10 Gotcha Interview Questions That Derail PhDs
There are hundreds of interview questions I’ve heard in the last 10 years.
PhDs report back to me from the business end of their industry interviews a dozen, two dozen times a day.
They ask for coaching on standard questions that you’ve probably been asked yourself in industry interviews:
“Tell me what makes you the best fit for this job?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“What’s your biggest weakness?”
I’ve also met with PhDs post-interview who tell me they were stumped by some really off-the-wall questions. Head-scratchers like:
“How would your greatest enemy describe you?”
“Describe the color blue to someone who can’t see.”
“What song best describes your work ethic?”
And, especially after their first few industry interviews, these PhDs all say the same thing:
I felt so caught off guard.
Why didn’t they ask me anything at all about my academic qualifications?
It really seemed as if they were trying to trip me up. Why would they do that?
I can relate to and empathize with that crushing feeling of an interview that went off the rails.
After all, I would never have had the need to develop a job search methodology if industry interviewing just came to me naturally.
But I want you and every other PhD reading this to know that, if you bombed any interview question, there’s a simple reason why.
No matter what question you’re being asked, every single one can be distilled down to the two things employers need to know:
Interview Questions Are An Employer’s Last Line Of Defense
Emotions run high for PhDs during the interview process.
And understandably so.
After all, there’s a lot riding on your answers to a handful of questions: stability, financial security, career success.
It’s not like you can memorize the “correct” answers to any given interviewer’s questions.
It is also impossible to know what employers plan to ask you in advance.
But it might make you feel a little bit better to know that it’s not just you, the job seeker, who feels the pressure.
Employers are also doing their best, armed with nothing but a handful of questions, to find the perfect fit for the position.
And interview questions are the only tool employers have to tell the difference between candidates who say they can do the job and the ones who can actually succeed.
These hiring managers are under scrutiny, and their hiring decision has consequences.
The cost to hire and onboard just one new employee, for example, is roughly $4,100 per person.
Average starting salaries for PhDs are $90,000 on the low end.
And benefits packages cost employers an average of well over $10,000 per person.
If they hire a bad fit, it’s not just hiring costs they’ve lost.
There’s also hidden costs associated with that loss that are harder to quantify.
Added stress on existing employees, for instance.
When departments are understaffed, it eventually leads to burnout, low employee morale, lowered productivity, and compromised quality of work.
Employers need to find the best candidate, and they need to do it quickly.
It’s your job to make it easy for them to decide that candidate is you.
The STAR Method Is Your Key To Nailing Tricky Interview Questions
As a PhD, you are comfortable talking about technical details and intricate datasets.
But these are not the kind of results that are going to earn you a ‘win’ at your next industry interview.
You need to demonstrate your soft skills and your technical knowledge in a way that is relatable to industry professionals.
And the way to do that is with the STAR method.
What is the STAR Method? It’s a five-step process that’s proven to help answer behavioral interview questions.
There’s many reasons this method resonates with hiring managers.
The main one, however, is that this storytelling-focused format helps form complete, well-rounded answers to the toughest questions.
And the first part of the story you need to set up is the context.
Describe the situation – the who, what, where, and when of your story – to set the scene for your answers to behavioral interview questions.
Whatever task you needed to complete will be the next part of your anecdote. This is where you explain the goal you were trying to accomplish – the why of your story.
The actions you took to solve the problem are what you’ll explain next. This part of the STAR method is very important. It shows the potential employer an example of how you will act when on the job.
Finally, the result or outcome of the problem wraps up your answer. Whenever possible, try to quantify results in your behavioral interview questions. Employers want to see that you understand how important results are and that you know how to achieve them.
You can practice individual interview questions every day, or you can master this technique and approach any question in an industry interview with confidence.
Don’t Let These 10 Tough Questions Wreck Your Next Interview
Now you know what employers really need to know (why should we hire you and why do you want to work for us?)…
… and you have a method you can practice to help you answer open-ended questions like these.
Let’s take a look at ten of the most common questions PhDs tell me derail their industry interviews and how you should prepare to answer them.
1. Tell me about a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from yours.
Show me a PhD who truly gets along well with everyone and I’ll show you one that isn’t very in touch with their own feelings.
