Tough Interviews

by Nga Cao (ntc718@www710.gsfc.nasa.gov)

"...[ during the interview,] we focus on the intellectual process... on the creativity in responding to a question. The creativity of the response is more important than the response. [... ] We are looking not at how much the individual knows, but at how he/she reaches conclusions, even if he/she lacks technical information on the subject. It is not important if the answer is right or wrong - in many instances wrong answers are more interesting to us because they lead us to additional questions defining the process by which the person reached a wrong conclusion- and that may show more creativity than the right answer from someone who has a fund of information. Many times, we ask questions for which there are no answers or on which there is no [...] consensus.[...Our interviewees] often complain about the unpredictability of the questions which are being asked, but that is intentional, not an accident. Hypothetical [ what if] questions are often asked so that [ they] will have to be creative and not just apply a fund of knowledge..." We are looking for [... ] the ability to think: a certain minimal amount of knowledge, of course, but more important, creativity, [... ] their ability to solve problems, in other words, to think."

These are the words of Dr. David Axelrod, Head of the Board of Judges of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search from 1971 to 1986 and Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Nobel Laureate, one of the judges. They are describing the final interview process by which the top 10, out of about 1400 students in the US who enter this competition each year, are selected to receive no-strings-attached college scholarships ranging from $20,000 to $7,500 each. Started in 1942, this competition has helped produce 6 Nobel Prize winners, 2 Fields Medal winners, 8 Mac Arthur Fellowship winners, 2 National Medal of Science winners, 28 National Academy of Science members, 3 National Academy of Engineering members and countless other top researchers and engineers in universities and laboratories across the US.

The success of this interview strategy in identifying creative and talented people for Science has inspired many top graduate schools and companies to adopt similar techniques in their interviews of new employees, especially new graduates.

Here is how Nguyen describes his interview at Hewlett-Packard: " It lasted 8 full hours! In the morning, my potential manager brought me in the R&D laboratory to meet other engineers in his group and to see their work, then I went downstairs to the plant to see how the production line works. I was encouraged to ask as many questions as possible. Then I met with the President of the Division in his office and had lunch with a few of the engineers and technicians. In the afternoon, I went to a room where I worked on a transistor circuit design problem for about 1 hour and then I had to sit down for another 2 hours with the top engineer in the R&D lab and explain my solution to him. I think I got the wrong answer but, somehow, they hired me anyway." What Nguyen did not know was that all the people he met that day had a meeting the following day to talk about their impression of him. The circuit problem was rigged so that there was no right answer for it, but he showed resourcefullness and creativity in his search for a solution, as well as curiosity and a desire to learn during his plant tour, and that was what they were looking for. He was the only new graduate hired by the division that year and for many years after....

...By the way, in case you are curious, there are 2 vietnamese students in the top 10 list of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. They are: Ngo Tan Dinh, 1981 and Nguyen-Huynh Anh Tuan, 1986. But there are about 9 korean students and about 57 chinese students in the same list, including 4 chinese top sholarship winners!


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