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6 Colossal Interview Blunders That PhDs Routinely Make

When I started my industry job search, I thought interviews were merely a formality. Walking in the door, I was sure I already had the job.

But so many times, I walked into an interview full of confidence and walked out feeling hopeless and confused.

I was clearly botching my interviews, but I had no way of knowing where I was going wrong.

When I aired my frustration to a friend of mine in talent acquisition, she told me what hiring managers really care about. It was then that I realized my blunders.

It wasn’t that I was unqualified or not experienced enough. I wasn’t offered the job because of the way I acted in the interview itself.

Evidently, my body language was all wrong. I also failed to understand the importance of doing my research on the company ahead of time.

After making a few small tweaks to how I presented myself and how I answered questions, I started seeing results. I was finally getting job offers!

Another Cheeky Scientist member recently shared how their preparedness got them through a stressful interview situation:

“In one interview, I was hit with a ton of technical questions that I had not prepared for. But I had done my research on the company and their product.

After I received a job offer, the interviewer told me that my knowledge about the company is what set me apart from the other candidates. It was a really good to feel so prepared! It gave me the confidence under a pretty stressful situation.

Thank you Cheekies! I can hands-down say this was because of your teachings!”

In An Industry Interview, You Have Exactly 90 Seconds To Make A Good Impression

The average industry interview is 40 minutes long; however, a survey conducted by Undercover Recruiter found that one-third of recruiters know within the first 90 seconds whether they will recommend someone for a job.

Some studies have even found that hiring managers make up their mind in less than 10 seconds!

This means you have mere seconds to convince someone that you’re the best person for the job – so you better be well-prepared!

But what could possibly go so wrong in so little time?

There are many reasons recruiters and hiring managers reject a job candidate.

In fact, 67% of job candidates get rejected due to lack of eye contact; 55% because they had little or no knowledge of the company; 47% due to a lack of confidence or smile; and 33% because of bad posture or a weak handshake.

With so many companies struggling to find talent, there isn’t any reason why you – a highly-educated and highly-qualified individual – can’t get hired into industry.

6 Avoidable Interview Mistakes That Hold You Back From Your Ideal Industry Job (And What To Do Instead)

If you’ve been offered an industry interview, you should be ecstatic – filled with both anticipation and excitement…right?

But, if instead, you’re filled with dread and worry, think about why this is.

Are you nervous because you don’t know what questions they’ll ask? Are you losing sleep at night because you don’t feel like you’re qualified for the job?

At the heart of most interview dread is a lack of preparedness.

The good news is you can hone your interviewing skills and improve your preparedness through practice.

This starts with addressing your blunders.

Today, I’ll discuss 6 very avoidable blunders that PhDs make that keep them from landing their dream job in industry.

Blunder #1: Not understanding the hiring funnel.

Do you know what happens after you submit a job application? Probably not.

After hitting the send button, all you can do is wait.

But what’s happening behind the scenes? 

The ways by which companies find quality job candidates can vary considerably; however, what remains consistent, no matter the company, is the overall hiring and interview process.

A process better known as the hiring funnel.

There are four stages of the hiring funnel.

The first stage is resume acquisition. After posting an open position – whether it be on their website, LinkedIn, or another online portal – companies are inundated with resumes.

In fact, the average company receives over 500 resumes for every open position. And for corporate giants like Pfizer, Google, and Dow Chemical, this number can reach up to 2000.

For one single job!

Companies certainly aren’t going to interview hundreds – or thousands – of job applicants. So, to reduce the pool of candidates, companies employ a variety of screening methods.

Some use automated Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), some have in-house talent acquisition teams, while others may outsource their hiring to recruiting companies.

No matter the method, what remains consistent is the number of applicants companies move forward with to the next stage of the hiring process: the phone interview.

Out of hundreds of applicants, only 12 to 15 candidates are invited for a phone screen. On a good day, that’s still less than 10% of the applicant pool!

So, if you get a phone interview you’ve already beaten substantial odds.

From there, the funnel narrows even more.

Once all remaining candidates have been through a phone screen, hiring managers then determine which candidates they want to invite for a video interview.

Typically, only 4 to 5 people make it to this stage. So again, if you’re called for a video interview, recognize that you’re one of only a handful of candidates to make it this far.  

Don’t take it for granted.

Also realize that companies frequently conduct several rounds of video interviews before finalizing their list of top candidates.

So you’re not off the hook after one video interview.

The final stage of the hiring funnel is typically the on-site visit. A standard on-site visit lasts the entire day and consists of numerous interviews – sometimes, upwards of 5 to 6.

Only 1 or 2 candidates are invited for an on-site visit. That’s because on-site interviews are expensive and time consuming.

If you get an on-site interview, a company is seriously considering you – don’t botch the opportunity.

To get hired in industry, you must see the hiring funnel from the employer’s point of view. The more you understand about the interview process, the more prepared you can be for those critical moments that catch so many PhDs off guard.

Blunder #2: Making a bad first impression

Like I mentioned earlier, the typical interview lasts around 40 minutes. But, the first 90 seconds of the interview are the most critical.

That’s because it only takes many hiring managers 90 seconds to determine if they are going to recommend you for the job.

This doesn’t seem fair – but fair or not, it’s something you should be aware of and be prepared for.

So, what can you do to impress your interviewer within the first few moments of your interview?

For one, make sure you dress appropriately and professionally. If your clothing is sloppy, disheveled, or too casual, it sends the message that you’re also sloppy, disheveled, and unprofessional in your work.

A firm handshake accompanied by a smile also goes a long way. Always ensure to make eye contact with the interviewer as well.

