How PhDs Can Use The STAR Method To Ace Your Industry Interview

I am happy to announce that I have accepted a position as a Scientist / Analytical Team Lead.

I have been wanting to write a transition story of my own for so long….so here it is!

I know I probably didn’t do everything right, made mistakes, had doubts, and my confidence faltered many times…..but I kept on pushing. And I am so glad I did.

I knew that I wanted to have a job with a dual role, that of a bench-scientist, and also having responsibilities of a project to manage.

My transition to this job took about 8 months.

So there’s that big ugly gap on my resume that I was so afraid of, but it didn’t even matter in the end.

I started polishing my resume and linkedIn profile, attending as many networking events as I could in the area, connecting to people on LinkedIn, setting up informational interviews.

I attended a networking and made a few valuable contacts, one of whom gave me his email and asked me to send in my resume.

I reached out to him and expressed my interest in a couple of positions.

This lead to an HR phone screen.

These were the HR screening questions:

  1. Tell me about your background
  2. How does your experience fit into the job description
  3. What kind of challenges do you expect in this role
  4. How did you hear about our company and this position specifically
  5. What is your flexibility with a start date
  6. Do you have any travel restrictions
  7. Do you need visa sponsorship
  8. What are your salary expectations?

The phone screen went well, but I kept waiting to hear back about the next steps.

I kept following up every 2 to 3 weeks and finally 2 months later, I had a phone interview with the Group Leader who was also the hiring manager for the position.

This was a 30 min phone call where the hiring manager described in detail what their department does, what the position entails, and asked me the following questions:

  1. How do you think your experiences relate to the job
  2. Tell me more about your start-up industry experience
  3. What were your job responsibilities
  4. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years
  5. Do you have any questions for me (we had already spoken for about 20 mins or so, so I asked him 3-4 questions I had already prepared to ask).

I kept following up every 2 to 3 weeks, for about 3 months, but didn’t hear anything about an on-site interview.

They never dropped me from the candidacy, but I learned that for several reasons their hiring process was going slower than usual.

I had to have patience and it was hard, and painful.

During this time, I kept networking elsewhere for other positions.

Four months after the initial phone interview, I decided to reach out again and asked whether there was any progress to bring me on-site for the position.

Another month went by and I was able to reach out again to the hiring managers who told me that they thought I was overqualified for the 1st position, and that they wanted me to have another phone interview for a higher-level position that required a PhD.

This was really exciting news, but slightly nerve-wracking as well!

This second phone interview, for this PhD level job, was more detailed than the first one.

They asked me some behavioral questions such as:

  1. Tell me how you would fit into this role
  2. Do you have any project management experience
  3. How would I go about setting up some assays and
  4. Some more detailed technical questions about assay development.

Within 3 days of my phone interview, they called me to schedule an on-site interview!

At the on-site interview I gave a 45 minute talk and had 7 one-on-one interviews (30 mins each) with the various members of the group, the director, other team-leaders, and lunch with the scientists on the team.

Since this job also has an Analytical Team Lead function, which requires working with people from many different departments, I was also asked some classic behavioral questions such as:

  1. Have you had any conflicts, how did you handle them,
  2. Have you had any time management problems, how did you handle those

I used the STAR method all the way for these questions.

I had a great feeling after I came home from the interview!

Within 4 days of my on-site, they offered me the job verbally with a detailed offer on salary, benefits, bonus, holidays, etc., and the following business day I received the written offer!

It was a hard and emotional process, waiting game, and frustrations.

But now it is behind me. And it will be for all of you too, I truly believe it!

Why You Need To Practice And Prepare Intensely For An Industry Interview

You are being judged from the moment an employer learns about you as a potential candidate.

Before they even speak to you, they will check your resume and your online profiles.

But you are a PhD, so you look great on paper!

You are highly qualified and skilled.

But, the interview is the key next step, because employers don’t want to hire you just based on your skills, they need to know that you will work well at their company.

And according to Undercover Recruiter, 33% of bosses know within 90 seconds of an interview if they are going to hire someone or not.

You must be ready as soon as you set foot onto the company’s property.

They will immediately start to evaluate your fit for the company culture.

You must be ready to showcase your best self in interviews.

Which means you need to practice.

Out loud.

With other people.

And you need to practice the right way to answer questions – using the STAR method.

Workable recently reported that on average, a company will interview between 13-19 per hire.

You need to demonstrate that you are the best candidate out of those 13-19 people.

Being well-versed in the STAR method and highly prepared for your interview is the best strategy to show you are the best candidate.

