You’re Not Management Material Until You Master These 3 Interview Prep Strategies
Written by: Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.
Several of my friends, that I had met during my undergraduate studies, now work in industry.
They opted out of the PhD track and have been happily working in industry for years.
So, when the funding for my postdoc was about to run out, transitioning into industry made sense.
I knew I could be happy there.
I knew I could keep doing science and have a positive impact on society while working in industry.
But, when I started searching for jobs, all I felt qualified for were entry-level positions.
That didn’t seem right.
All the positions that matched my salary expectations and expertise level required several years of industry experience.
I had zero years of industry experience.
But, I was overqualified for the entry-level positions.
What the heck?
Was I really supposed to take an entry-level position?
The same position that my undergrad buddies got when they first joined industry?
I knew I was qualified for a management-level industry position.
So, I started networking.
I grew my industry network.
I started getting referrals.
And finally, I started getting interviews.
This was my chance.
Once I got an interview, I knew I could prove to the company that I was management-level material, with or without industry experience.
To prove that I was ready, I knew I needed to be super prepared.
I looked up and answered every interview question I could find.
I conducted mock interviews.
I worked my transferable skills into every single interview question answer.
I didn’t get a job offer after my first interview, or my second.
But, by the time I was on my third and fourth interview, I ended up with 2 job offers for management-level industry positions.
Why PhDs Are In Demand For Management-Level Positions
As a PhD, you are a leader.
You have led students, you have led projects, and you are a leader in your field.
PhDs are comfortable leading the way into the unknown — you did this every time you designed and executed a new experiment.
And, according to a recent report by LinkedIn, the #1 in-demand soft skill, as reported by thousands of industry employers, is leadership.
Industry needs more leaders.
That means you.
As a PhD, you are qualified for a management-level position where you will lead.
Industry needs leaders like you to take on management roles and move up the corporate ladder into C-suite positions.
In North America, only 2% of CEOs have a PhD, as reported by Study.Eu.
This is ridiculous.
PhDs are experts, leaders, and innovators — they are well-suited to the leadership role of CEO.
But, PhDs often don’t believe that they are capable of achieving these positions.
PhDs are not given the information they need to successfully transition into an industry management role with the potential to take them into a C-suite role.
Academia leaves PhDs unprepared for their industry job search and their industry interview process.
According to the Global Recruiter, 73% of recruiters said that they have rejected a candidate because they did not prepare well enough for the interview.
But, how can you know if you are prepared enough?
There are strategies that you should implement to ensure that you are well-prepared for your interview.
Thorough research, self-evaluation, and practice are needed to properly prepare for a management-level industry interview.
Top 3 Preparation Strategies For PhDs Interviewing For Management Positions
Preparing for a management-level interview is different from preparing for an entry-level position.
And, as a PhD, you are qualified for and well-suited to management-level positions.
But, academia does not teach you how to properly prepare for an industry interview.
Don’t waste all the energy you spent getting the interview by going in underprepared.
Here are the top 3 ways you should be preparing for your management interview…
1. Become a pro at using the STAR method.
STAR: Situation Task Action Result
The STAR method is an incredibly powerful way to answer interview questions.
- Set the scene by briefly describing the situation.
- Tell the interviewer the task you were completing.
- Advance the story by explaining the actions that you took and why.
- Relay the result that was achieved because of the actions that you took.
This method will keep your answers focused, so that you do not ramble on and on about something.
It also demonstrates that you know how to take ownership for your actions.
By describing YOUR actions and the result that was achieved, you will avoid blaming others or indirectly giving them credit for something you accomplished.
To master the STAR method, you must practice.
There are common interview questions that a potential employer will ask you.
This includes behavioral questions and technical questions specific to your position.
The STAR method will work to answer most types of questions, but it is especially powerful when used to answer behavioral interview questions.
For management-level positions, many of the behavioral questions asked will have to do with communication, feedback, and leadership.
Look up common behavioral questions and then physically write out your answers using the STAR method.
Prepare multiple versions for each type of question.
Then, conduct a mock interview with a friend, where they ask you a question and you have to answer (without your notes, of course).
Repeat this with a few people.
Ask each person you practice your interview with, not only what they thought of your responses, but what they thought of your delivery.
The way that you deliver your answers, your tone, and body language are just as important as what you say.
By asking for feedback, you can learn how to convey the message of your STAR answer with not only your word choice, but with your tone and body language as well.
2. Prepare to ask and answer both business and technical questions.
For a management-level position, having the technical prowess for the position is not enough.
Yes, your PhD experience is incredibly valuable and necessary here, but it’s not all that matters.
Because, in a management-level position, you will be responsible for more than producing data — you will be responsible for managing a team and then reporting that data to your superiors.
You are the communication link.
You need to have the technical know-how and the business know-how.
Your team collecting the data will look to you for technical guidance.
Meanwhile, the person you report to will expect you to translate that technical information into a business framework.
As a PhD, you are well-suited for this role.
You are an expert in your field (and have the ability to become an expert in new fields), but you also know how to run a business, a.k.a. your lab.
Many of the skills you used to manage your lab will translate into business.
Budgeting, resource management, strategic planning, etc.
But, how do you convey this ability in an interview?
By asking excellent questions.
By preparing answers to business-related questions.
By demonstrating that you are a PhD who understands business concepts.
Prove them wrong and stand out from the other candidates.
Study the company you are interested in and learn as much as possible about their business.
What are their top products? Who are their biggest competitors? What is their annual revenue? Any recent mergers or acquisitions?
Learn and digest the information.
Then, do what PhDs do best and formulate questions — good questions.
3. Recognize and highlight transferable skills relevant to the management role.
The process of earning your PhD or working as a postdoc teaches you way more than just technical skills.
PhDs often place limiting beliefs onto themselves, saying that they are just a researcher or just an academic.
But, this is far, far from the reality.
As a PhD, you have learned and developed many transferable skills that are relevant to working in industry, and specifically relevant to working in a management-level position.
This can be broken down into 2 broad categories: transferable skills related to performing experiments or studies, and the transferable skills related to your interactions with others.
You learned more than just techniques by executing your experiments.
You gained valuable transferable skills that matter in industry.
A few of the management role-relevant transferable skills you gained by planning and performing experiments are:
- Resource management — managing time, money, people, products, instruments, etc.
- Strategic planning — deciding the best direction for your project, based on data.
- Innovation and creativity — working at the edge of a field, creating new information.
You also have lots of experience working with people.
Yes, you — who worked in a lab for the past 5 or more years — you still have experience working with people.
Whether through maintaining collaborations, speaking at conferences, working alongside colleagues, or interacting with professors, you have people skills.
And, a few of the management role-relevant interpersonal transferable skills you gained as a PhD are:
- Conflict resolution — disputes about data or the time spent on an instrument.
- Leadership — leading undergrads or other PhD students, teaching.
- Relationship building — developing collaborations, working closely with colleagues.
It’s easy to rest on your technical skills.
But, for a management-level position, your potential employer is expecting more.
Don’t limit yourself by only recognizing your technical excellence.
Realize that, as a PhD, you have been developing and fine-tuning many transferable skills that are required to succeed in management in industry.
Once you recognize these skills within yourself, you must highlight them throughout your interview.
Work these important skills into your STAR interview answers.
You are the ideal candidate because not only do you have the technical expertise, but you have the transferable skills that employers value. But, it’s your responsibility to communicate these skills during your interview. You should become a pro at using the STAR method, prepare to ask and answer business-related questions, and highlight your transferable skills that are relevant to a management role. If you use these strategies to prepare for your interview with the passion that you applied during your PhD, you will be able to make the transition to industry.
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