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From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 10 November 2009

Talk too much about your flaws and you’re lacking in confidence; talk too much about your strengths and you’re arrogant

When I sit down, wet, tired, frustrated and nervous, the Christmas tree next to my chair pokes me. It took me an hour to find the building and I’m also beginning to think that the taxi from the train station was just another unnecessary expense – at a time when my budget’s tight as it goes. I shake my head and notice that one of the secretaries sees me. As I blush, my brain re-engages reality: I’m here, I’m on time, and I’m about to interview.

I straighten my tie and pat my hair down: funny how scientists are expected to turn up for interviews in a suit, and, upon success, to ditch it for the traditional lab casu-wear. I don’t remember the last time I had to wear my suit; I think it was in that London conference. Don’t recall it feeling so tight either.

Laughter emanates from the other side of the door and I relax a little. Don’t know if I should really – it’s not me they’re laughing with, and whoever they’re interviewing seems to be doing well. Or maybe they’re laughing at them, in which case –

– focus-focus-focus. I get like this when I’m stressed, my brain just flies off into irrelevant tantrums or gets hooked onto equally irrelevant details. Like that first time my supervisor was explaining trypsinization to me and I was so keen to please I completely tuned out the part about the EDTA in the solution. Result? First time I tried to transfer some fibroblasts took ages.

OK, sounds like they’re wrapping it up in there. I shift my weight a bit and the Christmas bulbs clunk together. I grin sheepishly to the secretary and try not to imagine the sight of me standing over shattered pieces of coloured glass as my possible next employer opens the door. So I sit very, very still, and instead try to envision the interview.

Once we dispense with the niceties (“How was your trip?” and “did you find the place OK?”) we’ll dive straight into my presentation. Unlike my other two interviews so far, this one’s unique: No PowerPoint, they said, you will just have markers, a flip-chart, and ten minutes. Hard to practise at home, especially after memorizing my PowerPoint slides so well I forgot to actually switch them during my last interview presentation. Which probably explains why I’m doing this interview. Anyway, I assume drawing stuff will eat up some time, so I’ll chomp on some of the technical stuff (specialized media, peptide sequences, nuclear isolation protocol) and try to wow them with some sweet data. Too bad I won’t be able to show my fluorescence photos...

...that wrapping up must be taking a while, because I can still hear voices – female voices – chatting. Well, at least they sound relaxed – last interview I did, I felt like I was confessing murder.

This is when I wonder what my edge is. That’s what they told us in all of those “survive your interview” workshops they kept dragging us out of the lab for in my final year: know what your edge is; what makes you a better candidate than all the others. It’s amazing, they said, how people can talk non-stop about their weaknesses, but they’ll bite their tongues before they mention a strength. But – talk too much about your flaws and you’re lacking in confidence; talk too much about your strengths and you’re arrogant. Frankly, I wonder how anyone ever gets a job.

They’re still talking behind the door, and we’re already five minutes past my time. But their voices sound “taller” now, as if they’re all standing. Hey, maybe that can be my edge: I can see behind closed doors. That’s got to be a useful skill in science.

Well, it sure isn’t my publications. Four years of dog-work wading through wonky blots and mycoplasma-ridden lines, I just about squeezed out enough data to get a PhD, and papers (“the currency of science”) were not even on the horizon. Should’ve seen their faces in my last interview… come to think of it, they probably just invited me for the laughs.

This is going great. I’ve really boosted my confidence here. Maybe I should just take my sorry soggy scientist self and get out of here. Their smiling voices seep through the closed door and something tells me that’ll be a tough act to follow.

My edge... my edge...

Suddenly, with a brief “closer” sound, the door opens. A girl comes out, in interview-ware: black trousers, charcoal suit jacket and a white shirt with lilac stripes. She looks pleased, which doesn’t bode well for me. She also looks serious, professional and put-together; I bet she doesn’t even know what mycoplasma looks like. I bet every one of her experiments worked and she neatly logged every single one of them in her tidy, prissy lab-book.

I bet she’s got a Nature paper.

As I stand up, our eyes meet for an instant and I’m suddenly very aware of my damp hair. And then, from inside the room comes the strangest thing:

“Well, good luck with your thesis!”

They’re talking to her. And in that little sliver of time, between her “thank you” and my name being called, feelings of relief flood my face and I can actually feel my heart slowing down.

She’s still writing her thesis.

I’m holding mine; my black, gold-letter, hard-bound thesis. It never felt lighter.

I know it doesn’t really matter. I know that some employers will hire a postdoc provisionally, when they’re still in their PhD write-up stage. I know they knew that before they invited her for an interview.

But it doesn’t matter. My brain’s fooled, and that’s all I need. As a voice calls out my name and I move through the door, I hold my head up and my shoulders straight. When I greet them, my voice sounds fake and professional, the voice of someone who never had a wonky gel in his life. And after we dispense with the niceties (“did you find the place OK?”) I take my place by the flip-chart, pick up the black marker, and start.

Who knows how far this will go? But there’s nothing scientific about working in science.

Still, my hair feels pretty dry.