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Acing Your Earth Data Science Job Interview

Interviewing may seem intimidating, but with practice and these suggestions in mind, it can be easy and natural. 

Students gathered around a large square table, listening to USGS’ Vivian Hutchison

Vivian Hutchison (in purple) of the USGS gives Earth Lab interns interview tips.

Lauren Herwehe

Interviewing for a new job can be a stressful, high-stakes experience. Before the interview you may find yourself worrying what the interviewer will ask and what they are looking for in a perfect candidate. The answers to these questions can be elusive and depend on what industry you are interviewing in—expectations differ between a research facility with several thousand people and an agile development team in a brand new company. 

Earth Lab hosted an interviewing workshop where earth data science hiring managers from academia, government, and industry shared their insight on how to interview well and what, in an interview, indicates that they have found the perfect (or at least an acceptable) candidate for a job opportunity. 

Experts included former Earth Lab Analytics Hub Director Brian Johnson; USGS Science Data Management Branch Chief Vivian Hutchison; former Associate Director of Research Partnerships at Boulder-based start up Jupiter Intelligence Alicia Karspeck; and Senior Manager of Software Engineering at NEON (the National Ecological Observatory Network) Greg Holling. 

In this post, we will review the gems of wisdom they offered. After reading, you should be well on your way to acing your next job interview

Interviewing Basics

No matter what industry you are interested in, there are a few basic interviewing “rules” that are worth mentioning. These things could seem obvious to an experienced professional, but may not be as intuitive to someone who is right out of school or hasn’t interviewed in a while. 

  1. Know what you are interviewing for: Walk into the interview like you would a final exam—having studied every aspect of the company. Even if they don’t directly ask a question testing that knowledge, being able to speak with certainty on industry related topics will demonstrate that you spent time preparing for the interview and are taking it seriously. An interviewer will often take this as an indication of how seriously you will approach tasks once you are hired. 
  2. Prepare stories with the STAR strategy: STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Prepare a few stories that show your best work and can be applied to numerous different behavioral interview questions. Behavioral interview questions are those that require a candidate to share examples of times that they used specific skills. Start with the situation, a challenge that you faced in the workplace. Next, outline the tasks you landed on to address the challenge and the actions you took to complete these tasks. Finally, emphasize the successful results of your decisions. If you’re looking for your first job out of college, these examples don’t necessarily have to be from work, they can involve a challenge you overcame in a class or partaking in a hobby, as long as the example conveys your work ethic, determination, and problem-solving skills. 
  3. Dress professionally: Even if the company culture is really relaxed, prove that you respect the opportunity to interview and want to be taken seriously by dressing up. 
  4. Bring all the confidence and positive energy you can muster:  Your interviewer has a job outside of interviewing you and may be feeling tired, crabby, and hangry by the time you walk in the door or log in to the Zoom meeting. You should try to bring your best self to keep the mood positive. Prove that you are not only a person that is completely capable of doing the job, but will bring a good attitude and represent the company well. 

Now that we have covered the basic, non-industry specific points, let’s move on to considering some of the information we learned from our industry partners about the hiring practices in their fields and companies

How to Prepare for an Interview at a Startup 


When startups hire, it is generally because they have an urgent need. It is all about finding someone to fix a pressing problem. The most important thing to do in the interview is demonstrate that you are capable of addressing their problem, starting the day you are hired.

In addition to filling an immediate need, startups are interested in how you will be able to solve unpredictable and sudden future problems. Emphasize that you have a versatile skill set and are willing and able to rapidly change course when necessary.

In the interview, be bold and direct with your skills. A tiny bit of ego is more welcome in the startup world than in other sectors! Don’t be passive—demonstrate that you are exactly the person they are looking for. In addition, don’t be afraid to directly ask what their need is. It is even better to do your homework beforehand and decipher where their pain points are, so they don’t need to tell you. With that question answered, you can tailor your responses to their requirements. 

One substantial difference between a startup and a research, governmental, or academic group is that the primary objective of a startup is making a profit. Panelist Alicia Karspeck stated that a startup is “much more constrained to doing things that could possibly be profitable” and, compared to academic research, “it has its own set of exciting aspects that are very on the ground and applied.” 

If the startup that you’ve found yourself interviewing with is your dream company, but you aren’t interviewing for your dream job, don’t worry. Once you are on the team, the potential for motion within a startup is huge—the most important thing is getting hired, and to do that, you need to ace your interview.

For a startup company, the interview itself may take the form of a presentation of your work and qualifications. Don’t worry too much about the infamous “puzzle” style interviews like you may encounter at Google. Since startups usually have a bare bones staff, it is likely the interviewers don’t have the energy to make the hiring process any more time-intensive or complex than is absolutely necessary. 

Another big part of interviewing with a startup is establishing that you fit in with the culture. Alicia Karspeck notes that when her company interviews, they look for candidates who “think like us, know how to banter, and can think on their feet.” In such a small, agile company, forming a cohesive working unit is vitally important. Being part of a startup team is a unique experience, almost impossible to find anywhere else.

