Interview questions for people with anthropology/social science backgrounds

Now that there’s a big, bright light at the end of the job search tunnel (I got a job!), I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of the interview questions I encountered along the way. The positions I interviewed for fall into the areas of entry-level research associate and analyst positions in consumer research/marketing/branding (for small and large firms as well as corporations) and research associate positions with non-profit consultancies in social policy/health, all with a primary focus on qualitative research
 
I have tried my best to recall the most challenging and interesting questions (in as close to the original wording as possible) and, for each, have noted my response or the direction I went in with my answer, or any other advice that I think might be useful to those looking for similar positions. I would like to remind readers that I applied for these positions as a newly-minted (I graduated a little over two months ago) practicing anthropologist with an applied anthropology/social sciences background. All of the interviews except one were telephone based since I applied primarily for jobs outside my current location.
 
1. Tell me about yourself.
 
Of course I’m going to begin with this one, not because it’s anything new or out of the ordinary, but because there is something about this question that I want to point out to people, which is that it’s not a question about your personal life or interests, but a question asking for you to summarize what’s on your resume. You will more than likely always get asked this question at the start of each interview. The way I approached it was by beginning with my educational background (dates of degrees, universities attended, and specific training that is relevant to the position, examples of research projects without going into too much detail), moving to my current situation (e.g. I’m a recent graduate, I’m looking for x type of position because of x, y and z; current employment status/position), and finishing with why I would like this position and why I think I’m a good fit. I really see this as the interviewee’s chance to sell her skills, personality, etc. It’s like your 2-minute elevator speech, so be prepared with what you want to say and make sure you say it well.
 
2. Tell us about some of your past research experiences.
 
What they are looking for here is for you to talk about two or three projects that are relevant to the job in question. Ideally you will provide a general summary of each project, the research design, the methods used for data collection and analysis (especially innovative methods), how you did your sample (convenience, snowball, probability, etc.), maybe a few key findings (not exactly necessary but good to talk about if they’re interesting), what specific roles you played (was this an independent project or a group project?), and any other information that lets them know how you handled the logistics and about any products/deliverables that came out of it. I suggest also using at least one example of an independent project and a group project to show you have experience with both. For those who attended applied anthropology grad programs, focus on your internship experiences and the emphasis of real-world/hands-on experiences in your departments (at least that’s how it was at mine).
 
3. Why research? Why anthropology?
 
Tell a quick story about what got you interested in this field of work/discipline, and why it’s relevant to the job you’re applying for. One thing I like to mention is that anthropology is about understanding people to solve real-world problems.
 
6. What was your favorite class in grad school? What was your least favorite?
 
This was a fun question that was asked during an HR phone screen. I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to talk more about a class I loved (Culture and Consumerism) and why, and relate it back to the position I was applying for. 
 
8. Tell me about a brand that really stands out to you as a successful brand and why.
 
I should have expected a question like this coming from a branding/marketing consultancy, but it caught me off guard, so I had to come up with an answer off the top of my head (I actually like answering questions I don’t expect). I used Coca Cola as an example and discussed how it has maintained its image as a classic American beverage throughout the decades while reinventing itself when necessary, but without losing its original brand identity and keeping/growing its fan base. I threw in my trips to the Coca Cola museum and how I was continuously impressed with the brand’s global reach. The interviewer followed this question by asking me to talk about a brand that has had to expand its product range to meet changing consumer needs and lifestyles. I talked again about Coca Cola and how it has expanded its line of beverages and other products, including through the purchase of other beverage companies, to meet changing consumer lifestyles and desires, especially with growing health concerns.
 
9. What challenges do you see with transitioning from an academic environment to a corporate research environment?
 
I talked about how they are both similar in terms of the tools and methods that might be used for research and about the importance of being skilled at talking about research with/to a greater diversity of audiences, like corporate executives or those who are not as familiar with social science research/anthropology.
 
