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5 Tough But Common Interview Questions For Research-Based Jobs

“I can’t get hired because of my technical skills.”

“I’m nervous about the technical questions.”

This is what many PhDs obsess over before interviewing for a research role. 

The problem is that interviewers are rarely going to ask highly specific technical questions, even for research-based roles. 

I had a PhD who was up for an interview at Baxter and told me that they appreciated the advice, but because it’s Baxter they know the interview will be mostly technical. 

“Like what?” I asked.

“Do you think you’re going to have to create a buffer in front of them?”

“Are they going to quiz you on molarity?”

Still, this PhD went into the interview unpracticed in the realm of competency based questions meant to evaluate problem-solving and teamwork and was caught off guard. 

Two weeks went by. 

Then two more weeks. 

Then finally they were rejected. 

Understand – industry employers want to know that you can collaborate with key stakeholders and think through strategic research problems.

They’re not looking for the best pipette. They’re not going to quiz you technically. 

Instead, they’re going to ask broader questions designed to do 4 things: to assess your analytical thinking, problem-solving skills, research experience, and your ability to contribute meaningfully to the field. 

Competency Questions Will Be Asked, Not Technical Questions

According to a survey of 2,000 employers performed by Undercover Recruiter, 47% of employers believe the biggest mistake job candidates make is not researching the company beforehand.

In a similar and recent Accountemps survey of 2,200 CFOs, 27% said the most common mistake job candidates make during industry interviews is having little to no knowledge of the company.

In contrast, these reports found that only 22% of employers thought job candidates were unprepared to discuss their skills and experiences. 

The company you will interview for has problems, research-based or otherwise. They want to see how you might solve one of their current problems. 

This also allows them to test your problem-solving process and to evaluate whether or not you can communicate this process. Do you think collaboratively in terms of your process, or not. 

Collectively, these types of problem-solving assessing questions are called competency questions, which are 1 of 4 main types of questions you’ll face during any interview. 

5 Tough But Common Interview Questions For Research-Based Jobs

Competency questions do test your skills but specifically the application of your skills to a problem the company currently has. 

These questions are strategic. Just like your role will be at the company. 

Industry employers use advanced robotics and technicians for the majority of their “hands-on” research today. They need PhDs like you to think through problems in advance and design effective research methods. 

This is what you’re being tested on when employers ask you tough interview questions for research positions. 

The following questions are 5 of the toughest, but also most common competency questions you’ll face for research-based roles…

1. “Can you describe a time when your research project faced unexpected hurdles? How did you address these challenges?”

Here, like with every question on this list, you want to answer it using the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to structure your response. 

Discuss a specific research project, the challenges you encountered (e.g., experimental issues, data inconsistencies and so on), the actions you took to troubleshoot and overcome those challenges, and the positive outcomes or insights gained. 

Focus on your adaptability, problem-solving skills, communication, collaboration, and of course, perseverance. 

2. “What’s a recent breakthrough or significant development in your research field that you find interesting? And, how does it relate to your own work?”

Here, you want to choose a recent advancement that genuinely piques your interest. 

Explain how this breakthrough aligns with your research and how it has influenced your thinking or approach. 

Discuss any potential connections or implications for your own work, demonstrating your knowledge of current trends and your ability to integrate new ideas into your research.

3. “How do you approach designing experiments or studies to ensure robustness and reliability of results?”

To answer this question, make sure you describe your process for designing experiments, including defining research objectives, selecting appropriate methodologies, addressing potential biases, and establishing control groups.

Emphasize your focus on proper controls, randomization, sample size considerations, and rigorous data analysis. Highlight your commitment to producing credible and reproducible results.

4. “Can you explain a complex research concept to someone without a background in your field?”

It’s vital here to choose a concept relevant to your research and break it down into simple, understandable terms. Start with a relatable analogy or real-world example, gradually introducing key ideas. 

Use concise language, avoid jargon, and provide visual aids if applicable. This showcases your communication skills and your ability to convey complex ideas to diverse audiences.

5. “How do you manage and analyze large datasets efficiently? Can you provide an example from your previous research?”

Here, make sure you discuss your data management strategies, including data organization, cleaning, and transformation. 

Mention software or tools you’re proficient in (e.g., Python, R, Matlab and even Excel) for data manipulation and analysis. Provide a specific example of a project where you handled a substantial dataset, detailing how you managed, processed, and extracted meaningful insights from it. 

Preparing thoughtful responses to these 5 tough research-based interview questions, and all questions you encounter during an interview, all while showcasing your research expertise, problem-solving abilities, and ability to work with others, will help you get the job offer. Remember, overall, employers are looking to evaluate your analytical thinking, problem-solving skills, research experience, and your ability to contribute meaningfully to the field. They want to know that you can think through problems in advance and design effective research methods, not merely work with your hands.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

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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