Bullish: Interview Advice (i.e., The Horrible Awkwardness of Phone Interviews and Skirt Suits)

Bullish: Job Interviews

Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice weekly on TheGloss. Here is an archive, and here is an archive of Bullish columns from our sister site TheGrindstone.

I love questions from people in the UK, Australia, and Canada! They’re my favourite! (See what I did there?) Not just because I enjoy dabbling in the Queen’s English, but also because it’s so much easier to answer people’s career-related questions when I can sleep soundly knowing that nobody’s going to lose their health insurance.

Dear Jen,

I’m struggling trying to make a change of career and simultaneously relocate to another country. I would really appreciate some advice! I’m a PhD researcher in a scientific discipline and my contract ends shortly. After nearly 9 years of science, I never want to darken the doorstep of a lab ever again and I want to have a high earning potential, so I’ve been applying to graduate schemes in finance and to the big accountancy and consulting firms. Only the accountancy firms have progressed my application and everyone else rejected me out of hand. I’m due for three first-round phone interviews over the next few weeks and I think this might be my last chance.

The problem is, I hate phone interviews. Talking to someone in HR for half an hour on the phone for a pre-screening interview reduces me to a quivering jelly. Worse, almost all my examples for competency-based interviews are all about scientific projects and it takes more than half an hour (and pictures) to explain precisely what I do to someone with no prior knowledge. This is not possible in a phone interview.

I’m also very concerned that I have no backup plan except going back to science, where I don’t think anyone is really valued the way they should be – compensation, benefits and the working environment are all of a far lower standard than you would expect for a similarly qualified group of professionals in any other industry. I also still have a thesis to finish so my PhD will not be official for at least another 6 months.

So, I suppose my questions are, in order of importance:
1) Can you think of any other options I have, given that my husband resides in an area with terrible employment prospects, a largely unskilled workforce and very high unemployment? Relocation is not an option for him because he’s still in training.
2) How honest can I be in interviews anyway? Does everything really need spin? Can’t I just talk? And admit that I’m incredibly nervous?
3) How can I answer competency questions without having to explain the entire premise of my scientific endeavour?
4) I’m a short lady (5’2) and when I wear a (skirt) suit I look like I’m playing dress-up. How can I neutralise this effect if I ever make it to a ‘real’ interview?
I really hope you have the time to answer any of my questions, or that you can point me towards some other resources.

Thank you,
A Quivering Jelly

Great questions! Interesting — I have all kinds of students prepping for the GRE to get into science careers, and here you are trying to get out. It also seems strange that your science cred wouldn’t be of interest to finance programs. I am under the impression that many investment houses love to have people with biotech expertise (even if your area is something totally unrelated, a decade doing any type of science still puts you way above most finance people in terms of analyzing companies in this area — or, even if it doesn’t really, an investment firm would still like clients to believe it does).

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    • sdgeh

      I’m on a public speaking team and all the girls wear skirt suits, even the ones who are below five feet, and they look hot! You just have to tailor them. The skirt length should hit at the knee or right above, get the sleeves slightly folded or take the bottom of the jacket up a bit. Usually though if you buy in petite they fit.

      But maybe you don’t like skirt suits…I love them.

    • Jenny

      Another way of getting input on your outfit from strangers is to go to a great retail store and ask the people working there. They critique outfits all day, know how to choose flattering cuts for different body types, and will be in touch with the latest fashion trends. I actually just got back home from shopping for some interview clothes, and when I walked in I told the gals I was looking for clothes to interview in, and they were SO helpful! They had me try on blouses I would never have chosen off the rack, but I loved once on. They talked about wanting to look polished but without trying too hard or looking too conservative, and it was very helpful advice.

    • Maria

      go for very high heels and wide, long dark pants, you’ll look impressive!

    • Sophie

      The other comments seem to all be on fashion advice, but I’d like to come back to some of the interview points you raised. I’ll preface by saying that I work as an engineer in a consultancy firm, and have had some interview training since joning the company (HR always have an employee/technical person present for the in-person interviews). My partner is an ex-scientist who now works in banking/finance. We live in the UK, and have both gone through similar situations.

