I've come across an issue I've never had before. My last position was a Data Science position. Data Science is an extremely broad field with more concepts under it than almost any other field I can conceptualize.

During job interviews, I'm asked to explain very precise code and process steps from up to a dozen projects that I worked on as far back as a couple of years ago. There are so many concepts to consider that it's quite difficult to know what questions I'm going to get in Data Science interviews. Not only that, I also need to remember somewhat precise accomplishments from other jobs in my career as well. This seems like a considerable amount of information that I need to retain for every single Data Science job interview, each of which are already high-pressure. And if I spend too much time preparing for each and every Data Science interview, that doesn't leave much time for other important matters that need my attention.

I've been able to pass difficult college and certification exams in the past, but this seems next-level when it comes to memorization.

I maintain a large list of likely data science questions and answers and a large glossary of terms to read before every interview, but that doesn't adequately prepare me for a high number of random questions about very nuanced issues.

I'm highly considering moving to an adjacent career path so that I will not need to deal with such stressful interview situations. But, recruiters contact me about Data Scientist jobs at least 85% of the time because of that one Data Science job that I had and because Data Science is such a high-demand field.

Does anyone have any suggestions on the best step forward?

  • They may not expect you to answer every question. I know when I do interviews (not in data science) I ask a range of questions to try to find something the candidate does know. Mar 23 at 3:37
  • That may be the case. If I'm not able to answer around two questions in an hour-long interview, my subconscious assumption is that I severely hurt my chances of getting the job. That may be an incorrect assumption on my part.
    – Strategist
    Mar 23 at 3:50
  • I also like to start the interview by stating that I don't expect them to answer every question, cause I know it will worry some people. But I know for a fact some of my colleagues don't do that. Mar 23 at 4:54
  • 2
    I suggest you look for Bloom's Taxonomy. Questions that you are interpreting as "Remember" would be better interpreted as "apply" or "analyse" to show that you have higher learning capabilities. You would be surprised at the number of times you simply apply a strategy that worked before without necessarily "looking up" that previous strategy in detail.
    – Pam
    Mar 23 at 10:26
  • you should probably memorise your work? if you don't memorise your work... then what is setting you apart from the other engineers who also spend half the day on google? I used physical flashcards when i was starting out, helped me tremendously. Went to the pub each day, had 3 pints and did a bundle of flashcards.
    – bharal
    Mar 24 at 4:01

Try to have a natural conversation with the interviewer. When you get a question you can't answer, I'd suggest to just say that you don't know or don't remember, and then bring up something related that highlights your strengths.

E.g. Them: "Can you explain concept X"

You: "I took that class in college 10 years ago and I don't really remember the details. I spent most of my time in my past two jobs working with concept Y and concept Z"

If they are only interested in hiring world-class experts in concept X, you aren't going to get the job anyway even if you bluff or give a half-assed answer. But if they are looking for a more general position, then they'll ask a follow up question on Y or Z and you can give them an impressive answer.

E.g. Them: "I saw on your resume that you worked on project X, can you tell me about obscure detail Y"

You: "That was awhile ago and I don't remember the details of Y. It turned out to be not very important. The really important part of project X was when I applied concept Z to solve challenging problem A and ended up with impressive result B"

Again, if they want experts on that obscure detail, you aren't the guy anyway. But this gives them a segue to ask you about something where you can highlight your strengths.

  • Daniel, I can't thank you enough for this helpful answer. I got so wrapped up in numerous details that I neglected to think of this approach. Following your suggestion will help me keep my interview preparation efforts and answers within a reasonable scope. It will also help me maintain a steady momentum throughout each interview and not get hung up on questions that could come from literally any direction and random adjacent fields. Thank you again.
    – Strategist
    Mar 24 at 18:59

Very few jobs require you to memorise vast quantities of information or work without reference information, and interviewers are just trying to get a feel for how familiar you are with an area and your character in general.

When an interviewer asks about a previous project, they generally want only enough detail to be sure that you're not bluffing, and to work out whether you were just working on minor features under supervision or if you were making high-level decisions. They also want to hear how you talk about your interactions with other people; whether you just complain about them, or solved problems and had a happy team.

I'm no data science expert, and I can imagine that if I was interviewing for one, I'd be excited to learn some of the technical details and I could easily ask questions that were too detailed to answer without reference to a text book.

It's OK to need to look up detailed information, and probably a good sign that you'd check rather than rely on memory. I would want to see a candidate find information reasonably quickly and then be able to explain it to a non-expert, and talk about a situation where they used it.

  • 2
    literally the only job that lets you get away with not knowing how to do your job is technology. Unless you're happy with your doctor googling the number of ventricles a heart has, or your kid's history teacher googling when the battle of hastings was, or your barista watching youtube videos before making each and every coffee... Sorry, but it's only in coding where people think it's acceptable to spend a chunk of the day looking things up. It's ridiculous - inefficient, and terrible for the mental/physical health of the engineer.
    – bharal
    Mar 24 at 3:59
  • @bharal Even doctors look things up on the internet, expert systems, or in reference books/applications, the same goes for lawyers, structural engineers, designers, architects, etc. Mar 24 at 13:11
  • 1
    if you're seeing a doctor and he's looking up things on the internet with any comparable frequency as a programmer, then you're seeing a bad doctor. you'll be staggered at what a lawyer had memorized regarding laws, and so on and so on. only programmers have this attitude that memorising is bad
    – bharal
    Mar 24 at 17:28
  • Thank you, Robin. It's definitely important to address the reason why a question is being asked rather than just the surface-level question itself.
    – Strategist
    Mar 24 at 19:01

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .