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Flashing Red Signs During a Job Interview

Posted in: Personal Development
A red sign to depict warning signs to watch for during a job interview.

In all the stress of having a job interview, it’s easy to forget that it takes more than one to tango. In fact, a job interview is like a new flatmate interview. While your prospective boss and colleagues are interviewing you and assessing your fit for the lab, you should also keep your eyes and ears open.

You’ve done your homework and know the cold hard facts about the lab. It has that many regular publications in such-and-such journals; the boss has a rising star or an established leader reputation, etc. But as with Tinder vs. meeting in person, nothing replaces the feel of the place.

Red herrings to look for during and after the interview:

  • Your prospective boss is mostly negative about his former employees. However bad they sound, there are all the chances that despite your conviction in your brilliance he will be unhappy with you as well. If he calls somebody an idiot, there’s a high probability that he’ll call you an idiot too.
  • You are not offered the chance to meet your future lab mates. This can mean, as it happened to me, that you are definitely not getting the job, or even worse, that the boss doesn’t value his employees’ input, or that the overall work environment is very toxic.
  • Can you imagine spending a lot of time with this person if you get to know him/her? The initial awkwardness is fine, but don’t ignore your gut feeling if it tells you that your new job will be an uphill struggle all the way.

Talking to Your Future Lab Mates

Of course they are invested and loyal to the group and not to a stranger like you, but look for omissions. See how people interact with each other, especially in an informal situation. There’s a marked difference between people being enthusiastic about their work, group, and boss and being markedly polite and lukewarm.

Pay attention to stories about people leaving their project in the middle of a grant or quitting PhD students. Of course, people drop out for various reasons, from maternity leave to finding a better job. But a trend of leaving before the end of a contract or seemingly to nowhere should not be dismissed. I applied to a post where not one but two consecutive people left for allegedly unconnected reasons and I later discovered the supervisor was a bully. It didn’t go well.

Extended Job Interviews

Interviews that spread over several days and involve a non-lab based activity can be a pause for thought as well. It’s OK to go for a meal, in fact, that’s where you can put your hand on the pulse of the group. After I liked going for a Chinese with my future lab mates, I liked them even more while working with them. But a group trip to a sauna offered to one of my friends interviewing for a postdoc was creepy – she was not applying to be a bikini model. She turned the sauna down and (probably not coincidentally) didn’t get the job, but I think she’s better off without it.

It’s worth heeding Forbes advice: “No company will ever love you more than they love you when they are recruiting you. If you have to beg and grovel to get a job then the job is not worth getting”.

The Take Home Message

Despite our title, you will notice no flashing red signs, especially if you choose to ignore them. But if after finishing the interview you have an uneasy feeling that something is not quite right, keep your options open, even if you cannot say exactly what’s wrong. Your unconscious may be better at judging the overall situation.

I know that jobs are thin on the ground these days. But a toxic group is bad for your wellbeing in the short term and your career in the long term—think hard before you commit.

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