To sum it up, the three big interviewing takeaways from the startup world are: 

  1. Make it clear that you can fill their immediate need. Do your research to try to figure out what this might be and if you can’t figure it out, don’t be afraid to ask.
  2. Prove that you are a problem-solver with a diverse skill set.
  3. Demonstrate your willingness and ability to fit in with the team.

How to Prepare for an Interview at a University

Unlike in a startup, academic groups and research facilities have the capacity to hire for long-term projects. It is likely that their immediate need is less urgent, so they can take the time to cultivate the skills a new hire will need to fill the position. 

Because of this, the number one thing to impress upon interviewers in the academic arena is an honest sense of enthusiasm. Most people pursue research because they are passionate about the subject, and they want to be around others who share that passion. Demonstrate that you care deeply about the work and projects they are involved with. This will illustrate that you are likely to be a valuable long-term investment for the organization, and you will be able to adapt to multiple roles. 

There is low staff turnover at universities for a variety of reasons—tenure and excellent benefits ensure that people don’t want to leave, and the extensive paperwork required to hire or release an employee encourages managers to keep their team relatively stable. Because of this, a pleasant team dynamic is vitally important in a university setting. The interview is, in part, to determine that you are someone who collaborates well with others. 

Brian Johnson notes that “once you’re brought into the interview you’re on the short list of probably five people.” At this point, he has reviewed your resume and determined that you have the necessary skills for the job. The objective of the interview is more to get a sense of both your personality and your enthusiasm for the project, and less about determining how qualified you are. 

On that note, Johnson encourages recent graduates to apply for jobs even if they feel they do not have enough experience. He reminds graduates that experience is important, but with energy and passion, many things can be learned on the job. 

In addition, don’t underestimate the value of your education—academic institutions know the value of a good education. You may have less experience, but you still have many skills and problem-solving abilities. Don’t shy away from questions about challenges you’ve faced or problems you’ve solved just because you don’t have industry experience. Apply the challenges and successes you’ve experienced in school to answer these sorts of interview questions. 

The top three takeaways from interviewing in the world of academia are:

  1. Enthusiasm is vital. Prove that you care deeply about the same subjects as your interviewer.
  2. Be confident of your skills in the interview—you’ve probably already made the shortlist of candidates.
  3. Don’t sell yourself short because you lack official industry experience. Higher education institutions value education more than other sectors. You can bring a lot of value to the team with just your degree.

How to Interview for a Government Job 

While the government’s hiring process may involve more complex systems and the interviews may have a few more steps, the perfect candidate for a government agency isn’t too different than that for academia. Interviewers want to see the same passion, skill, and good character. 

In the case of the government, getting to the interview stage is the hard part. You deserve a medal just for getting your resume through the black hole that seems to lurk behind many government job sites. 

Like in the previous industries, teamwork plays a large part in government work—there is even less turnover in government agencies than universities. During an interview with a potential candidate, the interviewer looks for how well the candidate can integrate into their existing team, with the understanding that the new hire will likely be staying for a long time. 

Greg Holling observes that he “always watches for how you’re interacting with other members of the team as we’re doing the interview,” he takes careful note of “body language, how the team reacts to you and how you react to them.” He emphasizes, “We’re going through this journey together, so I want to know that you’re able to work effectively with people.”

Vivian Hutchison reiterates the importance of teamwork and recommends asking questions about the leadership style and team dynamic because it demonstrates that the interviewee is interested in assimilating into the culture of the group. She reminds interviewees not to act egotistical or disparaging. Such qualities do not reflect well on your personality or ability to integrate smoothly with the team. However, she also states that you should not underrepresent yourself and your skill level. Be honest about your talents and display your skills clearly without bragging or implying superiority.

Finally, even with government positions, don’t be afraid to apply even if you don’t have all the qualifications the job description asks for. Often government entities will include requirements in their job descriptions with the hope of stumbling into a perfect candidate. Apply for the job, and if you are the best match for the passion and team dynamic they hope to cultivate, you will probably get an offer, even if you can’t check all the “requirement” boxes. With passion and energy, the rest of the skills can be taught/learned on the job. 

Three takeaways about interviewing with the government are:

  1. Don’t be intimidated because it is the government. If your resume passed the initial test, you are likely quite qualified.
  2. Ask about the team dynamic and illustrate that you are humble and personable. 
  3. Sometimes “requirements” are more accurately “recommendations” or even “wild hopes.” If you are really passionate about the job, apply anyway!
A number of rolling chairs line a long table in an empty meeting room with floor to ceiling windows.

Since they are more focused on the bottom line, make sure that you demonstrate how you can drive value when interviewing for a large company.


