The article is by Jef Akst and is from The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences, Volume 23, Issue 9, Page 68, http://www.the-scientist.com/ © 1986-2009 The Scientist. All rights reserved, reprinted with permission.
Talking Yourself Up
How to score points during an interview and what to do after it’s over.
Anthony Brown has always been good at pharmaceutical medicine, but recently he’s become a pro at being interviewed as well. Just 1 month and two interviews after graduating from St. John’s University in Queens, New York with a bachelor’s degree in toxicology and chemistry in May 2005, Brown landed a job in the pharmaceutical industry as a quality assurance professional, doing safety assessment and regulatory work for the company’s pharmaceutical and biotech clients. Eight months into the job, the limited opportunities for advancement prompted Brown to pursue graduate studies in pharmaceutical sciences.
After a couple of semesters, the prohibitive cost of graduate school forced Brown back into the job market. But with the help of Kelly Scientific, an industry staffing company, and his quickly improving interviewing skills, he found work at a large pharmaceutical company in upstate New York. Feeling as though he was finally in a position that fit, Brown was disheartened when in November 2008, a merger forced massive reductions, and his post was cut.
By now, Brown is used to this part of the process. While he used to get nervous about interviewing, which sometimes had the unfortunate result of causing him to forget things he wanted to mention or stumble over tough questions, Brown now enters every interview calm and collected. “I’m a professional interviewer at this point,” he says. “It all comes with experience.” He has started to be more precise in his answers, citing specific scenarios and examples that highlight his abilities. That’s what employers want to hear, he says.
Fortunately, many scientists are not subjected to the grueling interview process to the extent that Brown has been. But, with the recent waves of layoffs, they may now find themselves in a position where their career depends on their ability to win over interviewers. The Scientist talked with career counselors who work with researchers to find out the best ways to prepare for an interview, and how to make the most of the ones that go south.
Before the Interview-7 tips
1. Get on the networking circuit Scientific conferences offer a great opportunity to make new contacts and casually strengthen ones you’ve already made. The senior investigators are “the ones who know about the jobs or know where the funding is,” career management coach Bettina Seidman of SEIDBET Associates in New York says. If you’re too shy to walk up to the large crowds that can aggregate at big meetings, Seidman suggests joining a committee at a professional association. Getting to know people with similar interests and goals can benefit both your job hunt and your chances once you land the interview. Being personally acquainted with your interviewers can give you a boost in confidence. “The bigger your network, the more people you know in your profession, the better you can a raise your profile,” before and during the interview, Seidman says.
2. Cultivate your professional image Personal social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, are “not a forum for professional development,” says Megan Driscoll, President of PharmaLogics Recruiting. “You have no control [over] what other people write about you,” says Driscoll. In order to avoid potentially embarrassing questions in the interview, ensure your private life is not accessible by changing your security settings, or closing down publicly accessible sites.
3. Scan the tweets before you meet “Research the company that you’re interviewing with, and the individual you’re interviewing with,” says Analissa Tamaren, a regional recruiting manager for Kelly Scientific. This means going beyond simply looking at the company’s Web site and understanding its product line, says Driscoll. Twazzup.com will “scour twitter” for any recent articles and breaking news about the company’s state of affairs, Driscoll says. “It’s a quick way to gather some fast viral information before [you] walk in the door.” Showing that you understand the culture and current events tells the interviewers that you are really “dialed into their company,” Driscoll says.
4. Find common interests While researching the company or institution (and your interviewers), look for points of common interest. Professional and social networking sites, like LinkedIn and Facebook, are great places to dig up details such as the professional organizations that the interviewers belong to, Tamaren says. Follow that up with a PubMed search using the last names of your interviewers and the name of the company, and take notes about their research. “You should try to work that into the conversations,” as it builds rapport with the interviewers, says Driscoll.
5. Focus on improvements There’s one question that job applicants dread, but employers love to ask: What are your weaknesses? The “weakness question” is one that can be tricky to answer, Seidman says. Answering too honestly about your shortcomings can be as damaging as answering in a way that implies you have no faults to speak of. The key is to not “focus on the word ‘weakness,’ [but to] focus on the concept of professional development,” says Seidman. “[This] takes some anxiety off the word,” and allows you to talk about the areas where you hope to mature, without concentrating on a particular limitation.
