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3 Common Interview Mistakes That Keep Qualified PhDs From Getting Job Offers

how to prepare for an interview tips and advice | Cheeky Scientist | common interview mistakes

Written By Jackie Johnson, Ph.D.

After months of applying for a job in industry, I finally received the email that was music to my ears.

“We would like to invite you to an interview.”

I thought I would be filled with happiness and a sense of accomplishment, but I wasn’t.

I was filled with dread.

I just sat there for what felt like hours, staring at my inbox.

I had never been on a real job interview before.

My last interview was for my postdoc position and that was years ago.

I could feel the blood rush to my face.

My stomach was in my throat.

“You will meet with the head of HR, a senior account executive, and the CEO.”

Impostor syndrome took over…

Why would they want me to come to an interview?

I didn’t have the 5 years of industry experience that they advertised for in the job ad.

Did they make a mistake?

How could I possibly stand out from all the other applicants?

Was I even ready to do the job they wanted to interview me for?

I was certain that no one would ever respond to my desperate job applications, and yet I managed to trick this company into thinking I was good enough for this job.

Like many other PhDs, academia made me question my non-academic abilities.

Despite having met all the requirements for the job and getting invited to an interview, I still felt totally inadequate.

As an academic, I had been grappling with anxiety and depression.

Although this is what I wanted, I was also a shy introvert who hated selling myself.

I could already imagine the nightmare scenario unfolding…

I walk into a room full of men in suits. I start to sweat. They ask me probing questions about my science. They are all WAY smarter than I am. They are all experts on my research. They want to know why I didn’t use a particular control. The interview ends with me—blushing, nervous, and about to be sick—leaving the building, never to return.

Gulp.

I begrudgingly accepted the interview invitation.

As I prepared for the interview, I slowly realized that the hiring manager was more interested in testing my transferable skills than my technical skills.

I researched the company, did mock interviews, made a list of questions that I had for the company, and then walked into the interview feeling confident and excited to talk with other professionals.

Why You Need To Prepare For Your Industry Interview 

The academic job market is a terrifying place.

What was once considered a noble pursuit, obtaining a PhD no longer brings the esteem and grandeur it once did.

Instead, it brings fear of unemployment, a ‘publish or perish’ attitude, and a continuous battle for grant funding.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 76% of available academic positions are part-time or adjunct professorships, which pay little and lack benefits and job security.

PhDs may be gaining intellectual experience but there is no hiding the truth…

There are more PhD candidates than academic jobs.

According to studies and surveys by the National Science Foundation, there are approximately 21,000 more PhDs granted than professorships opened each year.

There’s no reason to stay in academia after getting a PhD anymore.

More than that, there’s no way to stay in academia after getting a PhD unless you want to take a low-paying postdoc position.

The best option for today’s PhDs is to transition out of academia.

However, in order to do so, PhDs must learn how to market themselves outside the ivory tower.

Industry interviews are very different from the academic interviews you once prepared for.

Technical skills matter very little at the interview stage.

Hiring managers are looking for you to demonstrate your critical thinking, communication, interpersonal, organizational and management skills, to name a few.

You need to effectively demonstrate these transferable skills while showing that you are both personable and dependable.

Competition will be fierce.

You can possess all the qualities needed for the job on paper but the moment you walk into the interview room, these qualities mean nothing.

All that matters is how you present yourself.

Manners, timeliness, tidiness and company knowledge are the main reasons people fail at interviews, despite being fully qualified.

Are you prepared for your first or next industry interview?

don't make these interview mistakes | Cheeky Scientist | job interview tips

3 Interview Mistakes That Keep PhDs Unemployed

We all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to interviewing.

Once you have secured your industry interview, it’s time to leverage your strengths to prove that you are the perfect person for the job.

You must do your homework.

You must take the interview stage seriously.

At the same time, you must refuse to be intimidated by the process.

Put as much effort into preparing for the interview as you would prepare for your dissertation defense.

You will be competing against people from a variety of backgrounds and experience.

You must prove that even though you are an academic PhD, you have the transferable skills along with the business and commercial acumen needed to excel in industry.

Most importantly, you must avoid the easily overlooked aspects preventing you from performing well during an industry interview.

You must get comfortable with your own voice, practice answering questions aloud in front of others, and more.

Here are 3 common mistakes to avoid during your first or next industry interview…

1. Silently waiting for interviewers to ask you questions.

Many PhDs are comfortable with silence.

They enjoy the quiet.

This may be an advantage when it comes to burying yourself in your research, but it’s a major drawback during a job interview.

One of the key traits every hiring manager will evaluate you on is your ability to interact socially.

For many biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies, a hiring manager’s job comes down to this…

Do not hire an awkward PhD that will disrupt the current team.

So how can you prove that you are not that awkward PhD?

Show up ready to talk.

Show up ready to ask questions.

You might think that silence shows strength, or you might think that your one-on-one conversation skills will carry over to interviewing skills.

