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The Shrewd PhD’s Guide For Answering Behavioral Interview Questions

I went through three rounds of interviews and now the company is ghosting me! What did I do wrong?!

I’ve heard so many PhDs utter these words.

If you can relate, chances are, you’re not going into your later stage interviews fully prepared.

You may think that you’re in the clear or that late-stage interviews don’t matter as much. No matter the reason, just know that now is not the time to put your guard down.  

The key to nailing later stage interviews is anticipation and preparation.  

You must anticipate what types of questions you’ll get during an interview. You also must perfect your method of answering questions and go in prepared with questions of your own.

As one Cheeky Scientist recounts:

‘I had a second-round interview last week. Most of the questions they asked were behavioral in nature.

These are all quite common as I have been asked similar questions in the past.

Thanks to Cheeky, I anticipated that I would get questions along these lines, and so I prepared before my interview. I learned today that I am proceeding to the next round!’

How To Be Remarkable To Employers During Late-Stage Interviews

If you’ve spent any time on the job market, you know how grueling the interview process can be.

Most companies put job candidates through phone screens, several video interviews, and sometimes multiple rounds of in-person interviews.

That’s because with an average per hire cost of $4,700, hiring is expensive.

And the overall cost of hiring an employee goes far beyond the cost of interviewing – it also includes onboarding, training, and so much more.

In fact, between 2020 and 2021, companies spent $92 billion on training new hires.  

With this price tag, employers want to make sure they’re hiring the best candidates.

That’s why, on average, employers conduct 2-3 rounds of interviews with a candidate before choosing who they’re going to hire.

And if you’re doing your job search right, you’re going through this process with several companies at the same.

That means you’re doing a whole lot of interviewing. But as exhausting as it might be, you can’t take any step of the process for granted.

Especially your late-stage interviews.

At this stage, many PhDs mistakenly think that all the hard work is behind them and they can start to relax.

This just isn’t true.

You may have fewer candidates to compete with, but that doesn’t mean that the competition has dissipated.

You still have to prove that, out of a handful of candidates, you are the best person for the job.  

And, as I said before, the key to nailing your late-stage interviews is anticipation and preparation.

So today, I’m going to guide you through 3 tips that will be sure to impress your interviewers at all stages of the interviewing process.

3 Pro Tips For Answering PhD-Level Interview Questions

1. Know the 4 types of interview questions.

There are 4 categories of questions that you can expect in an interview: credibility, opinion-based, competency, and behavioral.

Credibility questions are typically the first type of question you’ll receive. They’re asked to get the job candidate talking. And just as the name suggests, they’re used to test your credibility.

These are questions that pertain to your resume. While they’ve already reviewed your resume prior to the interview, they want to hear from you regarding your work history and experience.

Some examples of credibility questions include: ‘Can you tell me a little about yourself?’, ‘How long did you work at company XYZ?’, and ‘Can you explain your responsibilities at company XYZ?’

It’s important that your answers remain consistent with what is written on your resume. That’s the credibility part.

You also want to ensure you have a well-practiced elevator pitch at the ready for the open-ended question ‘Can you tell me a little about yourself?’.  

Next, prepare to be asked a few opinion-based questions.

Opinion-based questions are asked to gauge your ability to fit into their company culture. They’re also used to assess your transferable skills.

Some examples of opinion-based questions include: ‘What do you think are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?’, ‘What type of leader do you prefer to work for?’, and ‘What would you do if faced with this type of situation?’

Ultimately, these types of questions are used to better understand how you view yourself as an employee and where you see yourself fitting in.

The next, and perhaps most dreaded, type of question you’ll get in an interview is behavioral. These are particularly popular for high paying jobs.

Company’s employ behavioral questions to see how you respond under stress – your reactions to high pressure situations.

There are two types of behavioral questions to look out for – negatively positioned and positively positioned ones.

Negatively positioned ones include questions like: ‘What do you do when you disagree with a client?’, ‘Tell me about a mistake you made at work and how you resolved it’, and ‘How do you handle a difficult situation with a supervisor?’

Negative questions are posed to see if you’re someone that is quick to shift blame.

They want to know, are you going to claim responsibility for your faults and mistakes, work with others to resolve issues, and improve yourself in areas of weakness?

Some examples of positively positioned questions include: ‘Can you describe a situation where you were able to persuade someone to see things your way?’, ‘When have you used good judgment and logic to solve a problem?’, and ‘What goals have you set for your self in the past year and how did you achieve them?

Positive questions offer you an opportunity to speak to your strengths and abilities. Don’t shy away from it.

