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Common Interview Mistakes Made by PhDs and How To Avoid Them

How to avoid common interview mistakes
Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

I have had dozens of academic interviews.

They were all the same.

I prepared a short presentation of my thesis work, followed by a chat with the professor and perhaps one or two of their students.

The interview questions were entirely based on my scientific expertise.

Discussions revolved around my research, their research, and future research.

I never felt like I had to prepare much, as I lived and breathed the topic.

There wasn’t a question they could ask that I couldn’t answer.

There wasn’t anything they brought up for discussion that I hadn’t heard before at conferences or departmental meetings.

I had been so immersed in academia that these interviews were a breeze.

I knew I’d be judged solely on my technical skills and academic knowledge.

My appearance and presentation style were not big concerns, as most of the lifetime academics interviewing me were introverts and wore Birkenstock sandals with socks.

My first non-academic interview was a different story.

I was a deer in headlights.

Every question was designed to elicit answers that would highlight my transferable skills.

I was asked why I chose this particular company and this particular position.

I was prodded to quickly build rapport while sitting across from 3-4 interviewers at a time.

I was challenged with difficult behavioral questions like, “Why are you quitting academia?”

I felt completely out of my comfort zone during the entire non-academic interview.

All I did to prepare was memorize some questions I found online.

But this made me come across as robotic and unapproachable.

I could see the interviewer’s body language change in slow-motion.

They stopped making eye contact and started looking up or down.

They gradually recoiled away from me and quickly stopped the interview short.

It was embarrassing.

I left the interview overcome with imposter syndrome.

Why would anyone in industry ever hire me?

I had no previous business experience whatsoever.

And that was clear in all my interviews.

Eventually, I realized that to secure a non-academic job, I had to approach a non-academic interview much differently.

I had to find the balance between preparing for the interview with insight into corporate culture and relevant answers to specific industry questions, while exuding confidence and friendliness.

As soon as I found this balance, I landed my first industry position.

Why PhDs Fail Non-Academic Interviews

Most non-academic interviews are over in minutes.

Surveys reported in Undercover Recruiter show that while the average length of an interview is 40 minutes, 33% of hiring managers know within the first 90 seconds if they will hire the interviewing candidate.

These hiring managers reported the following reasons as to why they eliminated candidates: 67% indicated applicants failed to make eye contact, 55% indicated that the applicants dressed poorly or carried themselves poorly, 47% indicated applicants had little or no knowledge of the company, 38% indicated the applicants lacked confidence or didn’t smile, and 33% indicated applicants had bad posture or a weak handshake.

Whether you like it or not, any interview you go on will be over within the first few minutes of meeting the hiring manager.

Studies in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin show that emotionally expressive people make better first impressions.

These studies also show that first impressions can last for years.

If you don’t make a good first impression, you will fail every interview you show up for.

The only way to prevent this is by learning what NOT to do during an interview.

How not to fail a non-academic interview

How To Fail A Non-Academic Interview In 5 Steps

Any PhD can craft a successful industry resume.

However, not every PhD can show up to an interview, make a great first impression, show off his or her interpersonal skills and knowledge of the company, and get a job offer.

Many PhDs fail their first non-academic interview by treating it like an academic interview.

The worst thing you can do during a job search is work hard for months (not to mention the years it took to get your PhD) and then mess it all up in the first 90 seconds of meeting an employer.

A better strategy is to prepare strenuously for every interview and express yourself exceptionally well during those first few minutes after you sit across from the company’s decision-makers.

To do this, you must not only know what to do during an interview, but also what NOT to do.

Here are 5 mistakes to avoid during your next non-academic interview…

First impression during an interview

1. Not taking your “first impression” seriously.

Let’s be honest, the beauty of academia is that you get used to people caring more about your skills and abilities than about your outward appearance.

It would be nice if that was true of your non-academic job search as well.

But, in reality, industry interviewers will not be impressed by you showing up to your meeting looking as disheveled as you might be showing up to your academic lab.

It may not seem fair, but presentation matters when it comes to an interview, and first impressions carry a lot of weight, even more than your technical skills, scientific expertise, and academic knowledge.

Forbes magazine recently reported that first impressions are made within the first 30 seconds of a job interview.

What does this mean?

It means your success or failure during the interview will come very early.

It also means that your success or failure will not depend on your resume or anything else during the interview, only on how you’ve presented yourself.

Doing some research on each company’s corporate culture, including their norms for work attire and their internal processes (like how they communicate) will go a long way to making a good first impression.

Showing up in professional attire consistent with the other employees will give the impression that you’re already a good fit for the company.

Dress to impress, firm up your handshake, take it easy on the cologne, check your posture, and smile.

