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How To Get a Pharma Job

The Other Side of the Table

One of the comments to yesterday’s post turned the topic around by asking me how I like to be interviewed. That’s a fair question, and I’m going to resist a quick answer of “In as fawning a way as possible”. I have to say that I haven’t been out on the conference-room trail in a few years – I’m not one of those people who goes out and interviews every couple of years just to keep their hand in. But I have been on the other side of the table a few times.
I think that one thing I look for is the quality of the questions I get asked. You want to join a company with good people, and what a person is curious about is a good window into how they think. That’s one reason I’m not a fan of the mechanism-quiz technique, because at its worst it embodies some personality traits (bet-I-can-find-things-you-don’t-know, test-until-destruction) that I find unappealing and counterproductive.
And that’s why I don’t necessarily mind getting questions that I don’t know the answer to (as long as they’re not questions that I obviously should know the answer to, naturally). It’s good to be able to recognize anomalies and potentially interesting clues in a mass of data, so when someone picks out an oddity from a presentation of mine, I’m pleased (again, as long as it’s one that I already knew about!) Many times, the answer to such questions is “Well, we don’t actually know why that happens, but here are some possibilities. . .” The part of that answer after the comma needs to be included every time the first part is used, by the way.
I like seeing that the place I’m interviewing at is run in a reasonably organized manner. I’m not talking synchronized watches (which would make me run the other way), but if no one seems to have any idea of what my schedule is or where anyone can be found, it might be a bad sign for the way that projects are being run as well. (The flip side is that some apparent disorganization might be from everyone doing productive work instead, which isn’t so bad).
And most of all, it’s good to get the impression that people are doing things that they’re interested in. At a small company, that’s usually not a problem. But large companies have all sorts of people, and most places have some disgruntled time-servers taking up office space here and there. Any recruiting committee should know not to put these folks on an interview schedule. I’ve been on such committees myself, and you really do think about these things. So if I visit a place and end up talking to Wally out of the “Dilbert” strip, it’s at best a mark against the people who made up my schedule, and at worst a bad sign for the whole department.

16 comments on “The Other Side of the Table”

  1. coracle says:

    Thanks for taking my comment onboard, an interesting take on how such things can work.

  2. Dr.T says:

    At one point, while interviewing for a company on the West Coast, we had a policy to take the candidates to breakfast BEFORE their day started with an 8AM interview. I felt so bad for the people we flew in from the East Coast the night before, who were completely jet lagged already, and then had to be packed, dressed with their suit and game face on, and checked out of the hotel before 6:30 breakfast. Very uncivilized.

  3. Kay says:

    I’m still puzzled by the displeasure regarding eating while listening. If there is substantive food in the room, are we really being rude by eating? Some folks are so busy that this is the only way to induce them to attend. Anyone who objects to weekend work to stay on schedule is not prepared for the new paradigms on the horizon.

  4. weirdo says:

    I’ll take on Kay’s question.
    I agree with Derek that eating at a candidate seminar is unprofessional. Period. So is coming in 30 minutes late. Both are distracting to the candidate, and it’s a stressful enough situation as it is. Oh, you’re trying to stress me to see how I react? Fine, hire somebody else, who is in sync with your way of thinking. It’s just not for me.
    “Some folks are so busy that this is the only way to induce them to attend.”
    Too busy to aid in the hiring of new scientists for the company’s drug discovery projects? Really? Again, I don’t want to work at such a company. Some people do: more power to them.
    There are PLENTY of places where recruiting is taken seriously, and important people take time out of their Monday-Friday schedules (and come in on Saturday to make it up!!) to interview the future of the company. Those are the companies where I want to work.
    But, if you find such behavior the norm, by all means take that job.
    Really, it is not about “right” and “wrong”. It’s about corporate culture, and Derek is absolutely correct in that you can figure out a lot about what kind of place it is by how they treat you during an interview.

  5. daen says:

    “… it’s good to get the impression that people are doing things that they’re interested in. At a small company, that’s usually not a problem …”
    Unfortunately, in small companies, it’s often the situation that one has to be “jack of all trades and master of none”. If washing up the glassware didn’t get done because the student help are already up to their elbows in other work, what do you do? In my weirdly unique job, intersecting as it does with the world of IT and biotech, I can find myself designing an n-tier information management system one minute and printing labels for backup tapes the next. Diverse, but perhaps not always as interesting or efficient as it would be in a larger company, where there are clearer divisions between administration and system architecture.

  6. ebola1 says:

    If you don’t have enough time to eat — you probably don’t have enough time for science. This isn’t grad school and there are no new paradigms here.

  7. Kay says:

    Not recognizing the new paradigm is a step toward being harmed by it (via lack of preparation or adjustment of expectations).
    I think that the Saturday thing was perhaps purposeful. It’s a good idea for small organizations as a screen.

