I discussed in two previous articles the first steps in the process of moving from academia to industry. The first article was about taking the decision to leave academia and finding purpose in a new professional life. The second article,  provided some tips to find and apply for new jobs outside academia. 

In this third and last piece, I will consider the exchange and negotiation with a potential employer during the recruitment process. So you applied for that job you found interesting. After a couple of days/weeks, you get an email with an invitation to discuss with the employer. First reaction: Yes, I made it! Second reaction: Omg,  now what? 

The aim of the game

Your first reaction is fair. So far, you made a good job. Your CV and cover letters were good enough to get their attention and your skills and experience triggered their curiosity. Thus, they want to know more.

Your second reaction might be a bit over-dimensioned. This new exchange, as this whole process, is an exploration for both sides. The aim is to find out if you, the job, and the employer are a good match. It is not about if you are good or not as a professional. There is a suitable job for you, the trick is to figure out which one is it. One of the best ways to sort that out is to apply for jobs and go through the recruitment process. This is only half of the story. The other half is that, unavoidably, you will know if there is a match or not by doing the job. That is a risk both sides (you and the employer) have to be aware of. The entire recruitment process aims to reduce the chances of seeing a match where there’s none or a weak match that will not survive with time. Do not forget: during the recruitment process both parties are evaluating each other.

Golden rule: stay always open to the possibility that this is not the right job for you. Again, the main purpose of the whole process is about understanding if you and the employer are a reasonably good match, not to convince the employer that they should hire you. Of course, you have to convey that, but only to have the ball on your side: This is why you should hire me, why should I accept your offer? If you focus too much on getting the job no matter what, you will not see the signals that might tell you that you should walk out of the room the same way you entered it. Trust me on this one, like in any other relationship, the best favor you can do to yourself is to turn down a bad offer if you can do so.

Loading your weapons for the hunt

Once a potential employer shows interest in your profile, typically he/she will offer you a phone call (very rare these days), a video call, or an interview on-site. It never happened to me to have a call out of the blue to discuss a job application without previously fixing an appointment. Refusing the discussion and asking to fix an appointment is fair but might be seen as a lack of confidence on your side. It’s your choice. In any case, I would see that as a yellow flag. They can do such things for many different reasons, but I only can think negatively about all of them, such as they are putting you willingly in an uncomfortable situation to see how you react, they do not have a clear plan for the recruitment process, they do not take enough time to evaluate candidates, they do not care too much about your profile.

In the case the first contact is to fix an appointment, there are three things you have to do before the interview: prepare, prepare, and prepare. Preparation will simply increase your chances of having a successful interview. Other than preparation you can rely on your innate improvisation skills or mere luck. Why preparation? Here is a non-exhaustive list of its advantages:

  • It will increase your confidence (interviewers can smell fear better than dogs).
  • You will be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and those of your potential employer.
  • It will provide you with good and pertinent ideas for questions, avoiding nonsense questions (AKA what is a typical day on this job?).
  • Interviewers will see that you are prepared and that will mark for you only positive points: you are responsible and organized, you take this application seriously, you can do proper due diligence, etc.
  • And most importantly, it will help you understand if the job is a good match for you and, if you have the opportunity, increase your chances to make the right choice.

How to prepare? Another list of non-exhaustive tools:

  • Do not read the employer’s website, scan it at the atomic level. You will have read it enough once you have a feeling of where the company is standing and where it is heading to. The news sections are really useful to grasp that. Public companies have to publicize their financial balances and plans for the shareholders. These files can be (indeed are) quite boring to read but these companies also make a summary of the last period and the plans for the next one. Those are precious pieces of information to understand the context of your potential new job. 
  • Again and again, Linkedin. Check the company’s Linkedin profiles, oftentimes the presentation of the company is easier to understand than that on the company’s website. Also check the profiles of your interviewers: how long they have been working for the company? Have they been recently promoted? What is their education? Do you have contacts in common?
  • If applicable, read the recent scientific publications of the company related to the job and/or your interviewers. 
  • Read whatever you can find on social media and on the internet about the company and your interviewers.
  • Talk to people from your network that work or have worked for the company and/or on similar jobs to the one you are discussing. 

All this information will give you a fairly good idea of what the job is about and where it fits concerning the rest of the company. All in all, by now you should have a more or less clear idea if you and the job are a good fit. Besides that, you significantly decreased the chances to have a bad surprise during the interview (which is never zero).

Asking the right questions.

All this preparation will help you to have a list of questions for the interview. 

Advice: think of your questions as something other than a box to be ticked. Above all, do not think of them as something to show to your interviewers. Use them as a way to understand what the job is about and if you match with the company. Very importantly, make challenging questions: what is the financial situation of the company? What is your selling point concerning the competitors? What are your plans for the next five years? Ask about anything you find uncertain during your research. If it is a good place to work a good discussion will follow. If they take those questions personally, it is not a good sign as it might well indicate they can not deal with criticism and bad news, which for companies are true poisons.

