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I Made 7 Ridiculous Errors At My Onsite Interview. Here’s What They Were.

Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

As I finished my PhD, I was uncertain about what I should do next.

I wanted out of academia, but had no clue how things worked in industry or if anyone would even want to hire me.

It was a low point.

But, through networking, I found mentors and I found confidence.

I managed to get several phone interviews and even a few video interviews.

My job search was progressing.

Finally I got invited for an onsite interview for a job I would be a perfect fit for.

I should have been excited.

But instead, I was terrified.

Getting the interview invitation sent me straight back to feeling uncertain, nervous, and underqualified — Imposter Syndrome started kicking in.

I didn’t know anything about industry, and now I had to go for an onsite interview.

I had no idea how to prepare, or what to expect at this interview.

So, I prepared as best I could and went to the interview.

It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either.

Some parts of the interview were incredibly awkward, I didn’t know how to answer some of their questions, and I was exhausted.

I got an email, about a week later, saying I didn’t get the job.

I wasn’t surprised.

But, I was frustrated with myself.

Frustrated that I let my fear and uncertainty ruin this opportunity.

So, I decided to learn more about how I should have conducted this interview.

I identified the mistakes I made so I wouldn’t make them again.

I talked to other people going through the same process and learned from their mistakes too.

The next time, I was confident at my onsite interview and it went very differently.

What Employers Are Looking For Most At An Onsite Interview

Once you have made it to the onsite interview, you have already proven yourself to be a high quality candidate.

You look good on paper.

You interacted well via phone and/or video.

And so now, you’ve made it to the in-person interview stage.

Now is when you can really shine and show the employers why you are the best candidate, because many of the top skills employers want are difficult to convey on paper.

According to LinkedIn, the most sought after transferable skills are leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management.

The way you perform at your in-person interview can demonstrate whether or not you possess these in-demand skills.

The skill you will be able to demonstrate best during an interview is communication.

And, interviewers are highly sensitive to the way job candidates communicate throughout the interview process.

According to Careerbuilder, simple communication mistakes can lead to rejection, where 50% of hiring managers would not hire someone who spoke negatively about past employers and 33% would not hire someone who didn’t give specific examples when answering questions.

Non-verbal communication can be an opportunity-killer too, where the same survey found that not smiling was a huge issue for 44% of hiring managers.

At the onsite interview, the evaluation becomes about more than just your skill set.

Now the employer is looking at the whole picture, including your attitude, communication style, core values, and skills to see if you are the right candidate for the job.

Think about the interview process from the employer’s perspective and show them what they need to know about you to realize you are the best person to hire.

7 Mistakes PhDs Make During Onsite Interviews That Cost Them The Job

The hiring process is long.

From resume to job offer, there are many steps and many times that you will need to demonstrate that you are the best candidate.

But, the most important step is the onsite interview.

This is usually the final interview — the final chance to prove you are the one for the job.

And, all too often, PhDs make silly mistakes that ruin their chances.

Here are 7 common onsite interview mistakes that you should be sure to avoid…

1. Letting the interviewers ask all the questions and guide the flow of conversation.

While a site visit is an interview, this does not mean that you should let them ask you questions all day.

Any interview should really be a conversation, but a site interview should especially be a conversation, not an interrogation.

You are going to be spending several hours with your interviewers.

If you let them ask you questions for hours on end, you are going to get very tired, very quickly.

Instead, take control of the conversation and make it a 2-way street.

Ask them about the company, about their specific role, about their hobbies — anything to get the focus off of you.

This will give you a break from being in the hot seat.

Plus, having a conversation will build rapport with your interviewers much faster than merely answering the questions they ask you.

2. Not realizing the energy required to sustain yourself for a day-long interview.

No matter who you are or how well you prepare for your onsite interview, it will be a tiring experience.

You will be in a heightened state, trying to make the best impression possible for several hours.

You will get fatigued.

Once you accept this reality, you can prepare for it.

First, get a good night’s sleep and give yourself some good food fuel in the morning to set the day off right.

Also, make sure you are drinking water throughout the day.

If you are given a few minutes break, or if you take a bathroom break, use the time to calm yourself, take a few deep breaths, and try to rest.

Many PhDs don’t realize how taxing it can be to have to interact with and answer questions for a whole day — this is especially true if you are an introvert.

This doesn’t mean that you will not do well in the interview, it just means that you need to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the long day ahead.

3. Neglecting to communicate with the HR department in the lead-up to the interview.

Before your onsite interview, call the HR person that you have been communicating with and ask for details about your interview day.

