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The PhD Cheat Sheet For Conquering An Onsite Interview

When I was offered my first onsite interview, I was elated. But that elation quickly turned into panic.

I had no idea what to expect. I had heard about other colleague’s interviewing experiences, but they all seemed so different.

Some were in panel interviews, some had back-to-back one-on-one interviews, others had presentations, while others had a combination of all the above.

I didn’t even know where to start in my preparation. So, I did what many PhDs do. I memorized verbatim answers to a handful of interview questions.

I even reread my thesis to make sure I remembered every last detail of my research.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work. I went into the interview full of confidence and left completely deflated.

All my memorization failed me. My head was so jumbled, I couldn’t communicate clearly.

This is to say that a successful onsite interview isn’t just about preparedness. It’s about doing the right kind of preparation.

One Cheeky Scientist member shares their recent onsite interview victory and what they did to get there:

“I’m happy to announce that I have accepted a job as a Research Scientist! I’m also happy to share that I was offered the job during my final onsite interview!

What I learned from my onsite interviews:

1. It helps to be prepared with information on the company. I learned as much as I could through informational interviews, annual reports, and press releases.

3. Incorporate a hobby or interest at the end as part of answering “Tell me about yourself’. It opens up conversation and helps ease the initial nervousness.

3. Make sure to review the interview prep material on the Cheeky website. It is tremendously helpful.

Thank you again, Cheeky – I couldn’t have done it without you!”

Take Onsite Interviews Seriously – They’re Not Just A Formality

The hiring funnel is extremely narrow. On average, there are 250 applicants for every open position.

Yet only 6-10 candidates make it to the phone screen stage, and even fewer (usually 2 to 3) go through second or third-round interviews.

That means, if you’ve been invited for an onsite interview, you’ve made it to the end of the hiring funnel.

You’re one of only a few candidates that the company is seriously considering for the position.   

Onsite interviews shouldn’t be taken lightly. Although the number of competitors has decreased, your level of competition remains stiff.

There is still a decision to be made, and there is still time for self-sabotaging blunders to occur. In other words, companies are still assessing your fit – for the job and their company culture.

Even simple communication fouls can result in rejection at this late stage.  

According to Careerbuilder, 50% of hiring managers won’t hire someone who speaks negatively of their current employer while 33% of hiring managers won’t hire someone that provides vague answers.

Your body language also plays a major role in the decision-making process.

Among hiring managers surveyed, 44% report that not smiling or other negative body language is a huge pain-point for them.   

Companies take onsite interviews very seriously and so should you.

So today, I’ll cover 4 hacks that every PhD should apply before and during their onsite interviews.  

3 Onsite Interview Hacks That Result In A Job Offer

1. Understand the various types of interview structures and styles.

There are 6 types of interview styles that come standard with an onsite interview. Three are defined by their structure, while the other three are defined by their style.

Keep in mind that structures and styles can be mixed and matched.

The first is the traditional interview. This garden variety construct is a one-on-one that consists of questions intended to assess your skills, experience, and accomplishments.

The second format is the group interview. This is where a hiring team interviews several candidates at the same time.

While this interview structure is not commonly used for executive roles – high level technical positions – you should still mentally prepare for one.

Third, we have the panel interview. This type of interview consists of numerous interviewers – anywhere from two to five people.

Most companies will select interviewers from different departments. You may be interviewing for an R&D position, but you may have employees from marketing, finance, or otherwise on your panel.

Companies also often enlist those that you would be reporting to directly, and perhaps someone else that you would be working alongside, if offered the job.   

Also anticipate having someone from HR and someone from the leadership team on the panel.

While a panel may still focus somewhat on your technical skills, more often, the questions are geared toward behavioral questions.

They want to know how you handle working with people at various seniority levels and with different backgrounds. In other words, how you fit into a cross-functional environment.

The style-based interviews include the lunch/dinner interview, the strength-based interview, and the behavioral-based interview.

As you can imagine, the lunch/dinner interview is conducted during a meal with the team that you will be working with.

Many PhDs mistake these types of interviews as a social gathering. Sure, people may be more relaxed – they may not even be talking about work.

But realize this is still an interview.

Also realize that this isn’t a company’s attempt at schmoozing – you’re not there for a free meal. The goal is to see how you fit in with the team.

They also want to see how you behave after the ties are loosened. So, be sure to choose a light meal that doesn’t require a bib or a handful of napkins.

Also ensure that you don’t overindulge in alcohol. If you feel pressured to have a glass in hand, milk one throughout the meal.

A strength-based interview helps uncover what the job candidate is passionate about, as opposed to what they can do.

Companies employ this type of interview technique to make sure that the candidate is passionate about the job they’re interviewing for.

Typically, this interview is carried out by someone that you would be working alongside. They may act like your friend or confidant.

The goal is to get the candidate to put down their guard.

To gauge your loyalty to the position, they may say the company has a couple of other roles that might be a good fit, and then ask if you would be interested.

You may think you’re supposed to say ‘yes’, but refrain.

You want to ensure you show your dedication to the role. You can say, ‘I’d love to learn more about these roles; however, I’m really committed to this role because I have XYZ skills which are a perfect fit for the job’.

