Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My thoughts on interviewing

“That’s over 100!” I said, surprised.

“No,” Friend corrected me more than a week ago. “Fifty-five is not more than 100. It’s less, actually.”

“I meant,” I sighed, “that with subscribers on Bloglines and the ones you say are on Google Reader, I have over 100 people looking at my feed.”

“Ah,” she nodded.

“Probably not many over 100,” I noted.

“Well,” she said, “one of those Bloglines people is me and I assume one is you.”

“Three are me,” I corrected her and watched her raise her eyebrows. I nodded in response. “Maybe four.” At her continued look of bemusement and I explained that I sometimes like to subscribe to my own feed multiple times to inflate my stats. “It makes me feel good about myself to see large numbers,” I explained happily. “What? I have so little else!” I pouted when she sighed.

So, within my rather sad, little life, I appreciate those of you who subscribe to my feed. And from my position of having tens of people who might sometimes glance at the text I produce, I will offer some tentative advice on job searching and selection. First, because it consumes a great deal of my thoughts lately and someone made me feel all important by asking for some thoughts via email this morning. Second, because I have the most peculiar cold. Last Monday, my nose ran. My left nostril was all gross and between the blowing and wiping and sneezing, I spent the day in utter misery. Then, on Tuesday, I was right as rain. I felt pretty good on my interview trip. Then, today, I took a harmless nap in my perfectly large bed with my multitude of pillows in their soft and silky cases. Upon waking, I winced at the pain in my throat. As I sat up in search of water, I realized I felt utterly awful. This cold, I think, has lurked in my system, only to strike randomly with complete misery. So I’m sick and consumed with thoughts of why my throat hurts so badly!

Given that this is my theory of disease - lurk and attack randomly while I’m resting, please feel free to take or leave some job-related advice. But let's try this anyway. Oh, and I may have said some of this before - I am a bit repetitive. And feel free to offer rebuttals in the comments.

The cool thing about meeting with prospective employers is that it allows me to be the best version of me. Which is why pushing interviews past 8 hours is hard - Best Katie reverts to Sleepy Katie or Irritated Katie pretty quickly. But I rather like myself when I’m playing Best Katie. So despite the sick nervousness and excessive stress, I enjoy parts of the experience.

Someone pays me to travel in order to talk about a job? Well, that makes me feel as special as I would if they subscribed to my blog! People take time from their days to listen to my seminar? My expressions of appreciation are sincere when I offer them upon concluding my remarks. I like the atmosphere of curiosity and critique. So while I fully admit that visits can be stressful and scary, there are benefits. Order room service - that’s always fun! Buy a new laptop bag so you can think about what good taste you have during the day! Wear pretty shoes!

The Seminar
I think a talk should make me feel smart and capable. If there's stuff I don't want to present, I should skip it. If there's a slide I absolutely hate - because it's hard to talk about or too complicated or just ugly (I had one of these in my talk for years and dreaded flipping to it in every single interview), figure out how to fix it or just delete it. Other things that bug me in my own talks - make sure slides aren't too wordy, but don't make the seminar more difficult than it needs to be. The slides are for me as much as the audience - give phrases to remember talking points that appear on the screen. Try to remember a 1-2 minute rule per slide. If I linger on one for too long, people (like me, unfortunately) start to fidget.

I’ve mentioned before that I rehearse my talks pretty extensively. I do this to combat nerves, honestly. I freak out before talks (though, honestly, I’m getting better. It’s still not fun for me, but it’s not nearly as terrifying as it once was.) and like to have words come naturally. Or, for example, when someone picks on something in my background - as just happened - and I feel dumb and unprepared for that specific problem, I can move on to the next slide and deliver the proper remarks with the right inflection even while I kick myself for not knowing the answer to the previous question. It’s also good to give the talk in front of your home group. They’ll point out errors on slides, look blatantly bored and try to prepare you for heading out into the world. Or at least they should.

I think it can be challenging to assess your audience a priori and put together something with the right balance of explanation and respect for their current knowledge. It's been my trend to say something like, "I wanted to give some insight into the formation of my hypothesis and give you some sense of why I think the work is valuable."*
* Please see comments for examples of better language. And refer to the preceding paragraph about how I would have to practice saying something that doesn't come naturally to me.

I think what offends people is when young scientists start teaching rather than giving a seminar. A member of my research cohort got up in front of upper level scientists and told them they probably didn't understand her biology so she was going to reteach it to them. That's condescending. Offering a good deal of background is, I think, good. Just talk to them like you think they're really smart. Try not to over-explain a concept - trust that they'll ask a question if they don't get what you said in a concise way. Also, using recent developments in a field is awesome - even people with a strong theoretical background are interested in how that knowledge has been refined and changed.