In academia, you’re surrounded primarily by other academics with academic mindsets. Finding common ground or shared interests doesn’t take much work.
But differences are inevitable – and important – in industry.
Unique experiences and perspectives lead to creative problem-solving, fresh ideas, and innovation.
And employers want to know you understand and embrace this fact.
Too many PhDs hear a question like this and only consider the Why You? angle. But that’s only half the answer they’re looking for.
Remember, a complete response that should address the Why Us? that employers are looking to understand.
Employers want an employee who can keep a cool head and conduct themself with professionalism – even when they’re faced with a personality type they can’t stand.
They also want to hire a person who understands that their team is diverse, and they value those different perspectives as a company.
Your answer should assure them that your strong qualifications don’t come at the cost of respect or patience for others. It should also confirm that you agree, differences are inevitable but they’re also important.
Even if you don’t have any formal experience working in industry, you can explain that you understand and really value how diverse that company is.
You can go on to say that, in academia, you were very comfortable working alongside others who have diverse perspectives, backgrounds and opinions.
Explain that you choose to look for and embrace the things you have in common with others and focus on building relationships built on mutual respect.
2. Tell me about a time you needed to get information from someone who wasn’t very responsive. What did you do?
A question like this is asking you about three things: how you collaborate with others, how you solve problems, and how you align with the company’s values.
Too many PhDs make the mistake of placing their unresponsive teammate in an adversarial light. They forget to focus on themselves and how they factor into the equation.
Personal accountability is present in some form or another in almost every company’s core values.
Boeing, Coca-Cola, Starbucks come to mind off the top of my head, but there are so many more.
Businesses don’t want a bunch of finger-pointers full of excuses on the payroll.
They also don’t want to hire someone who’s going to stand around and wait to be told what to do.
That’s why this question is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you can resolve day-to-day conflicts with respect and be an agent for positive change, not conflict.
Explain that you identified the problem, asked what was holding your unresponsive team member back, and asked how you could help.
Then explain the results that you took to remove the barriers and get productivity back on track.
Focus on how your actions were instrumental in helping your team.
3. Tell me about settling into your last job. What did you do to learn the ropes?
There are a few things that you do want to focus on with a question like this and one big thing that you shouldn’t get hung up on.
Employers understand that you don’t have industry experience. You do not need to remind them with every question.
Please do not start your answer to every question with, “I don’t have any experience in industry, but…”
Focus on the things your experience has in common with the job you’re applying for, not how different your experience is from working in industry.
That said, the Why You of this question is relatively simple: How do you take ownership of your success? How can you demonstrate that you’re motivated? Are you comfortable meeting new people and managing the resources available to you?
As for the Why Us, look to the company’s values.
For instance, do they value Curiosity? Perfect – your curiosity led you to explore the resources available to you.
Once you’d gained all the insight you could on your own, you exercised Initiative – another company-wide value you’ll see over and over again in industry – to foster more Personal Growth (yes, yet another company value).
Your answer to this question will differ from company to company, but the main point you want to hit is that you are adaptable. You don’t require constant supervision. You’re capable and understand how to drive progress even at times when there’s not a clear protocol in place.
Some other things you might want to place emphasis on in addition to or instead include:
- Making sure you arrive on time and prepared
- Familiarizing yourself with the expectations of your role
- Meeting your team
- Learning where to find resources
- Creating a 30-60-90-day plan
4. Describe a long-term project that you kept on track. How did you keep everything moving?
Every PhD feels confident answering questions like this. After all, who knows long-term projects better than a PhD?
But not so fast – there’s plenty of room to mess this one up.
Interviewers ask this question for a few reasons.
For one, they want to know about your project management skills.
They also are looking for an example that illustrates what your approach is when it comes to dealing with challenges.
Employers also want to know what your work ethic looks like in action and hear what you believe your greatest strengths are under pressure.
That covers the Why You, but what about your employer?
How can you convince them that you want to and can keep projects on track for this specific company, not one of their competitors or a past employer?
Many PhDs seem to think that all employers really want to know is that they can lead a project to success or follow through on complex goals.
