Tips for an Excellent Interview Week
Interview week for finalists of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) in the executive branch is an exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting) opportunity to find the federal office that you will come "home" as a fellow. AAAS will provide you lots of detailed instructions. I will try to give you a broader sense of what to expect, and add some personal insights along with tips and tricks to make the most out of the experience.
What to Expect
A week or two prior to interview week, you’ll receive a list of hundreds of potential positions across most of the departments and agencies (D/As) that constitute the executive branch of the U.S. Government. AAAS will also send you instructions on how to navigate the process, interview tips and tricks, and rules of engagement for you and the interviewing offices. Read through these documents thoroughly.
You cannot reach out to offices prior to interview week, but they will be able to pre-schedule interviews with you, so your interview schedule might start getting populated early. Once interview requests do start coming in, you can accept or decline each one. Opinions vary on how to handle this: some say to accept all requests because you never know where you might find a good fit. I lean toward the alternative view that it’s fine to politely decline requests if you know you would have no interest in the position, especially if there are other interviews you’d like to schedule. That said, I recommend limiting your declinations and going into interview week with an open mind.
At the beginning of placement week, after some orientation sessions, AAAS will open the floodgates and allow you to reach out to offices. You can schedule more interviews throughout the week as you learn about potentially interesting positions, and offices may also reach out throughout the week to schedule interviews with you.
Each office you interview with will have their own priorities, expertise, culture, and expectations. Interviews can last from 30-60 minutes, and range from the extremely casual to quite formal. Some offices only do a single interview; others may request one or two follow up conversations or want you to meet others in the office. These interviews are opportunities for you to ask questions of the office as well – to see if it might be a good fit for your expectations, fellowship priorities, and career goals.
Following interview week, you will rank positions in order of preference, and offices will do the same. This ranking process has different implications for different D/As, and it’s worth reaching out to current or former fellows in the D/As you’re interested in to understand these nuances. Generally, you should rank all the offices that they would prefer over having no fellowship, but not offices you have no interest in. There is no downside to ranking many positions (I believe that for my year, the maximum was 10), and there is no upside to ranking a position you would not take. Fellowship placement offers will start going out a few weeks after interview week.
Advice, Tips and Tricks
First, do not be concerned about comparing the number of interviews you have with other finalists. I had zero (yes, zero) pre-scheduled interviews heading into interview week. While that was discouraging, I ended up doing 10 first round and numerous second-round interviews before placement week was up, and I found a great fit. The interviews you have pre-scheduled have nothing to do with how qualified you are – every AAAS finalist is eminently qualified. Rather, pre-scheduled interviews reflect what keywords and interests appear in your application that offices might be looking for. Your preparation should follow the same approach: search for position descriptions with criteria and key words that are important to you. For example, you can filter for particular D/As, issue areas of interest, or whether the position is more focused on research, communication, programming, policy, or something else.
To execute this strategy well, you’ll need to know what you’re searching for. That means that before you start combing through positions, you should reflect on what you hope to get out of your fellowship experience and your expectations for your placement office. Your criteria might include topical interests, skillsets you want to build, networking opportunities to explore, personal or professional goals you’d like to achieve, and/or what type of mentorship and collegial environment you desire. This reflection will also help you prepare for common interview questions, think of questions to ask of your interviewing offices, and ultimately decide between placement offers.
Once you have a list of positions of interest, pre-draft interview request emails for offices that haven’t scheduled interviews with you so that they are ready to send out the minute AAAS opens the floodgates. These emails should be tailored to the position description, making clear why you’re qualified for and interested in the position. Keep them brief and to the point, and include your availability, your AAAS personal statement, and a short resume (no CVs – no one wants to read pages and pages of your publication history, sorry). If you’d like, you can even tailor your resume to each position.
Be on top of interview logistics. This includes being on time; checking to make sure your call software is working (different offices will use different platforms, and some may prefer phone calls); making sure your computer camera and mic are working; and ensuring your space is quiet and well lit. These things matter, and impact the impression you make during your interview. Also be sure to monitor your email and phone throughout interview week, as interviews might get moved. Everyone understands that offices’ and finalists’ schedules are crazy during interview week, so it’s important to be flexible and courteous when asking to reschedule.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, interview week is BUSY. It’s made busier by affinity group-hosted happy hours and meet-and-greets with current fellows in the different D/As. These are good opportunities to network and get insider advice. However, a week of interviews can be draining, especially in the virtual world. When deciding how to balance this, the most important thing is to take care of yourself. If you have the energy to go to extra Zoom calls and meet new people, great! But do not feel pressured to do so. Feel free to use the extra time to relax so you can be your best at upcoming interviews. Some offices may offer to connect you with their current fellows for a one-on-one to get their view on the office, if you have the energy and time that is a way to glean more information.
As always, prepare answers to common interview questions, and be ready to talk about how you fit with the goals of the office and vice versa. But don’t be afraid to let your personality shine during the interview: talk about things enjoy outside of work, what unique long term personal and professional goals you have, and what your expectations are for the office. After all, part of the job of your placement office is to ensure you have a good fellowship experience. Make yourself standout by being unapologetically you, and ask questions during your interview to ensure that office has as much to offer you as you have to offer them.
Follow-up is everything. Send a “thank you” email after every interview, especially to offices you are strongly interested in. While AAAS does not allow you to tell offices how you plan to rank them, you should still let them know of your continued interest. Such expressions of interest can make you stand out, particularly since offices are looking to rank candidates who will likely accept their offer.
A few final bits of advice to consider:
If you are able, take interview week off from your regular job (or at least partial days or a few full days during the week). Interviews take up not just time, but also mental energy and concentration ability. It’s easier to handle the load if you don’t also have other things on your plate.
Reach out to current and former fellows for advice! The AAAS fellow community is generous and welcoming. Most people are more than willing to answer questions and provide advice. Use this as a chance to start building your fellows network while simultaneously getting valuable interview advice.
Congratulations on becoming an AAAS STPF finalist, and good luck during interview week!