Playing to Your Strengths

With many fresh graduates on the market seeking jobs, the Independent recently ran an article on interview tips. They were at the basic level. Fair enough for those people who’ve never had to endure such an experience before: be on time, don’t panic, do your research, be positive not aggressive and answer the questions. One can’t fault these wise suggestions. But although they may be necessary bits of advice they are hardly sufficient. More is needed. Before I move on to some more subtle and academic-specific suggestions, I will add in another basic piece of advice: don’t answer your phone! I once was participating in an interview where the candidate had not only forgotten to switch the phone off (or at least to silent), but then had the temerity to answer the phone and leave the room for the conversation without explanation. The panel looked on in amazement. Needless to say the individual didn’t get the job.

Turning to more specific issues, the first I would highlight is the need to be able to talk about your research at an appropriate level. Showing off, by using lots of technical jargon when talking to an assorted collection of academics from different parts of the discipline, is not helpful. If this is a lectureship position, above all you are trying to persuade the panel that you can pitch your talk to an audience to demonstrate your teaching ability. Losing people in the first few minutes is not helpful. Even if it is simply to a couple of academics and you’re chasing a postdoc position, plunging into minutiae is not the best way to impress – unless you’re 100% sure the interviewers are also completely engrossed by this level of detail. Even then, it may be better to leave it to the questions afterwards.

Equally, droning on in a monotone isn’t going to win plaudits. If let loose in a lecture hall students will hate it – and so will a panel. It is important to demonstrate that you enjoy your subject, not that you’re enduring it. A little bit of enthusiasm (without excess) is likely to keep your audience awake. However stellar your results, if you mumble into your shoes the audience will fail to spot the brilliance. Furthermore it is worth thinking of the world-leading academics who have failed to impress you in their conference talks and work out what they were doing wrong. Slides with so much information crammed in they’re impossible to read? Inaudibility? And in fact just as off-putting is the booming over-excited excessively-gesticulating speaker. (Mercifully, the days of over-excited animation of Powerpoint seem to be past.) It is worth looking in a mirror or speaking to a group of friends to help identify a happy medium.

So much for the opening presentation. What about the ensuing questioning? Here I would agree with the Independent: do your research. Find out about the group/department you are seeking to join. Can you identify why your previous experience is a good match, even if that match sits in complementarity not overlap? Have you worked out some specific individuals with whom you believe you could collaborate? (This doesn’t mean you need to have been in touch with them, although the more senior the position the more that may be desirable.) Have you thought about what other skills you can bring beyond your research? Specifically can you explain your attitude towards teaching – large or small group – and the experience you can bring? Have you done significant outreach work in festivals or schools to show enthusiasm for reaching those who otherwise might not want to be reached? And if you work in a practical subject can you talk about approaches you might wish to introduce into laboratory classes, and non-traditional methods for the classroom?

It is pointless being very prescriptive in what I am putting forward here, since the nature of the job, the discipline and the department will all be relevant in working out what is likely to be on the interview panel’s mind. The point is to stress that questions beyond research will indeed be asked at an interview about a lectureship level position. Even at a fellowship or postdoc level, that someone has done some outreach or taken an opportunity to supervise undergraduate projects is likely to be of interest along with any other science-related activities that might demonstrate an excitement about science extending beyond the straight and narrow.  This could naturally include informal collaborations forged over a conference poster or overseeing and/or redirecting an undergraduate or graduate project. But In this category I would also place writing/blogging, direct interactions with schools and involvement with policy issues. I would add, at these ECR levels, indications of not simply building simply on what you have but exhibiting a wish to extend your skills base in perhaps unexpected directions in your job search may also be seen as a positive. I believe this will particularly be the case by leaders of large research groups who often want to bring different kinds of researchers together into a wide-ranging and innovative collaboration.

So when thinking about what you have to offer, think about it in the round if you can. Display the talents that have enabled you to get the exciting results you have, but put these in a wider context of how you approach your discipline and what you have done beyond the formal programme your existing job specification required, thereby exhibiting your desire both to broaden horizons and to hone your critical and analytical skills. By and large at postdoctoral level I would say the person whose previous skills most accurately match onto the job in hand is rarely the person who gets the job. If a job looks like it is simply more of the same it is not good for the postdoc’s career development and rarely brings new insight into a fresh group (I am of course referring to people who are moving research group rather than consciously continuing in the same direction with the same PI because everyone is on a roll).

Interviews are tricky things. Everything about unconscious bias comes into play if the panel isn’t careful. But, for good or ill, they are the usual way in which decisions across the hierarchy of career progression are taken (with the exception of some fellowships). As a prospective applicant approaches such a trial it is worth them considering how to play to all their strengths, not forgetting their skills beyond the laboratory bench or equivalent.


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