I spent a large fraction of last year working out a proposal for a junior group leader positions in my field. Now I was invited for an interview for the one position that I wanted most.
It was a total disaster.
I would like to describe this interview as a warning for other people who are invited to similar interviews.
The interview took place with an inter-disciplinary panel of about 25 natural science professors, of which 24 were male, obviously. I was to give a 15-minute presentation about my project, understandable for non-experts, followed by 15 minutes of questions.
So I travelled to the city in question, slept in a hotel, spent the day waiting and being nervous until it was time and my interview started. I was led into the room with these 25 professors, who were sitting in a U-shaped configuration — I had professors on both flanks and in front of me, which made me feel really cornered. My presentation was aready on the projector (I had to send it in before), and I was greeted with one sentence, dryly, without a smile, and asked to start.
I launched into my presentation and tried to make eye contact with the audience. To my surprise, almost all faces I saw looked at me with expressions of contempt and boredom. I have given many talks, and not once have I encountered such a negative atmsophere. I felt like I was talking to a wall of negativity.
This had a surprisingly strong effect on me. From other academic presentations and from a few other interviews I was used to faces which are somewhere between neutral and friendly, with always one or two friendly faces that I can use as a source of encouragement during my talk. I should have prepared for it being different; but I did not even consider it.
One professor, who is in a totally different field than me, even started to slowly shake his head while I was looking at him when talking. I started to get very nervous. I thought: “This is going wrong, but it can’t go wrong, it can’t… ”
I somehow managed to finish the talk, knowing that I had not talked well, far worse than my worst talk ever, and that in such an important moment! Then the questions were starting. I had expected some sort of benevolence, critical, but interested questions. This was not the case. The questions seemed to me full of contempt, and accompanied by very bored, very negative faces. Not one question showed interest in my actual project.
Instead, they asked: “And what is your opinion about big open question XY?” (which has nothing to do with my talk and on which I have never done any work). And, probingly, as if I was a first year student: “Do you know what Professor XY has contributed to your field?” (who is a guy that I have heard of only in passing). “You say that you use method P, well anyone can use method P. What is the point?” or “You say you use method Z to learn about T, but what is there even to learn? Don’t you get out what you put in?” (which is a totally absurd question for someone knowing even the smallest thing about my field…). In all, the questions showed a surprising lack of respect for me. I guess I am just not used to that anymore, with people in my field usually reacting very positively to my talks.
I could have answered these questions well, in principle, if I had a few extra minutes to think, or if I had been calmer and not so confused by the negative atmosphere. Another mistake was that I did not expect that they would question the basic methods in my field which are used by hundreds of groups around the world. I thought I would have to defend my own project, not my field. I started rambling. I noticed that I did not answer the questions well, noticed that I used the wrong verb here, sounded too insecure there. It didn’t help that people were making extremely negative faces, as if I was a total idiot, as if my track record, which is actually very good, had zero influence on them. It did not help to stand as a woman in front of older men who seemed to expect me to fail from the start.
Now why did I fail this interview?
My answer to that is: Because I felt that they expected me to fail. I am unfortunately a social person, instinctively keen on meeting other people’s expectations of me. And that is it; if you are a woman, you cannot, CANNOT be sensitive to these kind of expectations. You need to have a thick skin. I don’t have one, but if I had been warned, I would have prepared differently for the interview, and it would have gone better. So my hope is that maybe someone out there might profit from this warning: Throw away your need for being liked and harmony if you go into a job interview like that, and be much colder, much calmer than I was. I will write up some more concrete ideas on how I should have done this better soon.