My weirdest job interview – and assumptions from familiarity

Image: Still from “Silly Job Interview”, Monty Pythons’ Flying Circus, Season 1 Episode 5.

Years ago, I went on a really, really weird job interview.  I’ve told the story many times since, but I’ve realized that the way I tell it has shifted.  There’s a moral there, only part of which is that I was dumb.  (Readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel really like stories about how I was dumb, and fortunately, it’s a deep well.)

As a postdoc, back in the mid-1990s, I applied for a lot of jobs (all of them in the university professoriate, at universities with at least some research emphasis).  Most of them, of course, I didn’t getBut I was surprisingly successful at getting interviews*.  In my 2nd year as a postdoc, I went on a ludicrous number of interviews – I think it was 10.  By the end of the year, I considered myself a veteran.  I knew O’Hare Airport like the back of my hand; I knew just how far to loosen the knot in my tie so I could slip it off over my head without having to retie the darn thing; and I knew how interviews worked.  Or so I thought.

But my 10th and last interview of the year took me aback.  It was at Imperial College (Silwood Park), and it was my first non-North American interview.  I was pretty excited (who wouldn’t be?).  But as I learned more about what they had planned, I got more and more mystified.

My North American interviews were all pretty much the same.  They ran two days, with a full-hour research talk open to faculty, staff, and students in the hiring department; one-on-one interviews with individual faculty members, a Chair, and a Dean; meals with grad students and the search committee; and usually a third day free (at my request) so I could explore the city.  So I figured my Silwood Park interview would be just the same.

It wasn’t.  Instead, the entirety of the formal interview was a half-hour talk, followed by a half-hour question period, with only the tenured faculty.  All the candidates were there the same day, and there was a lunch put on for all the candidates to mix with department members, and, awkwardly, with each other.  The whole thing – even the decision of who to hire, and the notification of all the candidates – was over by the end of the afternoon (fortunately, that last part came at the campus pub).  When I asked if I could stay longer to see the area, and if I could have one-on-one meetings with faculty, the response was puzzled silence and then reluctance.  I was flying in from Vancouver, BC – 7,576 km – and Silwood Park was perfectly happy to get just an hour of my time and to give me just an hour of theirs.  (The lunch and the pub were nice bonuses, but they weren’t a required part of the interview.)  So for years I told this story with a bemused air of superiority.  What a bizarre and dumb system, I’d say – to fly me 7500 km for an hour-long interview.

But I promised you a moral to my story, and here it comes.  I knew how all the interviews I’d been on worked, and I assumed that was how all interviews worked – and I assumed, as a corollary, it was the best way for an interview to work .  With the arrogance that comes with moderate experience, I figured I knew how this was done, and they were doing it “wrong”.

My perspective has changed over the years, as this kind of story has repeated itself.  There is rarely one way of doing anything right; and if someone is doing something in a way that surprises you, it’s worth asking why.  They may be doing it wrong, of course; the way you’re familiar with really may be better.  But it’s also possible – indeed, probable – that there are reasons for the differences.  Because other people are smart too.

This isn’t just true of job interviews, of course**.  It’s something we should keep in mind when reviewing papers: if there’s an obvious alternative way of doing something, and the authors didn’t adopt it, they probably had reasons***.  It’s something we should keep in mind when we explain the superiority of our own choices of graphics packages and statistical software.  It’s something we should keep in mind… well, to save this getting too long let’s just cut straight to “all the time”.

It’s not that every approach to everything is equally good.  Of course not!  There are dumb ways of doing anything (and I know this because I’ve found many of them).  But we need to be aware of our own familiarity biases.  Ask “Why do you do it that way?” as a genuine question.  Too many people ask “Why on earth do you do it that way???” instead.  That’s what I did with my weird job interview, and I was only betraying my own limited perspective.

© Stephen Heard  November 13, 2017


*^The rate at which I converted interviews to job offers was low, suggesting that I had a pretty spiffy CV on paper but didn’t come off that well in person.  Here’s part of the reason; I’d rather not speculate too much about the rest of it.

**^To be honest, I’m not sure whether it is true of job interviews.   I still lean to thinking the North American system is better – but it’s not a slam dunk.  The North American system certainly allows a more thorough and detailed assessment of a candidate and their “fit” with the hiring department.  But it also allows an enormously more subjective assessment of these things, and that opens up the door to all kinds of biases and inequity.  I could go on; but these plusses and minuses are buried in a footnote because they aren’t the point of this post.  Their existence is the point of this post, I mean, not the way their particulars balance out.

***^Please don’t leap to the conclusion that I’m referring specifically to recent reviews of any of my own papers.  I wouldn’t do that.  Would I?

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6 thoughts on “My weirdest job interview – and assumptions from familiarity

  1. sleather2012

    I too had a Silwood Park interview which was and is pretty much the way we do faculty interviews here. I would also have been one of the faculty members (I joined the Faculty at Silwood in 1992) you had lunch with, so maybe you and I are not stranger co-authors after all 🙂

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  2. atmurre

    This is interesting for me right now because I’m applying for a lot of government jobs and have been noting the differences between that hiring process and the academic one. The only government interview I have got (probably 3 years ago now) was an hour long behavioural interview, and I had to pay my own way. It’s definitely a ‘why are you doing things that way?’ situation although I suspect the answer isn’t well thought out (combination of regulations and inertia?).

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      1. atmurre

        The application process alone is so totally different! The next job I’m applying for has a 5 page CV and cover letter maximum but the list of requirements is two pages. And behavioural interviews are just a weird beast – especially when you have to translate your academic experience into business skill. Anyway, my mind is full of this stuff currently. Sorry for the derail!

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  3. cinnabarreflections

    I actually think I can beat that one! In 1993, when I was working as Research Director of Phero Tech Inc. in Delta, BC, I applied for a professorship of Forest Protection at SLU in Uppsala, Sweden. At that time I had applied for a handful of academic positions, but only had one interview (at Lakehead, which is an interesting story as well). The application process was somewhat different to begin with in that rather than sending just a CV, cover letter and perhaps some examples of publication, I submitted 2 lbs of materials, including my publication reprints. When I inquired about potential interview timing, I was informed that there was no interview! The second surprise came when I received a list of all applicants (there were 8 in total and I personally knew five of the other seven). I then received an assessment document from the three external examiners [two of whom I knew] of all 8 applicants!). One of the criteria was whether or not you were considered qualified to hold a professorship (I was OK with two of the three – one of the people I knew did not think I had broad enough experience [and he was probably right]. Based on my knowledge of the applicants, I predicted who would get the position (as well as a second position which I did not apply for). To make a long story short, the two people I had picked did in fact get the respective positions. It occurred to me that in a country like Sweden, there was no real need for an interview because everybody knew everybody else anyway. Heck, if I could pick the winners from BC, then it wouldn’t have been too hard for the locals!

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