Interview Tips from the Experts: Episode 12 of The Cancer Researcher Podcast

In this episode you’ll learn top tips from experts in both academia and industry to help you master your next interview. Discover strategies for overcoming nerves, handling unexpected questions, and making a lasting impression, whether in-person or via Zoom. Learn how to navigate job descriptions, emphasise desirable skills, and leave a positive impression even after a rejection.

Listen here, scroll down for the transcript and subscribe now via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, Deezer or YouTube so you’ll never miss an episode. You can find all episodes and their transcripts here.

Our guests in this episode:
  • Elisa Oricchio (moderator), Director of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research at EPFL, Switzerland
  • Heike Allgayer, Director of the Department of Experimental Surgery and Cancer Metastasis at the Mannheim Medical Faculty of University of Heidelberg
  • Verena Jendrossek, the Institute of Cell Biology at the University Hospital in Essen, where she leads the Molecular Cell Biology Group
  • Sven Lindemann, Project Manager at Merck’s Global Health Institute in Darmstadt, Germany
  • Jane Smith, CEO of the European Association for Cancer Research (EACR)

And our host: Alexandra Boitor, EACR Scientific Officer.

This conversation was adapted from a ‘Meet the Interviewers’ panel at the second edition of the EACR’s Early Career Researchers Conference, a much loved virtual conference tailored for early career scientists seeking expert guidance to thrive in all aspects of their research careers.

Episode transcript

Alexandra: Heike, would you like to start the conversation by sharing your top three tips for an interviewee?

Heike: I would say first of all, be prepared. I think it it’s really worth putting your mind into the next day before you go to an interview and think about the situation. Think about questions somebody might have for you and how you will tackle them and answer them.

My second hint would be that the first impression you make is really important, so really work a little bit in your mind about how you want to enter the room, how you want to look, the first questions you would ask from your side, because those questions and your first appearance can tell a lot about you and yourself.

And third, just be genuine, be authentic, be yourself, and don’t try to be somebody that isn’t you, because it will show in an interview.

Jane: I might be the odd one out in this session, as I’m not a scientist and I don’t have a scientific background. And so the perspective that I’m going to bring today is that of interviewing for administrative and managerial roles and working alongside scientists, of course. But I think a lot of what I will say will resonate with the rest of the panel because interviews are interviews. I think a lot of our experience will be the same.

So my top three tips for interviewing… I don’t know if this first one is a bit of a cheat, but my first tip is to get the interview, actually. Think about your audience. Be kind to your audience. When you’re writing that application for a job, make it accurate. Silly spelling mistakes really irritate me. It really irritates me if something’s obviously been copied and pasted from another application. So just write a really good application and make sure that you get that interview.

Then my second tip, very much as Heike said, I think it’s about being prepared, thinking, doing some research about the organisation that you’re applying to, and know the organisation, know the role, understand what you’ve applied for, and think about what might be asked, what might be relevant for that job. So be prepared.

My third tip, just think about the approach that you make and the impression that you give as you enter the room and as you talk to people during the interview.

Verena: As part of my job, I’m involved in selecting PhD students, postdocs and also committees for professorships, so very many opportunities to be involved in selection of scientists. I’ve also been the speaker for a PhD training program where we also had many selections.

And so for my quick tip, I want to remind you, maybe in a different view, that a very important thing is to think of the goal of the interview before you go. So for both sides, it’s very important that you match the right scientist with the right lab. This is for mutual benefit. We need good students to promote our research and you need a good environment to do a great PhD. Therefore the first thing is to be honest to yourself, is this really the lab you want to go to? Does the lab match really your own interest? Does it match your requirements in support, and so on? And do you like the techniques that they are doing?

And then the second tip would be during the interview. It’s really important that it’s a conversation. So give the interviewer the opportunity to get to know as much as possible about you and your interests and what do you like to do in the lab? Are you more the one involved in doing technologies or more involved in developing concepts, and so on? So that’s really important for the lab head to know about you. And the other aspect there is give the interviewer arguments that he or she should, in the end, select you. So why are you the best student to fill this position?

The third tip is try to get an interview or conversation with the other lab members. This will allow you in the end to see whether really this is the environment where you want to be involved.

Sven: Most important for me is also be prepared. And from the industry perspective, which I do not think it’s much different from the academic perspective, as an expert in the specific scientific field, but also especially about what is the company or what is the university I’m applying for, what is the research group I’m in?

