The Non-academic Job Hunt: Questions FROM Interviewers

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck

Congratulations! You’ve just been asked to interview for the non-academic job of your dreams! Now it’s time to prepare. But an interview outside of academia can be very different from graduate school, postdoc, and faculty position interviews, and after years spent at the bench, it can be difficult to think of your talents and goals outside of the academic box. For a successful interview, it is crucial to talk about your skills, experiences, qualifications, and goals as applicable to the non-academic environment in which you’ll be working. Preparation of answers to some common questions can help you proceed with confidence through the interview discussion. So what kind of questions can you expect? Here are some frequently asked interview questions, with tips for thinking about your answers:

 

  • Tell us about your scientific/research background. Be able to explain your research in a clear, concise manner at a level appropriate for the audience. Think about your “elevator speech” – if you only had one or two minutes to explain your research, what would you say? Your answer might be very different if you’re in the elevator with another research scientist versus an accountant, an English teacher, a mechanic, or your grandmother (not joking: I was asked how I would explain my postdoc research to my grandma). Someone from the Human Resources department will likely want a different answer than someone working in a position more directly related to science, so make sure you can give answers accessible to multiple audiences.

 

  • Why do you want to leave the bench/academia? For most, the answer to this question is obvious. The challenge is explaining your reasons in a diplomatic manner. “I hate bench research” or “I don’t want to be a PI” may be the simple answers, but what are the deeper reasons for wanting a different career? Perhaps you’re leaving the bench because you feel your strongest scientific talents, like writing or teaching, would be better utilized in a different environment. Maybe you don’t want to be a PI because you want a career that will allow you to spend more time at the bench than many PIs are able. Rather than focus only on what you don’t like about the bench or academia, explain how your strengths and passions are better fit for an alternative career and the position for which you are interviewing.

 

  • Why are you interested in [position]? It’s important to emphasize that you are not applying for this position simply because you can’t get a job in or are desperate to leave academia (even if that is the case). What aspects of this career do you think will be most fulfilling for you? How do your talents and background make this position a good fit for you, and vice versa?

 

  • What are your strengths/what can you bring to this company? The answer to this question may be more difficult for those applying for non-research positions. As graduate students and postdocs, we don’t often think about the skills we are developing other than the technical skills that make us successful at the bench. Reflect on the non-technical aspects of research at which you excel, and relevant experiences away from the bench. Are you a great writer or a stellar presenter? Have you mentored undergraduate and graduate students in the lab that have gone on to be successful in their own research? Did you design a new assay or come up with a novel approach to solve a difficult research question? Think of specific examples of experiences that demonstrate your expertise in qualities essential or beneficial to the position to which you are applying.

 

  • What are you weaknesses? The trick to answering this question is to be honest without being negative. A good suggestion is to frame the negative with a positive on either side. For example, perhaps you have trouble speaking up in large group meetings. You might say something like, “I’m a good listener, which allows me to synthesize the ideas and opinions put forth in a group discussion, but in taking into account everyone else’s comments attentively and in detail, I can forget to or have trouble speaking up and providing my own input. In most cases, however, I am able to find an appropriate time to provide my input to help move the project forward.” But again, be honest – we all have weaknesses, and the interviewers want to see that you can critically evaluate your own performance, so “I don’t have any weaknesses” isn’t an appropriate answer.

 

  • How do you handle multiple projects and deadlines? This question should be one of the easiest. As grad students and postdocs, we balance multiple projects all the time. As a grad student, how did you balance classes, studying, and time in the lab? How do you plan for multiple experiments in a day or week to efficiently utilize your time? How do you keep track of multiple research projects? With a bit of reflection, you should be able to come up with some specific examples that show off your time management skills.

 

  • After working as an individual/alone, how will you adapt to working on a team? Many people outside of research have the misconception that scientists work alone, isolated from others at the bench, mired in their own projects. It’s important to (kindly) dissolve this stereotype. Scientists collaborate within their labs, their departments, their institutions, and with outside institutions. We participate in lab meetings, seminars, and conferences to get feedback on our research and provide insight and ideas to others. Discuss with the interviewers your experiences working with other scientists and how these experiences have prepared you for working in a team-oriented environment.

 

  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years/what are your long-term career goals? Your answer to this question should show your enthusiasm for the position and suggest your commitment to growing and developing your career with the company. Why is this position a good next step for you? What skills are you hoping to develop and what experiences are you hoping to gain? You might express interest in taking on management responsibilities or getting involved in certain areas or projects. Show motivation and realistic ambition in this career path.

 

It’s beneficial to talk to other people who have recently applied or currently work in jobs similar to the position you are applying for to get an idea of potential questions specific to the position. Take some time to really reflect on your answers to come up with specific, concise, and sincere answers. Most importantly, practice answering these questions out loud, perhaps with people from a variety of backgrounds – a coworker, a scientist from a different field, someone who works in the career you are pursuing, your grandmother – to ensure you can quickly and efficiently verbalize your thoughts. With preparation and practice, you can ace your non-academic interview and get the job to put you on your way to a fulfilling career.