What's it like to interview for a government research position?
April 4, 2011 11:52 AM   Subscribe

After a rather disappointing year on the academic job market, I've been contacted for a phone interview at Big Government Laboratory for a position in Research Area of My Expertise. What to expect? How to prepare?

Since I've been gearing my job search toward academic positions, I feel like I have a reasonable handle on what the interview process is like and what the expectations are in academia. But I'm less sure about what a research position in a government lab involves. My sense is that there is more focus on applied research and less independence than in an academic environment, but I don't know exactly how that translates in terms of the interview process.

I'm certain I'll need to be able to talk about my current research and where it's going, as well as making contact, where applicable, with the research that's already being conducted by the people at big government lab. But what are the topics that are likely to come up that are peculiar to this sort of interview, and what are the interviewers looking for that wouldn't be obvious to someone who's mostly familiar with academia?
posted by logicpunk to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I took a non-academic job after being socialized to go R1.

I posted a comment recently on some overall thoughts about government versus academia, but...

- be prepared to not talk about your theoretical orientation, how you're extended theory, etc.

- they are likely to be interested in RESULTS rather than method. So, for example, in my research, talking about goodness of fit of a model or how I constructed a latent variable means very little to my government peeps.

- a big one, for me at least, was the lack of flexibility in negotiations. In academic jobs, it is all about negotiating. In government jobs there is almost none of that. Weird for me.
posted by k8t at 11:56 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: It really depends on the government lab. Some divisions of national labs do basic research and are very much like an academic environment. Other divisions or labs are much more applied. It also depends on the position and its expectations: would you be a postdoc? A staff scientist? And independent researcher? A researcher on a team? If you're willing to share a few more details, it could really help.
posted by medusa at 12:55 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: medusa: the particular division I'm applying to is a mix of basic and applied research - judging by their published articles it weighs a little more on the applied side of things. The position emphasizes collaboration, so most likely what you refer to as a team researcher (and not a postdoc; the lab has separate postings for postdocs). Hope these details help.

k8t: good information to have - I recall reading some of your earlier comments about transitioning from academics to government (partially because you were in the same general field as I am), so thanks for your input.
posted by logicpunk at 1:27 PM on April 4, 2011

Feel free to email me if you have more specific questions.
posted by k8t at 1:51 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I'm in Canada and I'm not a scientist -but I work for the government. HIRING IS VERY DIFFERENT HERE! Our HR policies create a long hiring process that requires the prospective employees to know the exact wording of the mandate and purpose of the organization. There is probably going to be a written test, which may or may not be relevant to the job. All this to say that, if you can talk to someone in a similar position, they could provide you some valuable insight.
posted by Gor-ella at 1:51 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I'm in Canada and I'm not a scientist -but I work for the government. HIRING IS VERY DIFFERENT HERE! Our HR policies create a long hiring process that requires the prospective employees to know the exact wording of the mandate and purpose of the organization.

My experience with being hired by a government lab was that this existed, but that the people in the department looking to fill an opening tried various ways of bypassing that process in order to get someone they wanted.

My experience was like this: the phone interview was as standard as any other corporate interview ("What are your greatest strengths? What are your weaknesses?" as well as getting a better feel for my work). Other than that, I gave a job talk and interviewed with the other group members just like any other academic or research position. k8t is right on about the lack of negotiation involved, compared to academic positions. That said, I did find there to be a decent amount of freedom-- perhaps more than I expected, and in retrospect I should have taken more advantage of it while I was there.

The big difference: after accepting the job offer, I was told then to fill out the online job application for the job posting, which than got transmitted through HR, to the person in charge of hiring, who accepted my application.

Big Government Laboratories are full of people with academic backgrounds, and they like to run their environments like that. The Big Government Bureaucracy exists, but I find the researchers try to replicate an academic environment as much as they can.
posted by deanc at 2:11 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: Well, that interview wasn't... what I expected. It was primarily conducted by three of the researchers, with the hiring manager showing up 3/4 of the way through. There were very few direct questions, and I had to look for opportunities to wedge in comments about how I fit their job description. Most of the time it involved my asking questions about how Big Government Lab works, and them sometimes elaborating on that. So... I dunno. I'll see what happens. If I get an on-site, I'll come back to this thread and give everyone who responded a big celebratory 'best answer'. Thanks for the help, folks.
posted by logicpunk at 4:15 PM on April 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks again for the advice all. I have an on-site interview with Big Government Laboratory in a few weeks, so I suppose the phone interview went over pretty okay.
posted by logicpunk at 11:55 AM on April 21, 2011

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