The other tip is don’t be too nervous, but be a little bit nervous. As I changed my position within the company, I also had interviews for that other job. And this was just the same, like before, when I was starting at the industry, you don’t know what’s to come, what will the questions be, but most of them are super interesting. It’s really talking about what is the work and things like that. It’s always a little bit different with human resources. There could be for scientists at least some more tricky questions.

And the last part of my advice is to speak, so explain, make a presentation, present yourself, but also leave room for the interviewers to ask you something. I absolutely agree with Heike from the first point, be authentic. This is something you will recognise. We are looking for experts with a high scientific knowledge because we have a specific questions that we are looking for, postdocs or bench scientists, but we also always look for people who fit into the group because it doesn’t help if I have the best expert, but I have severe problems with the whole group working on this problems or not working any more with these people.

Jane: As we were all talking, I wondered if colleagues are still interviewing by Zoom, or if they’re now back to interviewing in person, and whether people think that makes a difference, or their specific tips that we might give to people if they’re interviewing remotely.

Verena: We are used to having Zoom interviews for people that may have difficulties to join us. So for example, from China, from India or so on, because if there are many applications, you may not want to make people travel, and then not get the job in the end. So we make first interviews via Zoom. So if it’s necessary, we make people come in. But for sure it’s a different format and it’s even more important to show your active involvement, because we want to have authentic people, but also we want to have active people and it’s much easier to give an impression about your commitment when you are there in person than if you are on a Zoom.

Jane: Yeah, I agree. We’ve done some Zoom interviewing, and it can be difficult to really make that connection.

Sven: So before we got into this pandemic situation, we had telephone interviews. We would do this also now by Zoom, but this is really a pre-selection. So we check for the most interesting candidates, and then we did the first interviews by Microsoft Teams or by telephone, avoiding traveling at that part, but final selections between the final two or three candidates will always be invited to be present at the team side.

Elisa: And do you think that the hybrid format could be a disadvantage for the people that are on Zoom. If it happened in parallel, both in person and on Zoom.

Jane: Yeah, it’s difficult to manage and difficult to make sure the experience is the same.

Heike: But at least I would say it’s a better situation presuming you can see somebody on a screen. On the telephone, we experienced that the person you are interviewing is not the person who will come to your lab later. So that can happen and so at least seeing the people on screen is of advantage in my view and I think you can still get a feeling for whether somebody is authentically interested, asks really good questions and shows honest interest in something. So I think Zoom is close to, but of course still not quite comparable to, meeting somebody in person.

Alexandra: So, when you meet a candidate for the first time, in person or on Zoom, what would you be looking for? What are the main skills or characteristics you screen for in an interview? Or does it all come down to the CV and publication record in the end?

Heike: Well, of course, it’s important to see and pre-select CVs and publication lists before, but at least in the narrow round of the top candidates who you want to meet later. I really think other skills and factors come in between, for example, for me, it’s always important to see gleaming eyes. If somebody comes in and asks what are the interesting things I can do here? What can I learn here? How can I contribute to your lab? And that might go back to that.

But what I think John F. Kennedy said, don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. So if I see things like that and really see somebody spreading enthusiasm and eyes gleaming, this is a really important sign for me, instead of somebody just having a list of pre-prepared questions. So, these factors in between, I think are at least as important as the formal record of a CV and top publications.

Sven: Yeah, I would also say, I think a CV and publication, it’s something what you use for pre-selection. And then at the next level, I completely agree with Heike, other things fit in, like I mentioned before, that the people also have to fit for the group. So for us, it’s always an interview, a presentation in front of a larger group, including the core group, but also other people. And then you also always have single interviews with other lab heads, for example.

And then in the end, we collect the feedback. And as I said in the past, we also had one person which was super excellent in science, but except my boss at that time, all the others said, she’s super good, but it will not work. We will not be a group together. And then in the end and also the decision not to go with her in this situation.

Alexandra: Okay, so I understand that through the interview process, you also screen for motivation and various personality traits to try and find not only the most qualified applicant, but also the best fit for your group of people. However, naturally when facing an interview, most people are quite nervous and some are concerned. This nervousness might alter a bit the way they present themselves? Do you, as interviewers, notice that stress, that restlessness, and how do you react to it? Do you have any tips on how to overcome anxiety?

Jane: I don’t have any tips really on how to hide anxiety. I thought just buying time, buying some thinking time. So if you’re asked a question and you get that moment of blind panic, just say, “I just need a minute to think”, or have that phrase that you use that just buys you a bit of time. But I think it’s actually the panel’s job to recognise that people are going to be nervous and to put them at ease and yes, I always do notice nervousness and and take it into account and try to reassure people. Often panelists are feeling a bit uneasy or nervous as well, so just remember that. Interviews are horrible, and nobody likes them.

