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Interview questions

Understanding interview questions

Although you are not in control of the exact questions that will be asked of you at interview, you can still prepare. You can forecast some of the questions that might be asked based on the job advert or information about the organisation. For example, if specific skills seem to be of high importance for the role, it is likely that you will be asked questions about these.

You can also prepare for the different types of questions that are typically asked and understand their purpose. This deeper understanding will help to put you at ease and practicing your responses will build your confidence. Here, we take you through these different types of questions and give you examples to try.  

Your postdoc experiences 

As a postdoc, you may be used to preparing for presentations and academic interviews. In addition, you’ve successfully passed your viva to get your PhD. Although the context and environment may be different if you’re interviewing for roles beyond academia, you’ve shown the capability to handle pressurised situations.

You now just need to focus on showcasing the skills and abilities relevant to the job you have applied for. Mapping your postdoc experience to in-demand skills might help. Through personal reflection, understanding your skills and researching careers, you are now in a position to show employers exactly what you would bring to their organisation. Many of these skills and approaches are broadly applicable, and you can tailor them to academic interview situations too. 

Competency-based questions

The most common interview questions are competency-based. These take what you have done previously as a sign of what you can achieve in future. These questions seek to uncover how you have demonstrated certain skills (technical or transferable) or behaviours in different situations. They often start with ‘can you tell me about a time where…’ or ‘give me an example of…’. 

Several examples of competency-based questions are given below. You can find more examples of these types of questions and how to prepare for them by following the links.

“I’ll ask what’s your biggest ever achievement? or what are you most proud of? I always say tell me about something you’ve led. If you’ve not led anything, that makes me a bit nervous. It might be outside of work, for example we had a candidate who had organised her orchestra’s tour around Europe – that’s leadership!”

Martyn Spink, Programme Director, IBM UK Research Team

Strengths-based questions

Strengths-based questions are about predicting your potential. They aim to find out more about your personality, values and what you enjoy doing. You can also enrich your responses to strengths-based questions by giving examples. 

There are many other examples of strengths-based interview questions.

Role specific questions

Role-specific questions focus in on what you will be doing in the job, rather than asking you about where you have demonstrated specific skills or what you think your strengths are.  

Role-specific interview questions are tailored to the specific position being interviewed for. Here are some examples of role-specific interview questions:

  1. For a software developer: "Can you walk me through a recent coding project you completed?"
  2. For a sales representative: "How would you approach building relationships with potential clients in a new market?"
  3. For a graphic designer: "Can you show me a portfolio of your previous design work and walk me through your design process?"
  4. For a project manager: "How do you prioritise tasks and manage project timelines?"
  5. For a customer service representative: "Can you tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to resolve a customer's issue?"

These questions are designed to assess the candidate's skills, experience, and knowledge related to the specific role.

To prepare for role-specific questions in a job interview, consider the following steps:

  1. Research the job description and requirements: Study the job description and identify the key skills, qualifications, and responsibilities required for the position. This will help you understand what the interviewer is looking for and tailor your responses accordingly.
  2. Research the company: Learn as much as you can about the company, its culture, values, and products or services. This will help you understand how your skills and experience align with the company's goals and mission.
  3. Review your CV and cover letter: Revisit your CV and cover letter to refresh your memory about your relevant experiences and accomplishments. This will help you articulate your strengths and achievements clearly in the interview.
  4. Practice answering role-specific questions: Look up common interview questions for the specific role and practice answering them out loud. This will help you feel more confident and prepared for the interview.
  5. Prepare examples: Prepare examples from your past experiences that showcase your skills, accomplishments, and problem-solving abilities related to the specific role.

Weaknesses questions

You might get a question such as ‘can you tell us about your weaknesses?’ or ‘what would others say your weaknesses are?’. These can be difficult to answer well. Make sure any examples you give are not critical to the role you are applying for or a fundamental flaw in your character. These can leave question marks in the minds of the interviewers.  

  • Be honest and authentic in your response. Describe a real weakness, but also say how you are working on strengthening in that area. For example, you could say that in the past you have struggled to organise your workload and prioritise tasks. But now you have developed a system that works well (give more details). This shows good self-awareness and a willingness to improve. 
  • Be wary of saying you are a perfectionist. This is an often-used answer, and it can look like you are deflecting the question, rather than answering it. So, it might not be as impactful as giving an actual weakness that you have been working on. Also, if you say you have no weaknesses, this does not look like you are being genuine and may instead display a lack of self-awareness. 

Less frequently asked questions

Although competency and strength-based questions are the most common, you may also get asked other types of questions. Some of these you can prepare for, but others may be more difficult to anticipate. However, having an appreciation of what you could be faced with, will make you feel more prepared and confident.  

1. Warm up questions

When you begin an interview, your interviewers will appreciate that you might be nervous. To help you settle, they may ask you some warmup questions. These aren’t designed to trip you up; their purpose is just to get you talking. They might choose topics that they know are familiar to you. Examples include, ‘tell us something about yourself’ or ‘tell us about your research’. This is an opportunity for you to start confidently, creating a good initial impression, so aim to be clear and concise.  

