In lecture halls around the world, university departments and organizations with names like “Employment Soon!” are hosting career panels, presumably with the goal of making graduate students and postdocs freak out. They invite a handful of gainfully employed scientists, give them microphones, and then let the arbitrary information flow.
The audience includes trainees who may have never technically held a job in science, despite having worked in academic labs for a decade or more. They’re all looking for the magical job market formula, the secret tip that will cause the offers to roll in. They may also be looking for bagels.
You can tell who the most panicked students are, because they frantically scribble every word a panelist or presenter says, as if waiting for them to whisper, “Format your CV in 11-point Arial Rounded MT Bold. That’s what they want to see.”
“But what about line spacing? What line spacing?”
“I KNEW IT.”
If they’re not panicked when they enter the seminar room, they’re certainly panicked when they leave—because the advice is never straightforward, rarely general, and often contradictory.
Here’s just a sampling of some of the other conflicting advice I’ve seen job panels offer.
- Dress formally vs. wear what you’d wear to work
We’re scientists. Our most important fashion accessories are the gloves that protect us from bacteria (or that protect the bacteria from us). No one advocates wearing sweatpants and a Jethro Tull T-shirt to a job interview, but at the same time, there’s a range of guidance on what to wear. A suit or just khakis and a nice shirt? Heels or flats? What makes me look like I’m trying too hard, and what makes me look like I’m not trying hard enough? We’d like to think that no one cares, but it’s “all part of the package,” as they say.
I once witnessed a discussion of a scientist’s job interview that factored in her purse. Because it was an expensive purse, apparently, the interviewers concluded that she was capable of doing the work but probably wouldn’t want to.
The best fashion accessory for you to bring to a job interview, then, is obviously a necklace with a long chain. Hold it up in front of your interviewers and let it swing gently back and forth. Once the hypnosis has taken hold say, “I am wearing exactly what you want me to be wearing.”
- Be personable vs. be serious
If you’re not serious, you’re not ready to perform science at a high level. But if you’re not jokey and jovial, you’re not someone with whom your potential co-workers will want to interact. If you’re either more serious or more personable than your future colleagues, they may feel threatened. And if you’re serious one moment and personable the next, then they’ll wonder, “What is wrong with this weirdo?”
- Be confident vs. be humble
Every recommendation for being successful in life contains some variant of “Be confident.” Look people in the eye. Don’t hedge. Don’t apologize. Step on your interviewer’s foot and say, “Yeah, I’ve got solid feet. WHAT.” But you also don’t want your confidence to make people wonder whether you’ll never admit to being wrong. I once interviewed an extremely confident man who said, “I’ve got a lot of great ideas, but I’m not going to give you all of them unless I get the job.” He then proceeded to tell me one idea for free, and it was one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever heard.
- Ask about salary vs. act like money is not important to you
The most awkward part of any job interview is the part you want to know the most: whether they check your internet browsing history. Just kidding, it’s the salary discussion—yet you can make it through multiple rounds of interviews with no information about the job’s salary beyond what you glean from hearsay and guesswork. Does asking about it make you look practical, or does it communicate that you’re focused on the wrong thing? It’s especially frustrating because a lot of nonscience jobs declare their pay scales outright, while a lot of science jobs withhold the information. And if there’s anything scientists love, it’s using numbers to make decisions.
- Negotiate your salary vs. that’s not done
If you’ve never negotiated a salary before, you may be picturing something like haggling inside a spice hut in Marrakech, Morocco—with bargains, concessions, and at least three or four repetitions of the phrase “It’s a good price.” In reality, every company is different. Some hiring managers will laugh and high-five each other after you leave the room if you accept their first offer, while others will simply shrug at you and say, “That’s what the job pays.”
- Talk about outside interests vs. pretend you have none
No one wants to hire a scientist who only cares about science. But no one wants to hire a scientist who spends all of her or his time in lab writing an Appalachian banjo blog. (Then again, I don’t think anyone wants to interact with a person who spends all their time writing an Appalachian banjo blog.) And sometimes, the guidance falls somewhere in the middle: Talk about outside activities, but show that each one somehow complements your science. “Where do I plan my experimental protocols?” you might say. “Well, I usually get my best ideas while paragliding.”
- Embrace your graduate research vs. pretend you’re better than that
Those with graduate degrees have a special challenge: You’ve spent the last several years working on a project, and you can probably describe that project with unique commitment and thoroughness. By discussing your graduate research at length, you’re showing that you can become an expert on a given topic and generate data. But if you talk about your graduate research too much, your potential employer will see you as a permanent graduate student, not someone ready to take the next step. In other words, graduate school has set you up to fail. Yay graduate school.
- Don’t show too much interest vs. don’t show too little interest
“I want this job, but I don’t need it,” your attitude should convey, when in reality you want it, need it, and would likely put on a koala costume and dance the Macarena if it meant you’d get health insurance. (Twenty years ago, I actually had a job that required me to put on a koala costume and dance the Macarena. It did not include health insurance.) This conflict highlights the most exasperating aspect of finding a job: All of the power is with the hirers. They can indulge their whims, while you have to court and coddle them as though they may flip out at any moment, like you would with a psychotic codependent lover—or a normal toddler.
Of course no piece of advice works for all jobs, or all job seekers. But do job panels really have to be as tone-deaf and insensitive to their audiences as they sometimes are? It’s as if the moment we get jobs, we forget what it was like on the other side of the table, and we feel we can give any old instructions because they’ll all be fine.
Maybe the reason for the conflicting advice is that there isn’t one right answer, and all we know is what worked for us. Panelists want to feel helpful, so if one of them wore blue to a successful interview, he or she will recommend wearing blue.
So when you attend a science job panel, take everything with a grain of salt. Listen to the panel’s recommendations, and then use your own judgment to parse the unhelpful bits. Because one of the worst things you can do is to let the panel’s contradictory ideas stymie you until you’re trapped endlessly formatting and reformatting your CV based on the last suggestion you heard.
I mean, seriously. Twelve-point Times New Roman. That’s what they want to see.