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A while back, I had an interviewer ask me this question. This was for an industry job, but I could infer that several of the people interviewing me had worked a postdoctoral research position prior to working there. I did not have a good answer, and I still do not. My answer was, "I do not want to go into academia, so for me the choice was simple. Also, the uncertainty in funding for postdocs did not appeal to me."

I can see that this was not a good response, as several people on the interviewing panel had done postdocs, and this subtly criticized their choice to do so.

The reasons I didn't do a postdoc was several: 1. I didn't want to go into academia. 2. I didn't want to work long hours for little pay. 3. I didn't want uncertainty in my pay, or job security. 4. I had a bad doctoral advisor, and did not want to continue working in a culture where I had no recourse against a bad boss. ... and so on. But the interviewer presumably does not care about these reasons.

What is the real question, and how could someone go about formulating an answer to it?

  • 1
    what are you trying to achieve? that is kinda broad, borderline interpersonal.stackexchange.com question – Oct18 is day of silence on SE Oct 7 at 15:51
  • "I'm very risk averse and the uncertainty of funding was a big problem" .... I would be surprised if people who have done their post-docs couldn't understand the reasoning :p – xyious Oct 7 at 20:23
  • @Ian a postdoc is different to a PhD, it's an employed research position you can get after finishing a PhD – llama Oct 8 at 15:03
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    OP, why do you think your answer subtly criticized their choice?? – JiK Oct 8 at 16:28
  • @JiK The first sentence stated that a postdoc is only good for a job in academia - which they didn't pursue after their postdocs. It could easily be interpreted as "they weren't good enough", which is not true in the least. The second sentence implied that a postdoc is not a good financial decision, which, while usually true in the short-term, is not the reason people do postdocs and not necessarily true in the long term. – InSpaceICanScreamAsLoudAsIWant Oct 9 at 0:46

10 Answers 10

90

The points you're trying to make aren't inherently bad, but in these situations, framing is everything.

I do not want to go into academia, so for me the choice was simple

This sounds a bit like you're waving away any point of doing a postdoc if you don't plan on an academic career ("not planning to go into academia, so there's no point!") Instead, concentrate on the positive aspect of what you did instead. So if you went on to become an engineer at company x, you could say:

I seriously considered it, but an opportunity arose for me to work at x as an engineer, and I felt that better aligned with my career interests at the time.

Or if it's your first job, that's arguably even easier. You need to extol the virtues of the position you're applying to, and show you've thought about how you wouldn't feasibly achieve that in a postdoc:

I'm really encouraged by (company's) approach to x, y and z which will allow me to work on a, b and c. That's not experience I'd gain as much of (or as quickly) in a postdoc position.

  • 7
    The suggested formulation sounds like evading the question to me: the formulations are very vague and don't really tell anything. – ivan_pozdeev Oct 7 at 3:37
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    What if it' your first job? The obvious follow up question will be "Okay, so what are your career interests and how do they differ from a postdoc?" The past is much easier to obfuscate than the present – Mars Oct 7 at 5:44
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    @ivan_pozdeev focusing on what OP did instead of a postdoc isn't evading the question; it's almost certainly crucial to answering the question properly. Leaving academia doesn't in and of itself relieve you of negatives like low pay or low security. You have to have an alternative that motivates you to move. There might be a few people who after a PhD would literally rather be unemployed for the rest of their life than do a postdoc, but they would have very different working motivations to most people who make the move out of academia after their PhD – Will Oct 7 at 15:35
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    FWIW, this was for my first job out of grad school. The tactic of answering positively (in this case, about what I did) to a negatively-worded question sounds like a very strong general tactic in interviewing. – InSpaceICanScreamAsLoudAsIWant Oct 8 at 3:37
58

My answer was, "I do not want to go into academia, so for me the choice was simple. Also, the uncertainty in funding for postdocs did not appeal to me."

No need to feel ashamed about it. The above answer is a perfectly good and valid response. Judging by your question the only thing you need to consider worrying about is the intonation.

Basically, don't feel guilty about it. As long as you're comfortable with the choice you made and you articulate it with level headed confidence, your answer is fine.

