How to Tackle the Food Scientist Technical Interview

My experience interviewing for R&D Food Scientist positions

Whether you’re a recent graduate or a seasoned veteran, interviewing for a new position can be daunting. You never know what questions might be asked and you can never be too prepared. If you’re like me, you like to know what to expect ahead of time so you feel more confident.

So, where do you start? How do you know what to prepare for?

What to expect

In my experience, the typical interview process at the scientist/technologist level has four phases: application, phone screen (or two), an on-site interview, and (finally) a decision.

During the application process, it is important to narrow in on exactly what positions you are looking for and what companies you are interested in working with. Review job listings and ensure key skills are included in your resume (of course, they must also be true and accurate). If you know someone who works for the company you could ask for their advice or even a reference.

Note: This piece will be focused on the interview process and questions to expect. If you need more advice on how to apply for the right positions, please comment below.

Interviews tend to be compromised of behavioral HR questions and more technical/scientific questions. We’ll take a look at each to help prepare for your own job search.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for interviews is to anticipate questions that may arise, whether about your experience or about your knowledge of the subject matter. Know that you will never have all the answers, but thinking ahead of time can get your thoughts flowing. Below are some examples of questions I have experienced.

Standard questions

You can guarantee that most interviews will have some basic questions to help get to know you better. By preparing for these questions ahead of time, you can set yourself up for a successful start to the interview. This can help calm your nerves for the more difficult questions to come later.

Preparing for these questions also gives you the opportunity to present yourself and what you have to offer in the best way possible. Remember, first impressions are key.

  • Tell me about yourself. This is a very open-ended question. I generally give a quick overview of what I’m doing now and what I’m looking for in a position. I also hit on major points from past positions.
  • Why do you want to work at our company? Understand the mission of the company and describe how your personal goals align with the company values.
  • Why are you the right fit for the job? Review the key responsibilities and skill sets in the job description and provide examples of how you exemplify these traits. It also helps to share experiences or skills that make you unique and stand out from other candidates.
  • Why did you choose food science? Share your story!
  • What are your professional goals? Understand the typical career path of someone entering this role and describe how your goals may align. If they don’t, share your plans and ask how that might fit in with the company structure.
  • What is your dream job and dream work culture? Know what you’re looking for and be honest. But also prepare ahead of time by getting to know the culture of the company you are interviewing with to see if it may be a good fit for you.
  • What are your hobbies outside of work? Here you can share your passion for food outside of the office (or plant). You can also share other interests you are passionate about that make you unique. This could include volunteering, clubs, sports, etc.

In addition to preparing for standard interview questions about yourself, be prepared with basic facts about the company also. Review the website to learn more about company values, history, culture performance, and more.

Behavioral questions

Many human resources interviews follow a behavioral interviewing structure. That is, you’ll be asked questions about your past experiences to predict how you may work in the future. Follow the STAR method to answer these questions: situation, task, action, result. You don’t want to just say your biggest strength is communication, you want to share a specific experience that demonstrates your ability.

One of the best ways to prepare for this is to think of 3-4 strong stories that demonstrate your experience and success. Describe the problem at hand, the steps you took to solve the problem, the outcome, and what you learned moving forward.

Typical questions may include:

  • What are your strengths? Weaknesses? Describe 3-4 strengths you believe are key to the position and provide examples of how you excel. When discussing your weaknesses, describe how you’ve identified your shortcomings and what you are doing to compensate for them.
  • How do you handle multiple projects and timelines at one time? Most of us have had to manage multiple responsibilities at once, whether at school or at work. Describe a specific experience and what you did to ensure all deadlines were met.
  • Describe a time when you used innovative solutions to solve a problem. The interviewer is looking to see if you can think creatively and solve problems on your own (or with a team).
  • Describe a time when you took initiative to solve an issue. Do you see problems and look away or do you do something about it? Show them you care about what you do.
  • Share your biggest achievement in a recent role. Again, share the situation, task, actions, and results of your story. If applicable, share how your success impacted the larger team or had a positive impact to the business. Use numbers when possible.
  • Tell me about a time when you failed. Describe the specific situation, how you handled the repercussions, and what steps you took to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. And don’t be afraid to share, we all make mistakes. The interviewer is looking to understand how you handle these setbacks and learn from them.
  • How do you handle sharing your opinion if it is unpopular with the group? For most of us, there will be times when differing opinions arise at work. Depending on the company culture, these differences may be handled in different ways. However, everyone needs to be able to handle conflict professionally and respectively.

Finally, be prepared to discuss the main takeaways you learned at each relevant position in the past and any major projects you worked on while reviewing your resume.

Technical questions

Interviewing with the hiring manager or team may involve a mixture of both behavioral and technical questions. They want to get a sense of you how you work, but also that you are knowledgable in the area you will be responsible for.

Many of the technical questions asked related to general market trends. Interviewers want to know you are genuinely interested in what you do and pay attention to what’s hot, especially in the area of R&D.

