An outer view of the interview

Near the end of my Ph.D., I had a job interview in downtown Washington, D.C. In preparation, I read a bunch of those “job interview pitfalls” listicles, the ones with obvious advice such as “Wear shoes!” “Be friendly!” and “Wear pants!”

When the big day arrived, shoes and pants firmly affixed to their respective anatomical designations, I gave the interviewer a friendly smile. I reminded myself to appear humble yet impressive, affable yet serious, not-Ph.D.-having yet soon-Ph.D.-having. She, in turn, asked a question I’d read and anticipated from several listicles:

“Tell me about a time when you worked with a team.”

Somehow, though I knew to expect the question, it hadn’t occurred to me to prepare an answer. Even though I could probably name a hundred times I’d worked on a team, none came to mind. I most likely stammered and began my response with something like, “Well … I’ve never actively worked against a team.” I think I then launched into a story about graduate school, only to eventually learn from the words coming out of my own mouth that this particular story didn’t involve teams.

I didn’t get the job. But I did sneak several free Snapples from their office fridge.

If you’re a science trainee, odds are you’ll find yourself in the same position someday (in an interview chair, though possibly as a bottled beverage thief as well), fidgeting nervously and forgetting the pronunciation of your own name. In that spirit, here’s yet another listicle to address some of the questions scientists are commonly asked in interviews.

Can we get you anything? Water, coffee? Often the first question of an interview, this may seem like an innocuous concession to your comfort—but beware. You’re being evaluated from the moment you open your mouth. Luckily, in this case, the standard answers—“Nothing for me, thanks,” or “Coffee would be great, thanks”—are the right ones. The wrong answer is anything weird that reveals your unfitness to work productively in an environment with adult humans, such as “I’m already 70% water,” or “I’d love some coffee, but it makes me poo.”

Tell us about a time when you solved a problem. What the hell? We all solve problems, all the time. When you couldn’t find your brown shoes this morning so you wore your other brown shoes—that was solving a problem. Interviewers have this fantasy that you’ll wow them with a rousing yarn about how you just couldn’t figure out what shape widget to plug into the machine, but during restless dreams, you suddenly realized—of course!—it had to be a triangle widget. They’re looking for drama here, not realism. So don’t start your answer with, “What the hell? We all solve problems, all the time.” Instead, make sure your story at least contains the elements of said rousing yarn: a problem, a solution, and the clever scientist eager to apply similar skills at a new institution, should one, you know, make such an offer.

Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? This is a backhanded way of assessing your ambitions, which your interviewer hopes are neither too lowly nor too lofty. If you show no aspirations—answering, for example, “I dunno, maybe doing what I’m doing now, but having renewed my passport twice”—they’ll consider you lackluster. But if you try to impress them with your unchecked drive, they’ll know you plan to quit in a year to go to med school. The perfect escape is to wax philosophical on technology and geopolitics, saying, for example, “I’m living in Lunar Robot Colony Five” or “I’ve drowned in the rising oceans.”

What’s your greatest weakness? This question, possibly the most dreaded of all, is part introspection and part gotcha. Yes, you should genuinely acknowledge your areas with the greatest potential for growth, but at the same time, avoid that feeling of, “Finally, I can admit how unqualified I am! Phew!” They can also see through oblique self-compliments, like sighing and saying, “Sometimes I’m too excellent.” Most important, don’t respond, “science.”

Why did you leave your most recent position? Perhaps one of a job search’s greatest ironies is that you hope for an outcome that will include your unemployment elsewhere—while at the same time they regard you suspiciously because of your unemployment elsewhere. Answer this one honestly and positively, and avoid saying, “Oh, they know better than to let me near a lab!” Also, most importantly, are those Snapples, like, for anyone?

So, what kind of things do you do for fun? This is usually the question that lower-level employees toss at you after the higher-ups have left the room. It seems informal, fun, and like a rare opportunity to honestly answer a question that will have no real bearing on their choice to hire you. There is no right answer, but be careful with this one. There are a few wrong answers, such as, “I have so many hobbies that they really infringe on my work!” Also, depending on where you're applying to work, “soccer” is either a great answer or a terrible one.

How many windows are there in Manhattan? Some employers love to toss in an impossible theoretical calculation like this—not because this knowledge is valuable, but because they want to watch you squirm and cry. No, it’s actually because they want to judge your thought process: Can you posit reasonable estimates, manipulate them as necessary, and communicate your logic? Mathematicians call these “Fermi questions,” which are the opposite of softi questions. I’m not sure what the correct answer actually is, but I do know it’s a bad idea to fold your arms, nod, and say, “Five.”

With this listicle as your starting point, think about how you might answer questions like these. That may be the most important piece of advice about a job interview: Actually think about it in advance.

I’ve come to realize that a lot of science trainees imagine interviews as standardized exams—perhaps with their scoring mechanism more fluid than a Scantron bubble form, but regimented and checkboxy nonetheless, with clearly correct and clearly incorrect answers. After all, that’s the sort of evaluation we’re used to.

But the truth is that interviewers are real people, and one never knows what to expect. Sometimes your interviewer will be someone from human resources who doesn’t understand your research. Sometimes it will be your potential new scientific colleague who’s trying to gauge how easygoing you are. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out how you can help them, and sometimes they’re trying to figure out whether you’d be happy working there.

It sounds simple, and in some ways, it is simple: Just answer their questions articulately and try to portray yourself as a skilled, pleasant, interested candidate. That’s all anyone can ask.

And shoes, of course. Wear shoes.

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