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5 Ways PhDs Sabotage Their Own Job Interviews

How PhDs sabotage their own job interviews and what you can do about it

Contributing Author: Sarah Smith, Ph.D.

Have you ever interviewed for a position and thought, “I’m the perfect candidate!”

Almost as though the role had been made just for you?

I remember one particular job – I put together my resume with ease, and it hit on every single skill the employer wanted for the role.

I figured I was their dream candidate.

Even before interviewing, the job offer seemed inevitable, and my internal referral was confident I was going to be his new co-worker.

But on the big day, my interview lasted many hours – I wasn’t prepared for this.

Near the end of the day, my exhaustion began to show, and I felt just a tiny bit impatient.

I was clearly the right PhD for the job, so why bother with such an extended interview?

The interviewers asked me if I was pursuing other jobs, and I told them the truth – I had an offer from another company at that time (although I wanted this job much more).

When I went home, I felt pretty good all things considered – after all, I was their dream candidate, right?

Who could possibly have competed with me?

The next morning, I woke up to find my rejection letter

They had found their dream candidate, and it wasn’t me.

I couldn’t understand, so I reached out to the hiring manager and asked them for some feedback.

I never expected to read the things they wrote back to me.

They said they wanted a candidate who was committed to their company.

They wanted someone who was really excited to come onboard.

As they made their decision, they all agreed unanimously that I was not that candidate.

This event made my head spin for a while, but it was an important lesson.

So many PhDs have had my same experience – they’re just the right fit skill-wise, but then that confusing rejection letter shows up.

How do we fix this?

An Industry Interview Is Your Final Shot – Make It Count!

You made it to the job interview so don't blow it by making simple mistakes

For the moment, let’s transition to some good news.

Hiring is up – way up.

Execu-Search records that the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been for 50 years.

They also found that 55% of candidates were interviewing for more than one position at a time.

But while candidates wield collective power in the market, hiring managers still decide who gets hired.

Once you make it to an interview, that’s the time to really shine.

An interview represents a huge opportunity to bring your “A-game” and prove to employers that you’re the right PhD for the job.

They already know you’re qualified – that’s why you’re at the interview in the first place.

What employers don’t know is whether you’ll be a good fit for the company.

49% of hiring managers report that conversational skills influence their hiring decisions more than any other factor.

Are you surprised?

By the time you’ve made it to the interview, the employer has already decided you’re qualified in the technical sense.

Now they’re investigating your “people skills” and testing you on a more social basis.

So inlight of this, how should a PhD prepare for an interview?

Here Are 5 Interview Mistakes That Stop PhDs From Getting Hired

At the on-site interview, the employer is looking to assess your personality.

Are you pleasant to be around?

Can you communicate clearly?

Do you have a sense of humor?

These questions–and others–are important to industry employers.

But do you want to know something really surprising?

At an interview, the employer is creating space for you to make mistakes.

During the process, they will be looking closely at your answers, body language, and behavior.

This hire represents a big investment for their team, department, and company, so they’re watching you for red flags.

When PhDs don’t know the ins and outs of industry, as well as their own industry credibility, they’ll make the same mistakes over and over.

And employers will find the red flags they’re looking for.

Avoid these 5 big interview mistakes or risk ruining the entire job opportunity…

Mistake #1: You’re trying to show off your academic prestige.

Job recruiters and managers care about measurable results when conducting job interviews

Do you have a “little researcher” in your head?

A part of your personality that’s driven by questions and data?

This is your pragmatic side, and it wants results.

A lot of PhDs have another side though – a side that cares more about appearances.

Think of a professor who likes to give speeches about how the “good research” is done in academia.

This ivory-tower stereotype exemplifies the more appearance-driven side of some PhD attitudes.

Here’s the thing though: In industry, they only care about your pragmatic side.

Industry wants to know, “Can you get the job done or not?”

So when the interviewer asks about your research, don’t expect them to care about how much academic prestige you’ve gained by publishing in a popular journal.

Industry employers care about results, which means that you need to tie everything back to measurable accomplishments.

Be practical – let your pragmatic side take over.

When you leave the interview, that employer should believe that you know how to get things done.

If you went to a prestigious school, that’s great – it’s listed on your resume, and that’s good enough.

Bringing up your excellent school will only alienate you from an industry professional.

So leave academic prestige at home, and show your interviewer you’re a driven worker who gets things done.

Mistake #2: You’re not showing the employer how excited and engaged you are.

On-site interviews can be long – really long.

Your interview might last an entire day, and you might meet with nearly 20 different company personnel, all of whom are testing you.

This can be exhausting, unnerving, and even frustrating.

But no matter how you’re feeling internally, there is on main emotion that you need to show your interviewers: enthusiasm.

An interview represents your one opportunity to make a good personal impression.

You’d better give it everything you’ve got!

Maybe you’re introverted.

Maybe you’re having a bad week, or you’re struggling with something personal.

In an ideal world, interviewers could look past this stuff.

But in real life, other people have their own problems, and employers are on a mission to judge and secure the best candidate for the job.

You need to figure out a way to be your best self for the entire span of the interview.

