The Top 6 Most Difficult R&D Interview Questions Every PhD Should Know
Written by Isaiah Hankel, PhD
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.
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
Klodjan 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.
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
Next, 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.
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.
By 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.