At different times in one’s life one is more likely to be an interviewer or an interviewee, but these things are never immutable. As it happens I have been the subject of several interviews recently, something which has made me think a bit differently about how to tackle these things and reminds me what it feels like to be the one put on the spot.
I was never instructed in how to be an interviewer or, to be more accurate, half way through my career I attended a course which was more to do with the formalities and the law than how to come up with questions which are likely to be informative. From the course I learned that it was unwise to annotate one’s notes with comments like ‘hideous bloke with big nose‘ as an aide memoire in case one had to produce them. The diversity issues were ones on which I hope I was already up to speed; I knew not to ask how a woman was going to sort out childcare or enquire about intentions vis-à-vis pregnancy, even all those years ago. (It isn’t so long ago that I heard a colleague ask the former question and had to leap down his throat.)
So, not having the advantage of instruction I learned the hard way not to ask closed questions, the kind that only require a yes or a no by way of answer. So, asking a potential secretary if (s)he can use Excel is not useful; asking them to give an example of when and why they’ve had to use a spreadsheet and how it helped them rather more so. It was with secretarial interviews I learned just how limited my skills were; somehow the interviews I’d conducted up till that point with students and postdocs hadn’t highlighted my shortcomings so drastically, probably because it came more naturally to ask open-ended questions about research. But, that day when another novice and I tried to choose a secretary and constantly asked these uninformative closed questions stands out in my mind as a bad day (though, despite that, we made an excellent choice).
At the other extreme of questions are those I think of as ‘competency’ questions, beloved of many employers trying to sift out the sheep from the goats in the graduate milk round. Those are the kinds of questions which require the applicant to annunciate, possibly at some length, when they have persuaded a colleague to do something they didn’t want to do; or to give an example of when they have shown an entrepreneurial side. Mercifully, personally, I’ve never had to apply for a job which required me to answer these questions in paragraphs of waffle (or insightful prose, depending on your point of view).
However, recently I’ve been on the receiving end of rather similar questions in a series of different interviews – and I’ve struggled with them! First there were those associated with the First Women Awards, for which I was shortlisted. Both at the actual interview associated with the awards and in an accompanying interview for my local newspaper, I was flummoxed by questions such as ‘what do you take most pride in?’ and ‘what is your next goal of something to be the first to do?‘ It’s not that they are in any sense unfair questions but they aren’t ones to which I have a convenient soundbite answer. I felt tempted to say, I don’t do things I don’t take pride in but I know they want some simplistic answer such as ‘it was when I cured XXX‘ or ‘that Eureka moment when suddenly I understood all the mysteries of the universe‘. And my work doesn’t lend itself to answers like that.
To be the first female professor in the Physical Sciences at Cambridge was indeed pleasing at the time, but should I take pride in it when it was always going to be simply a matter of time for some woman to attain that accolade and it just happened to be me? It’s not something that makes my chest swell with pride every time I think of it, it was just one staging post on a long journey for women in the university. Furthermore, since I hadn’t been aiming at that goal very consciously it isn’t very surprising that I haven’t got another ‘first’ goal in mind; I don’t operate like that. Perhaps, if I’m going to find myself in a similar situation again, next time I’ll try to have my soundbites prepared – when I’ll inevitably find it is a different set of flummoxing questions that are thrown at me.
The other recent interview I participated in is all too public under the gentle interviewing style of Jim Al Khalili for Radio 4′s The Life Scientific. Here the challenges were of a different type. I find Jim (with whom I sit on a couple of committees through the Royal Society, so he is no stranger) a very easy person to talk to. Nevertheless, some of the questions were decidedly leading, including comments implying both that I excelled at music at school and personally transformed the whole field of biological physics. Both these concepts strike me as decidedly stretching the point, so I tried to pull him back a bit from these excesses.
Of course, the story is so much better if I was a musical prodigy as well as a physicist, but the truth is I was a useful jobbing viola player surrounded by those who went on to be professional musicians. I would also say I have done my bit to get biological physics on the map, but it was an idea for which the discipline was ripe and many individuals were getting involved around the country and raising the subject’s profile. So, to go in for the ‘good story’ at the expense of precision bothers me. This is of course a standard complaint about scientists by the media in general. We are too concerned with accuracy to present a simple and exciting straightforward story about our science that is easy to pitch to editors or to present.
As with any activity, no doubt the moral of the story is to be well-prepared, whichever side of the desk one finds oneself. As the interviewer that really should be simple and, having mastered the art of asking open questions I ought to be able to carry out informative interviews. On the receiving end, there is always the danger that the questions asked are somehow at odds with who one is and how one thinks things through, so that reasonable questions can still become minefields despite preparation and even, I suspect, despite the best intentions of the interviewer. Practice, practice, practice is all very well as advice, but may still be insufficient.