You can learn as much from the bad interviews as you can from the good ones, says Simon Peyda.
Guest contributor Simon Peyda.
Science is all about trial-and-error, and job interviews were no different for me. My job hunt began in the spring of 2014. With graduation rapidly approaching, and without any curricular preparation, I had to learn along the way. I would inevitably make mistakes but, as it turns out, failure is a great teacher.
My very first interview was a video call – I was a contender for a position as a PhD student with a research group at the University of Cambridge. Set up in a vacant office space, with a notepad full of questions and the laptop ready to go, I accepted the incoming call. My laptop froze. I did the same. A frantic reboot and profuse apologies later, the conversation got underway. Lesson 1: tech-check before a video interview.
Despite the bad start, I interviewed OK. Then, I was asked about my “dream project”. After a brief bout of awkward silence over the airwaves, I gave my best answer. I described a project that barely overlapped with the position I was interviewing for. While my naïve and brutally honest answer cost me the position, we all learned that I was not the ideal candidate. Lesson 2: apply for roles that you’re honestly interested in.
Later, I had another video interview, for a haematology PhD project in the Netherlands. This time, a tech-check prevented an awkward start, and I was invited to visit the laboratory in person for round two. I was sent a related article to read for an intellectual discussion with the PI in the afternoon. I spent the morning of the interview reading about the study one last time. I had anticipated a general talk about the main findings in relation to the proposed project, so I didn’t focus too much on the details. Turns out, this was a mistake.
The afternoon arrived. After a tour of the lab and staff members, the PI and I huddled around a table in a small room. The intellectual dialogue soon fell apart when I was asked to detail the molecular biology of a particular result. Since my focus and preparations had been on the big picture, I panicked and got disoriented. That afternoon, in a room that was getting smaller with every question, we had to revise basic immunology instead of discussing scientific findings. Although the decision would be made later in the day, the outcome was obvious.
Embarrassed, I returned to the airport for the evening flight home. The following week, an e-mail told me that another applicant had been chosen, and gave some constructive criticism. It’s still the most mortifying day of my life, and I would never let it happen again. Lesson 3: Prepare for everything and lesson 4: Don’t panic.
A year into my job hunt, I found a part-time position as a research assistant at Karolinska Institutet. After an informal meeting with the lab manager and project leader, I was hired. Still looking for long-term employment a month later, I applied for a PhD project with Arthritis Research UK at the University of Glasgow. While awaiting news from Scotland, a full-time vacancy was available at work, and I applied. The two applications were successful. I would be interviewed for both positions within a 24 hour timeframe. Firstly, I would meet the professor of the group about the research assistant opening.
Confident from my experience of the role, I interviewed well. Towards the end, the professor asked about Glasgow. I said it was a while away, and I hadn’t been accepted yet. He offered to hire me, with an extension if I didn’t start the PhD. The deal was done and I travelled to Scotland. The next morning, I arrived in Glasgow and was interviewed in a bright, sunny conference room. The mood was light-hearted and the panel members were welcoming. I had nothing to lose and left Scotland satisfied. They would contact me in the coming weeks.
I was unlucky again, but I wasn’t devastated: the job hunt was over. It’s now early 2016 and the project is almost finished. I’m confident that the trial-and-error process of the past has prepared me well for future job interviews. Lesson 5: Learn from your failures.
Simon Peyda holds an MSc in Biomedicine from Karolinska Institutet. During his studies he experienced five projects in four research labs at three universities in two countries, with one focus: immunology.