5 Questions PhDs Should Expect During A Job Interview (& How To Answer Them)

The first time I had an interview it was a disaster. I answered all the questions wrong.

I had never interviewed before, but for some reason I thought I was going to do great. 

Right from the beginning it was bad. The first question they asked me: “How are you?” For which I gave my generic automatic answer Fine how are you. My interviewer also said fine and asked if I could tell him a little bit about myself. So, I proceeded to tell him that I was a PhD student. 

I kept my answer rather succinct because I’d read how long-winded answers are a fast track to not getting hired. I learned that the opposite is also true. The 45 minute interview was over in 20 minutes and by the end I knew very little about who was interviewing me or whether or not the company was a good fit. To be honest, the interviewer probably didn’t know much about me either. 

Communication is not about being short and succinct or long winded and drawn out; it’s about giving enough information to get your point across and engage with others. There was no connection between the interviewer and I. 

Over the next few weeks, I practiced some of the most asked interview questions.

By the next interview I felt a lot more confident. My answers were informative enough but to the point. I deflected the salary questions, inserted my own personality and bonded with the interviewer over our shared hobby, horseback riding. Who knew that would be my ticket in?

I got a call back the following week for the second interview with the team, where we all shared a love for hiking. It felt less like an interview and more like meeting new friends. 

The job offer was in my inbox a week later. 

Interviewing In A Recession

You’ve sent out the resumes, maybe even passed the phone screen, now it’s onto the interview. This can be the most stressful part of the job hiring process. Remember, you were picked amongst the hundreds of applications as a qualified candidate for this position. The job offer may be close, but there is still one last barrier; the interview. 

How you answer these questions could mean the difference between getting your dream job offer and falling back into unemployment. As the pandemic moves forward, the global economy plunges deeper into the recession, increasing job competition and making interviews a little harder to get through.  

However, preparing adequately and staying ahead of interview trends can put you ahead of the competition and help you secure that job without interview anxiety.  49% of hiring managers report that conversational skills heavily influence their decisions on candidates. So, it’s important to think of the interview like a conversation and showcase your ability to communicate effectively.

5 questions PhDs Are Likely To Get During An Industry Interview

1. How are you today? Can you tell me a little about yourself?

These are the first two questions you will have to answer during the interview. In fact our polls show that 90% of PhDs reported being asked these questions. So how should you answer them? 

First of all, you want to keep your answers positive. The recruiter or interviewer doesn’t want the first thing they hear from you to be about your problems. This sets a very negative tone for the rest of the interview. Instead, when asked how you are, simply say “perfect”. It is short, succinct, and conveys optimism and certainty, which is what they are looking for right now. 

“Can you tell me a little bit about yourself” is always the second question. Most hiring managers have not poured the hours into your resume that you have. They are likely scanning your resume as you are introducing yourself. So, the best way to answer this question is with your elevator pitch. Don’t think they should already know because they have your resume or that you shouldn’t repeat things that are there. Instead, tell them who you are, what you want, and why they should care.

Who you are goes beyond your technical skills and previous position. You can also add personal details. In fact, the person who is interviewing you may not have any technical skills, so adding that you like to go dancing or knitting will humanize you, show you have personality, and make you approachable. 

What you want is always the job you are applying for, but make sure your why is not “because I need a job” or “because I need to pay my rent.” You want to show them that you have passion for this role beyond a paycheck. Maybe it’s because you want to work with a product that helps people with a certain disease or a company that is passionate about educating people on XYZ. 

Studies show that an interviewer only needs 90 seconds to decide if they will recommend you to the hiring committee or not. This is true even if the interview lasts 45 minutes. In that time, you can only answer these two short questions. So, make sure you have confident and positive answers that embody your unique personality and the qualifications that make you an ideal candidate for this role. 

2. Why should we not hire you?

This can be a tough question to answer. They are asking you to give them a reason to move onto someone else. Don’t give them an answer. This is the new “what is your greatest weakness” question. 

Don’t let them trick you into saying something bad or negative about yourself. Instead, take the higher ground. Tell them that the only reason you can think that they shouldn’t hire you is if they can’t live up to their brand/mission/purpose of the company. State some specific facts that you like about the company. This will show them that you know what they stand for and that you believe you fit within this mission.

3. How do you like to work?

This is an important one as the trend of a decentralized workforce continues. More and more companies are switching to a hybrid or fully remote model. For these changes to work, companies need to know their employees can work autonomously. Furthermore, they need to know that employees can be productive with no or little oversight. 

They are looking for not only how you like to work and whether that fits into the company culture but also how you prioritize your work and keep track of projects. Highlight some tactics you’ve used to make sure things don’t get lost or are done at the last minute. Maybe this is creating a daily to do list every morning over a cup of coffee, or an afternoon power walk to refocus your day.

Also include how you communicate with others. Are you someone who will jump on a call with anyone at any time or do you like a little bit of warning. How do you inform your current boss/PI of your progress and how do you track that progress over time? These are the project management skills you’ve gained throughout your PhD career, but you need to show how these skills translate to an industry setting and the company’s goals. 

4. Questions on salary.

This is a common screening question and one that many PhDs get blind-sided by. Know that this question is coming and learn how to deflect it. You never want to answer this question with a number. If you aim too high this could automatically disqualify you as a candidate. If you aim too low, you will look like you are desperate to get a job and you don’t know your value. 

There are two great ways to deflect this question. The first is to simply say “I will consider any reasonable offer.” This puts the questions back on their side. In addition, adding the “reasonable” implies you know what you are worth and you are not going to take a low salary. It shows you have an idea of what the salary expectations are. 

The other way to deflect the salary question is to say that you are not concerned about salary right now. State that you are more interested in getting a better picture of the role and the team to assess your fit within the company. This will make you more attractive as a job candidate. You are turning the tables on them. You are showing that you are not concerned with money but rather with ensuring that your skills will allow the company to be productive. 

5. Questions on why you want to leave academia.

This question may have several answers. Maybe you are upset by the lack of funding for academia. Maybe you are sick of the poor support of the verbal beratement by your PI. These are all reasons why you may want to leave academia but are not the best ones to share with your potential future employer. 

Instead, think of these questions more as why do you want to transition into industry? When we think of why we are moving towards our future instead of why we are leaving our past, it’s easier to frame things positively. 

This is a great question to showcase some of your business acumen. Show them you have an understanding of industry and highlight the elements you are looking forward to. Maybe you are really excited about the prospect of working with people or being involved in the drug development process. Academia typically does not have these applications but industry does. So, frame your answer around the positive elements of industry, instead of the negative aspects of academia. 

In Conclusion

Practicing how to answer common interview questions can help you sound more confident and be able to ‘think on your feet’ during the actual interview.  These are just 5 of the most asked interview questions for PhD-level positions, but they all have some underlying themes. During the interview, you need to stay optimistic and passionate about the role and show how your past prepared you for this particular job. Never give them an excuse not to hire you and always show you know what the company aims to do and how you fit into their culture and team.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, 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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Elizabeth Deyett
Elizabeth Deyett

Elizabeth holds a PhD in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics. Now she combines her passion for science and writing as a consultant and freelance medical writer.

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