Friday, September 7, 2012

How to work on your people skills?

The always funny Berate My Professor wrote up a perceptive post on interview skills:
I saw this firsthand as a graduate student when I was interviewing for jobs with some chemical companies. Even though I was leaning towards a career in teaching, I was intrigued with the idea of making money, so I put out my resume for companies making recruiting trips to our department. Like all my classmates who applied, I landed several interviews with companies that were supposedly interested in my credentials. After the interviews, no one was interested in my credentials. One interviewer even sent me an email a few hours afterwards to tell me I was rejected. I personally had thought the interviews went ok, but obviously I wasn't what they were looking for. Many of my classmates were getting the shaft as well. 
So what exactly were these companies looking for? We didn't need to ask the interviewers. We just needed to see who was getting the job offers. A few people each year always seemed to emerge as "the chosen ones" whom the companies seemed to love and fight over. While these chosen people were no dummies by any measure, they weren't the top chemists in terms of academic achievement. In fact, there seemed to be ZERO correlation whatsoever with chemistry knowledge and job placement. What these people did have more than the rest of us were strong communication skills and personalities that exude confidence. 
I understood that good interview skills were important for landing a job, but I wasn't expecting it be seemingly the ONLY factor. It was like once you passed the threshold of being good enough for a PhD, it made absolutely no difference how smart you were or how much you accomplished. Were the interviewers looking for the most productive employees who could make the companies lots of money or were they looking for a BFF to have a beer with after work?
While I think that it might be oversold just a bit, I think there's a lot of truth to "those who can project the most confidence (however horse-puckey-filled) tend to interview the best." I don't really know what to say about it, because "you should learn to lie better" doesn't sound very good. I've always tried to be "the best version of myself" during interviews and not much more.

(Note to B-rate Prof: You know, it's entirely possible most chemists just aren't very good at interviewing people, and you just got a bad draw. I'm sure that's entered your mind, though.)

Readers, I'm probably full of baloney myself. What are your thoughts?

One more thing: If I had 3 questions I ask myself when I've been on the other side of the table at an interview, it would be these [I've never had sole hiring authority, but I've been able to (like many of you) chip in my opinion]:
  1. Is this person an axe murderer? Are they full of baloney? 
  2. Can this person do the job? Do they seem fairly competent?
  3. Will this person annoy the ever-loving crap out of me? 


  1. Obviously, I'm basing all of my analysis on personal experience, anecdotes and speculation. I can't say far certain what the companies were looking for, but clearly academic ability was not the most important factor. Most of my classmates, especially my fellow rejects, reached similar conclusions. Perhaps we failed the #3 question from your list.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Having been on the interviewer side of the equation, finding someone who would fit in with the rest of the team was as high on the list as knowledge and competence. If you are an excellent researcher but come across in the interview as someone who doesn't interact and play well with others, then it didn't matter if you were a genius. From a manager point of view, team dynamics is crucial and one bad apple really can spoil everything.

    However, overconfidence and arrogance was also a no-no. I recall as recent B.Sc. being shown around the lab and upon coming across one of the team completing an animal experiment I took the opportunity to explain to this candidate about the animal model being used. The candidate nodded thoughtfully and then proceeded to inform me that we were doing this model incorrectly. Up to 2 minutes prior the candidate never knew this model existed.

    The lab tour was immediately over and the candidate was politely escorted to the exit.

  3. I started looking for a job at the end of my third year in grad school, but it was the 70s and times seemed almost as bad then as they are today, especially for a guy from second-rate program. Few chemistry recruiters came through my university, and most of those that did, had no openings. I began to notice something odd about the recruiting process. My lab mate always seemed to get lots of positive follow-up, and the occasional onsite interview. I got zip. I knew I was ten times the chemist he was. For me chemistry was my second love, a passion, but for him it was just something to do. The Profs thought I was the best of the synthesis jocks - him not so much. However it was he the recruiters wanted to date. Then the light went off over my head. He was a man’s man; a hail fellow–well-met kind of guy. He was funny, open, cocky, a bragger, the life of the party - you know the jock the girls all chase. I, on the other hand, was somewhat shy, bookish, and modest about my accomplishments as I had been instructed to be by my parents. I was a technical nerd who had a very subdued social life in college and high school. I was all business during my interviews, foolishly thinking the science was all that counted. Unfortunately for me, it was much more important to have and display the kind of personality traits that made the interviewer comfortable and that would ultimately fit in the company team milieu and culture. In those days being one of the good old boys definitely paid dividends.

    Years later when I sat on the other side of the table, I wanted to take a recruiting approach quite different from that I had experienced. I always looked for people who were driven, much smarter and more creative than I was (not too hard to find), because I wanted people who could take over my job within a few years. I looked for subversive, status quo haters who would challenge management authority because they wanted to change the world. I wanted people who were as interested in biology as chemistry. I sought out chemists who were just a little off the norm. These people would be an interesting management challenge for me, intellectually fun to work with, would force me to be a better scientist and might actually create something truly innovative. I guess I wanted to work with people who were just a reflection of me, so in reality my hiring practices were not all that different than those of my predecessors despite my best efforts to change the world.