On Accessories
Like a pack mule, I have always carried my laptop around with me all day. I have never, ever used it in a meeting. Ever. Which makes me a rather silly pack mule. At my Chicago interview, I had a small purse that I tucked in my laptop bag. I looked at my schedule, asked the secretary to make sure my bag would arrive in the conference room for my seminar, and just carried a small purse. In it, I had a small pad of paper and pen, lip gloss, Excedrin (which I took at lunch - I really do get stress headaches), my wallet and my phone. I also had a USB drive with a copy of my talk on it. That way, I decided, if my laptop somehow didn't show up, I had a back-up plan to give my seminar in the afternoon while admins tried to find my bag. If you're going to be in a single building (not scattered over a medical campus), I'd definitely leave my bag with a secretary or in HR to arrive when you need it. So this time I carried a cute, little black purse. Then I would look down and think, "Look how pretty my bag is! With the little silver accents where the handles connect!" and it was fantastic.

Take a Break
There are some lovely people who will ask if you need something to drink or to use the restroom. In my experience, most interviewers won't. So do ask if you need something - I've gotten better about this and the results have always been good. The day is long and stressful and my energy dips after lunch. So I drink a lot of soda in the afternoon and put conscious effort into staying alert and interested. If mornings hurt you, drink coffee. If tea calms you, get some. Give yourself every single break you can to make the process easier. (I also have taken to wearing pants and sweaters to interviews rather than the suits I favored after grad school. I'm so much more comfortable and would never go back. It really does help me that I'm wearing clothes I always wear. Then when I look down, my poor brain doesn't freak out and remember that this is New and Scary!

Oh, the questions. This is actually the tough part for me. PhysioProf is right - interest in people's research and interests makes them happy. (And I know I mention him a lot lately - my mom would ask if I had a crush on him - but it's because I can't comment on his blog. It's all intense and scary and I don't like to risk offending people! He does not seem to share that problem, which kind of fascinates me even as I'm befuddled. Anyway.) So I made a conscious effort to remember to ask people to tell me a bit about what they do. Then I asked for clarification, complimented them when I thought something was cool, asked where they wanted to go in the future, etc.

I like to ask what people think would make someone effective in the role for which you're interviewing. If they say you need to be incredibly outgoing and you're shy, think about how you'd make that work. If you need to be very independent and you love working with people, ask how the support structure functions. If, delight of delights, they describe someone exactly like you, smile and note that the fit seems really good.

The dinner is the hard part for me, antisocial creature that I am. They're often looking for how well you'd fit in and if they'd like to have you around. So be yourself - in the past, I tended to try to give people what they wanted in the past, and it's exhausting. And I was already tired so it often fell flat. Just be who you are. Perhaps you know the same people? Or went to the same schools? Giving updates and telling funny stories about people is something I like to do. For example, Boss decided to do science after his first job failed. He wanted to be a pig farmer, so he bought land and pigs. Then all the pigs died. So he decided to study Physics. This is random and funny and people laugh. Then I feel all happy for being entertaining.

Basically, your companions should take the lead. (Or that's always my hope.) They'll ask questions and expect you to show some interest in them in return. If you end up discussing the weather, that's fine. I've asked questions about how they like living in the specific city you're in. I try to say positive things about most everything. The people at the airport seemed pleasant. I loved the springtime in my graduate city. I've worked with amazing people during my graduate career. Here's a specific example of this good idea I got or how someone helped me with an abstract when we were pushing a deadline. I never drink too much - I get silly when tipsy - and remember that though the interaction seems friendly, it's still part of the interview. Don't overshare. People should be charmed, not grossed out or put off by your conversational topics, yes?

And now we pick one.
Lasserday wrote a comment about finding the right job, rather than the safest one. I’m going to have to give this more thought to see if I have knowledge lurking in my brain. I have every confidence she’ll find something amazing and do beautiful work there.

As for me, the most important interviewer noted that my reference letters were among the best she’d ever seen. I was about to be demure and wave away the compliment, but I decided to take some credit instead.

“I’ve worked with really good people,” I told her. “And I could talk for hours about how brilliant and kind and creative and supportive they’ve all been. So the feeling is decidedly mutual.”

Charlie - who is also brilliant, kind, creative and supportive - has, when confronted with phone calls full of my bemoaning my failures and lack of progress, repeated that I am moving forward. The identification of my needs and goals has given me a much larger understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. I feel much more confident than I did out of grad school. This is good since I felt almost impossibly damaged upon taking this job. So I accepted the post-doc with the nicest Boss. It also offered the most money and freedom. I explored enough to reject several ideas I’d tossed around with regard to future goals and have refined my current search not just in geography but in focus.