But what happens when you have a panel interview, which is common for many industry jobs?

What happens when you sit down in front of 5 people, ranging from the Human Resources Manager to the CEO, and they start asking you multiple questions?

What happens when they ask you to stand up and present your ideas on a white board without advance warning?

If you resort to sitting in your chair silently, answering questions with a meek ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and never asking any questions of your own, you will not get a job offer.

The only solution is to get comfortable thinking on your feet.

You have to get comfortable talking on your feet.

This means you have to get comfortable with your own voice.

The best way to do this is to simply start talking to people more.

Even if it feels unnatural at first, start talking to people you see in the lab, people you walk by in the hall, people standing next to you in line at the coffee stand, and on and on.

First say hello to people that you see every day, then progress to initiating short conversations.

This is best done by asking simple questions like…

  •      How was your weekend?
  •      What new projects are you working on?
  •      Are you traveling anywhere this year?
  •      How was lunch?
  •      What are you doing for lunch?

Over time, engaging others in conversation will become easier and easier.

Realize that many of the questions you’ll be asked during an onsite interview, especially at the beginning of the formal sit-down sessions and in between these sit-downs, are simply casual questions.

During onsite interviews, you’ll get casual questions like…

  •      How is your day going?
  •      Can you tell me a little about yourself?
  •      How long did you work at…?
  •      Where did you live before graduate school?
  •      Do you have big plans for the weekend?

The more you get comfortable asking and answering these questions, the better you will become at building rapport.

You will also get better at answering and asking more complex questions.

2. Practicing interview questions in your head only. 

After scouring job sites for laundry lists of potential interview questions, I had a notebook filled with all my answers.

What is your greatest weakness?

What is your greatest strength?

Why do you want to leave academia?

I was ready.

I could go on and on and on with my well-researched answers.

Unfortunately, I failed to receive job offers after several interviews.

The feedback I received from many companies I interviewed with was that my answers were simply too stiff and rehearsed.

As a result, these companies weren’t sure if I really wanted the job.

They felt that my enthusiasm for the position was fake.

I learned the hard way that it is not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it.

Having the best response to every question is not enough.

You must be able to express your response appropriately too.

If you had friends or family members tell you that you seem quiet, tired, relaxed, chilled out, or something similar, this is a sign that you are not expressive.

Expressiveness is a skill.

Studies from MIT show that expressiveness can be both measured and taught.

In these studies, people who are more expressive are both more likable and come across as more persuasive.

If you want to get a job offer after an interview, you have to practice expressing yourself effectively.

To express yourself more effectively, try using hand gestures, bold mannerisms, and talking a bit faster.

Use non-verbal cues like making eye contact, keeping an upright posture, and using a firm handshake.

Once you master the basics, start practicing your expressiveness in challenging situations.

Ask a friend or trusted colleague to do a one-on-one mock interview.

Request that they prepare some common interview questions, then request that they ask you these questions firmly.

After you answer the questions, ask them to give you honest feedback about your expressiveness.

If you have a video camera or iPhone, record the interview and watch your mannerisms afterwards.

How did you come off?

Was your voice confident, or unsure?

Did your mannerisms help drive home your points, or were they distracting?

Receiving feedback can be difficult to digest, but it’s the only way to understand how you are perceived.

If you’re struggling to enhance the way you express yourself, imagine the most confident, friendly person you know, and then try to act like them.

If you don’t feel confident at first, just fake it until you make it.

Get a handle on your own emotional intelligence, and then practice the interview.

Leverage your personality strengths to present yourself as a top job candidate.

3. Presenting yourself as an academic PhD. 

Imagine the most successful scientist you know.

Is he wearing a lab coat with thick-rimmed glasses?

Is she wearing a freebie T-shirt, ripped jeans, and thick-soled tennis shoes?

One of the unspoken perks of an academic job is the lack of dress code.

This perk doesn’t exist during an industry interview.

But if you’re smart enough and have academic accomplishments, the interviewer shouldn’t care about what you wear, right?

If you make less money than a librarian, the interview won’t expect you to dress well, right?

Wrong.

You will not get a job offer if you dress like an academic PhD during an interview.

The way you dress, whether you like it or not, is part of your professional brand.

How you present yourself in general will determine your career trajectory.

Consider this…

A report by Undercover Recruiter showed that while the average length of an interview is 40 minutes, 33% of hiring managers reported knowing within the first 90 seconds if they will hire that candidate.

First impressions are more important than technical skills and transferable skills combined.

All you get to make a first impression is 90 seconds.

You better make this time count by dressing well, exhibiting confident body language, and nailing your elevator pitch as soon as you walk through the door.

If a company is kind enough to invite you to an interview, you must market yourself as the Rolls Royce of scientists.

Not the Honda Civic of scientists.

Of course, as a PhD, you might be thinking that all of this is superficial and therefore abhorrent.

Why should first impressions matter so much?

How can you judge people based on their clothes?

