So remember our public health professor friend from the last post. Last we left off she was making headway on her transition from a faculty position. She had received two interviews at ACME Health Ventures and ABC Family Foundation.

After just a few short weeks of beginning her job transition and submitting applications, she’s gaining traction. Yes! (fist pump)

Here are two things that you can learn from our Public Health professor’s interview experience:

Beware the trap question.

The first question they asked her was, “You’re a tenure track prof at a top institution. Why would you leave that for this job?”

Believe it or not most people don’t have a clue what professors do on a day-to-day basis. From the outside, it looks like professors have a cushy job of thinking, writing and talking. The outside also buys into the prestige of academy but they do so without understanding the friction and grind that would cause one to want to leave for a new career.

So this employer’s question is flush with that common perception in addition to vetting the professor’s awareness of the nonacademic world and this company in particular.

When an employer asks, “Why do you want to leave academia to come here?” they are really asking the following:

  • Do you get us? Do you understand what we do?
  • Can your pivot from the academic thinking and pace to the practice-oriented, service-oriented, and outcomes-focused framework?
  • Can you manage the social and communication aspects of the job?
  • Can you handle the leadership aspects of the job? Can you do the project management tasks required by the job?
  • Can you work with minimal guidance and still work on things that the company values, not just the things that you think is important? (That last one came straight from one of my discussions with a c-suite executive at a global company based in NJ. It’s not just those transitioning from academia who experience this connection challenge – most new hires struggle to make the connection to what their new employer wants.)


Toss the phrase, “I’m a quick learner.”

Listen in on the interview to see what I mean.

Employer: Have you ever worked with XYZ program process with federal government?

Our Public Health prof: No, I’ve never done that before but I’m a quick learner. I’m sure I can get up to speed very quickly on that process.

Fatimah, the PhD Career Coach, in the background: Nooooooooo!!!

That’s the sound of me going after a man down. The phrase “I’m a quick learner” is a dead give away that you think you can’t do the job. It shows your cards that you haven’t done the work in the past.

Rather than say “No” and “I’m a quick learner”, you want to quickly think on your feet to describe parallel experiences that demonstrate that you can do the task.

Here’s the thing: Employers do not expect that you can do every single aspect of a job – there’s nowhere for you to grow in that scenario. If you’re not challenged and growing, hiring managers know that’ll you’ll get bored quickly and leave soon after your hire.

Employers know that you’ll learn in the position. But they are not paying you to learn. They are hiring you to perform a task and complete a goal. If learning happens along the way, then that’s great too.

You’ll gain a lot of interview points by being able to think on your feet, understand the value and application of your experience, and interpret the needs of the company.

These questions are a test of your salesmanship, entrepreneurialism, and your ability to think quickly on your feet. This question also tests your ability to connect your skills and experiences with their mission and the job at hand.

Our Public Health prof would have done better to give a parallel example of where she had handled the problem even if on a lower scale. Or, she could have described how she would approach the problem if confronted with it in her new role.

You may not have seen this challenge at this scale, but you should have enough information to draw from to provide a general overview of how you’d approach the problem. Where does that information come from? Your related experiences, your research on the field and the company, and your informational interviews with professionals in the field, to name a few.

What are some other phrases that can replace “I’m a quick learner”? How else can you answer “No, but…” when asked a tough interview question?


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