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).

Now, some questions!

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.

Is every single job in science really so bad? As a teacher and trainer, of course prospects in education occur to me immediately — you could teach kids in a private school. You could start some kind of science summer camp business. You could offer yourself as a consultant for people applying to PhD programs like the one you’re just finishing. You could become a science writer.

But I suppose these options lack the “high income potential” you’re seeking. Although keeping them in mind as a backup plan can help you quiver less, and negotiate better. Being legitimately able to walk away is an important negotiating skill.

So we’d better nail some interviews….

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?

You can admit that you’re nervous! It’s like if something really embarrassing happens to you — the only way to make it less embarrassing is to say, “Oh, how embarrassing!” Somehow, that magically drafts your audience over to your side: now instead of snickering, they’re saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” (See Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated for more on the motivational power of embarrassment.)

So, don’t make a big deal, but yes, you can say, “Pardon me, interviews make me a bit nervous! Okay, so you asked about my last project….”

It also really is true that people can hear you smile on the phone (um, at least while you’re talking). So, smile, make hand gestures, and otherwise talk in the friendly, mildly excited way you would in a job interview that was going really, really well.

But yes, most things need spin. You cannot just talk. You have limited airtime. The interest of your interviewer is also limited. It’s a bit of a zero-sum game.

Don’t think of spin as though you’re lying; you’re not. But just watch The Daily Show or some other kind of talk show — most guests are there to promote a book or a movie, but they can’t do it all that directly. They have to be funny and friendly and tell little stories about themselves to seem likable — but they also have to direct the conversation back to the book or the movie before the clock runs out. So if David Letterman randomly asks, “Do you like dogs?”, an actor has to think on his feet and say, “I have a lovely Dog, Fiona, and she was actually with me on set while we were filming!” If your interviewer asks, “What are the qualities you bring to working in a group?”, which is a pretty blah question, you need to direct the conversation back to how your science experience gives you an AMAZING advantage in finance.

Make a list of talking points, starting with “your science experience gives you an AMAZING advantage in finance.” Always circle back to them. Political candidates are often told, “Answer the question you wish you had been asked.”

Google lists of common interview questions and jot down notes about your answers. Don’t script them, or you’ll sound unnatural. But make some notes and then … practice.

Surely, you have a friend or family member whose job includes interviewing people. Surely, doing a practice interview with Uncle Bob will be terribly embarrassing. It will. But then the real thing will be pretty easy in comparison.

Does your university offer job placement and counseling services? In a terrible economy, a university’s career services center probably can’t get you a job, but they absolutely can help with interview prep. In fact, they might have kind of a lot of time on their hands to help with that, since they have no actual jobs to place people in.

If phones in general make you antsy, practice making a lot of phone calls. Maybe you should sit at an empty desk with only a copy of your CV and an index card with your talking points. Maybe it would help to stare at a picture of the person you’re talking to, or just a random picture of a person of the same gender so your eye doesn’t wander off while they’re talking. Maybe a picture of someone you’d actually enjoy talking to. I choose Captain Picard!

Finally, keep in mind that every study ever consistently reports that MEN ARE BRAGGING WAY MORE THAN YOU ARE. Many male applicants view the interview process as a game to be won by superior gamesmanship, by which they mean “as much bullshitting as they can get away with.”

It’s an arms race: if most male applicants exaggerate their skills by 100%, you have to either do the same, be twice as good, or adopt some hybrid solution of being somewhat better and exaggerating somewhat as much. But you’ve got to look at what your competition is up to. It’s braggy.

(See also Bullish Life: How to Communicate with Chutzpah.)

3) How can I answer competency questions without having to explain the entire premise of my scientific endeavour?

You write, “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.”

This cannot be true! Do you know some twelve-year-olds? Please go explain to them what you do. Explain it until they get it. If you oversimplify to the point that what you’re saying isn’t quite true anymore, sometimes that’s okay.

Start your explanation with the goal of the scientific project. If the goal is not something a regular person would understand, then ask, “What larger goal is this goal serving?” (WHY would anyone want to sequence these genes? What is the purpose of all this hydrolysis?!) Keep asking that question until you get to something like, “To cure cancer” or “To understand whether the tiny particles that cause gravity also give mass to all the objects around us.”

I paraphrased that last one from this article, What is the Higgs-Boson and Why Should I Care?

Once, I started reading a lot of Hemingway, and noticed my own sentences getting really short and choppy. Reading a lot of pop-science articles written for regular people will get you talking in the right mode. There’s always Bill Nye!

Explaining scientific projects to regular people is great practice for communicating financial advice to people you may be advising, or consulting proposals to potential clients. Anything can be explained to anyone, at least to a level sufficient for appreciation. You don’t have to play an instrument to appreciate music. You should be able to tell me what you do in a way I can at least understand why anyone would ever want to do that.

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?

In the bookstore, I flipped through the book How Not to Look Old, which is for people much older than I am. However, I was interested to read that wearing a whole suit with a matching top and bottom is out of date and makes you look old (or, in your case, silly). There was a pretty great before and after. In the before picture, the fiftyish woman in the suit looks like … Mrs. Edward Winthrope III, donor to the Philharmonic and mean grandmother withholding your inheritance. In the after picture, the same woman is wearing the suit jacket with a pair of black slacks and more modern jewelry, and she looks great.

So, a blazer with crisp slacks and or a non-matching skirt, or a skirt with a blouse and cardigan, are often much more contemporary looks. If I went to an interview in a cardigan or pants or something that seemed a bit informal, I’d make sure everything else was dialed up to super-polished — blown-out hair, impeccable yet conservative shoes, stockings, clear nail polish only, etc. For a run-down about all the ridiculous nods to conformity that some interviewers and HR people care about, see Bullish: Career Killers You May Not Know Are Killing You (which just convinced me and some of the commenters that we never wanted a “real job” again, but to each her own.)

If you really want to nail this, get all dressed up in your job interview clothes on a random day, go to a public place around lunchtime, when businesspeople are out getting takeout, and ask at least ten people, “Excuse me, I have a job interview tomorrow and this is what I’m thinking of wearing. Do you think this is appropriate?” (Obviously, this is super-awkward — it might be less so if you do it while waiting in line for coffee, since the people in line don’t really have anything else to do while they wait.) You might get told to wear less makeup or more, or to take off your big earrings, or to put on some pearls because you look too harsh. There’s some controversy over giant engagement rings. You might get told some super-sexist crap. But you still want to know those things.

A book I read once (also quoted here) said that interviewers responded much better to applicants wearing traditional gray, navy, and black — even if those colors were not flattering on the applicants — than if the applicants wore colors that made them look more attractive. It’s about showing that you have a clue about how things work.

Deborah Tannen famously wrote that “there is no unmarked woman.” Even if you try to dress in a neutral, unbranded way, you will be perceived as sending some kind of message with your appearance. So you might as well control that message.

Good luck! I hope you can transform from a quivering jelly to some more stalwart and winsome form of British dessert.

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com or follow on Twitter @jendziura. See a Bullish archive here.