‘So Dr X, is there any truth in the fact that your sponsors have the most interest in your research outcomes being positive, and does that compromise the research?’ This was national television and the eminent scientist had the opportunity to convince us all of the vital role of science in our society. All he had to play was a defensive block to knock this standard journalistic question out of the danger zone. Something like a robust: ‘Scientists safeguard the public by upholding the highest regard for truth, or evidence as we tend to call it. High standards cost money and who else but businesses who may benefit from discoveries are going to fund our work on behalf of society?’ Round of applause. But no. He paused. He looked uncomfortable and he began: ‘Well, we can never categorically say there is no truth in something’. In that moment, by agreeing with his sceptical questioner, he lost his case.
Your role in the selection game
You, and our eminent scientist have trained for many years to be scientists: to strip out the subjective, test every claim, refute weak evidence. But selection is a different game and the roles are reversed. The selectors play the disbeliever, and investigate like a journalist and your role is to make sure you bring all the positive evidence about you as a scientist to the table. Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse, recently said on Newsnight: ‘Scientists do not cherry pick-data. They take a sceptical approach to what they do’. But in the selection situation you are the expert on yourself and the evidence base is known only by you.
Why are selectors so sceptical?
Firstly, the buyer must always beware. Everyone wants to avoid employing a ‘nightmare’ who costs more than they contribute. Also, as Social Scientists are well aware, reliable evidence which predicts how people will behave is very hard to come by. Might applicants be tempted to present themselves in too favourable a light? A survey on behalf of the new Higher Education Degree Datacheck reported that 89% of students and graduates said that by just having the knowledge that their qualifications were going to be checked would make them less likely to lie. No wonder selectors have become suspicious over the years. You will want to be making compelling, substantiated claims.
Perhaps selection works more like a thesis defence?
Remember your PhD viva? Of course, nothing was certain, but you proposed your thesis and supporting evidence, then, with a confidence born of intimate day-to-day knowledge which exceeded that of anyone else in the world, you defended your evidence and established your credentials. Perhaps selection makes more sense seen as a special sort of viva.
Increasingly, we apply for posts by submitting the bare facts of our experience via a standard interface to ease comparison for selectors. Once you have met their essential or desirable factual requirements, selection from the qualifying pool of candidates is more of an art. In supporting documentation, and in discussion this is when crucial evidence of those softer skills, such as: effectiveness at team working; potential for leading research teams; persistently constructive and resilient attitudes, differentiates the best candidate for the job.
So what is convincing evidence for selecting the best scientist for the job?
Consider the following:
- ‘Yes, I’ve been on the research team for about two years now, and it’s going pretty well so far’.
- ‘Yes, day to day, Prof X’s lab is led by two PIs. In our group of 15, I’ve been there for about two years now so I have been able to induct the two new post-docs and set up a system for inviting post-docs and PhD students to report on their work at our monthly lab meetings. That helps to identify potential problems, develops communication skills and frankly makes meetings more interesting.’
Both responses sound natural, but the second offers far more evidence of insight and experience of operating successfully within the management structures of a lab, even from an early career stage. What makes this account more convincing? It includes detail. It gives information about the number of staff, the management structure, the communication styles and roles within the team. It convinces us because we believe that it is an account of lived experience, not just a CV embellishment.
So be ready to present the positive evidence about yourself and your capabilities in a clear and straightforward manner, as if in a viva. Trust the selector to play the sceptical role. Practice talking positively about your achievements, cite relevant details and keep conveying self-belief through your language and your body-language.
In the next article we discuss simple frameworks which help you to bring convincing evidence about job performance to the discussion in a way that appeals directly to the selector’s needs and also words to avoid when talking about yourself.