5-Step STAR Method Strategy For Answering Behavioral Interview Questions

As a PhD you are comfortable talking about technical details and intricate data results.

But this is not going to earn you a ‘win’ at an interview.

You need to demonstrate your soft skills and your technical prowess in a way that is relatable.

And the way to do that is with the STAR method.

Here is the 5-step strategy for executing the STAR method as a strategy for answering behavioral interview questions…

1. Situation – set the scene and describe the problem.

When answering interview questions you need to tell your interviewers a story.

Stories are how we, as humans, best understand the world around us.

People will forget facts, but they will remember stories.

So you need to tell a story.

This doesn’t mean you should make make up a fake story, it just means that you need to use storytelling to make your point.

And the first part of the story you need to set up is the context.

The situation – the who, what, where and when of your story.

Describe the situation you were in so that your interviewers can understand what you were doing, feeling, and thinking.

You want it to be clear what your role was in the situation and that an overall picture has been painted.

Remember, you have complete control over the context that you give your interviewers for the story so choose your words carefully, and realize that this context will influence the rest of your interview.

Here two examples of how you can describe the situation when using the STAR method for interview questions:

Question: “Tell me about a time you had to deal with conflict.”

Situation Answer: “During the 2nd year of my PhD I was working on a project where I was collaborating with a lab at a different university. We were at a pivotal moment in the project and were deciding which direction the project should go.”

Question: “What is your biggest weakness?”

Situation Answer: “During the third year of my PhD, I started working on xyz, the final part of my project. I was confident in my skills so far, so I was excited for this next phase. But it involved using a technique that was brand new to me.”

Setting up the context, the situation, is just the first part of the story.

Once you have set the scene the next phase is to define the specific Task that you need to accomplish.

2. Task – explain the goal you were trying to accomplish and the why.

The task portion of the STAR method is where you will introduce the problem that you are trying to solve in the story.

In every story you tell using the STAR method there needs to be a problem or a challenge that you faced and overcame.

You want show your interviewers that you can work through a variety of problems.

No one is perfect and you should not try to pretend to be perfect in an interview, this will only make you look like you are not being honest.

This is why the STAR method works so well, it gives you the opportunity to present a problem or challenge that you faced, which makes you relatable, and then gives you the opportunity to describe how you overcame that struggle, which makes you seem resilient.

Employers want to hire relatable and resilient people, the STAR method allows you to demonstrate those traits.

Here are the two examples from point 1, adding in the task part of the answer:

Question: “Tell me about a time you had to deal with conflict.”

Situation Answer: “During the 2nd year of my PhD I was working on a project where I was collaborating with a lab at a different university. We were at a pivotal moment in the project and were deciding which direction the project should go.”

Task Answer: “My lab and the other lab had very different ideas about what the next steps of the project should be. Discussions were quite heated and I could see that both my PI and the other PI were emotionally invested in what they wanted. It looked as though the project was about to fall apart and the environment was very tense.”

Question: “What is your biggest weakness?”

Situation Answer: “During the third year of my PhD, I started working on xyz, the final part of my project. I was confident in my skills so far, so I was excited for this next phase. But it involved using a technique that was brand new to me.”

Task Answer: “As soon as I started researching this new technique I knew that I was out of my depth. I was confused and struggled to understand. I started to turn experiments but the data I was getting was not good. It was frustrating, but I wanted to prove that I could do this.”

Once the problem has been described you must tell the parts of your story that lead to the resolution.

Never leave a story ending with the challenge.

3. Action – what steps did YOU take to solve the problem.

After you have described the challenge or task to your interviewers move on to the section where you tell them what you did to solve the problem or overcome the challenge.

Take ownership over the actions that you took.

Don’t blame other people for the problems, instead focus on what you did specifically to reach the desired goal.

This part of the STAR method is very important because it shows the potential employer an example of how you will act when on the job.

Give an example that demonstrates that you would be a great person to work alongside.

Here are the 2 examples from above with the action portion added in:

Question: “Tell me about a time you had to deal with conflict.”

Situation Answer: “During the 2nd year of my PhD I was working on a project where I was collaborating with a lab at a different university. We were at a pivotal moment in the project and were deciding which direction the project should go.”

Task Answer: “My lab and the other lab had very different ideas about what the next steps of the project should be. Discussions were quite heated and I could see that both my PI and the other PI were emotionally invested in what they wanted. It looked as though the project was about to fall apart and the environment was very tense.”

Action Answer: “Before the next meeting of our labs, I dug into the data. I thought that both of our labs would respond a data driven decision. I put together a small presentation with all the relevant data clearly laid out. I took this to the meeting so that we could consistently return to the data when discussing what to do next.”

