An interview is a meeting with clear objectives between parties, typically organized and led by one of the parties. Typically, these are a part of applying to a job or school, receiving press about research or entrepreneurial efforts, or joining a lab. This article aims to provide high-level information and structure when preparing for any interview.
Criteria for Success
- Understand the goals of the meeting from each participant’s perspective
- Prepare by getting familiar with participants’ backgrounds, generating questions/answers, and/or providing documents ahead of time
- Practice, practice, practice
- Match energy levels, formality, and expectations among participants
- Follow up with participants appropriately, such as sending thank you notes or additional documents
Identify the goals
It is helpful to start by thinking about the goals that each participant might have. For interviews, the goal is typically clear from the beginning. For example:
- You are interviewing for a research position in a lab or job at a biopharmaceutical startup
- The university press office wants to ask you questions about the impact of a recent publication or progress of a startup
While the goal may be clear from your end, it’s helpful to think about what all the participants may be looking for and their perspective. For each participant, think about what they primarily want to get out of the interview. What’s the best outcome for them? For example:
- Recruiters may be dealing with a large pool of applicants and need to find the best applicant as quick as possible
- Managers are looking for the best candidate that fits their requirements and culture
- The university press office wants to generate excitement and interest in your research to promote university work and reputation
- The professor and students in the lab want to find someone that fits the lab culture
Thinking about what others are hoping to accomplish can help you prepare specific materials or answers ahead of time. If all the goals aren’t clear, it may be productive to clarify these before, during, or after. For instance, if you are joining a lab, discussing when you can join and for how long can ensure you and your potential advisor are on the same page. If your work is getting coverage, asking when they plan to publish or if they need images can you boost the impact. Making sure everyone is on the same page will ensure the focus and expectations of the interview are shared.
Analyze your audience
This is critical for preparing the right questions, answers, and materials. There are three main areas you should become familiar with before the interview. Think about what information may be pertinent and useful.
- What is their educational and employment background?
- What type of training do they have?
- Where did they perform their training?
- What work have they done in the past?
- What do they or their employer care about? (particularly applicable to academia/industry job interviews)
- What is the department/company culture and mission?
- What approaches do they take? What tools do they use?
- How do they feel about issues you may care about (e.g. community culture, workplace policies, scientific methods)?
- What are recent events or news related to them?
- What news have they garnered recently or could affect them?
- What have they been talking about (e.g. social media, press releases)?
- Have they released any new products or publications recently?
You can find most of the answers to the above questions through some basic internet research. The following tools are a great place to start your background research.
- Your network
- Social media platforms (LinkedIn, Twitter)
- Company/institutional websites
- Application-specific platforms (e.g. Glassdoor, PubMed, Crunchbase)
- Google (using information from #1-4)
Anticipate questions and prepare answers
By identifying everyone’s goals and knowing your audience, you can begin preparing content based on what you want and what others may want. By using the background research tools above, gather a list of potential questions you may encounter and prepare answers. It also helps to anticipate follow-up questions. As a technical example, someone may ask what experiments you would run if given X, Y, and Z. A typical follow-up question may be “why would you do that versus this?” which requires you to also know about multiple approaches that could be used. As a behavioral example, someone may ask “describe a time when your team was facing substantial change. How did that impact you, and how did you adapt?” A follow-up question could be “how did you help others adapt to the change?”
Many resources are available to give you an idea about potential questions:
- MIT Career Development Handbook
- Monster Top 100 Q’s
- Indeed 125 Common Q’s
- Forbes 50 Most Common Q’s
- Glassdoor 50 Most Common Q’s
It can be hard to anticipate specifically what their questions/answers may be, but try to prepare content for what you think you may face. For job interviews, identify the skills or attributes your employer might be looking for (typically listed on the job posting) and prepare answers that highlight those skills. In academia, providing examples of independent ideas and progress on research experiments can be critical. In industry, telling an anecdote about your ability to work well in a team can help you prepare for common behavioral questions. Regardless, it will be great practice in crafting a clear, concise message to common questions. Outlining answers ahead of time can be particularly helpful for complicated behavioral or technical questions where it could be easy to ramble on or get lost in the details. For behavioral questions, think about the STAR approach (check out these resources: MIT Career Development Office, The Muse, Hubspot, VA Wizard).
In most interviews, you will also have a chance to ask questions, such as the end of a job interview where the recruiter or manager offers you a chance to ask questions about the position. Take this opportunity to show interest and awareness of the goals, work, or needs of others in the room. If you are asking questions, it can be helpful to prepare follow-up questions by anticipating their responses. Having an arsenal of questions in your lap can keep the conversation moving smoothly.
Prepare and bring any materials to communicate more effectively
In preparation for the interview, you may have compiled a list of questions and answers for reference. Other materials can help the conversation and impress your audience. These could include copies of your resume, graphical abstracts or diagrams for scientific topics, slide decks, and/or figures. Even if no one needs these materials, offering them at the beginning of the meeting shows everyone you came prepared. Additionally, preparing them can help you mentally prepare for the interview topics or questions.
You must be careful with these materials, however, because it gives your interviewers another opportunity to form an opinion on you. While having these materials can show qualities of preparation and hard work, sloppy or unclear materials can turn that perception sour and hurt your goals. Make sure that any materials you bring are high quality!
Practice with a peer, mentor, or Career Development Specialist
There are many tips and tricks to public speaking and nearly all of them apply to interviews. For interviews, focus on these tips: be concrete and concise, speak slowly and definitively, and maintain a strong, positive nonverbal presence.
While the formality of interviews may vary, it’s important to remember that interviews are discussions – a back and forth on topics of interest to everyone. It’s critical to maintain a balance between providing detail when asked, interjecting opinions that could be valuable, and never dominating a conversation.
Practicing your answers will provide you a dry-run to iron out any hiccups you may encounter beforehand. MIT Career Advising and Professional Development offers mock interviews exactly for this purpose. If it’s a more informal occasion, consider asking a peer or mentor. Ultimately, practice makes perfect.
Match the energy in the room (or virtual room)
Depending on the purpose of your interview, the energy, formality, and expectations of the meeting could vary widely. You should identify what may be expected for the interview ahead of time. A common problem in job interviews is a lack of excitement or energy. Reflect on times you were excited and channel that demeanor and tone. As a physical example, consider what you will wear. For a job at a consulting company, you can expect to wear business formal attire to the interview. For a meeting with a professor to join the lab, business casual is typically more than acceptable. In addition to attire, it’s helpful and comforting to match the energy, feelings, and body language of others. This can materialize in a variety of ways, like ordering reasonably priced items at a lunch interview, how you sit with respect to others, expressing excitement about a research idea if others are excited, or keeping your phone away and silent.
Follow up if appropriate
It’s common to follow up with others after an interview through email. It can make a good impression to follow up on interviews with a thank you note or additional materials that were mentioned during the interview. Be sure to add a concrete, memorable note from the interview in your follow-up email. This will help both you and the interviewee recall the conversation. If you are meeting with lots of people, carry a notebook and jot down thoughts so you don’t forget later. See this CommKit article on writing professional emails.
Academic interview tips (UCSF)
Preparing for academic interviews (NIH)
Interview tips for the bio-pharma industry (Biospace)
Top R&D/Scientist questions in interviews (Cheeky Scientist)