The Job Was Mine Until These 5 Unexpected R&D Interview Questions

“Why are you a good scientist?”

It’s safe to say I wasn’t expecting that question.

I assumed my interviewers would ask me about my publications and my past research.

I was expecting stock interview questions like, “What’s your biggest weakness?”

Or maybe, “Name a time when you made a significant mistake, and explain how you made amends.”

I had prepared for questions that you’re supposed to answer humbly – just not too humbly.

I knew that the best strategy for nailing an industry interview was to “turn the tables” on the interviewers by asking them a few questions.

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 the interviewers noticed.

I didn’t get the job…

Well, I didn’t get that job.

But after every failed interview, I sat in my car and jotted down every tough question that had been thrown at me.

Before long, I was well-versed in all of the big bad interview questions that employers use to test you.

What Employers Want From R&D Hires

You need to convince job recruiters that you can manage time and work independently

Undercover Recruiter found that 33% of interviewers take only 90 seconds to determine whether they’ll hire you.

As an employer myself these days, I can confirm that sometimes, 90 seconds–or less–really is all it takes

This does NOT mean you can drop your guard after the first 5% of the interview!

While some interviewers may privately decide to hire you almost right away, it’s still possible that you’ll struggle with a key question and change their mind for the worse.

Especially when the questions catch you off guard and you end up looking confused or unprepared.

Employers want R&D specialists who can manage their time effectively and work independently.

They want problem solvers, and they want to know what kind of scientist you are when push comes to shove.

Any scientist can work under smooth conditions.

Industry employers want a researcher who knows how to manage inevitable failures and turn dead ends into doorways.

Bloomberg research indicates that among industry employers, the most desired traits in job candidates include:

  • Strategic thinking
  • Leadership skills
  • Communication skills
  • Analytical thinking
  • Creative problem solving

So what does this mean for PhDs?

Specifically, what does it mean for R&D hopefuls heading into their on-site interviews?

5 Questions That Can Make Or Break R&D Interviews

The first thing to realize is that interviewers have an angle.

They want to replicate the challenges of the job using the medium of the interview itself.

They know R&D positions demand creative problem solving, and their questions are designed to act as problems for candidates to quickly solve.

Either that or screen candidates right out of the process altogether.

Don’t get caught in the interviewers’ trap.

You’re a PhD, which means you possess creativity, problem-solving skills, and analytical thinking processes.

Here are 5 of the toughest questions you might encounter during R&D interviews along with suggested answers.

Use them to build your own personalized responses and show employers you’re the PhD for the job.

1. “What could you bring to other companies?”

This question is an interviewer’s way of asking, “What could you bring to our company” without being too aggressive.

If you’re asked this question, tell them you can bring companies fresh ideas by listening and learning in order to see the bigger picture.

Tell them you’ll follow up on this by thinking outside the box to offer unique solutions to company problems with a positive attitude.

Essentially, you want to convey that you possess creativity, which is widely known throughout the industry as a key transferable skill.

Explain to the interviewers how you’ll use your natural creativity to do great things for any company.

2. “What is your definition of a good scientist – and how do ethics factor into it?”

Job interviewers want to feel confident about your ethics

For many PhDs, this two-part question is a real curveball.

It may not come in this precise form, but smart PhDs will recognize it and be ready for any shape it takes.

Answer by emphasizing the mature, analytical nature of your thought process.

You can say something like,

“I’m a good scientist because I think about the WHERE and HOW of my actions. Where will my actions lead me, relative to the achievement of my goals? And how will they ultimately help other people?”

You basically want the interviewers to understand that you put serious thought into your scientific activities.

Explain that you ask where those actions will place your community in the long term, and how they will serve important human needs.

But this question is not just about the answer itself (everyone will say that they are ethical).

It’s also about your mannerisms.

Interviewers ask this question partly because they want to see confidence reflected in your mannerisms.

They don’t want someone who second-guesses their own ethical intent – someone who can’t quite face up to the question and looks down or twiddles their thumbs.

So don’t be that person.

Instead, if they ask you this question, confidently look the interviewers in the eyes.

Without hesitating, confirm that you are definitely an ethical scientist.

Tell them that you know this because, while you don’t question your own ethics, you do question your results for consistency and reproducibility.

3. “How do you handle pressure?”

This question isn’t too surprising, but it’s still a bit out of the norm.

And if you don’t have a strong answer, it will look like you lack a plan for pressure situations – or worse, that you don’t know how to handle pressure at all.

Start by telling the interviewers that you know there are different types of intensity and pressure.

Say that you tend to handle pressure in general by staying logical, sticking to your plan, yet staying flexible at the same time.

Make sure they understand that when pressure hits, you keep a level head and emphasize proper time management.

They want to know that you focus on the priorities and work smarter, not harder.

Tell them that you apply this strategy when the going gets rough, and that you pride yourself on the ability to consistently perform under pressure.

Candidates who can’t confidently answer a question like this will not make the cut.

4. “If I gave you “X” materials and asked you “Y” questions, what experiments would you perform?”

Obviously, an interview question will be more specific than this.

It will likely contain specific technical information that relates your skillset and past research to the R&D needs of the company.

But no matter the specific content, the best way to answer this question is by saying something like:

“I would first work to understand the background of the research and problem. 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, as-of-yet-unattempted angles.”

