of x, y and z; current employment status/position), and finishing with why I would like this position and why I think I'm a good fit. I really see this as the interviewee's chance to sell herself, her skills, her personality, etc. It's like your 2-minute elevator speech, so be prepared with what you want to say and make sure you say it well.

Tell us about some of your past research experiences.

What they are looking for here is for you to talk about two or three projects that are relevant to the job in question. Ideally you will provide a general summary of each project, the research design, the methods used for data collection and analysis (especially innovative methods), how you did your sample (convenience, snowball, probability, etc.), any key findings (not exactly necessary but good to talk about if they're interesting), what specific roles you played (was this an independent project or a group project?), and any other information that lets them know how you handled the logistics and about any products/deliverables that came out of it. I suggest also using at least one example of an independent project and a group project to show you have experience with both. For those who attended applied anthropology grad programs, focus on your practicum experiences and the emphasis of real-world/hands-on experiences in your departments (at least that's how it was at mine).

Why research?

The answer for this, like most other questions, is going to be based on the individual. I gave what I think is a bit of a canned response and talked about how I've always been curious about why people do what they do, how I enjoy the challenges of research and answering interesting questions, and that research is what I am good at and enjoy. I say it sounds a little canned but that doesn't mean it's not true!

Why anthropology?

This is kind of like the "why research?" question above, and the answer can sound canned, but the good thing is that you can put a personal spin on it. I did so by starting off with how I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist since I was 14. I learned about anthropology from a video game called Amazon Trail in which you meet an ethnobotanist-anthropologist. I was immediately hooked, but at that time had a very simple understanding of what anthropology is and can do (it didn't go far beyond the exoticism of cultures, foreign travel and cross-cultural comparisons, etc.) Throughout the years, my understanding grew, especially during undergrad and grad school, and I became more aware of what all I could do with training in this discipline. Thus, its adaptability and flexibility and applicability to nearly everything made it even more appealing. Then I talked more about anthropology's approach to answering questions: it's holistic, cross-cultural, contextual, it looks at the details and the larger picture/systems, it uses both the emic and etic perspective on any given phenomena to better understand it, there's a focus on process, and it's informed by both practice and theory. [My advice here: memorize this list, memorize these buzzwords, because they will come in handy when someone asks you what's so great or different about anthropology, and you will be able to impress them with such a response.]

Why did you decide to attend a liberal arts institution as an undergrad?

I didn't expect a question like this but was prepared with an answer because it's something I've put a lot of thought into in general (I mostly focused on the breadth of a liberal arts education, how the skills I learned prepared me well for grad school, the emphasis on real-world experiences/experiential learning, study abroad, writing, being well-versed in a lot of subject areas, etc.)

What was your favorite class in grad school? What was your least favorite?

This was a fun question that was asked during an HR phone screen. I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to talk more about a class I loved (Culture and Consumerism) and why, and relate it back to the position I was applying for. It also gave me a chance to talk about a class I wasn't a big fan of (Statistics) and why, but I made sure to give good reasons. The important thing with this one is that you don't want to talk negatively per se, about the class you didn't like, but give constructive criticism of the class and plausible reasons for why it wasn't a good one. A good answer will consist of well-informed, well-constructed opinions.

How would you rate your writing skills on a scale of 1 to 10?

This was a chance for me to shine, particularly because I am good at writing and have experience as a college-level writing tutor. I said a 9/10, but prefaced this bold statement by remarking on how I don't think there are any perfect writers and that I am continuously trying to improve myself as a writer. yes, I could have said 8 or 7, but this is about being honest while not over-stating your skills but also not under-stating them either. Really it's a very subjective question. It also allowed me to talk about my experiences with writing as an undergrad (most of my courses involved a lot of writing and lots of different types of writing exercises) and graduate student (here I could focus on agency reports and class research projects).

Tell me about a brand that really stands out to you as a successful brand and why.

