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How PhDs Must Prepare For A Job Interview With Top Recruiters

How to prepare for a job interview with top recruiters
Written By: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

Industry interviews were a mystery to me.

I had interviewed for many postdoc positions and they were all the same.

I gave a presentation based on my previous research, then I met with the professor and a few of the other graduate students.

Conversations revolved around my research, the techniques I knew, the papers I published, and how I could use my skill set to further their research goals.

I was never asked behavioral questions.

I never dared to talk about salary expectations.

I was just happy to receive any salary.

My preparation was minimal because I talked about my work all the time and had presentations on hand from previous conferences.

All I had to do was read a few of the lab’s published papers.

This alone gave me confidence.

I had so much confidence walking into academic interviews.

I was in my element there — my comfort zone — and my posture, tone, and energy reflected that.

My first industry interview, on the other hand, was completely different.

I felt intimidated.

I felt like a fish out of water.

I knew I had to prepare more seriously than for any of my past postdoc interviews.

Yet, the entire process of preparing for an industry interview was foreign to me.

This included the role of recruiters

What was a recruiter’s role?

Why were some of them interested in me and others not interested in me?

Why were they so concerned about my interview performance?

The first point of contact for many of my industry interviews was with a recruiter.

Usually, these recruiters would reach out to me based on my LinkedIn profile.

Once this initial contact was made, they would forward job postings to me that I might be interested in.

When I finally secured an interview, the company’s recruiter would make suggestions on how to prepare for the upcoming interview.

Insider tips?

Yes, please.

The tips I received helped me develop my confidence in attending industry interviews and site visits.

I quickly learned exactly how to prepare and what to expect and, as a result, was hired into the position of my choice.

Be prepared in advance for your job interview

Why You Must Prepare Thoroughly For Every Industry Job Interview

A polished resume and a strong network of industry professionals is not enough to get hired.

At the end of the day, whether or not you get hired will come down to how you perform during the interview.

According to a survey of 2,000 employers performed by Undercover Recruiter, 47% of employers believe the biggest mistake job candidates make is not researching the company beforehand.

In a similar and recent Accountemps survey of 2,200 CFOs, 27% said the most common mistake job candidates make during industry interviews is having little to no knowledge of the company.

This was closely followed by job candidates being unprepared to discuss their skills and experience (22%), as well as being unprepared to discuss their career plans and goals (16%).

Both surveys referenced “winging it” as another common interview mistake that most job candidates make.

In other words, the reason these candidates fail their interviews is because they fail to prepare.

The Creative Group conducted a nationwide study that showed 70% of executives believe coming unprepared to an interview is as big of a deal breaker as showing up late.

(By the way, the biggest deal breaker was a job candidate checking their phone).

Look — you’re a PhD, which means you’re a skilled researcher.

You know what it takes to properly prepare for an experiment, a dissertation defense, or a grant submission.

In comparison, preparing for an interview should be a breeze.

Approach your industry interview with the same level of scrutiny before you arrive and you will be one step closer to a successful transition.

How To Prepare For A Job Interview According To Recruiters

Industry interviews are an opportunity to showcase your skills and your readiness to enter the professional workforce.

The key is to not be intimated.

The best way to not be intimidated is to prepare thoroughly.

As a PhD, you are of great value to industry. You have the perfect combination of transferable skills and technical expertise.

You have overcome adversity, failed experiments and projects, horrible bosses, and impossible deadlines.

You have been stressed, overwhelmed, overworked, and still persevered.

You can handle an industry job interview.

All you have to do is prepare specifically for it.

Here are 7 non-academic interview preparation strategies, according to top industry recruiters.…

Do not underestimate the importance of how you dress for your job interview

1. Do the right preparation work.

There are some simple preparation steps you can take before your industry interview to ensure things run smoothly and to prevent any unnecessary stress.

The first is to confirm all the details of the day: date, time, address, directions, phone number, and parking instructions.

Next, bring with you the following items: 2-3 copies of your resume (in case you meet additional people than was originally scheduled), a reference list, your research notes on the company, and a professional notepad and pen.

