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Interview Questions To Ask Before, During and After A Non-Academic Site Visit


Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

My first industry interview was a phone call with the hiring manager from a large biopharm company.

I was still in the throes of my PhD with little time to prepare.

As a result, I spent very little time preparing.

In fact, I took the call in the middle of an 8-hour microscopy imaging session.

I set a timer for 30 minutes, turned on the automated controls, and stepped into my supervisor’s office next door.

I was more concentrated on whether my specimen had drifted out of focus than what the hiring manager had to say.

I was responsive, but not really present.

She asked some standard questions:

“Tell me about yourself.”

“Why are you interested in this role?”

“Why do you think you are a good fit?”

“When would you be available to start?”

I thought it was going OK but she was starting to encroach on my 30-minute time window.

I was not about to trash my 8-hour experiment.

It came to the end of the interview and she asked:

“Do you have any questions for me?”

“No, I think I understand everything. Thank you for calling!”


I never heard from the company again.

(Side note: the experiment failed regardless of my desperate attempt to be punctual).

I had brushed off a hiring manager for a job I wanted for an experiment that failed anyway.

That’s right, I essentially flushed away a high-salary position because I didn’t want to start my experiment a little later.

And, of course, the real reason I didn’t want to start my experiment a little later was because I was worried about what my supervisor would think.

Yet, I was confused.

I wracked my brain about how it all went wrong.

I reached out to my alternative career mentor and replayed the scenario.

Once she pointed out my errors, it all became perfectly clear.

After 29 minutes of successfully answering her questions, I completely blew it in the final seconds.

By not asking any questions, I appeared disinterested, ill-prepared, and uninformed.

Of course, that was not true.

Not only was I interested, I actually had done my homework.

I had read up on the company, their goals, and the role itself.

But there was no way for the hiring manager to know that.

I completely lost my chance by being so focused on my time limit and experiment that I wasn’t engaged.

I had wasted her time and mine.

I started to research interview questions for all stages of the interview to ensure I would never appear so ill-prepared again.

Why PhDs Must Ask Questions During An Interview

A common misconception about industry interviews is that it is a one-sided conversation.

When in fact, it’s like any other conversation: two-sided.

It’s a dialogue that you get to participate in.

This is your opportunity to gather information and find out more about the company directly from the source.

You’re getting a coveted seat — you’ve got the interview.

Being prepared with questions shows that you treat this seriously and with respect.

According to a study by Glassdoor, the average overall job interview process takes 22.9 days in the United States and it is 4 to 9 days longer in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

The increased complexity of interviews including group panels, candidate presentations, background checks, skills tests, and more all positively affect these times.

It is gruelling, both for you and the hiring manager.

It is important that you use this time wisely to assess the company and to show your true colors.

Otherwise, it is time wasted.

You need to ask questions that highlight your strengths and promote your transferable skills.

Self-promotion increases interview efficacy, says a study published by the Journal of Human Resource Management Review, as does establishing an easy rapport with the interviewer.

You need to get into the mind of the hiring manager — they want to see that you truly understand this role and are genuinely excited.

Because by candidate 20, hour 30, generic response number 55, candidates will blur into one another and what they will really be thinking is, “Is it time for lunch yet?”

Along with “let’s get this over with” and “next!”

The only way to prove your motivation is to ask insightful questions.

Pique their interest and make yourself memorable by being actively engaged in the conversation of your own interview.

Be prepared with questions to ask each hiring manager before, during, and after your industry interviews.

What Interview Questions to Ask Before, During And After An Industry Interview

It’s not enough to just show you’re interested with some background knowledge.

You have to prove it.

If you don’t want to be part of the blurred line of candidates, you have to be invested in showing that you’ve done your research.

This will also ensure that you’re able to make an informed decision on whether or not to accept a job offer.

As a PhD, you know how to do research and you’re clearly intelligent and motivated.

If this doesn’t come across in the interview, you won’t stand out.

Interview preparation is the key to success.

Here are a list of questions to get you on the right track for your next industry interview…

Ask questions during an interview, or look like an amatuer.

1. Questions to ask before the interview starts.

You’ve received email confirmation.

Amazing! Yes!

You’re invited to a site visit.

Gulp. Umm…

Many PhDs are afraid of showing up to a site visit and having to engage with several professionals in a single day.

The are afraid of asking unintelligent questions and looking like amateurs.

In reality, if you don’t ask questions, you look like the amateur.

This isn’t academia — this is the new terrain of industry — it’s a whole different league.

Asking the right questions before an interview will help you to prepare appropriately and ensure that you do not make any major blunders on the big day.

It’ll also help settle any pre-interview nerves.

If you have been dealing with a company recruiter or with a hiring manager, the following questions are all perfectly acceptable to ask.

You can ask them over email or, for an immediate response that will deliver maximum impact (and communicate confidence), give them a call.

Who will I be meeting with?

A panel interview of five scientists, versus the head of human resources, will require a completely different preparation procedure.