You might be nervous about calling them, but this is the only way you will know what to prepare for.

Don’t wait for them to send you the details because, by that time, it might be too late for you to prepare properly.

When you call HR, here are a few questions you can ask:

Who will I be meeting with?

Will I need to give a presentation?

How long is the presentation and what should the focus be?

Will I be doing a technical demonstration?

How long is the interview?

Will we be having lunch and dinner together?

What is the company dress code?

This is not a comprehensive list of questions and, if there is something you are unsure about, ask.

The more you know, the better you can prepare.

And, the more prepared you are, the more likely you are to impress your interviewers.

4. Not preparing enough questions to ask the many people you meet at a site interview.

Site interviews are long.

You might be there just for an hour or two, but most of the time, a site visit interview is an all-day affair.

Think a whole 8-hour work day.

You are going to be having lots and lots of conversations.

This means you will need to prepare lots of questions that you can ask people during those conversations.

Instead of having awkward moments, or allowing the other person to ask you question after question, be prepared with your own set of questions.

By preparing these questions beforehand, you can also tailor them to each person you know you will be meeting at the interview.

Do a bit of research about the main people you will interact with and create thoughtful questions.

Getting someone to talk about themselves and their passions will build rapport quickly.

5. Forgetting that you might have to give a hands-on demonstration of your technical skills.

If the position you are interviewing for has a technical component, the company may ask you to demonstrate your skills.

Doing this in an interview, with a supervisor watching you carefully, can be intimidating.

The company may want to know that you have the right technical skills, or they may just want to see how you act under pressure.

Either way, if you have been away from the bench, or haven’t used the required technical skill in a while, doing a bit of brushing up might be helpful.

This is also a reminder not to say you have a specific technical skill if you don’t actually have it.

If you read a job description and don’t have the exact technical requirements, and if you think you meet enough of the other requirements, it is okay to apply for the job.

It’s not okay to lie and say you have a skill when you don’t.

SImilar to giving a hands-on demonstration of a technical skill, your onsite interview may also contain a whiteboard session where you might be asked to work through a problem.

Just be prepared to demonstrate the skills you have.

Remember — you are a PhD, you are an expert in your field, and have a high level of skill.

Don’t let the interview environment intimidate you.

6. Leaving the interview without asking what the next steps in the process are.

As your interview draws to a close and you say goodbye, always ask about the next steps.

You will probably be exhausted, but make sure you ask this last question.

Otherwise, over the next few day or weeks, you will just be left agonizing over when you might hear back about your interview.

You also won’t know what time frame you should follow up within.

Just make sure you ask what you can expect next.

You may also want to ask for the contact information for the new people that you met at the interview.

Then, follow up with these people within 24 hours, expressing your thanks for the interview and your excitement about the company.

Sending a hard copy postcard after the interview, to thank them for the opportunity, is also a great way to differentiate yourself from the other candidates.

But, make sure you send this right after your interview, so they get the note the next day or, at most, 2 days later.

7. Stopping your job search after you have an interview where you “nailed it”.

It is a wonderful feeling to leave an interview knowing that you did a great job.

You connected with the people at the company, your presentation went really well, and you are a perfect fit for the company.

These are all signs of a great interview.

But, these signs do not mean that you have gotten the position.

Even if one of the interviewers tells you that you probably got the job, this doesn’t mean you got the job.

Hiring decisions, especially at larger companies, are complex processes.

So, no matter how your interview goes, do not stall your job search.

Keep your job search strategy moving forward until you have signed a written contract.

Keep up with other interviews, informational interviews, LinkedIn interactions, job posting searches, etc.

A rejection after an interview is tough, but it’s even tougher if you have prematurely stopped pursuing other opportunities.

The best outcome would be to have more than one job offer, and then you can use that situation to negotiate the salary you want!

So, never stop your job search until after you have signed a contract.

Getting an onsite interview is a part of the job search process. It means you are getting closer to receiving a job offer! But, getting a site interview can also be scary and nerve-wracking. Instead of giving in to this fear and ruining the opportunity, learn from the common mistakes that PhDs make at site interviews, such as: letting other people ask too many questions and guide the flow of conversation, not realizing the energy required to sustain yourself for a day-long interview, neglecting to communicate with the HR department in the lead-up to the interview, not preparing enough questions to ask the people you meet at your site interview, forgetting that you might have to give a hands-on demonstration of your technical skills, leaving the interview without asking what the next steps in the process are, and stopping your job search after you have an interview where you “nailed it”.

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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.