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Make a powerful interview impact by controlling the intangibles

Reality is sometimes completely at odds with the way that scientists imagine hiring decisions are made. Grad students and postdocs tend to view the employment process through their own lens of experience, where smart people with high scores automatically get in ahead of the pack. I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to company hiring decisions, this is not even close to reality.

Sure, companies want smart people, but sometimes the differences between who gets hired and who does not can be very subtle. If your CV shows that you have a top-tier education and three first-author papers in high-profile journals, will you get shortlisted ahead of the grad from a lower-tier institution without the same track record? Perhaps. But applicants are also judged by factors that are sometimes quite intangible. Candidates’ training and publications may get their CVs noticed, but early in the interview process, the communication skills and demeanor of the individuals being ranked will level the playing field.

What differentiates candidates has to do with certain hard-to-define aspects of language and nonverbal communication.

What differentiates candidates has to do with certain hard-to-define aspects of language and nonverbal communication. The words you use as you present yourself make a difference, as do the way you look and your general presence. In this month’s column, I’ll define some of these more esoteric aspects of the interview to help you succeed in the transition out of academia.

Fine-tuning first impression intangibles

You already know that it’s not always the smartest scientist who gets the position. Likewise, the most talented engineer doesn’t consistently get the job offer. Most of the time, the hired applicant happened to look better than the rest of the candidates when considered against a half-dozen “hidden” job requirements. In contrast with the technical job specs, which you should know from the job description, these hidden items will be difficult to ferret out. But even if you are a strong match for the technical elements of the job, you won't get hired unless you also do well on these intangibles.

In last month’s column, I described one of these: leadership. Hiring managers always consider a candidate’s potential for advancement; my client companies refer to this as promotability. It is joined by other intangibles, including first impression; the personal chemistry that develops with your prospective boss and team; and the level of motivation, enthusiasm, and general competency seen during interview day.

The first impression is critical, as I wrote about back in 2004, because the hiring manager’s decision is made almost subconsciously, influenced by issues that have nothing to do with the job description. It appears to be nearly impossible to shake a bad first impression, because it will resonate in the hiring manager’s subconscious even after a full day of interviewing. But, from the research about this topic, one thing comes through quite loud and clear: Intangibles like eye contact, a good handshake, and the sound of your voice are all ingredients of the impression that can be influenced.

Consistent eye contact reflects self-confidence, friendliness, and a willingness to engage with your interviewer, who may be just as uncomfortable as you are. But not every scientist comes from a culture that promotes eye contact. Some Asian cultures, notably in South Asia, consider eye contact between two parties of different stature to border on rudeness. Job candidates who come from these cultural backgrounds need to push past these feelings and provide the friendly smile and eye contact that interviewers in Western countries expect.

While maintaining this eye contact, a solid handshake then becomes your next agenda item. In that 2004 article, the research I reported on concluded that a handshake is the key element of the first moments of an interview. My personal preference is for a strong but not bone-breaking connection—nothing loosey-goosey involving fingertips. Some cultures will not gravitate to a Western-style introduction as easily as others. Just know that it’s important; nothing is worse than a limp handshake, tangled fingers, or two hands not fully engaged.

Last in the first impressions department is the way that you look and sound. That’s right; not your knowledge of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique, but the actual sound of your voice and the image you project with your appearance. They reflect your confidence and credibility, and the best advice is to be yourself—the very best version of yourself that you can muster. It’s important to be professionally attired and to be aware of the impression you leave behind, but don’t try to become someone else in the process. People hire others whom they like, and it’s only when you succeed in tamping down your internal stress level, and are comfortable being yourself, that your natural friendliness can be on display.

Other intangibles along the way

The first impression you leave behind is in your control, but what about your personal chemistry with your prospective boss and future colleagues in the company? There’s not much you can do to optimize your situation—it will either feel right or it won’t, and this feeling cuts both ways. I’m sure you don’t want to try to squeeze yourself into a job where you feel a terrible chemistry with those around you. But let’s say that it’s a job you’re really excited about, and you think the chemistry might be right. If that’s the case, the other intangibles that will impact your success revolve around your motivation, enthusiasm, and general competency that interviewers see in you during interview day.

Motivation and enthusiasm may sound like they are one and the same, but they aren’t. In a recent column, I described one element of motivation that my client companies have never failed to rate highly: passion. Interviewers want to understand the reasons behind your drive and interest in the work that you do, and there’s no better way than to ask about your motivation for getting into science in the first place.

Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is all about your interest in this particular opportunity. It’s not a phony, “rah-rah” kind of enthusiasm; it’s something with much more depth. Your enthusiasm for a company drives you to dig into the company news, research their program and product development, and learn as much as possible before the interview. It shows in your feelings about the possibility of working there, your preparation, and the list of intelligent questions you bring forward on interview day.

General competence is somewhat tricky to define. It doesn’t refer to your ability to manage the job you’re interviewing for; as I mentioned at the beginning of this column, everyone wants to hire smart people. But the key to your value in a company environment for the long haul is to be competent—to contribute in a number of problem-solving capacities that will benefit the entire team over your time with the company. One vice president of research for a major biotechnology company told me a few years ago, “I hire people who are critical thinkers, who can separate what is important from what is not important. We need broad competence as opposed to exclusively a high-level of knowledge in a particular scientific niche. I want people on my team who will be able to contribute for the long haul.” Your responses to interview questions can leave a good (or bad) impression of competence, but it will ultimately be determined by the company after analyzing your experiences and success stories.

As you can see, the interview is a dynamic environment, with both visible and invisible agendas on the table. Your actions, language, and demeanor throughout the process will have an impact on not only the fit with the job requirements, but also with the broader and more intangible elements of the company’s needs. Clearly, you can’t control all of these elements, but by paying attention and at least understanding their role in the process, you will come out ahead.

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