I should have expected a question like this coming from a branding/marketing consultancy, but it caught me off guard, so I had to come up with an answer off the top of my head (I actually like answering questions I don't expect). I used Coca Cola as an example and discussed how it has maintained its image as a classic American beverage throughout the decades while reinventing itself when necessary, but without losing its original brand identity and keeping/growing its fan base. I threw in my trips to the Coca Cola museum and how I was continuously impressed with the brand's global reach. [The interviewer followed this question by asking me to talk about a brand that has had to expand its product range to meet changing consumer needs and lifestyles. I talked again about Coca Cola and how it has expanded its line of beverages and other products, including through the purchase of other beverage companies, to meet changing consumer lifestyles and desires, especially with growing health concerns.]

What challenges do you see with transitioning from an academic environment to a corporate research environment?

I talked about how they are both similar in terms of the tools and methods that might be used for research and about the importance of being skilled at talking about research with/to a greater diversity of audiences, like corporate executives or those who are not as familiar with social science research/anthropology.

How would you go about building relationships with people across the company?

I don't recall my exact response, but I focused on the importance of building good, working relationships and understanding the needs of clients/in-house departments who may need assistance with a research problem.

Have you ever had a time where you were working on a team project and were having difficulties with another member of the group?
I laughed in my head when I heard this one because I had the perfect example from a project I was part of in one of my first grad school courses ever. Without going into too much detail, I talked about how out of seven group members there were only two people with anthropology backgrounds, including myself. This made for a difficult semester because we all had our own ideas for how to design and execute the project, what the research questions should be, what types of methods to use, even down to the final report. Of course, the two people with anthropology backgrounds thought we would try and explain how anthropology projects are usually done without coming off as mean, sounding inflexible or acting like we didn't care about the others' opinions. Our intentions were not well-received/were misunderstood and this created a lot of unnecessary drama. Needless to say, we finished the project, but not without a lot of obstacles along the way. I commented on how I learned about how to work with others, especially those from other disciplines, about humility and about how to negotiate group roles and be respectful of others' opinions. I concluded by saying that I would likely encounter this situation again in the working world and would be prepared to handle it in an appropriate manner.
Most of your experience is with research projects centering around social issues like poverty and health. How do you feel about transitioning from this sort of research to consumer research in a corporate setting?

I responded by going back to my training and background in research methods in applied anthropology, emphasizing the applicability of my training to any area of research, whether it's health or consumer insights or marketing. [Here's a good time to bring up some specific examples of projects or skills you have and how they can be used in the specific area you're applying for. Also, if they're asking for more of a personal perspective in terms of transitioning from a focus on social issues to the corporate, capitalist environment, you have the choice of being honest about how you feel or subtly avoiding the question. What I said is that those things are still important to me and that I can still be involved in social issues in my personal life through volunteering or pro bono assistance for community organizations while working at this particular company. Again, I think it's important to be honest.]

What sort of experience do you have with data analysis?Here you can talk about your experience with qual and quant, what types of analysis you have used in the past with data sets, how you have recruited participants for projects, and give one or two examples from past projects. Mention any software you've used or your training in data analysis for both qual and quant (statistical tests, use of statistical analysis software like SPSS, etc.) When I was asked this question or if I were talking about data analysis in general, I would mention that my strengths are in qual and ethnographic research/analysis, but that I am interested in expanding my basic training and experience in quant data collection/analysis.

You said you are primarily interested in research and can see yourself doing that for your career. Would you be interested in any sort of managerial responsibilities as well?

I wasn't sure about this question, so I reiterated my interest in research and asked if he meant "leadership" roles when he said "managerial responsibilities". He said yes and I responded with a positive "yes", especially if I could still be involved in research in some way.

What is a writing consultant? or Tell me about your work at the Eckerd College Writing Center.