2. Situational questions

Here, you’ll be given a hypothetical situation, most likely related to the role you have applied for. You could try to prepare by imagining certain situations or finding our more information from contacts you have who have that role. You might be asked to read some text and then be asked how you would deal with that situation. 

They are testing what you understand about the role and how you might behave in certain circumstances. They want to assess your reasoning and ability to make judgement calls. Think carefully about the situation and take them though your logic for making certain decisions. 

3. Motivation questions

Interviewers may want to assess your passion for the role and whether you have done your research into the role/organisation/sector. You might get questions such as ‘what motivated you to apply for this role’ or ‘what attracted you to our organisation’. This is where your research into the role and company will come in handy. It is also an opportunity to show how keen you are, as well as referring to your personal values and interests. 

One common question that you might have heard before is ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’. This is testing your knowledge of what career paths are possible at the organisation, as well as giving you the opportunity to demonstrate your ambition. You might talk about opportunities to develop and learn new skills or experience different parts of the organisation. Answers like this demonstrate your enthusiasm to work with them. 

4. Questions to demonstrate your reasoning or creativity 

Some interviews may include rather abstract questions, with no right answer. These questions are designed to see how flexible you are with your thoughts and your ability to come up with new ideas. An example might include, ‘how many tennis balls can you fit in a Boeing 747?’. Here, the interviewer wants to follow and assess your logic flow. Other questions could include, ‘if you were a cake, what cake would you be?’. This gives you the opportunity to be creative and showcase your personality.

Another classic question is ‘imagine a brick was here in front of us, give me some examples of what you could do with it’. This is assessing your ability to come up with ideas and how flexible you are with your thought processes. These types of questions are challenging, they are difficult to prepare for and you may well feel the pressure. So, try to keep calm and really understand what is being asked of you. Even ask for clarification to slow things down, giving yourself a bit more time to think.

Questions for interviewers

Have you got any questions for us?

This is often the final part of an interview. You may be feeling relieved that you have got this far, but don’t miss this opportunity to ask questions. It serves a few purposes. It allows you to ask questions you have on your mind about the role or organisation. But it is also another chance to show your enthusiasm and that you have looked closely at what the role will entail. 

If you pass up the opportunity to ask a question here, it may not reflect that well on you.  

  • When you are preparing for the interview, think ahead about what you might ask that is not easy to find out elsewhere. If you ask a question that could have just been found on their website, it may look quite contrived and that you haven’t really done your research.  
  • Questions that show how you might fit in and what you might offer are a good idea. For example, ‘will there be opportunities to work with other teams or departments and could you give me an example of how you do this already?’. This shows a willingness to collaborate and gives a good impression in terms of how you might adapt and add to the working environment. 
  • Other questions might include, ‘what do you enjoy about working at this organisation?’ or ‘where do you anticipate the company being in five years’ time?’. Think about the interviewers on the panel and what they do, if you ask a question of them, make it relevant to their expertise.  
  • You could also ask about development opportunities but try to be specific and make it related to the role. This kind of question shows that you would like to grow in the role and progress over time. 
  • Avoid asking about salary; any negotiation around this can be done if you are offered the position. If there is no indication of salary expectations in the job advert, then it may be legitimate to ask about the overall benefits package offered, without getting into details about specific numbers. Sometimes you might be asked about your salary expectations, but this is not common.    

Take a look at some additional questions you might ask at the end of the interview.

STAR method

This framework, principally used to answer competency-based questions, is a powerful method for giving clear and rich examples of where and how you have demonstrated different skills or behaviours.

  1. Start by describing the situation or setting the scene. Where were you and who else was there? Outline the context and why it is relevant to the question being asked.
  2. Then describe the task – what your role or responsibility was in the bigger picture.
  3. For action, describe what you did that demonstrated that skill or behaviour asked in the question. How did you go about addressing the situation and what steps did you take along the way.
  4. Finally, the interviewer wants to know what the result or impact of your actions was on the situation. A good answer would include concrete examples of output, preferably quantifying the results.   

Sometimes the STAR method is extended with an additional R (STARR), standing for review or reflection. Reflecting on what you learned from the situation to take forwards or do differently in future can add even more depth to your answer. It also shows a high level of self-awareness and drive to improve. 

There are variations and truncations of the STAR method. Two you might come across are SAR (Situation-Action-Result) and PAR (Problem-Action-Result). They are basically the same as STAR, but some people find the S and T difficult to distinguish so often combine them. If this is the case for you, PAR and SAR may be preferable.

But remember, it’s not just about what you say in response to questions, it’s also how you say it. In pressurised situations like interviews, it can be difficult to show your enthusiasm for the role and to portray your personality. The STAR(R) method gives you a way to structure and organise your response but consider how you might also incorporate storytelling techniques in your answers.  

You can really stand out to interviewers by using storytelling techniques. Not only will you demonstrate excellent communication skills, but it will make you memorable.

Suggested tasks

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Mock interviews

In the following video, career coach Elizabeth Adams emphasises the value of doing mock interviews. Elizabeth goes through the different types of questions, discusses interview formats and stresses the importance of thorough research for interview preparation.

Towards the end of the video, a group task is presented showing you how you can make use of others to conduct mock interviews.

You can also find here additional sample questions for you to practice.

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