Friday, February 7, 2014

Interested in Interviews?

Submitted By: Issel Anne Lim, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dept. of Radiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


After finally getting that oh-so-elusive academic degree, the next step is usually figuring out how to get a job. Whether you're trying to get an interview or get the offer, here are a few things to think about: showcasing your skills, customizing your application, and brainstorming your interview answers.

Your Skills

Most job applications require your résumé. The first step is actually do things that you can put on your résumé . Join some of the local nonprofit organizations or extracurricular governing bodies, like the Association of Women in Science or Johns Hopkins PostDoctoral Association, which let you organize events, create resources, and/or meet lots of interesting people. Leadership positions not only teach you how to manage people/resources, but also help make an impact on the community.

If you're interested in a particular field, make sure that you've got some background in that field. This sounds straightforward, but requires a bit of work. For example, if you are interested in management consulting, then join the Johns Hopkins Business Consulting Club and practice case reviews. If you want to do policy work, then implement changes through student government, complement existing organizations by organizing events, or supplement your knowledge on what the federal government does. If you're aiming for industry, then try an internship, network, and go to career fairs. If you'd like a teaching position, then develop your own curriculum for a class, apply for teaching fellowships or adjunct positions, tutor students, and/or volunteer in teaching programs. If you want to be in academia, publish papers, organize seminars, and network at conferences.

Be confident. Meet people. Read, write, and share your science. Communication skills are becoming more important as we transition to the digital age. Make a website or blog that showcases your skills, or use social media for professional networking.

These suggestions are by no means all-inclusive. The best place to start is talking to people in your field of choice, and seeing how they got to where they are. Maybe they'll even have a few leads on job openings...

Your Application

Now that you've got a good skill set, showcase yourself on your résumé, curriculum vitae, and/or cover letter.

A résumé is a summary of the skills that you're bringing to an organization, so don't forget to customize each résumé for each job that you apply to. Oftentimes, a non-technical person will be searching through applications to find candidates that match a particular position. Therefore, sprinkle your résumé with words or phrases from the job description. A "Summary of Qualifications" can also describe how your skills will be useful to that particular organization. Check the job's requirements; for example, some government positions want to know the hours you worked per week on a particular project. Limit your résumé to two pages maximum, or one page for some consulting jobs.

For many academic, teaching, or some consulting positions, a curriculum vitae (CV) is acceptable. Unlike a résumé , a CV is the history of your professional life. It can be much longer, since it’s a list of what you have accomplished in relevant fields. However, don't use that as an excuse to list every little detail about every little thing you did. Focus on what the employer is looking for. If you're applying for a teaching position, emphasize your teaching history. If you're applying for a consulting position, emphasize your business history. If you're applying for a policy position, emphasize how you've made an impact on the community. If you're applying for a science writing position, emphasize your communication skills by listing your blog posts or articles.

For each bullet point, think about "STAR": Situation, Task, Action, Result. What was the situation or problem at hand, and what task did you need to do to solve the problem? What actions did you take? What were the results of this endeavor? Use action verbs, so that you sound progressive. In order to clearly describe your impact, quantify them where possible -- for example, "Organized publicity campaign that grew membership from <10 people to >300 on our mailing list." Focus on what you did, not what the team did.

A wonderful resource for Hopkins folks is the JHMI Professional Development Office. Gaelle and Donna are especially skilled at honing in on what employers are looking for, which aspects of your résumé or CV should be emphasized, and how to whittle away the fluff. For example, you may be quite proud of your long list of conference abstracts; however, if you're applying for a non-academic position, you can simply use one bullet point under your PhD section that says, "Co-authored 2 journal articles, 3 oral presentations, 5 posters for international journals/conferences."

Some jobs also request essay questions that require you to answer a particular prompt. For example, "Describe a leadership position." This is an opportunity for you to not only show how awesome you are, but to also describe the skills that you can offer to this particular job. Make sure that you answer these in a logical fashion; use the "STAR" process to organize your thoughts, explaining what the problem was, how you solved it, and what the results were. If English isn't your first language, then have someone read over your essays to check your grammar and general tone.

