Interviewing Skills: A Panel Discussion

Next Wave's Program Director, Lenka Fedorkova, organized and moderated a panel discussion, "Interviewing Skills for Scientists," at the 2004 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle. The panel, representing a wide variety of career and educational backgrounds, provided the audience with diverse perspectives on interviewing for jobs in science and technology. The discussion touched on many job-hunting topics, from interview preparation--including self-assessment and networking strategies--to strategies for the interview itself.

Self-Assessment and Research

The consensus view among the panelists was that the first step of any job hunt is an honest self-assessment. Vanessa Feliberti, a computer scientist for Microsoft, suggested deciding what kind of position you would like to attain in 5 years in order to narrow your current options. Several panelists supported this strategy. Alan Wahl, senior director of biochemistry for Seattle Genetics, recommended that job seekers consider jobs--including postdocs--that can serve as "stepping stones" toward their ultimate goals. Wahl suggested that those with bachelor's or master's degrees and abundant experience should not be dissuaded from applying for positions seeking Ph.D.s, and that they should not restrict themselves geographically. Wahl cited his moving back and forth between the East and West coasts as a necessity in his career advancement.

The panelists agreed that job satisfaction should be part of any professional strategy. Feliberti: "If you're not happy in your job there's no real way to be successful and make career advancement." Barry Carter, executive vice president and chief scientific officer for Targeted Genetics, advised that those who intend to work in industry should enjoy product development. Alexander F. Sito, president of BioValidation, reinforced this, noting that industry requires different skills than academia. If you love academia, implored Wahl, then "stick it out." It's a misconception, he noted, that careers in the biotech industry are easier.

The panelists agreed that good information helps avoid such misconceptions. Virginia Ward, an independent human resources consultant and contractor, emphasized the importance of researching a company before applying there. Ward also recommended applicants use the Internet, newspapers, and professional journals to get information about a company. Networking, suggested Ward and Lori Jones, Dendreon's senior director of vaccine development, is another essential information resource.

Networking Strategies

Feliberti called networking an "everyday thing," where you meet people to better understand their background and what's important to them. Wahl said, "Most of the folks that I've talked to--most of the folks that I've interviewed and actually hired--have come via other scientists." Jones underscored this, saying she learned about her current job through an "inside tip"; the job was never posted. She recommended using vendors to network because of their knowledge about the corporate culture, contacts, and the financial situation of area science firms. Carter added graduate mentors and associates made through internships to the list of contacts job seekers should cultivate. His company--Targeted Genetics--actively recruits employees via its internships.

Sito suggested using headhunters--third-party personnel recruiters--as another networking strategy. Although Carter and Ward agreed with using headhunters for senior-level positions, they were less enthusiastic about the use of headhunters for junior-level positions.

Résumés and CVs

Most of the panelists said that either the summary-styled résumé or the biography-styled curriculum vitae (CV) are appropriate for industry, depending on the position being sought and the department where you are applying. Ward said that clients (in biotech and pharmaceuticals) seeking candidates in science and research generally prefer CVs, while résumés are favored for all other fields. Wahl prefers to receive CVs from applicants. He suggested tailoring different types of CVs for different types of positions. Jones prefers résumés because they summarize the job's skill sets. Jones discouraged adding unnecessary personal information, such as marital status, children, and birthdays, on CVs. "I can't ask you that, so there's no need to volunteer it up!" she emphasized. Carter suggested explaining any gaps in time on your CV or résumé. Ward suggested that the cover letter is also a good place to clarify such gaps.

The Interview

Covering the gaps in your résumé or CV won't get you the job if you blow the interview. So Next Wave conducted a mock interview, with the panelists commenting. The mock interview was conducted by the University of Washington's Next Wave campus representative, Melanie Roberts, and Ala Moshiri, her colleague in the graduate neuroscience program. The panelists advised applicants to dress comfortably--but professionally--for the interview, even if the company has a casual style of dress. Jones urged candidates to try on the clothes first. Wahl suggested that job applicants "err on the side of being conservative."

All the panelists agreed that the mock candidate made a mistake when, during the mock interview, she expressed disdain for her current position. "It's hard to sell yourself if you don't have a good reason for being there," Jones said. Sito and Wahl recommended that applicants say why they want the position and talk about how they can fill the company's needs, rather than emphasizing their unhappiness with their current job. Job seekers must market themselves, Sito stressed, which means accentuating the positive. Ward underscored this, saying that motivation and enthusiasm can overcome a lack of experience.

The panelists also gave advice on how to overcome inappropriate interview questions. The interviewer, Moshiri, asked if the candidate had children. Carter thought the applicant should have walked away, but in Wahl's opinion the applicant did the right thing by acknowledging the offense without ending the interview. "As a woman, they're going to push this," Jones emphasized. Such questions are inappropriate, the panelists agreed, but applicants should expect interviewers to probe them in order to assess their commitment to the job.

The panelists also advised that standard answers are not always best. The applicant said, in the mock interview, that her biggest weakness is working too hard. Sito challenged this strategy: "In our industry you're not supposed to work that hard; you have to work smart, too." The purpose of such questions, said Feliberti, is not to uncover specific weaknesses but to assess how candidates assess themselves.

Preparation is critical, because excellent credentials are not always enough. That's why first impressions are vital. "In interviews," said Carter, "there is something known as the 10-second test. When you walk into someone's office--or walk into interviews--inside about the first 10 seconds you make some sort of impression one way or the other. It's very hard to overcome that initial impression. It has to do with dress, manner, approach, everything else."

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