Interviews and Expectations

Today I was very saddened to read a graphical account by a blogger writing under the name of Zinemin, of an interview for an academic post she really wanted that had gone horribly wrong. Her experience sounded appalling, and quite unlike any academic interview I have ever participated in (as interviewer or interviewee). Was she spectacularly unlucky, or was there something deeply unattractive about the institution that was considering her application (she does not specify where, or even in which country) and she was lucky not to be successful at the end of the day? Was her gender relevant to her experience? Could she have been better prepared? I’d like to try to deconstruct what happened to her a little, in the hopes that it might provide both an antidote and some fodder for reflection for others considering applying for posts. Of course, I can only really describe the UK situation (my interview experience in the US was so long ago, it can hardly be deemed relevant, although at least one commenter on the Zinemin post made the assumption her experience had been in the US).

Panel Membership

Zinemin describes a situation where she was interviewed by around 25 scientists, all but one of whom were male. I have never come across a panel that size; a number of 6-8 would, at least in the UK, be far more typical. Such an excessively large panel would strike me as unwieldy, and in danger of leading to heated debate amongst themselves rather than a fruitful interview of the applicant. (Of course, if Zinemin could have instigated such internal wrangling, maybe she’d have fared better!) It also strikes me as designed to intimidate. If an organisation wants to choose a candidate who isn’t fazed by such a crowd, good luck to them. However, it is hard to see that such skill is likely to be straightforwardly correlated with either academic brilliance or an exceptional teaching style, both of which would seem to be more important criteria for an academic position. A department that wants to daunt their candidates by sheer physical mass seems to me to be a good one to avoid.

My own experience suggests that panels are likely, on the contrary, to worry about how to reduce intimidation levels: by the lay-out of the room, making sure there is fresh water available and introducing all panel members at the outset so that the applicant knows who are the experts and who the generalists, whether there are students present (I’ve come across this in some institutions) and who is there to take the minutes. The intention is, in my experience, to permit the candidate to do themselves justice, not lose confidence in the face of a horde of unwelcoming faces and so underperform. Of course, people can get nervous and their minds may go blank under pressure, but usually only temporarily and such momentary lapses should not be taken as a fundamental flaw.

In many fields it would be anticipated that there would be unlikely to be more than one or two women present simply based on the proportion of available female faculty, but it would be nice to think that that in itself that shouldn’t necessarily mean hostility (overt or otherwise) towards a female candidate. However, there is absolutely no doubt that unconscious bias may lurk even beneath an apparently welcoming exterior.  That, as the recent PNAS study revealed (something I discussed further here), may be as true of women as men. I believe it is incumbent on every senior academic not only to familiarise themselves with the fact of unconscious bias, but to do their best to spread the word to less enlightened colleagues who may be completely unaware how easy it is to underscore individuals on the basis of extraneous facts, including gender and skin-colour.  Reality unfortunately tells me that we have still a long way to go in even the best-arranged organisations for unconscious bias to have been eradicated.

Aside This situation also seems to tie in with comments made by BB and LL on my last post, where a lack of respect for the individual (female in both cases) seems evident (in these cases not where a job interview is concerned, but grants and fellowships). Is all this straight-forwardly gender related? It is impossible to tell simply from these anecdotes, but it would appear a woman’s credibility as an independent researcher, as someone not tied to a present or past collaborator’s or PI’s apron strings, is being questioned in ways that perhaps would not have occurred if a male had been concerned. It is tricky because that first step to independence is a crucial one, and one that not all experienced postdocs genuinely are well-placed to make (perhaps I will write a separate post about this transition one day). Nevertheless if men and women really are being systematically judged differently on this front still, we undoubtedly have an ongoing serious problem on our hands. I hope that the more this is talked about, the less it will accidentally happen. So, keep talking about it!

The Presentation

It is of course bound to be the case that a significant proportion of the audience will not be experts. Pitching the talk appropriately is crucial, but it is unforgivable in a panel member to shake their head as if visibly disagreeing with the content. Zinemin struck very unlucky that her panel was so unmannerly. I have occasionally been bored stiff by presentations from job applicants, I am sorry to have to admit; people who are so insular that they cannot step back far enough from their research to present a coherent story within an appropriate context. Nevertheless, even when bored stiff I hope I have managed to keep a vaguely intelligent and interested look on my face. It really shouldn’t be difficult to do this for a 15 minute presentation (although distinctly harder if drawn out over a full hour; with luck, in that case the lights will be down in a lecture theatre, so that faces can’t be read).

