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Career Advice

Industry interview top tips for PhDs

Interviewing for jobs in private industry is a piece of cake, if you know what’s expected of you


Emerging from academia, eyes blinking into the sunlight of employment in the private sector, new PhD graduates are often unprepared for what awaits them. In addition to organizing their resumé, writing up a compelling cover letter, and sending applications to potential employers, these new graduates often underestimate the importance of good interview preparation when attempting to secure non-public sector, non-university research positions.

Here are five things you should do when applying for and interviewing in private industry. Keep these in mind when going before the hiring committee and you may find yourself being asked back for a follow-up meeting or even offered a job.

Tip # 1 – Prepare for your interview with a professional, well-targeted application

Your interview isn’t your first chance to make that crucial initial impression; your application is. For your interviewers, it’s the first best clue whether you can do the job. As such, you need to get the little things right. For example, your resumé and cover letter must be accurate and up-to-date. “You’d be surprised at how many resumés we get where it says they’re applying to our company but they still have an out-dated cover letter with a different contact name or contact company,” says Stacy Cons, who works in human resources at Tekmira Pharmacueticals Corp. in Burnaby, British Columbia.

As a new graduate, you also need to apply for positions appropriate to your level of experience. “Sometimes we get resumés from recent graduates and they’re looking for a management position, or a senior management position,” says Ms. Cons. “Just be realistic about your career prospects when you’re first starting out.”

Tip # 2 – Use your interview to highlight your unique strengths

Your main objective in an industry interview is to communicate how you are the best candidate for the job. “Always relate things back to how your skill or experience will help the company” suggests Paul Lem, CEO of Spartan Biosciences Inc. in Ottawa. “For example, if the interviewer asks for your top three qualities, relate those back to how they will help the company.” What’s more, your graduate experience shouldn’t be a liability. Make sure to sell your transferable skills, adds Dr. Lem. “I think the most important thing I learned was to promote the skills I learned during grad school that are not directly research-related.” Try to convince the interviewer that adding you to the team will help them immediately.

Your interview should build on your application, not stand apart from it. “Not re-stating or elaborating upon what’s in a resumé” is a common mistake that graduate students make in interviews, says Barbara Francis, an employer account manager for the University of Ottawa co-op program. “Graduate students assume that the interviewers already know the details because they’ve read it.” While a potential employer will have read your application, they will have done so along with that of every other candidate. They have a general sense of who you are and what skills you bring. But your interview is your opportunity to highlight what they need to remember about you when they are making the hiring decision.

Tip #3 – Keep personal grooming, posture, self confidence and etiquette in mind

Your personal presentation will either enhance your standing in the eyes of the hiring committee or it will not. An employer is evaluating your appearance, etiquette and composure with one question in mind: would we want this person representing our company? Make sure the answer is yes. “We’ve had students who we invited for interviews who are a bit late, and we don’t hear from them,” says Ms. Cons. “Be on time, or call if you will be late.”

Meanwhile, beyond showing common courtesy, it is important to be self-confident, make and maintain eye contact and have good posture. “You have to sell yourself,” says Jordanna Bermack, a McGill University PhD Graduate. “I know I personally found that very difficult, and as a grad student, I never had to do this….” Moreover, you’ll want to avoid interjecting with “ummm,” “ah,” or “like.” Clearly articulate your answers. If you are having trouble with your delivery, practice your job interview in front of someone who can give you an honest critique.

Tip #4 – Research the company you’re interviewing with and come prepared

Most interviews will require you to demonstrate knowledge about the company and the industry it operates in. “Read up on the company, and learn as much as you can about their business,” says Dr. Lem. “For example, if a company specializes in DNA analyzers, read up everything on DNA analysis.” It is a good idea to know what the company does, how it works and who its competitors are. Depending on the position, it may be a good idea to do detailed research on the technology the company employs, including looking for patents. Depending on how technical the position is, be prepared to answer direct questions about the main technologies the company uses, especially if you’re hoping to become part of the development team.

Finally, if you do get invited for an interview, you should do industry-specific salary research beforehand. Find out what entry-level positions in this field pay, and consider the cost of living in the city the job is located. Again, be reasonable about your expectations.

Tip #5 – Follow up on your interview with a courtesy call

Even after a strong interview performance, your sales job isn’t over. “If you really want the job,” says Ms. Francis, “always send a thank you note within 24-hours of the interview. It is also appropriate to follow up in a week or two, asking how the process is going and again indicating your interest and desire for the job.” This will help keep your candidacy top of mind, communicate your continued interest and underline your professionalism.

Dr. Nicole Arbour is a recent graduate from the biochemistry graduate program at the University of Ottawa and currently works as a research scientist with Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa.

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  1. Banik / March 20, 2009 at 13:45

    I don’t agree with what you have said. Those are cliches used in every career website. I had several onsite interviews and followed what you have said here. I didn’t get any of the jobs. The reason is that canadian industries hate to hire PhDs. Please try to come up with new tips. Don’t just copy and paste.

  2. Stuckincarn / May 30, 2009 at 16:32

    Agree with Banik. Everything here was a cliché from any website giving career search advice. Nothing at all specific to the very difficult task of applying for jobs outside of academia after spending several years working on a PhD.

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