How to Prepare for an Interview at a Large  Corporation

While none of our panelists were employed in large, private corporations, both Johnson and Karspeck have significant experience working with such companies. A few points were clear:

  1. During an interview, be clear about how you can drive value for the company. Large companies are very focused on the bottom line.
  2. The company has a need, and the purpose of the interview is to find out if your skills can fill that position (you “fit in the right bucket”). Compared to a startup, where people work in small teams, and government or university, where there is low turnover, big corporations probably care less about your “cultural fit” than your ability to get the job done. 
  3. Industry hiring managers, more than those in academia and startups, are looking to hire for a specific position, so demonstrating that you have the skills to fill the position should be your first priority. Large companies are often looking for more specialization, so they care less about the breadth of your skillset.

While industry looks for deep, specialized skill sets, many large companies also serve a number of different clients and work on a variety of projects. Brian Johnson notes that “Because industry is often dynamic in it’s projects, programs come and go. To stay with the company you need to move to a new project or a new discipline. Not everyone wants to do this, some people just want to be an expert in their area.” He continues by saying that being flexible and demonstrating an ability to adapt and learn new skills is vitally important because it is “a lot easier to manage someone who can learn the depth of knowledge required on the job.” 

You are far more likely to get a problem-solving, creative response question when interviewing for a large business. Google isn’t the only Fortune 500 company to employ the technique of asking questions that may initially seem insane in order to evaluate the candidate’s ability to think on their feet. Companies like Uber, Trader Joe’s, Amazon, Apple, and Petco have adopted the same strategy. Large corporations can afford to screen candidates with unconventional questions because they have so many more applicants. Because of this, it is likely worth spending some time considering these creative-type questions

In addition, you are likely to be asked to present some concrete demonstration of your skills. For example, if you are applying for a computer programming job, they may ask you to code something or write pseudocode to solve a problem. It is worth checking online to see if the company typically has some sort of “practical” in their interview that you can prepare for. 

Interviewing with a large company can be more formal and involve stranger or higher stress questions, but there are rewards to working for a big business. If you like structure and want to make a network of valuable connections, a company could be a great fit.

There are a few differences when interviewing with a large, privately-owned company, but overall, it is the same outline as in academia or startups. Demonstrate flexibility, enthusiasm and that you fit in with the company culture, and you are well on your way to proving you are the perfect candidate.

The panel of speakers faces the assembled interns.

CU Boulder students listen to wisdom from hiring managers at the career development event.

Lauren Herwehe

What if I Don’t Have a Lot of Experience?

The panelists agreed that usually, you don’t need to worry so much about experience—enthusiasm, a positive attitude, and a demonstrated willingness and ability to learn on the job can be equally important. Brian Johnson says, “All work experience is at some level relevant. You have a boss, you know what working for a paycheck means, you’re starting to get trained in work-life—as small as you might think your experiences are, they’re relevant.” Any job, regardless of the wage, teaches valuable skills like reliability, honesty, and teamwork.

It can be easy to brush off educational or entry-level work experience as inconsequential, but Vivian Hutchison warns against this, saying, “don’t put yourself down.” Even experiences that you may see as trivial will help demonstrate your character to the company. Just because you view that group project you managed in business 101 as easy doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valuable experience the company will appreciate knowing about. Greg Holling reiterates the point, stating, “you can talk about school and challenges you’ve faced” in the classroom if you lack industry experience. 

Companies know that a candidate right out of school will not have years of “real-world” experience, and don’t expect that when they are interviewing a recent graduate. Johnson says, “we don’t expect a high level of skill coming out of school so be true to confident that you’ve gone through school, [and] you have a high level of knowledge.” Companies expect book smarts and passion from new graduates, not decades of experience. Embrace your passion rather than trying to hide your lack of work experience.

Job postings that require lots of experience and dozens of required skills can seem intimidating and be discouraging. However, as Hutchison points out, “often you’ll see a bunch of requirements in a job ad, you might have three-quarters and the rest you don’t. A lot of times people who are trying to hire will put in things that they’re hoping for, rather than what they truly need.” This means that a candidate lacking experience, or missing a skill or two has a good shot of getting the job if they come to the interview armed with lots of passion and a willingness to learn.

Passion and enthusiasm can make up for a lot when it comes to finding the perfect candidate. Brian Johnson says that when he is hiring, he is “just looking to someone who is pretty authentic in terms of their interest areas and their enthusiasm. They don’t have to have a lot of background or skill—they just have to be excited about learning. The rest they can be trained in.” Hutchison agrees, saying that “open, enthusiastic, passionate qualities can be ninety percent of it.” While concrete skills and experience do have a role to play, a candidate should not be afraid to let their passion and energy for the subject show. This passion is often the key to identifying the perfect new hire. 

A lack of experience in a field shouldn’t prevent you from applying as long as you can prove you have an ability to adapt and plenty of passion.

Believe in Yourself, You Can Ace The Interview!

Remember that an interview is a conversation between you and the company. Show who you are and what you can do, but learn who they are as well. Make sure that you fit in with the company culture and have the potential to enjoy or find value in the work. Interviewing may seem intimidating, but with practice and these suggestions in mind, it can be easy and natural.