Make a powerful interview impact by controlling the intangibles

Reality is sometimes completely at odds with the way that scientists imagine hiring decisions are made. Grad students and postdocs tend to view the employment process through their own lens of experience, where smart people with high scores automatically get in ahead of the pack. I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to company hiring decisions, this is not even close to reality.

Sure, companies want smart people, but sometimes the differences between who gets hired and who does not can be very subtle. If your CV shows that you have a top-tier education and three first-author papers in high-profile journals, will you get shortlisted ahead of the grad from a lower-tier institution without the same track record? Perhaps. But applicants are also judged by factors that are sometimes quite intangible. Candidates’ training and publications may get their CVs noticed, but early in the interview process, the communication skills and demeanor of the individuals being ranked will level the playing field.

What differentiates candidates has to do with certain hard-to-define aspects of language and nonverbal communication.

What differentiates candidates has to do with certain hard-to-define aspects of language and nonverbal communication. The words you use as you present yourself make a difference, as do the way you look and your general presence. In this month’s column, I’ll define some of these more esoteric aspects of the interview to help you succeed in the transition out of academia.

Fine-tuning first impression intangibles

You already know that it’s not always the smartest scientist who gets the position. Likewise, the most talented engineer doesn’t consistently get the job offer. Most of the time, the hired applicant happened to look better than the rest of the candidates when considered against a half-dozen “hidden” job requirements. In contrast with the technical job specs, which you should know from the job description, these hidden items will be difficult to ferret out. But even if you are a strong match for the technical elements of the job, you won’t get hired unless you also do well on these intangibles.

The first impression is critical, as I wrote about back in 2004, because the hiring manager’s decision is made almost subconsciously, influenced by issues that have nothing to do with the job description. It appears to be nearly impossible to shake a bad first impression, because it will resonate in the hiring manager’s subconscious even after a full day of interviewing. But, from the research about this topic, one thing comes through quite loud and clear: Intangibles like eye contact, a good handshake, and the sound of your voice are all ingredients of the impression that can be influenced.

Consistent eye contact reflects self-confidence, friendliness, and a willingness to engage with your interviewer, who may be just as uncomfortable as you are. But not every scientist comes from a culture that promotes eye contact. Some Asian cultures, notably in South Asia, consider eye contact between two parties of different stature to border on rudeness. Job candidates who come from these cultural backgrounds need to push past these feelings and provide the friendly smile and eye contact that interviewers in Western countries expect.

Other intangibles along the way

The first impression you leave behind is in your control, but what about your personal chemistry with your prospective boss and future colleagues in the company? There’s not much you can do to optimize your situation—it will either feel right or it won’t, and this feeling cuts both ways. I’m sure you don’t want to try to squeeze yourself into a job where you feel a terrible chemistry with those around you. But let’s say that it’s a job you’re really excited about, and you think the chemistry might be right. If that’s the case, the other intangibles that will impact your success revolve around your motivation, enthusiasm, and general competency that interviewers see in you during interview day.

Motivation and enthusiasm may sound like they are one and the same, but they aren’t. In a recent column, I described one element of motivation that my client companies have never failed to rate highly: passion. Interviewers want to understand the reasons behind your drive and interest in the work that you do, and there’s no better way than to ask about your motivation for getting into science in the first place.

As you can see, the interview is a dynamic environment, with both visible and invisible agendas on the table. Your actions, language, and demeanor throughout the process will have an impact on not only the fit with the job requirements, but also with the broader and more intangible elements of the company’s needs. Clearly, you can’t control all of these elements, but by paying attention and at least understanding their role in the process, you will come out ahead.

Using PowerPoint to shine on stage

Elsewhere in Science, 15 Jan 2016