      In response to 2: I agree with Jen about admiting you are nervous, but would emphasize about her point about admiting it and moving on to what’s important – answering the question. An honest answer to ‘Can’t I just talk?’ is: ‘No; not if just talking means you are going to babble/waffle without answering what was asked’ So it’s fine to be nervous, but bear in mind the interviewer has a limited amout of time to vet you. Prepare. Jot down notes. Look up common questions and prepare answers for all of them. You don’t need a script, but practicing answers (out loud – as Jen said), and having a few bulletpoints in front of you can be a huge help. That’s the great thing about phone interviews – you can have all the cheat notes you want! I would advise keeping them to a minimum but having a few good bullet points under main headings can really help when you’re nervous and might forget stuff. A small “pause for thought” can easily be a “small pause to take a breath and glace at my notes” – the interviewer will never know.

      If you have some some research on interviews you have probably come across the STAR method for answering (Situation – Task – Action – Result). It might sound cheesy but a lot of interviewers actually have a form with those headings on it that they are filling out while interviewing you – make their job easy. Oh, and by the way: the Action and Result stuff is what’s important to getting you the job. The first two headings just give context. Which brings me on to what I want to say for point 3:

      The interviewer, especially if they are a non-scientist, DOES NOT CARE about the entire premise of your scientific endevours. Which can be kind of a tough pill to swallow, especially since you probably do care (I know I did). The whole *point* of competency questions is to learn about your skills, independant of your field/specific experience. So a person can demonstrate a competency equally well by talking about how they handled a difficult situation as a barista (for example) or how they handled lab politics. To the question ‘Tell me about a time when you had to pay a lot of attention to detail under a deadline’ you could answer:

      “As part of my PhD I was looking at how nanomaterial structures could be altered in-situ by adjusting their pH levels whist in a liquid phase. There was a lot of fine adjustment involved because we were using several synthetic polymers coupled with semiconductive materials that all have to be handled in a lab environment to prevent cross contamination and even slight variations in pH could drastically alter the final result. I had a paper due in two weeks and our new shipment of…etc”

      Please forgive the poor science – I’m rushing – but you get the idea. This gives all context and convinces me that there was a lot of detail and a deadline involved, but doesn’t actually answer my question. A better answer would be:

      As part of my PhD I was responsibe for a series of experiments looking at variations in the structure of nanomaterials (Some science is fine! This is your Situation). I had to prepare a conference paper at short notice, which required me to prepare and analyse a large number of samples in two weeks, and present the data in an accurate and accesable way (this is your Task. And all the science you need! Now to talk about what you did and how you handled it) I planned out all the experiments and the materials needed and agreed a programme with my supervisor. As well as analysing the data myself I arranged with a collegue to check and verify my results..etc, etc (Task and Result – Paper was successful/peer approved/admired/required miniamal corrections)

      That’s a very basic example but I hope I get the gist of it across. Some detail is fine, but remember what the interviewer is actually asking for is *transferable skills*. You will not need to know how to interpret the resuts of an electron scanning microscope (for example) in finance but you will need to know how to organise large amounts of data. Or use excel. Or work with your collegues to get out of a tough situation. I completely agree with Jen that you should think about how you would explain your job to a child. Or a very non-technical family member. Making complicated concepts simple is an important skill in any profession. Sometimes you need to sacrifice accuracy for quick and basic understanding (another hard pill to swallow – particularly if you tend towards being near-pedantic, like I used to). Sometimes the details are not important – they are simply a frame for your great decision making/teamwork/communication skills.

      Finally, remember that if your interviewer does want you to go into more depth on some detail they can/will ask!

      • Somnilee

        I have an interview on Wednesday where I’ve got to give a five minute speech, thank you for the STAR advice!

    • EKS

      Practicing explaining your science to a 12 year old is a good idea. My mentor (I am also a PhD student) is brilliant with genetics, and he is able to adjust his teaching level to anyone such that everything seem as clear as though you’ve just learned the ABCs – and this feeling is reflected by everyone who knows him, from the research assistants to other faculty. So, I would suggest practicing your ability to explain your work, your science, until it is very clear and comprehensible to people at all levels. And also practice making it relevant to the field into which you would like to transition. There’s this funny little phrase that floats around “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” ;) Best wishes!! Nine years is a long time.