I can’t recall ever sitting on a panel where I have felt boredom and hostility were obviously collectively oozing out to engulf the candidate, even when it has been obvious that someone is not in fact going to be a strong contender for a position. I suppose, if a candidate were really confident they could challenge any panel member shaking their head: ‘Professor X, do you disagree with my conclusions and could you explain why?’ – but that might be both a risky strategy and require a great deal of nerve to carry out. However, possibly that was what this particularly unwelcoming group of people wanted. Beyond a certain point maybe there is nothing left to lose, except one’s own self-respect.  And that at least might do better for a little more forcefulness in the face of antipathy.

The Q+A session

This ought to be a moment for clarifying points of confusion and for broadening the discussion, not a moment for the panel to convey contempt or a patronising attitude. One can prepare to a certain extent for more general questions such as ‘why is your method superior to Smith’s?’, or ‘why do you think this is a fertile line of enquiry for the future?’.  I do think it is reasonable for a panel to ask general and big questions, even if a bit removed from the specifics of the seminar. I am not sure this necessarily implies – as Zinemin’s post suggested – a lack of respect for her. A department wants to know a colleague has an open mind, is well-rounded in an appreciation of the field, and can think on their feet. However, it equally should be OK for any candidate to take a few moments to think about any such broader question.

If this is the way an interview goes, take control; think about politicians who often repeat a question to gain time and perhaps to check that something that sounds a bit whacky really is the question being posed. It is reasonable not to rush in with a hurried answer and also to check that there isn’t some misunderstanding underlying the question. With a multi-disciplinary panel such a failure in comprehension may be all too probable. Of course, if the whole tenor of the interview has been unfriendly, it is inevitable by this point that a rattled candidate will see further negatives in the questions being asked. Again, it may be wise to challenge the questioner in a low-key sort of way, perhaps by suggesting the question isn’t relevant, or that the methodology is well accepted. But it ought to be possible to explain where the work is going, why what one is doing has some added benefit that others may have overlooked and if necessary politely explain why the questioner has got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Unfortunately, if an interview has been sticky from its very first minute, taking control and challenging an awkward cuss who looks like they are attempting to patronise you will be a hard thing to do. A clear example of stereotype threat, breathing deeply and counting to 10 may be completely inadequate to rescue the situation. Nevertheless, there may be attractions in using the inevitable opportunity offered by ‘and have you any questions for us?’ moment to let rip, since by this point perhaps there is nothing left to lose (and such action could also provide ammunition for anyone representing HR in the room wanting to take the panel to task subsequently). An answer along the lines of ‘Yes. Why did you invite me along in order to belittle my work and visibly express your contempt for my field of research as well as me personally? Nothing would induce me to come and work with a bunch of bastards like you have proved yourself to be’ could just restore a little dignity, although making a fast and graceful exit after that could prove tricky. Mercifully, I have never been on a panel where I feel a candidate could remotely justify taking such a line. Clearly Zinemin was less fortunate.

This entry was posted in Equality, Science Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Interviews and Expectations

  1. zinemin says:

    Many thanks for your understanding! This means a lot to me, and it is just so nice to get feedback on this. I have another interview next week and so it is really helpful to get advice.

    Indeed, providing a glass of water, and a laser pointer, for that matter, and maybe shortly introducing key members of the audience to me would have been super-helpful if only to get time to collect myself and familiarize myself with the room and the situation before having to start the presentation. I also find it excessive to have so many people on the panel, and I am not entirely sure if it is a good idea to let chemists & geologists judge my application in physics. I actually wonder if stereotypes are maybe activated more strongly if people have to judge others that are totally outside their field of expertise and thus have to use their “instincts”. (The guy shaking his head was a geologist).

    One information that was missing from my post is that this is an application for government money to start a junior research group (something akin to the ERC starting grant). So the people in the panel had to sit through a number of presentations during the day, and are people I was mostly never going to see again, which maybe made them more aggressive.

    You are so right that I should have replied more slowly to questions and repeated them before answering. In case of weird questions, I should started from the assumption that they probably misunderstood something and tried to figure out what this could have been. Apparently, if a serious, male, old professor with an aura of great authority asks a critical question that actually starts from a totally wrong assumption (because he misunderstood something), I have huge problems to realize what is going on and correct him. Instead something in my brain screams: “He has found you out!”and I start to stutter. It is very very irrational, and I am normally absolutely not like that around people from my own field, where I am less impressed by authorities. This is something I really need to get over quickly!

