3 Interview Preparation Tips For PhDs Applying For Biotech Or Biopharma Industry Jobs

skills Training For Successful Interview | Cheeky Scientist | advice to prepare for interview
Written by Klodjan Stafa, Ph.D.

I couldn’t remember why I got my PhD anymore.

I was in the middle of a postdoc at the University of California in San Diego and was starting to feel like I was on a dead-end career track.

I used to dream of being a famous scientist and changing the world with my research.

Now, however, I was just hoping to get funded for a few more months and praying to get a recommendation from my academic advisor one day.

Then, one day, I made the decision to move into industry.

I felt alive again.

I started networking and made a couple of lucky connections.

I even got an interview with a good company.

Everything seemed to be headed in the right direction. 

When I showed up for my interview, I politely sat across from the hiring managers and waited for them to ask me questions.

I answered promptly and when they asked me if I had any questions I said “No, I think you covered anything.”

Then I was dismissed.

That went pretty well, I thought.

I went to bed that night assuring myself that I would get a call in the morning.

Morning came, however, and no one called.

I waited a couple of weeks to get a follow-up email but no one from the company ever contacted me.

I remember being very confused.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized I completely messed up the interview.

I learned my lesson, however, and joined a network that helped me create an intelligent interviewing strategy.

This changed everything.

Recently, I was invited to interviews by Roche and Estée Lauder.

I received offers from both.

Unlike my earlier interviews, I nailed these interviews.

What did I do differently?

Why PhDs Fail Their First Industry Interview

Most interviews are over in minutes.

Surveys reported in Undercover Recruiter show that while the average length of an interview is 40 minutes, 33% of hiring managers know within the first 90 seconds if they will hire the interviewing candidate.

These hiring managers reported the following reasons as to why they eliminated candidates: 67% indicated applicants failed to make eye contact, 55% indicated that the applicants dressed poorly or carried themselves poorly, 47% indicated applicants had little or no knowledge of the company, 38% indicated the applicants lacked confidence or didn’t smile, and 33% indicated applicants had bad posture or a weak handshake.

Whether you like it or not, any interview you go on will be over within the first few minutes of meeting the hiring manager.

Studies in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin show that emotionally expressive people make better first impressions.

These studies also show that first impressions can last for years.

If you don’t make a good first impression, you will fail every interview you show up for.

The only way to prevent this is by learning what NOT to do during an interview.

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3 Things NOT To Do During An Industry Interview

Any PhD can craft a successful industry resume.

However, not every PhD can show up to an interview, make a great first impression, show off his or her interpersonal skills and knowledge of the company, and get a job offer.

Too many PhDs blow their first interview by not taking it seriously.

The worst thing you can do during a job search is work hard for months (not to mention the years it took to get your PhD) and then mess it all up in the first 90 seconds of meeting an employer.

A better strategy is to prepare strenuously for every interview and express yourself exceptionally well during those first few minutes after you sit across from the company’s decision-makers.

To do this, you must not only know what to do during an interview, but also what NOT to do.

Here are 3 things NOT to do during an industry interview… 

1. Have no knowledge of the industry you are targeting.

I failed to get hired during my first interviews because I didn’t do enough research on the companies that were interviewing me.

The only thing I did was read about the company on their Wikipedia page.

I thought this was enough.

I was wrong.

As a good friend of mine used to tell me…

“Repeating helps perfecting.” 

What he meant by this was that strenuous research and deep learning is the only way to have the perfect interview.

The reason so many PhDs get nervous for their first interviews is because they haven’t done their homework on the companies they’re interviewing with.

If they knew the company, the industry, the market, and the competition exceptionally well, they wouldn’t be nervous.

Instead, they’d be excited.

If you want an industry job, you must show your enthusiasm during your industry interviews, including phone and Skype interviews.

The only way to show enthusiasm appropriately is to be appropriately prepared.

You must learn the key points about every company and you must learn them in detail.

In particular, you must learn the following…

Values: Make sure you read the “Who We Are” section on a company’s webpage. You will receive at least one question testing how much you know about the company and what they value.

Work mission: You must also read the “What We Do/Our Mission” section. Work to understand exactly what drives the company to success and what specific mission or missions they are trying to accomplish in order to meet their clients’ or investors’ needs.

Hierarchal ladder: This is something a lot of PhDs don’t think about but it’s extremely important. You must know the company’s hierarchy, including who the CEO is, who the Vice President is, who the R&D Director or Marketing Director is, and so on. Get familiar with the process of reporting to supervisors and having supervisors who report to supervisors. Make it a point to ask questions during the interview related to how the hierarchy is set up within the division of the position you’re applying for and the company as a whole.

