By Katherine Bonnington, PhD
Preparing to answer the barrage of unfamiliar questions presented during a job interview can seem an insurmountable task. To help postdoctoral fellows navigate daunting inquiries—both technical and personal—the NICHD Office of Education invited public speaking coach Scott Morgan to give a job interviewing workshop on December 12, 2019.
Scott Morgan, author of Speaking about Science and director of his own communication consulting group, is an invaluable resource for NIH postdoctoral fellows preparing for the next steps in their careers. With over 20 years of experience in teaching scientists how to effectively communicate their work, prepare for talks, and navigate job interviews, Scott Morgan is the go-to person for reliable advice on how to ace an interview. He delivers engaging, useful, and interactive seminars—I highly recommend attending one of his future workshops.
In the December “Interviewing Skills” workshop, Scott Morgan outlined a method to effectively navigate questions during an interview. Morgan advises that fellows carefully assign each interview question to one of the following ten categories:
- Personal Background
“Tell me about yourself” is a common phrase you might hear. Ask if the interviewer would like to know about your personal or academic background. If you are not born in the United States, Morgan suggests addressing the time period from birth to 18 years of age. Keep in mind that anecdotes and examples hold more weight than listing adjectives about yourself.
- Academic Background
Address the period of time between college and your postdoctoral fellowship. Do not list information that is easily found in your Curriculum Vitae. Instead, share your “ah-ha!” moments. Focus on highlights and keep chronological lists to a minimum.
- Early Scientific Motivation
When answering questions that focus on your early motivation, the principles of the prior two categories apply. A relevant anecdote from a highlight in your early scientific career will hold more weight than a list of events or adjectives about your personality.
- Specific Field Motivation
Interviewers will want to know why you chose your field of study. Morgan suggests highlighting the field shifts in your work history that led you to your current work. You should also know potential funding sources, the school‘s mission statement, and the program’s breadth of publications in preparation for the question “why do you want to come here?”
- 5-Year Plan
For questions related to this category, demonstrate that you have thought through your future aims, grants, and goals. Use present tense and describe events in extreme detail. For industry careers, address how you can contribute to employee retention, profit, and efficiency.
- Weak Point
Identify a weak point and explain what steps you are currently taking to address this weakness. Do not list a weak point that is actually a strong point! Instead, demonstrate that you are introspective and focused on self-improvement.
- Strong Point
If you have trouble identifying a strength, think about what you consider the coolest part of your work and expand upon why you enjoy that. For technical strengths, prove your mastery by demonstrating your experience through detailing tricks, pitfalls, or the pros and cons of potential approaches to problems.
- Why You?
Interviewers will likely ask “why should we choose you for this position?” According to Morgan, do not compare yourself to other job candidates. Do not use adjectives. Instead, explain why you would do the job for no money or recognition; why you want the position; or what you are giving up to pursue this position.
- Current Work
Address how your work focuses on the same question or principles that your potential employer cares about—which can be found in their mission statement. Morgan references similar techniques (including the “Common Ground Funnel”) to those covered in his “Speaking about Science: Giving Scientific Talks” workshop.
- Hypothetical Questions
What happens when an interviewer says, “Suppose that…” followed by a hypothetical situation? If the situation posed in the question has not happened to you, detail the protocol of how you would handle the situation. If the hypothetical situation has happened to you, then this question falls under a different category!
Once you assign the question to a category, Morgan stresses the importance of answering the question without veering into a different category mid-answer. Remember that the candidate must share information with the interviewer, so be sure to give enough depth to each answer. With proper practice and preparation, Morgan’s method of categorizing questions—whether about you or your research—will raise confidence and lower nerves.