Let´s look at individual interview questions and what the intention of the interviewer is when they ask you.
Take the questions from this handout as exercise and play them through for yourself. Then try to anticipate the interview situation, what type of person could your interviewer be, in which sector does she work, what could interest her in particular? Speak the answers out loud. In this way you picture the conversation, similar to a pro athlete before a competition. The preparation for your interview is as important as for the athlete. Interview questions mostly come from a standard set of questions, hardly ever does an interviewer get up in the morning with the clear aim in mind to ask the most tricky questions possible and has the ambition and time to think about new and super-mean questions. Therefore this can be trained, after you spoke the answer to a question out loud for yourself or in front of friends, you´ll have a much better flow in your answer. You will learn to anticipate difficult parts of the answers, as we explain below for some examples. A good way to do this is while commuting: you sit on the bike or in the car in the morning, you work on one question, on the way back from work you take a second one. In this way you can cover nearly 50 questions in just a month without investing a single minute of your time!
First impressions count. Superficial, bad world or simply a deeply ingrained biological fact? The real meaning doesn´t matter for you, you just need to leave a good impression to increase your chances for a good start into the interview. For a good first impression, you should of course look good. In a science context, that doesn´t mean that you have to make fashion models jealous about your looks, you have to look positive and give the interview partners the (subconscious) feeling that you are someone who they would like to work with. A large part about your first impression is not only determined by how you look, but by how you behave. Do you have an open and sympathetic smile? Is your handshake firm but not painful? Do you keep eye contact without staring? Do you have an open, confident body posture? Is your voice calm, firm and pleasant?
During a job interview, both sides get to know each other and both sides can ask questions with the employer side taking the lead. Prepare question you want to ask. This not only shows interest but can also be very helpful information once you need to decide if you take the job or not.
You need to find comfortable positions, it´s the interview you want to think about and not your back which hurts. Certain signals within the body language are explained below, so you can avoid them or use them on purpose:
– Leaning back: this signalises relaxation but also distance and in some cases also arrogance. Don´t lean back too far.
– Leaning forward with your elbow on the table: this signalises that you are engaged and interested, but can also look like aggressive when overdone.
– Gesturing should naturally underline what you are saying. It is best to let it happen instead of putting on a show. The extremes of gesturing (exaggerated, hectic or none at all) are negative, everything else is up to yourself. No gesturing at all with your hands frozen to the table or on your side make you look dead and unengaged. Gesturing too much confuses people, who will follow your hands and not your words. It is also annoying as such and you look nervous.
– Smiling and laughing: these are most likely your nicest and most beautiful sides, so let them happen. Again, it is only the extremes which are working against you. Forced and continuous smiling and laughing looks very insecure on you. Very little or no smiling at all make you look unengaged and unsympathetic.
The posture you take can depend on who you talk to. Is it a shy or dominant person? And yourself of course: are you shy and don´t want to look even more so or would a dominant posture make you feel uneasy and you rather show your concentrated style?
Start of the interview, small talk
Try to “read” their body language, behaviour towards others (e.g. how do they behave in the lab during a lab tour, how is the interaction with the receptionist, communication with other colleagues), seats (wait until called to sit down, then choose seat freely if not indicated otherwise), does employer ask questions during the small talk phase?
– Did you get here well?
Do you already start to complain about something at this point or do you come across as sympathetic and friendly person? The interviewer will expect to find the same character traits in you once you are employed. For her this will translate into “problem-fixed person, can´t let go” or into “nice person, could be enjoyable to have a coffee break with her.” Don´t underestimate, how important small talk is. Maybe the receptionist will be called after the interview and gets asked if you were pleasant company? Your answer might stick to the mind of the interviewer for long, they might be watching your reaction very closely although they appear to be relaxed. The small talk phase can be a very revealing one, so don´t underestimate it.
– Do you want something to drink?
Tell me about your CV
Did you prepare an “elevator pitch”? Do you tell something, which is relevant for the specific position or do you get lost in things only you might find interesting, but no one else? Do you include aspects from outside work- this is of course legitimate and should in content and amount reflect who you are, how you want to come across in the interview. Do you tell your little “story” (counter ) chronological or are you choosing a more free format, e.g. start with a connection between you and the employer and then link several points to this in a more topical fashion?
Here are some commented examples of elevator pitches.