Claim full ownership of your successes and accomplishments.

The last type of question you can expect is the competency question. The goal of these questions is straightforward – they want to know if you have the required skills for the job.

Some examples of competency questions include: ‘Can you tell me a time you used XYZ skill?’, ‘Can you give me an example of when you did XYZ?’, and ‘Can you think of a time you were stuck in your research? If so, how did you overcome it?’

Overall, interview questions are used to assess three major things: your critical thinking, judgement and decision-making, and your problem-solving skills.

You want to prove yourself capable in all three areas. So, keep these in mind when answering questions.

2. Master the STAR method of answering interview questions.  

When preparing for an interview, many PhDs make the mistake of memorizing their answers to specific interview questions.

The problem is you can’t possibly anticipate all the questions that you’ll be asked. Simply memorizing your answers will also come across as robotic and awkward.

Instead, prepare for interviews by practicing a method for answering questions rather than practicing responses verbatim.

The most tried and true method for answering interview questions is the STAR method. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.

To start, you have to set the scene. Employers don’t just want to know what your experience is – they also want to know where you acquired it. This is the situation.

Next, describe the task. Explain the goal you were trying to accomplish or a problem that you encountered.

Then, lay out how you addressed the problem or accomplished the goal. This is the action. This part of STAR is critical – it provides employers a glimpse of how you’ll act on the job.

This is the time to show that you are an effective problem-solver, and not someone to shy away from a challenge.

And lastly, explain the results of your actions. What was the outcome and how did you get there? Think of this as your punchline. It should be clear and powerful.

Employers want to know that you can achieve results that are important to industry.

Let’s say you were asked, ‘What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced, and how did you overcome it?’.

To answer, you could say ‘In my second year of grad school, I began working on a collaborative project that hadn’t made much headway. To move the project forward, I set up a weekly check-in where everyone involved shared updates, resolved issues, and set future timelines. As a result, we were able to identify some of the pain-points which, in the end, resulted in the completion of the project. Not only that, but we also came in 10% below budget.’

When answering, keep in mind that it’s not the time to portray yourself as an unflawed superhero. This will only make you sound phony.

Sharing an honest problem that you’ve encountered will create rapport with employers and increase your credibility.

Overall, the STAR method helps highlight your skills in a way that’s relatable. Practice it, apply it in your interviews, and you’ll be sure to make a lasting impression.

3. Ask potential employers impactful questions.

During an interview, you will likely be asked if you have any questions for them – usually towards the end of the interview.

This is your time to clarify the job description and get a better understanding of how the company operates.

It’s also their time to assess your level of interest and how well you understand the job and/or the company. In a way, it’s another competency question.

A few examples of structural questions you could ask include: ‘In this role, who will I be reporting to? Who will be reporting to me?’, ‘How are things organized within the company?’, and ‘Has the company undergone any recent mergers or acquisitions?’

It’s also good to ask future facing questions like: ‘What emerging markets is the company getting into?’, and ‘What are the corporate goals for the next year?’

This shows that you’re interested in the future success of the company.

It’s also good to ask about the career trajectory of someone in the position. This is not only invaluable information, but it also signals that you’re serious about the job – that you’re in it for the long haul.

Moreover, asking questions in a way that places the company in a good light always creates a positive impact. You just want to be careful not to sound like you’re trying to kiss up to them.

For example, you could ask: ‘I read the overall growth of the company has doubled in the last five years, making this an opportune time to join the company. In your opinion, how has R&D been affected by this growth?’

This shows that you’ve done your research on the company, that you recognize their accomplishments, and that you understand that this can result in some growing pains.

Overall, ask insightful questions that show employers that you understand how industry operates – that you know what is most valuable to the company.

You also want to show them that you are thinking in terms of the future and a long-term career with them.  

Concluding Remarks

The interview process is exhausting. For every job you interview for, you can expect to speak to someone at the company at least 3 times before they make a decision. And while this is both exhausting and time consuming, you shouldn’t take any stage of the interview process for granted. To land your ideal job in industry, you must impress employers at every step along the way. Especially during your late-stage interviews. To prepare, you should anticipate the types of questions you will be asked. Each interview is unique, but there are 4 major types of questions you can expect to receive during an interview. Learn these. You must also hone your responses using the STAR method. Memorizing your responses to standard questions won’t do the trick. And lastly, you should go into your interview equipped with insightful well-researched questions of your own. Overall, a solid foundation in interview Q & A will guarantee you stand heads and shoulders above the competition.  

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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