In particular, do your research and learn how everyone at the company communicates beforehand (direct, playful, no nonsense, creative, humorous) and be sensitive to each interviewer’s communication style.


2. Being too polished and robotic.

PhDs are often perfectionists.

They are likely to tackle an interview with the same gusto as with a new research project or a grade-dependent exam.

In other words, PhDs are likely to over prepare.

They will work hard to anticipate questions and to rehearse their answers so that they can appear polished and ahead of the game.

The problem is that all that rehearsal can lead to a stiff execution.

It can lead to a job candidate looking too polished.

Too robotic.

Too fake.

The truth is, interviewers want to see your personality.

They want to see the real you so they can determine if you’ll fit in with their team.

With 89% of hiring failures being attributed to poor cultural fit, hiring managers want to know who you are, not just the lines you’ve practiced ahead of time.

This means that you need to be prepared for your non-academic interviews, but also relaxed enough to be natural.

So prepare, absolutely, but don’t prepare to the point that you’re incapable of deviating from your own script.

Show how impressive you are

3. Failing to interview the interviewers.

It’s easy, in your desire to impress, to forget that you’re impressive.

Yes, there is a lot of competition in the market right now for PhD candidates.

But that doesn’t discount what an accomplishment earning your PhD is, or how much work you’ve put into getting to this point.

Don’t make the mistake of ignoring how impressive you are to have earned your PhD and to have earned an industry interview in the first place.

The secret of PhD job interviews is that the hiring managers aren’t expecting you to wow them with your credentials — they’ve already seen your resume and know your background.

The whole point of an interview is that they want to get a feel for how your academic background translates in the company’s “real world” setting.

They want to know how you analyze your surroundings and challenge the opinions of those you’re working with.

If you just sit there blandly answering their questions while never asking any questions of your own, you’ll send a strong message that you’re actually NOT analytical at all.

You’ll send a message that you’re passive.

A follower.

This is not what companies are looking for in PhDs.

Instead, they are looking for proactive, critical thinkers who are able to translate knowledge into action and results.

The best way to display your critical thinking skills is to do your research on the company and ask insightful questions.

This shows that you’re invested in working for them, not just interested in getting any job offer you can.

Perform under pressure during an interview

4. Choking on the tough questions.

Look, there are going to be tough interview questions that you just can’t anticipate.

That’s the point… interviewers want to see how you perform under pressure.

Which means that panicking or stumbling over your words when presented with a question meant to stump you (and not recovering) will likely result in never getting a call back.

During a non-academic interview, assume you’re going to get questions you don’t know the answer to.

Don’t be surprised by these questions.

Instead, expect them.

When these questions do come, take a deep breath.

Pause and think about your response.

Allow yourself a few moments to consider your response.

Don’t rush into it, interviewers appreciate applicants who are confident enough to think through their answers, as opposed to those who anxiously “word vomit” an unintelligible response.

Remember, you are a smart and capable candidate.

There is virtually nothing they could ask you that you shouldn’t be able to respond to appropriately.

At the very least, you should be able to say, “I haven’t considered that” or “I don’t know, but this is how I would find out…”

Standing out from the crowd during a job interview

5. Forgetting to follow up right after the interview.

Many top PhD-level job postings receive over 2,000 applications.

Think about that.

2,000 resumes!

And many of the companies will do up to 10 interviews (or more) before finding the right candidate.

What does all of this mean?

It means that standing out from the crowd will require some extra initiative on your part.

The best way to stand out from the competition is by following up.

For example, within 24 hours of meeting with the hiring managers during a non-academic interview or site visit, you should follow up with a polite and professional e-mail thanking them for their time.

Make sure to personalize the email based on each individual interviewer.

Reiterate your enthusiasm for joining the company and the value you feel you can bring to the role.

You can take it one step further by sending a handwritten note.

According to Career Builder, 22% of hiring managers say they’re less likely to extend an offer if the applicant hasn’t followed up with a thank you after their interview.

Following up is a simple step you can take to improve your odds and show your interest in the position at hand.

Getting an industry interview isn’t easy. When you’re offered an interview, it means you’ve put your resume into the hands of a decision-maker through a referral or through other means. Now, it’s all on you to prove that you’re more than just your achievements on paper. It’s all on you to prove you’re the right person for the job and the right fit for the team. The best way to do this is by avoiding common mistakes like being too polished, choking on the tough questions, and failing to interview the interviewer. By avoiding these mistakes, you can make a good first impression and get hired over other job candidates.

