Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Interviewing, the details

Em asked a good question on my last post and it's one I'm happy to address. I have a decent amount of interviewing experience, though it's centered on industry and post-doc level jobs. I'm sure interviews for teaching and/or faculty positions vary a great deal, but I don't want to teach. So that knowledge is beyond me.

My parents were rather surprised at the length and depth of the interview process as well, so my feeling is that it's a bit odd to have to interview for so long and hard. That's true, of course, only coming from the general population of normal people. In the academic world, I'd be shocked to only talk to a single person for any sort of job opening. It is - in my experience - the norm to have several things in common with an interview schedule.

1. Seminar.
"We'd like you to prepare some remarks." Someone always says when I'm making travel arrangements and the prospective employer has indicated interest in meeting me. "You'll talk for approximately 40 minutes, then people will ask questions for 20 minutes or so."

At my current institution, interviews tend to be scheduled on our regular seminar day. Therefore, the candidate is free to make any statements uninterrupted, telling her complete story and taking questions at the end. I've only given two of these more formal talks. One when I interviewed for this post-doc and the other when I gave my final talk (though not my defense - we do 2 separate events in my graduate department) before finishing up at graduate institution.

It has been more likely - in my interviewing experience - to expect between 10-50 people at a given talk. I'm sure this varies across fields and recall that Friend's boss only includes people from his lab at some interview talks. Therefore the atmosphere is smaller and the people tend to be much more knowledgeable.

I have found - and have been told to prepare for - a range of people in the audience. I make two assumptions (that I don't necessarily advocate, but it's what I do). The first is that these people are very smart. I make it a rule to never talk down to people. I think there is a balance between being proud of my work and confident in my expertise and being respectful of each audience member's background and accomplishments. I therefore start at a reasonable level, offer what explanation I feel is necessary and am always happy to take questions that request elaboration on certain topics. I've found that people ask when they don't understand something - it's not necessarily a weakness in my presentation (although that has sometimes been the case), rather an opportunity to tailor my remarks on the fly for this particular audience.

Just as there is a balance between thinking well of myself and respecting my audience, I find there's a line between rehearsal and general preparation. My second assumption is therefore that I will be nervous. I know what I want to say for each given slide and often write that out and practice it beforehand. I did less of this for yesterday's experience and my brain was screaming at me the whole seminar for my lack of preparation. For me, a comfort with the material and a firm knowledge of where I'm going with each slide and how to transition to the next makes it easier - even if it seems counter-intuitive - to be open to interruptions and questions that can take me off track during the talk.

2. One on Ones
From a personal standpoint, I've never seen defensive attitudes work in interviews. People are there to challenge me - to ask why and how and what my reasoning was. To suggest alternatives and watch me think through how that idea would apply to my research. I combat that with a genuine interest, first of all. I've received excellent ideas from interviews and sincerely enjoy speaking to people one on one. I think my research is interesting and important and have found it's rare to have people focus specifically on me and what I'm doing. Interviews are good for digging deep into some methods or results and having someone say, "Huh. What if you tried X?" Or "I've used Y for Z. Do you think that might work for you?" Keeping in mind that I've worked with the same general line of research for 7 years now (Crap - I'm so getting old.), that's fun for me. Thinking of it as an opportunity to learn (and people are educated enough to appreciate the desire for knowledge in others, I've found) rather than criticism of my abilities and work helps.

So. Why are there so many stops on the schedule? It depends on the place. In my field, we're highly collaborative. Therefore - since I work on clinical projects - I'm usually meeting with various people in various departments. Since they'll be working with me over the course of my project, it's important to get a feel for what I know, what they know and how well we can discuss common ground.

Yet I always meet with several people who do what I do. I think different people see different things. Some are guided to a decision by a candidate's personality and how well they fit into a group. Others are highly technically oriented and will probe specific skill sets and ask questions like you'd find in a defense. I'm a bit annoyed by this, honestly, and tend not to respond very well. I feel quizzing a candidate indicates a lack of respect in the training institution that produced me as well as, well, me. If I say I know something, don't say, "Prove it." Ass. Yet I answer those questions as gracefully as possible, yet must give off some 'what the hell?' vibe since I rarely get more than 2 of them from any given person. I also - just anecdotally - find that people who ask crap like that tend to be young and trying to prove something themselves.

At this particular interview, I met with many people who did stuff I don't do. I think they were looking for overall impressions - of me, of my work, of my ability to explain the work and answer questions that a smart person who doesn't necessarily have experience in my area would ask. Those are interesting too. I find people from disparate disciplines know very different techniques, but can often find some commonality that provides a good sharing of ideas. Plus, it can take interviewing time (and 45 minutes can go really fast or painfully slow, honestly - the meetings usually aren't so long based on past experiences) to learn about something new and ask questions of their research and interests.

So the technical depth varies widely, Em. Some people know a lot and can ask detailed questions that are challenging to answer. I find they're usually directed toward areas I do (or should) know. Some people know a little and you get bogged down in background and slowly make your way toward a bigger point they were hoping to discover. I have always been worried that someone was going to ask me to make a pyramid of quarters or quiz me on word problems to test my critical thinking skills. Never happened.

3. HR Component
My industry interviews have always involved an HR person, usually toward the end of the day. They tend to be softer interviews, and are the chance to show off your behavioral interviewing skills. I got "Tell me about a time when you were able to overcome a difficulty with a co-worker." yesterday. Um, what else... "What do you think makes you effective at your job in terms of your personality?" Or "If I talked to your closest colleagues and collaborators, how would they describe you?"

4. Katie's Tips!
I don't know how valuable these will be to different people, so do feel free to ignore them completely (or add in the comments if you feel something is completely wrong or very different in your experience, please).

The important people - major bosses, people whose weight will count heavily in the interviewing decision - usually interview first thing in the morning. I think this is because as I talked to more people, I got a better and better sense of the job and what they were looking for. I was unable to help from skewing some answers toward that ideal, though I reminded myself to be honest and realistic at all times. ("Of course I can ride three horses at one time while standing on my head! In fact, I feel that such a thing is one of my life goals, enriches my experience on Earth and my training has been geared exactly in that direction!" I am compelled to tell people what they want to hear, which is a bad habit I'm trying mightily to overcome.) So make sure you're up and ready and thinking in the morning.

Draw, draw, draw. I find making notes on the backs of papers while I'm explaining a concept is valuable. I didn't do that at my first few interviews, but it takes the focus off eye contact, allows me to really think through what I'm saying and some things are just easier to explain when you're looking at labeled blobs. (I don't have artistic talent, so anything I draw is pretty much a blob with a word inside telling what said blob represents.) I've drawn tumors. I've made charts. I've jotted down pieces of code. If drawing doesn't work for you, I'd try to think about how you work through problems in general and use that during interviews to aid in your efficacy and comfort.

Expect the expected. Have a canned answer for "tell me a bit about yourself" or "walk me through your thesis project" and "how did your work contribute to the field in a novel and important way." It's how many people kicked things off with me and it gave me the opportunity to give a positive first impression. Plus, I could often guide the way the questions went based on those first few minutes. So I talked about my favorite subjects where I was most comfortable with my knowledge base. If there's something I don't know, I'm not going to lead you to it.

Be impressive. I reminded myself several times that I was interviewing, not just talking to people I thought were cool. I think being comfortable is wonderful, but I can get too engaged in the process and forget I'm being evaluated. Don't admit weaknesses readily, talk around bad points and keep returning to my skill set. These people aren't here to be friends - they're trying to figure out what I know and how it works to their advantage should they bring me on board.

Expect the unexpected. And be OK with not knowing. "What would you do if you became independently wealthy tomorrow?" One man asked as our time was almost over. "Wow." I said and paused. I looked out his window for a moment and considered, then replied, focusing on my research. I'd actually - truth be told - find some research to do near home, move to be closer to my family and travel and read and learn. I also, I realized with some dismay, continue to desperately want a husband and family. Which made me cry and cry last night when I realized it's unlikely to happen. That I'm headed toward a future I never really wanted and that I'm trying for this job that would likely take me even farther from my impossible-seeming goals. But I didn't say that, of course. Because I was trying to be impressive.

It's reasonable to be tired. And hungry and thirsty. And to have to use the restroom. Focus past it. Well, at least the tired part. These interviews are endurance activities. I, for example, know I hit a wall of exhaustion in the late morning/early afternoon. So I gear up for that and refuse to allow sleepiness to set in. I asked for coffee, then water. I also asked to take a brief break to freshen up. People don't tend to schedule them and while some lovely interviewers will offer, sometimes it's good to ask for what you need. Yet a nap is sadly not an option. So I've coached myself to deliver caffeine at regular intervals, to stay nervous and keep my attention sharp and to be engrossed in all conversations so I'm not watching the clock.

Does that help at all? More questions? Comments?

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the well wishes before and after this interview. I think I did OK, but I'll let you know when I hear something in a couple weeks. I also think there's always room for improvement in my performance and am not critiquing myself overly hard on this one. So onward we go.


phd me said...

I'm late with the well wishes but I do hope things go well! Whether you take the job or not, it's always nice to have some affirmation. Good luck!

Psycgirl said...

I'm glad to hear it went well. It makes me so sad that you're so adamant that its too late for a family. Of course it isn't! Plus you're the kind of person who has depth and should wait for the right person and not settle, so its okay to take "longer" (In what my profs have told me, you're not taking longer really)

Alethea said...

That was an awesome post and I will be recommending it as far and wide as I can. Right on. You even got some flirting in, good for the psyche. It sounds like things went as well as can be expected given the arbitrary nature of interviews and competing against who knows what other contenders. Congrats for that, already.

Anonymous said...

Katie, You are awesome! I've been asking questions about interviewing for a while but have never received such detailed advice. Thank you.

I had another question about references for industry. Are references requested only when they are ready to give you a job? What sort of questions are your references asked? Do they call people or email them? How does it all work?

I am sorry they did not make an offer. I hope you find something that is right for you and your plans.


post-doc said...

PhD Me-
Thanks. It turns out that it's rather icky to have the opposite of that affirmation. :)

I just have a feeling that taking longer will stretch into taking forever and not happening at all. Which could be true or a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I'm still deeply sad to think about it. I do see what you're saying though and adore you for saying it.

Thank you. It was a good day that I think represented a true version of me and my work. So even if it fell short of what they wanted, I did what I could. Good to remember, I suppose.

I was pleased to get the question and happy to tell you what I knew.

Those are good reference questions too. The honest answer is that I'm not really sure.

In my experience, references are called post-interview. I've found that people tend to call and talk rather than email. So if an interview goes well, I warn my references - who I trust completely - that someone might call so they can review the letters that they'd written earlier for grant applications. Um...I did sit down with one of my references and go over my CV in detail. But I'm not sure what exactly the call involves.

I have asked Carrie though. :) She's taken calls for me so I'll let you know what she says is involved with the process.

EA said...

Thank-you for talking about this stuff in such practical terms. I REALLY appreciate it!!

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