As I am spending my time these days selecting candidates for early-stage researcher positions in the EU network I am coordinating, I am reminded of my own experience as a participant to job interviews from the other side of the table. The text below tells the story of my interviews for a post-doctoral position in 1998. Enjoy! 


          After the 1998 ICHEP conference I was invited to describe my search for Z->bb decays at seminars which were held in rapid succession at Michigan State University, Duke University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All institutes except Michigan were looking for post-doctoral scientists to prepare for their analysis effort in Run 2 and finish the commissioning of the CDF detector. Those talks went generally very well, with the exception of the one at Harvard, where Melissa Franklin managed to put me in a very awkward situation. I was discussing the muon dataset used in the Z search, when she interjected:

          “May I ask you a question? What’s the muon pseudo-rapidity range? Are you using CMUP muons in your search?” 

          “Yes, CMU-CMP coincidences. They cover muons with pseudo-rapidities of up to 0.6.”

          “So you are not using the CMX. Why?”

The CMX was the “Central Muon eXtension” system, which covered with scintillators and drift chambers the pseudo-rapidity region from 0.6 to 1.0. It was a beautiful, but problematic detector. It had been built by Harvard University for Run 1, and Melissa herself had been working on that project for several years. Now she was passing the hot potato to the new young faculty member of the group, Michael Schmitt. Michael was in fact in search for a collaborator to help him complete the commissioning of the CMX detector, which had only been partly installed in Run 1. Unprepared, I tried to put up some defence, and failed miserably.

          “Well, there is more background in the CMX samples...”

          “That’s not true!” (I remembered that she said "that's bullshit", but a witness says it can't have happened). And then she turned to Schmitt. “See, Michael, I want you to take note, as that is exactly the attitude you will have to fight against in your upgrade of the CMX. Our colleagues have been distributing that false myth and it is an uphill battle, both for the integration of the system and for the allotment of a reasonable trigger bandwidth to CMX muon signals.”

I spent the rest of my talk with half of my brain intent in repeating the speech I by then knew by heart, and the other half silently kicking itself for that remarkable display of short-sightedness. That day I learned a lesson: when you give a seminar somewhere, you have better make sure you know what is the background and the past history of the prominent professors that are likely to attend it. I had indeed been very careless: had I given a bit of thought to the fact that Harvard had built the CMX and that they were hiring a post-doc precisely for the purpose of completing the commissioning of that system, I would have devoted at least one slide to a careful justification of not using their detector in my search. Because the choice was indeed justifiable: the datasets collecting data triggered by CMX muons in Run 1 were less well understood than the others, as they had been used less often; their use entailed a time-expensive, dedicated study. It would have been a bit disappointing to hear, but it would have at least been true, and understandable. What I should have really avoided to say was that the CMX was a more noisy detector!

          Despite my unconvincing performance, after the seminar Michael Schmitt was in a cheerful mood. That evening we went together to a pub in Cambridge and he told me that he intended to hire me.

          “You know, we have still to discuss the matter with the other faculty members, and there are still a couple of people I have invited here to give seminars, but I have read their curricula already, and I can tell you that if you want the post-doc position it is yours.”

          “That’s fantastic! I would be very happy to join your group.”

          “So would we.”

I was enthusiastic about the new job prospect, but Michael’s early offer raised a problem. I explained it to him:

          “I am to give the same seminar at the MIT in two days, but even if they also offer me a position I think I will choose Harvard. Working with you guys is way more appealing to me. Do you think I should tell them I have already accepted to join Harvard?”

          “It is up to you; in any case I am quite sure they will also try to get you, as typically the HEP post-doc applications Harvard and the MIT get are the same, and all the other candidates I got are way less convincing than you are. But as I say what I told you is not official, so maybe you should behave as if you had not made up your mind just yet.”

          “Interesting! I think it will be fun then.”

