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5 Tips To Guide PhDs In Preparing To Pass Their First Industry Interview

how to pass an interview | Cheeky Scientist | preparation for interview
Written by Janay Cody, Ph.D.

Certainly someone with my qualifications could easily get a job in industry, right?

All I had to do was apply.

My industry resume would speak for itself.

This is what I thought.

So, rather than networking or building relationships with recruiters, I spammed every company with my resume.

No response.

Then—I got lucky.

I received ONE hit.

“What past life, school, or work experience do you have that would assist you with this position?”

Come again?

I will never forget this question.

A hiring manager sent me an email with the above question and a list of other interview questions that I had to answer by email to be considered for the job.

This wasn’t what I expected.

I’ll save you the suspense…

I blew it.

Big time.

Instead of delivering specific answers, I rambled on about my PhD thesis and research in general (topics no one outside my field would ever care about).

Then I threw in some generic terms like “well-organized” and “hard-working” without backing it up with results.

I cringe now, thinking about it.

But at the time, I was proud.

I submitted my answers with a smug smile on my face and waited.

I was perfect for this position and I couldn’t wait to get an interview and start.

I waited.

And waited.

One week went by.  Then two weeks.  Still, no answer.

Frustration and disappointment set in.

Finally, I realized that a good opportunity had slipped through my fingers.

It was my fault.

Something had to change.

I needed to figure out a better way to leverage my PhD and demonstrate my value. 

I had to figure out a way to not to waste my next opportunity.

Why PhDs Miss Out On Industry Job Opportunities

Having a PhD does not guarantee you an industry job.

Too many graduate students fall into the trap of talking about their specific research niche when networking and interviewing for non-academic careers.

They feel their strong academic record and long list of publications will get them the industry position they want.

This a career-killing mistake.

The problem is that most PhDs and PhD students have been trained to believe that their academic record is all they need to get an industry job.

At the same time, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking that academic research is all they’ll ever be good at.

After all, academia is all they’ve ever known.

Everything else in the world is unknown.

Most graduate students feel they receive no exposure to non-academic career opportunities.

This gives them what is known as “academic tunnel vision.”

If you want to transition into industry, recruiters and hiring managers need to know you can apply your technical and transferable skills to a new position and that you have the business sense to thrive in the corporate world.

In other words, they do not care about your thesis project.

Can we use any other survey data? This Canadian survey may not be reflective of the attitudes of the current US post doctoral population, or the PhDs who are applying for jobs in the US job market. Part of my professional work requires that I use and analyze survey data so any work published by me that includes references to survey data has to be consistent with best practices of survey research. I would prefer surveys not be included in this article.

Please see my comment above about whether this is representative of the current situation of PhDs seeking employment in the U.S. job market, and use of survey data.

best interview tips for PhDs| Cheeky Scientist | good interview techniques

How To Prepare For An Industry Job Interview

It’s easy for hiring managers to glaze over your industry resume and say you lack real work experience.

This is how they weed you out.

It is your job to show them how your academic experiences have prepared you for industry (even though they likely have not).

If you want to get hired fast in competitive job markets, you need to show hiring managers that you are qualified.

Not only that, you need to show them you are more qualified than other job candidates.  The following  guide will help PhDs in preparing to pass their first industry interview. Here’s how …

1. Premeditate confident answers to common questions.

According to a Glass door study, one of the most common questions interviewers ask is, “What can you offer us that someone else cannot?”

How would you answer?

Self-assessment is an essential first step of nailing any industry interview.

As PhDs and PhD students, we hear negative criticism so often that we lose sight of our strengths.

So, when it comes to pitching ourselves we fail—epically.

Instead of demonstrating our value, we blather on about our research or our favorite color.

If you want to nail your first industry interview, you need to know how to confidently answer common questions.

The most important part of answering any interview question properly is to know yourself and know your audience.

To get started, simply answer the following questions on a sheet of paper…

A. What am I good at?

When answering this, expand your perspective beyond just your technical skills.

Consider all of your transferable skills too.

Articulate, for example, that PhDs are quick learners.

PhDs can critically and objectively analyze information.

PhDs are innovative and diligent, capable of working methodically to achieve difficult project objectives.

If you get stuck, ask your friends and family what they believe are your best qualities.

B. What is my expertise?

When answering this question, focus on the content knowledge and technical skills you acquired while being in academia.

Most importantly, do NOT use research jargon.