Question: “What is your biggest weakness?”

Situation Answer: “During the third year of my PhD, I started working on xyz, the final part of my project. I was confident in my skills so far, so I was excited for this next phase. But it involved using a technique that was brand new to me.”

Task Answer: “As soon as I started researching this new technique, I knew that I was out of my depth. I was confused and struggled to understand. I started to turn experiments but the data I was getting was not good. It was frustrating. I wanted to prove that I could do this.”

Action Answer: “I kept struggling with the new technique. I realized that I was wasting time with my stubbornness. I decided to reach out for some help. I found a colleague who had work with xyz technique a lot and asked if they would provide some training and guidance for me.”

As a PhD, you are taught to think as a collective when it comes to your projects and results.

But in your interview it’s important that you use the first person when describing what you did and how your actions lead to the desired result.

4. Result – what was the outcome and how did you make it happen.

The last part of the STAR method is the result.

Just like how your resume should have strong results, your interview answers must lead to a clear and powerful result.

Employers want to see that you understand how important results are and that you know how to achieve them.

Make sure that this final part of your story is very clear.

You don’t want to have an anti-climactic STAR method answer, bring it home with this section and own the result that you help achieve.

Here are the 2 examples above with the result section added in:

Question: “Tell me about a time you had to deal with conflict.”

Situation Answer: “During the 2nd year of my PhD I was working on a project where I was collaborating with a lab at a different university. We were at a pivotal moment in the project and were deciding which direction the project should go.”

Task Answer: “My lab and the other lab had very different ideas about what the next steps of the project should be. Discussions were quite heated and I could see that both my PI and the other PI were emotionally invested in what they wanted. It looked as though the project was about to fall apart and the environment was very tense.”

Action Answer: “Before the next meeting of our labs, I dug into the data. I thought that both of our labs would respond a data driven decision. I put together a small presentation with all the relevant data clearly laid out. I took this to the meeting so that we could consistently return to the data when discussing what to do next.”

Result Answer: During the meeting, instead of each lab bringing their emotions into the discussion, I directed us to the data and we focused our attention on the data. By the end of the meeting we were able to agree on how the project should move forward. This was such a change from the beginning and it allowed the project to continue. The project proved to be a great success and we ended up publishing two papers from the collaboration.”

Question: “What is your biggest weakness?”

Situation Answer: “During the third year of my PhD, I started working on xyz, the final part of my project. I was confident in my skills so far, so I was excited for this next phase. But it involved using a technique that was brand new to me.”

Task Answer: “As soon as I started researching this new technique I knew that I was out of my depth. I was confused and struggled to understand. I started to turn experiments, but the data I was getting was not good. It was frustrating. I wanted to prove that I could do this.”

Action Answer: “I kept struggling with the new technique. I realized that I was wasting time with my stubbornness. I decided to reach out for some help. I found a colleague who had work with xyz technique a lot and asked if they would provide some training and guidance for me.”

Result Answer: “The training I got from my colleague was so helpful. They helped me understand the technique and provided guidance for me as I continued to work on xyz. I was able to master the technique and eventually I trained several other people in my lab on the technique. This allowed the lab to continue using xyz and investigating the project even after I graduated.”

When describing your result, do your best to relate the outcome to industry.

This doesn’t mean you need to show that your actions create a profit or a new product, but just think about a company when you are discussing your result.

5. Practice, out loud, in front of other people.

The final thing you need to do is practice!

If you really want to succeed in your interview you need to practice a lot.

You can write down your answers to common questions as a starting point, but this is not enough.

Once you have some STAR method stories ready, practice them out loud.

Say the answers to yourself, you may even want to do it in the mirror so that you can see your body language and facial expressions as you talk.

Next, and most importantly, set up mock interviews with your friends, family or colleagues.

Choose people who will give you honest and constructive feedback.

Practicing with another person is so important.

There are extra nerves that go along with having to talk in front of someone else, and with mock interviews you can prepare yourself for those nervous feelings.

Other people might also ask you questions that you hadn’t thought of before and you will become even more prepared for a real interview.

The interview is one of the toughest parts of your job search. It’s a nerve-wracking process where you have to meet strangers and prove that they should hire you. So to do well in an interview you must prepare thoroughly, and using the STAR method is the best way to prepare your interview question answers. To use the STAR method follow this process, situation – set the scene and describe the problem, task – explain the goal you were trying to accomplish and the why, action – what steps did you take to solve the problem, result – what was the outcome and how did you make it happen and finally practice, out loud, in front of other people.