  4. A few years back my lab accidentally higher an absolute psycho. I say accidentally because she aced the standard lab tech interview. [At the time we had the philosophy that anyone could be a tech.] On paper she was also the best candidate, with lots of research experience that was relevant to our work. Less than a week into the job we were certain the next shooting at an academic campus would be in our lab with her pulling the trigger. Almost the entirety of her resume was a lie and her references were doing whatever it took to get her out of their lab but were afraid to just fire her.

    Therefore we were far more careful about interviewing the next candidate for the job. I could see by our top candidate's resume and the enclosed transcripts he could do most basic stuff so I asked him questions to test his adaptability and social skills. He's been here a few years now and has worked out wonderfully. Lesson learned: it's better to have someone who will integrate with the team and who can be taught the techniques than it is to have a supposedly plug-and-play employee who brings chaos and negativity to the lab.

    Or particular interest to me, at least, is the book The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton. It might seem strange to reference for an interview, but when I'm being interviewed I'm often asked what my management strategy is or what I look for in an effective manager. The book details toxic personalities and what to do about them in order to create a functional workplace. It's a quick read and I highly recommend it.

  5. It's a very interesting coincidence that all the jock-fratboy types who get fawned over in all these anecdotes also happen to be sub-standard chemists compared to their more meek and humble counterparts. It's also interesting that if you are a very neat person and you choose not to live somewhere because of messy roommates, that is totally reasonable. But matching personality types the same way for jobs is perceived as unfair and biased.

    My company recently interviewed people for a couple of positions. I assumed we would have lots of excellent candidates and some hard decisions to make. I was wrong. At least half of them seemed totally incapable of maintaining any form of conversation; they either talked too much and couldn't read the signals when we told them to wrap it up or they answered yes and no to questions that were open to elaboration. Of the remainder we eliminated a few that were over/underqualified. From there we struck down candidates who clearly believed their background (either a well-known university or company) entitled them to the job. When the dust settled, the final decisions weren't difficult at all.

    If you think this process is biased unfairly towards people who are boisterous and outgoing but have sub-standard skill, you're the person who gets eliminated by our 3rd set of considerations. You probably complain about how women date jerks instead of nice guys like you too. Rail against me and the process all you want, your time would be better spent learning social skills (which I can say that most scientists lack). Here's a question you can ask yourself. Has anyone ever told you that you're surprisingly outgoing/fun for a chemist or that you don't act/seem like a chemist? If not, you could probably stand to work on your social aptitude. Otherwise, go to a top 10 school. You're guaranteed at least one interview from that.

    1. I bet we could fix all those autistic kids by telling them to just work on their social aptitude. If awkward people could somehow turn themselves into jock-fratboys, they would!

  6. Communication skills are very important and it's something grad schools don't really teach. Most of the communication grad students do is with other grad students in their group or perhaps joint group meetings. A significant amount of communication you do in industry is with other functions. It's a different skill. Another skill that's really important is teamwork. Almost all my work is in teams, mostly multi-functional (a lot of times I'm the only chemist). This is also a skill that isn't used much in grad school.

    I'd be really curious to hear from the interviewers perspective what went wrong in that interview. There may have been a red flag. Or perhaps it was obvious that the interviewee was only interested in academia, so they didn't want to waste their time further.

  7. It's a worthwhile skill to practice. Think of it as an acting audition, and you only really need to keep it up for the duration of the interview. I recommend repeated viewings of American Psycho to get in the right frame of mind 8-)

  8. Generally companies only interview competent people. I got my dream career job about a year ago. I have gone over it again and again with my various colleagues about why I got the job and not the other 6 people that got the on site interview, or the other 15 people that got the phone interview. The answer is always "You are the only one that did not screw it up" or "You didn't put your foot in your mouth" or "You didn't come off like an asshole" or "You could actually carry a conversation".
    At the end of the day, yea, I think a lot of the people that do the hiring are thinking "Could I have a beer with this guy?" or "Do I want to work side by side with this guy for the next X number of years?"
    By the time you are considered for an interview you are pretty much neck and neck for the job. Being like-able and putting on "your best self" is pretty much what they're looking least it was in my case.

  9. I landed my current job (1st out of grad school) a little over a year ago. It's located up in the Twin Cities, which is home to a number of chemical employers as well as a large Ph.D-granting university. This means that there is a considerable "steady-state" population of chemists to employ - either unemployed, looking for new employment, or just entering the job market. However, I was told that after tapping the labor pool at the time, the hiring manager for my current position did not find the "whole package" in any of the local applicants. In particular, I was told about one fellow who was granted an on-site interview that demonstrated great competence but completely clashed with even the most easy-going team members. Hence, the company acquired relocation-assistance for the position and looked to cast a wider net (geographically speaking). It's true that it is certainly an employer's market so they can afford to be highly selective, but I've been given the impression that my company has always been leanly-staffed and extremely judicious with hiring.