September 11, 2007

Cal Career Fair: initial report

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at September 11, 2007 10:44 PM

The career fair mentioned in the previous post began today with recruiters from business and public service; most of these were somewhat removed from what I was looking for but I dropped in to see if any of the finance people were looking for physicists. Observations:

  • My ability to fend off shyness is highly context-dependent, and my social skills were unable to adapt to the new environment, and deserted me—I feel like I promptly regressed to the stereotypical socially inept science nerd. Unfortunately, the only cure is to keep trying until approaching a recruiter no longer causes me to blush.
  • I debated whether to even bother approaching companies that hadn't indicated in their listing that they were seeking PhDs. I did, and this turned out to be a good idea, since several of the finance firms were looking for people with my background even if they weren't necessarily advertising the fact here. Usually in these cases the directive was "apply on the website," but I was able to gauge who was looking and what their level of interest was.
  • One company had a listing and a table assignment but was not to be found. However, when I returned to my e-mail afterwards, I promptly received a recruiting message from them. This is due either to coincidence or the existence of remote SQUID-based brain scanners, in which case I should find the company that makes those and apply there.
  • The swag today was pretty terrible—almost everybody gave away pens. I also generally forgot to take stuff, since all my mental resources were directed at the suddenly difficult task of assembling words into sentences. Microsoft had some nifty looking keychains with some kind of LCD game on them, but I felt a strange, almost supernatural reluctance to approach their table. (And I've only been a Mac user for a couple months!)
  • The tables drawing the least interest from the crowd were the United States Marine Corps, and Philip Morris—apparently Berkeley produces relatively few Nick Naylors. Goldman Sachs got more traffic than these two combined during a period when their table was unmanned, and even the oil companies were doing better.

Tomorrow: Tech companies! Defense contractors! Better swag! More blushing!

Tags: Career, Shyness

Repetition of confrontation is a nice cure for shyness, but it can also, unfortunately, worsen it in some cases and reinforce the cause if the cause is something like a fear of rejection or anxiety over what will happen during the conversation. In a romantic rather than career context (though I'm no authority), I've noticed that attitude has a large effect at least over shyness and success, and if one has a worry of being see-through and a lack of confidence, that is what one will portray. The belief itself has a lot of power over the situation. So beyond simply approaching a situation, one must believe in oneself and not kick oneself after apparent failure.

Like my teacher has said a few times in the past months, he's been told by students who have left his class that he has intimidated them. I believe what he said after that was, "I've got news for you, folks. I can't intimidate anyone. You intimidate yourself." In this case, one may see the odds against oneself in a social situation as a realistic perspective when in fact it simply reinforces a defeatist attitude. A couple of times he's given notes after scene work that the work has to be approached with the mindset that the teacher doesn't know shit. If one solidly believes one is right and putting up good work, the attitude will change everything.

An example of the intimidation perspective in my little world: agents and casting directors. Everyone gets very nervous and anxious about interviewing for agents. What we don't seem to realize is that they're not interviewing us. We're interviewing them. Their job is to go out and find work for us, and in exchange we give them a percentage off of our paycheck. It can be easy to sit there answering questions nervously, but if you walk in and turn the interview around, asking them pertinent questions about how they govern their business, etc., it exudes that the atmosphere that the interviewed is able to choose where he lands rather than the interviewer deciding if the candidate is "good enough."

In terms of casting directors... as my teacher says, how many of them do you think are failed actors? In Hollywood, 99% of them. It's hard to be intimidated by someone who, by vocation, knows less about good acting than you do.

This may have little to do with the world of academia, but I certainly feel that there is a life lesson to be had from this analogy, and I do like to write on the shyness posts since trying to overcome that particular problem is in large part why I am on the walk of life I'm on now.