  2. LL says:

    Wow… this sounds like a pretty horrendous interview. It takes some guts to sit down and dissect what went wrong on an occasion like this, and I have serious respect for Zinemin for doing so.. it would have been easy to take an ‘Let us never speak of this again.. ‘ approach. Athene’s advice seems very useful, and I do particularly love the idea of giving it to the panel with both barrels if they’ve been rude and uninterested throughout.

    A couple of thoughts:

    Do we consider the culture of the organisation/panel/individual enough when preparing for an interview/other big important presentation/assessment exercise? I note several commenters on Zinemin’s excellent blog post have said ‘this could never happen in the UK’. I have certainly never come across this myself in the UK, but wouldn’t imagine it to be impossible. On the other hand, I have found that the attitude of audiences when I have given ostensibly the same talk can vary widely depending on location. This has caught me out before. I’ve given a talk and got an enthusiastic, positive and thoughtful response, and then done the same one again elsewhere and met open hostility, cynicism and negativity. In the latter case however, I noticed that this attitude was applied to most of the speakers, and that those who were ‘native’ to that particular environment (and so perhaps more prepared for this approach) seemed to respond by giving as good as they got. They mounted robust and often combative responses, sometimes arguments ensued, but this seemed to be par for the course. This has taught me to try and seek as much info about my audience, environment and their cultural practices/expectations in advance as possible… not a pleasant way to learn the lesson though.

    This leads to my second point, which follows from Athene’s ‘aside’ above. How much of the type of behaviour described by Zinemin can be attributed directly to the attitude of predominantly male interview/grant panel members towards women? I don’t know, I am always cautious of assuming that if I’ve been subject to what seems to be unfair treatment that it is because I am a woman, even if I have strong reason to suspect it is the case. As a scientist I want direct evidence to support my hypothesis, but that can be so hard to find! So as a ‘control’ I tend to ask ‘do I know of any men who feel they have been treated like this in the same situation?’ and usually the answer is no. Is that, however, because they simply don’t talk about similar negative experiences as frequently as I and my female colleagues do, or perhaps even because they do not perceive them as unfair? I wonder, for example, how many other interviewees (male or female) came out from being grilled by that same interview panel as Zinemin feeling the same way she did, or at least having been treated in the same way?

    Unless more of us (male and female) follow Zinemin’s example and are open and reflective about our experiences of these very provate moments as we work our way through our careers, we will never understand how widespread or not these types of behaviour by interview panels/grant committees really are. Hopefully, in the meantime, institutions will at least consider placing HR or other independent assessors in the room from time to time to audit the behaviour of such panels. Knowing they were subject to some form of scrutiny and transparency would hopefully be an inducement to not act like “a bunch of bastards”.

  3. Neurotaylor says:

    I can remember an interview and presentation in which, the evening before, the candidates were taken out to an extremely noisy restaurant by the interviewers, and kept there till late, ostensibly just chatting but in fact they took turns to give us informal interviews. I have hearing problems and wasn’t very well, so found it extremely stressful and exhausting. It also felt as if they were sizing me up to see if I was their kind of person (a kind who liked noisy city-centre restaurants — a key aptitude for science postdocs?). Needless to say, my performance the next day was dreadful. As it turned out, it was a good thing I didn’t get the job, but at the time that pre-interview felt like unnecessary cruelty. It wasn’t gendered cruelty, though, I’ll give it that.

    • zinemin says:

      I would have hated that very much too, I always have problems to hear people over noise.
      While this is not gendered cruelty, I would say that this is cruelty against introverts and sensitive people. But many typical interview practices are…

      • Zinemin, you are kind! And I agree 🙂 What puzzles me is that I seem to recall having read about psychological studies showing that interviews are not an effective way of recruiting people, precisely because they tend to pick the ‘flashy’ confident types who may not turn out to live up to their copious promises. If so, you might expect academics at least to have taken some account of the findings …

  4. I don’t have any experience of interviews for lectureships or research fellows but I’ve been on plenty of ones for Post-doc positions or equivalent. I’d have to say that no one interview was alike. Some have been performed in the student cafe, others in part at a local restaurant over lunch! Then others have been more formal, involving or not involving a presentation and/or a panel interview. In some the discussion has focused on the proposed project I was applying for, in others I’ve spent more time chatting about my own work and one just went through a banal list of HR-approved questions. In most, there was no HR rep (although occasionally a member of the departmental management staff has sat in). Some have lasted whole days, others just 30 minutes. Not all have given me a tour of the department, although most do.