This question won't apply to most, but it's an example of how interviewers will ask you about things that may not be directly related to the position you're applying for, including past jobs/work experience. I was actually asked about my work as a writing consultant (a fancy term for writing tutor) at least two or three times and was glad to talk about it. Even though it wasn't directly related, writing is obviously very important in the research world, so it gave me a chance to talk about tutoring students and growing as a writer, as well as Eckerd's emphasis on making quality writers of its students by incorporating a "writing across the curriculum" philosophy into its liberal arts education. [Ironically, I noticed a typo on my resume in the section where I mentioned this information, long after I submitted the resume and was asked this question by the interviewer. I guess it just goes to show that we're all human, because I was still offered the position. :) ]
What are your salary requirements?

This one's always a toughie, and my best advice is to do some research on the internet about the multitude of ways to answer this question and go from there based on what you feel most comfortable with. The standard answer I came to develop after trying different responses is to use a range of about $10,000 (e.g. $55,000 to $65,000), a range based on the cost of living in the city where the job is located as well as market-rate salary averages for that position or related positions and your experience. Glassdoor.com is useful for this kind of information as well as job/company/interview reviews. If you give a range, you can ask them on the spot if this is similar to the range they have in mind. In the beginning I resolved to not give an answer right off the bat based on the advice of job search "experts" on the web, but I soon realized that it's better to give them some sort of answer because it helps them to figure out if you're cheap enough (hey, that's the reality of the economy) or if you're going to be too expensive for their tastes. Once when I said I would prefer to discuss salary if we were to move forward with the position in question, the HR rep threw the ball back in my court and said it would be easier for them to determine whether or not to move on if they had this information. Again, this one is never easy.

* * *

So, those are the questions I was able to recall. Ideally, I would have written down each interview question I was asked so I could review them for subsequent interviews and prepare better responses as well as share them with folks who might be interested. Obviously this is nearly impossible to do, especially if you want to remain focused on your interview and do a good job without distracting yourself. I should have done what a good anthropologist would do and written down my "field notes" after each interview, because, as some wise anthropologists say, if you don't write it down, it never happened! I think my excuse, and it's not a good one, has more to do with the exhaustion of hour-long phone interviews and the relief of being done and wanting to do something completely unrelated to job hunting, like vegging out in front of the television.

I think my overall point is that the more you interview, the better you get at it, and I say that from my own experience. My first phone interview wasn't terrible, but it wasn't stellar like some of my later ones. I think this was partly due to the fact that I spent the day before the interview preparing but also fretting, over-thinking it, and being nervous. I realized quickly that this was not the best plan of attack. Preparing is definitely something I advise (researching the company/non-profit, coming up with some possible questions they might ask and what you would say in response, etc.) But don't over-prepare, don't over-think it, and just go for it. My best interview was actually one in which I walked in the door five minutes before they called me and winged it (I purposefully got myself out of the house to do something distracting - I think it was grocery shopping - so I wasn't just sitting around the house and making myself more anxious).

Here are some final, general pieces of advice for the amateur interviewee:
  • Do something that will relax and distract you from worrying too much before your interview, but make sure you are prepared!
  • Don't be afraid to say you are not sure how to answer a question if you don't feel like you have the right answer.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the interviewer to clarify their question if you are unsure about what they are asking.
  • Play up your strengths and be honest about any areas you want to improve.
  • No one is perfect! Almost anyone gets nervous when it comes to interviews, so relax and do your best. And don't walk away focusing on what you wish you would have said or things you forgot. Instead, focus on the positives and how good of a job you did. They don't expect people to be perfect but to be themselves.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask them. Do not ask them questions for which the answers can be found on their website.
  • Always offer to send a couple writing samples. They will appreciate the offer and it will show them what kind of work you can do. (sometimes they will ask you for this themselves, but it's nice if you can beat them to it.)
  • Remember, you are interviewing them as well! Not only are you vying for a job, but they are vying for good human talent! Contrary to what some may say, you do have power when it comes to applying for and negotiating jobs, so keep that in mind.

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