In summary
I think being confident is good. Your CV stuck out and you got invited somewhere so people could talk to you in person. You're obviously smart and cool, so go with that. My view has been to take a realistic look at myself. I subscribe to my own blog. Multiple times. I'm quite attached to the people who read me and pounce on emails and flutter over comments. I struggle (hard and frequently) to publish my papers. I have strong emotional reactions to some professional situations. So I know there are other candidates out there who may be better suited for the job. But I still play Best Katie. I'll let you know how it works out for me in the end. And if you're joining me in the interviewing crowd, I'm wishing you all the very best - good questions and interesting conversations, pretty outfits and shoes that don't pinch, excellent meals and lovely weather.


Anonymous said...

I agree with just about everything you wrote. Only one subtle suggestion.

It's been my trend to say something like, "I wanted to give some insight into the formation of my hypothesis and give you some sense of why I think the work is valuable."

Using this kind of language can come across as a lack of confidence in the validity and importance of your work. While it can take practice, especially for women who are socialized to be more self-effacing than men, it is better to use language like this:

"I am going to describe to you the evidence for the hypothesis that..."

The point isn't to focus on your personal journey--which can connote contingency or particularity--but rather on "the" evidence for "the" hypothesis. The evidence and the hypothesis have their own reality that is independent of you personally. Rather than telling a personal story, you are unveiling an eternal truth about the universe.

"This work is valuable and important because..."

Again, this shifts the focus from you and your human contingency to the eternal essence of the work.

The key assumption of science is that it is grounded in generalities about the natural world that are independent of the personal particularities of any individual scientist. Using language like I have suggested taps into this deep-seated assumption, and piggy-backs on its authority.

post-doc said...

I agree and have corrected the post to refer to your notes on this matter.

There are several posts I'll never write on how I interview much, much differently than the men I've seen take meetings. I think the expectations are different, my statements are heard differently and meetings have a completely different feeling. I tend to exploit my advantages rather than trying to level the playing field though. Having said that, this is an easy fix to something that likely should be corrected. So the point is taken and appreciated.

Anonymous said...

There are several posts I'll never write on how I interview much, much differently than the men I've seen take meetings. I think the expectations are different, my statements are heard differently and meetings have a completely different feeling. I tend to exploit my advantages rather than trying to level the playing field though.

Actually, I wish you would post on all those things! It would be extremely interesting and valuable to me. We interviewed an outstanding female faculty candidate recently, and I am very interested in trying to figure out to what extent my reactions are different to female speakers and candidates than to men. Your insights would be much appreciated.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

HAHA...! I love the parts that I've read so far, but to do this post justice I must come back when I'm more coherent. (the part about getting a new laptop bag is sooooo what I did for my interviews, too)

post-doc said...

I'll see what I can do. My problem is that it could be how people react to me rather than how they would react to any woman. Generalities can be offensive and I don't like to make people angry.

I hope your outstanding candidate had a good experience with you and your colleagues.

Unbalanced Rxn-
I'm disappointed in my interviewing laptop bag. I have one in pale blue and it just doesn't work with some of my sweaters. So I'm back to carrying one I bought in undergrad. If my travels continue, I'll have to get something else as a 'sorry you can't get a job offer and must continue interviewing' gift. :)

Anonymous said...

I'll see what I can do. My problem is that it could be how people react to me rather than how they would react to any woman. Generalities can be offensive and I don't like to make people angry.

If you never make anyone angry, to quote a famous LOLCat, "YR DOING IT WR0NG!"

Oh, one other subtlety: I didn't make this clear, but my statement "the point isn't to focus on your personal journey" is only applicable to the context of a seminar presentation.

In more informal contexts, both at interviews and in general, a compelling story of your personal journey in science can be *very* effective at generating support and interest.

This is something that can pay off handsomely if you spend some time and effort on crafting an appealing way of conveying the story of your journey. And women on average do better at this than men.

Anonymous said...

BTW, if it is ok with you, I think I will lift some of this discussion up and make a post on it at DrugMonkey.

post-doc said...

LOLCats as life statements? Really?

I understood your point before, but additional clarity is always welcome. Thank you.

As far as lifting portions to offer your own interview advice, knock yourself out. I'd very much like to read it.

Amanda said...

This post is great. I've been thinking more about interviewing (even though that's a ways away) and giving seminars (which is something that I think I'm doing every time I turn around). Your advice/thoughts make a lot of sense. I'm going to use some of it when I give my seminar on Monday.

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