For engineers, it is sometimes difficult to say that you don’t know, especially in academia. An engineer at a basic level is supposed to solve problems and come up with ideas. Academia can be pretty cutthroat with funding drying up and the pressure to patent, publish, and build a research group. Saying you don’t know goes counter to being a solutions-oriented person.
In an interview, and particularly in a difficult interview, the most effective way to not get backed into a corner is to say you don’t know. During my interviews, I have one clear instance where there was no way I was going to impress this faculty member and had no choice but to switch from promoting my abilities to trying to limit my losses. I’ll try to remain as generic as possible but the rough scenario was the following.
Day 1, I met HardProf with the other Profs in a quasi-informal setting (although you, as the interviewee, treat everything like an interview). Most of the other Profs were bantering with me about side topics; sports, experience abroad, traveling, lifestyle, family, etc etc. Sure, some of these things aren’t officially allowed to be interview questions but they’re going to come up so you might as well answer them. Anyway, HardProf did not seem to join the banter but would continuously switch topics to research/teaching/group setup/experience. I found this odd, but went with it. I was a little uncomfortable with rapidly adapting to new topics while focusing to keep as socially and politically neutral as possible.
Overall, Day 1 interviews went very well so I ended the day feeling very positive. I had one awkward interview but that is easily classified as neutral compared to this. Day 2 rolls around where I meet with HardProf early in the day. Usually, the interview starts with a few minutes of banter just to get the flow going. This was not the case with HardProf. From minute one, HardProf starts firing broadsides and I had no choice but to duck and cover. From my talk the previous day and from discussions with other Profs, HardProf knew I did not have experience in this one field. However, one of the classes I suggested I wanted to teach contained a lot of that field. Previously, I answered that question stating something like “Currently, I am not fully up to speed on that particular topic. However, it is an area that I know I need to brush up on. Thus, why not put myself forward for teaching a class that has it to make sure I really learn it.” Most Profs usually respected that I admitted I did not know and that I was willing to learn. However, HardProf decided to go line by line through the course syllabus over 30 minutes, fully knowing I had experience with only a few topics.
Now, I tend to think I’m fairly good at coming up with BS on the spot when needed. But in an interview, BS is definitely an area you want to stay away from. So when HardProf asked, I shrugged and said my usual line about willing to learn. And with the next question, I shortened it to “I don’t have experience with that topic”. And a few questions later, “I don’t know”. And because I didn’t fumble around for a reason and stall for 10 minutes, I came out of the interview knowing there was no way I impressed HardProf but I don’t feel like it was my fault HardProf’s time was wasted. After 10 minutes of questioning, you’d figure the interviewee would get the point you’re trying to make and move on to something that was more useful. In the end, HardProf told me to enjoy my stay and good luck in the future, which is a nice political way of saying “get lost”.
So what were your hardest interviews/questions? How did you respond and did you think it ended up helping or hurting your overall performance?