These questions, while valid, are irrelevant to industry interviewers.

The good news is that presenting yourself well can have other, deeper psychological benefits.

Researchers at Columbia University found that dressing up to impress others can enhance your ability to engage in abstract thinking.

Given that an interview is a new, and often times stressful environment, dressing for success is an easy way to boost your mental function.

When it comes to picking out an interview outfit, focus on the small details. 

First, make sure that your pants and jacket are the right size.

Second, choose colors that appeal to the psychology of trustworthiness and organization.

Wearing blue gives the impression of being trustworthy, and wearing white gives the impression that you are organized.

The better you look, the better you will feel and the better you will come across to others.

The only way to get an industry job offer is to successfully pass an industry interview. This means presenting yourself as a qualified candidate and making a great first impression. Technical qualifications aside, an industry interview will focus on your transferable skills, your personable nature, and how well you have researched the company and their values.  Most importantly, avoid common interview mistakes like staying silent and not dressing the part. If you are an introvert by nature, take time to practice speaking with strangers and to practice common interview questions with trusted friends and colleagues. By doing this, you’ll come across as a qualified PhD who is a perfect fit for any company.

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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Jackie L. Johnson, Ph.D

Jackie L. Johnson, Ph.D

Jackie has a PhD in Oncology and is the founder of JLJ consultancy, a management-consulting firm based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Jackie specializes in medical communication platforms for international pharmaceutical clients, academic institutes, and biotech companies. She has extensive training in medical & scientific writing from AMWA, EMWA, and Stanford University. She is passionate about communicating scientific advances to the public to address important medical questions.
Jackie L. Johnson, Ph.D
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I love what you’re saying in the last paragraph. Basically, it’s a confidence builder to dress up, prepare yourself, and research your company before the interview. All those things can only pay off.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Totally, Matthew, if you look good you feel good!

  • Kathy Azalea

    Great tip on recording your interviews if you can! That’s even better than doing the at-home practice session. I know that for me, expressiveness can be a sticking point. I hate listening to myself, but forcing myself to listen to the recording could be an awesome learning experience.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      I can relate, Kathy, also hate listening to myself talk…practice makes perfect!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is another great article! I love these things because they help pave the way to better interviews and better prep, thus leading to better results! Thank you!

  • Harvey Delano

    Ha-ha! I really felt for you while reading your story of the interview from hell. In fact, I was feeling bad for you until I read your funny “fake it ’til you make it” part of the advice. I guess it’s true – sometimes we’ve just got to go through an experience and do the best we can. I love your tips, though, and I’ll be practicing. 🙂

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      Funny enough @harveydelano:disqus, the more you fake it, the more your brain starts to believe it : ) It’s a great way to overcome imposter syndrome : )

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I have to admit to falling into that imposter syndrome from time to time. It’s not too often, but it happens. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in this and that you can actually overcome it by following these guidelines. I guess practice makes perfect and even self-doubt can be overcome with self-confidence after you’ve practiced enough.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    These are really amazing tips about practicing self-expression. We seem to think of our personalities as inherent, inborn traits that are fixed, but skills like authentic self-expression, often written off as one of those inherent traits, can actually be learned with practice. I’m so glad you brought up the idea of practicing your interview questions and conversations out loud. I really do think that a lot of people are not comfortable with their own voices, especially in a highly-charged situation like an interview. Good on you for pointing this out. 🙂

  • Julian Holst

    Well, I can see that presenting yourself as an academic PhD is going to be counter-productive. The two best things I can think of to do are to do your resarch/practice beforehand and to be natural and sincere on the other hand. Really good article, very precise.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      thanks for reading @JulianholstUSA:disqus!

  • Sissy MacDougall

    I can really identify with the pre-interview jitters and self-recriminations before it gets started. Fortunately, it largely goes away with age and experience. I still feel some trepidation in interview-type situations, but you learn to deal with it a lot more easily after you’ve done a certain number of them.

    • https://www.jljconsultancy.com jackie johnson

      that’s comforting @sissymacdougall:disqus ; ) Looking forward to the day when jitters are just a memory : )

  • lilion

    This advice might also work for technical professionals who’d like to advance in their career or reach management level. Not everyone does, some prefer to silently hone their craft forever and that’s cool, but a lot of the principles for working with people translate.
    Thanks!

  • Theo

    I feel a lot more enthusiasm about the prospects of going to all these interviews as I’m transitioning out of academia. You’ve broken the process down into such simple, doable, yet critical steps. I’m really proud of my academic achievements, but I also see there are transferable skills and I promise I won’t come off like the academic PhD.

  • Sonja Luther

    As awkward as interviews can be, you rightly point out that literally the only way to get an industry job is to pass an interview. There may be other facets to getting the job, but if you can’t nail an interview and learn to approach it right, you have no chance of going anywhere. It’s amazing how few opportunities there are to learn networking and interviewing in academia. Thanks for this great info.