Avoid vague questions that allow any answers – what is a typical day for this job? What are your biggest challenges?-. They sound like you are killing time. If you properly did your homework you should be able to make more precise questions. A pretty good indication you did good homework is that, during the interview, they explain to you a lot of things you already know. Be careful, do not interrupt them to say ”I know that”. This will sound pretentious and disrespectful. 

Preparing your pitch

Unavoidably, the first question you will have during the interview is: Can you tell me about yourself? That is the most important part of the interview. You will show if you can tell a coherent story of your background which is relevant in the context of the job and the company, and also your communication skills.

To answer successfully to this question, a good thing to do is to prepare a pitch of no more than three minutes (according to a stop-watch). It should be a short version of your cover letter: who you are, what is your motivation, and why you and the job are a good match. Repeat it until you can say it almost by heart. Use friends or colleagues as sparrings, record it, everything is allowed.

The interview day

Being a bit nervous is fine, but not to panic.
Whether the interview is online or on-site, be ready half an hour in advance, that will allow you to double-check and feel more confident. During the interview, do not forget that they are on the lead of the discussion. Let them start and do not interrupt. 

Take notes. You will get a lot of information that will be useful to evaluate things on your side and to prepare potential follow-up discussions. Be brief in your answers and to the point. That shows that you can communicate properly and build logical ideas. Do not lie, never. If you don’t know the answer just say it. If the answer to their questions is not what they expect, look for a polite way of phrasing your answer.

Give concrete examples to support your claims about your background, always. That will show you are not making things up and will help your interviewers understand what exactly your experience is. Do not hide the black spots of your job experience, look for a way to explain that. Although it was not a great moment, it happened for a good reason and explain what you learned from that.

If possible, try to speak positively. If you are explaining why you are looking for a new job, do not spend time criticizing your current boss or employer; without overlooking the things that are not optimal in your current job. Focus on what is your driver for the future and how this current job opportunity it is a great door to the path you want to pursue.

End your part of the interview with this question: how the procedure continues from now? That is an important question because it will force your interviewer to explain the process and the timelines. Take notes of their answer. Some interviews give you a great feeling, some others make you feel you did all wrong. In any case, once the interview is over, try not to think about that (especially in the second case). Take some distance from what was just discussed, and close it in a friendly and gentle way. You will have the days after the interview to properly reflect on what happened.

After the interview

Once you walk out of the room/video call, start reflecting on what just happened: are you happy with your performance? What are the things you did great/well/just ok/terribly wrong? Also evaluate your interviewer: what was their attitude? Were their answers clear? Do they know what they want for the job and the company? If you feel too troubled or confused is alright to talk to someone you know that is well-positioned to evaluate your concerns and give you her/his point of view.

If, after the interview, you are still interested in the job, a good practice is to send an email to your interviewer thanking them for the opportunity, telling why you like the job (the aim is to show that you got their message and you understand what the job is about) and why you think you are a great fit. Do not wait more than two days to send that email.

And the winner is…

After the interview four things can happen:

  1. You do not get an answer. You deserve one, even if negative. I strongly believe it is disrespectful not to honor the time and effort you spend during the whole process. You can wait for one week to send an email to ask for news ( just two lines, there’s no message to deliver here). If you do not have an answer one week after that email, a phone call is the logical thing to do.
  2. You get a negative answer. Usually, it will come as an email that does not say much, something they send to all candidates that have not been taken. If this type of job is important for you, then is completely fair to ask for details about what was missing. If the interviewer takes candidates seriously, they should explain to you why. In any case, if you get that explanation, it will stay rather vague because they do not want to open angles you can contest.
  3. They will ask you for another interview. That is fine, as far as it is clear what is the purpose of this new interview. Are you going to meet the team or the boss? Is it to discuss contract details with human resources? Sometimes employers ask for more interviews for no clear reason, which is a yellow flag because it might indicate that there is something that does not convince them about you or they are winning time until they get a confirmation from another candidate. In both cases, they are wasting your time, and theirs.
  4. You get a positive answer, yeayyy!!! First of all, celebrate. Second, get ready to discuss the contract, but that is a topic not covered in this article.

This first job outside academia pretty likely will not be the last one. Pay attention to all the things that happen during the whole process from the moment you read the job description. The key is to take proper conclusions on the whole procedure and, if the moment comes, be better prepared for the next job.

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David Silvestre
By training, I'm a molecular and cellular biologist, a biotech start-up enthusiast, a long-distance runner, a blogger, and a bookworm. By fortune, I'm the father of two loudly lovely boys. I have spent many years in Argentina, France, and The Netherlands working in academia, start-ups, and biotech companies, looking for ways to translate groundbreaking scientific discoveries into treatments for patients in high need. I write about burning questions in the complex and fascinating world of turning science into medicines.


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