As I was being driven to the airport back from another on-site interview, I thought about how there were good and bad parts to this process that non-PhDs may not know about.  I often think of this when my Facebook “friends” post about their job interviews.  First, let me outline the general steps to the Ph.D. / graduate level hiring process.

  1. Phone screening with HR/Recruiter.
  2. Phone interview with Hiring Manager.
  3. On-site interview.

The level of stress only seems to increase as you get down the line.  You would think that as you got closer to getting that job things would feel better but not so.  My degree is in chemistry so I will be looking at it from the science side of things.  I’m sure there are differences between other fields and career stages.  I am still at the beginning of my career so my problem is everyone wants experience which is difficult to get when you are not that far removed from schooling.


Step 1:  HR and Recruiters

99.9% of the time, they are not scientists so there is only so much they can ask you as far as prescreening questions.  I think they usually write down your answers to questions the Hiring Manager gave them.  I had one call when the person said they were typing my responses so if there was a time they said nothing it wasn’t because I said something wrong.  This is also the time you get the “What is your biggest strength/weakness?” type questions.  After this you wait days, weeks, maybe a month to hear you are moving on to the next round.  You are one step closer to being America’s Top Model (I don’t even know if that show is still on).


Step 2:  Hiring Manager

Now this person is the potential boss or a high level co-worker who knows exactly what they are looking for in the position.  You don’t so that’s part of the fun/stress I suppose.  Sometimes it’s a group of people on the phone call so you get a range of voices coming at you with questions.  You hope it is done in an orderly fashion but sometimes it’s not.  Questions at this stage can be much more or only slightly more technical than the phone screening.  It really just depends.  The worst thing is getting someone that you can barely understand.  If you didn’t know, the majority of graduate chemistry programs in the United States have lots more non-Americans in them than Americans, therefore, most of the people out there with a Masters or Doctorate are not American.  I have known people from in these programs that have perfect English and you know every word they say face-to-face.  But getting those people on the phone is completely different.  And in this situation, let’s add that it may be speaker phone.  Asking for people to repeat themselves over and over again just gets tiresome for you and them.  Adding to this could be the person’s ability to work the equipment they are using so volumes are low or high.  Once you get through this stage you probably have more of a feeling what they are looking for.  Their questions may focus in on a specific project or area you worked.  That or that person did something similar to that and they just wanted to talk about it.  At the end of this, you may have to wait even longer to hear anything.  I would say weeks not days.  I usually ask them for a timeline before the call is ended so when that passes you can email whoever to find out the status.


Step 3: On-site Interview

If you are lucky enough to beat out hundreds of people to get to this point you know you are in good shape.  I would guess companies bring in the top 5 people at this stage.  For me this is the best and worst part of the whole experience.  Best part for me is the travel.  The majority of the time the company pays for your flight, hotel, meals, and sometimes rents you a car.  It can be tricky to arrange travel.  I imagine if you live in Hawaii it could be very expensive.  The hotels you get are so nice because they want to kind of impress you with the company and how they treat you is definitely part of it.  I’ve been to some really nice places.  Many of the states I have been to are because I was there for an interview, work, or school activities which I marked on the map below.

US Map - Interview Locations

The worst part is the full day of an interview.  Most often they fly you in the night before your actual interview.  I’ve had interviews that were only a few hours and then you are left to do what you want.  Others are a 9am to 3 or 5pm series of interviews with several people in the company.  At some point at the graduate level you are expected to give a 30-45 min presentation on your research experience particularly related to what they do or the job description.  I don’t really mind the presentation as much because I worry about the questions I will get either at the end (or during) my presentation. To illustrate the range of questions I get let’s take this scenario.  You have spent the last 4-5 years of your life studying apples.  You know several ways to use apples and the various parts of apples (skin, core, seeds, etc.).  You gave the best presentation ever and you ask for questions.


Expect to get questions like:

  • What country do apples come from?  I wonder how popular apples are in other countries.
  • Do you work with apple sauce?  I really like that.
  • Does the US grow more apples or oranges?
  • Could you genetically modify apples to make them white on the outside and red on the inside?
  • What is your favorite type of apple?


The presentation can be at any time of the day.  I prefer early so people can ask you questions about it when they meet you later on instead of them saying:  I don’t know if you are going to talk about this later but…  One-on-one meetings can be conversational or they show you a problem written on a piece of paper that they want you to work out.  Depending on the amount of time you are there, you may be taken out for lunch and/or dinner.  Then you have to find things to talk about with one or more strangers.  I like to talk about general things and ask about the area (housing, food, etc.).  Being an introvert as I am it takes some work on my part to get through this type of day.  To be constantly talking for 8 hours unless you are a teacher can be difficult.  The whole day is to decide if you can fit into the company culture and do the job.  By the end of the day I usually have a headache.  If you are lucky you get an extra night in the hotel to recover, if not you go directly to the airport.

Since I’m still in the process, I’m not trying to give advice on how to handle it all.  I just have had lots of experience with it and thought I would give insight to the people outside on what it is like in case they wondered.