My Top 6 Ph.D. to Industry Job Interview Tips & Advice

I honestly didn’t find industry job interviews to be any more difficult or complicated compared to the resume and cover letter prep steps.

For the most part, industry job interviews were no-fuss conversations. Like with the other steps in the job application process, if you actually understand the point of that step and perform reasonably well, it’ll usually work out.

Sure, there will be some cases where the position gets filled before you interview, and there will be other candidates. From my experience, the interview wasn’t necessarily where I struck out and I was almost always asked to return for the next step in the process.

There were way more instances where I turned down the job process after an interview, rather than them turning me down after an interview.

Interviews are a way for the recruiter or the company to clarify multiple aspects about who you are as an applicant and potential employee. When I first started trying to transition into industry from academia, those “aspects” weren’t really clear to me.

I’m not a career coach or expert, but I hope that my thoughts can help you get a better sense of what to expect in industry job interviews!

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2 Types of Industry Job Interview Questions

Before I get into the list of 6 tips below, I wanted to go over the 2 types of interview questions that you should be aware of.

After some experience, and continuously getting asked the same types of questions in interviews, I realized that they are all looking for the same things and trying to confirm the same things. I personally and mentally put them into 2 major categories:

1. Qualifications Questions

These questions are really straightforward and probably what you’d imagine a lot of the interview time to consist of. It’s true these questions are super straightforward, but the interview doesn’t necessarily consist of just these types of questions!

With these questions, they will want to confirm you are telling the truth in your resume when it comes to the skills, and make sure you are technically qualified to do the job!

Some “Qualifications” questions include:

  • “Tell me about this project on your resume.”
  • “Tell me about your responsibilities at (workplace).”
  • “Give me an example of a time when you (technical outcome)”
  • “Tell me about your experiences with (job-related technique).”

It helps to keep answers succinct with good, concrete examples and quantifications of outcomes. These questions are definitely not in “storytime” territory, so give them that gratification that they’re looking for (that they picked the right candidate to interview) and answer directly with clear evidence.

2. Behavioral Questions

These questions help the interviewer get a sense of how you see and deal with various situations. These questions also reveal to them how you see yourself. Some “Behavioral” questions include:

  • “Tell me about a time you failed/dealt with a stressful situation/had a conflict with your boss and how you handled it.”
  • “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” (Ugh, a CLASSIC!)
    • Strengths: I always said my strength was my resourcefulness. If they asked for a second one, I said it was my intercultural upbringing/cultural sensitivity and ability to connect and work with people of diverse backgrounds.
    • Weaknesses: I always said my weaknesses were my over-valuation of the concept of multitasking. If they asked for a second one, I said it was my directness and desire for efficiency. For any weakness you state, you should explain how you’ve worked on it!
  • “What do you look for in an ideal manager/team/company environment?”
  • “What did you enjoy about/learn from your time as a (previous experience)?”

These answers may require slightly longer responses. Some may require that you set up the situation you’re going to use as an example, how you handled it, and what you learned from it.

You might have heard of the “STAR” method, which stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. I didn’t really remember or use the STAR method when I did my interviews (I had to Google what those letters meant just now), so I don’t think it’s something you HAVE to have in mind.

But the gist of the STAR method and my general tips are the same – you have to show you learned from a situation you mentioned, and make sure the point of what you said is relevant to the job.

What’s important to realize is that everything you say has to convince the person interviewing you that you’re a good fit for the role.

No wasted sentences: Everything you say should have a point: to demonstrate technical skill, or connect emotionally.

Here are my biggest tips and takeaways from the industry job interview process that helped me do pretty well on them overall!

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Industry Job Interview Tips

1. Know the role inside out

Being prepared is super key, and that’s something that will come up again in subsequent tips. One aspect of that is to know the role inside out.

You should familiarize yourself with the description of the job on the job listing. That means:

  • Being able to say the main responsibilities of the job off the top of your head
  • Knowing the product or project you’ll be contributing to the development of
  • Knowing which technical or soft skills are key to the job and what the recruiter may be looking for evidence of
  • Having an idea of who you may report to or work with, which is sometimes described in the job listing

This sounds obvious but it really helps when preparing for interviews. By doing the research beforehand and familiarizing yourself with what the role may entail, you’ll also come up with great clarifying questions that really show your interest.

