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How To Get a Pharma Job

Here’s A Shovel. Could You Dig Yourself In Some More?

Talking about reaction-quiz job interviews the other day really seems to have brought out a lot of stories (check the comments to that post). I’m glad to hear that this kind of interrogation seems to be disappearing.
I had more than one experience with this sort of thing when I was on the interview trail. Probably the worst was a lunchtime interview back in 1989 with a director-level person who looked over my background and said “Hmm. . .post-doc with Bernd Giese. . .free-radical chemistry, eh? So, tell me, who would your ten favorite free-radical chemists be?”
The first thought that went through my head was that I didn’t even know of ten free-radical chemists. Favorites, my foot. I probably would have been better off saying that, although maybe not in as many words. But instead, I thought furiously, stalling for time: “Well, let me see. . .there’s X. . .and Y has done some interesting stuff, although I’m not sure that he’d agree to being called a free-radical chemist. . .and. . .” I ran some time off the clock like this, and was beginning to panic a bit at the shortage of further names that were coming to mind, when I was interrupted by my interviewer. I was foolish enough to be grateful.
“Hmm. . .” he began again, “I see that you mentioned Z on your list. I don’t think I would have ranked him that highly, personally. What recent work of his impressed you?” Cursing foully but inaudibly, I stammered out the only paper of Z’s that I could even think of (which was indeed recent, and was the only reason I remembered him at all). “I’m not familiar with that one,” came the response. “Could you draw those reactions out for me?” Over came a paper napkin for my use. Where the hell, I wondered, was my artichoke and fennel pasta, and could I perhaps fake choking on it?
So there I was, trying to remember and explain a paper I’d looked at once, by someone whose work I didn’t follow, wondering all the while with the spare 1% of my brain how I ended up fighting on this particular battlefield. The rest of the interview proceeded along similar lines, and I gave what was surely one of my least impressive performances. I mean, I’ve had interviews where I knew, mid-way through the day, that I was either going to get an offer or something was so seriously wrong with the place that I wouldn’t want to work there anyway. But I lurched out of this one thinking that they’d have to have something seriously wrong with them to call me back. Which indeed they didn’t.

13 comments on “Here’s A Shovel. Could You Dig Yourself In Some More?”

  1. John Novak says:

    “I’m not familiar with that one,” came the response. “Could you draw those reactions out for me?” Over came a paper napkin for my use.
    There’s a very simple, all purpose answer to this sort of nonsense question, whtever field you’re in. The answer is, “No,” delivered flatly, not unfriendly, and without explanation. Next question, please.
    Gauranteed to get a blink. They’ll invariably try to tell you why this unreasonable feat of rote memory is reasonable, and they know how stupid they sound doing that. If they get mad, you don’t want to work there.
    I mean, seriously, would you expect someone to answer that sort of wuestion off the top of their heads in a meeting? Not where I work, even translating from chemistry to engineering. At work, I’ll give the courtesy of, “I’d need to check my notes,” if it’s a question on something I’ve actually done (i.e., one of my draings or designs.) I won’t answer a technical question on the fly for anyone, because I’m more likely to get it wrong, and that will be the one time someone takes me seriously….
    And if I won’t do it for scary people from the Pentagon, I won’t do it in a job interview.

  2. Oldchemist says:

    Just by coincidence I had dinner with some European colleagues last night and interviewing came up (some new hires were present). It’s clear that many from across the pond still take “this kind of interrogation” very seriously and even consider it essential to the interview process. For those of us in “international” organizations I don’t think this style is going to die quietly.

  3. tom bartlett says:

    I was asked once what journals I read. This was when I was right out of school. I said, among others, J. Med Che.. Unfortunately, I was then asked what my favorite recent article from it was. I was reading it for the chemistry; I knew NO med chem at that time, so I had to stammer out an unconvincing answer. I did get the job, though, and it was a good one, though my several years reporting to the questioner were awful.

  4. Milo says:

    During my defense, I was cruising along, drawing mechanisms and deriving equations when one of the faculty members said “You obviously have read the recent review by X where he discusses alpha and beta. Could you explain the relationship of alpha and beta to your work?”
    I looked at him, blinked, and said “Well, I actually have not read that paper, and do not know what alpha and beta are, sir.”
    He responded “Oh…I see…well suppose I should listen to the rest of your talk. Proceed.”
    Interestingly, he did sign my thesis.

