Do interviews bring out my inner idiot?

I hate job interviews. I always come out of them dejected and frustrated – feeling impotent and unprepared. Which is totally unrealistic. There is absolutely no professional situation that I will not prepare for and although you read as much as you can, you can never truly prepare for the mind paralysing experience of being asked a question that you need to answer coherently and with passion – when you had no idea it was coming.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s important for a potential employer to know how a prospective employee will respond to unexpected questions and ideas, but to expect a discussion that the employee goes into pretty much stone cold to give you a realistic idea of how that person will perform in the workplace can feel, frankly, ridiculously optimistic. So yes, I don’t really like cold interviews, but what’s interesting is what I have also come to realise about myself from years of being an interviewee.

My brain on an interview

Seriously, I feel that this brain would be more useful than my actual brain sometimes…

I am, I wouldn’t hesitate to say, a fairly confident public speaker. I have spoken to people of all backgrounds and education levels and can hold my own in a heated debate, but put me into an interview room – even to do something I am very experienced in – and I feel like I turn into a gibbering mess, incapable of making any coherent or insightful comments.

It’s a running joke in my family that regardless of what the interview is for (from a job as a shelf stacker at a supermarket when I was 16, to an interview as a postdoctoral researcher with a PhD under my belt) immediately after the interview is over I will call my family and tell them how badly it went. It doesn’t matter the outcome – even when I get the job I still think the interview was terrible. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked a recent employer when they called to offer a position. I was convinced (and still am) that my answers during the interview were nowhere near providing a true reflection of who I am and what I can do. ‘How could you want to employ that version of me?’ I think. ‘She is not as good as I am!’ I have never had an interview that I came out of thinking that it was even passable – let alone good enough to get me a job – but when I get feedback about the interviews, successful or unsuccessful, that is not at all what interviewers tell me about my performance. Either they are being very kind or I am somehow still projecting an aura of calm and confidence, whilst inside, my brain is doing this:


So I have to wonder. Why is my experience of doing an interview so different to that of the people interviewing me? I think a lot of it comes down to my having pretty high standards for myself – to the point that I very rarely measure up to my own standards. Additionally I tend to devalue my own expertise compared to, oh everyone else’s. A lot of this comes back to my experiences of impostor syndrome, but I know that I’m not a complete idiot (most of the time) and have stood up for myself in much more stressful situations than interviews in the past without losing my cool, so what is it about a room with three or four people judging me for my competence in employment that brings out my inner idiot – at least in my own mind?

I don’t know to be honest. I could draw parallels with how, despite my many privileges, I felt like an outsider for most of my life (though I am very aware that I have had it extremely easy compared to some). I could look at a research career where my interdisciplinary work is sometimes denigrated and devalued by ‘proper’ scientists and how that affects my professional confidence. I could even look at how my identity is SO strongly tied to my work (and always has been) that my pessimism about my performance in these situations is a kind of self defense, but at the end of the day, being aware of these things has never made me better at interviews. So for now, I’ll just keep gritting my teeth through them and learning from my mistakes.

For anyone with an interview coming up soon, you will probably do better than you think you have and even if you don’t get the job, it doesn’t make you less good at what you already do.

I have my fingers crossed for you!!


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