There’s a scene in Satyajit Ray’s vastly under-appreciated classic “Pratidwandi” (the Adversary) where the protagonist, Siddhartha is sitting in front of an interview board. Siddhartha has had to quit his medical studies because of a death in the family and desperately needs the job. He is then asked by the suited and booted men on the other side of the table:
“What do you think has been the most significant human achievement in the last few years?”
Now Siddhartha knows the answer he is “supposed to give”—which is “the moon landing” (The movie was released in the early 70s). Yet being honest and also somewhat of an idealist , he gives an answer that not only reflects his own beliefs (and individuality) but is also logically more nuanced than the “stock answer”.
Siddhartha considers the Vietnam War to be the greatest human achievement of the last few years because given the advances in science and technology, the moon landing was inevitable—the only suspense being whether it would this year or the next. However, the fact that a group of uneducated, disorganized peasants could keep at bay one of the World’s superpowers by dint of their determination was in itself a far greater “human achievement” because it was unexpected and unprecedented.
Siddhartha does not get the job. The bosses suspect him to be a communist despite the fact that it does not take a communist to appreciate Siddhartha’s line of reasoning. Rather than interpreting his answer to be the mark of an intelligent, original and essentially honest man, the bosses took it as “How dare this man not give us the standard answer !”
This is something that has never ceased to amaze me. HR people and administrators claim to covet people who think differently (or “out of the box” whatever that means) and claim to value people who come across as honest and innovative and yet time and again I find that during interviews/job applications/statement of purpose evaluations, its always the hackneyed, done-to-death, predictable answers that are the winners.
Beauty pageants I understand. The question round is, in any case, a big exercise in hypocrisy —aimed at perpetuating the myth that a beauty contest judges both “brains and beauty” where we all know that it’s nothing more than a parade of luscious female figures. Hence the genteel question-answer round with the standard hyperbole of “world peace, Mother Teresa and helping the children of the world” acting as a rather transparent veneer of respectability that we all know is bull but maintain nonetheless.
Again that I understand.
But when an administrator is granting admission to an university or extending an offer to a prospective employee, that’s serious business. And yet even there it seems that standard questions are supposed to be met by standard answers. Anything else, even if logically argued, is a pointer to the door.
Let me give my own example. I once applied for a position of “Resident Assistant” (technically called a Building Coordinator–(BC) for the graduate dorms—a rather standard way grad students make some extra money. [Actually our housing gets subsidized and it would have been possible for me to bring my wife straight away if I got the job]
Now for my interview I was asked:” Why do I want to be a BC?”
I knew what the expected answer was—- I wanted to serve the community…improve the student experience and a lot of other hoohah.
But then I thought to myself—“Wait, I am sure every guy who has interviewed for this position has said the same thing. But really I know and they know that nobody wants to be a BC to serve the community…….they do it for money. Its a job for crying out loud. And honestly, for a person who really really wants to make a difference to the community, he/she would not wait to get a paid job in order to do it.”
As a matter of fact, if I had been interviewing candidates and anyone gave me that stock answer the last line of the previous para would constitute my followup question.
So I replied that I wanted to do the job because it would subsidize my graduate housing. I thought I was appearing professional and honest.
Of course I did not get the job.
The same thing I see with respect to writing Statements of Purpose. I have always wanted to study at so-and-so university, there is a high degree of match between my research interests and Prof so-and-so’s, I am a great admirer of Prof so-and-so’s work…………….we end up writing similar stuff to all the 10 places we apply to. As a matter of fact, the standard practice is to write a standard SOP and then “modify” it for different universities.
The universities know this practice too—-every candidate has also applied to other places and it cannot be true that he has always wanted to study in this university only. Yet the facade is kept and SOPs that stray from the format are almost always frowned upon.
Then there is that interview chestnut all of us have encountered at some point or the other. What are your weak points? Now we know the trick—talk about your positives (imagined possibly) and make them sound like deadly weaknesses—
“ I am very detail-oriented and overwork myself till I am satisfied with my performance.”
I do wish the world would break free of all this hypocrisy and the “I-know-you-know-this-is-all-BS-but-let’s-all-play-along” attitude.
I really wish we had more answers on the lines of:
“I am applying to this university cause my GRE score wont get me any better place”
“I have always wanted to work in the field of bioinformatics because my uncle said that it pays the best.
“Of course I am a people person. I love interacting with people as long as they are girls with nice breasts.”
” My weaknesses…mm lets see…. falling asleep during meetings, tendency to shirk work as much as possible and oh I also steal office supplies”
“I want to work for this company because you are the only guys who called me for an interview.”
“I love working in teams because I can leech off other people’s work.”
” Why do I say I have an aptitude for management? Because I like bossing people around, and am very skilled at acting busy. Oh of course the fat paychecks dont hurt either”
“I blog because no newspaper ever publishes what I write.”
Did I just say that out loud?