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How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

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How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby S.P.J. » Tue Nov 27, 2012 7:29 pm

Hi all,

I have posted previously about my recent experiences with a bullying boss on a postdoc position and that I ended up leaving the position after only 4 months, with associated knocks to my confidence and self-esteem that I am now working on rebuilding. Others in that lab are now experiencing the same behaviour which makes me angry, although it does reinforce that I made the right decision and that it wasn't just something about me that caused the problems.

I have started to apply for a few academic positions now, and have an interview on monday for a part time lectureship in a field that is closely related to my previous postdoc work, which I am very excited about as it is the first time I have managed to secure an interview for a lecturing position :-)

Apart from general nerves about it being my first interview for a lecturing role, my main worry is how to approach/explain my recent postdoc experience in a way that doesn't make me look bad but also avoids bad-mouthing my previous PI?

Does anyone have any advice on how to navigate this tricky issue?

Thanks :-)
S.P.J.
 
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby PG » Wed Nov 28, 2012 7:01 am

My suggestion would be to let someone else do the job for you. Be open with the fact that you left early because of the fact that you didnt enjoy working under the conditions offered. Then volonteer a collegue that you worked with as a reference.

Most people will correctly interpret this as some form of personal issue between you adn your PI, appreciate the fact that you are being sensitive about it and potentially call your reference for additional detail.

You will need to back this up with being enthusiastic and positive about the new position so that they are convinced that you will not leave again since they of course will be able to provide better conditions.
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby David Taylor » Wed Nov 28, 2012 10:50 am

I would go with the message that you gained some valuable experience from the brief position, but that it ultimately wasn't the right fit. Follow by discussing why the new position WILL BE the right fit, as PG suggested.

They may pry further into the issue, but don't get intimidated. Just remain positive and do not bash your PI or speak in negative tones. For example, it's better to say "My work style (which is XYZ) differed from my mentor's" versus "My boss bullied me and was a micromanager."
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby Jim Austin » Thu Nov 29, 2012 1:32 pm

I very much like PG's advice: If you can manage it--if you have such allies--refer them to a respected senior person who can explain the situation. That doesn't mean you should hold back at the interview--present the facts dispassionately, leave your anger at the door, and make your referral to that respected senior person a big part of your message during the interview. You need the help of a third party here.

Even so, don't expect this to be easy. It's one of the worst things about the system we use for training people: Arrogant, obnoxious senior people can ruin your career and there's not a lot you can do about it. I've seen it happen more than once. Hopefully things will go better than that for you.

Good luck.

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers
http://www.sciencecareers.org
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby S.P.J. » Sun Dec 02, 2012 2:51 am

Thanks so much everyone, I really appreciate your replies and it's making me feel a little better about the interview.

I am hoping that I can do as you suggest, and briefly explain why I left and remain positive, hoping that they will be able to read between the lines. Although I am getting over it and trying to learn from my experience and put it behind me, my confidence has been very much shaken so I am hoping that they interviewers will not be too aggressive and I can maintain my composure and remain positive which is more like my normal character!

Unfortunately I am new to this country and so do not know many people in a senior position who can provide references, although other research colleagues in the lab I was in have offered to provide character references if I need them which is great.

Do you think it would be helpful for me to offer the contact details of a colleague who is at the same level as me (senior postdoc) to provide a reference specifically for this, or would it really need to be someone in a more senior position?

The only other person I know at a more senior level who was aware of the situation is the bullying advisor at the university (who is also a senior academic in a different faculty) but I feel I can't really use that person for a reference as this would come across as quite negative that I made an official report about bullying behaviour.

I agree with your comments about the training system Jim, it feels to me like a real David and Goliath situation being up against someone who is very powerful and feeling so powerless myself. It would be nice if this could be changed in future generations but I fear it will not, as people get promoted based on their publication output and grant success and not on whether they are actually capable of interacting with and managing people. At any rate, I definitely have a list of behaviours to avoid if and when I ever have a research group of my own!

Thanks again :-)
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby PG » Sun Dec 02, 2012 4:01 pm

Another postdoc might be better than nothing but in that situation I would give the reference if specifically asked. If you give the name without being asked it looks like you are suggesting a friend. Be prepared that they might contact someone else in the group if they are interested in hiring you. Obviously they cant speak to the PI and possibly they are not satisfied with only talking with someone who you mentioned.
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby S.P.J. » Mon Dec 03, 2012 1:36 am

Thanks PG - I went prepared with the contact for a colleague from the lab in case they asked but actually they didn't even mention my recent short position and focused solely on my previous experience before I moved here!

I was totally shocked as I'd been worrying about it being red flag but wasn't even mentioned, perhaps because the interview was for a teaching position they focused more on my teaching experience which is mainly from other positions rather than my most recent one. Who knows, at any rate I didn't have to explain any of the things I was worrying about which was good.

As to whether I put in the best interview performance of my life I'm not so sure but we'll see :-) It was good to have some more interview practice and meet some new people even if I don't get the position, and a good exercise to prepare what I would say and how to tackle the thorny issues.

Thanks for your advice, I will keep it to hand for future interviews as I'm sure this issue will be asked about at some point! Other lab members have also said they would be happy to provide references if needed so I don't mind if future employers wish to speak with someone else from the lab, shouldn't be a problem but is good to bear in mind.
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Re: How to explain previous postdoc issues in interview?

Postby PG » Mon Dec 03, 2012 8:59 am

Once you have a more recent position the issue should pretty much go away assuming that you have either good references or in the case of no references from the current employer a longer time of employment with them.
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