10. How would you go about building relationships with people across the company?
 
I don’t recall my exact response, but I focused on the importance of building good, working relationships and understanding the needs of clients/in-house departments who may need assistance with a research problem.
 
11. Have you ever had a time where you were working on a team project and were having difficulties with another member of the group?

I laughed in my head when I heard this one because I had the perfect example from a project I was part of in one of my first grad school courses ever. Without going into too much detail, I talked about how out of seven group members there were only two people with anthropology backgrounds, including myself. This made for a difficult semester because we all had our own ideas for how to design and execute the project, what the research questions should be, what types of methods to use, even down to the final report. Of course, the two people with anthropology backgrounds thought we would try and explain how anthropology projects are usually done without coming off as mean, sounding inflexible or acting like we didn’t care about the others’ opinions. Our intentions were not well-received/were misunderstood and this created a lot of unnecessary drama. Needless to say, we finished the project, but not without a lot of obstacles along the way. I commented on how I learned about how to work with others, especially those from other disciplines, about humility and about how to negotiate group roles and be respectful of others’ opinions. I concluded by saying that I would likely encounter this situation again in the working world and would be prepared to handle it in an appropriate manner.
12. Most of your experience is with research projects centering around social issues like poverty and health. How do you feel about transitioning from this sort of research to consumer research in a corporate setting?
 
I responded by going back to my training and background in research methods in applied anthropology, emphasizing the applicability of my training to any area of research, whether it’s health or consumer insights or marketing. [Here’s a good time to bring up some specific examples of projects or skills you have and how they can be used in the specific area you’re applying for. Also, if they’re asking for more of a personal perspective in terms of transitioning from a focus on social issues to the corporate environment, you get to choose how you answer. What I said is that those things are still important to me and that I can still be involved in social issues in my personal life through volunteering or pro bono assistance for community organizations while working at this particular company. Again, I think it’s important to be honest.]
 
13. What sort of experience do you have with data analysis?
Here you can talk about your experience with qual and quant, what types of analysis you have used in the past with data sets, how you have recruited participants for projects, and give one or two examples from past projects. Mention any software you’ve used or your training in data analysis for both qual and quant (statistical tests, use of statistical analysis software like SPSS, etc.) When I was asked this question or if I were talking about data analysis in general, I would mention that my strengths are in qual and ethnographic research/analysis, but that I am interested in expanding my basic training and experience in quant data collection/analysis.
 
* * *
 
The more you interview, the better you get at it, and I say that from my own experience. My first phone interview wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t stellar like some of my later ones. I think this was partly due to the fact that I spent the day before the interview preparing but also fretting, over-thinking it, and being nervous. I realized quickly that this was not the best plan of attack. Don’t over-prepare, don’t over-think it, and just go for it. My best interview was actually one in which I walked in the door five minutes before they called me and winged it (I purposefully got myself out of the house to do something distracting – I think it was grocery shopping – so I wasn’t just sitting around the house and making myself more anxious).
 
Here are some final, general pieces of advice for the amateur interviewee:
  • Do something that will relax and distract you from worrying too much before your interview, but make sure you are prepared!
  • Don’t be afraid to say you are not sure how to answer a question if you don’t feel like you have the right answer.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer to clarify their question if you are unsure about what they are asking.
  • Play up your strengths and be honest about any areas you want to improve.
  • No one is perfect! Almost anyone gets nervous when it comes to interviews, so relax and do your best. And don’t walk away focusing on what you wish you would have said or things you forgot. Instead, focus on the positives and how good of a job you did. They don’t expect people to be perfect but to be themselves.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask them. Do not ask them questions for which the answers can be found on their website.
  • Always offer to send a couple work samples. They will appreciate the offer and it will show them what kind of work you can do. They may ask you for this anyway.
  • Remember, you are interviewing them as well! Not only are you vying for a job, but they are vying for good talent! You have power in this situation, too.

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