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15 Questions To Ask Employers To Show You’re Industry-Ready

I know many PhDs who moved from one lab to another or one adjunct ship to another and never really had to interview. Because academia is such an isolated environment most PhDs already know most of what they need to know about the culture, pay, and what’s expected of them.

This familiarity gets them in the habit of not asking questions during industry interviews and blowing it spectacularly. 

I kept bombing my early industry interviews and I couldn’t figure out why – I knew I was the most qualified candidate they’d interviewed.

Many of the interviewers told me so.

I went in knowing I was the most experienced and the best fit for the role. 

The interviews would be great, and I’d leave thinking I 100% would be getting a job offer. 

Only to be crushed when I got passed over. 

I had done all the right research and answered all their questions as thoroughly and expertly as possible.

I asked the interviewer, after one particularly brutal rejection for a job I really wanted, what I could do better during my interviews.

And they told me that I didn’t seem interested in the position because I didn’t ask the right questions, and in fact, I had hardly asked any questions.

They thought I wasn’t interested or had written the job off at some point during the interview, despite being an ideal candidate. 

The next interview I had, I made sure I was prepared with questions and not just generic questions, questions that showcased the research I had done on the company and that specific role. 

I got a second interview. And then, I got an offer. Ultimately, I accepted a different offer, but I learned the value of asking the right questions to show I was ready for this career move.

Flex Your Research Skills To Impress Employers

Asking questions during your interview prepares you for what to expect if potential employers extend an offer.

You should ask questions not just to be a stand-out candidate but also to understand what you’re getting into when you accept a job offer.

Knowing how the hiring team feels about their jobs and the future of the company helps you make an informed decision to pursue the role or turn down the offer.

By walking into an interview prepared with questions about the company, it’s role in the scope of your industry, and asking for details about the open position, potential employers know you’ve done your homework, and you can start working reliably.

This is impressive to employers and recruiters because it shows that you’re not going to be difficult to onboard, which is a primary hiring concern for most employers.

Remember, your PhD got you the interview. Now you have to get the job.

Get The Job By Being Knowledgeable AND Trainable

Showing up to your interview with a sense of urgency about the role, while being both aware of the impact it has on industry while asking questions shows you’re knowledgeable and trainable. 

You know how to do this job, and they know how they want it done – get in-depth in your questions, especially if the role is niche. For example, software developers, engineers, or tech PhDs should ask questions like what departments they’ll collaborate with, what a typical project length would be, what software processes they use, and resource allocation: in short, are these projects a financial priority?

Being able to break down your industry knowledge and knowledge of processes while also asking questions while being curious about company operations shows you’re interested in learning their process. 

Industry-Specific Questions Show You’re A Good Fit 

  1. How do they define growth in their industry?

This is an important question to ask and showcases your knowledge of the industry. Asking what metrics you’ll be expected to meet, and how quickly they expect growth from incoming and existing projects conveys a sense of expertise and urgency.

Being specific about key industry and role functions shows potential employers you’re an investment. 

  1. What are your goals for this role?

Knowing what goals they have for the role lets you know if they expect you to hit the ground running (red flag) or if you’ll have a sufficient amount of onboarding time, which is paramount to any new employee’s success, even a PhD.

The main goal for both of you is that you should come on board smoothly and successfully integrate into the role and become a beneficial member of the team as soon as possible. 

  1. How does this role fit into the company’s future successes?

This is the kind of question that lets interviewers know you’re thinking long-term. Most employers right now are concerned with two money-wasting hiring problems: Hiring the wrong fit, and retaining the right fit. Questions about the future of the role, and what part it plays in plans for the future success of the company show you’re thinking about long-haul employment. Most industry professionals stay in a role for five years and then either begin the process of looking for growth elsewhere or are promoted out of that role. Thinking of how you fit into a company’s future success makes an interviewer see you as a long-term employee and an asset.

Asking Questions About Deliverables And Metrics Shows You’re Already Thinking Like An Employee

  1. How do you measure employee success?

This line of questioning sets you apart from other interviewees by showing you’re already in a negotiating mindset and thinking long-term about the role and what you can bring to the company.

It also helps recruiters and hiring managers with one of their worst hiring fears; hiring a bad fit. This shows hiring managers that you’re already assessing your fit in the role – and doing their work for them if you feel it’s not aligned with your goals as a PhD in industry.

  1. What are you hoping this position brings to the department?

Questions like this give you a lot of insight as the interviewee. Are they hoping to fully staff and expand an already full department, or are they experiencing high turnover? Being industry ready isn’t just showing employers your PhD value, it gives you a sense of what they’re planning for the role and if they’ve thought things through.

  1. What growth do you see for this role?

This is a prime retention-focused question that industry hiring managers will want to hear. You’re thinking about growth, you’re thinking about your future in the role, and already brainstorming your growth plan. In the same vein, you could also ask what kind of OTJ or added training they’re offering or consider necessary for this role, showing you’re considering how your skills line up. 

Asking insightful questions during your interview allows interviewers to see you as an asset to the company and get a sense of how you fit into the company culture.

Ask Company-Specific Questions

Ask company-specific questions about the role, so you know what you’re getting into. There are red-flag answers that tell you this isn’t a good fit for you and industry employers expect you to make these kinds of inquiries.

  1. Why is this position open?

Asking why the position is open can give you insight as to what they expect for the role, and what kind of culture you can expect.

You’re walking into a different environment if the person you’re replacing was a beloved team member who moved on, someone who was fired, or if the role is new. It’s the difference between walking into a supportive team, or a burnt-out team.

While they won’t come right out and tell you “John Smith was fired” they may say more than you’d expect. If you’ve done some investigating on LinkedIn, you may already know the answer to this question, but you’ll know based on their answer what kind of environment you’ll be working in should they offer you the role. According to Forbes, most interviewees don’t ask this question but employers not only expect but encourage it. 

  1. What’s the budget for this position in terms of salary and skill compensation?

You’re a PhD. Transitioning into industry is about being paid your worth. It used to be considered bad etiquette to ask about benefits and work/life balance but the pandemic changed that.

It’s not that asking about work/life balance and benefits that can turn people off occasionally, it’s how you’re asking about them. Any reasonable employer will know that you’re asking to assess this role as a good fit for your life and needs.

Asking about benefits right out of the gate is only seen as rude if it’s phrased wrong – please ask about flexibility, work/life balance, benefits, and more but don’t ask it like that’s the first thing you’ll be doing when you get there is taking a vacation or using the company car.

Ask questions about salary, benefits, and more when you’re getting a solid sense there’s an offer coming.

The best time to ask those questions is after the interviewer asks how soon you can start or if you can provide references – these are both indicators you’ll be made an offer.

Do your research on the market value of your skill set about the budget for the position, and if they feel it’s competitive for their industry. 

Internal Culture Questions

Asking internal culture questions isn’t taboo. Employers want dedicated staff but they don’t want someone who is going to burn themselves out because they feel they have to prove themselves. That’s academia, not industry. If you’re not sure how to phrase them, here are a few to work with:

  1. How does the team handle missing deadlines or a disruption of the process?
  2. What should I know about the company culture regarding expectations within the role?
  3. What major projects are coming up for the team?
  4. Would you say this role is stable?

These are all fit-focused questions that employers want to see – their biggest fear is hiring someone who doesn’t want to be there. If you can eliminate yourself from their candidate pool, that benefits both of you.

You’re The Right Candidate Because…

A well-rounded candidate has put thought into why they applied to the company and isn’t just diving in because they want out of academia and anything will do.

A professional industry interview is a give-and-take conversation – if you’re not asking questions, you’re barely participating in your interview.

Ask them if they’ll be supervising this role, or if they’ve held this position before in this company or something similar. 

Everyone Can Manage Their Expectations When You Ask Questions

Asking questions shows you have reasonable expectations about the job and its requirements – and the knowledge that your skills as a PhD align with their needs. Industry recruiters and hiring managers expect to have an engaging interview that reflects your polished resume.

Don’t forget that all interviews are a conversation, hiring managers may know what the job is but not all the finite parts of the process if they’ve never held that role before.

Concluding Remarks

Hiring managers expect you to come prepared to your interview with questions about not only the finite parts of the job but also broader scope questions that range from benefits and salary to work-life balance, team dynamics, and more. You have to participate in the interview to be memorable and stand out among the pool of applicants. Your PhD should already give you an edge, but being prepared for your interview with insightful questions can increase your chances of leaving with an offer. 

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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