For example, ask yourself, “What daily actions do I perform to exercise my strengths and expertise?”

Whether it’s running an experiment or participating in a volunteer activity, connect what you know and what you can do well with what you are already doing every day.

C. How do I get things done?

When answering this question, it’s important to determine how you work best.

Do you work by writing, talking, reading, or listening?

Do you work well in groups or independently?

What are my values?

What do I care about?

Be specific and don’t be afraid of the answer.

If you work well independently—own it.

Tell the interviewer it’s one of your strengths.

Hiring managers hire PhDs who know who they are, not those who hedge and just say whatever they think someone else wants to hear.

Determine what you stand for and what is important to you, and don’t be afraid to communicate it.

2. Become an expert on the company you want to work for. 

Too many graduate students and postdocs fail their first interview because they don’t prepare.

Instead of researching the company they’re going to work for, they wing it.

They just show up and hope for the best.

This is very ironic given the fact that these professionals have PhD degrees in scientific research.

Before you show up to an interview, become an expert on the company who is interviewing you.

Start by identifying job listings with at least 70-80% of the daily actions and primary duties you want to perform.

Once you have found the jobs you want, do some background research.

For example, dig into industry reports, news sections on company websites, and Google News.

Don’t be afraid to get on Twitter and follow companies and their top employees too.

See what makes them tick.

You have a PhD, which means you are an expert at learning, finding and compiling information—act like it.

Before you conclude your research, make sure you’ve answered the following questions…

What are the major shifts and trends in the company’s particular industry?

What is one major challenge facing the company that is relevant to the specific job position I want?

What fresh, distinct perspective can I offer to the company relevant to these industry trends?

How would I use my strengths, expertise, and current daily actions in combination with my fresh perspective to excel at my job and address the company challenge I identified?

3. Create a job pitch that aligns you with the company.

It’s time for you to synthesize all of the knowledge you have gained into your job pitch.

A job pitch is a lengthier version of your elevator pitch.

Where should you use your job pitch? 

Use this pitch at interviews when you are asked what makes you the perfect candidate for the job.

Use this with recruiters when they ask what positions you’re interested in.

Use this during informational interviews with other employees at your company of interest.

You can even use this at PhD and non-PhD networking events.

When creating a short elevator pitch, you want to focus on three things—who you are, what you want, and why the other person should care.

For this lengthier job pitch, you want to map things out in more detail.

Start creating your job pitch by filling out the below sentences…

I am committed to_____________[something you care about—ultimately why you are even applying for this job in the first place].

It’s why I______________, ________________, and _________________ [3 most relevant daily actions for the position you are applying that exemplify your strengths and expertise].

I use _____________________[your method of getting things done] to ________________[unique outcome that is needed for this job that only someone with your PhD skills can do].

Being a  ____________[job title] allows for the practical application of all my skills, training, and experience. I will be able to  ________________[thing you think will be an asset for company given a challenge you found] because I ____________, _____________, and _________________ [3 things or less you do now that demonstrate you can help them solve a problem that only someone with your skills can do].

Make sure you demonstrate a clear understanding of the company culture.

Show the hiring manager and other company staff you meet that you share their vision.

Most importantly, practice your job pitch.

Practice it over and over again until you stop sounding like a robot.

Over time, the length of the pitch will decrease and you’ll be able to deliver it in a conversational tone.

4. Ask better questions than the interviewers ask you.

Interviews are a two-way street.

You need to promote yourself, but also need to communicate that you understand the company’s values and that these values are aligned with your own.

By asking questions that show you have done your research, you can quickly distinguish yourself from the other candidates. 

First and foremost, show your passion.

Remember, credentials are not enough to differentiate you from others.

Instead, you need to demonstrate your strong interest in the company while gaining further information to help you decide whether or not the position is a good fit.

Yes—they need to sell the job to you too. 

You’re not a beggar.

Don’t be afraid to be confident and ask bold questions.

Don’t be afraid to put them in the hot seat and ask if they have any questions regarding your qualifications or if you can clarify any hesitations they have.

Write down the questions you want to ask beforehand in case you become nervous and lose your train of thought.

Adapt your questions and your tone to the atmosphere and personalities present in the interview. 

Most importantly, remain professional in your questioning and do not try to ascertain information about your competition.

Instead, focus on you and your interview.

5. Repeat your scripts over and over until they’re natural.

Just like you need to repeat your job pitch until it’s natural, you need to repeat every part of the interviewing process until it’s natural.