  5. Demosthenes by day says:

    Milo’s account is exactly what I always tell my colleagues when they go out for interviews. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”. Or some other version of that. I’ve always found a truthful “I don’t know” has always kept me out of those awkward digging for answers situations Derek and others have described.
    I have never held it against a candidate if they tell me they don’t know the article or reagent/reaction I’m talking about.
    Although I did hold it against the candidate who did not know the mechanism of the name reaction in the title of his dissertation.
    In that case “I don’t know” was not the appropriate answer.

  6. Fred says:

    Here is a mind blower to throw back at your interviewer: “Do you know that while you are interviewing me, I am interviewing you?”
    The people who will be your co workers likely suffered the same interview you are getting. So, do you want to work with a whole group of the kind of people who would do well in that interview? Microsoft’s legendary interviews have produced a company staffed almost entirely by very bright, near autistic, Bill Gates clones.

  7. tom bartlett says:

    “Microsoft’s legendary interviews have produced a company staffed almost entirely by very bright, near autistic, Bill Gates clones.”
    That probably explains the awful product line.
    What you say is true, though. Companies where I interviewed and thought I was doing something wrong on my interview– a fair number of them turned out to be Bad Places. I could name names, but I won’t.

  8. GATC says:

    Interesting story Derek; I’ve enjoyed the discussions these past two days. You chemistry folks sound like you really have it bad. At this point, it might be useful to categorize the discussions so that readers can differentiate between the academic and industrial experiences/situations. I know that back in the early to mid-1980s, biological interviews and dissertation defenses in academe were very rigorous, particularly in the microbial physiology/genetics world (Name three genera that eat plastic and shit sulfur, and do it fast man!!!!). But from my past experiences with BigPharma, I was often left wondering who turned out the lights. Maybe things were better in the chemistry departments, but the biology side was not the brighest bulb in the pack.

  9. Chemgrad says:

    Well, Derek to be frank, some of the old guys around still ask some really stupid questions like “who are the editors of JACS,JOC and who were the editors before them, or what is the front page color of organic letters?”
    These were the questions that one still faces in academics and sadly one has to deal with these.

  10. triticale says:

    At least these questions had some relationship to the field of employment. I was interviewing for a PC hardware support position. I showed up dressed what I thought was casual for an interview – Dockers, striped shirt and co-ordinated solid tie (my tieclip iz a 1974 Intel 8080 microprocessor) and the two people interviewing me were wearing worn jeans and tee-shirts. The question which finished things off was “How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” My answer, “I don’t.”

  11. tom bartlett says:

    ” “How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” My answer, “I don’t.””
    They just wanted to know that you understood which side the bread was buttered on.

  12. Wm Chaney says:

    Speaking of unusual interview questions, here is one I asked: Many years ago I was interviewing at Merck (West Point, PA) for a Glaucoma Res. Sr. Scientist position. I had had only one year of eye (lens) research as a post-doc, three years earlier (I had left the lab–my choice, not the investigator’s–and gone to another post-doc.). It was the typical job search where I applied for anything that I seemed remotely qualified for. As I was talking to the Director of Research for the division I blurted out: “Why are you interviewing me? I don’t have much eye research experience and no glaucoma research. I’m not even sure I am qualified for the position.” He seemed somewhat taken aback and told me that they had already looked at a bunch of people from eye research labs and couldn’t find anyone worthwhile. I guess the question didn’t hurt me, since they called me back to meet the higher-ups, with the implication that they were going to offer me the job. However, I went to my present academic position, which I felt was a better fit for my interests and personality.

  13. > But from my past experiences with BigPharma, I was often left wondering who turned out the lights.
    The interview you described was being performed by – let’s just say – an idiot. In clinical medicine we call such assaults for trivia “pimping.” They usually show nothing of value except for serendipity (or lack thereof) if you happen to, by chance, know the asnwer to the micromolecular-level-granularity-question the perp is asking of you. Your knowing the answer is no more relevant to your job performance than would be – say – your performance on the American TV trivia game show “Jeopardy.”
    I’ve often wondered how people in high places get their positions. It’s not always through merit.
    Has it ever occurred that a job title apt for many creative-science workers in big pharma – and elsewhere – has become “Director of Workarounds to Defective Organizational Structures?”
    — Informaticsmd

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