The former would suggest that technical questions may be the focus of the interview, while the latter suggests basic credential, experience, and motivation questions may be on tap.

Is there anything I should know about the format of the interview?

Presentations, case studies, personality tests.

These are all possible interview formats that may be used, so it is best to ask ahead of time so nothing comes as a surprise.

How much time should I set aside for the interview?

If you are doing research and interviewing simultaneously, it will be important for you to know how much time to block off so you do not feel rushed about getting back to work (although you shouldn’t — this is more important!)

Is there anything I should know about getting there? Will I be reimbursed for travel arrangements?

This is a question many PhDs overlook but can help you avoid one of the biggest mistakes you can make on the day of the interview — arriving late.

Knowing the office has actually relocated, or that the entrance is only accessible from the rear of the building, will prevent you from looking and feeling rushed on the day of the interview.

If the interview requires substantial travel (train, flight, or otherwise) for you to attend, it is also acceptable to politely ask whether you will be reimbursed for travel arrangements.

These questions can be directed toward the person in charge of booking your interview, which may or may not be the hiring manager themselves.

Finally, you can ask for alternate times to meet.

Remember, this is a two-way conversation.

This interview may be your dream job at your dream company, but remember that if they are interviewing you, they are interested in you and your application also.

If the time of the interview conflicts with your honeymoon or major surgery, it’s acceptable to ask for alternate times to meet — and you should.

Here is a script you can use:

Dear [Hiring Manager or Recruiter],

Thank you for the opportunity to interview for [insert dream role]. Unfortunately, I am not available at the proposed time. However, I am free on [suggest two or three dates and times] and can be flexible on [two or three other dates and times during which you can shift other obligations]. Please let me know if any of these times work for you.

Best regards,

[Their Ideal Candidate, a.k.a. YOU]

Ask the right interview questions

2. Questions to ask during the interview.

You’re off!

It’s happening.

The interview is underway.

Asking questions during an interview shows you have done research on the company and are building on the information you were able to glean from public sources.

It also shows you have a strong interest in the company and a solid knowledge of industry trends.

You are not simply desperate for a job… any job.

From your own perspective, you are gathering information so you can form an opinion on whether or not you want to work for the company.

Remember to remain professional in your questioning, rather than hypercritical or interrogative.

Ask questions that put you (and the company) in a good light.

For example:

I see on your website that you produce drug X. Are these drugs solely developed within the Y company umbrella or are they also developed elsewhere and then licensed to Y?


I read that the overall growth of the company has doubled in the last five years with good stock shares, thus making this an opportune time to work for X, however in your opinion how has R&D been affected in this process?

Other questions can be more general to assess company environment and the role you will be playing.

What constitutes success in this position? What are the major challenges in this role? What is the single largest problem facing your staff and would I be in a position to help you solve this problem?

All of these questions show the interviewer that, not only do you want the role but you want to succeed in it.

If they do share some challenges with you, it is your opportunity to brainstorm some solutions, if not on the spot then in your follow-up thank you letter.

What skills and experiences would make an ideal candidate?

If the interview responds with a transferable skill that has not been mentioned previously, now is your chance to tell them how you have developed it.

Can you tell me about the team I’ll be working with?

Asking questions about the team culture, or the organization’s management structure will help you to understand if the working environment is amenable to how you work and thrive.

Is there an example of a recently hired job candidate who did a good job of integrating themselves into the company culture? What did they do?

Don’t forget to ask about where this position will take you too…

What is the career trajectory for this position?

These questions show the interviewer you are interested in the future of the company and your future within the company.

One of the biggest issues facing hiring managers is dealing with staff retention.

They want to hire someone with vested interest in the company and its ideals.

3. Questions to ask after the interview.

Take a deep breath.

Your heart can return to its normal rate now — the interview is over.

One strategic (and very intelligent) question to end every interview with is:

Do you have any hesitations or doubts with me as a candidate?

This final question will allow you to iron out any misconceptions and allows the interviewer to air out any concerns that may have built up throughout the interview.

Once this is complete, and before you walk out the door, you want to establish the decision timeline.

This keeps you from endlessly wondering why you have not heard from them and prepares you for the next stages.

What is the next step in the interview process? When can I expect to hear back from you?

If you have special circumstances, for example, you would like to work flexible hours, you have visa requirements, or you cannot work the first two weeks in July because your sister is getting married, etc. — hold onto these until later.

These are NOT questions for immediately after the interview.

If you bring up these topics as you’re exiting the interview, hiring managers may question your motivation for the job, as it reflects that you are not focused on the work itself.

It’s presumptive and premature.

Don’t give them reasons to look at another candidate.

It may seem odd, or unfair, but it is known bias.

Wait until you have an offer on the table as proof that they’ve already decided they want you and negotiate from a position of advantage at that time.

Make notes after the interview for relevant items to address in your follow-up procedure.