These may seem obvious, but you would be amazed at how many people fail their interview because they dressed poorly, didn’t make eye contact, or had a weak handshake.

You also want to show your potential employer that you’re confident. Avoid any body language that conveys self-doubt or nervousness such as crossing your arms, putting your hands in your pockets, touching your face, or fidgeting.

Within the first 90 seconds there’s only one or two questions that are frequently asked:

How are you today? And Can you tell me a little about yourself?

These seemingly innocuous questions open the lines of communication and can also tell the interviewer a lot about you as a person.

To answer the question ‘How are you?’, keep it simple. You can just say ‘Perfect!’ or ‘I’m perfect, thank you. How are you?’.

For the question ‘Can you tell me a little about yourself?’, you should always use your elevator pitch. Many PhDs make the mistake of rambling on because they don’t know how to answer such an open-ended question.

So, come prepared with a concise 5- to 10-second-long pitch about who you are. It is sure to impress your interviewers.

Overall, first impressions are everything – appropriate attire, a good handshake, voice, tonality and positive body language will set you up for success.

Blunder #3: Not preparing an elevator pitch

Many PhDs tend to overthink their response when asked to share something about themselves. A million thoughts enter their mind.

Where do I start? Do they want to know about me professionally? Should I say anything about me personally?

To avoid rambling on about your love of French cooking or providing your life story, prepare an elevator pitch and perfect it through practice – convey who you are and why they should care.

Share something about you professionally. Provide a touch of humanity by also describing something about you personally – like a hobby or an interest.  

You should also demonstrate your interest in the role and describe what your ultimate goals are. It should be about something outside or larger than yourself.

For example, you could say: I’m an immunologist and I love camping on the weekends. I want to be a project manager (or whatever the role is) because I’d really like to see my scientific knowledge translated into products that help people.

Write out your elevator pitch and practice it out loud. Over time, it will become second nature.

Master this and you’ll not only leave a good first impression, but you’ll set up the rest of your interview for success.

Blunder #4: Not doing the homework.

Another all-too-common reason many people, PhDs included, fail an interview is because they don’t know anything about the company.

During an interview, many employers will ask some version of ‘What do you know about our company?’

If you walk into an interview having no clue about what the company does, the job description, or your reasons for applying (other than you need a job), then you haven’t done your homework.

Before an interview, find out everything you can about the company. Identify their mission, their values, and their goals. Learn about any recent mergers or acquisitions.

This information not only helps you answer questions pertaining to the company, but it also helps you determine if a company is a good cultural fit for you.

Maintaining a good company culture is vital to the success of a business, therefore, it’s critical they hire the right people.

That means companies will be vetting you – your goals and your values – throughout the interview process to ensure it’s a good match.

If you can show that you’re knowledgeable about the company, understand what’s important to them, and can describe how you’ll provide further value to their mission, then you’re bound to leave a good impression.

Blunder #5: Neglecting the STAR method

Before an interview, there is only so much you can prepare. That’s because there’s no way of knowing what kind of questions you’ll be asked.

Like the Cheeky Scientist member above, you can prepare to answer all the standard behavioral questions, only to be thrown a curve ball – one that includes a long list of highly technical questions.

But, like this Cheeky member, if you have a solid understanding of the company along with a standard method of answering tough questions, you will stand out amongst the applicants.

One of the most tried and true methods for answering interview questions is the STAR method.

STAR stands for situation, task, action, and results.

When asked a question, you want to set up your answer in this order. Start by describing a previous work situation that pertains to the question.

Then, talk about what you were tasked with in this particular situation along with the specific actions you took.

And lastly, discuss the end result. When doing so, it’s best to mention quantifiable results – money obtained, number of projects completed, etc.

For example: ‘In my current role as a project manager , I am responsible for managing 3 cutting-edge early-concept projects where I lead a team of 30 people, ensuring that deadlines are met and quality is retained. As a result, my company recently received a $500,000 innovation grant based on their contribution to the field of cancer research’.

No matter what question is thrown at you, you can effectively answer by using this format and ensuring to emphasize not just your technical know-how but also your transferable skills.

Blunder #6: Disengaging and not asking questions

I get it – interviews are exhausting. Especially if they’re an all-day event.

But the fastest way to land yourself on the rejection list is to disengage and/or fail to show interest during an interview.

People feed off your energy. If you’re upbeat, enthusiastic, and genuinely happy to be there, the interviewer will likely reciprocate these feelings.

They then, in turn, will be enthusiastic about you.

So, during your interview, remain engaged. Smile, nod when they speak, ensure to face towards them at all times and maintain eye contact (in a not-so-creepy way).

Also, make sure you’re asking questions of them. This redirects the focus towards them and gives you a moment to breath while showing them your interest in the company.

It’s also the best way to learn more about the company and the role.

Ask about their current role, how they got there, what the culture at the company is like, how teams are structured – and the list goes on.

An interview is not just a way of assessing your skills – it’s also to see what it’s like to work alongside you.

If you’re disengaged, uninterested, and have one foot out the door the whole interview, no one will want to work with you.

Concluding Remarks

Interviewing is tough. I don’t know anyone that enjoys it. But interviewing well is the only way to land your ideal job in industry. An effective interview starts with a great first impression. Oftentimes, your fate is decided within the first few seconds of the interview. You have to put your best foot forward. So, make sure you dress and carry yourself professionally. Ensure to remain engaged, open, and enthusiastic. You also have to come prepared. Perfect your elevator pitch and practice the STAR method until all of it becomes second nature. Interviewing is not a talent; it’s a skill. One that can be mastered and result in a long and successful career in industry.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 three 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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