Types of questions may include:

  • What trends are you seeing in the grocery store today?
  • What is a new product you really enjoy and why?
  • What flavors are you noticing on restaurant menus?
  • What new concept would you create to fill a gap in the current marketplace?
  • What are important attributes consumers are looking for in specific types of products?
  • Share an innovative new product idea based on current trends
  • Where do you go to find information on trends?
  • What is the next big thing in this category?

Before going into the interview, be aware of what’s going on in the general area of the category. For example, if you are interested in a dairy company, know the popular new concepts and biggest challenges facing the industry. This may include things like health, sustainability, safety, ingredient selection, etc.

Read news articles to know what is currently important to the company and to understand what competitors are doing. Resources such as Food Business News, Prepared Foods, Mintel, and IFT can be good places to get started. Many companies also have a social media presence that can help you get to know them better.

Next, I recommend becoming familiar with the company’s products, even if you think you already know them. Review the taste, nutrition, ingredients, and any new products/flavors the company has released. You can also ask questions about these new products to show you are engaged and curious with the brand. It also helps to be familiar with competitor products, as well.

Next, things may get a little more scientific. You don’t have to be an expert (at least at the entry or mid-level) but you should know the basics. Is there a standard of identity for the products the company produces? Are there known safety precautions that have to be met during production, such as pasteurization temperatures? What is the functionality of ingredients listed on the label of some of their products? Is the category facing challenges from clean label initiatives?

Typical questions may include:

  • Describe the sensory aspects of our products compared to competitor products.
  • What are some important quality aspects to consider when developing these types of products?
  • What are the general processing steps and important control points?
  • What different types of equipment may be used to produce this product?
  • What concerns might you have regarding ingredient sourcing for this type of product?
  • What is the function of x ingredient?
  • What could you do to extend shelf-life of the product?
  • How would you work with sensory teams during the product development process?
  • Describe how you might go about formulating a new product concept.
  • How do intrinsic properties (e.g. pH, water activity, fat content, etc.) affect ingredient selection or shelf stability?
  • How would storage or extended storage affect product quality?

These are questions to get you thinking. Even if you don’t necessarily know the answer, show the interviewer your thought process and make an educated guess based on what you do know. Don’t panic if you’re not sure of an answer, no one knows everything. You can also follow up with the interviewer in your thank you email if you feel you should have known the answer.

Also, keep in mind that you may be asked questions that don’t have a right answer. Maybe it’s a current problem they are trying to solve. Sometimes, you need to be able to admit you don’t know.

Questions you may want to ask

You probably know you should always ask questions at the end of an interview. If you are meeting with multiple people throughout the day, it helps to understand their role on the team and how your position would interact with them. For example, you may not want to ask a member in a different department what your daily responsibilities will be. That question will likely be more suited to your prospective manager or colleagues on your team.

In my experience, some of the most important questions you can ask relate to company culture, team dynamics, and understanding what your daily life will look like and how you will interact with others.

Typical questions may include:

  • How would you describe the company culture?
  • What makes the company unique?
  • What is your favorite thing about this company/culture?
  • What do you think could be improved?
  • How would you describe your management style?
  • Could you describe the typical onboarding process?
  • What is the team dynamic?
  • What advancement opportunities are available for someone in this role?
  • What career development opportunities are provided?
  • What do you see as the biggest challenge facing someone in the role?
  • What is an example of a first project I would be working on?
  • How would my time be split between the office, lab, plant, travel, etc?
  • How is success measured?
  • What are some accomplishments you would expect to see within the first six months?
  • What do you think distinguishes your products from your competitors?

Even if you have questions prepared ahead of time, always listen and pay attention. By asking insightful, curious questions that naturally arise during discussion, you show you are truly interested in the position. Examples might include technical, development, or production questions.

Helpful tips

These are some tips I found to be be very helpful during my own interview process.

  1. Control what you can control. Try not to stress over every unknown.
  2. Prepare, prepare, and then prepare some more
  3. Research the company and competitors as much as possible
  4. Plan the logistics of the interview ahead of time. Know what to expect and how your day will flow
  5. Eat breakfast
  6. Be confident (but not arrogant)
  7. Be polite, positive, engaged, and energetic
  8. Ask questions and make a list ahead of time for reference
  9. Look and listen. Try to get a sense of the culture and how people interact with one another
  10. Be prepared to address any areas where you lack experience

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of possible questions/scenarios, but it is a good starting point if you are at a loss for what questions might be asked or what you should expect during the interview.

For more information on career opportunities in food science, click here.

I hope sharing my experience gives you some insight into how to prepare for interviews and what questions you may be asked. Keep in mind this post is specifically geared towards R&D/product development positions. If you have questions on other areas, such as quality assurance, please don’t hesitate to ask.

If you would like to know more or have a specific question, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Got advice of your own? Comment below!

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1 comment

  1. Hi Danielle, thank you so much for this post. It was so helpful for me to prep for my future interview. I’m glad I found your website through a google search. This post is so specific to our industry and I feel like it’s rare to find a blog like this. Looking forward to reading your other posts.

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