Home Career Career Guide: Interview Tips for Women in Science

Career Guide: Interview Tips for Women in Science

written by ParoChak March 4, 2017
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As a woman scientist working in corporate America, with a Bachelors, Masters and a Doctoral degree, I have had my fair share of being on either sides of the isle both as an interviewer and interviewee. I have been through the drill as a clueless graduate student, a nervous first-time job seeker straight out of grad school and as a somewhat confident interviewer in my current role. These transitions and lessons learned along the way have been extremely important in shaping up my confidence and outlook and so today I wanted to share a few tips for the next wave of women looking for jobs in the STEM (science and technology) category to help them put their most confident foot forward. The reason for this post is that there in my academic+corporate career of 15 years, I have often seen women make those same old mistakes and loop into those same kind of pitfalls again and again, which really makes me wonder as to why there is no guidebook to at least prepping for the interview process, the actual act being so nerve wracking enough on its own. So here are some helpful do’s and don’ts for the few of us trying to make our mark in science. This is no way an attempt to proselytize or proclaim that I know it all, rather these are nuggets of wisdom I’ve collected on my personal journey with the hope of you finding some use in them. Many of these lessons learned are specific to women in science, i.e. looking for technical or scientific roles in the industry, but some are pretty general and can be applied to any other scenario, irrespective of the job that you’ve applied for. So, without further ado, let’s get started!

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A) DO YOUR HOMEWORK

I cannot stress on this part enough and although it may seem as obvious as a sitting duck, I have often been amused to see how “unprepared” women can be , i.e. clueless. This ranges from either underselling or overselling oneself since they really don’t know what they are getting into, not having an idea of the skills required and finally not brushing up on things that they have included in their own resume, such as recalling past projects or research from their own publications. Read up on what you’ve done or the current research that you are engaged in, so as to answer all questions promptly and truthfully. It is also a good idea to go over the publications and past work of scientists on the interview panel so as to impress them with your knowledge of the field and to show that you have stayed abreast with the literature, specially their work (a truthful account of literature digging, specially the interviewers’ past work can really help you score brownie points). Finally, be completely thorough on your own research in your past or current role. Be succinct and precise in answering and have a clear idea of how you are going to explain your research. Flubbing and fumbling on what you’ve done or inability to explain your work in a few lines shows your lack of clarity and confidence in your skills/research. That is a big no no!

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B) BE TRUTHFUL

Embellishing your resume with gigantic vats of lies on techniques you know nothing of, will get you caught by a seasoned interviewer and will bring a screeching halt to your career prospects in that company. So never, ever lie on your resume. Being trained once a year on scanning electron microscopy and never using it ever vs being a regular use are two different things. Do not fluff up your resume skill sets that you cannot back up. No one wants a liar on their team.

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C) PREPARE WELL FOR YOU SCIENTIFIC SEMINAR

Most scientific jobs for PhDs require that you present a seminar of some sort (usually 45-50 mins) on your ongoing or past work. This is your first step in making a solid impression on the people in the room, most of whom will interview you later. So the seminar can be a boon or a death knell depending on how you tackle it. Talk to your hiring manager about the seminar length, choose a topic in line with the job requirements or keep it big picture at most and prepare slides that are legible and clear with few sentences and mostly data/figures. Trust me, no one wants to see a psychedelic riot of colors or your mastery over Hollywood style animation. Keep it simple and focus on the science, but do not go on and on tooting your horn or getting into the nitty gritty of the data, specially if you are presenting to a corporate audience who want to see how well you grasp the big picture (extremely detailed scientific talk is for an academic role, the industry wants to see a quick thinking problem solver). Read up on the ABT theory (better yet, read Randy Olson’s fantastic book “Houston we have a narrative” on communication skills) and see how you can make your talk engaging to an audience with a diverse background. Industry vs. academic job seminars will have different requirements and a different scientific level that you need to cater to. Academia is very in-depth, niche and theory focused. Industry, on the other hand, needs big picture science yet with the requirement that you know your stuff in gory details, plus real life examples of problem solving. So depending on the job you’ve applied for, prepare your presentation accordingly. Keep 10-15 mins for questions and answers and if you do not know the answer to something, inform the person politely that you will follow up on it (and please do). NEVER, EVER try to bluff your way through an answer or pretend to know it even if you don’t and make up some BS. We can all smell BS from a mile away.

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D) CARRY EXTRA COPIES

Carrying extra copies of your resume/CV and some exciting/detailed notes on your research or your seminar slides to share or discuss more in-depth on 1:1 interviews. Many interviewers ask technical questions or may have follow up questions from your seminar. Interviewers will appreciate this thoughtfulness and your organization skills.

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E) SOFT SKILLS

Jobs in science are still jobs where you have to interact with people and not work in isolation in some remote lab in the middle of Atacama wearing a bunny suit. So you will be questioned on your technical prowess and soft skills, i.e. non-technical matter. This can range from questions on your working style to your efforts in being a team player (super important for the industry where you have to collaborate with cross functional groups regularly) or challenges that you might have faced in your research or human interactions. So be prepared with answers, coach yourself on these soft-skills questions and be ready to provide specific examples on scenarios. Remember to keep your answers short, direct and crisp without rambling too much, that might open up doors for more penetrating enquiries. Stay calm, focus on what is being asked and respond appropriately.

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F) APPEARANCE

The fashion industry mints trillions of dollars every year thanks to us women, but we stumble horribly when it comes to dressing up for interviews and make those same, stupid mistakes again and again. Depending on the state (east coast  formal vs west coast informal) and the company philosophy, your interview attire can range from super conservative to slightly relaxed (such as wearing a collared blouse vs not), but even then there are things that you must absolutely not do for an interview. No open toed shoes or high-heels, no bright red lipstick or elaborately done nails, no long untied hair or bangs falling on your face and no showing too much skin with sleeveless blouses or spaghetti straps. This is a formal process and you have to dress the part, at least for the job that you want. A pair of well fitted slacks and matching blazer are a good investment and do wear opaque tights if you opt for blazers and skirt (ideally a pencil skirt grazing your knees). No heavy makeup, weird bold colors or bling! Keep it simple and clean.

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G) DINING OUT

Sometimes (at least in many industries), interviews are a day long affair continuing over lunch and concluding with dinner. Have your dining etiquette all polished up and do not order something embarrassing or difficult to eat like slurping on a soup or attacking the noodle with your fork. Remember, you are still being interviewed during dinner and so don’t let down your guard. Attend a proper table manners class if possible, have a few energy bars in your purse to eat before a dinner so that you do not keep stuffing your face with food and please don’t speak while eating even when asked a question during your meal. Sight of partly chewed food is gross!

H) CONFIDENCE

You have come this far and gotten a foot in the door, so don’t let the big day get away from you by being unnecessarily hassled! Quiet confidence and a smile can do wonders for your mood and those around you! So keep those pearlies out and tackle questions confidently. Remember, responses like “I don’t know” and “I will get back to you on that” are perfectly acceptable. No one expects you to know all the secrets of the universe. Its OK to not know, it’s not OK to be a smart ass, answer flippantly, be overconfident or lie.

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I hope you found this post useful and do please share with me your experiences and helpful tips on interviewing for scientific roles! As always, thanks for stopping by!

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