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PhD Careers: How To Make Interviewers Fall In Love With You

PhD Careers Employers Interview

Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I shook hands with the President of the company and another executive-type person I didn’t know before sitting down to the interview. I sat up straight with both feet on the floor and smiled just like all the articles I read online told me to do. I’d researched everything I could about the President and the company itself before the interview so I felt pretty confident. I was interviewing for an Application Scientist position at a software company. The only problem was I felt like I should know the name of the second interviewer.

After some small talk, both the President and the interviewer started asking me questions about where I thought the company was headed. They asked me what I would do in specific customer interaction situations, like how I would get a customer to buy a larger software package. These questions were a little harder than what I expected. I thought that researching the company and knowing the facts about their products was enough. But it wasn’t. I should have spent some time thinking about where the company was going and what reservations their current and future customers might have. I made it through the questions though and was feeling pretty good about myself. The other interviewer wasn’t saying much so I asked him what he did. That’s when things got awkward.

Emotional Intelligence Is A Deciding Factor

Looking back, it would have been better for me to ask, “What’s your role in the company?” Instead, I blurted out, “What do you do?” It was like I was accusing him of something and telling him he wasn’t important at the same time. I knew I’d made a mistake. The other interviewer leaned back into his chair very casually and repeated what I asked him before answering. “What do I do? I do a little science and some other things.” At the other side of the table, the President had a big smirk on his face. He was loving our exchange. But why? What was going on? This was the kind of stuff that my PhD didn’t prepare me for. I tried to adjust my mood to the President’s mood to keep things light but this just seemed to make the other interviewer more annoyed. I was lost.

There was a long, awkward silence and then the President jumped in and told me the other interviewer was in charge of one of the biggest labs at the NIH and had co-created the company’s bestselling product. Oops. I guess I should have known that. The worst part was that this other interviewer had just given the keynote presentation at a huge conference a few days earlier—a conference I was at. How embarrassing. I definitely should have known who he was. After the interview, I tried to do some damage control by sending him a polite email with a not-so-subtle apology. He never responded.

Soft Skills Trump Hard Skills

Interpersonal skills are the most important skills in business. This is true no matter the industry—all PhD jobs included. In the book, Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success, Dan Schawbel polled hundreds of employers asking “What are the most important traits you look for when hiring?” 98% responded, “communication skills.” A large-scale survey performed by the Center for Creative Leadership found that poor “interpersonal skills” are the number one reason promising careers go off course. Another survey by the Workforce Solutions Group found that 60% of all applicants to high-level jobs lack adequate communication and interpersonal skills. Like it or not, how much people like you matters. But being likable isn’t about fitting in, it’s about understanding others. It’s also about helping other people understand you, especially at first contact.

When it comes to initial attraction, studies show that emotionally expressive people are more charismatic. And, surprisingly, this relationship between expressiveness and charisma is independent of physical attractiveness. Other studies show that first impressions can last for years. This is because meeting someone for the first time activates both your amygdala, which is one of the few areas of the brain that receives information from all your senses at once, and your posterior cingular cortex, which controls your autobiographical memory, emotional memory, and attention. First impressions stick and having good interpersonal skills is the key to making a good first impression. The good news is you can improve your interpersonal skills any time by following a few simple guidelines.

5 Keys To Increasing Your Interpersonal Skills

Whether you’re after your first job or a promotion, your interpersonal skills will be a deciding factor in getting what you want. Most people think that they’re either born with these skills or they’re not. This is a misconception. Like anything, interpersonal skills have to be developed—they have to be practiced. The key to increasing your interpersonal skills is to improve your expressiveness, sensitivity, calibration, presence, and clarity. Sharpen the following 5 skills and you’ll never feel awkward during a job interview, or any other situation, again:

1. Be open and expressive.  

A good gauge of how expressive you are is how easily (and how often) you strike up conversations with strangers for no reason at all. Striking up conversations with strangers is also the best way to increase your expressiveness. Your goal should be to convey your feelings easily to other people without making them uncomfortable. The best way to do this is to express yourself in a way that makes other people feel happy, positive and excited. The key is to express yourself using your body, not your words.

Studies by Dr. Alex Pentland at the MIT Human Dynamic Labs show that people who incorporate lots of the unconscious gestures and expressions are more likable. Dr. Pentland developed a gadget called the sociometer that detects and measures likable actions by tracking speech patterns and bodily movement. People who talk fast, use bold mannerisms, and have high energy levels were found to be more likable and more persuasive.

