Graduate school often focuses on prepping students for a career in academia, and largely ignores those who chose “alternative” careers. Not having been in the job market since 2004, it can be difficult to know what to expect, especially at a new level (post-Ph.D.). When I applied for jobs before, I searched general job interview questions on career websites such as monster.com. Now, as I have become much more specialized and experienced, it can be tough to find information on what questions to expect on interviews for science-based careers. Having graduated last December with a temporary post-doc position, I have been on the job market until recently with several interviews under my belt. Here I have listed the questions that I have been asked broken down into categories of importance and breadth.
Absolute MUSTS: These are the questions that interviewers are highly likely to ask and you should be prepared to answer them well.
• Where do you see yourself in five years?
• What are your strengths and weaknesses?
• Why do you want this job? (Make sure to research the lab/company/project and the people you may be working with)
• What can you bring to this job/Why are you a good fit for this job?
• Tell me about yourself and how you got to where you are.
• How well do you work on teams? Independently? Which do you prefer?
Tell me a Story: These types of questions are designed to provide the interviewer with information on you ability to solve problems. Examples include:
• Tell me a time you experienced a difficult situation and worked through it.
• Tell me about a time you used creativity in your work.
• Can you describe a situation where you had to deal with an under-performing employee?
• Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult personality.
Research-focused questions: These questions will often be very specific to the job you are applying for. If you applied for a job that involves remote sensing, be prepared to answer generally on your skills/knowledge/experiences in remote sensing.
• What kinds of software/programs have you used?
• Tell me about your field experiences.
• What is a postdoc to you?
• If you had a million dollar grant, what kind of research project would you pursue?
• How are collections and museums important to scientific research?
• What funding sources will you pursue?
Conservation: Here are examples of specific conservation-related questions I have come across.
• What do you see as the most important issue in conservation today? How would you address it?
• Who is your conservation hero?
• Do you see “conservation” and “preservation” differently?
Science Communication: If you are interviewing for a job that has any aspect of science communication where you will be speaking to a general audience, expect to give a short, presentation-style talk.
• Tell me about an area of your research as if I were an eight year old.
• Give a short (5-10) minute general audience talk on any part of your research.
• What do you do for fun? (This hit me most by surprise as I had just finished my dissertation and had to think back to a time when I had more time for this)
• What do you like most about your current job? Least?
• Why are you leaving your current job?
Good questions to ask them: At the end of the interview, the interviewer(s) will always ask you if you have any questions. Not having any questions will reflect upon you negatively; you are either unprepared or don’t care enough about the job. Often during an interview, the interviewer may answer questions that you have throughout the interview. Therefore, I suggest preparing a long list in advance to ensure that some questions will not be addressed during the interview. Here are examples of some that I have found helpful in better understanding the position, the requirements of the position, your boss, and the workplace environment:
• What will a successful year look like? (This is especially important for post-doc positions where your contract may be re-newed after the first year. You may want to even shorten this to six months or whenever your initial review will be.)
• What are your expectations for publishing? (Number of pubs, timeline)
• What is your mentoring style?
• What is the work environment/lab like? (Will you be working independently? As part of a team?)
• What does a typical day look like for this position?
• For past employees of the same position that have performed well, what made their performance outstanding?
• Are there any reservations you have about my fit for the position that I could address? (A good final question)
• What is your timeline for getting back to candidates, and what are the next steps? (Also a good final question)
Dress the Part: Scientists are notorious for underdressing (personal observation). It’s better to overdress than underdress. You won’t get points docked for taking the interview too seriously. Wear a suit for any interview associated with an organization (museum, nonprofit, zoo). That being said, make sure to get information about your visit. For example, if you are interviewing in person and may be walking around to tour land or visit field sites then make sure to dress properly or bring a change of clothes.
Skype/Phone Interviews: For Skype, still dress the part and make sure your background is appropriate (e.g. remove your Britney Spears posters). If you have never used Skype before, do a practice call with a friend so you can know how to use the program and also see how look. The height of your face in the computer screen is also important. You don’t want them looking up your nose or down on your head. It’s also a good idea to do a test call just to see how you look and to know where to look on your computer, especially before the interview. It can be tricky because in person we would normally look into the interviewer’s eyes, but on the computer, this means looking into the monitor’s camera.
Currently, it’s a really tough job market. All of the jobs I or my friends have been interviewed for, or received, have beaten out hundreds of applicants. My most recent job interview had 300 applications. Therefore, you have to take the interview process very seriously and prepare. Good luck!
**If you’re in college or finishing up a two- or four-year degree, check out these tips for landing a job in ecology as a field technician.