Core competencies: A core competency is a capability or advantage that distinguishes an enterprise from its competitors. Before you show up to an interview, make sure you know specifically what the company you’re interviewing with does best. What are they known for? What do they do better than their competitors? Most importantly, why do YOU want to work with this company versus some other company? (Hint: your answer should be related to this company’s core competencies).

Job posting: This is a no-brainer. Make sure you know the job posting you’re interviewing for. Know it like the back of your hand. Specifically, know what skills the job requires and be ready to present these skills during the interview.

2. Wait until the interview to ask questions.

I remember showing up to my first interview afraid of the questions they were going to ask me.

My entire interviewing strategy consisted of memorizing dozens and dozens of “top interview questions” on shoddy websites.

This was a mistake.

What I should’ve been doing was asking questions, not waiting to be asked questions.

I should have called the recruiters and hiring managers in charge of the position BEFORE showing up to the interview to ask questions.

Doing this was a game-changer.

Once I started asking questions before the interview, I started getting job offers after the interview was over.

The next time a biotechnology or biopharmaceutical company recruiter or hiring manager calls you to schedule an interview, make sure you ask them solid questions.

Ask them about the proper dress code.

Ask them what kind of presentation format they require.

Ask them who you will be meeting with, including their first and last names, and job titles.

I remember laying out some very casual clothes to wear before one of my earlier interviews for an R&D position.

I figured since it was an R&D position, the people in charge would be wearing clothes similar to what my academic advisor wore to work.

Then the hiring manager happened to call me to confirm our meeting time and I happened to ask her about the dress code.

She instructed me that the dress was very formal at this company and I should wear a black business suit.

Can you imagine if I had showed up in my khaki shorts and wrinkled short-sleeve button down shirt?

I would have failed the interview.

Instead, I showed up in the suggested suit and received a job offer after the interview was over.

3. Act insecure and speak generally about your skills.

“It could be thought that…”

“We found that the data might…”

“This result suggests that we could possibly…”

Academic speak like this has no place in industry.

If you show up to an interview and give generalized, passive voice answers, you will not get the job.

Likewise, if you give a boring, methodology-focused presentation, you will not get the job.

People in industry, above all else, value results.

They also value confidence, the ability to speak directly, and the ability to take direct responsibility for one’s work.

In terms of presentation structure, you should utilize the Situation or Task, Action taken and Results achieved, or STAR, method.

I learned this method during one of the Cheeky Scientist Association’s webinars and it greatly improved my presentation skills and my overall interviewing skills.

The most important aspect of this method is to focus on the actions YOU took and the results YOU achieved. 

Be confident in the value you have to offer and in the fact that you achieved great things at your former lab.

Everyone realizes that lab work is a group effort but during an industry interview, don’t be afraid to talk about yourself and your successes.

Also, when your presentation is over, be prepared to handle questions confidently.

You will get difficult interview questions like, “Why do you want to work for this company?” “What will you bring to the table in this position?” “Are you an ethical scientist?” “How do you manage deadlines?” and “How do you cope with stress and maintain a work-life balance?”

No matter what questions you receive, reply to them confidently, even if you don’t know the answer.

Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions and don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not sure but we could review those details together and find a solution,” or similar.

When you respond, look the person you’re responding to directly in the eye and maintain a relaxed facial smile.

Again, know your value.

The people in the audience and the company in general are not only interviewing you, you’re interviewing them.

Act accordingly.

Once the interview is over, be sure to follow-up with the hiring manager and everyone you met with within 24 hours.

If you prepare correctly, interviewing for jobs with biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies can be a lot of fun. After all, it’s your chance to shine and there could be a six-figure deal on the other end of the interview like there was for me. The key is to NOT be hesitant. Don’t listen to people who tell you that leaving academia for industry is like giving away your freedom. This is simply not true. In my experience, you have much more freedom in industry. For this and many reasons, you should be excited for the industry interviews you get, not nervous. When you do get called, remember to do your research, ask questions before the interview starts, and be confident in yourself and results-oriented in your approach.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan is a Ph.D. and currently works as a Sr. Scientist in the Research & Development department of Estée Lauder Companies in New York City. During and after completion of his Doctorate, Klodjan published several prominent papers in a variety of scientific journals. He got the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL) best PhD thesis in 2013 as well as a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Klodjan believes self-innovation is paramount in today’s competitive job market and encourages other PhDs to take action for themselves instead of allowing others to dictate their choices and careers.
Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.
  • Debra

    It’s very crucial that you pay attention to your first job interview because your hard work for years and your skills are at stake and you have only 90 seconds to prove it. So I think these 3 what not to do task is very important for every candidate who are going for the first interview.