To learn more about How PhDs Can Use The STAR Method To Ace Your Industry Interview, 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.

Join Cheeky Scientist Association
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly

Similar Articles

How to Conduct An Informational Interview Like A Boss

How to Conduct An Informational Interview Like A Boss

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

When I first decided to do an informational interview, I was nervous.  I’d sit down in front of my computer and look over my dozens of questions. When the time came I clicked on the zoom link and waited for my interviewee to come on. I was always early. I thought that would help me prepare and become less anxious.  However; the waiting always made me less confident. And when the informational interview started, I fumbled through my questions.  The conversation was rigid, forced and awkward silences made up the majority of the time. At the end of every informational…

5 Onboarding Steps For PhDs That Protect Your New Industry Job

5 Onboarding Steps For PhDs That Protect Your New Industry Job

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

Onboarding expert and contributing author Sarah Smith, PhD, shares her company onboarding experience. The day I had been waiting for was finally here. My first day in industry. I had been looking for a job for nearly a year, and this one seemed like a great fit for me. I couldn’t wait to get started…But when I showed up, no one was prepared for me to be there. I had no desk. One of my coworkers seemed very annoyed that they had to find a random table for me to sit at. I didn’t have a computer either. I was…

Recessions Are Tough - 3 Ways PhDs Can Be Tougher

Recessions Are Tough - 3 Ways PhDs Can Be Tougher

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Let’s talk about frustration.  I’m talking about the frustration of a rejection in your job search.  Many PhDs are experiencing this kind of frustration in their post-pandemic job search. It’s important for you to understand that Cheeky Scientist has been through this before.  Cheeky Scientist actually came out of the financial crash of 2008 when we were in a recession.  I can tell you firsthand that the mood of the public changes during a recession.  There are fewer jobs.  There’s a greater sense of urgency.  This causes people to get more rejections. And rejection leads to frustration.  So, how can…

7 Video Resume Failures That Make Employers Press “Pause”

7 Video Resume Failures That Make Employers Press “Pause”

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

My very first video resume was embarrassing. At the time, I thought it was pretty good. I had some music going in the background because it seemed like a way to add personality. Bad idea. After reviewing my recording, I noticed there was also a dog barking somewhere in the background. On top of that, the lighting wasn’t very good in the room where I filmed myself. I had shadows on my face, and it made my eyes look a little sunken… However, this seemed fine to me – after all, I was applying for a PhD-level position not a…

5 Ways To Protect Your Informational Interview And Get A Job Referral

5 Ways To Protect Your Informational Interview And Get A Job Referral

By: Aditya Sharma, PhD

The world is your canvas. What does that even mean? I was a PhD looking for an industry job, and that was the kind of advice I used to get. But this one I really struggled with: You’re a PhD – you can do anything. Hearing this sentiment over and over again was not empowering for me, but infuriating. Why? Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Sure, I could do anything…  But that still left me very lost. The tide shifted when I discovered informational interviews. An informational interview is when you contact a stranger and ask…

You're a PhD Who Revealed Your Salary. You Won't Like What Happens Next...

You're a PhD Who Revealed Your Salary. You Won't Like What Happens Next...

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

Your salary should always remain a secret from interviewers and potential employers. Contributing author Sarah Smith, PhD, explains why… And how PhDs can deflect questions about their current salary. After 2 postdocs at 2 different universities, I realized something… I didn’t enjoy what I was doing anymore. The academic career wasn’t what I had envisioned. All I did was sit at a desk and work on my research in isolation. I had lost my passion – my future in academia was painfully limited. So at a networking event, I took a deep breath and awkwardly introduced myself to a prominent…

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

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

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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…

7 Top Job Skills That PhDs Can Leverage To Get Hired Fast

7 Top Job Skills That PhDs Can Leverage To Get Hired Fast

By: Surayya Taranum

The key to making a successful transition to industry is through developing and highlighting your transferable skills. And yes, as a PhD you already have the transferable skills you need for your future career. Now you must learn to leverage these skills to build a career in industry. Your potential employer knows that you have deep technical skills in your field, what they need to see is that you have the ‘soft-skills’ they are looking for in their next hire. You need to show to potential employers that you are a well-rounded individual with the transferable skills needed to be…

5 Ways PhDs Sabotage Their Own Job Interviews

5 Ways PhDs Sabotage Their Own Job Interviews

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

If you’ve been selected for an interview, the employer knows you have the skills to do the job. But the interview is the last step - the point where they weed out candidates they don’t want. It’s your final opportunity to shine, so look at your interview strategy. Is it time to change things up?

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.

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the top 20 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.