Posted by: Josh | September 12, 2007 12:32 AM

For me, I'm pretty much fine with the shyness in the interviewing/judging context (with the exception of trying to meet a scientist I haven't met before at a conference), whereas I am extremely shy in social situations. The exception I mentioned above is in a social rather than academic context (even though I'm referring to meeting a scientist). Basically, the difference for me is that for the scientific stuff, I don't take rejection personally and therefore don't care whereas in the social context I do take it personally when I am rejected (and am consequently very shy and tentative). My different levels of confidence in these two different sets of skills play a role as well, but far more prominent than that is the issue of taking one class of things personally and the other not.

(That said, I am glad I don't have to interview anymore. It's still a pain in the ass.)

Posted by: Mason | September 12, 2007 1:28 AM

Just to follow up on the shyness thing: it turns out that I felt much less shy after the first day; I'm taking this to mean that it was the unfamiliarity that was setting it off.

Josh: Although I'm aware of the importance of attitude, I'm too much of an evidentialist to change it very easily. That is, although I know that confidence is important, if I don't feel that my confidence is justfied based on past performance I won't be able to adopt that attitude. The best I can do is a kind of second-order confidence arising from beliefs I do hold, namely that I get better at socializing with practice, and so this time will be better than last time (even if it won't be particularly good). In the long run this has sometimes allowed me to bootstrap up to some level of confidence from a starting point of basically zero.

Mason: On occasion in professional contexts I'm able to enter a mode where I don't feel shy or self-conscious. I can reliably do this when I give a talk as long as I've rehearsed it enough (a good thing, since I might otherwise be paralyzed with terror), and after Tuesday I was able to do it in some of these conversations with recruiters. I'd really like to be able to do this in other contexts but I don't really understand how it works.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 13, 2007 2:09 PM

AG: This is exactly the problem I have, actually. I weigh the facts based on the past it will be unspeakably clear that I am not good at a certain social situation and my attitude won't be able to adjust to a positive, confident one.

On the other side of the coin, I think that it is possible to say that belief validates behavior just as much as evidence does. Again, speaking in an acting perspective as that is the circle I run in more often than not: if I believe that I didn't have enough time to prepare for a scene in that moment of the scene, then it is true and will show in the scene. However, "I didn't have time to prepare" is a pretty shoddy excuse when one is responsible for making the time and plan for prep. Similarly, as I was preparing for a scene beforehand one night, I thought to myself, "This is going to be the best scene I've ever put up." There was no evidence to support that theory, in fact there was a good amount of evidence against it, but that attitude alone was a major contribution to driving me towards that goal.

In fact, I might not go so far as to say there's no evidence to support any confidence; as it turns out 9 times out of 10 I'm just looking in the wrong place, focusing on the anxiety-causing evidence, a history of failures without looking back on a lifetime of successes outside of the box. In your case, I know that there is nothing that you have not been able to achieve when you are determined, mentally and physically, and even recreationally, whether it's academia, marathons, or what have you. And while I can't speak on your behalf, if I sit down and really think about it, I can't think of a single moment when I've failed at something that I couldn't succeed at with enough focus and drive, and I would even lay a bet that every time I've failed to succeed at something it was due to a defeatist attitude, and haven't tried.

Of course, in that way one should say that while there is failure in events, there is no such thing failure who gets up and tries again. And of course, practice makes perfect, so the more we try to socialize, you are right, the better we get. As long as we don't let a string of failures scare us away from a goal that remains worthwhile, then it is a successful venture.

I don't know if that sounds overly ephemeral and relativistic (and, let's say it, arty-farty), but I can relate if it does garner a degree of skepticism. I think that beliefs are more malleable than we all think, however, and ironically the most important reason people can't change their beliefs is that they believe that they can't change their beliefs. Which is not, of course, to say that one should sacrifice one's own integrity for the sake of achieving a goal. Rather, in my case I've learned that if my traditional thought process has a directly negative impact on my ability to succeed at something that is important to me, then it is in fact possible to do away with that thought process momentarily and surprise myself.