6. Study for the tough questions The best way to attack the questions aimed at discovering your weaknesses or how you dealt with mistakes is to prepare answers ahead of time. Anthony Brown found that the best way to combat the stage fright was to Google typical questions, then generate a list of relevant experiences he was willing to share. Seidman usually coaches her clients through this task. “I talk to [clients] about their accomplishments,” Seidman says. Very often, they come up with stories that demonstrate “a level of leadership” that isn’t bullet-pointed in their resume. They discuss a time “they came up with an idea or recommendation, or changed a component or member of the team” to the benefit of a project, which is just the kind of story interviewers look for, says Seidman.
7. Nail the easy questions Always be prepared to answer specific questions about the jobs and projects you have listed in your resume. Everyone forgets, but stumbling over the details of a project you worked on 5 years ago can make you look like you weren’t invested in the work.
During the Interview-3 tips
1. What not to do “You might have a skill that was important in your last job, but it’s not quite as important in this job.” If that’s the case, don’t bring it up, says Seidman. “I’ve worked with all kinds of smart clients and [they] all make this mistake from time to time,” she says. Resist the desire to rattle off all of your shining qualities, and focus on the experience that this job requires to convince your employers that you’re ready for the job.
2. Market yourself Interviewing, and the rest of the job search process, is all about “marketing your skills and abilities,” Seidman says. “Focus on what you bring to the table.” Don’t forget to reiterate your strengths at the end of the interview, Seidman adds. “Help the interviewers do their job. Find a way to say, ‘My understanding is that you’re looking for somebody who can do A, B, C, and D, and I bring all of these skills to the table.’” It is important to show them “that you have everything that they’re looking for” just before walking out the door. If the interviewer doesn’t ask “Why should we hire you?” provide a summary anyway, she says.
3. Don’t botch the presentation “Scientific presentations can be the kiss of death,” says Driscoll. It is important to “speak about your work coherently, concisely, and clearly.” One common downfall is cramming too many projects into one presentation, which can be confusing and too cursory for your audience. Choose one project, and tell it like a story, Driscoll says. Include the problems you encountered, how you tackled them, and what the end result of it all was. Employers want to see how you handle difficult situations, and “it shows your creativity as a scientist,” she says. Also, never present someone else’s research. It’s “totally irrelevant,” Driscoll says.
Finally, give a presentation you’ve already practiced, if possible, Driscoll says. For anyone with less than 5 years of experience, this will likely be their dissertation work. If you have more than one to choose from, give the company the option. It’s always best to present the project that is most relevant to the company’s research.
After the Interview-3 tips
1. Follow up Sending a thank-you letter may seem outdated, but with the simplicity that email affords the process, it’s really a must, says life sciences recruiter Toby Freedman of Synapsis Search in California. In addition to the respect it implies, it allows you to “include things [you] may have forgotten to mention” in the interview, Brown says. “It’s also a good opportunity to address anything you thought didn’t go right in the interview,” Driscoll adds. In addition to thanking them for their time and reiterating your interest in the position, you should personalize the note, highlighting a particular part of the conversation you had during the interview. “It’s not a good idea to send the same exact email to every person,” Driscoll says.
2. Expand your network “Every interview you go on is a networking opportunity,” says Tamaren. Driscoll recommends sending the thank-you followup in a LinkedIn note inviting the interviewers to be a part of your professional network. While there are many networking sites, Driscoll suggests picking one and sticking with it. “You can hurt yourself by using too many of these sites,” she says. Maintaining contacts after a rejection is another way to increase your professional network and open up more avenues for learning about future interviewers you may encounter. “It’s a great networking tool for your job search and your career in general,” says Driscoll.
3. Make the most of a rejection “I really encourage people to get feedback,” Driscoll says. If you are working with a recruiter, they are usually able to obtain such information for you, she says, but if you are job hunting on your own, contact human relations for specific feedback as to why you didn’t get the job. “They’re very reluctant to be completely honest with you,” Driscoll warns, but encourage honesty by explaining that you are simply looking to improve your interview skills, and they will likely submit to your request. “Generally speaking,” she says, “people want to help you.” This feedback can help you identify a problem area that you need to work on.