There's this scenario I keep seeing in movies that annoys the hell out of me. The shy socially awkward high school introvert later on in life turns into this rich successful adult while laughing at those arrogant bullying jocks who end up in menial jobs while sadly longing for the days as big men on campus. It annoys me because I haven't seen anything like that from personal experience. A perusal of social network profiles of my old classmates had me thinking things like "That obnoxious idiot owns a business?" and "How did that flaky annoying loudmouth end up with such a big house?" It was pretty obvious that the people who ended up the most successful were not the nerds with the highest GPAs, but the extroverts with the most confidence. It seems those gregarious personalities that made those guys popular in high school also made them successful in the workforce--much to my dismay.
I saw this firsthand as a graduate student when I was interviewing for jobs with some chemical companies. Even though I was leaning towards a career in teaching, I was intrigued with the idea of making money, so I put out my resume for companies making recruiting trips to our department. Like all my classmates who applied, I landed several interviews with companies that were supposedly interested in my credentials. After the interviews, no one was interested in my credentials. One interviewer even sent me an email a few hours afterwards to tell me I was rejected. I personally had thought the interviews went ok, but obviously I wasn't what they were looking for. Many of my classmates were getting the shaft as well.
So what exactly were these companies looking for? We didn't need to ask the interviewers. We just needed to see who was getting the job offers. A few people each year always seemed to emerge as "the chosen ones" whom the companies seemed to love and fight over. While these chosen people were no dummies by any measure, they weren't the top chemists in terms of academic achievement. In fact, there seemed to be ZERO correlation whatsoever with chemistry knowledge and job placement. What these people did have more than the rest of us were strong communication skills and personalities that exude confidence.
I understood that good interview skills were important for landing a job, but I wasn't expecting it be seemingly the ONLY factor. It was like once you passed the threshold of being good enough for a PhD, it made absolutely no difference how smart you were or how much you accomplished. Were the interviewers looking for the most productive employees who could make the companies lots of money or were they looking for a BFF to have a beer with after work?
I certainly understand their reasoning. A lot of the work is collaborative and people need to get along. They want people who will be good representatives for the company. Yet the whole ordeal left many of us befuddled because all the rules of success throughout our lives suddenly changed. You studied hard, got a good report card, and mom and dad took you out to Dairy Queen. Those high grades then got you into a good college and then graduate school. You put in the tough hours at work and made your advisor (at least somewhat) happy. Then when you finally get to the finish line of landing your first job, none of those things mattered.
It felt like I had just run a marathon and some guy tells me that I need to do 50 pushups or my race wouldn't count because I looked too much like a wimp. Then after failing the pushups, the guy tells me I have to run another 5 miles (postdoc) and then try the pushups again. If only I had known that I should have been working on pectorals the whole time in addition to my long-distance training, maybe I could have succeeded. The whole ordeal left me thinking I should have spent more time going to parties and developing my social skills rather than working in the lab and studying for classes.
I got pretty mad when friends would suggest that I needed to work on my interview skills even though they didn't actually see my interviews. But yeah, they probably sucked. Strangely though, I never had trouble obtaining a teaching position where one would think interpersonal communication skills would be important.
For whatever reason the chemical industry seems to value those people skills more. I never agreed with the idea of putting so much stock in a 30-minute interview, but that's how it is in almost every discipline. It should be noted that my struggles with these interviews were from 15 years ago when job prospects were obviously much better than they are today. Now more than ever it is critical to present yourself well at an interview if you want to be competitive in the job market. In other words, you can't have people skills like mine.