Dear CareerDoctor,I'm applying for research posts in industry and collecting application forms from my careers service. Assessment centres are frequently mentioned.What type of jobs are these used for? Are scientific applicants still expected to go through them? What should I expect and how do I prepare for these?I'm worried because I'm not very pushy--if I'm not taking the lead in activities, will this count against me?L L
A range of employers, not just the big multinationals, use assessment centres, whether they run them themselves or employ agencies to do so. Assessment centres are widely viewed as being the most accurate recruitment method, because they give candidates a chance to demonstrate their skills and qualities rather than just talking about them on a form or in an interview. They are costly to run, so recruiters mostly resort to them in the latter stages of the recruitment cycle. This means that they only ask the best candidates to attend, so an invitation to an assessment centre is a great endorsement of the quality of your CV or application form and of your interview skills.
Scientific applicants will usually be expected to go through the same procedure as others, as technical skills are not the only factor employers take into consideration when deciding whether to make a job offer, even for scientific research posts. Other important qualities likely to be sought after are communication and problem-solving skills and the ability to work with others.
Don't base your preparation on this list, though; the employer will probably have been explicit about their requirements in their brochure or advert, and your application and interview should have focused on these already. (For advice on addressing employers' requirements in applications, CVs, and interviews, see my previous columns.) So make sure you look over your application form and any notes you took after the interview if you have already had one in advance of attending the assessment centre. If you feel any of your answers let you down, work out how you might redeem yourself in those areas.
Having said that, if you have not already had a technical interview, you should expect to have to demonstrate your scientific ability, but don't be intimidated; they aren't looking for a Nobel Prize winner, just the person who has the skills and knowledge that you've described on your CV (so aren't you glad you didn't exaggerate?). Many assessment centres also include a formal presentation; if you are given notice of this, then make sure you prepare according to the brief. Don't be too technical (unless it is a technical presentation to people who will understand your research), stick to time, and practice beforehand. You may find a careers adviser who is willing to listen and give you feedback; if not, find a critical (in a constructive way!) friend.
One of the best ways to prepare for the whole experience is to make good use of the information available at your careers service, which should include a short video (entitled "Assessment Centres" so you can't miss it) and details of workshops for which you can sign up. These will probably be run by staff members who have visited or discussed many different assessment centres with employers, so you should have a chance to work through typical exercises and (most valuable in my opinion) observe other students while getting feedback on your performance.
Try to find out about what will be involved beforehand by calling the employer. Some deliberately don't divulge details of the timetable so all candidates are equal, but most are fairly transparent. You should also check with your careers service if any adviser happens to have visited that very company and could tell you more about their procedures. Careers services also often ask students to review their experiences at assessment centres on feedback forms, which are likely to be found in the employer information folder. These are a great resource even if there isn't any information on the particular company you are applying for, as there is some common practice and reading about students' experiences with other employers should reassure you.
It's important to keep in mind that the name of the game is not to compete fiercely with the others in your group but to provide the assessors with compelling evidence that you fulfil their criteria. Although leadership ability may well be on this list, I'm sure that "being pushy and not allowing anyone else to speak" won't be! As a new employee, you will be expected to fit into an existing team and to work co-operatively. Anecdotally I've heard of a number of occasions when a whole group of people have been put forward for jobs because they have worked together so well.
You will need to get your ideas across, but it will be just as important to involve others and ensure that everyone in your group has contributed. You are likely to come across an applicant who thinks that success is directly proportional to the amount of time spent talking, so you may have to deal with this situation diplomatically. Perhaps have a few stock phrases such as "I think you've made that point really well, but I think X has something to add" or "Your suggestions are good, but I think it is important that we make sure everyone has put their ideas forward before we come to any conclusions." Then you can draw in quieter members or put forward your own thoughts.
If you haven't had much experience working in teams, then you should look for opportunities to gain some in a learning environment before going through a selection process. If you are a Ph.D. student, I'd suggest attending a GRADschool or looking for workshops or courses run by your institution. (I found an example at Edinburgh University aimed at first-year students.) Most undergraduates now have some team-development activities in their degree programmes, but if you would like more experience, again, visit your careers service, as they may run an Insight course or offer equivalent training.
One final observation: A typical assessment will last for 24 to 48 hours and often includes an overnight stay in a hotel. If the prospect of free food and drink after years of living off cold beans and cheap beer makes you rub your hands with glee, then be warned that your behaviour at the social events is also being assessed! Don't stuff bread rolls into your pockets for later and don't overindulge. You wouldn't turn up at an interview under the influence of alcohol, so don't be lulled by the surroundings. Be aware that you will be tired and more susceptible than usual after a long day of interviews, presentations, and exercises, so I'd stick to orange juice!
I often hear recruiters swapping juicy stories about the inappropriate things they have seen candidates do after a few drinks. Some job hopefuls are surprisingly honest ("You know, I only applied to you after XYZ rejected me," or "I'm not sure why I'm applying for this job--it sounds really boring"), amorous (most assessors have witnessed assessment centre passion amongst candidates; they don't miss much!), or become "overemotional." None of these traits are on the assessors' list of desirable qualities! Although these are extreme examples, only say things that you would be happy for a potential employer to know about you and behave like a professional throughout the process.
Also try to remember that employers are out to impress you as well, so don't feel too nervous. Unless the job you are applying for involves emotional cruelty and "being pushy," it is unlikely that an employer will be looking for these qualities. And it's almost certain they won't be trying to put potential employees through an unpleasant experience, particularly whilst they are still in the job market and could be snapped up by a rival!
Finally, the most important thing to remember throughout the recruitment process is to be yourself. If you pretend to be something you're not and get away with it (which is unlikely; assessors are supposed to be experts at observing authentic behaviour), then you may find yourself in a job which doesn't suit you!
Assessment centres are usually great fun and give you a chance to learn more about the job and company, so make sure they impress you as much as you want to impress them!
All the best in your career,