CAREER COLUMN

‘Can you work with less-qualified people?’ and 19 other curveball questions to navigate at industry interviews

Be ready for queries that reflect stereotypes about academia and that probe why you’re switching sectors, says Tina Persson.
Tina Persson is a career coach and trainer in Stockholm who founded the PhD Career Stories podcast. This is an edited extract from her 2020 book, The PhD Career Coaching Guide.

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If you’re based in academia and have lined up interviews with industry employers, you can anticipate certain questions and prepare effective responses that improve your chances of getting the job. ‘Why should we hire you?’ is the most common one. A company’s hiring manager wants to know that you are eminently capable of delivering excellent results, have the right skills and personality to work with a team, and will thrive in a team environment. An ideal answer will cover your education and training, technical aptitude, soft skills and accomplishments.

But other standard questions are often asked in industry interviews, thanks to hiring committees. Here are 20 common questions, and how you could answer them.

Why did you decide to leave academia?

This question is really asking how and why you’re a good fit for the job. A simple, effective answer would be that your PhD has enabled you to gain a wealth of knowledge and specialist techniques that are highly valuable to the particular industry, as well as giving you important transferable skills (such as problem solving, data analysis, presentation and teaching skills) that allow you to fit into a corporate environment easily.

If you’re applying for a position that involves supervising PhD students, you can say you’re well positioned to help others do research rather than doing it yourself.

Won’t you miss the academic environment and interactions?

The role you seek with this company could involve collaboration with academia, so you might not necessarily be cutting yourself off from academia altogether.

Depending on the position you’ve applied for, you can say either that you look forward to supervising colleagues with master’s or PhD degrees, or that you still have opportunities to publish papers as an industrial scientist. Even if chances to publish don’t arise, the writing skills you gained during your PhD will stand you in good stead for writing reports and other, shorter communications.

What do you perceive as some of the disadvantages of working in industry?

The safe answer is that research projects in industry ebb and flow with changes in the company’s commercial direction. Also, say that you are adaptable — one example to mention could be the move to remote working and video meetings in response to the pandemic.

What are the advantages of working for us rather than for another company?

Prepare a concise answer that includes your regard for the company’s products and initiatives (such as community involvement) and your endorsement of its values and culture. If you are interviewing at an established company rather than at a start-up firm, you can mention your admiration for the company’s key leaders and reputation.

Why would we or any company hire you instead of more-experienced professionals?

This question is a legitimate one, because the manager wants to know how you can match or outperform a candidate who has more experience. Draw attention to your differences and unique abilities. Emphasize that you can bring fresh ideas to the job, apply your specialized knowledge, help colleagues and supervisors to see the whole picture, and assist with industry–academia convergence.

What do you see as the most important issue in this field today?

Treat this enquiry as an opportunity to showcase your knowledge of current theory and research in your field. Prepare a concise summary of an issue and the challenges it presents, and explain how you would approach it.

What has acquiring a PhD done for you?

This question gives you the flexibility to state what attracted you to doing a PhD. Part of your answer should focus on your ability to solve complex problems through research, and how you can apply the processes you have learnt to solve challenges facing the industry sector you want to join.

The rest of your answer could emphasize transferable skills, perhaps including critical thinking, project management and public speaking.

What advantages do you like most about a non-academic career path?

A higher starting salary, a more attractive benefits package and the prospect of a permanent position are among the advantages that industry careers have over academic ones. But avoid stating these as the primary driving forces behind your decision. Instead, explain how you’re interested in the aspect of applied research in which your work contributes to a tangible commercial product.

Show your interest in working with and learning from multidisciplinary teams, and, particularly if you’re interviewing for a start-up, having the opportunity to attempt tasks outside the scope of your training. These could include a move into business or sales, regulatory matters, external affairs or human resources.

If you are interviewing for a bigger, more-established company, you can also cite the advantage of fewer funding restrictions compared with academia.

Is there a reason that you chose to do a PhD?

Describe what you enjoyed most about pursuing a structured or unstructured PhD. If it was a conventional programme, with freedom to explore on your own, do extensive literature study and have more ownership and personal accountability, emphasize how you were able to submit a high-quality thesis and meet deadlines and time frames.