You also need to target your scripts.

For example, make sure you tailor your pitches and questions to each specific job and company.

The more you practice, the better your delivery will be.

Take every interview as an opportunity to improve your interviewing skills.

Practice your body language in front of a mirror.

Do mock interviews with different friends so you can practice adapting your answers to different personalities and situations. 

Practice speaking about your technical skills to a non-technical audience.

Remember, many of the hiring managers and recruiters who will ultimately decide your fate do not have PhDs and are not experts in your field.

If you have an unsuccessful interview, take the opportunity to ask for feedback from your interviewers so you can build on the experience and fail forward.

Finally, stay in touch with the hiring managers and recruiters after you interview, regardless of whether or not you got the job.

Maintain these relationships and work for them by introducing them to candidates in your network.

They will return the favor.

You do not have to be like the other graduate students and postdocs in your lab. Poor.  Unhappy. Reluctant to find work outside of academia. Instead, you can be confident in your skills and excited about your future. Realize that your academic experiences have armed you with the skills you need to get an industry job.  All you need to do is learn how to market them effectively. By building up your self-worth and leveraging your technical abilities and transferable skills, you will get the industry position of your choice.

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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Janay Cody Ph.D.

Janay Cody Ph.D.

Janay is a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Notre Dame who consults on technological innovation in educational assessment and uses data to create compelling stories that empower individuals and organizations to effect positive social change. Janay is passionate about making statistical data accessible to everyone and improving how the general public understands and interacts with these data, especially in education and political domains.
Janay Cody Ph.D.
  • Winona Petit

    Janay, you have really knocked the ball out of the park with this article. I’m fascinated by the depth and specificity of your information. I remember clearly looking for my first job out of graduate school and feeling exactly as you say – very limited, nervous, and unable to connect my PhD studies with a well-paying job in industry. Fortunately, I was able to get a very good sales position which led to quite a bit of travel and eventually a sales manager. It’s allowed me to have a very good life and my mind is constantly stimulated, too, which I love.

    Thanks so much!


  • Harvey Delano

    This is awesome! I’m going to start implementing some of these strategies now, so when I graduate, I’ll be really good at it. Thanks so much.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    Actually, this post has me thinking. Although I never pursued a PhD, these steps are quite applicable to any professional advancement and can help one navigate the divide between academic proficiency and industrial practicality. Our skills as academics and professionals can be honed into verbiage that clearly relates our experience to the needs of industry in a variety of ways.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I’m very enthusiastic about getting a job in an industry that can apply science to practical situations. I really appreciate all the tips. and the organizational exercises on finding our own strengths and seeing how they can apply to the workplace. I’m used to being a self-starter and don’t want to waste any time.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    What if your PhD is in a field like history or English? I’ve been told by a lot of other people that I’ll never go anywhere if I don’t have an academic background in the hard sciences, but I’m not sure that’s where I want to put my energy.

  • Kathy Azalea

    Getting a job is challenging for anyone. To be honest,it’s hard for me to believe that PhD candidates and PhDs are so insecure about getting a good job.On the other hand, I can see where you need to know how to word things and research the job market to find your way, so I appreciate that. I actually ended up taking notes on this article. I’m not afraid of a lack of ability and it seems to me that interviewing is just another skill I can easily learn.

  • Sonja Luther

    Well, I’ve got to admit that I’ve been in schools almost all of my life, first by getting a Masters in Psychology and then going to work as a school psychologist. I’ve been off the job market for a long time, having the job that I do, but I wouldn’t mind brushing up on some of these tips for job promotions. Thanks so much for these great ideas.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Actually, I’m very glad I came across this site. This looks right up my alley. My PhD is in Cultural Anthropology. I did research the job opportunities before getting my PhD, and found that employment in my field should be increasing steadily because of globalization and industry needing more information to market to various cultures. But, no matter what the industry is doing, it’s still very important to have those concrete job-seeking skills. So I want to thank you very much for the article, Janay, and I’ll be exercising those skills regularly until I’m exactly where I want to be.

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    This is really good information for anyone seeking a job, whether they have a PhD or not. But it stands to reason that a PhD would have certain advantages, because they did have to go through a lot to get their degree and that says a lot.

  • Andrea Robinson

    Hey, great article! It seems that being an academic does have some serious advantages, like being able to research the companies and markets. But you’ve helped clarify the process a great deal, giving us ideas we haven’t necessarily thought of before. Thanks so much! 🙂