APS News

November 2022 (Volume 31, Number 10)

Four Mistakes Early-Career Scientists Make in Interviews and How to Correct Them

By Alaina G. Levine | October 13, 2022

Careers desk illustration
Credit: Antonio Rodriguez/Adobe

I love job interviews! Why? Because an interview is your finest opportunity, as an early-career scientist, to share why and how you’ll be an asset to an organization and convince an employer to hire you.

But to land that job, you’ll need to avoid common mistakes physicists make before and during job interviews. Fear not, fair physicists! Here are a few fixes to ensure these errors do not become epic fails.

Mistake 1: Not understanding the dynamics of the interview. An interview is a sales pitch: You’re convincing the employer to invest money in you (compensation) in exchange for a service (your work). It’s not about you; it’s about what you can do for the employer. When an interviewer asks about a candidate’s experience in an area, some people will get stuck in the weeds, diving into a chronological history of every paper and project they’ve had. But the interviewer just wants to know how you’ll add value. To fix this, frame your accomplishments as:

  • A problem you solved
  • A solution you utilized
  • The result you got

For example, an interviewee might ask, “What is your experience with complex materials?” Your answer might be, “I gained expertise in complex materials through a project that explored the relationship between x and y. I was tasked with characterizing z system in complex materials [the problem], so I built a novel model using c and d [the solution]. I discovered a causality between x and y, which enabled us to better do z [the result].”

When you communicate your value this way, you make it easy for decision-makers to understand why they should invest in you. After all, they’re hiring you to solve problems, and this framework forges a bridge between your past and future problem-solving experiences.

Mistake 2: Not customizing your answers. This is a big mistake, but it’s also easy to fix, by tailoring your answers with information about the employer’s teams, projects, and goals. When an interviewer asks about your experience with spin glasses, don’t answer, “I did x and researched y.” Instead, add context and connect your experiences to the employer. A better answer might be, “During x internship, I developed skills in y optimization methods, which would give me strong foundations for jumping in on a project like the one you described in z publication.” Translate your experiences into their language, which you can gather from their website, social media, and writing (e.g., papers).

There are two important points here. First, this is an opportunity to be your own champion. When you describe how your work matches the employer’s needs, explain and specify the skills you’ve leveraged to solve problems. This isn’t bragging — it’s self-advocacy. Second, show that you’ve done your research. By discussing the needs or goals of the employer and the individuals interviewing you, using their verbiage, you show you’ve prepared, and you help them envision you in the role.

Mistake 3: Not double-checking basic, logistical interview parameters. This is especially vital for virtual interviews. Confirm the date, time, time zone, and digital platform. Make sure you know who will join the interview, and do your research on them ahead of time, so you know their names, titles, and backgrounds. If the interview will be on Zoom, practice on the platform with a buddy in a different location, at the time of day when the interview will take place, to check the video, sound, lighting, and internet connection. If you’ll be giving a job talk, confirm that you can share your screen and that your desktop and browsers are clear of distractions. To maintain eye contact on Zoom, you need to look at the camera; one of my favorite hacks is to put a sticky note with arrows pointing to the lens, to remind me where to gaze.

Mistake 4: Not showing your enthusiasm. You may be nervous, but the interviewer could be tired or frustrated from having had so many interviews. Make it easy for the decision-maker to imagine how collaborative and valuable it would be to work with you. Smile and be your authentic, enthusiastic self! An employer should get to know you for you, and learn how your best self is going to help you achieve your objectives — and theirs.

Alaina G. Levine is a professional speaker, STEM career coach, and author of the books Networking for Nerds (Wiley) and Create Your Unicorn Career (forthcoming). This article builds on content that has appeared in her other works.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

November 2022 (Volume 31, Number 10)

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Articles in this Issue
What Does the Nobel Prize’s Fame Mean for Science?
New Experiment Suggests Imaginary Numbers Must Be Part of Real Quantum Physics
Albert-László Barabási, Network Scientist, Wants Physicists to Connect with Wider Audiences
Astroparticle Physicist Wins 2023 Valley Prize for Work on Dark Matter
This Month in Physics History
From Banking to Quantum Physics
Newest Data Shows Mixed Progress for Women and Marginalized Groups in Physics Higher Ed
APS Announces Recipients of the Spring 2023 Prizes and Awards
Astrophysics in Albuquerque: The APS Four Corners Section Meets in October
Four Mistakes Early-Career Scientists Make in Interviews and How to Correct Them
The Back Page: How Newton Derived the Shape of Earth
Taking on Climate Change and Cryptomining Carbon Emissions