Monthly Archives: January 2023

“Tell me about yourself”

Four words ….. And such a simple statement ….

Yet is it so simple? This question gives the recruiter a lot of information about you, so it’s essential to get it right. The question seems innocent enough and is often meant to make you feel more comfortable in the interview situation, but at the same time it will provide the recruiter with a lot of information about you, such as: Are you prepared; have you thought about the role and how you fit in; have you assessed your own competencies for the role?

During a recent career workshop on interview technique, I had the pleasure to co-deliver with an experienced recruitment specialist, Christina Storm, at the University of Stavanger. Christina had some great insights into preparing for interviews both within and outside of academia, including a great formula to answer the crucial question “Tell me about yourself”, which I can share with you here.

This blogpost highlights how it can be done to give you a flying start to your interview.

So, why does the prospect of being asked “Tell me about yourself”, at interview, cause apprehension and trepidation in many prospective interviewees?

  • Is it because we don’t like to talk about ourselves – or worse still, ‘boast’ about ourselves?
  • Is it because we don’t know what to talk about (how do we choose what to include from all our life-long experiences?)
  • Perhaps we’re not sure how long to speak for in answer to this open-ended question?
  • Maybe it’s because we don’t think the interviewers will be interested to know about us? That we haven’t done anything particularly outstanding?
  • Or perhaps it’s something else …….

It’s a question that is usually asked relatively early in a job interview, or even at the very start, so it’s important to provide a positive and upbeat reply to set the scene for the rest of the interview. Get this right, impress the interviewer of your abilities at an early stage and the rest should flow easily and naturally.

Researchers aren’t generally used to talking about themselves, especially in positive, self-affirming language. Even during appraisals and other meetings with their supervisors, it’s nearly always the research project that’s at the heart of the discussion, not the researcher. Rarely, during career coaching sessions, do PhD or postdoctoral researchers tell me about times when they have had the opportunity to review their own strengths, capabilities, personal and professional progress, etc. in a positive way. Normally, they tend to take a more circumspect or negative stance when it comes to their own abilities, either playing them down, crediting others or brushing them off as being nothing special.

So, in the midst of all this potential negativity (which may or may not apply to you, to one degree or another), how can researchers ensure that they portray themselves positively when they respond to the question, “Tell me about yourself”?

“Most candidates seem to be caught by surprise with this question. They assume the recruiter has read their resume or application. However, don’t make the mistake of assuming that this is the case”, says Christina.

The key to giving a good response to this question is to structure your answer and make it relevant to the person to whom you are talking, whether it’s in a job interview or during an encounter at a conference. It’s what some people refer to as the ‘elevator pitch’. This means you need to make a good impression in a very short space of time, and in many cases, under the pressure of interview conditions.

By referring to the 3-step model above, devised by Christina, and you should find it easier to bring your most significant experiences, skills and motivations together into a short story to present to your ‘audience’.

1. Who are you?

First, start with factual information about yourself. For example, what you’re doing in your current position (PhD, postdoc, etc.), how you came to be where you are now – maybe linking this in with your early interests and passions, relevant to the post. Personal information can also be woven into this part of your story, including where you are from, why you chose to move where you are now, etc. This will be different for everyone depending on their own situation.

Tip: Don’t start in a chronological order, be specific and rehearse.

2. What skills and capabilities do you have to offer?

Describe your key strengths and achievements, relevant to the job description, etc. These may come from your current or a previous role, research-associated activities or other areas of your life.

Highlight those experiences that are of most interest to your prospective employer, so that they can imagine you working in their organisation.

Tip: Don’t assume that the recruiter remembers this from your CV or application – it is also OK to repeat it later in the interview

3. What do you want in the future?

This is the most important part of your answer, so make sure to leave enough room for it. Express how you want to move forward in your career and professional development. What is your motivation for applying for this role in this particular organisation, research group, department, etc.? This will be of most interest to the employer who is wondering how you will contribute to their organisation. It also means that you conclude your answer talking about what is most relevant to the interviewer, i.e. is this someone I can envisage working with me.

Tip: Make sure to incorporate your motivation for this specific role or company here.

Always communicate your answers using language that is pitched at the right level for the interviewers. For example, the panel may consist of people who are knowledgeable about your specialised area of research through to generalists who understand your research at a more fundamental level.

As Christina advises, “What the recruiter wants to hear is a short summary of you and your competencies according to the role, not the story of your life!”

So, keep in mind that you should aim to spend no longer than 1 – 2 minutes answering this question, and make sure to practice – practice – practice!

Christina Storm and Sarah Blackford pictured during their career workshop, University of Stavanger, January 2023.

Related content:
How to be a STAR performer
Interviews – prepare yourself
Interviews – when coming 2nd is no consolation