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8 PhD Job Interview Questions: What They Ask vs. What They Mean

Interview questions aren't always what they seem. Outsmart the interviewer by studying this list of common questions that are meant to answer a question that isn't directly asked. 

How do I know this? I was asked to start helping out with interviewing less than a year after starting my first post-PhD job at a company notorious for having a rigorous interview process. After my 2nd year I became a manager and have been hiring PhD scientists to expand my own research team. 

I'm in the unique position of being well-trained in hiring less than 3 years after graduation, which allows me to clearly see both sides of the table. 

Keep reading to learn some of the tricks interviewers can play and how best to handle them to improve your chances of getting hired and finding the best career fit for you!

Teamwork

What they ask:

Was there ever a time you felt one of your colleagues or team members was underperforming?

What they mean:

Are you going to throw your teammates under the bus and make excuses for missing deadlines or take responsibility and get it done?

How to answer:

Give a real example and explain how you handled it professionally without blaming or excuses.

Family

What they ask:

Are you familiar with the area at all?

What they mean:

Do you have any family or significant other ties to this location that will make you desperate to take whatever they offer you?

How to answer:

Answer honestly without giving away unnecessary details about your personal life that could limit your leverage in salary negotiations.

Conciseness

What they ask:

Can you take a couple minutes and explain your research?

What they mean:

Can you concisely deliver information or are you going to talk in circles and ramble on with wordy answers that wastes everyone’s time?

How to answer:

Use a well-rehearsed elevator speech to hierarchically describe the problem, the ideal solution and the methods you’ve used to approach it. Start big picture and work down to the details.

Mistakes

What they ask:

What was the worst thing you ever screwed up in your position that cost a lot of time or money?

What they mean:

Do you recognize your own faults and take responsibility for mistakes or do you believe you can do nothing wrong?

How to answer:

Describe a real example with honesty and admission of fault where appropriate. End with what you did to make up for the failure and corrective actions to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Communication

What they ask:

Tell us about a time you solved a problem and your methodology for solving it.

What they mean:

Can you keep a narrow question as a narrow answer without explaining your entire thesis?

How to answer:

Describe a real example of what went wrong, your thought process upon discovering it and how you carried out a solution. End your answer when you’ve addressed their question. Keep it <4 minutes.

Preparedness

What they ask:

Why did you decide to apply to this position?

What they mean:

Have you done any research at all about our company or the position before this interview?

How to answer:

Tell them what excites you about the company and the job description, adding why you think your skills and personality make you a great fit. Avoid mentioning the geographic location, salary, benefits or personal financial situation.

Fit

What they ask:

What is your ideal day-to-day work environment?

What they mean:

Are you willing to do active hands-on work or do you prefer to be sitting at a computer all day?

How to answer:

The right answer is being honest to make sure you’re a good fit for the role they have in mind.

Motivation

What they ask:

How did your PI/advisor guide your group’s research? Did that work well for you?

What they mean:

Did your professor micromanage your tasks or set you loose with a big goal? Do you constantly need told what to do or are you self-sufficient and self-motivated?

How to answer:

Be honest about your advisor’s style (it will come up in reference calls) and describe how you succeeded either because of or in spite of that style. Show that you had independent ideas and goals to guide your own research even if you weren’t allowed to execute on them.

Illegal Questions

Did you know there are several illegal questions that employers often ask anyway? Read the post 27 ILLEGAL Interview Questions Managers Still Ask (and how to answer them).

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