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4 Types Of Interview Questions PhDs Will Need To Answer

The 4 types of questions PhDs are asked during job interviews

Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

Failing an interview is awful.

It’s awful because most of the time you don’t know you’ve failed it.

Until you get ignored.

Days, and sometimes weeks, go by without hearing anything after the interview.

You’ve sent a follow-up email after the interview.

You’ve sent a handwritten thank-you note.

You’ve tried connecting with the people you met on LinkedIn.

But all you hear is crickets.

You hear nothing.

Then, eventually, someone tells you that the position has been filled.

Someone else got the job.

What did you do wrong?

You ask this question to the hiring manager but they don’t give you an answer.

You know you did something wrong because you didn’t get hired.

Why won’t they just tell you what you did wrong?

This is what happened to me…

I shook hands with the president of the company and the head of the R&D department.

I sat up straight, with both feet on the floor and smiled, just like all the articles I read online told me to do.

I’d researched everything I could about the company before the interview, so I felt pretty confident.

After some small talk, both the president and department head started asking me questions about where I thought the company was headed.

I never considered where the company was headed.

I memorized everything I could about where the company was presently, but I had no idea where it was going in the future.

Then the president asked me how I could get customers to buy more of their products.

Huh?

I wasn’t interviewing for a technical sales position.

Why would he ask this?

I mumbled something and then was cut off by the department head who asked me, in a very accusatory tone, “Why do you want to leave academia?”

Umm… to make more money.

I didn’t say that, but that’s what popped into my head.

Before I could answer, he followed up by asking, “Why would you work so hard, for so long, to advance your academic career and then just quit?”

Now, I was annoyed.

How was I supposed to respond to that?

Why was he being a jerk?

It wasn’t until many months after bombing this interview that I learned just how common these interview question types were, and how to answer them.

Employers ask 4 types of questions during job interviews

Why PhDs Are Asked Structured Questions During Job Interviews

How you answer different types of interview questions will determine whether or not you get hired.

Employers ask PhDs 4 key question types in order to gauge their communication skills and their interpersonal skills overall.

These question types are used as a framework for the interviewer to gauge whether or not you’re a good fit for the position.

Studies reported in the Human Resource Management Review found that interviewer judgments based on structured interview questions are more predictive of job performance than those from unstructured interviews.

Overall, the studies concluded that adding structure to the interview process enhances the reliability and validity of interviewer evaluations.

During an industry interview, you will be asked structured questions and you will be evaluated on how you answer these questions.

In the book, Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success, a large-scale survey was reported where hundreds of employers were asked “What are the most important traits you look for when hiring?”

A surprising 98% responded, “communication skills.”

Another large-scale survey performed by the Center for Creative Leadership found that poor “interpersonal skills” are the number one reason promising technical careers go off-course.

Another survey by the Workforce Solutions Group found that 60% of all applicants to high-level jobs lack adequate communication and interpersonal skills.

Like it or not, how you answer interview questions will be the final metric used to determine whether or not you’ll get a job offer.

As a PhD, there are 4 different kinds of questions you are likely to face in an industry interview.

These include questions about your experience and credentials, questions about your opinions, behavioral questions, and competency questions.

Here is a detailed explanation of how to handle each of the 4 types of questions PhDs are asked during interviews…

1. Credibility questions.

Credibility questions about your experience and credentials are perhaps the easiest to prepare for because they can be anticipated.

A credibility question that is almost always asked in an interview, usually towards the beginning, is: “Can you tell me a little about yourself?”

Other credibility questions might include…

  • What grades did you get in…?
  • How long did you work at…?
  • What did you do at…?
  • Can you please explain your responsibilities at…?

The goal of asking these types of questions is usually just to get a greater understanding of your breadth of experience (or lack thereof) and what you have been doing to date.

These questions are commonly asked early in the interview and are designed to get you talking.

They can also serve to help clarify points on your resume and to determine whether or not you are suitable for the job.

As a PhD, these questions will likely focus on your technical skills, prompting you to validate your qualifications and technical experience.

Other questions of this type include questions asking about gaps in your resume and any career changes you may have made.

Job interview chart of questions asked of PhDs

2. Opinion questions.

Opinion questions are often focused around situations.

These questions are designed to assess your suitability to work in the company by looking at how you see different difficult situations.

Opinion questions are often used to determine your fit in the company’s organizational culture.

They are also often used to assess your transferable skills and, more generally, how you see yourself.

