Notes on interview questions

14 minute read

When it comes to interviews, I find it an extremely important to prepare a set of questions to identify what the overall message to pass across should be. And this is irrespective of the actual questions that will be asked/answered during the interview, given that the overall goal of an interview is to assess that the technical skills of the candidate meet the position’s requirements and that the candidate will be a good fit for the group. This applies both as an interviewee (I’ve had a couple of interviews in 2018, before landing my current position) and an interviewer (I have conducted a couple of interviews end of last year, and will conduct more in the coming months).

So here’s a list of questions and resources I gathered over the recent years.

Home sweet home also applies for work

For a start, finding a good job is a bit like finding a new home. There’s the square footage, the garden, double glazing, … but there’s also the neighbours. It can be difficult to get a feeling for the inclusiveness, diversity and support one can expect in a department, but so very important, especially for long term jobs. It’s important to realise that it’s as much an interview for the interviewee that the interviewers.

The 1M$ question to ask oneself

Is that department toxic?

  • What is the department’s energy?
  • How does it handle diversity?
  • How would you characterise the department’s social culture?
  • What are the departmental politics like?
  • Is there a mentorship programme?
  • What’s the best place/opportunity in the department/school to come together to share ideas?
  • Ask about recent hires, how they did since, ask to talk to them.

How others do it

When applying for a job, it is useful to learn about how hiring is done (in some places, at least). When hiring new people (for the first) time, it’s essential to read about how others do it.

  • How we hire a twitter conversation with Holly Bik recently led to a conversation around our lab’s hiring practices. I took the opportunity to put together a blog post around our goals and procedures.

How I did it recently

Recently, I interviewed some candidates for a bioinformatician position, and did the following, that seemed useful to me and the candidates.

After shortlisting the candidates for a first round of online interviews, I sent them an email describing this first interview, explaining that we would be using a Google hangout, that it would last 30 minutes at most, and explaining what I was expecting and providing the questions (mostly taken from the list compiled in this post) in advance:

As part of the discussion, I would like you to start with

  • A 2 minutes overview of your career so far, including what you consider the most important skill you have learned.

  • Present in 5 minutes a project you were involved in, focusing on your specific contribution.

  • Could you also send me an R code chunk (10 - 15 lines, or point me to the lines of interest in an online R source file), showcasing and interesting challenge you faced and solved.

Please also think about the following questions

  • What are, according to you, the biggest challenge as a bioinformatician in a biomedical department?

  • What are you looking for as a professional bioinformatician in an academic lab?

  • If you don’t know how to do analysis X, how would you go about learning how to do it. You can use an example of something you had to learn recently.

In the meantime, don’t hesitate to get back to me if you have any questions.

(Above, I specifically ask about R code because all candidates had confirmed that they were well versed in R.)

As part of the interview, I also made sure there was time for them to ask questions.

The goal here was that they could prepare, and thus we could directly focus on what was relevant for me. I even had a candidate that replied to that email with his point-by-point answers, which proved very useful, and didn’t make the interview irrelevant at all.

On the day, I started with a general discussion with the candidate to go over the job description again, and making sure we were on the same line about the requirements and opportunities. The candidate gave a presentation about a project of their choice, and then had about 30 minute discussions with two other members of the institute (during which I wasn’t present) to get other opinions and answers to their questions. After that, we met again for additional questions and discussions.

From 10 Impressive Questions to Ask in an Interview 2018

  1. How will you measure the success of the person in this position?
  2. What are some of the challenges you expect the person in this position to face?
  3. Can you describe a typical day or week in the job?
  4. How long did the previous person in the role hold the position? What has turnover in the role generally been like?
  5. What are you hoping this person will accomplish in their first six months and in their first year?
  6. Thinking back to people you’ve seen do this work previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great at it?
  7. How would you describe the culture here? What type of people tend to really thrive here, and what type don’t do as well?
  8. What do you like about working here?
  9. Ask the question you really care about.
  10. What’s your timeline for next steps?

And a follow-up from Greg Wilson

  1. Has anyone currently with the company ever assaulted, harassed, or discriminated against a fellow employee? If so, are they still with the company? If so, what steps were taken?
  2. Does the company or any of its direct customers provide material support (e.g. hosting or other services) for hate groups?
  3. What is the demographic breakdown (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.) of current employees by level?