Example pitch 1
Elisa Barth is sitting a job interview for a quality management (QM) and regulatory affairs position at a small pharmaceutical company producing recombinant proteins. On the other side of the table there is someone from the HR department, the R&D group leader and the head of QM.
Q: So Miss Barth, tell us about yourself?
A: Hmm, what do you exactly want to know?
Q: Well, whatever you think is interesting us most.
A: Ok, let me think… so I did my PhD in the Baxter group at the University of Glasgow and studied the interaction between GFP mRNA and the Rhodococcus DNA repair protein recO. I used E. coli to produce recombinant recO protein, which had his own technical difficulties. Once I managed to purify the protein, I focused on isolating GFP mRNA. With the help of ESI-MS, I then made sure that I was working with the right mRNA. I did dynamic light scattering to study the interaction between the two and found that….
What went wrong?
1) She was unprepared.
2) It was a much too technical pitch for the position she is applying for and for her audience.
Example pitch 2
Q: So Miss Barth, tell us about yourself?
A: Yes sure. I am Elisa Barth and I just finished my PhD in the field of microbiology at the Baxter group at the University of Glasgow. During my PhD, I have mainly been studying different types of recombinant proteins.
Of course, I did other things as well, like teaching and helping to keep the lab running. For example, I was the person responsible for the safety documentation. During my PhD, the biology department started a huge project to create an online database of all chemicals in the department. Everything we had in store needed to be barcoded and registered, something I happily did for our lab.
Even though I very much enjoyed the time I spent within academia, I feel that continuing with my own research is not ideal for me. I very much like the administrative tasks around the whole thing and would love to learn more about the legal aspects of research as well. This, of course, is exactly the reason I am here with you today. I could very much see myself working in the fields of quality management and regulatory affairs and I am very keen to hear more about the position you have in mind.
What made it good?
1) It is a real pitch!
2) She shows her motivation to conduct administrative tasks. Please mark: she mentions a rather “small” thing she did during her PhD (barcodes), which fit the position well instead of something out of her research, which was a big chunk of work and important to her personally- but irrelevant to the interviewers.
3) She shows that other things than just research are important to her as well.
4) Use of language that everyone on the table understands.
5) Adapted to the position she is applying for.
6) The length.
What could be improved?
She could have mentioned that she read or heard about quality management and/ or regulatory affairs somewhere and got interested in this type of jobs.
Example pitch 3
Eva Kegel is sitting in a job interview for a business development position at a medium-sized biotech company producing monoclonal antibodies. On the other side of the table there is someone from the HR department, the sales department leader and someone working in marketing and business development.
Q: So Miss Kegel, tell us about yourself?
A: Yes. My name is Eva Kegel, I studied biology at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Thereafter, I gained a PhD degree in the field of biochemistry at the University of Bremen.
At the moment I am working in the business development department of the small biotech company BioXYZ. My main responsibility is the acquisition of new customers and for this I travel a lot to conferences and trade-fairs. I love having personal contact with our customers, discuss their wishes and needs and build up a relationship. Something that is not in my job description, but I love doing is to conduct small studies with our target group to get more insight into the technical limitations they are facing. The results of those studies I communicate to the management team of our company, who appreciate it very much.
I love my job, but after working in the field for a few years, I am feeling that it is time to further develop myself. I would like to have responsibility for staff and lead a team. This is the reason I am sitting here today and I am very keen to learn more about the position you would like to fill.
What made it good?
1) It is a real pitch!
2) She shows her motivation.
3) She tells what she is looking for in the new job.
4) Use of language that everyone on the table understands.
5) Adapted to the position she is applying for.
6) The length.
What could be improved?
She could have mentioned 1 or 2 successes she had in her current job. The higher the position, the more you should talk about successes and not individual skills- in the application documents as well as in the interview.
Example pitch 4
Frank Hausler is being interviewed for a patent law training position. On the other side of the table there are three patent lawyers from the section life sciences.
Q: So Dr Hausler, tell us about yourself?
A: Yes. First of all, thank you very much for the invitation.
My name is Frank Hausler, I am an organic chemist. Over the years I have seen quite a few universities over the world where I either obtained a degree or did an external research project. I have worked with people from many different countries, learned several languages, and learned a lot of research related skills: using concise language to explain difficult issues for example.
Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Göttingen. And despite the fact that I very much enjoyed academic research, I do feel that it is time for me to move on and learn something totally new. As I was not sure what this “new thing” should be I contacted several of my old colleagues who left academia and learned about alternative careers paths. I got really excited when one of them told me about the patent law training position he is currently doing. A job where I can combine my writing skills with protecting new inventions sounds very appealing to me. Plus, I have the feeling that there would be good use for my intercultural competence and language skills. Thus, I decided to apply here, and I am very curious to hear about the job from you.
What made it good?
1) It is a real pitch!
2) He shows his skills.
3) He tells that he really looked into the different possibilities and that his application is not coming out of the blue.
4) He does not explain what he exactly studied during his time in academia as it would be irrelevant for that position.
5) Adapted to the position he is applying for.
6) The length.
What could be improved?
He could have mentioned that he knows how intense the training will be and that he´s up for such a challenge.
Tips and tricks for your own pitch
Practice your pitch a few times beforehand and ask someone for feedback.
Organisations are unique, so should be your pitch. You need to adapt your pitch to every job interview!
Unless you apply for a research position, don’t bore your interviewers with the technical details of your research projects. If they are interested in it, they will ask you.
Yes, in most cases it is a pitch, so you talk. However, you should of course welcome interruptions if the other party sees it differently.
Don’t hold a monologue for more than 90 seconds (during a telephone interview not more than 30-60 seconds).
Questions about your CV
– Motivation at the different points in your CV, especially the motivation behind your career choice and why you applied for this specific position?
How did the applicant make her decisions, what drove the person? Do her aims fit the position?
– What would have been your second choice when deciding for your job/studies?
– Tell me about a problem which you solved
Depending on the interviewer and on your own background, this question can come in different guises, “What was your most difficult customer to date and how did you handle this situation?” “Did you already have a really difficult character in your team and how did you handle this situation?”
This question is being asked to see how you react in real life situations. The interviewer might directly aim at technical or communicative problems or leave it open to you, what you want to talk about. It is certainly a good exercise for you to play through some examples from your past beforehand. Your answer will be like a work sample for your future job.
Please mark: your example should end positively. You don´t need the ground-breaking success at all levels for this. Could you learn something important, which you have since internalised? Did you show a sensible approach to the problem at hand, even if the overall success might have been prevented, e. g. by a management intervention? Reflect upon how you reacted and find your positive conclusion within the experience- be it the success itself or your learning curve.
– What were your favourite subjects at school?
– Which extracurricular activities do you pursue?
When you are in the role of interviewer, be careful with questions which might reach into the private realm of the interviewee. If you interrogate very directly into a specific direction, you might get into trouble with the equality law (Gleichstellungsgesetz), “Are you a socially active person, for example in a charity or political party?” It is fine as long as you ask in a very open form, “We´d like to get to know you a little bit more as a person. Please feel free to tell us a bit about what extracurricular activities you do outside of work.”
– Was your education/ studies an appropriate preparation for your job?
– Why did you change positions so often/ rarely?
– Why are you/ have you been unemployed?
Your answer will give an insight into your career planning and if you see this as a big negative in your life? How do you live with this “weakness”, are you tense, self-confident or even carefree about it?
– How did you handle situation/ problem XYZ in your life?
– What did you learn during previous positions?
Here the employer wants to see a fit with your stated aims; did you learn something that´s relevant for the employer? Can the candidate stress points which are relevant for the employer, meaning does he adapt his answer to the employer?
– Which of your qualifications/ skills do you think are most relevant for us?
– Looking at your career so far. What do you regret, what would you do differently now? Or would you do everything in the same way again?
– Can you handle stress? Describe a situation in which you had to cope with stress.
– How do you react when you do a mistake? Describe a situation from your past.
You as a co-worker and your current situation
– How do you get along with your current boss/ colleagues?
Of course, never talk negatively about your ex-colleagues.
You can talk about them in a general sense, as long as you don´t mention names or give revealing details this is fine.
– Why do you leave your current employer?
The challenge with this question is to not talk in any negative way about your old environment while giving a credible motivation for your application. It is not a satisfying answer if you just say that you follow your partner to a new town. In such cases, leave the private part out and tell what you like about the new employer and how you think that your personal development will profit from this step.
– Tell me about your current work, what do you (dis-) like about it?
