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January 31, 2006
Here's A Shovel. Could You Dig Yourself In Some More?
Talking about reaction-quiz job interviews the other day really seems to have brought out a lot of stories (check the comments to that post). I'm glad to hear that this kind of interrogation seems to be disappearing.
I had more than one experience with this sort of thing when I was on the interview trail. Probably the worst was a lunchtime interview back in 1989 with a director-level person who looked over my background and said "Hmm. . .post-doc with Bernd Giese. . .free-radical chemistry, eh? So, tell me, who would your ten favorite free-radical chemists be?"
The first thought that went through my head was that I didn't even know of ten free-radical chemists. Favorites, my foot. I probably would have been better off saying that, although maybe not in as many words. But instead, I thought furiously, stalling for time: "Well, let me see. . .there's X. . .and Y has done some interesting stuff, although I'm not sure that he'd agree to being called a free-radical chemist. . .and. . ." I ran some time off the clock like this, and was beginning to panic a bit at the shortage of further names that were coming to mind, when I was interrupted by my interviewer. I was foolish enough to be grateful.
"Hmm. . ." he began again, "I see that you mentioned Z on your list. I don't think I would have ranked him that highly, personally. What recent work of his impressed you?" Cursing foully but inaudibly, I stammered out the only paper of Z's that I could even think of (which was indeed recent, and was the only reason I remembered him at all). "I'm not familiar with that one," came the response. "Could you draw those reactions out for me?" Over came a paper napkin for my use. Where the hell, I wondered, was my artichoke and fennel pasta, and could I perhaps fake choking on it?
So there I was, trying to remember and explain a paper I'd looked at once, by someone whose work I didn't follow, wondering all the while with the spare 1% of my brain how I ended up fighting on this particular battlefield. The rest of the interview proceeded along similar lines, and I gave what was surely one of my least impressive performances. I mean, I've had interviews where I knew, mid-way through the day, that I was either going to get an offer or something was so seriously wrong with the place that I wouldn't want to work there anyway. But I lurched out of this one thinking that they'd have to have something seriously wrong with them to call me back. Which indeed they didn't.
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