A job interview for a scientific research position at the GS-12/13 level is a lot like an academic interview for Assistant Professor. The interview process is likely to take most of one day, but require two days of travel. For example, you should arrive the day before to rest, review your materials, and scope-out the facility so you know where you should report the next morning. Dress as you would for an academic interview, in a suit and tie – although I’ve heard of instances where the host specifically told the candidate to not dress formally. In that case, go business causal.

You are likely to get a tour of the facility. During this time your host will be evaluating you. Be prepared with salient questions, based on pre-interview research on agency missions and priorities, and work already being done at the lab. Be prepared to discuss potential lines of research.

You likely have to give a seminar, a standard 45 minute scientific job interview talk. You may be asked to present a summary of your background and research related to the position. An acceptable structure might be: a five-minute summary of your background, a short five-minute summary of a field-based project, 20 minutes on your primary research topic, then 10 minutes on how you would fit into the lab and agency. This is, of course, flexible. You will then answer questions from the audience, which will contain your potential future colleagues, as well as support staff, so treat it like a panel interview. Expect to go out for lunch with the staff, and perhaps dinner with other scientists.

Here are some important points to remember.

  • Treat the experience as several simultaneous interviews, e.g. scientific (credentials, publications, funding record, fit, and future research potential), administrative (ability to interact properly with staff and the bureaucracy), and supervisory (leadership potential).
  • The market flooded right now with excellent candidates looking for jobs and the final decision can come down to very small differences; i.e. “fit”. The challenge is to widen the gap between you and your competition. Because you can’t always know what “fit” they are looking for, actively demonstrate that you meet their needs. This is an application of advice from the world of private-sector job seeking.
  • Do not think that they are only looking for the best scientist who can do interesting work in the future. It is quite possible, if not likely, that there is a specific problem that the position must  solve. There might be a new agency initiative, a specific project, or other challenge that is effectively a “pain point” for the management of the facility.
  • You must identify what this is ahead of time, then address it explicitly in your talk. You must also be able to discuss how you will solve their problem. In other words, be sure and know to what extent the position fills a specific short term need or project they want you to start with.
  • To determine what the need is, examine the vacancy announcement and any other materials, like email correspondence, for clues. Then speak with your host and ask him to elaborate on what needs this position is intended to meet.

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