But not all work environments and processes are created equal.
This is actually a question that allows you to showcase everything you’ve been able to learn about the company.
Work in what you know!
Find similarities between the kind of work that you’ve done in the past and the goals of the department you’re applying to.
And – pro tip – don’t be afraid to bring notes. If you have quantifiable results that you think might be helpful, jot those down and bring them with you.
Employers won’t look at this as cheating or inappropriate. It will show you’re taking your interview for the opportunity that it is – and you’re making the most of it.
5. Tell me about a time your responsibilities got a little overwhelming. What did you do?
It can be very uncomfortable to address your failures or shortcomings – especially for PhDs.
We hold ourselves to very high standards and are often our harshest critics.
That’s why I want you to come prepared to answer a question like this one.
In industry, it is a given that mistakes are going to happen. Missteps are going to be made.
And one of those wrong moves comes in the form of taking on too much.
Employers do want a driven employee with ambitious goals.
But if that same ambition is leading to missed deadlines or an overworked employee, adjustments need to be made.
That’s why this question is trying to gauge where you fall on this scale.
If you say you’ve never been overwhelmed, you’re either lying or you’re lazy.
But you want to have a strategic answer in mind for questions like this.
The answer you give should reveal that you know your limits and can successfully manage your own workload.
What employers are looking for – they’re Why You? – is that you’re the kind of employee who will speak up before they become overwhelmed.
They need someone who is present, adaptable, and aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.
In order to dress their Why Us?, this is a great opportunity to incorporate what you know about this company’s leadership style into your answer.
Choose a scenario that shows you took steps on your own to manage your workload.
Demonstrate that you wasted no time communicating your struggles to someone who could help or in a position of oversight.
Include what steps you took, if any, based on that advice.
And then emphasise that transferable skills such as time management and critical-thinking led you to a more efficient process.
6. Tell me about a time you were dissatisfied in your role. What could you have done to make it better?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask during an interview.
Most applicants hear just the first part of the question and they start picturing something specific that they hate about the role they’re currently in.
It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction.
After all, people who are happy in their current position rarely apply for new jobs.
Dissatisfaction is a curious thing, however.
Often, the reasons we dislike a person, place, or thing reveal as much about us as they do the object of our frustration.
Shifting the responsibility for job satisfaction to the applicant and away from forces beyond their control catches about 75% of candidates off guard, in my experience.
And the answer that follows almost always gives me insight into their character.
Are you a victim that things just happen to? Are you someone that blames others and has a chip on their shoulder?
Or are you apable of making decisions and living with the consequences?
Your answer to this question should be carefully chosen.
To determine the Why Us angle, consider the qualities about this industry position that you’re attracted to.
Then consider an example from your academic experience that demonstrates a contrary view.
For instance, if the position you’re applying to is collaborative and results-focused, choose an example that illustrates a solitary project you were a part of that had no clear metric for success.
Give one or two reasons why this was a bad fit for you.
Again, try to choose examples that align you with the values and interests of your target company.
Your goal is to show that your dissatisfaction in the past stemmed from being disconnected from those values.
7. How many pennies, if stacked on top of each other, would equal the height of the Empire State Building?
If this question brought you here, you should know that this is just one of many impossible-to-answer questions employers love to ask.
The point of interview-derailing questions like these is to show how you problem-solve on the spot.
Employers are not looking for you to provide a clear or correct answer. (Spoiler alert – there probably is no definitive answer available.)
They’re looking to get a taste of what your problem-solving skills look like under pressure.
The Why You behind this is exactly that: are you an on-your-feet thinker who can calmly and rationally create a plan and explain your reasoning for that plan?
But the Why Us you want to answer is revealed in the question itself.
This company is looking for someone who can act quickly and confidently. This is a show-don’t-tell situation, though. So show them.
Focus on how you’re going to divide the problem up, and explain your reasoning as clearly and succinctly as possible.
Don’t overthink this!
Go into questions like this knowing that you don’t have enough information to give the answer, and that’s okay.
Employers just want to see how you process information
8. Why are you leaving academia?
There’s a few ways this question comes up. I’ve also seen it asked like this:
Were you originally interested in a professorship?
