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Acing the Interview: tips for rising above the competition 

May 26, 2022 
by Lauren Celano 

Acing the Interview: tips for rising above the competition

For every job opening in the bio tech and life science sectors, there are dozens, if not hundreds of applicants. I wrote in my previous blog, "Graduation season is here. Now is not the time for science majors without a job to panic," about the job search process and how to make yourself stand out.

Your resume and application helped you stand out, and you've landed an interview. Your interview will most likely be virtual (but some organizations are starting to do in-person interviews). It's time to get prepared! Let's discuss the logistics of virtual and in-person interviews, how to prepare, how to answer the questions and following up afterwards.

Logistics to consider for virtual interviews

Interviews are stressful situations, whether they are virtual or in-person. You have seconds to make a great first impression. Add technology into the mix with a virtual interview and the stress level can rise. Let's talk about what you can do to minimize the stress so you can focus on presenting your best self to the interviewers.

  1. Learn the video platform. If the interview is via Zoom and you've been on lots of Zoom meetings where you've spoken, shared your screen and been engaged, then you're probably fine. However, sometimes companies in certain geographies or of certain sizes prefer specific platforms and might prefer a platform such as Skype, Webex, Teams, Google Meet, etc. Whatever platform the interviewer is using, practice with a friend before the actual interview so you know how to use it and if there are any nuances to the system. For example, during a presentation, Microsoft Teams often does not allow the person presenting to view participants. This sometimes stresses out interviewers who are giving a job talk as part of their interview process.  Also, have your practice partner check your screen name, make sure your image is clear, and make sure your sound quality is not muffled.

 

  1. Your appearance is more than just you. We've been doing virtual interviews for more than two years, and some people still don't present well. Their laptop camera is looking up their nose, their background is a mess, and their lighting is poor. These are all easy fixes.

Make sure your camera is eye level; place books or a box underneath it if needed. Pay attention to your lighting. Make sure there isn't a window behind you. If you are going to do a lot of interviews, invest in a light designed for virtual meetings. Lume Cube is just one of many companies that offer affordable lights that clip on top of your laptop to provide even lighting on your face and background.

Speaking of your background, make sure it's organized and clear of clutter. If your background doesn't promote the image of professionalism, add a virtual background. Upload it to the platform you'll be using and test how it looks beforehand.

  1. Tips for keeping eye contact. Keeping good eye contact is even more important during virtual interviews. Keeping your camera eye level is a good start. Position the person or people doing the interview directly under your camera.

If your desk faces a wall, print key bullet points of your responses to standard interview questions on the wall right above your screen. This way, you can easily reference these bullet points while answering questions and appear to be looking into the camera.

  1. What to wear for a virtual interview? It's simple: wear what you would to an in-person interview, right down to the shoes. If you are interviewing for a professional job, wear a suit, a shirt and tie or a professional blouse. It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed. Don't cheat by wearing a suit on top with pajama bottoms, shorts, or sweatpants. We've all seen the videos on TikTok. Something will happen that you'll need to get up, and they'll see what you're wearing from the waist down. Being fully dressed for an interview will help you feel sharper and more prepared.

 

It's time for the actual interview experience

You've gone through the logistics for the interview. Your computer setup is ready, and you know what you're wearing. But do you know who you are interviewing with?

The interview process will probably go several rounds. Your first interview will most likely be with a representative of human resources. Some companies may refer to HR as talent management, the people and culture team, employee relations, etc., but they all mean the same thing. This is the person who will determine if you continue in the interview process, so take this as seriously as any interview you have.

From there, your second and possibly third rounds of interviews could be with multiple people, which makes virtual meetings challenging, so the more comfortable you are with virtual meetings the better. I'll provide advice for each type of interview later in this blog.

  1. Do your research: You're a scientist. You probably have a great deal of experience doing research. Learn all you can about the organization from its website, blog, and their news page. Read about them in publications and research the employees on LinkedIn. If you are going to do this, you could change your LinkedIn profile viewing options to private mode, so that people don’t know that you viewed their profile. I do think it's ok, however, to leave your profile viewing options public, so people see that you viewed their profile. It helps to break the ice when making LinkedIn connections. Talk with any personal connections you have who work there.
  2. Analyze the position qualifications. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, you don't need to match 100% of the qualifications for the job. If you've gotten this far, the company feels your qualifications are at least sufficient to do the work.

Prepare for the interview by comparing each position requirement with your resume and relevant experience. The experience could come from jobs you've held, your research activities, course projects, volunteer work and leadership activities. Remember those bullet points I spoke about earlier? Create bullet points for each requirement and practice your responses from them.

  1. Hard skills vs. soft skills. Both are equally important. I advise candidates to evaluate both as they decipher the job description to ensure that they have examples they can describe about both during interviews. Ideally as you prepare interview responses you will describe both hard and soft skills in the same response. For example, for the first hard skill below, if I asked you about how you have used mouse models, an ideal response could be:

In my graduate research, I led a team of four people to develop three different genetically modified mouse models to study drug targets for diabetes.

