Advice from the other side of the desk – Summer Seminar 2013 Part 1

On the 21st June 2013 the Section for New Professionals (SfNP) held their annual Summer Seminar at the New Register House Dome, ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh. During the afternoon a panel of employers discussed interview techniques and application forms. The panel was formed of Donald Lickley (Sue Hill Recruitment), Pam McNicol (Stirling Archives), Richard Taylor (York Archives and Local History Service) and Arnott Wilson (University of Edinburgh). The SfNP Communications Officer Louise Williams facilitated the discussion.

This is the first in a series of 4 blog posts summarising the advice and discussions from the day.

The panel discussion was a brilliant opportunity for new professionals to hear what those on the other side of the desk look for when recruiting. We had a similar panel session at the 2012 Summer Seminar focussing on employment opportunities and the notes were published in the October 2012 issue of Off the Record at


About interviews

There are two common types of interview you can expect to encounter, CV based interviews where you will be asked about your experience and competency based interviews where you will be asked questions based on competencies (these often begin with “tell us about a time when you…”).

Always believe you are on show while you are at the interview. The person who is collecting you from reception or giving you a tour will probably be asked to feed back their thoughts on how you behaved to the panel, make sure you show you are interested and be appropriate. This is one of your opportunities to convince the panel you can work well with their staff.

You can often second guess a lot of the questions which will be asked at interview. You will be asked about what you have done, what you can do, situational questions and your strengths and weaknesses. You need to be able to talk about yourself, including what you find challenging. Don’t be afraid of asking for clarification if you are asked a tricky question. When applying for more senior roles you may be asked questions about the wider profession to see how aware you are of what is going on around you.

The HR department may have a format for interviews which interviewers are asked to follow. If academic collaborators are on the interview panel you can expect them to go a little ‘off-piste’ as they try to suss out how determined you are and if you can perform under pressure.

If it is a competency based interview, you will find all the competencies (skills, knowledge and experience) listed in the person specification. Prepare answers for each competency, remembering to provide hard evidence of your skills. Use the STAR technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to develop answers to questions that tell the story of what happened.

Some interview panels will be grading your responses. This is a tool used by employers to ensure their recruitment process supports equal opportunities and may be used when they are interviewing a large number of candidates.

Panels are often used for interviews so that panel members can take it in turns to take notes, leaving the others to pay full attention to what you are saying. It should be clear at the beginning of a panel interview who will be asking what questions. There may be panel members who have specialist knowledge as well as representatives from HR. HR representatives sit on panels to:

  • Make sure the panel ask the right questions
  • Negotiate salary
  • Add a neutral perspective
  • Represent the wider organisational perspective with a view to how you would fit within it
  • Represent the equal opportunities aspect
  • Explain the contractual details
  • Ask certain questions required by the organisation
  • Look to see what specialists could do for generalist roles

It is ok if you need to pause during the interview, allow yourself to take a moment to marshal your thoughts. Say that you are pausing, as the panel will get uneasy if you appear to just sit there stumped.

You should remember that interviews are a two-way process and you are also looking at the suitability of the role and employer from your perspective. If you feel uncomfortable about anything, go with your instincts.

Employers expect candidates to have a certain level of nerves at an interview. Sometimes if they want you to start the interview with a presentation this is an opportunity for you to get over your initial nerves and calm down. A question when you arrive in the room, such as ‘how was your journey?’ is also an opportunity for you to take a moment to calm down.

The interview panel has invested time to interview you, there is goodwill and they want your interview to go well and for you to succeed.

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