Interview Tips for Winning that Dream Job

November 15, 2011

Careers in the Math Sciences
Tom Grandine


It has been more than 25 years since I last interviewed for a job, and modern interviews tend to be more stressful than those I participated in as a young job seeker. Nevertheless, I did survive a pair of intense in-house interrogations in front of evaluation committees with a dozen or more members on my way to a promotion two years ago, which were responsible for sweaty palms, a few sleepless nights, and at least some of the grey hair that I now sport. Moreover, in the past decade I have participated in dozens of interviews from the other side, so I have a pretty good idea of what interviewers look for in job candidates. While all of my experience is in an industrial setting, some interviewing skills come in handy in any professional situation.

In 1986, when I landed my job at Boeing, the interview involved giving a talk on my dissertation research and chatting individually with the members of the Applied Mathematics staff here who were soon to become my colleagues. I remember it fondly as a friendly and informal affair that shielded me from the fact that my eventual entire professional future was at stake that day. Modern job interviews are more formal. Behavioral interviews, in which candidates are asked how they handled previous job-related situations, are commonplace. Some companies, including Boeing, also use structured interviews, designed to ensure fairness of the process by asking all job seekers the same basic questions. Some companies, especially those in very computing-intensive fields, go so far as to quiz prospective employees about algorithm design, coding strategy, or other technical issues.

In a behavioral interview, when asked by an interviewer to "identify a situation in which you successfully persuaded others to follow your chosen course of action" or to "describe a time in which your problem-solving abilities led to a major group success," you may not have the presence of mind to react well on the spot, especially if you showed up for the interview with no idea what to expect. The following tips will help you survive and even ace many of these probing and difficult questions.

Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the company's products, customers, and market. If the company is publicly traded, look through a recent annual report. Having genuine interest in how your expertise and abilities could translate into success for the company will greatly aid you, both in the interview and on the job if you are hired. In addition, you should be prepared to answer certain common questions. You are likely, for instance, to be asked about your communication skills and the way you communicate technical information to others. In large companies especially, important projects almost always require working in teams, so you should come prepared to discuss how well you collaborate with others on technical projects. You should be prepared to discuss your previous work experience, including challenges that you successfully overcame. Studying your own past papers and presentations to be sure that you remember the details can't hurt. Most of all, you need to be prepared to adapt your prepared answers to the questions actually asked. Suppose that you are asked to "describe a time when you failed to meet your customer's expectations and explain what you did to recover." A great answer might start, "Well, I've never had customers in a true business sense, but I always viewed my students as customers, and. . . ." Finally, if you happen to be asked whether you have any questions for the interviewers, be ready with at least one good question that demonstrates how eager you are to learn more about the company and your potential role in it.

Be enthusiastic. You studied mathematics because you are good at it and because you really like it. This isn't high school, and the people interviewing you won't think you're a nerd just because your attitude suggests that Hamiltonian systems are the coolest thing you've ever seen in your life. By allowing your natural enthusiasm to express itself during the interview, you will help the interviewers see in you the makings of a great colleague, someone who knows and loves the same things they do, and, most of all, someone whose love for her job will make her an outstanding and indispensible asset to the company. One other way to demonstrate enthusiasm is to err on the side of being overdressed when you show up for the interview. It will be interpreted as evidence that you are serious about winning the job, and there is no downside to doing so.

Be knowledgeable. A job interview is not the time to be modest. Many people have a tendency to think, "Well, I didn't win a Fields Medal for that work, so I wonder if I can do this job," and the lack of confidence will manifest itself during the interview. Leaving the interviewers thinking you're a little over-confident is better than leaving them thinking you're unqualified. Most employers will tolerate a little cockiness when it's backed up by talent.

Be truthful. Don't underplay your accomplishments and abilities, but don't overplay them either. If someone asks how many finite element codes for hyperbolic PDEs you have written, don't be afraid to admit that the answer is zero. Once you make that admission, smoothly transition to one of your prepared answers to a related question. It is vital when you do this to make an explicit connection between your prepared answer and the question you were asked. Don't leave them with the impression that you blew off their question because you found your own favorite research project more interesting than their company needs.

Be yourself. You are interviewing for a job that may last many years, perhaps your entire career. If you have a great sense of humor, don't hide it. If you act like yourself during your interview, it will be ever so much easier to be prepared, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and truthful. More importantly, the interviewers will see exactly who it is they might be working with in the years to come, and you will gain an understanding of what it might be like to work with these people every day.

As you go through the interview, it may help you stay calm and collected to keep in mind that the people interviewing you want you to succeed. Each time they invest the time and effort needed to interview people for a job, they are hoping that the process will yield the next great employee. They would much rather make a hard choice between several exceptionally well qualified job candidates than suffer through a series of nervous and awkward interviews. Your great interview will not only serve you well, but will help make the process worthwhile for everyone involved.

Tom Grandine is a senior technical fellow at The Boeing Company and SIAM's current vice president for industry. He landed his job at Boeing when the ink on his PhD diploma was barely dry, and he has spent his entire career attacking many of the hard mathematical challenges that arise when a company with more than 30,000 talented engineers designs products that fly.

Sue Minkoff (sminkoff@umbc.edu), of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column.



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