PETER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK, "TO BOLDLY GO: A PRACTICAL CAREER GUIDE FOR SCIENTISTS"

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Most people, young scientists included, believe that job interviews are a one-way process. You, the interviewee, present yourself as well as possible, while the interviewer carefully evaluates you in relation to all the other finalists. That is only half the story.

Although job interviews are under the control of the employer, information and evaluation is a two-way process. The savvy job candidate is not only being interviewed but is interviewing the company. Like the interviewer, you, the interviewee, should be on the watch for telltale signs that the job, and the organization, may not be such a good opportunity after all. There's only one thing worse than losing out on a great job opportunity, and that's accepting a job that turns out to be nightmare!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

How an organization handles interviews speaks volumes about how it values people. Some organizations realize that the best candidates will likely have multiple offers. If they want to hire the best, they have to make a strong sales pitch. The best companies try to make a good impression on all job candidates. They know the value of people, and they tend to have a workplace and a workforce that reflect that.

Many other companies, however, fail to realize the importance of making a good impression, or they may simply blow it in the execution. Some organizations believe that they are so good, or that the job market is so bad, that they don't even have to try to make a good impression. (Academia is notorious for this!)

Most job seekers are so happy to get an interview that they will put up with practically any behavior on the part of an interviewer or an organization. They fail to realize that the values and capabilities of the organization are reflected in the interview process. The interview is a window into the soul of an organization.

Being a Freudian Job Seeker

Like any good psychoanalyst, you should go into a job interview looking for clues to the underlying psyche of the organization. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How well is the interview process organized?
  • How do they behave?
  • What do they tell you about themselves?
  • What do they ask you?

Some companies run a very tight ship. Finalists are notified when they are told they will be notified. Recruiting information is sent in advance of the interview. The day of the interview, the candidate is given an itinerary, and all the people on the list have been fully briefed about them. After the interview, candidates are told when to expect results, and those results arrive on time. Such an organization clearly values people and their time. They are efficient, organized, and (most importantly) allocate the resources to do the job right.

Consider the alternative. The organization takes months to figure out the short list. Candidates are given no background material on the people they will meet, and the people who interview them seem unprepared and distracted. After the interview, the organization delays in making the final decision, leaving the finalists hanging (that is, those who have not already chosen a better opportunity). Such an organization places a lower value on people or may not have the resources available to do a better job. If they're so poor that they can't even run an interview right, I wonder what your prospects would be for getting a new initiative funded?

People's behavior during the interview process also speaks volumes about the values of the organization. Some organizations present a friendly, positive face, and all who interview candidates make a point of mentioning the values of the organization. Other organizations present a tough, confrontational side. The worst organizations are careless and unprofessional. They might leave an interviewee sitting in a room for 45 minutes because someone missed an interview appointment. What do you think that says about how the operation is run?

Finally, an observant interviewee can learn volumes by listening to what interviewers say about the organization. Do all the interviewers convey a consistent message? Are all of them happy with their work? One friend of mine sat through a 45-minute interview in which the interviewer complained incessantly about not being promoted! Another friend heard from three of the five interviewers she spoke with that the organization was so chaotic that they literally did not know what would happen next. Hmm, sounds like a GREAT job to take!

People will also reveal interesting inconsistencies between the external face of the organization and its true internal psyche. For example, the company or organization may claim to value research and development, but its true priorities can become clear in your conversations with people. Typically, at the end of an interview, the interviewer will ask you if you have any questions. Ask them "What is the best thing about working here?" and watch the reaction. Are they surprised by the question? Do they have trouble answering it? If they do answer it, is the answer something that you think is an asset?

Finally, the questions they ask of you reveal a great deal not only about what they think of you but also how they think about employees in general. Some organizations emphasize teamwork and a cooperative environment. Some even administer a self-assessment instrument to determine your general personality type. Other organizations ask only technical questions. In those cases you should worry whether they care about other aspects of the job besides technical skills.

You Gotta Know When to Hold 'em, and Know When to Fold 'em

If the interview process really leaves you feeling weird about the organization, perhaps your subconscious is telling you something. Perhaps the job description is fine, but the environment just doesn't seem right. Listen to your subconscious! No matter how desperate you are, there will be other opportunities. A job, like a marriage, should not be entered into lightly.

In closing, consider the story of my friend Johannes's first job interview:

I was a young engineer, 24 years old, and I got this interview at an exciting start-up company in Silicon Valley. The company was privately held and employed maybe 60 people. I had a great set of interviews, and they seemed to really like me. But all through the process I asked each interviewer if I could meet the owner. None would answer me, and some looked really nervous about the question--I couldn't figure it out. Finally one of the guys I had talked to came in and said that the owner had a free moment and I could meet him. The owner, a guy in his late 50s, looked me up and down and asked how old I was. "24," I replied. "You don't have enough experience," he said with finality and turned back to his desk. I was stunned. The guy who led me in tried to make light of the comment, but after a few weeks I got a rejection letter. I was crushed.

About 2 years later I saw the guy who had interviewed me and reintroduced myself. He remembered me! It turned out that he left the company 6 months after I had interviewed there. "The owner was a complete psycho," he explained. "He did nothing but run around and scream at people all day long. He set extraordinary goals, made promises to customers we didn't have any chance of keeping, and he made our lives hell. One woman had a nervous breakdown. You are the luckiest guy in the world. We were all ready to hire you until you insisted on meeting the owner!"

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.