How to succeed in an interview – Academia vs. Industry
Find out how to best prepare for an interview with top tips from our experts with successful academic and industry careers.
Proteintech hosted a webinar on how to achieve interview success with expert advice from those accomplished in their respective careers:
Dr. Charlie Arber – Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellow at University College London, Institute of Neurology, UK.
Dr. Arber completed his PhD in Stem Cell Neurogenesis at Imperial College London in 2012. Charlie then transferred to University College London for his post-doctoral research. In 2019, Charlie secured the prestigious Alzheimer's Society Fellowship and has since been investigating neurodegeneration modelling using stem cells at UCL's Institute of Neurology.
Dr. Frank Schestag – Commercial Director for Europe at Proteintech Group.
Dr. Schestag completed his biochemistry PhD at the University of Kiel, Germany, in 2000. Following this, Frank climbed the career ladder at Fermantas, eventually becoming the Sales Leader for Europe. Following Fermantas' acquisition by Thermo Fisher, Frank climbed higher as Site Lead and eventually Senior Commercial Director. Frank then joined Proteintech Group in 2019, and is leading Proteintech through extraordinary growth in Europe.
They’ve been on both sides of the interview process and shared their top tips for success.
If you missed this, don’t worry – we have collated a guide for you whether you are applying for academic or industry positions.
Staying in academia
Academic interviews for post-doc or fellowship positions have a set format. This can help you prepare as best you can to both come across as and feel confident on the day.
Format for an academic interview:
Up to 8 members
General set questions (same for each candidate)
Project-specific technical and big-picture questions
After a post-doc interview, you might be invited to a tour of the lab – this is your opportunity to ask questions and see if it’s a good fit for you too!
Advice from Dr. Charlie Arber about succeeding in an academic interview:
“Control the controllables”
The presentation on your previous work or proposed fellowship project can be well-prepared and even learned by heart. Don’t hesitate to practice with friends, family, or colleagues. This allows you to start the interview in a strong and confident tone that will carry you through the rest.
Post-doc: The questions are set for all candidates, meaning they are relatively general, and answers can be prepared (see below for some common interview questions).
Post-doc: Know as much as possible about the role and lab you are applying for (previous publications, collaborations). This will help you come across as interested and keen for both the position and the group.
Fellowship: Research the panel members beforehand, their interests, and their work.
Transitioning to industry
Interviews in industry vary more depending on the role and the interviewers. Although the format is not set, there is plenty you can do to prepare and be successful in your interview.
Do your research on:
The company: Their mission statement and values, company culture, news, sales, position in the market, product portfolio, unique selling points (USPs), or products.
People: In industry, you might be interviewed first by HR (Human Resources) rather than your future line manager. Do your research on who will be interviewing you and others working at the company. LinkedIn is a great tool for this and is often used by those working in industry.
Direct tip from Frank! Treat your LinkedIn profile like an online CV to submit to companies, or delete it. If they are interested in you, they will look for your profile and you want it to be the best reflection of yourself.
Prepare questions to ask the company: Interviewers will be expecting questions from you. Make sure you have an arsenal of questions ready to ask. Asking well-prepared and relevant questions of your own is just as important as answering their questions. Good questions will help the company know that you are keen and understand the job role. Prepare questions on the following:
The company and their vision
Tools to answer interview questions:
During an interview, the desire to get across as much information as possible can result in long-winded, rambling answers. Tools like STAR or PPP will help you to structure a clear and concise answer.
S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result
P – Person
P – Place
P – Project/Position
Why not practice answering some of the common interview questions using this format to ensure you come across as prepared and, hopefully, to help ease the nerves?
Common interview questions:
Once you have done a few interviews, you will realize that the same general questions appear time and again. Prepare answers with STAR responses to help you answer these common questions concisely. Write bullets for the STAR format and then adapt your responses for individual questions. Remember to let the answers flow and not feel too rehearsed, and ensure you answer the question being asked!
- Project-specific questions
- A situation where you overcame a problem
- Why are you leaving academia?
- Why do you want to work at this company?
- What is important to you?
- How would you deal with a difficult customer?
- What are your strengths and weakness?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- Why are you the right person for this job?
FAQs about interview success:
- What non-technical (lab) skills can I put forward – especially if I do not fit all the criteria for the job description but I have still been called for interview?
During a PhD, you acquire many transferrable skills such as resilience, troubleshooting, teamwork, leadership, project management, tenacity, and communication. Don’t shy away from showcasing these; they are equally as important as your technical skills (if not more so in some cases). Remember, there is no perfect candidate that fits all the criteria; the interview assesses if you would be a good match. You can describe a situation where you learned fast and adapted, and how you would apply this in the role.
- What should I do if I have a small publication record?
Academia: Take ownership of the papers you have published and discuss work in progress that will be published. Academics understand how some projects take a couple of years of troubleshooting “unpublishable” work and can therefore mean limited publications.
Industry: It does not matter as much. You can emphasize other transferable skills such as networking or team building.
- How can I share a weakness effectively?
It’s wise to prepare for this question as it comes up often and can be difficult to answer. Personalize the weakness with an experience or situation and try to put a positive spin on it: “I am not good at saying no, which can overload my work, but it does mean I have been involved in many collaborative projects and I have extensively networked.” You can also mention how you are working to improve this.
- How to answer questions concisely?
Use the STAR tool to get your point across efficiently; keep it to 3-4 sentences maximum.
- What should I do if my PhD supervisor won’t give me a good reference?
Get a range of references that can showcase you in a good light. Don’t worry too much about references; they are usually one of the last steps and come after the interview. It is also well known that good academics don’t necessarily make good managers, so if you do well in the interview there won’t be much weight on the references. Also, remember in some countries it is not legal to give a bad reference in writing; they are often purely factual, written by HR detailing your job role and when you worked there.
- Can I make the transition into industry even after 10 years as a post-doc?
Absolutely you can! It’s never too late to change if it feels right for you. Showcase your transferrable skills and leverage your expertise. For example, for a technical support role, you have plenty of lab experience to answer customer-specific questions on their experiments. In a biotech company, you have been their target customer for a long time, which gives you plenty of useful input in a marketing environment.
Final interview success advice:
If there’s only one thing to remember about interview success: BE PREPARED!
Regardless of whether you are applying for a position in academia or industry, both Dr. Charlie Arber and Dr. Frank Schestag agree that those successful in interviews are:
- Knowledgeable about the position
- Honest and genuine
- Friendly and personable
- Ready to ask relevant follow-up questions
Blog written by Lucie Reboud, Intern at Proteintech, PhD student in cancer research at the University of Manchester.
CV writing for academia and industry
How fellowships can advance your scientific career
Transitioning from Academia to Industry
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