Below are three example interview questions a PhD-level candidate applying for a job in a professional organization might be asked, along with a proposed response. The questions are being asked by the hiring manager who has a PhD in Biomedical Sciences and 10 years working in a large biotech company and managing a high performing team. The job description emphasizes project management-related skills and experience as highly desired.

Following each response is a brief commentary that discusses the relevance and value of the interview response.

Q: Tell me about your research

A: The major objective of my project was to develop a novel vaccination approach to treat previously untreatable cancers.  This project involved about eight people who were also involved in other projects as well, so the scheduling and planning were really important.  I ran a project team that first clearly laid out the objectives, the resources needed, and clearly identified the major deliverables and the timeline.  This ensured that everyone on my team had a shared purpose which helped to keep everyone motivated. Most importantly we assessed the potential risks for each part of the project and how to manage those risks should they occur.  I think that by having mitigation strategies for most of the parts of the project on the critical path really benefited us in delivering on our goals on time, and on budget.  I’d be happy to go into as much detail as you like.

Commentary:  Rather than discuss the project using scientific jargon, the candidate framed the answer using project management language. This answer reveals the candidate understands the principles of project management and applies them when doing work.  This is perceived as valuable because in professional organizations, fiscal responsibility is key in delivering the project on schedule, and is aligned with the iron triangle of project management:  Time, Cost, and Objectives.  Commenting on the shared sense of purpose further reveals the leadership capabilities of the candidate who clearly understands what motivates people to succeed (and be good team members).

Q: Tell me about a time when you made a change to improve the productivity of your lab.

A: Protein purification is a key part of our laboratory activity towards identifying factors that cause and prevent disease.  This is a multistep process that is very precisely scripted with respect to exact protocol.  Our team uses performance metrics to evaluate each step in the protein purification process, and recently incorporated a new technology that allowed us to keep the project ahead of schedule, with greater throughput and purity of the product while saving dollars as well.  Would like me to provide any further detail?

Commentary: Performance metrics are commonly used for continuous improvement which is important for companies to stay ahead of their competition.  Being able to systematically evaluate a multi-step process and identify the return on investment (ROI) for each of those steps and what can be done to increase that ROI is a valuable asset to any organization.

Q: How do you define success? How would I know you are committed to achieving success? Give me an example from your own life, (work or personal), that was a learning experience for you.

A: During my postdoc I was given a lot of latitude to run my research project by my PI.  Despite this, I thought it was very important to establish mutually agreed success criteria for the project so that we both knew the boundaries of the project, and when the project was complete.  This provided a shared sense of purpose and allowed us to stay focused on the mutually agreed objectives which I successfully completed on time and on budget.  I’d be happy to provide additional details if you like.

Commentary:  Here, the candidate was given free rein to do whatever they want, yet they stress the importance of establishing mutually agreed upon goals and success criteria, to develop a shared sense of purpose.  In academic research, we can often “take the science wherever it leads”, which is a powerful attraction for staying in academia and can lead to important new discoveries.  But in the business world, where success requires being good stewards of the resources provided towards delivering projects on time that meet the required objectives, demonstrating that knowledge and embracing its discipline elevates your perceived value.

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