Interviewing as a Graduate Student

The information presented in Step 7 of the Student Guide to Employment applies to all job candidates regardless of their degree level.  However, for job candidates with a PhD, the questioning will be focused on research and/or teaching accomplishments rather than the application of engineering principles, and a presentation by the candidate is often part of the interview process.  The remainder of this material is most applicable to those with PhDs.

In the candidate screening process the recruiter or selection committee has determined that the candidate that will be interviewed has the required qualifications, so the interview process largely focuses on “fit” for the position.

Interviewing as Grad Student.fw

Research Potential
Recent PhD graduates are expected to be well trained in the process of conducting research.  So, the interviewers are trying to answer questions such as these:

  • How prepared is the candidate to do “independent” research?
  • How well can the candidate communicate his or her research to others?
  • What has the candidate done that is innovative?
  • Does the candidate’s research have potential for new technologies, collaboration, or funding streams?
  • How well does the candidate work with others?
  • How much potential for project or team leadership does the candidate have?
  • What are the strengths of the candidate that set him or her apart from the other candidates?
  • Do the candidate’s research interests align with needs of the organization?

A large corporate recruiter who hires PhD for research and development positions offered this insight into his line of questioning regarding a candidates preparedness to conduct independent research.

“When a student enters graduate school and joins a professor’s research group, it’s only natural that the professor gives the student a lot of initial guidance and specific tasks to complete.  But as the student progresses, the student takes more ownership of the research there comes a time when the student begins to move the research in new directions that were not initially proposed by the professor.   To me it’s a critical point where the student begins to understand the project well enough based on both the literature and their firsthand knowledge that they can begin to direct or point the research into new and interesting areas.  This is the basis of “independent research”.  I ask the candidate to explain when and where this occurred in his or her research.  I also ask where his or her ideas led and what was learned.”

More typical questions might include:

  • Why did you choose your particular dissertation topic?
  • What challenges did you encounter that you did not expect and what would you do differently?
  • What do you consider your most significant accomplishment in the last 12 months and why?
  • Describe a recent collaboration with researchers outside of your research group. What was accomplished and what was your contribution to the effort.
  • What has been your strongest leadership role in the past 12 months and what did it teach you about good leadership?

Some of your interviewers will likely not be specialists in your area of expertise, so be prepared to talk about your research in general terms that all individuals are likely to understand and find interesting.   Try to translate your academic training into more broadly defined categories of communication, analysis, interpersonal, and organizational skills.

Teaching Potential

Academic positions will often come with teaching responsibilities and even purely research organizations may offer seminars and short courses.  Teaching experience is often equated to public speaking skills, and you develop a deeper understanding of the subject materials when you have to explain it to others.  So regardless of the position, if you have teaching experience be prepared to talk about it.  For research positions, questions might be limited to what subject(s) you taught, how many students were in your classes, etc.  But if the position involves teaching, the interviewers will likely be asking some of the following questions:

  • What three personal or professional values do you think are important for an instructor? How do you exhibit these characteristics?
  • Do you enjoy teaching and what do you like most and least about it?
  • What teaching techniques or approaches have you used to explain difficult topics?
  • How have you used new research to reinforce concepts?
  • How have you adapted processes/laboratories to meet the changing engineering practices?
  •  How do you motivate students?  What would you tell a student that is performing poorly?
  • What is your approach to grading?
  • What did you find most challenging about teaching an engineering course and how did you meet these challenges?
  •  How do you see the engineering field changing and how will these changes affect the way that we educate engineers.
The selection committee will also want to develop an understanding of the kind of citizen and colleague you will be.  They will likely be looking for someone who is interesting, positive, constructive, friendly, engaging, a “team-player”, a possible collaborator or co-teacher.  They will be attempting to avoid hiring an egomaniac who will demand a lot of attention and resources, and cause conflict.  They will also probably avoid hiring a recluse who will not contribute to departmental functions, will be uninterested in collaboration, will not embrace mentoring graduate students, and will want to avoid addressing large audiences.