  • 7
    This is a good approach. Most companies will be keen on staff who want to work on practical tasks in industry and are looking for a permanent job, rather than (looking at it from a business's point of view) someone who's not interested in commercial realities and is looking to flit from job to job every year. And it's often more important to be able to state your decisions clearly and confidently and give reasons, than what the decision was. – Stuart F Oct 7 at 11:24
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    I completely agree. The good answer is the honest one, not what you expect them to want to hear. – Henrik Oct 7 at 12:24
34

This was your answer:

I do not want to go into academia, so for me the choice was simple. Also, the uncertainty in funding for postdocs did not appeal to me

Here are the reasons you have given us:

  1. I didn't want to go into academia.
  2. I didn't want to work long hours for little pay.
  3. I didn't want uncertainty in my pay, or job security.
  4. I had a bad doctoral advisor, and did not want to continue working in a culture where I had no recourse against a bad boss

Do you notice something? All of these are negatives. And, honestly, that is the only problem with your answer: Framing.

The problem with answering in negatives is that they don't show you working towards a long-term goal, but instead you are drifting away from situations that don't appeal to you. The risk for the company is that you will quit, just as you 'quit' academia. Every job, whether in academia or in the industry, will, inevitably, have downsides. What the interviewers want to hear is that you have positive goals that you do want to achieve. If you can formulate what you want, you can overcome obstacles and/or deal with bad things that are out of your control.

So a better answer would have been (loosely tied to your answers):

  • I want to focus on the work at hand, and the insecurity in pay would have been distracting for me.
  • I wanted work in the industry.
  • I was seeking a more professional working culture than what I encountered at my university
  • In 5 years, I want to be.. (something not achievable in academia)

I left out the point about money, because that's usually not a good reason.

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    The point about money is a good reason. Why should someone take a position (postdoc) with unstable funding possibilities? Why should someone be expected to take a crappy job with little pay when they have a PhD? – J.D. Walker Oct 7 at 19:33
  • I very much like the idea of reframing the problem to focus on the positives of where I want to be. You also speak shortly of risk, which I think I could incorporate into a good answer about stability. – InSpaceICanScreamAsLoudAsIWant Oct 8 at 3:41
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    Can actually be a bad idea to focus on where you want to be. Exactly everyone in the world may not want to see you get to where you want to be. But you can give believable reasons that other people would go for. – mathreadler Oct 8 at 8:26
  • @J.D.Walker I think the money part is covered sufficiently with the insecurity part. Explicitly mentioning money is generally considered a bad move during job interviews (except commision-based jobs.) – knallfrosch Oct 8 at 9:28
  • @knallfrosch actually I'm thinking that's a very arrogant position for an employer to take, to consider it a bad move to mention money at all. We work to get money to live and pay bills, and it's not rude to say "a post doc wouldn't pay me enough or consistently so I can pay bills". It's the truth, and any employer who would penalize a candidate for giving that reason for not taking a postdoc is an employer who's acting in an imperial manner. My response to THAT is not for family audiences. – J.D. Walker Oct 9 at 12:52
7

This is my standard answer, taken from academia SE

Here are my findings:

  • F1: If I overwork in science, I get the opportunity to have a position in science
  • F2: If I overwork in industry, I get the opportunity to choose the position I want for my future

In my field (Physics), there are two causes for F1:

  1. C1: The supply of researchers strongly outnumbers the number of available positions.
  2. C2: The quality of scientific work is extremely difficult to quantify (**)

C2 leads to performance be often quantified by another metric, quantity (even if not the fairest or most useful). This metric promotes, by definition, overworking. Another important metric of performance is the scientific impact (think the number of citations, impact of scientific journals, etc.). This metric depends strongly on your PI, institution, hotness of the field, luck (on your results, peer reviewers, etc) and therefore should not be relevant to your decision to overwork or not.

The above conclusion combined with C1 makes any person that overwork have an advantage, and therefore the best strategy for each individual is to overwork the most they can. In other words, regardless of the individual motives, the downsides of not overworking are far greater than the advantages of not overworking.

The above is applicable to the subject I was in and may not apply to your subject.

(**) See e.g. this paper and respective rebutal, and note that this was only done for citations, which is a measure of impact, not quality. Quality is even more difficult to quantify.


