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.
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…
1. Questions to ask before the interview starts.
You’ve received email confirmation.
You’re invited to a site visit.
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.
[Their Ideal Candidate, a.k.a. YOU]
2. Questions to ask during the interview.
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.
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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