Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Job Interview

I am not good at job interviews.

I used to be even worse, but I've recently found a way to significantly reduce my anxiety levels. I call it “purging myself of all hope.” Before I discovered this surprisingly useful trick, I was a total train wreck.

Even now, I have some pretty bad interview habits, the worst of which is thinking too much. (Indeed, this may be the central problem of my life.) On an interview, I tend to filter every word I speak and every answer I give through every piece of interview advice I've ever received.

Interviewer:  “I see from your resume that you have subcloning experience.”
Me:               [formulate answer]
Me:               [check answer for humility: you don’t want to sound arrogant]
Me:               [check answer for sufficient firmness: can't sound like a pushover]
Me:               [check answer against research you’ve done on the company]
Me:               [check answer for relevance to job description]
Me:               [check answer for specificity: you can’t give a fuzzy answer]
Me:               [check answer for friendliness: don't sound difficult]
Me:               [above all, make your answer sound completely natural]
Me:              “Yes, I’ve done subcloning.”
Janitor:        “It’s 8pm, ma’am. Everyone else left the building an hour ago.”

If it came up in conversation, I could talk for hours about subcloning (the production of novel genetic sequences by cutting and splicing existing DNA.) I could explain the critical importance of good planning, of having accurate sequence data, the merits of blunt versus sticky end ligations, the advantages of site-directed mutagenesis, the pitfalls of long fragment PCR cloning, when to resort to artificially synthesized sequences, the perils of high-copy plasmids, and on and on and on.

But at an interview? I’m a mess. I start sweating through my clothes. I take so long to answer, they think I’m mentally defective—like I transfected myself with an expertly constructed moron gene, just to prove it works.

And that’s when they ask a question I’ve actually anticipated. Zod help me if they ask one out of left field. An interviewer once asked about the General Motors bailout, which was news at the time. Now, for almost an hour the previous day, I'd been talking to a friend about this very subject—the causes, the economic factors at play, the likelihood of success. We ran the gamut. I could have pulled a thought-out, detailed answer straight from local memory, without even stopping to think about it.

But I did stop to think about it, and that sank me. Instead of just speaking from the gut, I analyzed the question. I tried to ferret out the interviewer's angle, his probable opinions, any potential landmines that could spring from his personal politics. Then, when I realized he was waiting impatiently for me to speak, I became so flustered that I stumbled through a halting, nonsensical comment about SUVs. I don’t remember my exact words (the whole interview is kind of a blur) but I think my answer ran something like, "Ugg, big heavy car make big huge profit margin, ugg, until bad times come an' people no afford gas, ugg, and then what?" At this point, I think I grabbed the interviewer by the lapels, shook hard, and screamed, "THEN WHAT, HUH?!"

I did not get that job.

Not that I necessarily wanted it. Trying to trip someone up with a left-field question isn't far removed from the piano tuners in Seattle gambit. If you're not familiar with this, it's when the interviewer asks you a question of pure minutia, that you have almost zero chance of knowing the answer to. Supposedly, people of low intelligence and poor moral fiber will "give up" and say they don't know, whereas smart, wholesome people will take it in stride, working through the problem logically, step by step, to estimate the answer. The point of the exercise is not to get the right answer, of course. The answer you arrive at isn't even important, as long as it isn't blatantly ridiculous. The point is to show that you know how to approach a problem.

Except, that's total bullshit, isn't it? Going in with nothing and trying to deduce the correct answer from first principles is easily the worst problem-solving strategy ever invented. And since when does the average human being have a problem drawing hasty conclusions from sparse data, anyway? That is, in fact, one of humanity's favorite leisure activities. And what the hell is the point of "knowing how to approach a problem" when the supposed gold standard for problem solving produces an answer that's no more accurate than a wild-ass guess off the top of your head?

So this question is really just filtering out people who can actually admit when they don't have all the fucking answers, and selecting for those who are good at faking their way through life. American Corporate Culture: It's not whether you're right or wrong. It's how convincing you sound while getting there.

And as bad as it is to select for such people in the head office, it's even worse to select for them in the sciences, where making a bad guess early in a research project can lead you so far down the wrong path that you waste months or even years. Everyone who’s worked long in an academic lab has seen it: young researchers who devise an elegant model or fancy theory, and who then cling to their cool idea despite a total lack of evidence, or even outright evidence to the contrary. They develop elaborate theoretical mechanisms to explain away any data that's inconsistent with their theory—mechanisms so complex and unsupported, they’d make William of Occam vomit—until someone finally takes them aside and explains that science is based on testable hypotheses for a damn good reason. They finally learn that, with notable exceptions (coughfuckingstringtheorycough,) science doesn't tolerate massive, upside-down pyramids of complex theory supported only by tiny foundations in fact.

Then the young researcher, enlightened but deject, trundles off while the Charlie Brown music plays, to attempt to build a coherent story around a project that long ago fell into the toilet. And the young researcher ends up writing a graduate thesis that might as well be titled, “The relationship between collagen and acetylcholine in drosophila embryonic tissue—if there is any such relationship at all—bears no resemblance whatsoever to the elegant in vitro model I spent six years of my life creating. But wouldn’t it be cool if it did? Seriously, that would be really cool, wouldn't it?”

If you work in an academic lab and you don’t recognize that person? There's a good chance it's you. (Don’t worry. You're probably still in your twenties. There’s time.)

But we were talking about job interviews, and off-the-wall questions. One thing I’ve learned is that calmly explaining the above to an interviewer who asks an outre question? That will not get you a job. Because the interviewer will use that data to conclude that you’re a huge pain in the ass.

In this particular, limited case, I have to concede the logic.

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