It does not have to be framed like this, but the idea remains: it demonstrates research about the problem beyond the "I didn't want to work long hours for little pay", e.g. it describes the problem of assessing performance and the economics of supply and demand / saturated market.

  • In my opinion, points C1 and C2 are valid for all fields of science. Especially the lack of good metric for quality. – Mikko Rantalainen Oct 7 at 12:01
  • One of my biggest concerns is pointing out negatives to the path my interviewers chose. How would you suggest presenting this in a way that does not seem critical of the interviewers? – InSpaceICanScreamAsLoudAsIWant Oct 8 at 3:43
5

You did not say anything inherently wrong, postdocs are not necessarily better than industry experience. However, this is a matter of ingroup vs. outgroup, and a better way would have been "I was really excited about it, but after doing my PhD I wanted to experience industry for a few years as well". you don't have to be meaningful, as long as their egos are safe. as you pile up career achievements, questions like this should disappear soon.

3

While berry120 is absolutely right, I provide reasonings on how to address the formulation.

  • Increasingly, doctors are younger and PhD merely a pre-requisite to a career while it used to be the more prestigious title for renowned experts. They think that a PhD is a research education for academia. Did you learn it only there that it is just a step to an academic career? What made you pursue your PhD?
  • It was your most recent career choice. What motivated you to do that? What do you expect from your career?
  • You are different from others. What are the qualities that make you different?
  • How you react to the question reveals how you relate not going to academia. Also, it tells them how to relate to the rest of your answer. If you have too planned answer it could be that you are totally aware of it being odd and that you are hiding something. Or if you have nothing thought, you might not have any idea why you are in that interview instead of academia.
  • You could have also failed by producing barely acceptable work and no-one is willing to take you? This question could trick you to answer something vague and reveal that.
  • It is just one question. They throw you with random questions to see how you communicate. They could as well be asking you about sports results but that is probably something personal to you and seeing how you articulate your feelings and motivations is an important thing.

So what I find in your answer:

  • Saying that you did not go because you did not want to reveals that you do not naturally talk about feelings like why did you not want to go. That is what they asked for and you did not answer.
  • Being concerned about funding does not signal confidence. From your perspective it might be rational but the wording does not show more than unconfidence. The interviewer does not necessarily share your point of view about academic job market but only sees these other post-docs.
  • You gave a short answer so you are probably not comfortable talking about it. There could bee something behind. And there is money and a bad boss experience.

You need to answer the question why do you not want to go to academia? If you are uncomfortable about saying things directly learn a bit of corporate jargon. Bad boss experience is a cultural mismatch and money is competitive recompensation.

  • 8
    "You are probably not the super talent as you are concerned about funding". As a former academic, who got the funding for many years (>8) without being a super talent, I can safely say that this is bollocks. Talent and funding don't come together, and it is very uncertain regardless. The norm are 1-2 years fellowships, intertwined with several months where you don't know if it get renewed or not. Also, in many countries, fellowships are not a contract and come without a social security (or health insurence) attached. There is no way the panel interviewing has not experienced this. – fridaymeetssunday Oct 6 at 20:06
  • @fridaymeetssunday What makes you think that the interviewer would have experience about nationally varying academic career conventions? I know about the suffering and therefore used super. I dare to claim that from the average persons point of view biased by good job market situation the talented person lands a job easily and that they apply that to some degree to academia. I know about my university where everybody gets a post-docs with social security and salary if they want to but the tenure tracks are hard to get. I assume that to be somewhat relevant as all the other applicants had done. – user3644640 Oct 7 at 12:39
  • I changed that to be less provocative and open up that how from the interviewers point of view the other candidates having post-doc experience could change how he/she perceives the unconfidence for funding. – user3644640 Oct 7 at 12:55
  • I really like the perspective from this answer; it teases out answers the interviewers may arrive at from the question. The point about it being only one question among many is an especially good one. I think focusing on why I want to go into industry, however, would be a stronger stance than why I would not go into academia. – InSpaceICanScreamAsLoudAsIWant Oct 8 at 3:48
  • @user3644640 OP says that the interviewers had had postdoc positions earlier. It's quite natural to assume that they have met people in academia worldwide and they know something about how academic positions differ worldwide, or at least that they differ a lot. – JiK Oct 8 at 16:33
3

Something I haven't seen addressed yet in these answers is that there are different standards and roles for postdocs in different fields. In some areas there are many postdoctoral appointments available (relatively speaking), while in others there are few, compared to the applicants. (Anecdotally, biology might fall in the first category while math might fall in the second.) Additionally, what is expected of a postdoc may differ; in many sciences there would be no teaching ever expected, while in some, and certainly in humanities "postdocs", this would not necessarily be the case. I've even seen "teaching postdocs" advertised.