Being invited to a site visit means you only have one or two other job candidates in between you and getting a job offer. During your site visit, you must convey your valid interest for the position. The only way to do this is to prepare the right questions to ask before, during, and after your interview. Asking the right questions impresses hiring managers and also helps you assess your fit for the position and company.

To learn more about questions to ask during an interview, 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.
  • Willow Sampson

    I just realized that I’m bringing the attitude that it’s a one-way conversation. After all they have something I want, a job, and everyone else wants it, too, so what do I have to offer? Anyway, I have to do a little soul-searching on that.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      It is a common feeling Willow but you have to remember all the value you would bring to a company as well. It is important to walk into an interview knowing that you can help them just as much as they can help you – not only will it help you perform more confidently but it will help later in the process when it comes to salary negotiation. Whatever company you choose to work for has to be a right fit for your personal development.

  • Julian Holst

    OMG, I would never have thought of asking that last question! That really goes against my instincts big time, but then I can see how effective it would be. For one thing, it would leave a taste of self-confidence in their mouths. I’m going to have to practice that one. Thanks, Cathy! You’re amazing!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks Julian! It takes a bit of guts to ask but it will make you a better candidate for it, hands down – I hope you try it out 🙂

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    That’s great advice about writing down notes right after the interview. Sometimes it’s easy to get mixed up about what you said to different interviewers, so your follow-up questions seem kind of lame when you already asked that question before. Thanks so much for your advice on this, Cathy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Marvin! I think it also helps for future interviews to keep track of common questions that are asked and help you to prepare your answers more succinctly and confidently.

      • Marvin D’Esprit

        Right on!

  • Kathy Azalea

    I’ve never seen such a great list of questions to ask. This is really going to help me a lot. Also, the advice about when to ask them and when not to ask them is great. I’ve been known to find myself knocking on the wrong door when the company has several doors or a branch across the street. It’s so agonizing. Thanks for scripting in the question in a way that sounds professional.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re most welcome Kathy! There is nothing more stressful before an interview than finding the interview itself! I am happy it helped.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    You’ve done it again, Cathy. Your continued efforts to help those of us who continually scan for position upgrades are greatly appreciated. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Matthew – that is wonderful to hear 🙂

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    As many interviews as I’ve weathered in my career trajectory, I always get value out of what I read at Cheeky Scientist. These are very sophisticated strategies for any interview, but they also provide answers that interviewees often don’t even realize they need. Especially as one grows and promotes, it’s very important to ask questions that help evaluate if you want to go to all the trouble to change positions and move to another organization or even a different branch. While it’s great to promote, it’s even better to have an idea of what you’re getting into and how the change will benefit you and fit your personal goals.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Well said, Carlie – I completely agree. Interviews are a two-way street – you need to make sure it will help you achieve your own goals in an environment where you can thrive.

  • Winona Petit

    I remember a few very painful days when I realized how completely I blew an interview because my focus wasn’t on the real priority. Your story about getting so caught up in watching your experiment really hit home and took me back to the early days of trying to get that first offer. And it’s not a day I’d like to return back to! I’ve watched you helping these younger people over the last months and I think it’s great what you and Cheeky Scientist are doing. Things were very easy for me as a new PhD a few decades ago, and I hate to think what people go through now as the industry has changed so much. You just gave me a good reminder. 😉

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Winona! I really appreciate that 🙂

  • Harvey Delano

    I’m glad you brought up the scheduling issue, because that is one of the things that bothers me the most about interviewing. Those issues are bound to happen for any of us — nobody’s lucky enough to get the planets and the interviews lined up perfectly with no “collisions.” And I think it’s too risky to call back one company and try to reschedule an existing appointment just based on a hope that the second company will be more to your liking. As always, your advice is really practical and professional.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely! Thank you Harvey!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Right on the money. Getting the first position was, by far, the hardest, but I think you’re so optimistic getting out of school that it’s easier to block out a lot of the nerves. In looking to advance my career, it’s great to be able to get a more realistic look at what I should and shouldn’t be asking.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Madeline – I am happy you found it helpful and best of luck in the next steps of your career!

  • Shawn Lyons

    I just got my PhD and I’m ready to start interviewing but I feel like I’m playing catch-up and still exhausted, I guess. So this is helpful. Thnk you.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Shawn – congrats on getting your PhD! I know this phase can be overwhelming but remember that having a solid job search and networking strategy will help you on your way. What types of positions are you interested in?

      • Shawn Lyons

        Actually, I’ve been flailing around looking everywhere in a near-panic mode. But if I were really to get my dream job, I think it would be as a healthcare scientist. I don’t want to be a doctor or something like that, but I would feel really good if something I’m working for was really going to help people. Thank you so much for asking. Just having to slow down enough to answer this question is helpful. 🙂

        • Cathy Sorbara

          🙂 Happy to help! Have you seen our top 20 industry position e-book? There are many positions that will allow you to do something that will directly help people: