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My trainwreck postdoc interview

April 19, 2016

I’ve known for a few years that I didn’t want to pursue a career in academic science. For you non-scientists, the academic career path is traditionally PhD -> postdoc -> professor. Although times are changing, many of us still feel pressured to follow this path. After all, that was the path our advisors chose, so obviously it’s the best and smartest and only option. Unfortunately, I gave in to this pressure because I was too chicken to tell my advisor I wanted to become an industry scientist. I was afraid he would treat me differently, or have less interest in completing my second paper – so I applied for a postdoc position in a high profile lab and was granted an interview.

Before I get into the gorey details of how the interview went, allow me a brief preface. Part of training to be a scientist is learning to deal with failure. We come up with a perfect hypothesis and we design the most flawless experiment of all time. Yet when we go to actually do it, everything fails. Maybe we forgot the right controls, or spilled the samples, or accidentally lit the lab bench on fire (it happens). Often, we actually execute the experiment perfectly but the results are just… inconclusive. And even MORE often, the results are conclusive but prove the perfect hypothesis to be perfectly wrong. In short, becoming a scientist involves a (metric) buttload of failure.

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Science – 60% of the time, it fails every time

So it’s surprising that I was so unprepared for my first, and maybe biggest, professional failure. I’ve never heard anyone talk openly about bombing a postdoc interview, but I can’t be the only one, right? RIGHT GUYS? So I want to share my story, because it might be nice for others to know that failure happens and it’s not the end of the world. Plus, the story is pretty funny in retrospect. It’s long, but join me if you want to re-live one of the most mortifying failures of my life.

As I mentioned in the last post, my boyfriend had gotten a promotion that limited my job search to Austin, TX. Because I knew zero labs in this area, I went on the interwebs and eventually found a group that was doing amazing science. I decided to apply despite the fact they specialized in a field I knew nothing about (development) using a model organism I know nothing about (frogs). I had also never met the PI of this lab, so I tried to make my application more enticing by offering to visit on my own dime. I believe this was the first in a long series of mistakes I made. Normally labs pay for their postdoc candidates to fly out, so I’m sure my inquiry reeked of thinly veiled desperation. Miraculously though, the cold call paid off and I was granted an interview.

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Two months later I flew down for the big event. It was Friday the 13th, which turns out was just so fitting. I didn’t feel confident at all, but I’m insanely competitive and told myself I had to get this job offer… because I was a winner, goddamnit! Well you know who lies to themselves about what they really want in life? Spoiler alert – it’s not winners!

Anyway, the interview spanned the entire day… 8am to 8pm. The main event was a one-hour presentation on my research scheduled for that afternoon. Quite a few people attended, including postdocs and grad students from another lab. I was about 5 minutes into my talk when it struck me that the audience was utterly uninterested. My research was outside their field, and although some of them politely nodded as I spoke, more than one person was either sleeping or blatantly playing on their phone. #rude #wtf

Near the end of the talk I began presenting my newest data, with full disclosure that the findings were preliminary. To my excitement the audience finally engaged. Some postdocs asked great questions, generated interesting discussion, and provided useful feedback. I knew the talk had gone poorly, but I felt like it was turning around. That is, until the professor leaned back, put his hands behind his head and declared that my new findings were, in his actual words, “total bullshit.”

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This PI is well known for speaking his mind and I was aware of that fact. He’d been intense and aggressive the whole day, so I wasn’t surprised by the blunt (cough*unprofessional*cough) damnation of my latest research. What bothered me more was that it was spoken with such finality. He offered no explanation as to why he didn’t like it, and it wasn’t spoken in a constructive manner that opened dialog to better experimental ideas or conclusions. He slammed the door on intellectual discussion, leaving me with no recourse other than nodding my big dumb head and saying, “Okay.”

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Being an opinionated lady myself, I totally respect other strongly opinionated folks. But I’m not used to rejection, so it was extra hard to hear someone I considered super intelligent dismiss me.

I didn’t belong there, but to my great humiliation I was the last person in the room to realize it.

Unfortunately, I still had several hours of meetings scheduled with other lab members. We all knew that I wouldn’t be hired, which was *hella* awkward. At the end of the night I went for dinner and drinks with a few postdocs. I slammed a margarita in an effort to swallow my feels, forgetting that I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and hadn’t drank water the entire day.

I was that girl who got accidentally drunk at a job interview, the cherry on top of my steaming hot mess of a performance. It was embarrassing – zero out of ten stars, would not recommend.

I spent a long time making excuses, trying to convince myself that the interview imploded because of how the PI was such a pompous jerk and that of course it was all his fault and definitely couldn’t have been my own inadequacies for the job. But you know what? Eventually I realized that yeah, maybe he was an asshole – but so was I! I contacted him about a job that I didn’t honestly want, and when I showed up I didn’t even “bring it.” Even though this guy was kind of a dick, I probably would have been too if someone sought me out and then wasted so much of my time.

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Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. In fact, the PI has literally never contacted me or responded to my emails since – which I consider crazy unprofessional no matter the circumstances – but it’s okay. Going through the whole process was humbling. It solidified my decision to leave academic science and gave me the courage to tell my advisor. I started earnestly searching for jobs in biotech (more on that later), a process that wasn’t really any easier but felt a hell of a lot more authentic! The final lesson of my PhD was that being a scientist meant always telling the truth, ESPECIALLY TO YOURSELF DUMMY!

So, I survived. And if you ever experience professional failure, you will survive too. Shit happens, just make sure you gain some insight to your own shortcomings in the process.

…And maybe don’t order a margarita until the interview is over.

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