  8. ebola1 says:

    Every paradigm shift (which this is not) isn’t a good — just in case you have not tought about it. Bring small and nimble should enable you to adjust your thinking to every angle that might attract a good candidate — the flexible thinking needs to allign with the consumer not the buyer. Perhaps you can teleconference the whole process and noone would fly across the country to watch the bagel and lox eating contest.

  9. Professor Honeydew says:

    My favorite interview was with a chemical company in New Jersey that was so busy that they flew me in just hours before the interview and flew me out immediately afterwards. The interview consisted of a presentation before a committee followed by a roundtable discussion. I was told to prepare a two hour presentation and to expect a break about half way through.
    At the mid-point of my presentation I was politely interrupted and to my astonishment the back wall of the elegant meeting room opened up to a full breakfast / lunch buffet. Needless to say I was barely able to choke down a piece of melon and a glass of juice (interview rule: NEVER allow yourself to eat something that can potentially form stains or crumbs or end up hanging off your face or make your hands sticky). The committee fell on the buffet like Vikings on a village.
    The reality was that the company had something that I wanted. If I wanted / needed what they were offering badly enough their behaviour, as long as it did not break any moral or safety rules, was largely irrelevant. To have higher standards is the mark of someone who has options. Sometimes that is a luxury we just don’t have. I guess we have to decide the extent to which peripheral behaviours (such as interview style) indicate deeper, more important components of the potential employers ethos. Besides, if I join the company someday I get to be the Viking.
    As I say to my sons … work is work and sometimes you just have to ride this job until a better one comes along. More pragmatic than idealistic but it pays for the kibble.

  10. Derek Lowe says:

    It would seem to have been common courtesy to let you know that food was going to be served while you were presenting, and that your presentation would stop in the middle for it. (Hey, at least they didn’t do it while you were still talking).
    Interestingly, the fact that they pillaged the buffet makes it sound like this wasn’t necessarily a regular feature for some of the attendees.
    But I take your point about what a person has to put up with – after all, I don’t have another job lined up yet. The bread-on-the-table argument is a strong one with me these days, since I have two young children and I’m the sole income for the family.

  11. Novice Chemist says:

    I think it depends. If it’s people discreetly munching on bagels and a schmear, no worries. But if it’s a group of people loudly popping open Diet Cokes and loudly unwrapping and devouring Egg McMuffins, I might think that would be odd. (Sounds like Derek’s case was the latter.)

  12. Jo5ef says:

    “Anyone who objects to weekend work to stay on schedule is not prepared for the new paradigms on the horizon.”
    Most places i’ve worked weekend work was when you caught up on all the time you lost during the week attending safety meetings etc
    Still, I agree, its about time we dumped that old “spending time with the family, work/life balance” paradigm

  13. moe says:

    “Still, I agree, its about time we dumped that old ‘spending time with the family, work/life balance’ paradigm”
    Maybe I’ll mention that inevitable paradigm shift at my next phone interview. I really don’t know if the sort of people I’ve been talking to would laugh…or agree with me.

  14. New Grad says:

    I have a question related to your job search. How orthogonal are the job markets for new PhD grads looking for Med Chem jobs and experienced med chemist looking for new jobs? As a new grad looking for a med chem job, the Bayer shut down is especially bad news since it floods the market with experienced people. The med chem market is already tough this year with most places having only one or two positions. Do you think these will dissappear and go to experienced people? On a related note, the process job market seems to be somewhat better.

  15. milkshake says:

    New Grad not to worry: Many companies prefer hiring people fresh from school:
    1) Experienced guy may cost twice the starting salary, have half of the energy and will not kiss up properly 2) Experienced guy is less likely to be maleable – to take propaganda, balooney and various forms of abuse 3) Experienced guy can endanger the current boss career.
    If you were the boss of a medchem lab and doing the hiring – would you hire your own potential replacement?

  16. weirdo says:

    New Grad:
    “milkshake” is partially right, but only about certain companies. “Kissing up” works very well at some companies, but backfires in an very ugly manner at others. Same thing with the propaganda. Quite frankly, experienced medicinal chemists are not much of a threat to a good lab manager, but in fact a boon to their (and everyone else’s!) career. You’re getting a very jaundiced view of drug discovery from milkshake, but the sad fact is that his point of view is shared by many others who were not fortunate enough to find a company with a culture that was a good match. To pick on one of the biggest: Merck is a terrific place for hundreds of medicinal chemist, but hell for some. Don’t go to a “name” company, find one that you like!
    The fact of the matter is that this year is actually a pretty good year for fresh Ph.D. synthetic organic chemists: it is not at all unusual for top-flight candidates to have already had 6-9 plant trips, and the top vote-getters have finished up with their even dozen or more.
    So hang in there; but make sure you find a company that will value you and you will thrive at.

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