Job Interviews Are Like Scientific Experiments
Most scientists are extremely meticulous when it comes to planning, performing and interpreting experiments. We spend many days reading up on the background literature to find out what aspects of the research is already established, and what research questions would be novel or meaningful. Once the nature and goals of the experiments are established, we generate an experimental plan and ensure that we have all the necessary equipment and supplies. While performing the experiments, we often run into unanticipated problems ("we just ran out of cell culture media", "the cell number is half of what we had anticipated", "the qPCR machine just broke down") and have to quickly improvise to salvage as much of the experiment as possible. Once the experiments have been sufficiently replicated, scientists interpret the data and give rise to conclusions and novel hypotheses. One could presume that scientists would apply a similar degree of meticulous planning and execution in other situations at work that require organization skills, such as .....job interviews. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true. I can speak from my own experience as an interview candidate in a variety of situations, as well as someone who has interviewed many graduate students, post-docs, research technicians and faculty candidates. When I look back at my career, I realize that I was not very well prepared for my job interviews and have had a "roll-of-the-dice attitude', very different from my approach to my scientific experiments.
An interesting recent commentary in the journal Nature Immunology by Haseltine and Gould suggests that many scientists abandon the scientific process that they are so accustomed to when they are interviewing for jobs, and that this can be quite detrimental to a scientist's job prospects. The article provides specific examples of how to approach a job interview in a "scientific" manner by applying principles and practices that we use for our scientific work to the interview process. This experiment-interview analogy can be quite useful as long as it is tailored according to the individual situation of a scientist applying for a job.
1. Background research
Before scientists perform experiments, they routinely use literature search engines such as PubMed or Web of Knowledge to find out what has been previously discovered and published. Job candidates should make use of these search engines to thoroughly research recent scientific publications from the laboratory or department in which they are interviewing. This gives the candidate a good overview of the topics of interest and productivity of their future employer, and it also allows the candidate to impress the interviewers with an in-depth and current knowledge of the area of research the interviewer is engaged in. Haseltine and Gould also make the excellent suggestion that candidates should not just rely on search engines of published scientific findings of a laboratory, but also make use of information available from grant funding agencies. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant search engine RePORTER, for example, is extremely useful for applicants seeking biomedical research positions in the academic world, because it gives detailed information about the grants of the future employer. It is always good to know how well-funded a future employer is, because one's career prospects in biomedical research heavily depend on access to NIH funding. Furthermore, the proposal in the RePORTER database include abstracts and aims of funded grants and will inform the candidate about ongoing and future research efforts, something which is not always easily discerned from published papers in the PubMed database. Lastly, many scientists and departments now have websites or blogs which should be carefully reviewed before the interview because they may also contain valuable information, such as the number of research groups in a department or whether the academic department is ensuring gender equality and adequate representation of minorities, especially for people in leadership positions.
2. Identify goals
Before we conduct experiments, we always clearly define the "read-outs". Will we be measuring cell proliferation? Gene expression? Survival of experimental animals in response to an injury? Delineating the specific goals of an experiment allows us to ensure that the experiment is adequately powered (i.e. the proper sample size), uses the appropriate methods and that our expectations match the experimental design. For example, a "screening experiment" intended to identify a few potential cell survival signaling pathways will be conducted very differently than an experiment that definitively tests the impact a specific signal has on the cell survival.
Prior to a job interview, the candidate has to first perform an introspective analysis and clearly understand one's own goals and expectations for the new job. Am I interested in this job because of the specific research area or because of the track record of the laboratory or department? Am I primarily interested in this job because it will provide me with an opportunity to acquire new scientific skills? Will this job prepare me for a career as an independent scientific investigator? Will the job ideally increase my chances of employment in the private sector such as a biotech company? We often only have vague notions about what we want for our future, and the time prior to a job interview is a good opportunity to narrow down and specify the short-term and long-term goals.
In addition to the introspective analysis that needs to be performed prior to the interview, the candidate needs to use the interview as an opportunity to identify the goals and expectations of the prospective employer and find out whether they match up with one's own expectations identified during the introspective analysis.
3. Experimenting and Improvising
Experiments rarely work the first time, and even if they do, one still needs to repeat them multiple times under varying conditions to ensure their validity. The same is true for job interviews. Practice makes perfect, and it does not hurt to take advantage of multiple interview opportunities. It can also be useful to perform practice interviews with colleagues or friends, so that one gets into the habit of having a coherent answer to questions such as "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" or "What do you see as your emerging scientific focus?".
Improvisation is the key to successful experimentation. The best laid plans of mice and scientists often go awry, but one has to quickly adapt one's experimental plan without compromising the scientific integrity of the data. Whether it involves running from lab to lab to chase down a missing chemical or changing the timeline of the experiment at the last minute, experimental scientists learn to become flexible while remaining rigorous. Similarly, job interviews require the same kind of flexibility. One may assume that everyone will stick to the pre-arranged itinerary regarding the prospective colleagues that a candidate will meet during the interview day, but it is not uncommon to have major last-minute changes to the itinerary. I have even seen cases where a candidate is asked to give an unplanned talk and therefore it is important to be prepared for such surprises.
4. Analyze and Interpret
Experiments always need to be analyzed and interpreted; experimental data without the proper context and interpretation can be quite meaningless. Similarly, analysis and interpretation is important for job interviews. Some of the analysis and interpretation can occur during the interview. Interviewers perusing the CV of an applicant may see the data (i.e. grades, the list of publications, abstracts that one has presented, awards, etc), but it can be very advantageous for an applicant to steer the interviewer towards one's strengths. For example, if the applicant has published in three very different areas and appears "unfocused", the applicant can preempt such a judgment by providing a narrative of why one worked in these seemingly different research areas.
Even after the interview, an applicant needs to sit down and analyze the "data" obtained from the interview experience. How did the interviewers respond to my career goals? Were they impressed or turned off by my research background? Which questions did I master and which ones were challenging? Were the people I met the colleagues that I could get along with? Is this really the best place in terms of helping me meet my scientific and career goals?
At the end of the interview, it is important to arrive at some sort of conclusion and a timeline for when a definitive decision can or will be made. Are there any questions that need to be resolved prior to arriving at a decision? In many cases it is also helpful for job candidates to follow-up on the subsequent day with a brief email, thanking the interviewer(s) for the opportunity to meet them. Including specific, unique points that came up during the interview will help ensure that the applicant makes a lasting impression and stick out from a large group of applicants. A generic "Thank you" is not as powerful as a "Thank you" coupled with, for example, expressing one's excitement about the prospect of working on microbiome regulation of inflammation and proposing a few innovative experiments to address questions raised during the interview. Not only do such emails reinforce one's interest, the responses of the interviewer(s) to an email can also help the applicant gauge the level of enthusiasm of the prospective employers.
These are just suggestions of how to approach a job interview in a logical and organized manner, something which every scientist ought to be accustomed to. The main take-home message is that the effort and time that goes into preparing for an interview is a worthwhile investment because it can have a major impact on the course of one's scientific career.
Haseltine, Derek, & Gould, James (2013). Job-search basics: a scientific approach to interviewing Nature Immunology, 14, 1199-1201 DOI: 10.1038/ni.2748