Heike: I would like to add that I think it’s okay to be nervous and maybe it helps you to tell yourself that it’s okay to be nervous. Maybe it also helps to do some experiments in your mind before, so try to visualise the situation, visualise the company or the university you’re going to, you try to visualise the room, the situation, try to come up with some questions you might be asked so that you can prepare your mind. Putting your mind into that situation beforehand helps you a little bit to feel more comfortable when you then really enter the situation itself.

Just to repeat, it’s okay to be nervous and maybe sometimes it might even help to stress it and, as Jane said, it might also give some relief to the interviewer, who might also be a little uneasy. You can even relax the situation by saying, “At the moment, I’m just a little nervous, please allow me just to think about it for a second”, that can also clear a situation and make it easier.

Alexandra: Under the pressure of an interview, it can at times be difficult to gather your thoughts. What suggestions do you have for candidates who can’t formulate or don’t know the answer to a question you asked during the interview?

Heike: I think it depends on the question, whether it’s a question that you’re supposed to know because it’s a question about your CV and your past, then it can make a strange impression if you don’t know your own past, but otherwise if it’s a technical question or a question related to the research you are supposed to be doing at the future job, I think it’s okay not to know something and then you might be prepared to answer something like, “At the moment, I don’t know, but I would be really keen to find out” or “I will do my best to find out together with you, or with the team”. Maybe you can even try to twist it around and show your interests and your knowledge about the team,

Sven: I would also see it in the same way. I mean, obvious questions you have to know, it could be a little bit problematic if you’re not able to answer. But specific questions nobody think it’s a mess that you don’t know it. And then the best question is also that it’s interesting. I try to find out and come back to you for an example, and then you also do it. This is also a good impression and have an intention that you have a follow up communication maybe about it.

Jane: We quite often use competency-based or behavioural-based questions in our interviews. And in a recent interview, we gave someone a sort of disastrous scenario.
Everything’s gone wrong, you know, this has gone wrong, that’s gone wrong, what would you do? And the person said, I don’t actually know what I’d do, but if you gave me the job, we wouldn’t be in that situation.

Alexandra: In terms of preparing for the interview, one thing that confuses some people is which criteria from the job description should they focus on when preparing for the interview. When given the job advert, you often have essential and desirable skills listed. How can one identify the desirable skills that must be emphasised in the cover letter to get the interview in the first place?

Jane: I think if something’s absolutely key, then it should be essential. And if something is listed as desirable, then it is just that so it’s not essential that you’ve got that. If you’ve got it great, tell me about it and then you’re more likely to be invited for interview. And so for me it really is as simple as that, either something’s essential, or it’s a nice to have.

Verena: Yeah, for all those essential ones you can expect that a few applicants will have that or that many of them and then the additions, they may pop up and give them the argument to invite you. So it’s good to emphasise that you have some of the wanted criteria, that you have some additions, but it’s not an exclusion when you don’t have those add-ons.

Sven: Yeah, it maybe also depends on the others. So, for example, if you look for osteoarthritis, in the end, we ended up with a person, he’s still with us, I’m still like, I’m happy that we hired him, but he had not the expertise in osteoarthritis. So you have to look, what are the applications, and if you have the ideal person who has everything, it’s great, but most it’s not. It’s definitely different in cancer research. Because there are so many people in there, then it could become more that you really need to cover most of them.

Alexandra: For the final question, let’s jump ahead a bit for a post-interview scenario. Let’s think of the not so desirable outcome for an applicant who didn’t get the position following the interview. Can or should they follow up with the interviewers? If someone’s interested in getting some feedback, how would you advise them to approach the interview panel?

Heike: Yeah, I think leaving a final good impression is really good because that stays in the mind and memory of the interviewer. So don’t show yourself to be offended or angry or something like that if you get a negative decision. But try to react in the best possible, most constructive way of saying something like, “I’m really sad that you didn’t select me, but please keep me in mind if you have future opportunities, because I was really interested in this position and in what you were doing”. And sometimes it really happens, it happened to me a couple of times that I hired someone and then suddenly for some reason, this person couldn’t come. The world turns and there can be things you can’t even imagine, and then suddenly you’re going back to your list of interviewing candidates and think, “Oh, they were a nice one still, I had a good impression” and so suddenly people start getting back to the ones they sent a negative message to.

