Three rules for powerful questions

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G. Grullón/Science

When someone asks you a question during a job interview, you need to answer it correctly—that’s a given. The frustrating thing about interview questions, though, is that, no matter how prepared you are, you can never be sure what the interviewer is going to ask. It’s uncomfortable having no control. But you can control the questions that you ask. These may be the most important questions of all.

Interviewers tend to remember candidates who ask good questions. Borderline candidates—good candidates who are less-than-ideal fits for certain positions—often find themselves with job offers because they impress with their side of the questioning.

People remember good questions, and that works in your favor, in a big way.

The same principle holds true throughout your job search, at networking events, informational interviews, and so on: People remember good questions, and that works in your favor, in a big way. 

Don’t expect this column to provide a list of interviewer-approved, ready-to-use questions. Longtime Tooling Up readers know I don’t do that. Anyway, the process doesn’t work that way. You need to come up with your own questions—questions that fit the particular job and position, questions that reflect your unique approach. What I will do is give you some basic rules to help you choose your own powerful questions, along with some examples to help you get started. My earlier article on this topic, “What’s Your Question?,” contains more example questions.

Rule #1: Respect their time.

For all of us, time is valuable and scarce. Networking contacts have limited patience—interviewers, too. You may have a 30-minute slot scheduled with Dr. Smith on interview day, but if you can’t engage your interviewer for half an hour—if her eyes glaze over halfway through—you won’t get the offer.

There’s nothing worse than a “time-waster” question. You know, because you’ve been asked a few softballs yourself, like when Dr. Smith looks at your CV and asks, “So, you did your Ph.D. in plant science at the University of Wisconsin.” It’s not even a question. When it’s your turn, maybe you should say, “So, you guys are in the diagnostics industry.” Or not. 

Time-wasting questions are a result of insufficient preparation, and they are always bad news. If an interviewer asks a time waster, you should of course forgive and do your best to provide an interesting answer: “Yes, I studied plant science. I did my research in the lab of Bud Stamen, on the effect of endophytes on plant stress. We published some important papers showing that … .”

How do you prepare powerful, useful interview questions? By doing what you do best: research. Read about the individuals you’ll talk to and the organizations they work for and have worked for in the past. Read their LinkedIn profiles, the company’s Yahoo Finance descriptions, Wall Street Journal articles, and more. Learn about the core business and the company’s business strategy in your scientific area. The effort you put into coming up with good questions will shape your whole interview—not just the questions. That’s a time investment with a big payoff!

Rule #2: Ask questions at the intersection of professional and personal.

Personal questions are very important when networking; it’s part of establishing a relationship. But should you avoid these on interview day? No, not completely. You should, however, use them in moderation and ensure that they are adapted to the day’s focus.

Why do personal questions matter? Because nothing is more important to your future work experience than the attitudes and experience of those you’ll be working closely with and how they fit in with your own. You may end up spending more time with your new colleagues than you do with your family and friends. Still, it’s important to stick to a professional context, and how you ask personal questions matters.

Here’s an example. When networking you might ask, “What in your working life gives you the most fulfillment?” It’s a question that inspires your contact to think about the core source of her job satisfaction. It allows for some blue-sky discussion about the merits of a life spent in science that benefits the small farmer in Africa or a career directed toward a cure for a disease. A question like this demonstrates, early in your networking discussions, that your interest is broad. It signals that you’re not just seeking professional advantage.

That same question could be important during the interview, but in the interview context, there’s no time for blue sky. Everything must be more focused and compact. So instead ask, “What’s the most satisfying element of your day as manager of the bioassay department at ABC Biotech?” The question will provoke much of the same response as the broader question, but it’s more directly relevant to the job interview.

“Scientists thrive on new discoveries and innovation, and I’m sure that’s at the heart of both our careers. How does the process of innovation work here at ABC?” A question like that might start an interesting discussion about the differences between academic and industry research. “I’d love to know more about how you facilitate innovation. It seems so hard to put it on a schedule.” Saying such things indicates that you’re thinking broadly about how to get things done, and that’s not a bad thought to leave behind.

On interview day, questions with a personal element can be effective, but ensure that they have an end point focused on the job or the employer.

Rule #3: Use questions that clarify and resolve issues.

Here’s where, as they say, the rubber meets the road. For you and the employer, the most important function of the job interview is to explore how well prepared you are for the position and how you’ll fit in with the team. So you need to ask questions that help you understand your role and what the work will be like in much more detail than you can glean from the job description:

“I know that you’re working with CHO cells in this process development role, but I’m curious whether this job also entails any involvement in media formulation.” Ideally, you’ve got a great background in cell culture media—a point that will emerge in the ensuing discussion.

Just about every interview ends with the interviewer saying, “we’ll be getting back to you,” or some variant. If you have the nerve, this is a good opportunity to press your interviewer about any doubts she or he might have. “Do you have any concerns or misgivings about how I might fit in this role? I’d love to have the opportunity to address them.” Or, “Thanks for the discussion about how this job interfaces with you in the Department of Assay Development. From what you’ve learned about me, do you think we might be able to work well together? Are there any other questions I can answer that might help you know me better?” 

From the heart

You can’t afford to squander the opportunity to ask questions. Ensure that your questions are sincere—that they come from your heart and aren’t designed merely to show off what you know. Preparation is key. A question intended to puff yourself up and show how much you know is just another time waster. Be real. And good luck.

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