You should leverage and highlight your transferable skills when answering opinion questions.

Other opinion questions may include…

  • What do you think are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
  • What type of leader do you prefer to work for?
  • What would you do if faced with this type of situation?

Behavioral job interview questions determine how you make decisions

3. Behavioral questions.

Behavioral questions are usually the toughest interview questions.

Here, the interviewer is seeking to find out how you react to different kinds of situations, especially challenging situations.

Behavioral questions are designed to determine how you make decisions.

Here, you should also leverage and highlight your transferable skills.

Behavioral questions might include:

  • Can you tell me about a time when you had to deal with a stressful situation, and how you coped with it?
  • Can you talk me through a situation where you were expected to follow a policy that you did not agree with?
  • Can you tell me about a situation where you had a conflict with your boss or supervisor?
  • How do you prioritize? Can you tell me about a time when you have faced too many tasks and you failed to prioritize them effectively?

Save questions about salary and benefits for the negotiation process

4. Competency questions.

Competency questions are those that test whether you have both the required skills as well as the desirable skills to do the job.

They will typically start with: “Can you tell me about a time when you…?” or “Can you give me an example of when you…?”

A competency question that is almost always asked in an interview, and usually towards the end, is: “Do you have any questions for us?”

It’s always worth being well-prepared for this final question.

Asking sensible, intelligent questions will only strengthen your performance.

However, you should never ask about salary or benefits during the interview.

This sends the message that you are not as interested in the job as the money, which will make you a less appealing candidate.

The topic of salary and benefits should be reserved exclusively for the negotiation process.

Interviewing for a job you’re really interested in is nerve-wracking. One wrong answer and you can completely fail the interview. The only way to set yourself up for success is by being well-prepared with answers to all the types of questions you will be asked during an industry interview. Being prepared with answers to these questions will not only help you diffuse pre-interview nerves, but also set you apart from every other PhD job candidate. Researching the company in advance while being prepared for a variety of questions to assess your fit for where it is now and where it’s anticipated to go gives you an immediate edge.

To learn more about interview questions PhDs will need to answer, 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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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Well, this kind of blows my mind about what kinds of questions they’ll ask and why. I can see why I had the same feeling that you did about blowing the interviews. This is good food for thought.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is a great explanation of the structured interviews and why we get some unexpected questions. I’m going to have to study that chart and practice some of these responses at home! 🙂

  • Shawn Lyons

    So close and yet so far. I’ve got to ramp up the interviews. I think I’m going to start a collection of interview questions I’ve heard and use this list to add to it. I don’t like doing interviews, because it’s so disappointing when you don’t get the job, but it’s necessary to go through the process to find a good fit.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    A great rationale for approaching those interviews. I find that it’s not much different when you’re looking for your second or third position and trying to move up, although much less nerve-wracking. Relationships are the key to everything. You really can’t move up if you have disharmony with your fellow workers and don’t take care of your side of the “street.” But when you get more comfortable with the process and feel confident about your technical and transferable sales, interviewing can actually be a pleasure.

  • Winona Petit

    It’s amazing that they have it broken down into distinct categories with specific aims. It wasn’t that way when I got my PhD years ago, although (of course) they were still trying to find out the same things. I think the emphasis was more on the technical and less on the transferable skills, but as time goes on, managers discover that the transferable, soft people skills are so much more important than simply having the technical skills. A company nowadays is like a multi-cultural country. You have to mesh, get along, and work together toward shared goals.

  • Julian Holst

    I’m glad you mentioned the negotiation process as something separate from the interview. I’ve seen some of your articles on negotiation, and they’re life-changing. But you can’t mix the two settings up, or you’ll end up shooting yourself in the foot.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    This is really important for people to know, especially if they’ve just successfully defended and are trying to segue-way from academia to private industry. It’s not exactly an obstacle course a la Kung Fu Panda, but it can feel that way.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I think it would be hard to answer some of these questions when you don’t have any experience to point to, but I think I read an article on here that you’re supposed to look into your academic career and use examples from that. I think I need to take this list and make sure I think of the best way to answer each question. By the way, thanks for the book title.

  • Harvey Delano

    Some of those questions would be hard to answer; for example, the ones about being expected to carry out instructions that you didn’t agree with. You don’t know what they’re expecting, and a question like that would definitely throw me off guard. Thanks for giving us a heads-up on that.

  • Theo

    Actually, these are good guidelines for anyone in any field to check out. I think I’m going to pass around some copies.