From the employer’s perspective, if a candidate can’t be enthusiastic and personable for a single day, how can they be expected to act that way for years to come?

Employers need to know that you’ll make a great addition to the team – that you’re excited about the work, and ready to give it your best.

Show them that you’re a good listener, a creative problem-solver, and that you’re engaged.

You might be asked the same question more than once.

Perhaps you’ll feel like correcting the interviewers on this.

So what?

This is about your performance, not the employer’s performance.

What does this mean?

Perform.

Make the experience as easy as possible for the interviewer.

Even if that means making the experience more difficult for yourself.

Will you find it difficult to keep up your energy under pressure for a whole day?

If so, take the steps to prepare yourself beforehand:

  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Drink lots of water
  • Eat a wholesome breakfast

Some PhDs like to meditate, do yoga, or go for a relaxing walk.

Do whatever you need to do in order to be at the top of your game.

Mistake #3: Your answers are too literal – you’re not telling them what they really want to hear.

During an interview, when someone asks you a question, remember that the answer is open to interpretation.

You’ll have to address the question, of course, but some PhDs think too literally, and it shows in their answers.

For example, let’s say you’re asked, “What did you accomplish in your project for such-and-such organization?

And let’s say that you don’t want to take all the credit for the project – after all, it was a team effort, and you didn’t accomplish anything significant by yourself.

This answer is too literal and indicates only what is technically true.

It doesn’t matter whether you played a small role in a project or a huge one – talk about the whole project as something you accomplished.

Again, you have to avoid dishonesty.

Don’t say that you did it all alone, but take credit for your important role in the project and frame it in the bigger picture of the results achieved.

The employer wants to see that you understand the value of results, and that you can express what you’ve accomplished.

This is not a peer review session, so don’t think in black and white terms.

Find those shades of grey and answer interview questions meaningfully.

Be conversational and open-minded.

Mistake #4: You aren’t showing commitment to the role.

You must convince recruiters that you want this job more than any other position when on an interview

Every single time, the biggest thing employers look for is whether you’re committed to working for them.

Commitment is the most important thing to convey – if you make other mistakes, at least get this right.

But if you don’t show commitment, it doesn’t matter what other credentials you have.

No commitment = no job, plain and simple.

At an interview, it’s your biggest task to convince those interviewers that you want this job more than any other position.

In reality, there might be parts of a given role that you don’t like, and you might be interviewing for other positions at the same time.

But there is a reason you applied for this job, and during the interview, this should be foremost in your mind.

You need to focus on the positives of this role – which aspects of this job excite you the most?

Forget about the cons for now.

There is plenty of time to perform a balanced analysis of the role when you go home.

But if you don’t get the job offer, there will be no option to consider in the first place.

If you focus on the positive side of the job, you can project your desire to join the company while being truthful at the same time.

A key word here is “truthful”- you don’t want to lie.

Rather, you should focus on the reasons that you want the position.

If you show this kind of commitment, you’ll ooze confidence.

As you walk into that office, think of it like a game of Poker – it’s time to go all in.

Mistake #5: You’re not showing them how your skill set applies to the job.

Do you want to find a role where you are an expert in every single aspect of the job’s responsibilities?

Good luck – this is nearly impossible, and employers know it.

So what do you need to show your interviewers?

Show them that you’re capable of learning the specific skills they want, or that you can do something comparable.

This is where relevancy enter the equation.

You have to talk about the skills you have in a way that is relevant to the job.

If you simply list all the tasks that you’ve completed, the employer will not have confidence in your ability to get the job done.

Talk about skills you have, and then relate it back to something that you know the employer wants in a good candidate.

If you have some experience managing projects, don’t say:

“I was responsible for my own project at such-and-such university.”

Instead, try:

“As a PhD student, I managed my entire project, including timelines and resources. I put my project management skills to work and finished my PhD on time with X number of publications. So that’s the kind of experience I could apply to project management in this role.”

Never forget to circle back to how you will be a good fit for the position and the company – let them know exactly what it is you’ve done that makes you the perfect fit for the job.

If you’ve been selected for an interview, the employer knows you have the skills to do the job. But the interview is the last step the point where they weed out candidates they don’t want. It’s your final opportunity to shine, so look at your interview strategy – is it time to change things up? If you’re trying to show off your academic prestige, you’re not wowing the interviewer. And if you’re not showing the employer how excited and engaged you are, they’ll cross you right off their list. Or maybe your answers are too literal – you’re not telling the employer what they really want to hear. If you aren’t showing commitment to the role, or if you’re not showing them how your skill set applies to the job, you aren’t showing the employer, you’re capable of doing the job. So the next time you get to a phone screen or onsite interview, highlight your skills and industry credibility! If you’d like to learn more on how to do this, get in touch with us at [email protected]

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Sarah Smith, Ph.D.

Sarah Smith, Ph.D.

Sarah Smith, Ph.D., holds a degree in Biochemistry. A tireless science consultant at large, her rigorous pursuit of pristine labwork is unflinching. Yet Sarah’s keenest passion--guiding emergent academics into the business world--stems from personal experience with the transitional struggles she would have no PhD face alone.
Sarah Smith, Ph.D.

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