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Dan Goldstein’s advice on interviewing for academic jobs in marketing

The advice is interesting but I don’t really have much to say about it—in particular, I have no sense if it’s good advice for people interviewing for jobs in statistics. My real question, though, is how much are these pieces of advice are zero-sum and how much of them would create overall improvements.

Just for analogy, if I give people advice about how to make cleaner powerpoint presentations, that’s positive-sum (better communication for all); if I tell people a secret way to put their proposals at the top of the pile for a granting agency, that’s zero-sum; if I give people the advice of not posting preliminary results so they don’t get scooped, that’s negative-sum.

Now let me play this game with Dan’s advice:

“Get yourself a room in the conference hotel, preferably on the floor where the express elevator meets the local elevator for the upper floors.”: Zero-sum. If you get a room at the conference hotel, somebody else will have to find a room elsewhere.

“Get your advisor / sponsor to write a cover letter encouraging people to meet with you at AMA.”: Zero-sum, I think.

“Repeat this process a bunch of times. It’s a good idea to hit a school with 2 packets, 3 if you suspect they’re a little disorganized.”: Negative-sum. I’m not saying this wouldn’t work—a couple of years ago, our department missed out on a top candidate because we literally lost his file. But it can’t be good to have duplicate letters flying around.

“Don’t sweat it.”: Positive-sum.

“Keep in mind that you will leave this process with 1 or 0 jobs. Therefore, when talking to a person, the most likely thing is that here or she will not be your colleague in the future. Therefore, think of each opportunity as a chance to make a friend.”: Positive-sum. Also a good point.

“Put the important stuff early in your CV so nobody can miss it.”: Positive-sum. It saves people time.

“Audition for the part, and make yourself stand out.”: Zero-sum. (Possibly negative-sum because of the time spent auditioning, possibly positive-sum because time spent auditioning could help with teaching.)

“One of the biggest risks facing you is that you will be forgotten. Make sure the interviewers know something unusual about you.”: Zero-sum. Or maybe positive-sum, I don’t know.

“Don’t gossip.”: Negative-sum. I say this because Dan illustrates with a story where the gossiper provided him with useful information! So the gossip was probably helpful.

Other thoughts on academic advice

All told, I think Dan’s advice is positive-sum. What made me think of all this is that sometimes I see advice for academic researchers that’s clearly negative-sum (or, at best, zero-sum), advice telling people not to do anything too original until they get tenure etc. (I got some of that advice from colleagues myself, back when I was an untenured professor.) Dan’s advice seems generally good to me (although, as noted above, I don’t think I can really judge that very well, it’s just my guess) but in general it seems worth thinking about whether advice that we’re giving is beneficial for outcomes or just positional.


  1. Anish Muttreja says:

    Your game reminded me of Gandhi's talisman
    I draw the analogy because evaluating the sum before giving out advice, or doing anything else, sounds like a great general principle.
    A definitely positive-sum post :-).

  2. Andrew C. Thomas says:

    The "something unusual about you" is a common icebreaking trick (one I try to encourage with the new students in Harvard Stat) and so goes with the "making friends" point Dan made earlier. Definitely positive-sum.

  3. ZBicyclist says:

    I interviewed two new stat PhD's this week for an applied job.

    Goldstein writes: "When done, they will ask you if you have anything to ask them. You of course do not. You hate this question. You make something up."

    I always ask this question. Lots of people always ask this question. (1) it's polite. The applicant may have questions to ask. (2) you want to see what they want to ask.

    An amazing number of job candidates are completely unprepared for this softball question. Come prepared.

    Some not particularly inventive, but sufficing questions:

    How long have you been here? What are the major things you find rewarding about being here? What's your career path been?

    If I'm hired here, what are a couple of things that it would be particularly good for me to pick up in the first few weeks/months on the job? What are the characteristics of people who do well/poorly in the type of job I'm applying for?

    What are the major challenges the company has over the next few years — and how does this job help deal with those challenges?

    (you always look smart by looking interested in the wisdom of the interviewer)

    Do not START OUT by asking about salary, working hours, if you can bring your dog to the office, what the medical co-pay is, what the best way is to get back to the airport, whether there are a lot of single women/men in the department, how many weeks of vacation you get and how long until you get more, where the closest good skiing is, and similar questions.

    (A lot of these are questions you can ask during the HR part of the interview, if they need to be asked.)

  4. ZBicyclist says:

    Dan also mentions "Have a quirk" to make yourself memorable. This is particularly good advice for applied jobs, in which at least one person you interview with will be a complete non-statistician.

    Put this on your resume at the very bottom, where you include "married, 2 kids" type of stuff (if you do). Eagle scout is good (no, I'm NOT kidding — it's something to talk about and it does indicate dedication). Olympic wrestling alternate or Cat 2 bike racer is better, if you've got something like that. I used to put "2nd place, pie eating contest, 19xx" because if asked there was a funny story that went along with it.

  5. Quartz says:

    Hmmm, just recognised that I usually inconsciously do the "friends" and "unusual" tricks already, and it worked pretty well most of the times! (80% actually)
    But from now on I will start thinking about these issues and become greedy, and will so loose the spontaneousness and appeal… damn, negative sum!

  6. Dan Goldstein says:

    Just found this again after quite some time. Here's my reply:

    ZBicyclist – I agree it's polite and useful for interviewers to ask that the interviewee if he or she has any questions.

    However, as a clueless interviewee, I really had no idea how to handle it. And nobody I asked could come up with a good question, only things not to ask. For example, "Don't ask about salary", "Don't ask about teaching load", "Don't even ask them about the weather there because they'll be like 'What's he trying to imply about the weather here?'" :)