2. Be sensitive to the situation.

People with strong interpersonal skills are able to read other people easily. They are able to feel out a room, so to speak, much more quickly and accurately than the average person. In other words, they are more sensitive to situations. There are two ways to increase your sensitivity to situations and to other groups of people. The first way is as simple as it is surprising—reading fiction. Studies at the New School of Social Research in New York found that reading literary fiction (like War & Peace or David Copperfield) increases sensitivity by improving your ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions better and faster. Reading literary fiction also increases your ability to navigate social networks easier.

The second way to increase your sensitivity levels is through Neurolinguistic Programming. NLP is a broad field you could spend your entire life studying. But for this point, there are only a couple of things you should focus on. Number one, try to figure out as quickly as possible if the people you interact with are moving-toward oriented or moving-away from orientedIn other words, are they driven by seeking pleasure or by avoiding pain? You can figure this out quickly by asking them about their future plans or goals for their company and then listening carefully to the words they use to describe what they want.

Number two, pay attention to the direction of other people’s eyes when you ask them questions. This will help you determine if they are audio, visual, or kinetic learners. It will also give you insight into whether they are drawing upon their memories for an answer or constructing an answer from scratch. Once you know how someone learns, you can relate to them better and once you know where they’re getting their information (from memory or construction) you can influence their behavior in a positive way.

PhD Careers

3. Calibrate yourself to the situation.

Calibration describes the ability to adjust your persona to match the mood and social makeup of any group. Once you’ve correctly sensed the mood of a situation, you have to adjust yourself to it. Most people walk into a room, sense something is wrong or different, and then go on acting as if everything is normal. This is a mistake and can damage not only your personal life, but your career too.

Mirroring is the key to calibration. If you walk into a room and sense that things are just a bit off, the first thing you should do is look at other people’s body language. Who’s being aggressive? Who’s being defensive? Most importantly, who is the more influential and well-liked person? Due to the chameleon effect, you’re first instinct will be to match the posture, facial expressions, mannerisms, and even speech patterns to the first person you see or to the group as a whole. This can be a mistake. Studies out of UCSD show that mimicking the wrong person, such as someone who is rude, condescending, or not generally liked—even temporarily—can damage your reputation forever. Calibration is not about copying everyone all the time, it’s about mirroring the right people at the right time. Of course, the goal is not to be fake or manipulative. The goal is to try to understand the situation. You have to understand the situation before you can make it better.

4. Be present and polite.  

Nothing is more powerful than being in the moment with someone and listening to them intently. The key is to be present without coming off as creepy or aggressive. It sounds easy but the difference can be very subtle. Studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology show that people who make higher levels of eye contact with others are perceived as being more warm, honest, sincere, competent, confident, and stable. Other studies show that too much eye contact makes other people more resistant to persuasion. Similarly, smiling at other people sincerely and fully (by engaging your eye muscles) has been shown to increase likability and influence. But fake smiling (without engaging your eye muscles) makes other people resent you.

5. Communicate your ideas clearly.

When it comes to first impressions, expressing yourself in a crisp and interesting way is more important than what you’re expressing. Delivery overrides content. At least in the short term. A recent University of Massachusetts study of 133 managers found that if an auditor is likable and gives a well-organized argument, managers tend to comply with his suggestions, even if they disagree and the auditor lacks supporting evidence. Too many people lack interpersonal skills, not because they’re unlikable, but because they can’t communicate effectively.

Instead of presenting information in a clear and simple manner, they try to be too funny or too clever or too complex. Never sacrifice clarity to cleverness. And don’t inflate the complexity of a topic just to seem more important. A well crafted argument or clearly expressed idea will make people like and respect you more than a clever joke or a string of long words. Also, bring printed materials with you any time you meet someone for the first time in a professional setting. This automatically makes you look like a responsible, organized person. It seems pointless but that’s not the point. The point is to exude clarity, whether or not you need the documents you’re carrying.

As with all other skills, interpersonal skills can be mastered—if you practice them enough. Focus on being more expressive, sensitive, controlled, present, and clear. If you do these things, people will understand you better, which will make them more comfortable around you. Overall, you’ll be more magnetic, influential, and confident, which will help you make a real difference in your professional life.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Isaiah Hankel


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