Two days later I visited the particle physics department of the MIT, where I could give a much more relaxed seminar than the one at Harvard. I had been called there by Christoph Paus, a bright young professor who had very recently joined CDF and was now looking for a post-doc to work on data analysis in his current area of interest, B hadron physics. I had met Christoph soon after his arrival at Fermilab, and we had also spent some time chatting together at the ICHEP conference in Vancouver just a couple of months earlier. At the CDF trailers his office was close to mine; he was a sociable guy, and he often invited me there to drink tea brewed from a strange oriental-looking gizmo. But he was not my kind of guy: I found his approach a bit too managerial for my taste. He did get things done; but my sense of humour was incompatible with his. Unfairly putting the blame on him, I could say it must have been the compound effect of being an engineer by training (physicists often joke about this, contemptuously looking down on engineers) and having spent two years of his time as a soldier in the Bundeswehr, where he had been an interrogator in Polish language. For he fluently spoke seven languages, something I really envied him for.

          After my seminar Christoph and I sat in his office to talk business, and I decided I would not show my hand immediately. Besides, in principle the MIT would be offering much more money to post-docs than Harvard, so there were all reasons to investigate the MIT offer in detail. But I felt free to speak my mind, at least.

          “So, Tommaso!, that was good stuff we heard at your seminar. Now about your application: I am trying to get together a strong group of analysts to do B physics with CDF in Run 2. What do you think about that?”

          “B physics. Hmm, sure. What do I think – well, I think CDF should invest as much effort as possible in the high-energy frontier in the next few years, before LHC comes up and sweeps the tables: SUSY, the Higgs, new physics. B physics is quite interesting of course, but it’s a bit like putting on a smoking suit to stay home and watch TV, if you know what I mean.”

He was taken aback, but he insisted. “Oh, but Tommaso, there are many possible discoveries of new physics in the B sector! It is a very exciting program. Basically, we plan to measure Bs oscillations, plus we will go after many rare decays. And there is a wide range of CP violation measurements to develop; I am basically looking for somebody who can give a strong contribution on that front. Would you be interested to join us?” Christoph used the word “basically” a lot.

          “Yes, well, I mean, no. I mean, you know, it’s strange – just a few months ago in Vancouver we discussed the Higgs search, and you seemed gung-ho with LEP II having a clean shot at it –”

          “Sure! LEP II has a big chance to find the Higgs, in fact it is quite probable that they’ll find it there.”

          “ ... so, with a big group, you should invest some efforts on Higgs physics. If the Higgs is seen by LEP II before it is decommissioned, we will have a great motivation for an extended Tevatron run, to study that particle in detail. As you’ve just seen, I have spent the past three years to demonstrate that we have good chances of seeing bottom-antibottom decays of heavy resonances –that’s the whole point of my thesis in fact. So whatever group I am going to join, I will try to work at the Higgs search in Run 2.”

“Well, the prospects to find the Higgs in CDF will come only after we collect a large amount of data. I do want to search for the Higgs in Run 2, but in the shorter term we are going to focus on Bs mixing, which is going to be an important analysis with high chances of success.”

As it turned out, after contributing significantly to the Bs mixing discovery Christoph would indeed spend many years searching for the Higgs boson, and end up being a convener of the Higgs group in CMS thirteen years later, when the particle was finally found. The discussion with me left him perplexed: he was the one hiring, and he was not prepared to have to bargain. So I decided I had had enough fun, and I brought the slightly surreal conversation to its logical end.

          "I see, but I believe one has to start refining the tools early on for the Higgs search, so I'm not enthusiastic about B physics, even as an interlude. Anyway, I don’t mean to argue on the merits of different research plans. I must tell you that I have already been offered a post-doctoral position with the Harvard group, and I am going to accept it, as unlike the MIT, they are interested in pursuing the Higgs search.”

I soon left Christoph alone with the unhappy task of reconsidering his applicants list, and spent the rest of the day playing chess in the bakery at the corner of Harvard square in Cambridge. On the following morning Michael and I did the necessary paperwork: while I did not technically have a Ph.D. in my hands yet (my thesis was yet to be written) I was already a post-doc, effective October 1.