If you completed a structured PhD (in which the thesis adviser already had a research proposal for the PhD student to pursue), you can talk about how you liked collaborating with your supervisor and enjoyed the intensive nature of the programme. Also mention the fact that you were able to publish a quality paper in three years by working tirelessly and managing your time wisely.

Do you anticipate any conflict interacting with colleagues who have lesser qualifications?

Your answer needs to be a firm ‘no’, followed by mentioning how a team with a combination of skills, credentials and experiences is essential to performance and innovation. Also, discuss your people skills and transferable skills that promote effective communication and collaboration.

Will you be able to adjust quickly to working in a team environment?

Academics are often wrongly stereotyped as preferring to work alone. So, to answer this, cite examples of group work from your postgraduate or graduate years, or talk about your experiences as a volunteer or as a member of a student organization. The bottom line is to convey that you perform exceptionally in a team environment, and that the position gives you the opportunity to continue doing so.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Identify a strength relevant to the position and prepare two examples of how you have used those abilities to your advantage in your doctoral studies.

State your weakness honestly, give an example and discuss what you’ve been doing to tackle it. Show how a combination of self-awareness and professionalism has helped you to overcome it. Then highlight the strengths and value you bring to the position.

What would you do if faced with [this] situation?

It is hard to predict what difficult situation you might be asked to handle, but this question aims to assess your transferable skills and how you see yourself. The best way to answer this kind of scenario question is to take a few minutes to think over it, then touch on the following four points. First, identify what you can and cannot change; second, list one or more potential ways to deal with the situation; third, highlight the risks and benefits of that plan; and finally, mention your willingness to seek help.

There is no perfect answer, so focus on telling the hiring manager that you would approach the problem using data and logic, and would make objective decisions. This will demonstrate that you’re a critical thinker and are unlikely to be swayed by your emotions, a mindset that is crucial in any role.

Is this role what you had planned to do after your PhD?

This question aims to evaluate your level of genuine interest and commitment to the career you are pursuing.

Say that you did your PhD as part of your plan for your future career. Explain that you chose your field of interest carefully, and that this decision played a part in the successful completion of your PhD. Wrap up by briefly stating how your specialization area can bring value to the position.

Did your PhD have the kind of impact you were aiming for?

Most research won’t have a life-changing impact on humankind. But all research is about the possibilities — what can be done with your research and how future researchers use it. Discuss these aspects to justify your motivation for doing your dissertation.

Did you face difficulties aligning with your supervisor’s management style? If so, what did you do to ensure a smooth working relationship?

Conflicts or dissatisfaction with a supervisor’s management style are common. The proper answer is that you were focused on your thesis. Describe any problems you faced rather than the emotions you were feeling, and explain that this approach helped you to develop a harmonious working relationship.

What type of leadership style do you prefer?

Be honest and describe how a particular leadership style resonates with you. But also state how your doctoral experience has given you the tools and confidence to adjust to any behavioural patterns demonstrated by leaders.

Can you tell me how you prioritize tasks that arrive through the day?

The best answer would be that you prioritize tasks on the basis of urgency, importance, value and estimated effort. State that you’re adaptable to changing your day’s plan, and know when to put in long hours and when it is okay to carry work over to the next day.

How do you handle pressure?

The pressure of meeting deadlines looms large in a non-academic profession. Mistakes come at a cost not only to you, but also to your team or department, customers or clients, and to the organization itself.

Say that in dealing with different types of pressure, you focus on thinking logically and sticking to your plan while being flexible. Explain how you are able to manage your time effectively to meet your project commitments, no matter what is thrown at you.

What do you do when things don’t seem to be working out?

This question aims to test your perseverance and critical-thinking skills. Give an example of how you have tried new approaches to fix a particularly difficult problem. If a model or experiment didn’t work despite your best attempts, explain that you simply moved on and prevented any unnecessary waste of resources.

Perhaps the negative results contributed to fresh ideas related to the scope of the study, and you published them in a journal dedicated to analysing negative results in your field. Wrap up by saying that you were able to shift your focus to the next project.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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