Do not give any confidential info away, this is a nice question for the employer to see if you can react relaxed yet professional.
This question inquires several things from you at once. Can you explain your work in front of people from other environments or even in front of a lay audience? Up to which level of detail did you go into during your last job and was that appropriate for the position? What fascinated you most, the big instruments, the processes at molecular level, the commercial applications or the interaction with your colleagues? Imagine you talk about your last position, in which you were leading a large team. If you focus too much on the detail level in your description of this leadership position, you´ll give the impression that you couldn´t let go of your scientist´s tasks and didn´t live up to the expectations towards you as a leader. Before beginning with your reply you can ask the interviewer into which direction the answer is supposed to go. Thereby you show that you target your explanations to a specific audience, and don´t just focus on yourself and your own work.
“In an interview with a large producer of vaccines I was asked to explain the product I developed in my last position. Before going into the explanation, I asked about the audience of my explanation, “Am I to imagine your role as technical co-worker in an analytics lab, as pathologist working on the diagnosis or as patient, who speaks with the doctor?” This query of mine came across very positively in the interview and I was told that this was exactly the right approach for the position. In the future job I would also constantly have to adjust to various target audiences.”
Please be extremely careful not to relate to any company secrets or internal info from your old employer. Nobody wants to hire an information leak.
Do you describe the situation predominantly positive or negative?
Do you seek mistakes predominantly with yourself or with others?
– How would your boss/ colleagues describe you?
Always have a few quotes from former colleagues and bosses in mind, which might be relevant for the position you apply for. “A former boss once remarked that it is a pleasure to read my reports, even if they are about the driest of topics.” Or, “My colleague Sarah recently remarked that she admires my interactions with customers, very direct yet always polite.” When you are able to “bring someone into the room”, if you manage to describe your advocate in a credible and authentic way, you can leave a strong impression. Some people find it harder, some easier to put words into the mouth of others than describing themselves directly. Your answer will also allow the interviewers to draw conclusions about you: do you believe the positive judgement about yourself or do you even let this judgement be heard? Each person can find positive examples of remarks about themselves when thinking about it hard enough and in turn bring them across in a credible way if they are authentic examples. Don´t go alone into the interview and rather believe in your best friend Sarah, she surely didn´t just say her compliment without meaning it!
– With which type (personality) of colleagues do you prefer to work together?
– Did you already encounter problems with a boss or colleague?
Knowledge and preparation
– What do you know about our company/organisation and about your future position?
This question is being posed for two reasons: to check whether you did your homework and as a bridge for the interviewer to start explaining your future position. The challenge of this question is to not be the shy little person. Don´t show insecurity even if you think that your answer was not sufficient.
Tell a few facts which you know about the employer via your network, their homepage, the news or their annual report. Of course, you can also talk about their products or research. Once you have the feeling you told the most interesting points you can play the ball back, “I would like to know more. I am looking forward to hear more insights from the insiders.”
This is also a good point in time to mention if you already know someone in the company or that you already had a contact point with the company. This encounter might have been the trigger for your application. If there was anything negative in the stories you heard, just omit it. First-hand experiences and info are the most valuable, always prefer these to other sources. You thereby show that you can obtain such authentic information and prevent to regurgitate potentially vague information from advertisement material. Believing those would mean that really ALL companies in the world are fully committed to the environment and to social values as their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sites imply?
When you are being asked for your expectations to the position, then show them that you know more than just the information given in the job ad. Those are often formulated in a rather generic fashion and leave little room to find a link to your own person. Again, it is best to know someone from the organisation who you can ask about this beforehand. If you didn´t manage to get such insider info, then you could play back the ball to the interviewer after talking about the things you could find out, “According to the job ad I imagine my main task to be… but I am looking forward to find out what these will exactly look like.”
– What are you interested in most in this position?
– Language abilities
It can happen that the interviewers will switch to the language, especially if you mention fluent language skills. This question is not only revealing about your language skills but also about your self-perception.
– Computer skills
Here you could get drawn into a little “tech talk” or even given a work sample.
– What do you think is the most important dilemma facing our business today?
– What is most important for you regarding bosses, colleagues and the workplace in general?
– What frustrates you about your work?
