Many of us graduate students will have to interview for a post doc some time during our graduate school career. How to successfully prepare for a post doc interview is something many of us has thought about. I am by no means very experienced. In fact, I have only done two formal post doc interviews so far. But I feel sharing my experiences and thoughts on tips of a post doc interview is useful for others. In this blog post, I want to list a few things I learnt about preparing for and doing a post doc interview.
1. Prepare answers to common interview questions. These are also questions you should ask yourself and be able to answer yourself before applying for a post doc position. Why are you interested in this position? Why are you a good fit for the position? How does the post doc fit your career goal? Thinking about these questions is also a good opportunity to deeply reflect our own plan for the future. In that sense, I feel we should always take a break and think about these. After all, we need to convince ourselves that this is something worth doing before committing to do it.
There are probably many different opinions on how to best answer these questions. One way I find particularly useful is to start broad with a big picture. Think about the broad question that interests you most and ask yourself how this particular project fits in your broad interests. Many (even using “most” here is not too exaggerating) ecologists like to work with someone with broad interests, knowledge, and skills. If all PIs and collaborators want to get “a piece of you”, you are going to get the job.
It is also helpful to read the project proposal or relevant papers before the interview. That gives you a hint of what kind of questions could possibly come up. In my experience, what’s commonly asked is not how to solve the specific problems in the project proposal, but rather some understanding of the background and motivation of the proposed study. For example, what are some open questions/knowledge gaps related to this research topic? How do you think this project contributes to fill that knowledge gap? Are there classic or relevant studies that inspire you to study this topic? This part of the preparation is hard. You will mostly rely on what you have already known. You don’t learn things over night. So don’t expect to train yourself into an expert from the preparation. Having some general ideas and familiarizing yourself with the language they use in the proposed research is probably all you need/could achieve through a short time preparation.
2. Do not exaggerate. If you say you understand a concept, be prepared to explain that in details. If you say you have manuscripts in preparation, be prepared to share some findings or figures. If you say you know how to use a software, be prepared to demonstrate how to use it. It leaves a bad impression if you cannot explain things you claim to know. You don’t want to be viewed as someone who doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.
3. Sell yourself with concrete evidences. While you don’t want to exaggerate your skills and knowledge, you don’t want to be too conservative. After all, our goal is to highlight our strength in the interview. One effective way to highlight your strength is to give specifics and concrete evidences. For example, if a professor asks you how familiar you are with linear model, don’t just say you are very familiar or not familiar with it. Follow up with what you know and what you don’t know about linear model. You could say that I am familiar with the basic concept of linear model. I know how to implement a linear model in software and interpret the outputs. I know how to evaluate model fit and select best-fit models. I am not very familiar with the theoretical derivation and justification of ordinary least square. This sort of answer will be much more convincing than merely I am very familiar with it. It gives the interviewer a clear idea of your level of understanding.
4. Feel comfortable to say I don’t know. If the interviewer asks you something you have no idea, you should say so. If the interviewer asks you about experiences or knowledge that you don’t have, you should say so. Being honest and straightforward about your lack of knowledge is much better than giving a non-sense answer. No one knows everything. The interviewer does not expect you to know everything. Admitting lack of knowledge does not ruin your interview. In contrast, being honest and transparent to the interviewer could be a plus for you.
5. Be prepared to ask the interviewer a few questions. Often at the end of the interview, the interviewer will give you an opportunity to ask questions. Prepare a few questions to ask. Having nothing to ask may/could leave an impression of not caring about the position to some people. You could ask things such as logistic support of research, collaborative opportunities, or research resources from the department or university. Prepare a few things you would like to know. It is helpful to show that you do care about the position.
These are the few things that stand out to me when thinking about post doc interview. Obviously, this is from my very limited experience. Your mileage may vary. I would like to learn your tips. Please comment below!