To learn more about avoiding common interview mistakes, 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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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Winona Petit

    Well, even an old dog can learn a new trick. I was reading this and flashing back to the olden days where the job offerings would be posted in the newspaper. Usually, the company would not even publish their company name or address and they would just ask you to mail in a resume. Whenever I did, they would send back a letter asking why I wanted to work for the company, etc. I never knew how to answer them, as they didn’t give out any information. I now realize that they wanted to see who was bright enough to call the newspaper and ask who ran the ad! Ha-ha! Many years have elapsed since then. It never crossed my mind at the time! 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Mailed in Resume! It is amazing how things have changed – now it is assumed you will always do your homework online before stepping into an interview room. And every answer should be at your fingertips!

  • Shawn Lyons

    This is really exciting. I’ve completed the PhD but I was seriously foolish in not trying to get a position sooner. Now I’m probably coming across too nervous, but it was really good to hear your logic that they’ve already evaluated your skills and self-discipline by looking at your achievements before the interview. That is really a relief.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You can do it Shawn and we are here to help – you have all the skills – technical and transferable to get the industry job you want!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    To be honest, you really get used to the “dress-up” component of an industry position, although for most of us, this was the last thing we looked forward to after getting out of academia. LOL!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      LOL! Agreed Carlie – I enjoy it now although the thought of it was daunting when I would walk into the lab everyday in shorts and a t-shirt 🙂

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Although I’m still in a state of shock after reading that they figure out within 90 seconds whether or not they want you, I’m still happy that you confirmed a lot about the interviewing process. They’re judging you based on things like eye contact, handshake quality, dress, etc.

    Here’s the deal, though. If you get all hung up picking yourself to death on these little mannerisms, you’re likely to fail the interview because they’re going to pick up on your nerves and you might even come off as slightly suspicious if you’re too nervous. The best thing I can think of is to allow plenty of time before the interview so you’re not rushed, and to take some time to relax and breathe deeply before it starts. Maybe take up meditation! (I’m seriously considering it.)

    Here I am coming across like an expert, but it’s the opposite. These are things I’m trying to remind myself of!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Fantastic advice Marvin, I completely agree. The last thing you want to do in an interview is obsess over all the little details. First and foremost you want to be relaxed so your personality shines and they see you for the great person that you are! I always go for a run in the morning before a potentially stressful day ahead – it clears my mind and helps me to relax.

      • Madeline Rosemary

        Cathy, that’s a good tip about going for a run before work. To be honest, I always used to put off exercising. If I was having an overwhelming day, that would be the first thing to go. But after a while I just realized that I always felt so much better if I just did it every day, so that’s what I do now. It’s really rare if I miss a day, but I’m not perfect.

        • Cathy Sorbara

          I feel the same way Madeline – it puts me in the right frame of mind to start the day and it is a great routine to get into.

  • Theo

    I’m relaxed in an interview, so that’s not a problem. Sometimes I just get a little stuck but overall, it’s going pretty well. Practice makes perfect, I guess (smile).

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Definitely Theo! I know I definitely gained more confidence the more interviews I had under my belt and the more feedback I got from interviewers!

  • Kathy Azalea

    I like the article on the resume that you linked to. Sometimes I like to review that one so I can remind myself I have something to contribute! I’m still working on the PhD but thinking positive and practicing on myself in front of the mirror. LOL

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Kathy – I think it is an issue with too many PhDs that they feel they have no value to offer outside of their specific research niche. You would make a valuable addition to any company. How much longer do you have in your PhD?

      • Kathy Azalea

        I should be finishing mid-2017. Even though it’s exhausting, I try to keep my focus long so I don’t get too complacent after I get it.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I can recall trying to get out of academia and feeling incredibly frustrating. It seems that once you’ve achieved the PhD, you’re ready to blast out of there and it feels almost unfair that you’ve got to jump through so many more hoops. To anyone who’s still struggling, it will get better, you will get through it, and you’ll look back and the frustration will disappear. (with Cathy’s expert help, of course.)

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Matthew 🙂

  • Julian Holst

    The thing that’s helped me the most so far is working on getting the informational interviews. I haven’t gotten any real job interviews yet, but I have time. It’s great to have all this reinforcement here for this process. I found the whole thing to be discouraging until I found this site.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Julian! And wow – I am impressed that you are lining up informational interviews. That is even more important than interviews early in the job search process so that is great news.

  • Sonja Luther

    Okay, I’ll be more conscientious about following up after the interview. That’s a pretty huge percentage of hiring managers that are impressed with that courtesy. In the past, I tended to be so humble that I didn’t want to bother the people running the place, but now I see that as a self-defeating behavior. But this is a good reminder to be particularly careful about this one aspect. Thanks.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Sonja! I also felt the same way – like every email I wrote was bothersome – but in fact, it shows your motivation. Thanks for bringing this up!