    Saying that, I’ve never been on an interview and received the reception that Zinemin did at hers. Most have been enjoyable to one degree or another and all of those interviewing me more or less friendly and welcoming. The most intimidating interview I had was the most formal, HR-“appropriate” one, with a panel of 6 (inc. the HR rep and a couple of PVCs!), a presentation, followed by Q&A. They were still all very friendly though!

  5. This is a tricky one and can be handled very insensitively by some interview panels. Academics are not good at this and I wonder if many of the problems occur when an interview panel has made up its mind by the time a candidate comes to interview. I have, myself, been on the receiving end of two of these “stinkers”, both for senior appointments:

    In one case there were about 12 on the panel seated around a large oval table. I was put on one of the long sides so that I could see only a minority of the panel at any one time. As the interview wore on it became apparent from the lack of interest of some of the members that a decision had already been made, all very dispiriting.

    In the other case I had been flown in from the far west of Ireland taking a day out of my holiday. The panel of about five were seated well but there was one empty seat. I was told at the beginning of the interview that the empty seat was because one member would be unable to be there for my interview as they had another more important meeting. They had been at the other candidates’ interviews. This was not a good start as it meant they would make a decision on the basis of incomplete opinions but I later discovered that there was a “crown prince” and so the panel was just going through the motions. To add insult to injury they didn’t pay all my expenses!

  6. Zinemin’s experience reminded of taking auditions (I’m a professional cellist). You never know exactly who’s in your audience, and what their personal bias is, but you try to play your best and give a good account of what you are capable of at that point in time. Sometimes the audition committee you are playing for has already heard the person they want to hire, sometimes they choose no one, sometimes they are paying close attention, sometimes they are chatting and drinking coffee throughout. No one promises you that every experience will be a positive one, and you learn how to cope with negative ones. I can remember crying all the way home after an audition, but getting up the next day and practicing again. It takes persistence to succeed at anything. And, as Zinemin noted, a slightly thickened skin doesn’t hurt either.

    As I read Zinemin’s experience, I couldn’t help wondering if she ever played a musical instrument, or if she’d ever gotten up in front of an audience before…I hate to think this interview was her first chance! If she feels lacking in that department, she would benefit from a good class in public speaking, or an acting course, where she would get to practice in front of sympathetic groups and learn strategies and coping skills when there’s nothing at stake.

  7. Yvonne
    I think the piece of work which showed how outcomes of orchestral auditions were affected by playing behind a screen – so that gender was not known – was very interesting, although it’s quite old now. However, not so easy to do when the person needs to speak rather than play.

    I have heard people say that joining Toastmasters is good for getting used to public speaking (Suzanne Doyle Morris advocates this) and in that sense I guess an interview counts as ‘public’. But, if the panel is uninterested/has made its mind up etc it is hard to see that anything can improve the situation. I’d love to know of an interviewee who has thrown caution to the wind and challenged a panel about their behaviour – and what happened as a result!

  8. Therese Lawlor-Wright @Therese_LW says:

    In my view, it is best to challenge a panel member if they are being distracting (e.g. head shaking during the presentation). I have two clear memories of large panel interviews (6-8 interviewers) where the facial expression of one panelist let me know they didn’t believe what I was saying. In both cases, I just asked a question – ‘it seems that you do not believe me?’. In both cases, the panelist was honest enough to admit their doubts and explain the reason why. I was then able to explain my point further. Dealing with the issue did not take much time and it was best to get it into the open rather than continue to be distracted by the ‘negative’ body language. In both cases, the interviews were successful.

    Being sensitive to your audience reactions is a good thing and a more interactive presentation is often more interesting for everyone. Of course, time might be an issue but you can always just acknowledge the point and offer to discuss further after the interview. At least you know where they are coming from and have had a chance to respond.

    I agree with Yvonne, best to think of the interview as a ‘performance’ and try to find a way of improving performance skills. Try not to get too attached to the outcome of the performance. Every interview, is an opportunity to practice and develop these skills.


  9. Therese Lawlor-Wright @Therese_LW says:

    Athene – if moderating. I don’t mean to suggest that all interviews are performances! But if the panel is so large, no opportunity for dialog and performance skills can be useful. Maybe could change the last paragraph to …

    It can be helpful to view an interview or presentation to a large panel as a ‘performance’ and, as Yvonne suggests, find ways to develop performance skills. Try not to get too attached to the outcome, every such situation helps to practice and develop these skills.

    Thanks 🙂 Therese

Comments are closed.