As social beings we have requirements for interactions with others: friends, family and coworkers. Yet, many of us remain isolated from one another using work or being too busy as an excuse to avoid conversation. I know that I am certainly guilty of this.
However, it is our interactions with others that generally result in our most profound moments. Sharing the thrill of a discovery, telling about your child’s first steps, or helping someone through grief can be the most poignant. Still we resist.
My MP3 player is on an eternal and eclectic 80’s shuffle as am I. This morning it was playing “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol, and the song reminded me of a recent awkward exchange.
While on a visit to Texas A&M University to help review resumes and conduct interviews as part of a “Preparing for Life after Graduate School” workshop, I met a young chemist of remarkable talent. She was not yet finished with her Ph.D., but she had ten published papers in highly respected journals, awards from several groups, and won a fellowship from NSF!
Like most other people I counsel I was lucky to get two papers at her stage, my scholarships consisted of a small collection of bottle caps for free sodas, and my blue ribbon for winning the soapbox derby in the third grade stood alone in the awards category. I was humbled.
I stumbled on pretending to know what I was doing, and began the interview. The first question I asked was, “What was the purpose of your research?”
There was a long pause, and she said, “to study the surfactant-water interface.” And I said, “Why?” And there was another long pause…and she said, “I don’t know, but I want to be a patent lawyer.” And I said, “Why?” And there was another long pause…and she didn’t respond.
I stared at her blankly as she stared at me finally stating, “I guess I’m not very good at this. I just don’t know how to express myself.” I was flabbergasted. I asked if she was truly the person mentioned in the resume presented to me, and she emphatically said, “Yes.”
As it turned out, she was an excellent writer with even greater research prowess, but she just didn’t know how to talk to people. Like most of us, she had focused on her research at the cost of everything else. Like Billy Idol, she had been dancing with herself. Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh. She lacked the gift of gab.
Talking to others takes practice. I guess we forget, because so many seemingly stupid people do it so well. If you get anxious speaking to people you don’t know the exasperation is compounded, and it only gets worse on an interview.
Here is a trick I learned. To take the pressure off, give yourself an assignment in advance. Start out small and graduate to something more. You could begin with collecting three business cards before calling it a night, and graduate to inviting a perfect stranger to a reception or party. But whatever you do, take a chance. Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh.
This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter Feb. 5, 2007.