This question is also designed to set the stage to ask the same thing:
What made you decide to pursue a PhD in your discipline?
The truth is not what matters here. This is not the time to be making confessions about how awful things are and how you’d do anything to get out of academia.
Instead, the answer to this question should always be something like, “I got my PhD in XYZ in order to work in this field for your company.”
Don’t give employers any reason to feel like industry is your second choice. This could send the unspoken message that you’re giving up on academia because you couldn’t hack it.
You can even go a step further and add the reasons you’re attracted to this particular company.
Explain that you value their mission, their products, and the way they do business.
Mention, too, that you’ve been following their company for some time and believe that their company culture is something you’re really attracted to.
If you’ve been chatting with current employees on LinkedIn, so much the better.
This should hopefully have provided you with an opportunity to ask questions about how ABC Company lives their values and culture.
Share any impressive examples you’ve heard in your networking efforts. Your interviewer will be impressed to hear you did your homework.
9. How much are you expecting to earn in this position?
I have so much to say about this question. But the most important thing I have to say is do not give employers a number!
And the TLDR of it all is that the first one to say a number out loud is the one at a disadvantage.
If your salary history is known, the hiring manager can try to negotiate the best deal for both the potential employee and the employer.
But, we know that the hiring manager is working for the company, not you.
If a prospective employer knows you currently earn a low salary, they are more likely to offer you a low salary.
And in a way, that’s just good business.
Even if it feels unfair.
The potential for a lowball salary offer is increased for PhDs and postdocs, who have been receiving very low compensations for many years.
Disclosing your salary history puts you at risk of being undervalued.
According to a study by Georgetown University, holding an advanced degree increases your annual salary by an average of $20,500, compared to having just a bachelor’s degree.
Know your value as a PhD and don’t let the mistake of telling a prospective employer your current compensation limit your potential future earnings.
So you deflect.
How do you do this without being rude? There are a few ways.
The first is to ask if you can come back to that question later.
If that doesn’t tide them over, or if they return to the question before the first interview is over, try something like this:
“This company is my top choice because of X, Y, and Z reasons. As long as the salary is competitive, pay shouldn’t be an issue.”
You could also say something along the lines of this: “My current salary is a stipend, and there’s really no comparison between that and an industry salary. However, I’m sure that if your offer is competitive I’ll be happy with your offer.”
Whatever you do, do NOT talk numbers.
And if they keep pushing and pushing, ask yourself if that’s something that you’re okay with?
10. Do you have any questions for me?
Employers expect candidates to ask them questions.
Asking questions after your interview is an important part of the interview process.
If you don’t come prepared to ask questions, employers often take this as a sign of disinterest.
By asking the right questions you can show the employer just how much you want to become a part of the organization.
Employers are not interested in candidates who don’t seem interested in them, plain and simple. They see applicants with no questions as being not very interested or not very sharp.
Having no questions may also give the appearance you are indifferent toward the organization itself. Probably not exactly the attribute an employer is seeking.
Another reason to ask your interviewer questions is that it gives you the chance to clear up any reservations they may have about you as a candidate.
Studies show that an interviewer only needs 90 seconds to decide if they will advance you to the next round of interviews. This is true whether an interview lasts for 10 minutes or over an hour.
Asking questions is a second chance to clear up any answers you may have flubbed the first time.
And the final reason you want to direct questions to your interviewer is that this is your best line of defense against taking a job that will turn out to be a terrible fit.
The kind of company culture, management style and environment you thrive in is your job to understand. By asking the right questions, you can identify any red flags that will save you and your future employer wasted time and resources.
The best way to keep tough questions from derailing your next industry interview is to prepare in advance. Just like anything else, practice is the best way to prepare for your industry job interviews. Research the company, but also consider yourself as a candidate. Being able to articulate what you want – and what you don’t want – is something that will help set you apart in your industry job search. The STAR Method will help guide you to the most well-rounded answers to interview questions. When in doubt, always ask yourself if your answer explains Why You are right for the job and Why This Company (Us) is where you see yourself working.
ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD
CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS
Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.
Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.More Written by Isaiah Hankel, PhD