What’s Your Question?

Recently, I’ve been reviewing the interview advice I have offered over the years in my Tooling Up column. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have done readers a disservice by failing to address a very important part of job interviews. So far I haven’t written about your questions.

Nothing says more about you than the questions you ask at a job interview. Insightful, thought-provoking questions—fact-finding questions posed in upbeat and optimistic tones and job-related questions that show you are interested in and knowledgeable about the position—can be powerful, positive signals to a potential employer. They show that you’re interested and engaged. And you shouldn’t wait until the interview day to start asking questions.

Nothing says more about you than the questions at a job interview.

Questions before the interview day

You’ve received an invitation to a job interview. Congratulations! But don’t wait until the interview day to whip out your list of questions.

I have never understood why some applicants fly blindly into their interviews when if they only asked a few questions ahead of time they would be much better prepared. Maybe they’re so full of enthusiasm that they forget to ask questions, or maybe they think it’s cheating to request more information than the company volunteers. But trying to get a job isn’t like trying to get a good grade on an exam. You don’t have to worry about appearing to compete unfairly. As long as you’re ethical about it, seeking an advantage is seen as a sign of desire and enthusiasm.

Readfor more interview tips.

Here are some questions you’ll want to ask your main contact at the company, before the interview:

• “Can I get an agenda with the names and titles of all the people I’m likely to meet with?” (Once you have the list, you can look up their work on PubMed and their profiles on LinkedIn. You might want to request a connection, but wait until after your interview.)

• “What attire is recommended?” (There’s no need to guess. You don’t want to show up in business casual and find that everyone else is in suits.)

• “Who will be in the audience during my presentation? What are their backgrounds?” (You need to know this to prepare an appropriate presentation.)

• “What is the structure of the interview? Will the day consist of a series of one-on-one meetings, or will there be panel interviews as well?”

Every company does interviews differently, so don’t assume you know how things will go. The fewer surprises you encounter, the better.

Now, on to the interview day …

Questions to clarify

Sometimes it’s OK to answer a question with a question, and here’s a great example: “Tell me about yourself.”

It’s a maddening question—and a very effective one for an interviewer—because it’s so open-ended. It could mean anything. So what’s the best approach? Should you just guess the questioner’s intent and forge ahead? (“Even as a 4-year-old I was fascinated by biotechnology.”) Wouldn’t it be better to ask a simple question?

• I’d be happy to do that. “Which part of my background would you like to know about?”

Questions about the company and its mission

The best candidates come prepared with lots of information about the organization they’re interviewing for. They know about the company’s Alzheimer’s program and its new partnership with Merck.

Study these resources and build a list of questions. Take along a notepad listing queries about the company’s mission. Aim to understand where the company is headed and how that might relate to your career ambitions.

Some examples are:

• “It looks like ABC Company is pursuing a number of new anti-infectives. With the high morbidity associated with infections caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria, I would think that the majors are all investing heavily here as well. What kind of edge does ABC have in such a crowded category?”

• “I love the idea of taking tools from synthetic biology to develop organisms that produce commercial products from sustainable sources. But I would think that even a state-of-the-art effort like that would require techniques from microbial physiology or chemical engineering to move into fermenters. How does XYZ AgriBio plan to combine high-tech with old-school in order to scale up and commercialize?”

• “I understand that the team I would be working with is pursuing new directions in the area of anti-infectives. I’m a microbial physiologist, so I’d love to know more about the company’s plan to incorporate pathway-engineering methods into drug development. Can you tell me more about the role that your microbiologists have (or will have) in the product development phase?”

• “I would imagine that the R&D overhead on something as sophisticated as synthetic biology for bio-based sustainable chemicals is quite high. How’s the funding effort going so far, and how long will your current funding last based upon your burn rate?”

Questions for your prospective boss

Nothing is as important as the relationship you develop with your future boss. To start off on the right footing, you need to ask good questions. Here are some examples:

• “Can you tell me about a particularly successful hire you’ve made? What characteristics made him or her successful?”

• “How would you describe your management style?”

• “How are work goals set for employees—me, for example—and how often would we meet to discuss my progress?”

• “What kind of turnover does your team have? Can you tell me about someone who didn’t work out? What was it about that person that made them a poor fit for the company?”

• “If you could wave your magic wand and improve three things in your department, what would you improve?”

Be cautious about tone and style

When I give a seminar about this topic, I always make a point about the tone and attitude, or style, of your interview questions. But it’s difficult to convey intonation in a written column, so let me put it this way: Your questions should never sound critical. Always ask them in an upbeat, enthusiastic manner. If you ask about a small company’s cash reserves, don’t reflect the skepticism of the analysis you read at Yahoo! Finance. Never force the company to defend its viability. Always act as if you’re eager to hear good news.

It’s true that how you answer interviewers’ questions is hugely important in determining how you are perceived. But questions you ask yourself add to how they perceive you, in important (and sometimes decisive) ways. This is one aspect of your job search that you’re totally in control of.

All in the family

Arbeidsmarktnieuws november 2002: Nieuwe functieordening universiteiten