The answers to these three questions will tell you a lot more about the company’s actual culture than any direct description of it.

From a document shared on the eLife slack channel


  • Giving candidates a description of the position, your management style, and what you expect of lab members can help set expectations right away

  • To bring out the real person, you need to get them to relax. Be generous, positive, (impressed by their abilities), perhaps disclose your own weaknesses (how to answer: what is your greatest weakness? : naturejobs blog), work style, etc to normalise it. They are going to figure it out eventually, anyway.

  • Use a rubric you make in advance of interviewing to avoid hiring someone you like but is a bad fit for the position
  • Front load with details about WHY you are asking a question can help get the information you want. (e.g. “I am trying to get a better idea of what you are hoping to get out of your time in my lab so we can see if this is a good fit for both of us.”)

General questions

  • Why are you interested in working in my lab?
  • Tell me about the research you did before on X
  • What is your unfair advantage?
  • At the end: Do you have any questions about the position or the lab? (They should have some questions about your research, how they can fit into the lab, etc.).

Questions to get an idea of the candidates learning style might be a good fit

  • Tell me about a time you had to learn something? Teach someone else something?

Questions to see how candidates think and work

  • I always ask the question if you don’t know how to do analysis X, how would you go about learning how to do it
  • Walk me through an average day in the lab. When do you get in, what’s the first thing you do, etc.
  • Tell me what you liked best and least about project X.

Questions to see if they know techniques they list on CV and/or if they drove the project

  • OK, we’re gonna measure X with Y technique. Tell me what controls you routinely include when you do Y & why you include them.
  • When doing Technique Z, what problems have you encountered? How did you troubleshoot?
  • Specific questions about the challenges they ran into during their projects and how they solved them

Questions to ask references

  • How can the candidate improve?
  • How do they deal with failure? Did they come to you?
  • How do they deal with interpersonal conflicts
  • can they manage projects on own
  • do they take initiative
  • can they debug projects
  • What should I know about this candidate?
  • You can also ask the letter writer specific questions that highlights your management style and ask if they think the person would do well in that environment and other specific questions about how they might fit in your lab
  • Try to get a sense of work hours (clock puncher or motivated about the project).
  • In addition to asking about work ethic, resourcefulness, curiosity, independence, attention to detail and how quickly they pick up new ideas/techniques, I ask them for any information they think would be relevant to evaluating the candidate (open ended question). I also explicitly ask if there are any concerns/issues that give them pause. I also tell them about the types of people that do well in my lab/my management style (and my expectations for what I hope the candidate can accomplish) and ask how they think the candidate would fare in such an environment with said expectations.
  • I find the “I’m looking for X, do you think this person is it?” can yield important and useful info as well as some relevant anecdotes.
  • Friends of mine have also tried mentioning that they’re new faculty at a critical point in their career and can’t take a risk.
  • I always talk to the primary advisor and sometimes one other reference in person. When I hired my first postdocs I mentioned that I was a new faculty starting my lab, the general outline of the project and the type of person I was looking for. I found that really helped. Everyone remembered what it was like when they started and were eager to help me. I had people go as far to tell me “This is a great student, but would not fit what you are looking for because of X, Y and Z”. If there are issues they will tell you in person.

15 behavioural interview questions commonly asked in biotech interviews

From that same eLife slack channel.

  1. Tell me about a time when you faced a difficult problem which you initially failed to solve? How did you approach the problem the second time? What did you do differently? (A behaviour based interview question, but if possible, add in what you also learned from this process about avoiding similar problems in the future.)
  2. Give me an example of a crisis situation you have handled successfully.
  3. Give me an example of a time when you used your leadership skills.
  4. What has been your greatest challenge so far? How have you attempted to meet that challenge?
  5. Give me an example of a time when you had to manage competing priorities effectively.
  6. Give me an example of a time where you’ve had to handle criticism, opposition or rejection. How did you respond to it?
  7. Tall me about a situation where you had to be a good team player. Explain your role in the team.
  8. What other things have you done that are not related to your field? What have you learned from those involvements?
  9. Tell me about a difficult goal you have set for yourself. How did you reach it?
  10. Tell me about a tough group you had to get cooperation from. What was the issue and how did you go about obtaining buy-in?
  11. What was the most difficult decision you’ve made in the last moths, and how did you go about making that decision?
  12. Describe a particularly difficult person with whom you’ve worked, what made them difficult, and tell me about a specific situation where you dealt successfully with that person.
  13. Have you presented a project summary to other team members on any of the above projects?
  14. Describe a situation where you had to work on a challenging project and had an obstacle that you needed to overcome. How did you resolve the challenge and what was the outcome.
  15. How you ever encountered a challenge in dealing with a team member on any project and how did you resolve the conflict with this team member?

