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The Top 6 Most Difficult R&D Interview Questions Every PhD Should Know

Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

Panel of interviewers. 6 Most Difficult R&D Interview Questions Ph.D.s Should Know. CheekyScientist.com

Why are you a good scientist? Wait, What?

I wasn't expecting that question.

I thought they were going to ask me about my publications and my past research.

At worst I thought they’d ask me a trick question like what’s your biggest weakness?

You know, the kind of question that you’re supposed to answer humbly but not too humbly.

Like…

My biggest weakness is I work too hard or something like that.

I was expecting a few of these questions and I was expecting to ask a few of my own questions.

I knew that the best strategy for nailing any industry interview was to turn the tables on the interviewers and interview them.

How can I best fit in with the culture at your company?

What are the advantages of working here versus at another company?

But, my plan didn’t last very long.

As soon as I sat down the hiring manager started hitting me with really tough questions that I didn’t know how to answer.

I fumbled through them and they noticed. As a result…

My one chance to make a good first impression failed.

How To Handle Tough Interview Questions

facing-tough-job-interview-questionsKlodjan Stafa was in the middle of a postdoc at the University of California in San Diego and was starting to feel like he was on a dead end career track.

He felt like there wasn’t a future for him in academia anymore.

The problem was he didn’t know how to do anything else.

Klodjan knew there were industry jobs available but he didn’t know how to find them or how to apply to them.

He didn’t know where to start so he just kept doing the only thing he knew how to do—go to University networking events and talk to the same people over and over again.

After months and months of this, Klodjan decided to get help.

He joined the Cheeky Scientist Association and within a few weeks got the job of his dreams as a Senior Scientist at Estée Lauder Companies in New York making six figures.

When a Cheeky Scientist Associate gets the industry position of their choice, we interview him or her to see which specific Association techniques they used to get hired.

We share all of these techniques with the other Associates and occasionally share a few of them publically too.

Difficult R&D Panel Interview Questions for PhDs. Cheeky Scientist.com

When we asked Klodjan which Association takeaways he benefited from the most, he said…

The Cheeky Scientist Association training videos were extremely valuable. I learned everything I needed to know by watching them.

I learned how to make a very strong industry resume.

I also learned exactly which keywords to put on my resume so that hiring managers and recruiters would respond to it.

The Association really helped me improve my LinkedIn profile too. I learned how to present my experience and skills in a way that attracted recruiters to me.

After I got my new job, I asked the hiring managers for feedback on why they chose my resume and they said it was because of the way I presented my experience and skills.

I used the STAR method as well as some advanced techniques.

The funny thing is I wouldn’t have known how to do any of this without joining the Association.

6 Interview Questions PhDs Need To Know

Difficult R&D Panel Interview Questions for PhDs. Cheeky Scientist.comNext, we asked Klodjan to describe the interview processes that he went through.

Among others, Klodjan interviewed for Roche and Estée Lauder Companies before deciding on the latter.

We were surprised to learn about the tough questions Klodjan was asked and wanted to share them with all PhDs applying to industry jobs.

The following questions are the toughest ones he was asked and how he successfully answered them (successfully because he received several lucrative offers from great companies).

1. What could you bring to other companies?

 One of the companies who interviewed me asked me this question and I thought it was clever.

It was their way of asking me “what could you bring to our company” without seeming too aggressive.

I told them that I would bring other companies fresh ideas by first listening and learning to see the whole picture and then by thinking outside the box to offer unique solutions to their problems with a positive attitude.

So in a few words, I would bring creativity and eagerness to do great things to other companies.

2. Why are you a good scientist?

This was a tough one but I nailed it because I made the interviewer smile and answer my follow-up questions.

My answer was simply, “I’m a good scientist because I think about WHERE and HOW my actions are going to end up in terms of achieving a goal that will ultimately help other people and myself in the long-term, not just fulfill my own personal short-term needs.”

3. Are you an ethical scientist?

If you get this question, my advice is to confidently look the interviewers in the eyes without hesitating and confirm that you are definitely an ethical scientist because you do question your work over and over again for consistency and reproducibility.

You should of course do this before saying it.

4. How do you handle pressure?

What a great question!

Thanks to the Association’s training videos I was expecting a question similar to this and said, “There are different types and intensities of pressure but in general I handle it by staying logical, sticking with my plans while staying flexible, and managing my time better and better until I see the project through to the end.”

5. If I gave you XYZ cells and asked you XYZ questions—what experiments would you do?

The above question is a generic version of a question I was asked about keratinocytes.

The answer I gave is the same you should give but with specific technical information that relates your past research and skillsets to the research needs of the company.

