If your interviewer is persistent in diving deeper into your reasons for not pursuing an academic career, confront the question head-on in a positive manner. Don’t try to duck the question, since any evasiveness on your part will raise red flags and suggest to the interviewer that you really would rather be interviewing for an academic job instead of the position at hand. It’s especially important that your answer also convey your own agency in your decision not to become an academic, because no employer wants to hear that they’re your second choice.
If you knew prior to the interview that academia wasn’t really right for you, then say so, and explain why the nonacademic job you’re applying to feels like a much better fit. If, however, you’re interviewing for a nonacademic job because you didn’t fare so well on the academic market, then keep your answer focused on your interests rather than any particular career aspirations.
Example Answer #1: I knew pretty early on in grad school that academia wasn’t the right fit for me. While I enjoyed the research I was doing, I came to realize that I also wanted to be a practitioner in the field—to actually work with the immigrant communities I was studying instead of just writing about them. Of course, I would have been able to do both as an academic, but, personally, my interest lies significantly more in the practicing rather than the researching. That’s why I’ve applied for this position.
Example Answer #2: While I considered academia as a possible career path, my primary interest has always been in pursuing opportunities that would allow me to develop and apply my expertise in immigration, wherever those may be. That’s why I was so drawn to this organization, a place where I can apply my prior knowledge and experience and, at the same time, continue to grow.