This question forces you to relate to something negative, while your main task in the interview is to come across as a positive person! However, you can prevent to get bogged down into negativity here. Just pick a side activity or speak about a limited period of time, which you found difficult. You should not speak negatively about your main tasks, as the interviewers might think, “ Do you even stand behind what you do? Couldn´t you find something else? Why did you put up with this for so long if it was so bad?” All of this would certainly cast a negative light on you. The center of your answer should be how you coped with the problem. Do you have a solution at hand or a way to transform the frustration into positive energy?
Talking negatively about past or current colleagues or employers is a definite no-go. First of all, you live in a small world as specialist and it is definitely possible that the interviewer knows the people you talk about. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that you would not talk badly about your next employer in a few years´ time.
– What motivates you, what gives you joy?
– Do you prefer to work in a small, medium or large company?
– Explain the organizational structure and hierarchy in your last company and how you fitted into it. Did this suit you?
– Which professional trainings did you visit, what do you plan/wish to do in the coming two years?
It sounds trivial, but mention interests here, which are at least of peripheral interest to the company. If you are interested to learn Swedish, but your interview partners do not have any business there, they will just put you in the “bloomy-interests” drawer.
– Do you like teamwork? How does the ideal teamwork look like for you? Which roles do you typically fulfill?
Teamwork is by far not only peace, love and happiness, this should be regarded more critically. However, the interviewers will want to see a readiness to work in a team and a readiness to take certain roles in a team.
– How ambitious are you? Would you compete for my job?
– What do you like and dislike about the job we are discussing?
– Do you think you´ll fit into the team (e.g. regarding age structure, international/local environment)?
– You appear (self-confident/ insecure…) to us. Do you have this feeling as well?
– How do you relax, how do you find your equilibrium?
This one is particularly relevant for people who depicted themselves as workhorses beforehand. Do you manage to create an equilibrium to the sometimes stressful work environment/ own personality. Can you dispel thoughts about you running into potential health problems, because you didn´t manage to relax?
– How do you handle criticism? How do you react when you feel treated unfairly?
– How do you react in crisis situations?
– What management style gets the best results out of you? Which type of boss do you like working for?
With this question, your interview partners not only look at the fit to your future boss, but also how well your answer fits the expectations you raised during the rest of the interview. Your explanations why you like a particular style can of course give insight into you yourself in a leadership position.
– How can our company offer you what your previous company could not offer?
– How do you enforce your ideas in the following situations (one of the following three examples given)?
+ Your boss told you that task A has priority today. During the late shift at 9:30 pm (your boss is long gone by then) a colleague from a different department comes and demands you to do task B before your shift ends. Task B cannot be done together with task A before the shift ends. How do you react?
+ Your boss is crazy about an idea, which turns out to be nonsensical in the production process. How do you react when…
A: You are the only one from your team in the night shift and responsible for the implementation of this idea?
B: You already mentioned your concerns to your boss, but were rebuffed, however the idea has time and again turned out to be unworkable?
+ You get to know that there are two colleagues from your team who constantly get into fights. How do you react as their boss/ colleague?
These are pretty challenging questions without a clear or “correct” answer. The challenge is to handle the stress of such a difficult question. Feel free to think out loud, as your way of thinking is as much of interest to the interviewers as the result you will come up with.
– Did you apply somewhere else?
Has several facets. On the one hand side a purely practical question if there are time constraints from the side of the interviewee; in case there might be other offers coming in soon, this might influence the timing of the application process at hand. It is also revealing how many details of the other applications will be mentioned here. And lastly, does the interviewee feel guilty about mentioning that he applied somewhere else, which is of course completely unnecessary.
– Where do you see yourself in five years? Where would you like to be?
Question is being used to find out about the relevance of career progression, salary and safety.
– Why did you apply here and not at our competitor?
You can answer this question with everything that is positive and forward-looking: development, attractiveness of the employer, entry into a new technology field … If you know that the company you apply for has an advantage over others, then you can mention it, but don´t be mislead into competitor-bashing. This might create a short laugh, and maybe even sympathy, but in the most likely scenario, you would just appear unprofessional.
– How long could you imagine to stay with us?
– What is a success for you? How important is success for you?
– How important is money to you?
– If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
– Please tell us about three strengths and weaknesses of yourself?
