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How To Get a Pharma Job

Dinner the Night Before

A reader sends along this dilemma, and asks for advice:
“I will soon be graduating with a Masters degree. I have been invited to interview at a major Pharmaceutical company, and have been invited to dinner the night before with the Vice President of Drug Discovery. No one I have asked has any idea of what I should expect for this dinner, or how I should prepare.. . .”
Well, the VP isn’t going to spend the meal asking you about name reactions – and if he or she does, then scratch that company off your list. You don’t want to work at a place where they make you feel like only the select few ever get past their interviews. You’ll get asked a bit about your degree work, and you’ll be expected to answer pretty fluently – after all, if you can’t give a straight and reasonable answer, who can?
You’ll get the standard intro to the company, its research structure, and what sort of job you’ll be interviewing for. It wouldn’t hurt to do some homework before you show up. Check out the company’s web site – don’t worry that it’s full of happy talk and propaganda, because what corporate web site isn’t? But this is where you’ll find what’s known to the public about the research that’s going on at the company. If they’re strong in cardiovascular research, for example, it won’t hurt if you show that you took the time to learn that. That’ll give you an opening to ask a question, too, if you want: (“Is this position in the cardiovascular group?”)
Other questions that are good to ask (and will help fill up the time, without any awkward gaps) might be: what the area is like to live in, what the mix of people is like in the department (experienced/younger), how often people switch on to new projects, if the person interviewing you has ever worked on anything that made it all the way through the clinic, and so on.
Mostly, these dinners are to make sure that a candidate can hold up their end of a conversation and appears appropriately intelligent. Order something good, and don’t worry about having an appetizer and/or dessert. I wouldn’t advise drinking any alcohol, though, just to be on the safe side. You should just try to be reasonably pleasant company, and act as if you have a clue about chemistry and research. (Hey, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, you should at least be able to fake it convincingly. . .)

6 comments on “Dinner the Night Before”

  1. qetzal says:

    Absolutely do some homework on the company. You need to show the VP (and the folks who will interview you the next day) that you care enough to be prepared. In my experience, there are few things worse than a candidate who didn’t bother to learn even the most basic things about the company. (I’m a biologist in biotech, not a chemist in pharma, but I presume the advice still applies.)

    Think in advance about how you will answer “standard” interview questions, such as:

    “Why do you want to work for us?”

    Ideally, your answer should explain not just why you want a chem job in pharma, but why you’d like a job at that pharma.

    “What are your strengths? Weaknesses?”

    These can be tough to answer well if you haven’t thought about it in advance. Interviewers don’t necessarily expect you to blurt out something really negative about yourself (although I’ve seen it happen with unprepared candidates). They do want to see if you’ve done any self-appraisal. One way to answer this is to describe several areas where you’re relatively strong, followed by one or two where you may be weak but you’d like to improve.

    “What are you looking for in this job? In your career?”

    Again, questions like these will catch you off guard if you’re not prepared, so think about it in advance. That’s not to say you need a 20-year plan. It’s fine to say that your near term goal is to gain experience in pharma, learn how to be effective doing “real-world” science, etc., and that you’ll decide what sort of career path is right for you later. What you definitely don’t want is to give the impression that you’re just looking for any old job with a paycheck.

    As Derek suggests, have some questions of your own prepared. One useful approach is to ask the VP what he thinks it will take for you to be successful in the position. Ask about the key challenges facing the group or department where you would work. See if you can find out when the VP joined the company (it may be on their web site, or available through Google). Ask him why he took the position, and what he likes about the company.

    More generally, try to ask questions that focus on what you can do for the company. Minimize questions about what the company can do for you. Save specific questions about salary, benefits, etc., for the following day. Most likely, you will meet with an HR rep at some point, who will cover that sort of thing with you.

    Overall, the simple fact that you’re asking for this advice suggests you’re likely to do well.

    Good luck!

  2. vlad says:

    good comments from qetzal!

  3. Dr Toot says:

    As a senior interviewer in Pharma, I like to see some spunk in my candidates. For instance, I look most favorably on those who aren’t afraid to really lay in to the industry for its neglect of human rights/social justice. If asked about a lack of prior industry experience, don’t be intimidated; let them know that you have most of all you’ll ever need to know from your advanced academic studies. Given the department you’re interviewing with, show a level of sophistication by stressing that the real innovators in Pharma no longer consume valuable resources by over-financing Medicinal Chemistry, but instead subsidize their Acquisitions Group to buy the fruits of other’s efforts.

  4. Derek Lowe says:

    In case anyone didn’t catch on, Toot’s advice would seem to be coming from a devil’s advocate.

    I go to dinner with a lot of candidates, and if one of them were to “lay into the industry” on social justice issues over dinner, I’d put a big question mark by their name. And not (just) for their views, but for having the poor judgement to bring up strong political opinions during a first meeting.

    Similarly, asserting that you’ve already learned pretty much all you need to know will get you crossed off the list promptly. We see people who don’t say this in so many words, but the attitude comes through, and it’s an offer-killer.

    And you can imagine the consternation that would follow if you talk about how the department that’s hiring you is getting too much money. But if anyone wants to try these lines out, feel free, and please report back. You’d better have a few more interviews lined up before you do. . .

  5. heterocycle says:

    Thanks Derek, qetzal.
    Thanks for all your comments.

  6. Phil-Z says:

    Don’t do it this way!
    I flew from Pittsburgh to Groton morning of the interview for a BS Chem synthetic position at a large pharma company. The USAIR flight into Laguardia was late so I missed my puddle jumper into Groton. The next flight got me there in time for lunch, missing the morning interviews. For lunch I had my pick of the company cafeteria, and as it happened I had nothing but tomato products, and this was pointed out to me by the personnel manager I was eating with. The rest of the day went OK, I guess, as they offered me a job.
    The other interview I went on was a flight to Cleveland, and an airport shuttle to Strongsville, to the now defunct(?) SCM Glidden paint R&D center. I spent the night hanging out with another interviewee, drinking and dancing. Had breakfast, (barely), with some guy from personnel. I felt awful, barely made it through the day. Fortunetly I could still talk about my undergrad research project more or less intellegently, I guess. On the flight back I was acutely ill, turns out I was coming down with the flu, landed while I was still in the restroom of the plane, no TSA in those days.Had to call my girlfriend to come rescue me at the airport, spent the next couple of days curled up in a ball. Oh, I got an offer from them too.
    Your mileage may vary….
    I ended up taking the job with the Big Drug Company.

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