Interview questions for graduate students interviewing for non-academic jobs

If, having studied for or finished a PhD, you seek work outside of academics, you will probably have to answer questions about your graduate work in your non-academic job interview.  I’ve provided a list of questions that you should be able to answer, some of which are specific to your situation but many of which apply to all candidates.

When you answer, your first response should be brief, just a couple or three sentences: interviewers can ask follow-up questions if they want to.   Make sure to have a general practice interview with someone in the non-academic workforce and then, if possible, another one when you have an interview for a specific job.

  1. Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
  2. Why are you leaving graduate school [if you are leaving before finishing]?
  3. Why are you applying for this job? The phrase “with a Ph.D.” may or may or may not be added.
  4. Why are you interested in this job? The phrase “with a Ph.D.” may or may or may not be added. Note the difference between this and the previous question; it’s worth answering as though this were the question asked.
  5. This job involves [work]; why are you applying for it, since you’ve been studying [other thing]? Have specific examples to show that you are interested in and experienced at things in addition to your graduate work.
  6. Why did you spend so much time in graduate school, if you’re applying for [this job] now?
  7. Why did you not finish your degree, after spending so much time in graduate school?
  8. How is what you did in graduate school related to [this job]? If your research subject isn’t related to the job, don’t stretch to make it seem so.  You can discuss what you did working in groups (see below) and research-skill development instead.
  9. Tell us about your research.  /or/ What did you study?  You should practice a short answer suited to a non-specialist, no more than 3-4 sentences.  They can always ask follow-up questions.  Remember to introduce at least one key research skill as well, if it makes sense in conversation.
  10. What can your research bring to our company? If you study an entirely unrelated field, this is the time to talk about your research skills, rather than your research subject.
  11. Why do you want a non-academic job? /or/ Would you like to end up back in academia? Employers want people who want to be at their workplace.  Don’t lie if you have dreams of getting into academics some day, but do make it clear why you liked the job, the company, and / or the people well enough to apply.  Imagine the question being asked is “Why do you want a non-academic job now?”
  12. Can you write for non-specialized audiences? Make sure you know how the company communicates, and that you explain how you have worked on similar platforms, if you have (blogs, Twitter, company website, etc.)
  13. Tell me how you work in teams. You should understand “team” to mean any group that works toward a common goal: a reading group, a group teaching the same course, a graduate-student union working group on a particular issue.
  14. Give me an example of a time when you led a group.
    1. How did you contribute to [successful outcome]?
    2. Give me an example of something that went wrong, and what you did to address it.
  15. What is the hardest problem you ever solved?
  16. What is the hardest people-problem you ever solved?
  17. What is the hardest process-problem you ever solved?
  18. Given an example of a problem you were not able to solve, and say why. What would you have done differently, knowing what you know now?
  19. Do you have questions for us? First part of answer: “yes.” Options for questions, most important first:
    1. [clarifying question about what you have heard in the interview]
    2. [question about the job]
    3. [informed question about the company – you have already done some research, right?]
    4. [question about the area, if you do not currently live there]
  20. Tell me about management experiences you have had.
  21. How to you persuade people who disagree with you?
  22. What kind of personality do you most like to work with? What kind of personality do you least like to work with?
  23. Give me an example of a time when you managed difficult interaction with another employee.
  24. Why do you want to move to [location of job]? Often asked when job is in a difficult location to recruit for.  Employers worry that you are thinking “well, [place] sucks, but it’s a job, so I’ll go and leave as soon as possible.”  They don’t want your attitude about the place to become their workplace problem, whatever you actually think about the location.
  25. What do you like to do when you’re not working?