So I would say it’s important to have a good close even with a negative decision, and always tell yourself it has nothing to do with you. You are skilled, you are a good person, it’s not against you as a person. So try to stand up mentally again and apply again. And I think the best secret of success I can give to each and everybody is never to give up. And always try again, because there will be the one position or situation or project or whatever that is supposed to be yours and you will find it. So keep your positive attitude about yourself. That’s really important and always stand up again.

Elisa: Yeah, if I can say on that, when I apply for a postdoc after like an hour that I send my application, I receive an email. No, thank you. We don’t have an open position. Bye bye. That was one line sentence. Two weeks later, he called me back and say, “Actually, a postdoc just left the lab and we would like to interview you and I ended up to be there and they opened my career in completely different ways. When I left the lab, I sent him a message to say, you reject me first, and then you give me this opportunity. It was definitely a friendly email that he sent, but he couldn’t hire so I don’t think the rejection that should be taken personally. Maybe if I can have one of the tips that you gave was always prepare for your interview. Maybe here it’s how you prepare your interview, do you practice your talk, or the different ways of preparing for the interview, what would be the best way to do it.

Jane: I think one comment that I would make and one mistake that I’ve made in the past is if you’re asked to give a presentation or to do some preparation in advance, I have spent too much time on that, and not enough time thinking about questions that I might be asked or things that I might want the panel to know about me or doing more general research about the organisation and the role. So I think one thing I would say is don’t focus too much on that. You know, maybe 5 or 10 minute presentation that you’ve got to give, and forget to do all of your other preparation.

Verena: Yeah, and for the preparation, so if I interview a person and I get the feeling that he or she does not know anything about the group and our interest, so even not the main information that can be found on the internet, that is kind of disappointing so you directly feel this cannot be the person who is going to be enthusiastic about the work he or she is doing. So it’s really important to look up what does the lab do. PhD is hard work, and there will be many disappointments, and if it’s not a topic that you are enthusiastic about, that can be very hard. So it’s really very important that you find the topic that is your topic. And then that’s the lab that is your lab. And therefore it’s crucial to look up what they are doing, who is there, what are the other topics. And a good thing is also if you see that this topic that you are interested is in the focus of that institution, because then you will have good support for your work, for example.

Sven: I also see this in the same way. So for industry, for example, if you apply at my company, you should know that this is Merck KGA Darmstadt and not Merck and Co in the US.
And the other thing, for example, it would be good to know what we have on the market and what is in clinical development. So things which are publicly available. Two years ago, when I had applications inside, I also checked what is the information about the groups I’m interested at Merck. And as you mentioned, if you make a mistake, or you don’t know about this, then I got the impression, okay, you’re not really interested.

Heike: I agree with everybody and maybe some small addendum here, it might be a smart idea to prepare for the specific question you as the applicant have for the interviewer and about our institution. So I think it’s worth spending some time thinking about what these questions from your side could be, because they tell a lot about you, your attitude, your interest, what you have read about the company, but also about your attitude towards work, etc. So for example, I will never forget the very first medical student that walked into my office without knocking at the door, without really addressing me, just walking in there saying, “Well, what would you have to offer regarding doctoral thesis?” Yeah, so that was the first encounter I had. And then, the next questions this guy had was like, “If I do a thesis with you, how long will it take for me to get a first authorship paper? And are you going to write this for me? And do you have a technician who is going to make the experiments for me?” You don’t believe it. I mean, It’s really worth putting some thoughts into the right questions from your side to ask the interviewer to show about what kind of person you are and what attitude you would have generally towards work, etc. That was really an encounter, I really must admit.

Elisa: So maybe let’s also say that talking with some colleagues that have already experienced an interview can give you some tips. Like if you go to an industry interview, even if it’s not the same company and you are going to do all the diligence that we discussed, you can ask colleagues that went to company interviews, or the same institute or proposed position that also could help to figure things out. That could be a possibility in the preparation step. Have you ever interviewed? How was it? What did you like? What didn’t you like?

Verena: Even though we are at different institutions, the questions that we ask will be rather similar, I would expect.

Elisa: I think also in the company, the human resource questions are kind of similar and you can get a feeling and be a bit more prepared on this type of questions.

Alexandra: As we approach the end of this conversation, I would like to thank our invited guests from today. Thank you Heike, Jane, Verena, and Sven. And many thanks Elisa for the help provided in moderating this conversation. Thanks everyone for listening. We really hope that you’ll find useful the advice given by this fantastic panel. Advice rooted in our guests’ extensive experience of interviewing scientists such as yourself for various positions in cancer research and associated work fields.

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