2. Have multiple example scenarios prepared

There will be some questions like I mentioned above that require you to talk through a specific situation that happened, how you handled it, and what you learned from it.

Make sure to have example scenarios and pre-packaged responses prepared for the technical questions as well as the behavioral questions. Especially in the case of the technical stuff, you will be able to pre-empt a lot of the questions and the general responses that the recruiter may be looking for, because you’ve familiarized yourself with the job requirements.

For example, if they ask you “Tell me about your experiences with (job-related technique)”, you’ll have a response prepared that outlines and presents your abilities in the best light. Something like the following is what I said:

“I have about X years of experience with (job-related technique). I developed, executed, performed troubleshooting on, and analyzed the data for a (technique-related project) that validated some of my earlier findings through identification of (important job-related outcome) and this led to (important job-related outcome).”

When it comes to behavioral questions, I had a few scenarios that I had from grad school that worked great. Here’s an example of an answer to the question, “Tell me about a time you dealt with a stressful situation.”

My PI recommended we submit our review paper to a journal that I didn’t recognize. I looked into it and realized it was a predatory journal. He seemed very excited about having been invited to submit to it, so I thoroughly confirmed my findings through research as well as discussing it with the other co-author. I presented the information to my PI in a calm and clear manner, which allowed him to realize his mistake and help us decide where else to submit the paper to. Just a couple months after that little mishap, the paper was successfully published in another journal that was suitable for our target audience.

As I mentioned above, everything you share has to have a point. Practice talking about those scenarios before your interview so you can present them in a convincing and smooth way when asked!

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3. Connect with the interviewer emotionally

The people interviewing you, especially the further you go in the job application process, aren’t professional interviewers where interviewing is their main and only job.

They will be potential team members, potential supervisors, hiring managers, and even company executives. They aren’t formally trained in interviewing people, and frankly, they’re just trying to see if you seem like a reasonable human being that they wouldn’t regret hiring.

One way to win them over is to simply connect with them. Sure, they aren’t going to be convinced to hire you just because of your charm and they’ll still prioritize your skills. But having moments where you aren’t just robotically responding to interview questions and sharing a laugh or an anecdote about something they can relate to will really help them see you in a good light.

Here are some ways I connected with my interviewers in an emotional way:

  • One person brought up the fact they were just getting over COVID and said they couldn’t smell or taste very well yet and misses his coffee. I said that I hope that he can taste and smell better soon because I am obsessed with coffee and can only imagine how hard that must be, which made him laugh. I brought it up again at the end of the call when we were signing off and said that I hope he feels even better very soon, and he said he appreciated it.
  • One time I was interviewing with this guy who seemed pretty different from me in a lot of ways and the conversation felt kinda stale. He was reading questions off of a list and I was just answering them. I remembered he was a scientific recruiter because I searched him up prior to the interview and saw he had a Ph.D. So when he asked about my past tutoring experience, I answered properly, and ended the response by mentioning something about how Ph.D. salaries can definitely be supplemented and he chuckled and agreed.

4. Have a concise answer for the 2 freebie questions

There are 2 freebie questions that you will absolutely get asked in some form or another. I’ll walk through each one and how I tackled designing answers for them depending on the role.

“Tell me about yourself.”

This will most likely be the first question you get asked in most interviews. You have about a minute or two to talk about your background and how your experiences are a good fit for that role. You don’t need to waste their time telling your life story, but giving them a phrase about your upbringing, cultural awareness, or background is useful for some roles. Talk about your education and your work-relevant experience in a sentence or two, and then why you think you’re a strong candidate.

Here’s how I answered for the Support Scientist position at major life science research supply companies:

“My name is (my full name), and I’m originally from (country) and grew up in (country). I went to (college) where I majored in (major) and then went straight into the (program) Ph.D. program at (college) where I studied (quick phrase about what I studied including job-relevant techniques). I have X years of experience with (job-relevant techniques) and X years of experience in customer-facing roles including (role 1) and (role 2) where I (job-relevant soft skills). Although laboratory research and being in the academic setting honed a lot of my technical and scientific skills, I’ve always wanted to leave academia to make use of my training by being in a career in the biotech and life science commercial spaces. My international upbringing and my abilities to communicate science while cultivating and maintaining relationships with clients uniquely positions me to excel in a role like Support Scientist, which is why I am interested in this position.”