For that, I'll use what I call the Guitar Hero analogy. You know those moments that you're thinking so hard about the notes going by that you just can't get the speed of the song down? And you play the song again and again, concentrating harder on that part but it just becomes more frustrating. Have you noticed how they contrast to those moments when you just riff and play and you can't believe your fingers are moving without the help of your conscious mind? In fact, you can almost daydream through a fast sequence more easily than you can consciously play it. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had this experience. I know that for the two of us our own thought processes and reasoning is very important to the way we live our lives, but for myself personally I find that for some tasks all it provides is excess clutter, especially if it's a belief that I can't do something.

Anyway, that all comes with the caveat that I'm not trying to criticize any particular behavior or choices in life, and seeing as you were much improved after the first day and do make conscious efforts, and don't give up, to me you're a damn fine success whether or not you take my flakey artist's advice.

Posted by: Josh | September 13, 2007 4:46 PM

Josh: Being paralyzed by too much thinking, eh? I've certainly seen that mentioned in the context of athletics. I think whether or not it holds basically depends on the person (i.e., I don't think it's a universal truth but I definitely agree that it can be true).

AG: Wait... we're actually supposed to practice our talks? :P I'm really bad about doing that even though I make my students do it. :) I often finish them late enough that I choose sleep or e-mail (or whatever) over practicing. I do try to get to the point that I know what's on a slide, but I don't have the patience to practice beyond that (with the exception of doing a dry run in front of people for my job interview talk, which was strictly speaking less for practice and more for getting input from other people --- which for my last job talk included numerous extremely good suggestions that I subsequently implemented). I think at some point I decided (justifiably or not) that I know the stuff well enough and can think on my feet quickly enough that I don't typically need to bother. Granted, I have royally messed up on occasion, but I have already had a couple talks go so poorly (such as my thesis defense talk, to name a very non-random example!) that no talk I give will ever be a less comfortable experience than those. Couple that with the fact that there aren't any real consequences when I mess up a regular talk and I'd rather just do something else with the time I'd spend practicing. (Anyway, I don't recommend this as something to follow --- especially not to my students! But I'm not going to lie to myself and say that I haven't PS12ed this whole business in this manner.)

As some of you know, I did get booed at a seminar at a conference once (which included prospective employers in the audience), but it wasn't because of lack of preparation but rather because of a brief snarky comment I made (which I still maintain was a justified comment, by the way). I consider this a badge of honor. (I've never seen anyone else get booed at a conference.)

OK, so despite the many tangents above, I think my attitude about the talks business probably jives reasonably well with some of what Josh is saying. You can get more comfortable by practicing, by relaxing in some fashion, or by simply recognizing that the consequences of things going poorly aren't actually that significant. You might as well save all the stressing out for other things. (I still can't fully explain why I can't take the same attitude for certain non-academic things.)

Posted by: Mason | September 13, 2007 5:43 PM

Josh: First off, thanks for the kind words. And, about the Guitar Hero thing, my vague understanding (lacking the neuroscience jargon to say this properly) is that for unfamiliar tasks, the brain employs the analytic, conscious part to work out what to do. But practicing a task allows the brain to generate modules to process it unconsciously, and pathways that bypass the conscious analysis, so after a while one can just do it without thinking about it too much. So this happens in Guitar Hero, and it should also happen with social interactions—at least, there's an interplay between the analytic part that picks up on nuance and subtext and the language centers that handle basic interactions automatically and translate higher-level thoughts into actions or spoken words.

About a year or so ago I realized that what shyness feels like to me is an interruption in these pathways, where some kind of anxiety or just a mental block breaks the connection with these unconsciously operating modules for social interaction, and dumps the entire processing load onto the conscious part, which can't do all that in real time (especially when nervousness is interfering). So I end up being passive or hesitant, and quiet, and unable to keep up with the rhythm of a conversation.

In those miraculous instances where I don't feel shy (like the professional ones I mentioned above, and it's happened occasionally in other contexts), I can really feel the connection being made properly. Like a machine that always jams suddenly starts running smoothly. It's an amazing feeling, and I only wish I could figure out how to trigger it reliably.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | September 14, 2007 10:38 AM
Post a comment