Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
“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
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.
- 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?”
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?”
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.
To learn more about this article, “The Job Was Mine Until These 5 Unexpected R&D Interview Questions,” 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.
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.
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