What is the real question, and how could someone go about formulating an answer to it?

So part of the question in such a situation may be "Why didn't you conform to norms in our field when yours seems to be similar" and part of an answer may be "In discipline X, the role of a non-tenure-track academic appointment looks a lot different than in discipline Y, so it wasn't a good fit" or perhaps even "In discipline X, there are very few such appointments available, and ... " where you fill in the blank as to how you want to explain that. Especially for people cross-pollinating from the humanities or social sciences to more hard science companies I can imagine this being a cultural problem.

I do admit this doesn't seem to be the case for the original post. But for some people finding this question after interviewing in such cases - both inside and outside of academia - this may be a useful piece of one's response.

  • I like the tactic of approaching as a supply vs demand approach, though I don't want to appear to be leaving confidence ("Oh, I know I couldn't get a postdoc in X because I am not a competitive candidate, so I didn't even try" kind of answer). How would you suggest phrasing it to still project confidence? – InSpaceICanScreamAsLoudAsIWant Oct 8 at 3:51
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    Well, it really depends on your situation. I actually had a similar conversation precisely once, with someone who clearly did not understand that in my field there aren't zillions of labs looking for people to be second authors on papers. I just had to explain that the fields were different - and honestly, given the context of the conversation, I am kind of surprised the person would have expected someone with a postdoc or two under their belt to have been having it at all! But I wasn't expecting this to apply in your specific case. – kcrisman Oct 9 at 12:57
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    However, if it does to some extent apply to you, I think that phrasing it more as "the postdocs available in my specific subarea of research X.Y.W aren't as plentiful as in subfield X.Y.Z, and the specific positions I looked at have research directions I'm not as passionate about as this position" could work. If that is actually true! If your interviewers have experience in subfield X.Y they will suss out whether you are prevaricating pretty quickly on that. – kcrisman Oct 9 at 12:59
1

Academics, in general, are aware of the financial uncertainty that comes with choosing academia - They lived it.

Admitting that this didn't appeal to you isn't a black mark.

What could be a black mark is that your answer as phrased makes it sound like you 'fell into' your chosen path as it seemed the path of least resistance.

In my opinion, it's not so much what you did say, as what you didn't - You gave reasons for not choosing to do something, but you gave very little information about why you chose to do what you did.

Phrasing a question in the negative like that is a bit of a rhetorical trap that interviewers use with some frequency, although I've never established whether this is a conscious effort on their part, or just an artifact of the process - Either way, it's generally a good idea to never answer just what they asked, but instead, answer the question and more.

Add in a list of reasons as to why you chose what you chose, why you thought that was a better fit for you, and try to shift the focus of the question onto why you decided to do X, instead of why you didn't decide to do Y.

1

Answer: “I thought about what was best long term for me and my career, and getting into the industry seemed better to me than going for a postgraduate position first. “

1

Try to see the interviewers' perspective. What are they trying to find out with those questions? If they are familiar with academic careers, they might be finding out whether your prime goal is to earn more money in industry, or whether you would leave them again if you receive the right offer from some regarded research facility. Otherwise, if they have a romanticised view of academia, like "everyone can become tenured if they are smart," they might be finding out whether you gave up on (in their eyes) the finish line to tenure.

Your feelings towards academia are understandable; I myself had been in the same situation. Yet, as others have already pointed out, be more positive about the career that you have chosen to follow instead. In any case, the question is a test of confidence. Possibly the interviewer would not know what to ask instead; make sure to present yourself as a seasoned expert.

Good answers would include:

  • "I see a long-term perspective in industrial R&D."
  • "I'm going to put my skills to productive use."
  • "I like to work on a team of skilled practitioners."
  • "I perceive a PhD as an advanced training for the offered position."

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