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Science and research

Technical interviews: putting your graduate science skills to the test

They won't be looking for Einstein, but science interviewers will want to see whether you know your stuff, can think ideas through and be the best graduate for the job.

Technical interviews - they're the kind of thing that makes even the brainiest science graduate scared. But if you're going for a graduate job that requires specific expertise, then it's likely that at some stage in the selection process you'll be faced with an interview that puts your scientific knowledge to the test.

How can I find out what science interviewers want to know?

All technical interviews are different and what you will be asked will depend on the subject you've studied and, of course, the graduate science job you're applying for.

The most obvious things graduate recruiters will ask about will be a project you have worked on and modules and subjects that you've completed during your degree. This is particularly true if they relate to their field of science or the graduate science job you are applying for. 

If the job you are applying for requires practical skills and knowledge and skill in particular experimental processes, make sure you are up to speed on these and can talk about them confidently. Think also about how these might be different in a commercial lab setting.

What should I say about my project?

A good way to start your preparation is to think of five sentences that summarise your project:

  1. what it was about
  2. the key processes/techniques involved
  3. your main ideas
  4. how you worked through them
  5. the final conclusions

You can then expand on these main points. Try to keep intricate details to a minimum in your initial discussions. Your interviewer will ask for more information if they want to go deeper or need clarification.

Avoid using any jargon and check who your audience will be, whether scientists, non-scientists or a mix of both. This way, you can tailor your answers to the level and interests of your audience - an important skill for all graduate scientists and researchers.

Will graduate recruiters only ask me about my project?

Science interviewers may also use analytical and hypothetical questions or ask you about the science you've studied that's related to the graduate job you're applying for. You may even be asked for your opinion on larger issues facing the field of science.

Whatever questions you are asked, the interviewers want to find out two main things:

  1. what you know about the subject area
  2. what you do when you're faced with a technical problem.

It's not always so much a question of coming up with the right answer as showing the way in which you approach problem solving and communicate your ideas. The main thing to show is your skill in applying the concepts and theories you know and the information you have been given to achieve a logical conclusion.

What happens if I'm asked something I can't answer?

In a technical interview, interviewers will often ask questions of increasing difficulty until they reach a question you cannot answer. Don't panic, tell them what you do know and explain your reasoning. If you need more information to answer the question, ask intelligent questions to get what you need.

Don't rush to give your answers either. Pause and give yourself some time to think. If drawing a diagram will aid your explanation, ask for a piece of paper or use a white board if one is available. If you really don't know how to answer, then be honest and say so.

Graduate science interviewers are looking for potential, not Einstein

Technical interviewers are looking to see how you approach and work through technical problems, as this will indicate how you will work in the commercial science environment. They also want to assess your ability to communicate technical information and scientific ideas clearly and concisely.

Science graduate employers aren't expecting an Einstein-level of genius from graduate scientists. Overall, they want to check that you have got the basics - that you understand the fundamentals of your degree subject and can apply the core principles and skills that a graduate with your qualifications should have. If you keep this in mind, you'll have the formula for technical interview success.

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