Congratulations! You’ve got a letter through the post or an email which is inviting you to your first project management job interview. This is the first step in a great new career as a project manager, but the next hurdle now is to prepare for the interview.

Rest assured, the company would not have invited you to attend the interview if you hadn’t shown all the right signs of being a great match for the job and the company culture. So you are already half way there – on paper the interviewer and hiring manager think that you would be capable of doing the job and that you would fit into the team. Next they need to meet you to confirm and to assess your skills.

Interviewing for your first project management job can be scary because it’s a new career and potentially a new way of working that you haven’t had much (if any) experience in. What should you be looking out for and preparing? Here are some tips to get ready for attending that interview.

Respond to the letter

Don’t forget to write back or telephone and say that you will be coming to the interview! This helps the company plan their day and ensure that everyone gets the chance to attend an interview slot of their choice. If you can’t make the date and time that the company have suggested, don’t let that put you off – call up the HR department, hiring manager or the contact on the letter and ask if you can find another slot that works for you both. Then put the date and time in your diary so you don’t forget. If you need to arrange time off work from your current job book annual leave or talk to your manager if appropriate so that you don’t have to worry about slipping out in your lunch break and trying to fit it in during a normal working day.

Research the company

You have probably done some research about the company already, during your application process. But now is the time to do this in depth so that when you arrive at the firm you have some idea about what they do and how they do it. What industry are they in? Are they at the top of their field or a mid-player?

These days, there is so much information available online and through social media sites that it is relatively easy to find things out about a firm. You used to have to call the press office and ask to be sent a copy of the annual report but today you are just as likely to be able to download it from their website.

Research the department

If you can talk to someone else who works in the project management team or even the same department as where you would be based, then do so. It can give you a really useful insight into how the team and department function and some useful tips about how you could be successful in the interview. It can also highlight things you don’t like or things you wouldn’t like to do, and this can also be helpful – after all, you are interviewing the company as well because you need to make sure that it is a good fit for you too. Interviews work both ways!

Prepare in advance

Every interview will give you the chance to ask questions at the end and it is always best to have something to say. Use your research about the company and the project management practices in use in the team to come up with some questions to ask. You could ask about:

  1. What methods the team use
  2. What job families or promotion prospects there are
  3. How projects are prioritised
  4. Whether there is a project management office and how this works
  5. How projects are allocated to project managers

Or anything else that you have concerns about or want to check. At this point it’s probably best to avoid asking questions about terms and conditions such as flexible working and pay, as there will be an opportunity later in the process to do this.

At this point, all you are doing is writing down your questions so that you have them prepared. Some may be answered during the interview but it isn’t uncommon for candidates’ minds to go blank and for them to forget what they wanted to know, so having them written down is a good idea! It also shows that you are organised.

Your journey

Plan your journey in advance. You could even do a trial run, which is useful if you have no idea about where you are going or how long it will take. Do the journey at the time of day when you’ll be having your interview, so if you need to be there first thing, do the journey in the rush hour as it will be a very different experience to doing it at a quieter period of the day. Print out any maps or instructions that you need or programme your sat nav.

Work out how long the journey will take and then add enough contingency time to allow for road works, traffic jams or other unforeseen problems. On the day you want to have confidence that you will be able to get to the interview on time as being late is one stress factor you could do without.

Oh, and if you are travelling by car, make sure you have enough fuel or that you have found a filling station on the route!

Contact details

The night before the interview make sure you have printed out the contact details for the company’s main switchboard and the interviewer. You need to have some way of getting in touch with the company in case you are delayed or there is another problem – and you don’t want to be halfway there before you realise you have no way of contacting them.

Also make sure that you have the name of the person you are meeting and any other interview day instructions that they have sent you in advance, such as which building to go to. Double check the time that you are supposed to be there.

Prepare your materials

For some interviews they may ask you to bring along examples of work or to give a short presentation. Have a copy of these printed out for each person due to be at the interview (so, you and the interviewers). It’s also a good idea to email them to yourself so that if you need to get access to an electronic copy on the day you can go into your inbox from your smartphone and send them to whoever in the building can print them out or display them on a projector for you. You could also take along a version on an USB stick.

They may ask you to email them the presentation or other materials in advance – if you are doing this from a Hotmail or similar account then be aware that your message might not make it through their spam filter so it is worth calling to check that they have received everything.

If you are asked to give a presentation at the interview, remember to practice it in advance so that you are comfortable with the topic and the materials.

Plan your outfit

On the morning of your interview the last thing you want to be worried about is what to wear, so sort it all out the day before. Get your suit cleaned. Iron a shirt. Clean your shoes! Make sure your whole outfit goes together and that there are no loose buttons or trailing threads. You don’t have to wear expensive clothes but you should look as if you have made an effort so that means everything should be clean and pressed.

Lay it all out the night before along with any jewellery or accessories and pack your bag (including your list of interview questions) so that everything is ready to go in the morning (even if your interview isn’t until late afternoon).

It might seem like a lot of preparation just for an interview, but it will make you feel more prepared and confident and this will come across in the discussion with the interviewer. You’ll be more relaxed so you should perform better and you’ll avoid some of the things that could make the situation very stressful.