In each and every interview you will be asked about your strengths, preferences and successes. The second part of the question often comes to you less directly. It might be some extra question when discussing a particular part of your vitae, “And in similar situations, how did you fare?” Although such questions are very much foreseeable, they are definitely not easy to answer. Particularly women can sometimes dig too deep into their own weaknesses while feeling less well talking about their own strengths. But don´t worry, choosing the right examples and you can prevent being a self-loving show-off while leaving a positive and confident impression. Your strengths should have to do with core aspects of the position for which you are applying. Do you apply for Head of Production? Here you´ll need strengths like proactivity, problem solving and flexibility towards rapidly changing circumstances. When applying for quality management, you can refer to your love for detail, your ability to work with tight deadlines and that you like to motivate colleagues to do even unloved tasks. Definitely use examples to make the attributes more credible and don´t fall into the trap of just enumerating lifeless attributes.
The part of the question about your weaknesses is full of pitfalls. Many applicants think that they have found a smart trick by selling one of their strengths as alleged weakness. “I am way too ambitious, work doesn´t leave me a quiet minute.” That´s almost a little cheap, the interviewer will easily see through this. The only impression you will leave is that you are absolutely not self-critical. Think about weaknesses, which can be just as important as the strengths you mentioned, just not for this particular position. “In all practical matters I really seem to have two left hands” is a really big weakness you admit, but doesn´t matter if the job does not involve practical work. You can put the description of your weaknesses into a very positive light if you describe how you handle them. “In my last position I realised how bad I really am in remembering technical details and procedures. That really did cost me lots of time and sometimes even credibility. Therefore I have developed a rather intricate system for documenting and sorting all these little details which I stumble across in my work and can now call upon quickly.”
– Do you think you might be over/ underqualified for this position? Why do you apply for this position at your qualification level?
In some science subjects like biology there is a notorious oversupply of applicants, so that many applicants move into positions below their nominal qualification level. This might not be the dream job, but many applicants conclude that it is a viable alternative in their situation.
In this situation you need to perform a balancing act during the interview. Your sheer determination to work in that area can speak for you. If desperation shines through, though, the positive interpretation will flip to the opposite. If you depict that you would like to work in a position with higher responsibility, you show a realistic self-assessment and an appropriate level of ambition. Maybe the employer does indeed want to give you a perspective, but her current job is to fill the position at hand. Her biggest concern is that you might be unchallenged and might lose your motivation. Therefore, you have to explain your motivation for the position at hand as well as your long-term aims in a credible way. You could mention for example that you see your personal development in entering a new environment (e. g. your first industry position) or that the position will challenge you in completely new ways compared to your old work. You should speak using positive terms like horizontal growth when considering the implications for your career. Or you underscore your interest in working for this one employer in particular, “If you would confront me with the luxury problem to either make my job entry at this position with you or to start in a team leader position somewhere else, then I could quite easily come up with some arguments to start here. I do see the perspective to learn everything properly from scratch here and after fully going for it for some time and proving myself, to at some point also get the chance to move ahead. That would for me be more attractive than to start with a beautifully-sounding job title at a less attractive employer straight away.”
And finally there are of course plausible reasons to permanently prefer a „lower“ position. Do you strongly prefer lab work over desk work? Or a self-assessment has lead you to the conviction that you will be a great colleague, but not a great boss. If this is the case, then there is no reason not to mention it in the interview. Please note: there are many people stepping back from team leader positions as they realise that they dislike the increase in administrative work or the interpersonal challenges of staff responsibility.
“During my interview I was being asked for the reasons why I applied for that exact position. I didn´t think too much about it, at the back of my head my own admonitions to be open and direct and to describe my line of thought to my answers. So I replied, “I can significantly cut on the travel time compared to my old job, not only because the company is much closer to my home, but also because the nursery is perfectly located in between.” This answer totally backfired, because it came across as if it would be my only motivation.”
– In which function would you ideally see yourself? Which of the open positions could you fill best?
You can expect such questions particularly after open applications as there is no concrete vacancy you´re talking about. Even if you respond to a job ad, the number and type of jobs doesn´t necessarily match the job ad. In the months-long process of writing out a position and screening candidates, much can happen, new jobs might have been created or requirements changed. At least you as applicant do not know what exact job you actually talk about. The employer will try to get a deeper insight into your motivation and you are forced to talk about your preferences and aversions.
