If you’re on the job market, it can feel like you’ve hit the jackpot when you get an interview for what seems to be a dream job – they’re interested in you and would like to learn more about your skills and whether you could be a good fit to an open role. Great!

However, while they are interviewing you, you should also be interviewing them too. A bad manager or a poor fit can be very distressing while you hold the job and can have negative consequences on your long-term career trajectory. When you’re in the interview pipeline, it’s important to use these interviews as an opportunity to collect your own data about the role. Ultimately, prior to accepting an offer, you should have a good picture of how this role measures up against your career “must haves”.

Which Questions to Ask and When

Early Stages

Early in the interview pipeline, you’ll likely want to understand the basics of this job and whether it aligns with your career goals. Specifically, you’ll want to determine what type of job it is, noting that the listed job title might not match with other uses of that job title. And you’ll probably want to understand the general problem space and how the research process works on the team.

Here are some good questions to ask early on:

  • What is the core problem that the team is trying to solve?
  • How are projects defined? What is the process?
  • What would an average day look like in this role?
  • What does collaboration look like in this role? What types of people would I work with most closely?

Depending on the interviewer, you might not be given the opportunity to ask questions. But in case you are, you should be prepared. Save any logistics questions about the interview process (e.g., “What happens next?” “When will I hear back?”) for the recruiter or for email.

Prior to a Full Interview Loop

When in the final stages, it’s ok – and perhaps even good – to ask the hiring manager questions about the role, even if by email. Asking questions demonstrates that you are interested in the role and the answers will likely help you prepare for your interview. It can also give you more insight into this particular manager and whether they are supportive and invested in you as a candidate and future employee.

In addition to any of the unanswered questions above, you can ask:

  • (If giving a job talk) What is the target audience of my talk? What types of information would you like to see me cover? Should I include a technical deep dive into some of my prior work?
  • Which skills are most important for success in this role?
  • How is the team structured? What are the backgrounds of current team members?
  • Who are the main “customers” of the team’s research work?
  • What types of technical interviews should I expect?

The answers to these questions can give you insights into the types of skills that are most important for this role, which can help you prepare for the interview.

During Loop and Post-Offer

During the full interview loop and prior to accepting an offer, you should ask as many questions as you need to feel really excited and comfortable about the job. Do your due diligence in knowing what you’re signing up for. A bad manager or a toxic work environment can make your work-life miserable. The aim at this stage is to determine whether this job is a worthy bet for your career.

In addition to any of the unanswered questions above, during and after the loop, you can ask:

  • What has been the team’s biggest challenge over the past 6 months?
  • What’s the management style?
  • By the end of my first year on the job, what would it look like to have done a good job? What would be considered exceptional performance? How is performance evaluated in the company?
  • How are timelines set? What happens if target dates slip?
  • How is the larger team organized? (By function? By project?)
  • What are the learning and development opportunities? What does career growth look like for this role?
  • Can I publish my research? Can I attend conferences? Can I present at conferences? (and anything else that you care about for your professional development)

If a question is particularly important to you or if you’re getting mixed signals during the answer, you might pose that same question to more than one interviewer/team member, which can give you additional insights. And to avoid those rose-coloured glasses, ask yourself, “What is the one thing that most worries me about this job?”, which can help you identify where you need more signal prior to making an informed decision.

Ask to Ask

You might not be offered the opportunity to ask all of your questions. At one point in my past, during a full interview loop, I had gone through 3-4 interviews without an opportunity to ask my questions. As I sat down with a senior team member whom I had chatted with during an earlier phone screen, I politely asked him if we could reserve some time towards the end for some of my questions. He generously reserved 20 minutes of our 45-minute session to work through my list (I had a notebook page full of ‘em at the ready!). Although I would not necessarily recommend repeating my actions during the loop, it is important to assert yourself as someone who is also collecting data on the fit between you and this job. In this specific case, I hadn’t really gathered any information about the team culture, research area, and research process, but this senior team member’s responsiveness demonstrated that he cared about my decision process as well.

If you find yourself in a position where you haven’t been able to discuss and understand the role, simply reach out to the hiring manager or the recruiter and politely ask to ask. It is also perfectly fine to request discussion with team members (and not just the hiring manager) once you’ve received an offer. This is your opportunity to interview them too so that you can both make the best decision.

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