Meeting the interviewer

Normally you will be asked to wait in reception for the interviewer or a colleague to come and collect you. They will then take you to the interview room. The interviewer may already be in the room or they may join you afterwards. You may be offered a drink, and it’s up to you whether you say yes or not, but it could be easier to stick to water instead of hot drinks.

Shake hands when you meet the interviewer (and if you are worried about this, it is something you can practice in advance!).

During the interview

The interview is a two-way conversation, so feel free to ask questions as you go (unless you are specifically told not to). Try to keep it as natural as you can. When you answer questions about your experience remember to stick to what you actually did and avoid saying things like, “The team did this,” or “We did that.” While that’s true, an interview is not the place for modesty! So make sure that you mention your contribution as that is what the interviewer will want to hear about. Having said that, some degree of humility is a good thing as you don’t want to give the interviewer the impression that you are not a team player. I know, it’s a difficult balancing act!

If you have to give a presentation draw on all the practice that you’ve had and try to be as confident as you can.

And, of course, be honest. If you make statements in the interview about your experience or anything else that are not true then you will be found out at some point in the future which could affect your career at that company (if you aren’t fired).

If they ask you questions that you can’t answer, say so. It could simply be that you haven’t come across that project management situation before and don’t have the experience to draw on. You can always talk hypothetically about what you would do or what you have seen someone else do in that situation, but be honest about your limitations and if you don’t know what to say it’s best to say that!

When you are asked if you have any more questions, get out the list of questions that you prepared. Some of them may have been answered during the conversation but there might be a couple of others that you can ask now.

The end of the interview is also the time to check any aspects of the job that haven’t been made clear to you, such as whether they use tools like Seavus Project Viewer, or PRINCE2methods or what the routes for promotion might be.

This can help you feel as if you have the information you need to make a decision about whether or not to accept the job if it is offered to you. Remember – you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you as you want to be happy in the job that you take. The company will also want you to be happy as it is in their interest to cultivate you as a long term employee – taking on a new member of staff is quite an investment – so it is to the benefit of both parties that you are honest about your expectations of the role.

At the end of your interview

You could offer to leave another copy of your CV or resume with the interviewer, and a copy of your presentation if they don’t already have it. Ask about next steps and when you will be likely to hear something from the company.

Then say goodbye, shake hands again and thank the interviewer for their time. Leave promptly because they interview team probably have someone else waiting to be seen after you.

Finally, relax! It’s over. You’ve done as much as you can to secure that first project management job. Now it is over to the interviewer to make a decision about what happens next and there is nothing more that you can do.

Second interviews and follow ups

One thing that might happen is that you are invited back for a second interview. This is great news as it means you have made it through the initial screening and on to the shortlist. The second interview is a chance to meet other members of the team, maybe your direct line manager’s boss or other project managers. For you, it’s another opportunity to check that you really do want the job.

The second interview may include further presentations or psychometric tests. You can’t do much preparation for tests of this sort and they aren’t designed to trip you up. Answer the questions honestly and don’t try to assume what they want to hear.

The job offer

Hopefully – whether there is a second interview or not – you’ll end up with a job offer for your first project management position! You’ll probably get a letter or a phone call confirming that they would like to offer you the job and you don’t have to say yes immediately. This is the time to discuss:

  • Salary
  • Benefits, such as annual leave allowance, pension and childcare arrangements
  • Flexible working policies
  • Office dress code and other office life/cultural aspects

If you want to negotiate on the terms and conditions, now is the time to do this. If you have secured the job through an agency, they will normally be able to negotiate this on your behalf which can take away some of the stress of having to call up your new manager and ask for more money! Your agency will also have some idea about whether the package being offered is reasonable and whether, with your skills and experience, you will be successful if you ask for more or different terms. Even if you don’t feel you can ask for a bigger salary or better benefits, you may be able to negotiate different working hours such as a 10am-6pm working day instead of 9am-5pm so that you can have an easier commute to your new office.

Saying no

Of course, you are not obliged to take the offer at all. If you didn’t like the feel of the company or the people you met, or, when you asked your questions about the role you weren’t impressed with the answers, you can turn the job down. It is really important that your first project management position is one that will give you opportunities and that you will find pleasurable. After all, we spend so much time at work that you really don’t want to be in a situation that isn’t fun or at least professional.

You will probably get a sense of whether you should accept the job or not from the moment you enter the interview room, so go with your intuition. There will always be other jobs and the fact that you were offered this one shows that you have the skills and experience required to land a good position in a new field.

What if you don’t get it?

There is a chance that you won’t get the job you have applied for. There are likely to be numerous highly qualified, highly skilled candidates all after the same position, and on some occasions you won’t come out on top. This can be particularly the case if you are trying to break into the project management field and you are competing against candidates who already have project management experience.

However, don’t be disheartened. Ask the interviewer for feedback about why you weren’t successful as this will help you prepare more effectively for the next interview. And there will be others, don’t worry! Dust down your CV or resume and send it out again and stay confident that you will find another position to apply for and be successful in gaining.

Finally it just remains for me to say good luck! Stay positive with your job search and you’ll eventually secure that first project management job and the first step on the ladder to a great career in project management.