By David G. Jensen

Science, June 13, 2018 —

Last month, I focused on succeeding in a job search by taking the less-trodden-path—the path that is a bit more difficult but which almost invariably gets you further ahead in the end. This might mean cold-call networking or identifying “side doors” to get into companies. Taking this approach a step further, you also need to take the more difficult path to differentiate yourself in the next step of the job search: the interview.


As in the job application process, where most take the easy approach of looking at ads and responding online, the majority of interviewers manage to go through this interaction with their prospective employer with a minimum of preparation. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, follow these tips to make this the area where you shine.

Pre-interview preparation is key

Every time I talk to a potential job candidate who isn’t prepared—which seems to be the norm these days—I get frustrated. Basic information such as the company’s size, its industry sector, and the various product categories the employer is moving into is easily available if you’ve done any homework at all. Yet I all too frequently find myself wasting time on topics like these—which really didn’t need to be on the agenda—instead of being asked insightful questions that take us into serious conversations about whether the job might be a good fit for that individual. Beyond wasting time, asking about these topics communicates to me that the candidate is not interested or proactive—not appealing qualities in a potential hire. So, I urge you to spend the time necessary to at least get a good handle on the company basics before a conversation with the employer or their representative.

You’ll also be seen as unprepared if you don’t have an agenda to work with before the big day. Your face-to-face interview will have you meeting with as many as eight to 10 people, perhaps more. Wouldn’t you like to know more about them and be able to look up their publications or LinkedIn profiles? And it can give you a feeling of comfort to know when your job talk takes place, or to know in advance that you’ll have one of the more stressful group interviews during the big day. Employers will typically provide an agenda if asked, but you usually have to request it. Doing so may make you feel pushy, but it’s critical to your preparation.

Another pre-interview preparation step that will pay off in spades is to sit down and review your accomplishments in the employer’s area of interest. I’ve previously written about the importance of stories as interview responses, and how keeping these responses succinct is critical. The best way to do this is to review relevant pieces of your past experience. I’m not suggesting that you memorize snappy interview responses or try to sound like a well-oiled machine—but simply that you have this material on hand, ready to use when needed.

If you are a microbiologist and the job involves bench-top fermenters, for example, think about some of your success with microorganisms that could be useful in response to common technical questions. Grab a notepad and start writing down all the interesting work you’ve done scaling up fermentations. Consider that every one of your experiences has at its core a problem, an approach, and a result, and use that format to guide you. Write a sentence or two for each step. Write a dozen or more of these little “stories” and every opportunity to talk about relevant experiences will help you come across as a real problem solver.

Reviewing and writing these stories down in advance takes some time and some work. But that little notepad of yours will turn out to be one of the best tools in your arsenal for last-minute review before you walk into the interview. It’s a confidence builder, as well.

You can also develop similar memory hooks for common questions about how you’ve dealt with difficult people, experiences you’ve had with getting projects moving along, or any of the other “soft skill” questions that often come up on interview day. Your human resources contact, for example, will likely ask you about topics including interpersonal relations, communication style, public speaking skills, negotiation ability, and teamwork. Think through examples to address these sorts of questions in advance, noting the initial problem you had, your approach to address it, and—finally—how it was resolved.

Ask the right questions

Another part of taking the more difficult road in your interview preparation is to remember the importance of asking good questions. You’ll be judged as much by the questions you ask as by your response to theirs. Because it’s so easy to pull a few out of the air, that’s what most people do—and it’s a mistake. Instead, dig in and make this a major effort for your pre-interview preparation. These ideas will help you get started.

  • Questions about the company’s mission: Senior executives constantly try to reinforce the company’s mission through their teams. If you’re meeting with a senior executive or even your prospective boss’s boss, ask about how the mission statement translates into action steps for their employees. Ask for examples of successful people and how they may have contributed in their daily activities to the global mission of the company.
  • Questions about the company’s culture: Each employer has its own culture and personality, and a cultural fit is a prime aspect of the success you’ll experience in the job. So, no matter who you are meeting with, be it your potential boss, peer, or human resources staffer, ask about the culture and what it’s like to work at the organization. A caution: You may want to get into the work-life balance question, but be careful. Too many questions about hours, commitment, vacation time, and so on will likely lead to impressions of you that are not favorable.
  • Questions about the job itself: Before the interview, you will have a basic knowledge of the job and what the responsibilities are on a daily basis. But how this job fits into the larger picture will remain a mystery until your meetings with the boss and their colleagues. Questions in this category could include minutia (“what brand of fermenter do you use in your pilot plant?”), but I would recommend that you focus on more insightful, strategically focused questions. Let your questions reflect on the reasons you think you’d be a good fit. For example: “I would imagine it’s very important for the person in this role to work closely with other teams. Can you please share with me what internal teams I’d be interfacing with on a regular basis, and perhaps what their expectations are for this role?”

Interviews can be stressful. But being well prepared brings the stress level way down—which in turn improves your ability to show the “real you” and makes it easier for you to actually enjoy the opportunity. Treat it is an important day, but not as a “make it or break it” opportunity—it’s not! There are plenty of prospective employers, and another will come along if this one doesn’t work out. And you should be proud, because so few applicants actually make it to this day. So put on your interview attire, review your history and experiences in the areas of their interest, and go have fun talking science and even sneaking in a bit of self-promotion where required. No matter the outcome, you’re going to learn and grow.