Friday, 12 June 2015

Job interviews: being likeable

Dr Steve Joy

It's been a long time since I sat down to write a blog post, because I took a lengthy sabbatical & absconded to the French Alps, where I ran a small chalet - almost as far away from academia & careers advice as you can get. That's if you don't count all the people who, on finding out what I do for a living, would immediately respond, "Oh, I could really do with some careers advice!"

Yet there was a striking way in which I could see a parallel between the academic job market and my chalet experiences of cooking for the guests, cleaning up after them, dealing with their questions and concerns, handling the occasional complaint, even sorting them out when they were frightfully drunk. If you liked the guests, you were happy to help them. But if you didn't like the guests, you didn't enjoy it. The same is true of the job market: be likeable & people are more likely to want to hire you. Be unlikeable at your peril.


What does likeable mean in this context? You can't measure something so ineffable. Hence 'likeability' must be a childish, capricious & iniquitous basis for recruitment. Well, no, not really.

It goes without saying that you can't just be likeable. PIs don't hire postdocs who are charming but utterly lacking in technical skills, just as departments don't appoint lecturers who are convivial company but unlikely to have anything to submit for the next REF. As always when we're talking about the academic job market, you've got to have the goods - by which, nine times out of ten, we mean a track record of producing top-quality papers & a standout research agenda for the future.

But when it comes to job interviews, the shortlist will only be made up of candidates who have the goods, so you can't rely solely on that as a means of distinguishing yourself from the others. This is where being likeable comes into play. It's essentially another way of saying: be enthusiastic & don't be selfish.

Be enthusiastic

Let's be honest: some researchers do take themselves & their work much too seriously. Similarly, some researchers are so concerned to come up with 'correct' answers that they seemingly retreat into their own thoughts. In an interview, this over-seriousness or over-thoughtfulness can play out very badly as sombre, dull, humourless, defensive, unfriendly - in other words, none of the attributes that we tend to look for in a potential teammate. You can be passionate, to be sure, but don't be puritanical.

In essence, you must give the panel the impression that you do, genuinely, want the job at their institution because - guess what - they work there already. Make the selectors feel that you're ambivalent about the job (e.g. by seeming aloof, cold, unsmiling) and they will also feel that you're ambivalent about them as potential colleagues. Similarly, difficult questions are not an excuse to frown & go sullen. Panels want someone who is open & willing to tackle problems, not disengage from them.

Smile. And believe that it's a fantastic thing to be called to interview, to have the chance to discuss your ideas & interests with like-minded peers, and to show them how you could help them with their work.

Be unselfish

That's the second key point: be enthusiastic about helping them.

Read the group's latest papers. Read them attentively enough that you can ask good, relevant questions. Show interest in your new colleagues & what's important to them. Find out what they are currently working on; then think of questions that you could ask. Invite them to share their enthusiasm for what they do, rather than simply being intent on talking about yours. Check out any recent seminar series, collaborations, conference papers, or public events. Are there plans for more? Do you have ideas that you could contribute? And so on.

A postdoc who recently got a permanent lectureship at a top UK university told me that, in her opinion, the lunch with members of the department was one of the crucial moments in her selection. It was where she was able to use her meticulous research about the department in order to talk to her potential future colleagues all about them. Who could fail to like someone who (a) has the goods & (b) has the humility to focus on others' interests? That's the person you want to have on your team.

Be human

During my sabbatical, it was noticeable that, some weeks, the guests would never once ask a question about my day or how I had ended up working in their chalet; some of them never even learnt my name. That was their prerogative, of course, and it could never have justified not doing my job properly. But it did make it hard to feel any corresponding sense of interest in them or to want to go the extra mile, because everything was reduced to the purely functional.

Human beings seek out interaction with others, and they respond to rapport. Whatever else interviewers may be, they are human beings, so don't leave them with the feeling, as you walk out of the room, that you were being just functional or mechanical. Be human. Be likeable.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I find the interview articles to always lead around the same themes: being yourself and being enthusiastic.