Remember, whatever you do, do not make them feel like you’re rambling. Sometimes you can even see it in their eyes if you’re on a Zoom call or you’re doing an in-person interview. It sucks when they go from looking excited to looking bored! You can always elaborate on your qualifications after your initial spiel when they ask follow-up questions. Don’t bore them with too many research details!

“Why do you want this job/to work here?”

What worked best for me when answering this question was to combine my job-related skills with my overall goals. So, mentioning the job-related skills is important because you want to demonstrate fit, but you also want to show that you are actually motivated to get that job, do well, and succeed.

Here’s how I answered this question for the Support Scientist position:

“I’ve always been interested in moving away from laboratory benchwork and making the most of my scientific and technical training, along with my passion for working with clients and communicating science, in the biotech and life science commercial spaces. I looked into which companies are the most influential in the area of (job-relevant techniques) and this was one of the positions I was very interested in.”

It’s great that these are so overused and so obvious to us as questions you’re bound to get. It means we can fully prepare to answer them in the best way possible. Knowing those types of questions tend to come at the beginning of the interview, and being prepared to answer them, you’ll be able to make a solid impression.

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5. Write down questions (and interviewer names!) beforehand

In addition to writing down the names of everyone you’ll be meeting with in your interviews so you don’t get the mixed up (even if it’s just 1 person), you should write down all your questions ahead of time – because you KNOW they will ask you the question:

“Do you have any questions for me?”

That’s a prime opportunity to show that you’re interested in the role in a way that goes beyond surface-level. You want to show that you’re really interested in doing well as soon as you get hired and are therefore thinking as if you’re already going to be hired (not in a cocky way, though).

It’s totally okay to have things written down on a notepad or piece of paper in front of you. After being asked that question, I even looked down and said “I’m just looking at my notes here” when I was figuring out which questions to ask!

Literally no one I did this with said anything negative or rejected me because of the fact I was looking down to briefly remind myself of the questions I had prepared. A lot of the recruiters and potential coworkers/superiors that interviewed me said that was cool and it’s good to be prepared. Obviously, don’t stare down for too long to the point where it’s distracting, but quick glances to refresh your memory on your top questions are totally fine!

Here are some questions I always asked when I got asked if I had questions:

  • What’s the team structure like and who should I expect to be working closely with?
  • Was anyone in this position before, and how are they doing now?
  • What does it take to do well in this position, especially when starting off?
  • Favorite parts of the job/company, and things that the company can improve on?
  • How, or in what forms, do you receive feedback regarding your work?
  • What are the current goals of the company and how do you see someone in this position contributing to that?

6. Be aware of what you had on your resume & cover letter

This is kind of a bonus little tip, but like I mentioned in my industry resume tips blog post, even though I had a general template for my resume, the details were always tailored to each job I was applying to.

That meant that recruiters and hiring teams were seeing different experiments, details, and job experiences and didn’t know about others that I didn’t mention. For example, the job I got is in medical writing, so they have no idea that I learned certain programming languages or that I did bioinformatic analysis on sequencing data! Those may have been huge parts of my dissertation but it didn’t matter for that particular job/resume.

It’s important to have your resume printed out in front of you or at least really well-scrutinized beforehand so that you can refer to your resume in your responses where appropriate (like, “which I described in my resume”). You do NOT want to say “which I described in my resume” when you DIDN’T describe something in your resume. That will make you look disorganized and not leave a good impression!

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Conclusion

If you take away anything from this post, it’s that:

  • Industry interviews aren’t that hard if you are familiar with the job listing and have a sense of what the interviewers are looking for
  • You should be prepared to answer the 2 freebie questions and other FAQ
  • You should have your own questions written out
  • Practicing your responses to some key technical and behavioral questions relevant to the role and having an arsenal of anecdotes will help you

Keep in mind, I’m not a career coach and haven’t gone through this process from any other perspective aside from my own. But I hope that my experiences can help you begin to prepare for your industry interviews and have a smooth interview process. Good luck!

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