Job interviews are conversations between people with questions.
Interviews are conversations between people with questions. Practicing your interviewing skills will help you prepare questions and answers that highlight your skills and competencies and give you information about an employer's needs and organization. Credit: Qstockmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

You constantly question the world; as a scientist, you feel that it’s your responsibility to ask: “Why?”

Why were sauropods so successful? Why haven’t we discovered life on other planets? Why did so many megafaunal species go extinct during the Quaternary period? Why can’t someone else add water to the coffee machine?

You have become accustomed to answering scientific questions through research and experimentation. You were made for this, trained for this. It’s what you do.

But then comes the dreaded job interview, and suddenly, without a scientific context, asking and answering questions seems more difficult.

Don’t despair! The reality is that the chasm between scientific questions and interview questions is not as wide as it appears; just as scientific research has a methodology, there is also a methodology to interviewing, and by practicing you will become more proficient at formulating questions and answers related to an employer’s needs, organizational practices, and your skills and competencies.

Interviews are simply conversations between people with questions. The goal is for two parties to learn more about each other. Let’s take a look at the questions they might ask you and the questions you should ask them and also consider some questions that shouldn’t be asked and how to handle them if they are.

Their Questions

Your first goal in an interview is to provide the information that they want in a way that paints a positive picture of you.

Your first goal in an interview is to provide the information that they want in a way that paints a positive picture of you. You must be honest in your responses, but it is unlikely that you will have reason to add information beyond what they ask you.

It is tempting to blather on, especially when you are nervous, but don’t. Like a politician, you need to stay on point. The exception, of course, is if you have key information about yourself that you want them to know.

Tell Me a Little About Yourself…

The most difficult question that you are likely to face is disguised as a statement: Tell me a little about yourself. You know it’s coming, so you might as well prepare for it.

Like an elevator speech, your response should be brief and should illustrate the ways that you are uniquely qualified to address the employer’s needs. Construct your response in advance on the basis of the job description and any insights that you may have about the employer and/or the person who is conducting the interview. You can find more advice about how to go about researching your interviewer in Lisa Balbes’s recent On the Job post, “Interview Success: It’s Not You, It’s Them.”

Contrary to what others might say, this is not a time for you to tell your life story. Your favorite color, your big sister’s middle name, and your ability to simultaneously sing your national anthem and down a pint of ale are all special bits of information, but they have no relevance here. Focus your response on your potential employer’s needs for now, and save your scintillating tidbits for your friends at a later date.

Any response that you may give to a question should be less than 3 minutes long—shorter is better. Remember, you are engaging in a conversation, not giving a lecture. Don’t underestimate the potential for this question to trip you up. Formulate a response and practice giving it to a friend.

Behavioral Assessments: Tell Me About a Time When…

Your potential employer is very likely to ask a series of questions classified as behavioral interview questions. Behavioral assessment methodology is based on the premise that your past actions are the best predictor of your future actions.

Behavioral questions generally begin with a phrase like “tell me about a time when…” For example, “tell me about a time when you missed an important deadline.” In response to the question, you will need to tell a story where you are the protagonist or, better yet, the hero.

  • As you answer the question, take a moment to set the context for your story. (Once upon a time, at my previous employment, during a summer internship, etc., I…)
  • Tell what was happening and why. (The U.S. National Park Service needed to develop a strategy to track endangered botanical species populations in the Koʻolau Range, Hawaii.)
  • Describe the action that you took to solve the situation, and follow up with the resultant outcome. (Pulling from citizen science reports, NASA satellite imagery, and U.S. Geological Survey data sets, I was able to map these endangered species using Google Earth and ESRI ArcGIS, thereby facilitating the National Park Service’s conservation efforts.)
  • [pullquote float=”right”]Think about the most probable questions in advance and formulate your stories before you go on the interview.[/pullquote]Choose a story where you learned from the situation and were able to apply what you learned to make the situation better. (Although it was initially challenging to effectively use the citizen science reports, their use had the unintended benefit of raising awareness of the Park Service’s activities while providing a new avenue to engage with the public.)

Coming up with a suitable story on the fly can be quite difficult, and I have seen a few job seekers go down in flames as they fumbled for the right one. Your best defense will be to think about the most probable questions in advance and formulate your stories before you go on the interview.

If you search for “behavioral interview questions” online, you will quickly find many different examples, but like Hollywood movies, they branch from a few common themes.

  • Interacting with other people
    – in times of stress
    – on a team
    – when someone is a jerk
  • Dealing with challenging situations
    – solving problems
    – dealing with conflict
  • Managing
    – people
    – time
    – resources
    – processes
  • Making choices
    – ethical practices
    – prioritization

For each of the examples above, reflect on your experiences and identify a time when you resolved a similar situation. Write a response for each, and practice telling your stories to someone else.

Preferably, you should tell the stories to that “friend” who is quick to point out that your haircut is lopsided and your socks don’t match. The critical feedback may sting, but at least it won’t hurt your chances for employment.

Safety note: Don’t opt for a response that starts with “I’ve never…” Everyone has dealt with some form of adversity in their life.

The questions are less about exposing your weaknesses and more about highlighting your abilities to adapt and learn from a situation. Look on behavioral questions as opportunities for you to sell yourself and your capabilities.

What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

So you’ve gotten through “tell me about yourself.” But don’t drop your guard! An equally unforgiving question is, “What is your greatest weakness?”

