Explicitly or not, potential employers in most organizations will analyze your personality during job interviews. They may want to know how closely you would fit the company culture, how well you would collaborate with colleagues, or how you would respond to an emergency situation. Trying to figure these things out is hardly a new idea. But, these days, some employers are adding a variety of personality-probing methods ranging from written personality tests and interviews with psychologists to watching you as you carry out a task alongside other candidates. They may even pay attention to how you interact with staff during a lunch break.


CREDIT: Staffan Larsson/Photographer, School of Technology and Health/KTH
Sjoerd Haasl

While such scrutiny is difficult to fully prepare for—and attempting to prepare may even be counterproductive—an awareness of the situations you may encounter can be very helpful. Also helpful is to give some thought to your personality before it is scrutinized by others. If you do these things, you can turn a potentially daunting part of the selection procedure into something more manageable and comfortable.

A range of interview situations

These personality-probing methods are common in industry. It is less common for interviewers in academia to employ them, but it does happen. The Clinical Innovation Fellowship (CIF) program at the Center for Technology in Medicine and Health near Stockholm recruits teams of fellows with backgrounds in medicine, technology, industrial design, and business to work closely together for 8 months, so they employ a selection process in which the assessment of personality is important. "We need team players. We also need people that are open to new situations and can show humbleness while at the same time be able to stand for their ideas," writes Sjoerd Haasl, CIF's program director, in an e-mail to Science Careers. "We do not look for one specific personality, but rather for a combination of personalities that we think can excel at different parts of the journey."


Courtesy of Lisa Sahlin Torp
Lisa Sahlin Torp

The CIF recruitment process includes a video conference interview with individual candidates, followed by a written Belbin Team Roles test, an exercise where a team solves a task under time pressure, and a one-on-one interview with a psychologist. Lisa Sahlin Torp, a current fellow and a medical doctor, writes in an e-mail that "the most challenging aspect of the recruitment process was the number of new and unknown interview situations I had to go through." She found being observed as part of a team carrying out a task "exciting, nerve-wracking, and a bit unnatural."

These are not the only unusual interview settings that scientists may encounter. Some companies, for example, ask candidates to visit so-called assessment centers, where their ability to participate in team exercises, panel interviews, and discussions are assessed over a day or two.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the scrutiny is over when the explicit testing ends, or before it begins. "When you go to the reception, there’s every chance the receptionist might be asked later on what they thought of you, and lunch could well be with other members of staff from the organization," says Elizabeth Mortimer, a careers adviser at The University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

How much to prepare

As Torp indicated, such explicit scrutiny can be unnerving—and in a job interview, you need to keep your nerves. So what can you do?


CREDIT: Ashley Kirk, CKA Group
Victoria Walker

It can be helpful to find out in advance what methods the interviewers will employ, especially if there's reason to expect it to be unusual or to last a long time. Recruitment agencies can provide such information, says Victoria Walker, a senior consultant with scientific recruitment agency CK Science in the United Kingdom, and candidates who have applied directly to a company can contact the human resources department and ask about the interview format. "Companies might be reluctant to give out those details, but it shows good initiative and that you want to prepare yourself as much as possible for that interview."

Beyond inquiring about what to expect, there may not be much you can do. Some information about the testing is likely to be withheld, because putting you in an unexpected situation is an important part of their inquiry into your personality. Once, when Alex Bielak, who is now a self-employed knowledge broker and writer, was leading an ecosystems science group as part of his previous role at Environment Canada, he gave applicants for a chemistry lab manager position a month’s notice to prepare a 45-minute presentation of their strategic plan for the lab. But on the day of the interview, he told them they had just 10 minutes to present it, and that they had to pitch it to someone unexpected: a fictitious policymaker. "The winning candidate was not thrown by the change of plans. They handed us a printed copy of the presentation and summarized it in the allotted time," he says. "By contrast, another candidate took most of their 10 minutes to set up the PowerPoint projector."


CREDIT: Andrew Campbell
Alex Bielak

Likewise, it's not hard to find lists of questions online that you could be asked in written personality tests, and it makes sense to familiarize yourself with them. But Alfreda James, assistant director of the Career Center at Stony Brook University in New York, insists that preparing your answers in advance is pointless. Employers "want to know how you are going to perform when things don't go as expected. So don't think you can outsmart the test," she says. One way you can prepare is by reading up on the company where you're interviewing, in the financial and business press as well as on the company website, because behavioral questions will have aspects of corporate knowledge and culture embedded in them, James suggests.

You could also try to anticipate interview questions that might be uncomfortable. You could be asked, for example, to describe your biggest mistake at work. Mikael Karlsson, who took a break from his Ph.D. studies in microfluidics and diagnostics at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm to do the CIF program, says he was anxious about the program’s hour-long interview with a psychologist. The psychologist's personality and professionalism put him at ease, however, and he found he could answer the questions easily, he writes in an e-mail. "A lot of the discussion touched upon how I felt and behaved in difficult situations, but also which role I have taken in various projects. I was helped by having prepared myself by thinking about difficult situations I had been in recently, such as conflicts, and how I dealt with them."


Courtesy of Leslie Becker-Phelps
Leslie Becker-Phelps

It can also help to take time before the interview to think about your positive attributes, even if they do not seem directly related to the job, says Basking Ridge, New Jersey–based psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps. "If you feel you have value as a whole person, talking about a particular mess-up or weakness doesn’t have to be something that strikes terror in your heart," she says. "Taking full ownership of the strengths you possess" will also help you feel more confident during the interview.

Your best self, at all times

Your goal for the interview should be to convey a picture of your personality that is as truthful and complete as possible. The most important piece of advice whenever you are asked a personality-based question—"What do you think you’re good at?" or "What ability would you need help developing?"—is to "be yourself, but on your best day," Mortimer says.


Courtesy of Elizabeth Mortimer
Elizabeth Mortimer

Sometimes, "people might try to give an answer they think the interviewer is looking for. The fundamental problem with that [approach] is the chances are your personality will be assessed at multiple times and they may pick up on contradictions in the way you are acting and the kind of person you say you are," Mortimer says. So, Walker says, "don’t overthink your answers" in written personality tests. Likewise, "in group exercises … try to relax and be natural and honest," she adds. "There’s no point in trying to make yourself out to be a leader if that’s not where you comfortably sit, and they might not be looking for a leader."

Keeping a good sense of perspective on the day may help you sustain scrutiny. CIF's Torp says that "our recruitment process was extensive, so I tried to think of each single situation as less important than the big picture that I assumed our employer was looking for."

Despite the many challenges personality assessment brings, there are positive sides to being tested so thoroughly. "I really felt that I was evaluated and selected when I got the job, which was a great feeling," Torp says. "And if I had not got the job, I would have been many experiences richer when encountering the next challenge."

The next installment of The Psychology of Interviews series will look into how to handle wacky situations during job interview, and how to regain composure when it all seemingly goes wrong.

*Top Image: Alfreda James CREDIT: Stony Brook University

Sharon Ann Holgate is a freelance science writer and broadcaster in the United Kingdom.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400086