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

Employers expect you to be innovative in your approach to their research requests, so if you want the job, you’d better emphasize that openness to new and improved approaches.

5. “What if things don’t work?”

Show the job interviewer that you are flexible and can move on when something does not work

As you answer this question, give an example of a previous time you applied your problem-solving skills.

It’s important not only to demonstrate your perseverance but to make it clear that you understand priorities.

If an experiment doesn’t work many times in a row, it’s a waste of resources to continue with it.

You have to pivot – change direction.

Show the interviewers 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.

Industry isn’t interested in theory and possibility.

The longer a bad experiment stays alive, the more money it costs the company.

You want to come off as relaxed and natural as you answer questions, even those you haven’t prepared for. The more you practice, the more natural your answers will be. So get comfortable answering these questions: “What could you bring to other companies?”; “What is your definition of a good scientist – and how do ethics factor into it?”; “How do you handle pressure?”; If I gave you [X] materials and asked you [Y] questions, what experiments would you perform?”; and “What if things don’t work?” By challenging yourself to think about your responses to these and other tough interview questions, you will put yourself ahead of other PhD job candidates who are just winging it.

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.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly

ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - 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. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and 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 About Photo

Similar Articles

Is Your Body Language Costing You The Job?

Is Your Body Language Costing You The Job?

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I ran into an old colleague a few days ago – literally. We actually collided going into the same coffee shop.  As luck would have it, we both had some time to kill, so we took a seat and started visiting. I told him all about the work I do, connecting PhDs with the strategies to get hired in industry.  He’d since gone on to work in human resources as a manager at one of the Global 500. We talked about things we wish we’d known after graduation – the importance of things like networking and creating a powerful resume…

5 Ways To Bomb A Perfectly Good Interview Presentation (And What Savvy PhDs Do Instead)

5 Ways To Bomb A Perfectly Good Interview Presentation (And What Savvy PhDs Do Instead)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

The first time I was asked to give a presentation as part of an onsite interview, I thought, ‘Well this should be a cake walk – I’ll just redo my defense presentation.’ I didn’t get the job. And I knew that mid-way through my presentation. To start, they had only scheduled 30 minutes for my presentation, yet the one I had prepared was an hour. I ended up speed talking my way through the entire thing. Mistake number one. Mistake number two was not appealing to my audience. My presentation was highly technical, but my audience included people from R&D,…

The PhD Cheat Sheet For Conquering An Onsite Interview

The PhD Cheat Sheet For Conquering An Onsite Interview

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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…

The Shrewd PhD's Guide For Answering Behavioral Interview Questions

The Shrewd PhD's Guide For Answering Behavioral Interview Questions

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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…

6 Ways To Crush The Competition During Your Next  Video Interview

6 Ways To Crush The Competition During Your Next Video Interview

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

During my first industry job search, I was doing everything I could to prepare for in-person interviews. I got together with friends and colleagues, asked them to act as the interviewer and give me the tough questions. I asked them to critique my body language, my speech, and even how I planned to dress.   I really thought I was ready. So, after my first successful phone screen, I was completely sidelined when they told me the next steps included a video interview. A video interview? I wasn’t ready for this! At first, I prepared for it as I would…

Don't Flub The Phone Screen (8 Expert Tips For PhDs)

Don't Flub The Phone Screen (8 Expert Tips For PhDs)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I don’t think I’m alone when I say I dread phone calls. I’m willing to spend hours online trying to fix a problem just to avoid the 5-to-10-minute phone conversation it would require to solve it.    If this sounds familiar, I have some bad news: phone calls are unavoidable during your industry job search. In fact, its common for the first interaction between a job candidate and an employer to take place over the phone. This is called the phone screen. When I started my industry job search, I had no idea that phone screens were part of the…

6 Colossal Interview Blunders That PhDs Routinely Make

6 Colossal Interview Blunders That PhDs Routinely Make

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

When I started my industry job search, I thought interviews were merely a formality. Walking in the door, I was sure I already had the job. But so many times, I walked into an interview full of confidence and walked out feeling hopeless and confused. I was clearly botching my interviews, but I had no way of knowing where I was going wrong. When I aired my frustration to a friend of mine in talent acquisition, she told me what hiring managers really care about. It was then that I realized my blunders. It wasn’t that I was unqualified or…

Master The Informational Interview (And How To Land A Referral)

Master The Informational Interview (And How To Land A Referral)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

By the time I started my industry job search, I was desperate. I was nearing the end of my PhD and I was consumed with what seemed like a million last-minute tasks – final experiments, last drafts, and defense presentations. I felt like I didn’t have the time to dedicate to my job search. And what little effort and time I did put into it was haphazard. My attempts involved repeatedly clicking the LinkedIn “Connect” button and uploading the same resume to any online job posting I could find. To make matters worse, I wasn’t even sure what job I…

5 Job Search Time Wasters That PhDs Should Stop Doing Immediately

5 Job Search Time Wasters That PhDs Should Stop Doing Immediately

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Feeling discouraged with your job search strategy? Have you uploaded hundreds of resumes without hearing back from employers? Are you starting to think you are not cut out for an industry position? This happens to many PhDs at some point in their transition journey.  They don’t know how to execute a correct job search strategy. So they waste lots of time doing things that don’t yield any result. Then get discouraged. An industry job search is maddening. As PhDs we are never trained rigorously on how to do it in academia. Most PhDs are never trained on how to execute…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.