Postdoc interview checklist (Part 1): 10 questions to expect at a postdoc interview

4 min read

When PhDs are exploring career opportunities, it is important to ascertain whether a postdoc would take them closer to their long-term career goal. Most PhDs do a postdoc with the aim of securing a faculty position; however, career data shows that most of them will eventually get a non-academic position that didn’t require a postdoc in the first place.

That said, if you carefully assess that you want to do a postdoc, next step is finding the right mentor, lab and project. Approaching the principal investigator (PI) with personalized motivation letter, which benefits from thoroughly reading of their recent papers; and an academic CV, are likely to get the candidate selected for interview. Then comes the interview.


A postdoc interview, in most cases, is the first job interview for a fresh PhD graduate. It is therefore natural for candidates to look up ‘how to’ guides for the process. However, a postdoc interview, in most cases, is quite different from those in other careers; for example, it is often a one-on-one meeting with a PI, instead of a panel of experts. Therefore, preparing and rehearsing common questions and answers can help in understanding a PI’s reasoning and to respond accordingly. Following are a few questions that I have encountered, and that my fellow eLife ambassador PIs ask during postdoc interviews.

  1. Briefly describe your current position and what research you are doing/did in your PhD
    The PI has probably seen this in your CV, but it is a good start to conversation. Prepare for it, this is likely to relax you. Don’t explain all your previous research, highlight common interests among yourself and PI and focus on the research relevant to the advertised postdoc project.
  2. During your research, what was the biggest challenge? how did you solve that challenge? and how could you have avoided it?
    You are being assessed for your problem-solving attitude. Bring forward an experiment that didn’t work and you had to optimize. It is important to take responsibility for your own actions and avoid blaming other people/circumstances for past mishaps; not only for the interview, this is good lab practice.
  1. Are you considering any other offers? Why have you specifically applied here and what criteria would you use to decide between competing offers?
    This is to assess your seriousness and interest in the lab. Make sure not to hide if you have applied elsewhere; scientific world is small, and people talk. Regardless, it is normal not to put all your eggs in one basket; and you competing for more than one positions indicates your competitiveness.
  1. Briefly tell me what you understood from the advertisement about the experiments you’ll be performing
    This is to assess your expertise and knowledge of the advertised project. If you applied for a project relevant to your past research, this can be a smooth process. However, if you are applying in a different field, you should read the protocols and be very clear about the experimental procedures required to carry out the advertised research. In any case, you will benefit from reading PI’s recent papers.
  1. What skills do you have to perform these experiments?
    Highlight the skills that you already have in common with the host lab. Also, describe what new skills and protocols you can bring to benefit the project.
  1. If you are performing experiment X using methodology Y, what controls should you use?
    This can also be to assess if you really know all the techniques listed on your CV, so consider carefully while writing your CV.
  1. What are your long-term plans? Do you want to stay in academia or to join industry? How do you aim to achieve those plans?
    Think about where you see yourself in five years. This is a good time to show that you are a committed person and a long-term planner.
  1. If I invite you, will you be able to visit my lab for one day, meet the lab members and give a talk? If yes when we can do that? If you are offered the position, when can you join?
    Mostly, the first interview is on a call (Skype). Visiting PI’s lab is an excellent opportunity to meet the lab members in PI’s absence and decide later among multiple offers. You should be clear about the dates when you’ll be available.
  1. Do you have any questions for me?
    This itself is a separate set of instructions/questions, and can take half of the interview time. This will be covered in an upcoming blog post.
  1. Expect the unexpected
    Finally, in my experience, most interviewers were like informal conversations, and several things came up that I hadn’t prepared for. And that part, I enjoyed the most. In fact, the interview for the position that I finally choose, was an informal chat of 45 minutes.

So be yourself, relax and remember that a rejection is not the end of the world. There are dozens of postdoc opportunities that may not be very relevant to your expertise but may bring a unique diversity in your skill set and be very useful for you in the long run.

[Note: the feature image at the top of the article is reproduced from]


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