From 10 questions to expect at a postdoc interview (eLife)

  1. Briefly describe your current position and what research you are doing/did in your PhD
  2. During your research, what was the biggest challenge? how did you solve that challenge? and how could you have avoided it?
  3. Are you considering any other offers? Why have you specifically applied here and what criteria would you use to decide between competing offers?
  4. Briefly tell me what you understood from the advertisement about the experiments you’ll be performing
  5. What skills do you have to perform these experiments?
  6. If you are performing experiment X using methodology Y, what controls should you use?
  7. What are your long-term plans? Do you want to stay in academia or to join industry? How do you aim to achieve those plans?
  8. If I invite you, will you be able to visit my lab for one day, meet the lab members and give a talk? If yes when we can do that? If you are offered the position, when can you join?
  9. Do you have any questions for me?
  10. Expect the unexpected

Some DO’s and DON’Ts

Here’s a short short thread by Liz Bucar on her advice based on her experience as a faculty member who is voting on hires.

  • My institution has been hiring a ton, which means I’ve attended over 20 job talks in the last 12 months. It occurred to me a thread about DOs and DON’Ts might be helpful, so here goes:

  • Context: I work at a R1 institution, and job talks for T-T positions are presentations of the candidate’s scholarship to other faculty in the department and college. Every place has its own norms. This advice is based on my experience as a faculty member who is voting on hires.


  1. DO start your talk with a broad hook or problem your research is trying to solve—if you can’t convince me your work matters, I won’t think it does. Make sure the hook ends with a research question. Then answer it in the talk.

  2. DO set up your larger project, but focus on the most interesting bits in your job talk. I can’t digest your entire dissertation or book in an hour talk. In other words, edit yourself.

  3. DO practice your talk OUT LOUD with friends/colleagues/your dog before hand—or video tape yourself. A job talk is an oral performance. Practising can help you clarify your language and modulate your rhetoric.

  4. DO make an argument. A job talk can’t just be “show and tell” about your research. You need to also convince the search committee you are making a distinct argument based on that material. Make clear why your answer to that opening research question builds knowledge.

  5. DO know your audience. If it is an inter-disciplinary search or joint appointment, be sure your talk reflects that. You have to talk across the aisle.

  6. DO make you audience (aka your future colleagues) feel smart. This is true of any public talk, but especially a job talk. If you get stuck in the weeds and discuss things only specialists care about, you will lose us.

  7. DO end your talk by circling back to the question/broader context you began with and make clear how all the detailed work you just did contributes to solving that problem or understanding that issue.

  8. DO use the Q&A as a time to show us how you can think on your feet—take your time to answer questions.

  9. DO be savvy about your PPT. Use text sparingly, highlight important quotes, and include provocative/illustrative images.

  10. DO be clear about “YOUR WHAT AND 3 WHYS”: WHAT is your argument? WHY now? (e.g., intervention into your field/or to current events) WHY are you the right person? (e.g. fieldwork/distinct theory) WHY DOES IT MATTER (not why do YOU think it is interesting–why would I?)


  1. DON’T tell us everything you know about a topic. Please, just don’t.

  2. DON’T present work that you are just starting, especially if it is going to sound half-baked - this doesn’t show you off to your best advantage

  3. DON’T get stuck in the weeds. Those weeds might be interesting to you, and 30 other people in your immediate sub-field, but the job talk is usually aimed at broader audience. We are smart, but we don’t know what you know.

  4. DON’T use jargon—it is academic shorthand/laziness and it will make it harder for your argument to land and stick.

  5. DON’T sign post the entire time. Cut phases like “I’m almost done” or “bare with me, 10 min to go.” Assume your audience is riveted. Or at least avoid reminding them they are not.

LAST WORDS: Job talks are stressful, but you know lots of cool stuff that we don’t. Believe that what you know matters—and share with us!

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