It is certainly a rather difficult question, would you rather work in position X,Y or Z if given free choice? Maybe you are under pressure with your job applications, don´t have any alternative job offers yet: given the circumstances, you would of course take just about ANY position at this great company! But even if this is the case, you should pick a clear winner when answering this question. Share your positive thoughts about position X, which is your winner, without speaking negatively about Y and Z. Your conversation partner will want to be able to reconstruct your line of thought. In the end you will appear less arbitrary when describing the other position Y and Z as attractive alternatives after clearly stating your preference for X and the reasons for it. You could describe it like that, “From what I learned about your company and about the three positions at hand, I think that they are all challenging and interesting. If I´d have to decide for one of them, I would go for X…” After talking about your reasons for this decision, you can conclude, “As I said, I find all three positions interesting, all of them offer good perspectives. If Y or Z would be vacant, or if you have the feeling that I would be a better fit for them, I would be very happy as well.”
– Why do you think you are the right candidate for the job/ Why would you NOT hire yourself?
This question invites you to sell yourself particularly well, you are being asked to summarise your strengths. When being asked why you would hire yourself, you are free to pick one or two particularly strong and relevant points. If, however, you are being asked why you would not hire yourself, you can of course not stick with the purely positive points. Take one of your weaknesses, of which you know that it is not a knock-out criterion and openly talk about it, “As a recent graduate I never worked with a QM system. It is an investment from your side and a steep learning curve from my side. I am looking forward to get to know the procedures in industry. Internalising all of these until they are second nature to me is certainly an important development step for me. You mentioned your structured intro weeks, so that I am convinced that I will manage this transition.”
If the interviewers try hard to focus the attention at your weaknesses, then you should deflect the point of view, “I agree with you that there are certainly applicants who already sold nmr spectrometers for years. My strengths are rather in my breadth: strategic marketing, business development or outside sales and all of these for a whole range of products ranging from reagents to various large instruments.”
– How long do you think you might need to get into the job, to be up and running (after a lab tour and a short introduction into the position)?
This question is not about your knowledge but about your self-perception und about how you handle a lack of information- of course you can´t really judge the training time yet during the interview. Do you ask about the missing info, do you appear helpless?
– How would you characterise yourself? What would you like to change about yourself? What are you already working on right now?
– What do you think, how are you seen from people in your private and/ or professional environment?
– Salary expectations
See Contract and (salary) negotiations
– If you could choose, would you rather have a fixed or a performance-dependent salary?
– Do you still have questions?
Towards the end of the conversation you will usually be asked if there are still some open questions from your side. Typically, you already had the opportunity to ask questions at this point in time. Now you can ask all relevant questions from your side which you brought along and which are still open. You should definitely bring along some own questions, this shows interest and gives the conversation a bit more the character of a conversation between two parties on eye level. Making such a list of questions for this particular employer also gives structure to your preparation for the interview and prevents embarrassing answers like, “Hm, no, it seems quite nice here, so I guess it´ll all be fine, no questions from my side.”
Basically you can ask pretty much everything. At this point it is also about you getting the info which is relevant for you and if your questions are being posed for this reason, then you´ll automatically come across as lively and interested person. You should of course think a little tactical. If your questions are only about coffee and holidays, this will send the wrong signals.
A tip for parents: If you can fulfil your main job obligations, e.g. you can work 40 hours during normal office hours when discussing a normal in-house full-time job, then you don´t need to discuss about details before you have a signed contract. It is understandable that you would like to get the confirmation that you can pick up your kid from the nursery occasionally. Before you have a contract on the table both sides want to make a good yes/ no decision and you are honest: you “sell” the other side a “product”, e.g. a full-time employee, which is what they´ll get. Think about how it would sound if a car salesman says just before the sale is closed, “I am happy you want to buy that car, it´s really good. What I find troubling at the moment are the high petrol prices. Going by train doesn´t suffer from that.” It´s a fundamental matter of life that we all have certain obligations outside of work. As long as the balance is not tilted too much, it´s totally fine to leave these issues until after the contract is on the table. It is of course another thing if your family or other obligations interfere with your core assignments at work. If you can´t make it to the majority of meetings or have to let customers wait to be able to see you in person, it is clearly a point you need to bring up before receiving a contract. In this case you´d have to speak honestly about what you can and can´t do. In such a frank conversation, it is possible to find win-win situations with the employer. Maybe you can be flexible in other ways that profit the employer?
