The Interview Question I Was Completely Unprepared For

Sep 06 2016 Published by under industry vs academia, Interview, job search, motherhood

Today’s guest contributor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in New York City. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and her research interests include neuroanatomy and psychiatric disease. She has posted with us previously and is back in a two-part series to share her experiences with different job interviews around the time she became a new mother.

At 9 months pregnant, I had two promising phone interviews. One was for an academic job. The other was for a medical communications firm.

Given my advanced pregnancy, and how unpredictable babies’ arrivals can be, my contact at the medical communications firm decided not to attempt to schedule a formal interview, and instead she proposed we meet and talk at a coffee shop after work one evening.

She bought us both hot chocolates, and we found a quiet place to talk. I’d researched as much as I could about the firm, but was still surprised when she told me about the breadth of work that comprised medical communications. It was, as I was aware, communication of drug information in a comprehensive way to the public and prescribing physicians. But, as I learned, it also encompassed communication about science to clinicians to inform trial design, presenting clinical data to businessmen and women, and even branched into regulatory affairs. I found myself growing increasingly excited about the potential impact I could have in this career field, and how much I could learn.

But then she gently turned the questions to me, pressing for information about my own background and career thus far. All went well and fairly predictably until she asked me a question I never anticipated.

“What can we do to support you in your role as a new mother?”

“I’m sorry?” I responded, thinking, ‘This is a trick question!’

“Well, if we go forward with this, we’d want to make this position work for you. We want to provide the support necessary for you to be successful here. What do you think you would need from us?”

I think I opened and closed my mouth a few times. I just could not think of what to say.

“Do you think you would want to start part-time?” she prompted, “Or maybe work from home a few days a week?”

I was floored. Was this not a trick question? Was she seriously asking me? In all the discussions I’d had at work as a postdoc, despite having successfully obtained salary support for myself through a fellowship and obtained additional grants for my research, no one had ever asked what professional support I would need through my pregnancy and transition into motherhood. Even though my friends and colleagues congratulated me on a personal level, my pregnancy was largely framed as a liability– something that we could overcome if I were productive enough. Despite the massive changes to my personal life, life in lab rolled along the same as it ever had. If anything, I felt pressure to work harder to prove I was still dedicated and as capable as I ever was– and I honestly think my lab was better than most in terms of their treatment of a pregnant postdoc.

So I had never considered the question before. And I was still speechless.

She smiled, “Well, why don’t you think about it? I’m sure it’s hard to know now how your life will change over the next few months!”

We wrapped up our talk, and she proposed I get back in touch once I was ready and had taken some time to adjust to motherhood.

Reflecting on the interview afterwards, the way the question was framed was also intriguing to me. Essentially, she was saying that if I weren’t successful, her department wouldn’t be as successful as it could be either– so, if I needed certain minor accommodations to succeed, it was in her best interest to provide them. Once I thought about it, this seemed like Management 101.

But I’ve never come across this management style in my scientific training in academia thus far, and this interview experience contrasted strikingly with my academic interview.

In fairness, academia can lend itself towards working flexible hours, which has been invaluable to me over the last few years, and now, as a working mother of an infant. But I consider myself fortunate in this benefit: not every academic job is flexible, and most academic jobs that I’m aware of, especially at the faculty level, mandate working very long hours (even when there is some flexibility about which hours those are).

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At the moment, I’m still not sure what direction my career will head in. My husband just landed his dream job in another city, so a move is on the horizon.

But after these two interviews, I think I have a better idea of what I’d like to see in an employer.


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