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Tips for making a good first impression

Know your audience

When going to an internship interview, a job talk or a networking event, first Google the people you’ll be meeting with to identify their research and other interests, says Alexander Todorov, PhD, a psychology and public affairs professor at Princeton University. Then, think of a few informed questions to ask them to open a conversation or handle a lull. “Make a cheat sheet to remind you of the work of each person who interviews you,” says Rosanna Guadagno, PhD, a University of Alabama psychology professor. “Keep it in your bag or briefcase and refresh your memory on restroom breaks.” Not only will this make you better equipped to anticipate questions, but the effort will show that you care enough about the opportunity to prepare.

2. Exude confidence

It’s natural to feel intimidated if you’re talking to a famous scientist at a conference or explaining your study to a roomful of seasoned researchers, but don’t let your anxiety show. Take deep breaths and remember that you know more about your research than anyone else, says India Johnson, a social psychology grad student at The Ohio State University. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed while others are being critical of your research,” she says. “However, keep in mind that you are the expert, and let your passion and confidence take the lead.”

One sign of confidence is simply modulating your voice. If you speak slowly and calmly, you will appear more confident than would otherwise be the case. The same goes for making eye contact instead of constantly looking down at notes.

3. Field questions gracefully

Whether at a job interview or an informal meeting, you’ll be judged by the way you handle questions, especially the tough ones. So don’t get defensive. “Questions are a sign of interest in your work, not an attack of it,” says Guadagno.

If at a presentation, someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s OK to admit that. “Try to turn it into an idea for new research or put it off as something to discuss after the presentation,” Guadagno says. Or try a move used with great skill by politicians: Answer a different but related question instead. Chances are, your interrogator won’t view it as a dodge, and the conversation will move forward.

4. Prepare and practice

Being unprepared is a serious shortfall, says James Tyler, PhD, a psychology professor at Purdue University who has conducted research on how impressions are made. “Say for example you are responsible for summarizing a research article at weekly lab meetings. If you seem to have done little advance preparation to carry out this charge, it may suggest a host of negative attributions.” Certainly, you never want to appear poorly organized or worse yet, lazy.

For presentations at conferences or other talks in front of a group, practicing your delivery is always a smart move. “You should practice in front of others,” Johnson says. “Going through several rounds of edits and practicing the talk so it is polished is a must.”

5. Be a good listener

People love to talk about themselves, so you may find that you can sail through an interview by simply asking insightful questions about others. “The key to a great interview — and to getting people to like you in general — is to show that you think they are important,” says Christine Whelan, PhD, sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies impression management. “Show employers interest in their company as well as what you can do for them, and you’ll go a long way toward making yourself their top choice for the job.”

To do that, pay attention when others speak. Make eye contact, nod and don’t interrupt or finish others’ sentences. “Changing the topic constantly or seeming uninterested in research can be very annoying,” says Uleman. And keep in mind that conversation is a two-way street, Uleman advises. In any discussion, be sure to give the other person plenty of opportunities to respond.

6. Dress neatly

In most professional and academic meetings and interviews, aim for conservative, understated clothes. No short skirts or cleavage for women, and no jeans with holes or thrift-store attire for anyone. “Tailor your clothes to the type of job you are hoping to do,” Whelan says. While it never hurts to wear a suit, it’s often unnecessary for an academic job interview. “Neat, professional attire will always win out,