The last style-based interview, the behavioral interview, is used to test your self-awareness. It will typically consist of scenario type questions.

The main objective is to determine how you solve problems.

While you will only likely encounter one or two types of interview styles or structures at your onsite interview, you should mentally prepare for all types.

Don’t walk in blind – ask beforehand what the structure of the interview will be. This is easy to information to obtain from a recruiter, hiring manager, or your personal point of contact.

2. Do your research and prepare for common interview questions.

It may be self-evident, but preparedness is key to a successful interview.

To start, do your due diligence and research on the company. And I don’t just mean look at their website. Really dig in.

For instance, look to see if the company is undergoing any mergers or acquisitions, or if they’ve released any new products recently – all this information is publicly available.

Informational interviews are also an invaluable resource. By engaging with someone that works at the company, you’re able to better understand the inner workings of the company.

Bring up something that’s not public knowledge during your interview, and you’ll be sure to impress. Just make sure you’re not sharing something that is considered confidential.

Next, identify your salary expectation and walkaway number – meaning, the lowest salary you’re willing to accept.  

Research top and average salaries for the position, based on location.

You can expect interviewers to press you on salary. For instance, expect to answer the question, ‘If we offered you X amount right now, would you take it?

An example of an appropriate response is, ‘I will consider all reasonable offers’. You should never the be the first to throw a number out, and you should never provide a verbal agreement.

This is the perfect way to lock yourself into a low-balled salary.

You should also prepare answers to standard interview questions.

Ask yourself how you can help the company achieve their goals. Write down your answers. This will provide a framework that you can use when answering behavioral questions.

One of the most frequently asked questions is ‘Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

When employees ask about you, they’re not looking for your life story.

They want your elevator pitch. They want to know who you are both professionally and personally. They want to ensure that you’re qualified for the job.

Be specific and keep to two minutes or less. Emphasize why you’re uniquely qualified for the job.

Two other commonly asked questions include, ‘What would you change about your last job?’ and ‘What is your biggest weakness?’.

For the former, never bring up anything negative about your advisor, boss, or colleagues. Instead, talk about how you wish there was a larger training budget or more opportunities to move up.

Anything that insinuates your desire to learn, improve, and excel at your job.

For the latter, don’t ever say that you don’t have any weaknesses. First off, we all know that’s not true. Moreover, it makes you seem overconfident and unwilling to learn.

Be honest. If you tend to take on too much work, you could say, ‘My weakness is not delegating enough. I think I have to do everything myself’.

But don’t just end there.

Share how you’ve overcome this tendency and what positive results you’ve observed from doing so.

You can also explain that you’re a hard worker and you don’t like making other people do your work.

Overall, to have a successful onsite interview, it takes research and preparedness. Do this, and you’re sure to stand head and shoulders above the competition.

3. Anticipate the types of people you’ll encounter.

A successful onsite interview also takes a little EQ.

When speaking with employees, don’t assume everyone thinks or acts like you. Everyone if different.

However, most people fall into one of the four major categories of personality.

The four personality types are dominant, influential, stable, and conscientious.

Learn these four major personality types – it will help you recognize how people differ from you, and help you determine how best to communicate with them.

Let’s start with the dominant personality. Someone that falls into this category tends to be results-oriented. This means they’re often blunt in their communication.

They’re not interested in stories. They want to know the facts.

This type of interviewer tends toward behavioral questions during an interview. What have you achieved? How will you be effective in this position?

The next type is influential. Influential people love to talk. And unlike dominant people, they love stories. This is how they absorb information best.

So, if during an interview, this person goes on a tangent, let them. Don’t worry – you’ll be sure to get your airtime.

The STAR method of answering interview questions works best with this personality type. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.

In essence, the STAR method is a way of telling a story.

The third personality type is stable. Stable people tend to be someone in HR.

These are people that want to keep everything even keel. They get along with everyone and care most about balancing relationships.

Stable people tend to come across as low key. Don’t take this as being aloof.

What they’re looking for in you is balance. They want to know that you won’t rock the boat when you join a team. For them, being a team player is priority number one.

Lastly, we have the conscientious type. Some consider this personality type as meticulous. They tend to be very detail oriented.

You’ll often find this type of person in finance, accounting, or regulatory affairs. Any position that requires attention to detail.

A conscientious person will likely ask you questions that dive into the specifics of your experience – they want to not only know what you know, but they want to know how you got there.

When meeting your interviewers, or anyone else at the company, try not to overthink it. Simply ask yourself, ‘does this person focus on results, stories, relationships, or details?’

This will guide you in how best to interact and communicate with them.

Concluding Remarks

The key to a successful onsite interview is the right kind of preparation. It’s not just memorizing answers to standard interview questions. A large proportion of preparedness entails equipping yourself with knowledge. Know what types of interview styles and structure you can expect, find out as much as you can about the company and what standard salaries are for the position. Also understand that everyone is different. Those with dominant personalities may prefer someone that is results-oriented, while an influential person may seek out relationship-oriented candidates. Effective communication will look different depending on the person’s personality. An onsite interview is just as serious as any other. Take it seriously, prepare, and you can expect a job offer in the near future.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 three 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.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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