Speaking of research notes, never go to an interview without doing your homework on the company itself.

Go to the company website and give it a thorough read.

By the end of your research, you should be able to answer the following three questions:

What is the company mission statement?

What are the names of 1-2 competitors?

What is the organizational structure of the company and where does your role fit in?

Finally, it is important to spend time putting together your professional outfit for the interview.

Don’t underestimate the importance of how you dress. How you dress is near the top of the list of the type of first impression you make.

Make sure the entire outfit screams industry professional, shoes included.

No flip-flops, scuffed, or torn shoes allowed.

Avoid flashy or showy jewellery, as well as strong or freshly sprayed cologne or perfume.

One person’s idea of a delightful scent may in fact elicit an allergic reaction.

2. Make your first impression memorable.

Your interview starts the moment you drive into the car park.

Anyone you meet from this point forward may be a part of the hiring committee.

Turn off your cell phone and leave it in the car along with all food, beverages, and gum.

Greet everyone you meet professionally, from the secretary to the janitorial staff.

Everyone plays a role in making sure the company is successful and deserves your gratitude.

Always make eye contact and offer a firm handshake to convey confidence and professionalism.

Avoid clammy or limp, floppy handshakes, which inadvertently convey a sign of weakness, fatigue, or guilt.

Poor posture, a lack of eye contact, and a weak handshake scream amateur and insecure.

Be aware of your body language so you are always portraying yourself as a confident individual.

First impressions are communicated through both verbal and nonverbal communication.

How you carry yourself and handle stress are as important as what you say.

Fidgeting, playing with your hair, chewing gum, or having your phone buzzing away send a message that you are unprofessional.

Even if you are a little nervous, you don’t need to advertise it.

Instead, pay attention to detail and present yourself as more than just another awkward PhD job candidate.

Understand the job scope before your interview

3. Know how your resume fits the position.

Many interviews will start with you having to walk the interviewer through your resume.

Your response to this should be similar to your response to the opening line, “Tell me a little about yourself.”

Prepare an elevator pitch and be able to give a clear and succinct overview of your experience.

Practice your pitch until it feels smooth and natural.

Only mention accomplishments that are directly related to the position.

You want to keep the interviewer interested while convincing them you have the necessary experience to do the job and do it well.

Be able to explain any gaps in your employment and provide reasons for leaving each position.

Be able to explain your motivation for leaving academia and entering into industry.

Always frame your answer so that your personal motivation is in line with the overall mission and goals of the company.

The more you know about the company, the better you’ll be at crafting your answers to fit.

Your history is relevant for communicating what your values are and how they might fit in with the company.

From there, you’ll segue into showing that you have a good understanding of the position itself.

Make sure you understand the scope of the job, how your role fits into the organization as a whole, and how your background and strengths make you a good candidate for the position.

The best way to prepare for this is to network with other employees at the company well beforehand and set up informational interviews where you can learn about the position and the company organization and values straight from the source.

4. Practice answers to typical interview questions.

There is no way to know exactly what you will be asked the day of an interview.

But there are many common questions across all positions that are used by interviewers as a way to gauge your preparedness, your motivation, and whether you have the transferable skills for the role.

Make sure not to veer off-topic unless initiated by the interviewer.

Be succinct in your answer and don’t be afraid to ask for clarity if you do not understand what is being asked.

Always try to answer questions using the STAR method: Situation Task Action Result.

For example, “Tell me about a time in which you had to meet a tight deadline.”

Start by explaining a situation, the task that was involved, what action you took, and the result of that action.

Try and choose examples and specific results that would be relevant to a business.

Here are a few common questions you may face…

What are your strengths?

To answer this, choose strengths that relate to the job requirements and give specific examples from your recent research experience.

If you don’t give specific examples, you lose credibility and fail to show the value you bring to the company.

What are your weaknesses?

Do not reveal any deep character flaws or anything that would make you unsuitable for the position.

