I have been on a few interview panels for various jobs, academic and non-academic, and hiring at different career levels, sometimes looking to hire myself, but more often actually, sitting in on my colleagues’ hiring panels. An experience I was asked to write about and give advice on was to how an interviewee can feel more comfortable with the situation and eventually be more successful. I will focus on interviews for a PhD position, as by far the most interviews I have sat in were for hiring prospective PhD students, and because this is also what I believe the audience of this blog wants to read about. First and foremost, I only speak for myself and naturally other interviewers are likely to have other priorities and differing opinions, but I try to keep it to the general points that should help with interviews regardless. I think that it is important to understand the purpose behind an interview, which in my experience often seems to become forgotten in the process, and which is the only thing that one should think about the interview situation when entering that ominous interview room.
The most important question that holds the key to a successful interview, I think, is to ask yourself why hiring committees insist on interviews at all. The panel members have seen your CV, they have read your reference letters and glanced over your publications, maybe they even heard you give a talk, and sometimes have worked with you before. So why bother interviewing? An interview serves multiple purposes and I will mention some of them ordered by how important I find them when I interview applicants. First and foremost, interviews generally serve the fundamental purpose of getting to know the person on multiple levels. No matter whether we like it or not, we are a highly social species and almost all achievements are the product of people working together, challenging each other, awakening synergies, bringing together complementing skills, laughing (and sometimes crying) together, arguing and eventually agreeing (hopefully), sharing a lot of time and little space with each other. Don’t be mistaken, it really is about making a match, with many dimensions to consider. No matter how far we rationalise the process and make hiring more and more based on objective and measurable metrics, often, given the competition in the field, the differences between the ones being shortlisted from those not being invited is smaller than what we can objectively measure.
There are many suggestions as to what an interviewee should or should not do, how to prepare and what to wear, but at the end of the day, really as a member of an interview panel, I want to get to know the person first and foremost as a prospective scientist. This is what the purpose of the interview is for me, so I want to know whether the person has a pet scientific question or research interest. I want to figure out whether the applicant has the things it takes to become a scientist. These are not things he or she has learned, already knows and has packed in the rucksack of knowledge, but whether they are inquisitive, creative, mindful about their own interests, strengths and weaknesses, and whether that rucksack they are carrying is big enough to hold all the things they will eventually come to learn and pack. Finally, I want to find out whether that question and the specific person are a good match for the lab, so both can grow.
1. The scientific visions, ideas, interests, and achievements of the applicant. I want to get to know the scientist applying to a position, as this is the essence of the job and the basis for a successful PhD. Although I will have read the CV, list of publications, maybe even looked into one or the other published items, have carefully studied the letter of intent and research statement, and maybe saw you give a presentation, I am primarily a scientist interested in talking about science to other clever scientists. Always remember: scientists love nothing more than talking science. What does that mean? It means that when I ask “Why did you apply to this position?” I did not forget that eventually you want to obtain a degree. I am interested in hearing about how your scientific interest, visions and ideas pan out in synergy with what the advertised position and what the lab is doing (more on that below). A PhD is a tedious goal to pursue – a long distance run, something that requires a lot of stamina, willingness to suffer and sacrifice, and where in the end, you will be awarded a Doctor of Philosophy. No-one facing such a long period of mainly creative work under the usual circumstances that PhDs are pursued, will want to work on whatever the supervisor says. So, in my view, a PhD needs more than just biding your time in the lab and fulfilling the minimum requirements to be eligible to defend your dissertation. What everyone applying to a position needs is a flame burning inside big enough to last through the long winter of a PhD, a drive for becoming a scientist no matter what the circumstances, an enthusiasm for solving some possibly quite specific problem. This requires that the problem is identified and that is the crux in most interviews. This is what most of my questions will focus on. So take the opportunity to talk about what your scientific interests revolve around, what makes you get up every day and spend so much of your valuable youth teasing apart, putting together and then publishing to the world something that will eventually make a small, but noticeable change.
2. Creativity, spontaneity and willingness to solve problems, are much more important than the skills the applicants have already acquired. Not knowing something during an interview is not a reason to become nervous or be ashamed of, rather try to think in opportunities. Personally, I admire answers like: “I don’t know, but I can imagine that...”. This is also true for limitations, everyone has them, and being conscious about where your weaknesses are mark the first step to overcoming them. Let and expect yourself to be challenged in your PhD, accept that you might have to step outside of your comfort zone, and be aware of where that is. Much more important than all the things you know already, especially methods I am referring to here, is how high an applicant is willing to reach. Experience tells that skills will become outdated very soon, for a successful scientist creativity and capability to think out of the box, knowing your strengths and weaknesses are vital assets. Acquiring new skills, or even better invent new methods or design a clever experiment, are all downstream of being creative and open minded. This means that in an interview, I don’t expect to get the right or wrong answer to my questions, but rather to have a conversation that was elicited by a question and that is based in science and the wonderful power of minds and grounded in honest answers.
3. Be specific about yourself, your research and the job you applied for. You will not stand out with generic interchangeable answers. This is quite important, I believe. Be aware that specific means relevant from the perspective of the specific job and your own research interests. An interview is about making a match, between a young scientist and a team that is already working together in a specific area of research. Quite a few of the interview questions are therefore aimed at finding out whether there is a match between the two, both professionally and personally. This is in both parties’ interests, so make sure you have thought about how you as a prospective scientist fit into the lab you applied to. Value your visions and interests by making sure that you know how this job and the specific lab can provide the ideal environment for you to achieve the goals you have set for yourself, and communicate this during the interview. Giving generic answers also will invoke the impression that an interviewee is evading, and in my case elicits more questions, more piercing and prodding.
So, I end with wishing all the best for the next interview. Be who you usually are, be passionate about your science, impress with cleverness (not skill set), and prepare yourself with knowing where you want to spend a considerable amount of the most important time of your career and everything will be fine.
Kamran Safi is Computational Ecologist, and a Principal Investigator in the Department of Migration and Immuno-ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology & University of Konstanz