  • Jefferson

    If I talk about my first interview, it was last about 20 minutes, but the interviewers and I both know that I lost my chance to get a job in just few seconds. Now I explain about what happened in that room. The first question they asked me was, “Who is the CEO of the company?” I sat there silently with shame. I know that I lost my chance to get a job. I did not get any call from them, but the interesting thing is that the person asked me the question is himself the CEO! So always prepare about the company’s fundamentals and all the person at top level.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Jefferson,

      you raise a very important point here: knowing the company and the company’s culture is not only important but vital for the sake of the interview.
      I am glad my article will help avoiding these common mistakes.

      Best

  • Hitomi

    It’s good practice to prepare A to Z things about the company before you go to interview. It leaves a great first impression on their mind about you. It’ll be easy for them and you get familiar with each other. And also ask them about the protocols of the company like dress code, list of documents they need from you, agenda of interview, etc. This will increase your chances to get an offer letter after interview.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Hitomi,

      excellent preparation is paramount in that it will set you apart from other candidates.
      Remember practice makes perfection so go for it.

      Best

      K.S

  • Ralph Maxwell

    It’s really a good thing to create the first nice impression of ourself against the company. We should know everything about company before we get in there. The second thing is that most of the time we get nervous in the interview because of the fear of getting rejected or failure. But these tips help us to get proper knowledge before going to interview, and also help us to get prepared for other interview stuff. I would like to thank Klodjan Staffa for these awesome tips! This is gonna help many people who are preparing for interview.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Ralph Maxwell,

      I am glad my article is helping people out there to go through the interview procedure and get their dream job.

      Best

  • RandellPHD

    Industry interview is one of the hardest thing, as we all know many people’s gets rejected in the first interview. The main reasons are lack of confidence and nervousness, but these points will help everyone in preparation for the interview and what should we keep in mind while preparing for the interview.

    Personally, I like the 3rd point where you mentioned the STAR method that you learned from the Cheeky Scientists Webinar. Totally agree on that.

  • Dr. Green

    It is good to have a strategy to crack the interview, but it only works when you have proper knowledge about your field, a detailed study of the industry in which you are entering, proper focus on the actions which you took and how you performed on your tasks. These points definitely help every postdocs to get the job in their first interview.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Dr. Green,

      unfortunaltely academia does not prepare postdocs or PhDs to enter the Industry job market but as you said, a detailed study of the industry, proper focus on the actions you took etc etc, are very important steps to be clearly mentioned or spoken out during the interview procedure. Luckely we have been trained to be inquisitive and dig into things, therefore we do have the proper tools to access the necesary info in order to make a remarkable impression.
      Best

  • Ray Wright PHD

    First interview makes us feel so tensed. We think that everything should be perfect in the interview as the first impression is the last impression and the interviewer should get impressed by our speech, our knowledge and our dress code. So with a great first impression we can convince interviewers and assure them that we are able to be the part of the company and it’ll be beneficial for them to have us.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Ray Wright,

      indeed we want everything to be perfect, in order to achieve that we need to practice multiple times until we will feel very confident with our selves and project the same level of confidence on others. Bare in mind this!
      Best.K.S

  • Hayden Carr

    As you experienced, I also had the same experience. I did not get any callback from the company at which I gave interview the previous week. I thought the interview was nice and there weren’t any reason not to call. But now I got the point, I made many mistakes there and I’ll keep your tips in mind next time.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Hayden Carr,

      If I were you, i would follow up with the recuiter and ask for the outcome. If they come back with a negative answer, do not give up but rather ask for clarifying questions and most importantly for feedback. This is paramount in that it will allow you to improve and shine for the next time.
      We may loose a battle but that does not mean we will loose the war:-)

  • Vanessa

    Great! I am going for an interview next week in one of the biotechnology company and I think God sent me here 🙂 These tips are very crucial for me as this will be my first formal interview with any big company. I’ll consider each and every tip in mind during the interview. Thank you very much.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Vanessa,

      Best of luck for your interview!
      Keep me posted on the outcome.
      As a general advice: be relaxed, be prepared and be a go-getter:-)

      Klodjan

  • Dr. Sean

    The first factor they see in you is confidence. If your confidence level is low, your chances of getting hired decreased. After that interviewers check for the responsibility factor. They indirectly assign you some task and check whether you are capable of handling it or not. So it’s very important that you follow such guidelines.