This isn’t a therapy session and they don’t want to hear your long list of personal challenges.

Discuss a fault that you worked to improve or a weakness that can be turned into a strength.

Use a professional filter for your answers.

Share enough, but not too much.

For example, if you are a stickler for detail, this may be a weakness because it requires more time to complete a task but it results in higher quality work.

This would be good for a detail-oriented position, but not ideal for a position that requires you to make decisions on the fly.

What are your 3-5 year goals?

Here are two great answers for this…

“To do such a great job that in 12-18 months I can be promoted to….” OR “To do such a great job that you will give me more responsibilities than what is listed in the job description.”

Highlight achievements and contributions you hope to be instrumental in being a part of, including areas companies are looking for like leadership, collaborative teamwork, and innovation.

5. Don’t ignore salary conversations.

Probably the most feared question in an interview is in regards to salary expectations.

The most important thing to avoid is giving a specific dollar amount.

This will lock you into a salary with no room for negotiation.

Handling salary expectation questions with self-assuredness establishes you as being informed and aware of your value.

Two effective deflection responses to direct salary questions are as follows…

I am willing to consider all reasonable offers.

I understand the salary range you are considering for this position and I am comfortable within that range.

If you are forced to give a number, do some research beforehand on Glassdoor or to come up with a range that encompasses the average salary for this position.

At the same time, you should never bring up salary expectations during an interview or anything regarding benefits or vacation.

It reflects that you are focusing on the wrong things.

The best time to talk about salary is when there is an offer on the table and you know they want to hire you.

Do your research before the job interview

6. Ask the interviewer questions.

Make sure to have at least 5-7 questions prepared to ask the interviewer.

It is important for the company to know that you are interested in them, their mission and their culture — and not simply obtaining any job.

You want to demonstrate that you have done research on the company and that you are building on information that you obtained from public sources.

It is also in your best interest to ask questions to ensure the company will provide a working environment that will allow you to grow professionally.

Here are some sample questions you can ask…

What does success look like for the position and how will it be measured after 30, 60, 90+ days?

What are the qualities of the person who excels in this role?

How would you personally describe the company culture?

What are some of the challenges that this role will face?

Do you have any hesitations about me or my qualifications?

7. Know your exit strategy.

Just because the interview itself is over doesn’t mean the interviewing process is over.

First, before you end the interview, make sure to ask what the next steps in the application process will be.

This will help to ease worry as you wait to hear about a decision.

Be sure to also reiterate your interest in the position and to thank the interviewer(s) and anyone that helped to make your interview day possible.

After you leave, make notes while your memory is still fresh with names and titles of people you spoke with and something you remember about them.

Within 6 hours of the interview, send thank-you notes to all of your interviewers.

Personalize each thank-you note to show that you were particularly interested in their opinions and valued their time.

Here is an effective follow-up script you can use…

Hi [Interviewer Name],

Thank you so much for meeting with me today. It was such a pleasure to learn more about the team and position, and I’m very excited about the opportunity to join [company name] and help [bring in new clients / develop world-class content / anything else amazing you would be doing] with your team.

I look forward to hearing from you about the next steps in the hiring process, and please do not hesitate to contact me if I can provide additional information.

Best regards,

[Your Name]

Most industry interviews follow a predictable format. What most job candidates don’t realise is that from the moment you step foot into the company building, you are under evaluation. It is imperative that you prepare for each step of the interview process – when to arrive, what questions to ask, and the follow-up thank you emails you will send when it is all over. Not preparing correctly for an industry interview means throwing away all the work you put into getting there. Perfect resumes and internal connections can only get you so far. You need to impress at an industry interview to ensure your career transition is complete.

To learn more about how PhDs must prepare for a job interview with top recruiters, 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.
  • Shawn Lyons

    Cathy, thanks so much for sharing your story – and your wisdom!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re most welcome Shawn!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    You are right about the salary negotiations. They are the absolute bugaboo. I appreciate your general points on that issue, and I admit you’ve come up with some professional, easy-to-follow, and clear guidelines for us to put into our repertoire. Talking about money always makes me uncomfortable, so it’s great to have some solid tools at my disposal. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks for your comment Madeline – I know talking salary makes many academics uncomfortable but it is part of the job search game. You have to know your value and be at ease discussing salary – at the end of the day, this will be very important for all future positions as it will be your benchmark so you want to make sure you are getting paid what you are worth!

