Interview Prep: Just Follow The STAR

The most heart-wrenching part of transitioning into the post-ac world is to say farewell to all the signs of your past successes. When I left academia, the hardest part for me was to bid farewell to my C.V. and embrace the principle that “less is more.”  Although I knew I had to do it, I spent several weeks running around in circles, unable to bring myself to trimming my long and thick list of accomplishments into a pale, drab and simple one-page resume. Once it was done, I felt naked and afraid that nobody would ever understand my value. How would anyone every recognize how good I had been? I felt suddenly deprived of my past and of everything that made me who I was.

Thankfully, I ended up discovering that there was an upswing to the conversion of my multi-page C.V. into one simple sheet of paper. It meant that I had never to go through the painful process of academic job interviews again. I quickly discovered that preparing for non-academic job interviews is a much more straightforward process than what I had previously experienced.  Contrary to academia, hiring committees do not derive sick pleasure from your pain. On the contrary, their goal is the make the process as enjoyable as can be. And the better you are at preparing for non-academic job interviews, the higher the chances for you to enjoy the process AND get hired.

If you’ve ever been on a tenure-track job search, you’ve probably experienced the anxiety of preparing for it while knowing that the hiring committee will do everything in its power to throw you off your game. Although you might have your dissertation pitch perfectly memorized, prepared answers about your past, current, and future research projects, there’s a chance that you will find yourself in a situation where you have to rely on academic jargon to give the appearance of having the right answer. After all, isn’t being an academic about mastering the art of providing answers that are neither a yes or a no?

If you’re thinking of venturing outside academia, you must unlearn your ability to talk in circles and rely on your skills at identifying ambiguities to get out of tricky situations. In the process of preparing for non-academic job interviews, keep in mind that there is no room for grey areas. Hiring committees have very little tolerance for candidates who beat around the bush only to get lost in details. The questions they ask focus on your behavior rather than your ideas and opinions, the most common formula being: “Tell me about a time when you…?”

How do you answer these types of questions without getting lost in the subtleties that are so highly valued in academic discourse?

You can avoid the pitfalls inherent to the training you’ve received by following the STAR method:

The STAR method is meant to keep you on track when you talk or write about a specific experience by helping you trim down the information you want to communicate to its bare bones and provide the most impactful answers to any questions focused on your past.

STAR stands for:

  • Situation: You succinctly present the conflict or the challenge inherent to your story. The initial situation should be described as succinctly as possible by leaving out jargon and useless details that your interviewer does not need to know. (“There was low enrollment for my summer class last year.”)
  • Task: What was your objective? You follow up by providing a summary of your plan in no more than two sentences (“I decided to increase enrollment.”)
  • Action: What steps did you take to solve the problem? This step should be the core of your answer. It is at this stage that you can truly demonstrate your strengths by explaining clearly what you did, and showing that you stand out from the crowd. (“I designed a flyer, sent emails to our majors and minors, visited classes to promote my course, etc.”)
  • Result: What did you achieve? You should always close your example by providing concrete qualitative or quantitative outcomes. (“Enrollment increased by 30% and my class had to be waitlisted.”)


STAR is a word that you must remember as you transition out of academia. While you come from a culture where answers are often long, extremely detailed and drawn out, the rest of the world has a much shorter attention span that you do and appreciates speed and effectiveness. Your success during your transition relies on your ability to adapt to this new reality. It might be hard at first, but with enough practice, you’ll learn in no time that less is definitely more.


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