In this response, you highlight the hard skill as well as the soft skills of leadership and teamwork.

 

Make time for self-reflection before the interview

It's important to understand your career goals. What you want now, and where you see yourself in five and ten years. It sounds cliche, but it's true.

Before the interview, ask yourself some important questions. Chances are good you'll be asked these questions in the first round of interviews.

  • Why do you want this role?
  • What excites you about this organization?
  • What skills do you have that are relevant?
  • What are you looking for in a role, organization, culture, and team?
  • What kind of career trajectory do you want?
  • What else is important to you? Do you want flexibility to work remotely for example?

 

Utilizing the STAR Method when developing interview responses

It is important to remember that interviewers cannot read your mind.  You know what you do, you have lived your life. When you explain something, you know exactly the context, what you did, what the outcome was – you might even remember the exact day and time that this situation happened and how you were feeling.  The interviewer listening to you has no idea about any of this – this is the first time, usually, that they are meeting you and listening to you talk about you experiences.  Therefore, it is important to indicate context, otherwise they might not be able to “place” where you did what, especially if you've had multiple research experiences.

 

The STAR method will help you develop your responses. This allows you to mention the following:

  • Situation: The context within which a job was performed, or a challenge was encountered.
  • Task: A description of your responsibility to deliver in that situation.
  • Action: How did you complete the task or endeavor to meet the challenge.
  • Result: what was the outcome or result generated by the action taken.

Your responses and questions depend on who you're speaking with

I mentioned earlier that your interview process will probably go several rounds. It's important to remember that not only is the company interviewing you, but YOU are also interviewing the company. Questions can and should go both ways.

  1. Interview with HR. The first round is typically with someone from HR. This is usually a more general discussion, so your responses can be more high-level. The HR person may or may not have some technical or functional background. Research them on LinkedIn prior to your interview if possible so that you know how much to tailor your responses.

They will inevitably ask if you have questions for them. Never say no. Have a list prepared. If you have no questions, they will think that you are not interested in the opportunity.  Some questions to ask HR during the interview are:

  • What are the most important aspects of the role?
  • Can you tell me a little more about the culture?
  • What other groups in the Organization would I work closely with in this role?
  • Can you tell me a little more about the team? How many people are in it and what types of backgrounds?
  • What are the growth plans for the group?
  • What growth opportunities exist within the organization?

 

  1. Interview with the hiring manager. Your next interview could be with a hiring manager; the person who will be your boss. You should be more specific with your responses, since they most likely have experience with the position you are interviewing for. Again, have a list of questions prepared for you to ask them. Some questions could be:
  • What are the top three tasks you need done for this position?
  • Can you tell me a little more about the research goals for the group or role?
  • What techniques are you using most often?
  • Are there any techniques that you are looking to bring in house?
  • How would you describe the department’s culture?
  • What is your management style?
  • Can you describe a typical day or week?
  • What are the growth plans/strategy for the department/organization/lab over the next one, three and five years?
  • What excites you most about the department?

 

  1. Interview with your future colleagues. Sometimes organizations conduct a group or individual interview with people who will be your colleagues - direct team members or people from other departments that you'll be working with. Again, research them online if possible, and be prepared with detailed responses to their questions. You can ask them questions as well, which will help you learn more about the department or organization's culture. Some questions could be:
  • What do you like most about working here?
  • Can you tell me a little more about your role and how I would interact with you?
  • How would you describe the department’s or company’s culture?

 

What's next? Don't be afraid to ask.

Knowing what's next in the process is fair to everyone. You have a right to ask, and the company may or may not provide a lot of information. You can ask the HR person and the hiring manager what the next steps are in the interview process and when you should expect to hear about the next round.

 

Nothing is as important as passion.

Passion plays a huge role in the job search process. You need to have and show your passion for a role or organization and for the work that you are hoping to be hired for. The people in the organization need to show you passion for the work they do and the company they work for. As Jon Bon Jovi said, "Nothing is as important as passion. No matter what you want to do with your life, be passionate."

Companies also want to see someone who is a team player, but can also work independently, with good communication skills. You are looking for an organization where you feel welcome, appreciated and part of a team that is making a difference.

Ultimately, you are both looking for the perfect match.

 

Propel Careers is a Boston based life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences organizations. Lauren Celano has a B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Gettysburg College and an MBA with a focus in the health sector and entrepreneurship from Boston University. Celano serves on the boards of many organizations, including the Board of MassBioEd as Vice-Chair and the Board of the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association. She is also on the Advisory Board for the Professional Science Master’s Program at Framingham State University, and New England Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (NE GWISE). To learn more about Propel: https://www.propelcareers.com/

 

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