The Neverending Interview
By Dan Munro
In my senior year of college I applied for a selective grad school fellowship in the natural sciences. In November they flew me out to Chicago so that my reasoning abilities could be tested in person. We were all housed and interviewed in the same hotel, sparing me from the frigid outside air for the entirety of my twenty-four hour stay. I had trained with the scholarship guru at my university to hone my interview skills. My handshake was firm, my voice projected, and I could summarize my research with enthusiasm. But this was a technical interview, in which the interviewer posed math and science problems, I worked through them out loud, and there were right and wrong answers. There were more of the latter than I might have hoped.
After a technical interview you can’t help but think that everything in the world, from coin flips to fish ponds, was set up as a tricky logic puzzle. Interview questions are meant to be tough, maybe I did alright, I thought, putting a positive spin on it. All I can do now is return home and wait for the verdict.
As soon as I left the conference room where the interview took place, however, I made two observations. First, my bag containing my laptop was not where I left it in the waiting room. Second, what I had thought of as a waiting room was in fact a hotel lounge, connecting the conference rooms to the lobby.
It had seemed natural to leave my belongings where I was sitting and chatting with other nervous applicants. But I had one of the last interviews of the day, so by the time it was over the lounge had cleared out. This felt like a trap.
I looked for the interview coordinator to ask about my bag. She was nearby in a huddle with the interviewers. I approached. Applicants typically try to top off their interviews with expressions of gratitude and enthusiasm. My finale was “Have you seen my laptop?”
They hadn’t. In a gesture that was as mortifying as it was kind, the interviewers joined in the search. It was like a technical interview question in physical form, with me flipping up seat cushions and the interviewers gently suggesting a different approach. I began to envy my bag—Why couldn’t I disappear too?
Eventually I was reunited with my wayward laptop, which had been taken to the front desk for safe keeping. Worse than stumbling through any of the interview questions was realizing I could have gone directly to the front desk and departed with my belongings. Instead, my parting message to the fellowship committee was, “If you give me money, I will lose it.”
At least I got some good face time with multiple interviewers, I thought. Maybe this will actually work to my advantage. The human brain must have an entire lobe dedicated to self-delusion.
Days later I was informed that I did not make the cut for a second interview. The letter did not elaborate. Still, when I informed my scholarship guru of the decision, he congratulated me on being a semifinalist for the fellowship, and to make sure and put that on my CV. Ah, there’s the positive spin I was looking for.
Dan Munro is a computational biologist who studies the sequence, structure, and function of proteins.