1. You just said XYZ. How exactly did you mean this? Could you please explain this once more to me?
Simple and effective: you really show you are listening and really want to know what is being said. You´re simply performing active listening here, a good habit in every situation.
2. How is the work culture here?
This question shows that you care about the atmosphere. You can also specifically ask about common leisure time or team-building activities or about the measures taken to keep up the motivation among the employees.
If you happen to have your interview late in the afternoon, then it pays off to observe how the employees behave around 5 pm. There are two extremes of work culture which you can even spot as an outsider and which should be taken as warning signals. If all co-worker leave the building as if there had been a fire alarm, then your own alarm bells should ring. Of course it´s great being able to go home at 5 pm. But if everybody rushes home as early as possible, then it doesn´t seem to be nice or rewarding to work there. The other extreme is just as much a bad sign, namely if all offices are still packed at this time. Is there such pressure on the people or- worse even- is there a distinct attendance culture in this organisation?
A neutral way to ask about working hours could be, “If I am still working at 7 pm, what would I be doing?” Inquiring about working hours is of course dangerous ground, you don´t want to sound like someone who is unwilling to sign up for a tough job. In addition, it is relatively pointless to ask directly for working hours because the answer is inevitably gonna be that the working hours are totally humane and lots of flexibility is given to employees. With such an indirect approach you might get some information about the working culture.
3. Who will give me my (annual) targets and how will they be measured? How is this connected to the bonus? What happens to my bonus if I can´t reach it due to external circumstances? Are there structured feedback sessions?
These questions, typically for the second or third interview rounds, are certainly important for you to understand the various different parts of your salary package and to be able to judge it. You show an interest in a structured work environment. And finally you will gain a glimpse of how tough you might get treated by your boss if things go wrong.
4. How are my opportunities for personal development?
One of the standard question of the interviewers is, “Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?” You answer this question by talking about your ambitions and your desired perspectives. Then you can play the ball back and ask where the employer could see you in five years if all goes well. You can also ask where other people ended up, which had similar position to yours beforehand. With this question you show interest in a long-term development perspective. You can also use this question to talk about professional trainings you might receive.
5. Why was this position created? Why does my predecessor not work here anymore?
This question is completely legitimate- you should avoid any suspicious undertone in it, however. If there was a negative aspect to this episode, you won´t be told directly, but now you do have the chance to play psychologist. How exactly do your interviewers behave when answering? Do you have the feeling that there was something wrong with your predecessor or the position as such? And maybe you get some insight into how they work, do you hear about a structured and well-planned process to create this position?
6. Assuming I get the position and I do my job really well. How would you see this?
This question probes into the criteria for measuring success. Is it only about results and numbers or are other criteria considered as well? If you talk about a position with staff responsibility, you should be interested to hear whether the state of the team, their cooperation and the team communication is considered as a value.
Psychologically, by asking such a question, you let them talk and think about a positive scenario- something that certainly doesn´t hurt your application.
7. Presuming I´ll get the job. What would be my biggest challenge?
Do your strengths fit as well to the position as you thought until now? Would you like to develop into this direction or would your main task force you to handle things on a daily basis in which you are not interested? With this question you also show that you don´t assume the work to be a pony farm and that you also want to know about potential troubles.
Want to read more?
During the entire application process, you won´t be seen purely on the merits of your qualifications, you will also be stereotyped as a PhD holder. Interested how this stereotype looks like and what you can do about it? Then read this guest article by David Giltner: “Overcoming the PhD Stereotype“.
Want to dive deeper into body language? Then read this blog post about it: “About dead fish and a lovely smile“
Want to see ‘the other side’, want to know how an interviewer thinks? Then read this blog article “In the job interview: Braving the gaps“.
The article “First show your skills, then present the wish list” deals with the timing of an application phase. When do you bring up your wishes, in the application documents, in the interview, the negotiation phase or when you´re in the job?
Our workshops and talks related to this topic
The workshop Job application and interview strategies for scientists and our talk Score your first job: the application phase show you tips and pitfalls to score your job.
Do you sit ‘on the other side’, conducting job interviews for the employer side? Then the workshop Staff selection, biases and stereotypes might be interesting for you.
For more topics we cover, please have a look at the section Workshops and talks.