  • Willow Sampson

    I love the idea of the thank-you notes! I didn’t know I was supposed to do that. But it will be a pleasure. It’s nice to know that something that sets me at ease will set them at ease, also.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely! Great take-home message 🙂

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I think you’ve pretty much nailed it — not doing any research on the company where you’re interviewing is a huge mistake. After all, if you’re supposed to ask pertinent questions and explain why your skills and interests make you a perfect fit for the job AND the corporate culture, how can you do it if you make no attempt to find out what the company is all about? Yes, interviewees may have a vague idea of what the company does, but that reveals very little about what the underlying corporate culture and management philosophies are, and probably nothing about how it’s organized. And the reason I know this is that I, too, was once trying to break into industry for the very first time. Congratulations, Cathy, on laying it out for us. Even after being in industry for a while, we still need to keep networking and learning about the various new technologies, startups, and technological advances.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Matthew – it is great to hear positive feedback from someone who has already made that transition. It is an all too common mistake for someone to step into a role loving the job on paper but then realizing that the culture suffocates them. If we are going to transition, it is important to think beyond the title.

  • Julian Holst

    That is an awesome tip to align your answers with how they fit the goals of the company. I never thought of it that way. It seems to me that it’s like writing a good paper, where all your points go to support the thesis. It’s another great way of looking at the very straightforward process of answering questions in an interview.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I love that analogy Julian – thank you for sharing! That is a great way for academics to think about the process.

  • Sonja Luther

    I really think that a lot of people throw away all the hard work they’ve done when they fail to do the follow-up thank you notes. And, you’re right about the evaluation process being much more than the interview. After a few years working in one company, I realized that the President would make conversation with the janitors after the applicants left to find out how they behaved when they were around the rank and file employees.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Oh that is so interesting Sonja! Thanks for sharing that aspect. The interview is not over until you are in your car, driving away!

  • Kathy Azalea

    I have to admit that I freeze up when people ask me to list my achievements or three-year goals. I know where it comes from, the rule not to be boastful or conceited. You wrote an article a while back about keeping track of your achievements because it’s easy to forget what they are, and then when people ask you, you get a kind of brain freeze. So I’ve been writing them down as they cross my mind and put the notes in a jar so I can put them into my resume. I think that will help me with an elevator pitch, also.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Perfect Kathy! I am so glad you remembered that post! I think that is very important and comes in handy in all aspects of your job search from your resume to your interview. Great work 🙂

  • Theo

    Thanks for helping out with some questions we can ask them. That’s what always gets me stumped.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Theo!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    In real estate, the three keywords are location, location, location. In a job search, the keywords are prepare, prepare, prepare. If you’re not prepared in any one area, whether it be in resume building, the way you dress, knowing where to park so you’re not late, or any of the other areas mentioned, you’re leaving yourself open for disappointments. I really appreciate the way all these areas are so very well spelled out.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great point Carlie!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I love the STAR method! That’s a new one on me. I’m going to start practicing right away.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Fantastic! Happy to hear that Marvin!

  • Yvar

    Well written article. As an industry hiring manager, I especially appreciate you pointing out that everyone the candidate meets during their day is considered part of the interview team and should be treated as such. One suggestion about asking questions – you absolutely should ask questions, but try hard not to ask questions from a stock list just because you feel like you should ask questions. It is usually very obvious when you are asking for form’s sake and don’t care about the answer. Ask a question you truly want the answer to, and engage in conversation about the topic, even if it is not “the ideal question”. I want to see candidates who are genuinely interested in the position and company, not candidates who are mastering the art of the interview.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Wow – that’s brilliant Yvar. Thank you for that valuable advice.