Confessions of a Postdoc (25): The Interview

(December 3rd, 2015) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

I used to think my career would sort itself out once I had finished my PhD. Little did I know that completion of that milestone is the preface to the real struggle - when you are out in the world and left to fend for yourself, as a ‘postdoc’. That word I have begun to fear; to associate with uncertainty, monetary troubles, job insecurity and a lot of worry.

Needless to say, getting out of that dreaded postdoc phase and stepping into something different (better), even if only marginally, is a monumental relief. It’s rejuvenating and I’m happy, I recently crossed that juncture. In this piece, I want to share with the readers, my experience of preparing for and going through with the interview that got me my first post-postdoc job. This position will give me the opportunity to build and manage a stem cell core facility, focussing on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs, my field of expertise), while collaborating with various investigators in developmental neuroscience to help design, plan and execute their iPSC/stem cell-related projects and experiments.

After a supremely satisfactory phone interview, thanks to the very specific job requirements that seemed tailored to my CV, and the practice I’ve had over the last year-and-a-half of job-hunting, I was sure to be invited for the on-site interview. From numerous career symposia, and conversations with friends and acquaintances who have a history of successful job interviews, I gathered pointers. Although the position is in a research hospital and not a biotech/pharma industry, I presumed the same rules apply, and the need to impress my future employers and to market myself as their best choice, was imperative. The first challenge for me was preparing the talk, a task that I normally perform quite well.

However, consolidating my postdoctoral work, which by some standards might be deemed a failure, into a presentation that didn’t make it seem so, was not easy. Although I gained crucial skills from this postdoc - skills that got me the new job - I did not meet the goal we set out to achieve, nor did I make novel findings. Presenting my work in a manner that highlighted my knowledge of the field, both technical and literary, while downplaying the lack of success, required work. I am not a procrastinator but I had to work on it until the day before the interview.

Next, was to go over literature. To prepare myself to address questions, discuss challenges in the field (challenges I myself faced) and offer potential solutions in light of recent progress. I knew I was going to interview with almost the entire, and slightly diverse, faculty of the department, through a series of back-to-back 30 minute long meetings. I researched my employer and all my interviewers. The goal was to be able to discuss my field of expertise and my potential role in the department in context of their individual research requirements. Having accomplished this, the final step was to plan the logistics. Flying out, getting to the hotel, going through the interview process, what to wear, what to carry along and of course getting back home, although my interviewers did make all the arrangements. This might not seem like a big deal but for those of us that are especially prone to anxiety, planning and preparation, even for the most trivial of matters, is everything.

My friends asked me if I was nervous. Honestly, I was only nervous up until the moment I stepped into the airport. Once there, I admitted to myself, I have done absolutely everything I could possibly do to prepare for the interview. I wasted no time, I didn’t get lazy, I took every piece of advice I got from others who’ve done this in the past. I was prepared, I was confident. From a lifetime of experience, I can tell you nothing will curb anxiety like those two. They can do wonders. Sitting at the airport I said to myself, “Let’s do this! Game on!”

Someone once said, be aware that your interview begins the moment you meet the very first person working at the establishment, even if that person is just there to pick you up from the hotel. My interview began on a bright Thursday morning and ended late afternoon the following day. It was a non-stop ride that I thoroughly enjoyed. I am not an extrovert by any means but for a day-and-a-half, I was actually ‘excited’ to meet all my interviewers. I did not feel intimidated and was more than happy to converse with them for as long as I could. I have always found immense pleasure in talking about my work with fellow researchers and I got to do that in abundance. I have noticed that even on the most excruciating of days, when nothing is working and frustration is reaching peak levels, explaining my research to an outsider, never ceases to uplift my mood. I guess it’s a reassurance that, despite all the setbacks, what I do is still pretty darn awesome. That preparation I was referring to earlier, paid off in full measure. I was taken out for meals where I got to socialise with my peers, got to ask questions, have my concerns addressed, and was sent off happy and content.

Having been on the job market of non-academic, post-PhD careers for about a year-and-a-half, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about the process. Here are my two cents on how one could excel in the interview. For those of us contemplating non-academic careers after PhD or postdoc, there are several different paths. From industrial R&D to project management, product management, technical support, teaching, regulatory affairs, technical and medical writing, tech transfer, medical science liaison, patent law… the list is endless. Deciding which avenue(s) to pursue, needless to say, is crucial. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, thoroughly and meticulously, before making that decision. If you don’t possess the aptitude or the talent for the job, chances are it will come across during an interview. Second, do everything you possibly can to build self-confidence. In my experience, confidence begets courage. Not only will it generate a positive impression of your personality, it will help quell your own internal anxiety in dealing with the interview process. Third, and I cannot emphasise this enough, prepare. Aspiration is great but will amount to nothing, if not complemented by hard work. So work diligently to prepare yourself. Not just your talk and your field of expertise but all possible questions you could be asked, including those unrelated to science, as well as questions you should ask them to demonstrate interest. For example, one common interview question (which I got asked repeatedly) is, “Why this position? Why leave your current postdoc for this position?” Be prepared to answer that in a way that does not sound unoriginal and disingenuous. And lastly, show enthusiasm. Don’t be shy to talk. If you have something to say, say it. Your task is to market yourself; make sure you let them know why (you think) you are the right person for the job. Good luck everyone!

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 01.13.2016