Your strategy for response should be similar to the one described above for behavioral questions. Tell a story. Don’t say, “I don’t have a weakness.” You do.

Avoid “my weakness is the same as my strength. I work too hard.” That one always makes me a little nauseated. Instead, consider a challenge that you are working to overcome, and tell how you are dealing with it. In other words, tell a story where you successfully dealt with trials and tribulations.

For example, “I have a tendency to get wrapped up in what I am doing. If I’m not careful, I can forget about meetings or other important projects, so I’ve started putting placeholders and appointments on my calendar with alarms that remind me of what I need to do and when. Using technology, I have been able to compensate for a former liability, and it is seldom that I miss anything important.”

Questions That Employers Should Not Ask (Warning: Some Will Anyhow)

In the United States, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, or religion, and employers usually avoid related questions. Many countries have similar, sometimes even stricter, laws. Technically, there are no illegal questions, but if an employer asks questions related to a protected classification, it opens them up for litigation based on probable discrimination. That said, it still happens, and you should think through how you would address the situation.

When I was interviewing for academic positions, I was invited to a university in a pleasant locale. I was unpleasantly surprised when person after person asked if I was married. I wanted to say, “You can’t ask that,” but I knew that they really could, and I didn’t have a graceful way to push back on the question.

So I asked, “Why is that important?” As it turned out, the last three hires had not lasted very long because they were single and there were few suitable dating candidates in the small town where the university was located.

A better strategy for the university would have been to tell me about the dismal matrimonial prospects of their small town up front. I would have run away on my own and saved them the time and expense of hosting me.

Many times, job candidates are not comfortable with confronting those asking difficult questions, but you have a lot to gain and very little to lose by doing so. Asking why a question is relevant can also make the interviewer aware of their own biases. As odd as it sounds, many people are unaware of their discriminatory practices. Hidden and subconscious bias can then manifest itself through questions lobbed to you.

In some countries, there may be few protections against discrimination, if any.  You may be expected to indicate your age and marital status when applying for a job.  It may also be customary to include your picture. If it is required, then you should comply, but don’t volunteer that kind of information. Give extra information only if it is to your advantage.

Your Questions: Getting to Know Them

Your first goal was to provide the interviewers with the information they need about you. Your second goal is to find out more about the job, the organization, and the people with whom you will be working.

The questions you ask a potential employer during your interview should go beyond what you can learn from an online search.
The questions you ask a potential employer during your interview should go beyond what you can learn from a casual online search. Your questions can also drive the conversation toward some key piece of information you want to convey. Credit: AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

There is only so much that you can learn about an employer online, but gleaning basic information from organizational documents, Web pages, LinkedIn profiles, and news stories prior to the interview can lead you to the right questions to ask during an interview. So when the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions,” you should have something prepared to ask. Try to ask questions that go beyond what you can easily learn from reading the “about” page on their website.

For example, ask the interviewer about his or her personal experiences at the company.

  • What led him or her to work there?
  • What is it that he or she likes most about your job?
  • What is the most critical skill or ability needed to be successful there?
  • In industry, who are the company’s closest competitors, and what is the company’s competitive edge?
  • In academia, what are his or her students like? How well are they prepared for class?

Another line of questions to pursue involves organizational culture.

  • What can the interviewer tell you about the organizational structure for this group? Who reports to whom?
  • How are important decisions made? What would your role in the process be?
  • How are teams created? Will team members come from within the department, or will they come from different parts of the organization?

The Bonus Question

If you and five other candidates have the exact same resume and answer each question in exactly the same way, where is the variance?

In many cases, interviewers must ask the same set of questions in an effort to ensure each candidate is on a level playing field. If you and five other candidates have the exact same resume and answer each question in exactly the same way, where is the variance? How will the interviewer come to a decision? Not from your answers, but from your questions.

Keep this in mind when you are preparing for their questions. If there’s a question you are well prepared for and you really want them to ask you, figure out a way to ask it yourself. You can use your questions to them as an opportunity to raise a question yourself by driving the conversation toward your desired topic.

In the grand scheme of things, your questions to them can serve a dual purpose by providing them with answers about you.

Things to Ask About Later: All the Stuff I Want

Wait until you have a job offer before you ask about benefits or any special accommodations that you might want.

If they proffer a list of benefits or inducements, that’s a good thing. It means they really like you. However, if you ask about benefits before they have made a job offer, it will make you look needy or pushy. You will have more leverage to ask for what you want once they have placed an offer on the table.

Practice Makes Perfect

Over time, you have honed your technical skills and methodologies. It is through practice that you have become an expert, and it is through your work that you have been able to build your professional reputation.

Just as you hone your scientific skills, practice your interviewing skills. Now that you have a better understanding of interview methodologies, it’s time to put that knowledge to use. You know why you should prepare in advance for interview questions, and you know why employers ask the questions they do. You even have a set of procedures to follow to formulate your answers.

So why are you waiting? You will only get better if you practice.

—David Harwell, Assistant Director, Talent Pool, AGU; and Nathaniel Janick (email:, Career Services Coordinator, AGU

Correction, 10 August 2017: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized protections against discrimination as not applying to the EU.


Harwell, D.,Janick, N. (2017), Interviewing 102: Questions about questions, Eos, 98, Published on 10 August 2017.

Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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