The final step is composing a cover letter -- even if the job doesn't specifically call for one. If you're sending along your résumé, then you'll have to send someone an email. Whether it's a formal letter or a more casual message, tailor it to the job description and the organization. Usually, these start with a greeting (from "Hello!" to "To Whom It May Concern:"), an introduction ("I'm a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University..."), why you're writing to them ("Through __ website, I saw that you have a position open ..."), a quick summary of your particularly good qualifications and how they'd fit in with the job ("I have been writing for the AWIS blog for __ years, and would love to continue developing these skills in scientific communication..."), a description of your attachments ("Attached are my résumé and cover letter"), how to contact you if they need more details ("If you have any questions, my phone number is..."), and a closing. Your email signature should have your current title, where you work, and your contact information.

Your Interview

Research the job and organization so that you're familiar with the lingo (e.g., if you're interviewing for the FDA, find out what a "PMA" is). See which things they emphasize on their websites, and get a feel for how you may fit into the work environment.

The best way to prepare for an interview is to practice with a real, live person. Schedule a mock interview with the Professional Development Office to figure out what questions you may need to answer.


Why do you want to join the field you're applying for?
This is not just a philosophical question -- this is a chance for you to showcase your skills. If you are changing fields, then focus on the skills that are translatable from your current field and state how they would be valuable in the position that you're applying for. For example: "I know how to solve problems analytically, communicate effectively, be resourceful, ... and I want to apply them to [your field] because ..." Be ready to discuss why you're leaving your current field, and don't sound negative about your current position. Do some background research to figure out what the job entails or what makes people in that field successful, and how you can fit in, so that the employer will want you to join the team.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?
This is a tough one. Among your strengths, choose something that is applicable for the job (e.g., science communication, analytical skills), and point to specific examples to back it up. For weaknesses, focus on something that you "are working to improve." Do NOT point to a medical problem, religious and political views, or a social issue. Also, don't bring up anything that could be a deal breaker for your interviewer, like bad time management skills or inability to talk to strangers. If something was difficult for you in the past, but you've overcome previous weaknesses, then that's a great story to talk about: "I used to be terrified of public speaking, but I've learned that I get less nervous after practicing many times. Now I feel more confident when giving an oral presentation."

Much of our job involves working in teams. Describe how you worked in a team. How did you resolve any conflicts that arose in this collaboration?
Your answer to this question should come from experience. It's especially helpful if you've worked with a team that consisted of people at higher professional positions than you, because it means that you can persuade people even if you have no direct influence over them. This is a measure of your people skills, your tactfulness, and your resourcefulness.

Tell us about a time you solved a problem.
Try not to use typical things that everyone is expected to go through (e.g., do NOT say, "Well, I had this class, and it was really hard.") Instead, use concrete numbers to show how much of an impact you had. Use that STAR approach and focus on what you did -- say "I" and not "we" -- so that the interviewer knows what you (not the team) are capable of.


Feel free to write out your thoughts in bullet points first -- do not memorize word-for-word speeches, which could make you sound insincere. Make sure that you can describe each aspect of your résumé in a concise manner. Practice your answers in your head and out loud whenever you can. All of these questions are designed to let the employer determine how well you will fit in the job and job place. Remember: you are showing them a product (you), and you are the expert on yourself.

Good luck!

About the Author

Dr. Issel Anne Lim is currently the Vice President of Communication for AWIS Baltimore. She is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Radiology at Johns Hopkins University. During her PhD in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins, she focused on developing and implementing a new MRI technique to visualize iron in the brain and spinal cord at the FM Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging. Continuing as a postdoc at the Kirby Center, she is applying her method to multimodal clinical MRI studies of schizophrenia and Huntington Disease. She also majored in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her "free" time, she manages her own freelance company (Quirky Ink, LLC), which promotes creative communication through designing customized graphics, editing articles, and building websites (including the aforementioned websites for the Kirby CenterAWIS, and JHPDA). Feel free to email her if you have any questions:

* A version of this article has also been published in The Transcript, a newsletter from the Hopkins BioTech Network, with a lengthier three-part version published on the Johns Hopkins PostDoctoral Association blog.