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Tooling Up: Interview Intangibles

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

Job interviewing requires a set of skills that we use for a relatively short time, and they grow rusty when we don't use them. When it becomes necessary to gear up for a new job search, we bring them out and polish them up.

The problem with that approach is that while it's easy enough to communicate the obvious points about yourself during the interview—why you're a good fit for the company, why your experience and education prepare you well for the kind of work they do—there are more subtle things you need to convey during an interview. Call them the intangibles. And when it comes to conveying intangibles, skills tend to become rusty with disuse.

Do they walk away picturing themselves working alongside you—and liking it?

When you walk into the interview room, you'd better be attuned to those intangibles. Otherwise, you may find yourself failing to get a job you're well qualified for. And in a brutal job market like this one, who can afford to miss out on jobs they're qualified for?

Recruiters—including me—are always amazed at the number of professionals who seem ideal when we prescreen them but walk away without a job offer. Why does that happen? Usually, it's those intangibles.

What intangibles?

Some scientists think that the interview is all about education, experience, and the technical fit between you and the job requirements. Those things are very important, of course. No manager wants to teach technical skills; they are too busy, and they have too many other excellent candidates to choose from. So it is important to make a strong case for those more obvious, tangible qualifications.

However, even if you do well on the tangible factors, you still won't get hired unless you also do well on the intangibles. Specifically, you need to make a strong first impression, develop good personal chemistry with your interviewer, and demonstrate motivation, enthusiasm, general competence, and advancement potential.

First impressions

Like the old saying goes, first impressions do matter. Acting on first impressions may be hard to defend, but hiring managers do it all the time. They go with their gut.

You'll make your first impression in the first few minutes (sometimes seconds) of your interview, and once made, that impression is very hard to change. (Read about the science of first impressions in this earlier Tooling Up column.)

Four nonverbal factors influence first impressions: vocal quality, body posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. Much has been written about this, so I'll keep it short: Make sure your attitude and appearance project self-confidence, professionalism, and eager interest. Really practice that handshake—a fifth nonverbal factor that makes a big difference. If you are a frequent hand-shaker, and strong, don’t make it a bone-crusher. The worst thing is a limp, fingertips-only handshake.

Personal chemistry

In this context, personal chemistry refers to the feeling your prospective colleagues and bosses have about what it will be like to work with you. You want people to see you as an easy person to work with and somewhat like them, or at least compatible. Do they walk away picturing themselves working alongside you—and liking it?

Personal chemistry matters for your job performance; if you enjoy good personal chemistry with the people around you, the whole team will accomplish more. Company managers also view people who get along well with the team—who facilitate good personal chemistry—as having a greater potential for advancement.

Advancement potential

Whether you eventually choose the scientific or the management track, company managers tend to evaluate—at great length—your potential for upward movement in their organization. You're being hired not only for the job they need you to do on day one, but also for the job you would be doing in your next move up the ladder. You need to be a good match for both.

Judging a person's leadership ability is another area where interviewers often make gut-level decisions: Do you seem like someone who can handle increasing responsibility for people and important projects? It is up to you to point out relevant experiences that indicate your abilities. Provide examples that demonstrate your receptiveness to changing environments and increasing responsibility. A big part of the judgment will come down to the interviewer's intuition. You'll do well on this criterion if you convey a sense of confidence, self-awareness, and attentiveness to others.

Motivation and enthusiasm

No one likes phony enthusiasm, so please don’t think I am trying to “pump you up” for the interview. On the other hand, no company hires people who come across as critical or negative. Even worse is the person who answers a question and then just sits there and awaits the next one, without enthusiasm.

Many companies in our business sector are run by first-rank entrepreneurs. These people tend to be passionate about what they do. They have given up security and an easier pace for the excitement of bringing their ideas to fruition. If you fail to project sincere enthusiasm for the work—your work and theirs—you're not likely to receive a job offer.

In the academic world, people tend to be emotionally reserved. Even breakthroughs are communicated dispassionately, and few people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Scientists coming out of academia may struggle to adjust.

And yet, if you dig down into the passion that got you into science in the first place, you can find enthusiasm for what your prospective employer is doing. Express interest. Smile and tell them you’d like to work for them, assuming that's the case. If it's not the case, try a different company.

This isn't about salesmanship; it's about emotional engagement with your work. Just make sure your prospective employer senses your enthusiasm.

General competence and adaptability

On first glance, competence may seem amenable to objective measurement. But broad competence can't easily be judged just by looking at your publications and other accomplishments. You may have done well in your previous role, but does that mean you'll do well in a new one? Can you demonstrate a pattern of mastery in a range of projects and environments? Do you have the ability to help the company meet many different types of professional challenges?

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.”

In today’s market, your hiring manager will be looking for a near-perfect match in those niche skills as well, but it's just as important to be broadly competent. You just don’t know where you’ll be in the organization in a year or two. The speed of change is increasing all the time.

Charge ahead

The weight each company gives classic versus intangible interview factors varies widely, but intangibles always matter. A candidate who scores lower in the classic decision factors could still come out ahead by scoring well on the hidden factors. This is what is known as "interviewing well." If you are headed to an interview for a position where your fit isn't perfect, don't let it keep you from charging ahead. Score well on the intangibles and you just may walk away with the job offer.

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