Fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Interviewing a Very Confused Geologist

Monday saw my first post-doc interview, for a job at Imperial trying to figure out how to analyse samples to find evidence for organic molecules on Mars. I’ve had a fair few interviews over the last year but they’ve all otherwise been for part-time, outdoor-industry-related sales and service jobs in Norwich where my expert levels of kit fetishism and experience of actually having seen mountains have been enough to see me through. This, on the other hand, was intense.

In the week running up to the interview I’d not had a single day off to prepare. With perfect timing I’d just started back in the Stable Isotope Lab on a short-term pilot study (more on this in a later post). Preparing samples three days a week, the other four spent working my day job as a children’s entertainer and belay-monkey at the climbing wall. Preparation for the interview, writing a 15 minute presentation on my easiest- to-explain-but-not-necessarily-my-best paper and reading the research group’s latest papers on over my head level chemistry IN SPACE, had to be crammed into a continuous work – prep – train – sleep cycle.

One of the day jobs - snail crushing!

After a particularly intense Sunday-Funday of stopping small children killing themselves, I had to get the late-night train down from Norwich and spend a night on a mate’s sofa (thanks Jimmy). As anyone who has ever tried to escape the transport-link black hole that is East Anglia will know, this is preferable to trying to get out whilst in a hurry, as there'll probably be a tractor on the line or something. Having spent the past 5 years living at the rather sedate pace of Norfolk, navigating the Underground while fighting the London rush hour was a rather unpleasant wake up call to what city-life could be like if I do manage to get a ‘real’ job, although thankfully all the lines were running for once.

Arriving at the Royal School of Mines, with suit intact and plenty of time, I almost walked straight past the building. Its Classical style with pillars and huge, imposing sculptures of benefactors to the school defended by giant half-naked warriors carved out of Portland stone is such a far cry from the bleak 60’s concrete monstrosity of the UEA Teaching Wall that I have become accustomed to university buildings looking like.

The Imposing architecture of the Royal School of Mines - Image from

The interview started quite well (I think), my presentation on my paper from last year on the stable isotopic records of Cladocora caespitosa (can be read here if you’re interested) being met with nodding heads, smiles and no devastating questions from the three interviewers. I answered all the standard ‘How to you think your skills will translate to this project?’ and ‘Why do you want to do this’ questions without too much waffling and hopefully the right amount of science, the question checking I’d actually bothered to read their papers wasn’t too bad, and it even turned out one of the panel, the main PI, was a climber.

Then it all came crashing down, they fired a ‘basic’ chemistry question at me, ‘We have found [complicated mineral name I’ve never heard of] and [even more complicated mineral name I’ve never heard of] on Mars, what does this tell you about the chemistry of the water?’ I froze; mind blank, where did THIS come from? It was all going so well. I haven’t done real chemistry since my GCSE’s; I’m just a geologist that likes to play in the lab with the shiny machines (hence the Blog's title). This wasn’t the kind of thing I could even try and wing, I was fully out of my depth here, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know’ was all I could say. This was it, game over…maybe, we’ll see...

So now that’s it, wait and see if all that I could do was enough. Not holding my breath for this one, it’d be a great project to be on, but I expect the competition to be pretty stiff and probably know their chemistry a bit better. If nothing else it was good interview practice, any others will hopefully have a less stressful run up to them. And I did get a chance for a good catchup with an old university mate and a quality bouldering session at the Climbing Hanger while I was down there, so it wasn’t all bad. Now back to the process of finding more job adverts I can tenuously apply my skillset to and firing off applications.

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