No matter the research, the best way to field this question is by saying something like, “I would first work to understand the background of the problem and research. I would check to see what has already been discovered before jumping in and making quick and erroneous conclusions. At the same time, I would try to see the problem from different, untried perspectives.”

While it’s good to corroborate findings, it’s also important to communicate that you will be eager to try new angles.

6. What if things don’t work?

This is a question where you can give an example of when you used problem solving.

Give a concrete example from your previous work of a time you successfully fixed something that wasn't working.

BUT remember that it's not only important to show your perseverance, you need to make it clear that you understand priorities.

If the same experiment doesn't work many times in a row it's a waste of resources to keep going. Pivot.

Change.

Show that you can move on from something that doesn't work and focus on the next project.

In industry, a dead end project will be dropped ASAP because the longer it stays alive the more money it costs the company.

Difficult R&D Panel Interview Questions for PhDs. Cheeky Scientist.comBy challenging yourself to think about how you would respond to these and other tough interview questions, you will put yourself ahead of other PhD job candidates who are just winging it. The more you practice, the more natural your answers will be.

If you practice answering tough interview questions long enough, you’ll come off as relaxed and natural answering any question, even those you haven’t prepared for.

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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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Prashant Bharadva

    Nice post sir… Very Informative. Thanks for sharing

  • Harvey Delano

    I’m really glad I came across this article. There are questions on here that definitely would have stumped me, but you’ve given us razor-sharp thinking on how to approach each one. Even in the ones where you’ve left some blanks for us to fill in, this elevates the whole level of interviewing to a new level, at least for me.

  • Kathy Azalea

    It’s really good to hear Klodjan’s experience in answering all those questions. Some of them are totally unexpected, especially questions like, “What can you bring other companies?” I’m afraid that one would have confused me enough to throw off my confidence, and then the rest of the interview would’ve gone down the drain. This is the benefit of reading this blog. Thanks!

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    I like the way you’re thorough about showing an appreciation for the whole body of research from the past experiments to possible new ones that haven’t been thought of yet. This gives a certain depth to the answers that go above and beyond, “Oh, yeah, I’ve done this and that.” It really communicates how you think and how responsible you feel for the quality of the work. That is something I’ll try to roll into what I’m currently doing on these interviews.

  • Sonja Luther

    I like the way this whole article is structured, starting with the questions that throw you off guard and ending with some really concrete answers we can use in our individual repertoires, modified in a way that makes sense for us. The questions themselves are challenging and make you realize that the game is always changing. It’s up to us individuals to keep up.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I think the questions about skill (“Why are you a good scientist?) and about ethics dovetail nicely and prove that beyond the technology, we have to have transferable traits that are important in every job. Anyone can fill out pages of so-called findings without making sure that all the protocols were followed properly. Anyone can cut corners to make the work look right, even if there were some gaps that would make the findings questionable. But, employers need to know that we not only have the skills to do the work, but that we care enough to do it right and cover all the bases. This, to me, is one of the joys of a scientific profession. I really want to know the truth, and through the scientific method (done properly and thoroughly), we get to discover it.

  • Julian Holst

    I wouldn’t expect them to ask such a blunt question about ethics, so this just goes to show you that you have to prepare for anything and everything. Thanks for sharing your experience, Klodjan.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    You find all kinds of bizarre questions in the process of interviewing. No question, some of these are most unexpected. One purpose of the interview is to make sure you can think on your feet and spring back no matter what comes your way, so it’s logical that they would try to think of things to throw you off a bit.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    I hadn’t heard of the STAR method before reading this article, and I can see how important it is to keep the discussion and networking going, as expectations change. From my vantage point, although standards for finding creative and well-compensated work were always high, they’re tighter now.

  • Theo

    Very valuable info.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I think the willingness to keep up on this kind of learning is a testament to one’s character. Staying prepared, keeping your timeline up-to-date as your work changes, staying in touch with networking friends — all these add up to a clear and well-rounded level of preparation. Even after being in a good position for an extended period of time, it never hurts to stay in touch with contacts in case something changes.

  • Mia

    How to answer the interview question about the lack of experience or skills?
    I am really confused that the hiring manager ask questions like :”do you have the xxx skill”. why asking a skill that are not list on the resume, which they can tell from the resume directly.
    What should i respond to this kind of question?

  • Lauren

    Did anyone else notice that the answer to Questions #5 and 6 are the same??? What would be an example of a good answer to #6 What if things don’t work?

    • Enric Milà Vilalta

      I have noticed!
      my answer would be:
      1.- Don´t hesitate, don’t make a big thing out of it and stayed focused
      2.- Check again all parameters and controls to know where there is an error (if there is one), add more controls if necessary.
      3.- Try to understand why it doesn’t work (properties of material used, cell line has very low amount a specific marker/organelle you are studying, etc…)