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How To Get a Pharma Job

Are You Experienced?

Here’s a mighty topical question for some of my associate colleagues these days: what is it that people are looking for in a presentation from a MS-level candidate?
Associates are expected, first and foremost, to make SAR analogs. If you can crank out a stream of reasonable compounds, you’re probably going to do fine, and if you can’t, you almost certainly won’t. But making a pitch to get hired somewhere can be difficult if you’ve worked, say, on several projects, but none of them long enough to make a big coherent story based on your own analogs. You don’t want to look like you’re taking credit for the work of others, and it doesn’t look good to complain about being shuttled around from project to project, either. What to do?
It’s also tricky if you’ve had a fair amount of boring-but-necessary analog work. This gets at the tension between neat chemistry and good med-chem, which two fields don’t always overlap very well. What if you made a fine string of compounds, important for the direction of the project, with maybe a solid contender or two for the clinic in there – but you made them via yawner reactions that undergrads learn in the first semester of Organic?
My advice would be to make a virtue out of necessity. The thing is, it’s actually a good thing when compounds can be made by old-fashioned reactions. Rather than apologize for it, I’d say make it a selling point. Of course, you would want to find some way to show that you’re capable of fancy stuff (or at least fancier than what you’re showing). If there aren’t any examples you can dredge up from your project work, it may be worth including some slides from your graduate work if they’re more showy.
The same technique can be applied to work done on a large number of projects. The best thing I can think of in that case is to show it off as a wide range of experience, and demonstrating the ability to pick up new projects quickly without getting distracted.
Anyway, I’ll throw this one open to my lab-head level readers. If you’re hiring an associate with some industry experience, what do you most want to see from them? Comments welcome. . .

9 comments on “Are You Experienced?”

  1. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    I’m not on the chemistry side, I’m more on the biology side, so I can’t speak to chemistry specifically. I can say generally that what people I know want out of associates tends to fall into one of three basic categories that don’t have a great deal of overlap, so the applicant will need to figure out which best fits him or her, then target that category:
    1. A specific technical skillset — “we have a YoyoDyne BioTronic 7500 Analyzer and the one person who really knew how to make it work just headed in the general direction of Groton.”
    2. A pair of “good hands” in the lab — “we will teach you the seven things you will do for us, we just need to be confident you will do those things consistently and well.”
    3. Ability to learn new stuff quickly — “we are constantly bringing in new technologies, so we cannot specify a particular skillset because we ourselves do not know what we’ll need a year from now, so we want to be confident you can learn whatever we need you to learn.”
    PS: Derek, I’m the guy with whom you recently had lunch 🙂

  2. Yttrai says:

    This is coming from someone who has been an MS candidate three times (if you include coming straight off grad school, which obviously has a different set of criteria attached to it) and who only interviewed in Biotech. In Cambridge, MA, if you want to speculate about which companies 😉
    Anyway, i always make my seminar cover two or three projects i was on, and i always focus on one specific problem which i personally contributed greatly to solving. Maybe the problem was relatively simple, like getting the enantioselectivity we needed, but some of them are a little more impressive, like completely eliminating partial agonism. Then of course i give a broad overview of the project biology as an intro, and try to cover most of the chemistry we did as a group, but i try to make it clear which contributions were mostly me and which were mostly not me.
    Does that answer your question? Does anybody in biotech or big pharma think my employer is crazy to have hired me based on that “marketing package”? 😀

  3. mdw says:

    I’ve hired two associate-level (BS or MS) chemists, with zero work experience. I looked for the capacity for long-term growth, because the ability to think is scarcer than the ability to do reactions. Both hires have done extremely well. Some (many?) PhDs just want a pair of hands, but some want more, and it can’t hurt to try to show some passion, or evidence of independent thought (if one gets the chance), while showing everyone all the reactions one is familiar with.

  4. Darth_Bubbster says:

    When hiring anyone in industry, my first and foremost requirement is the “with it” factor. And I agree with mdw, that I want someone smart with drive most of all.
    The cv tells me if you can likely “do” the job, if what’s on your cv is a reasonable estimation of reality. In the phone interview, I sense if your cv is true, and can you hold a conversation. If it is and you can, then the on-site interview is “is this person with it?” test. Nine times out of 10 I know in the first 10 minutes whether I’ll make the offer.

  5. coracle says:

    As a matter of interest, how much detail are these presentations expected to go into? Could this not be a confidentiality issue?
    Say a candidate were to leave one company and interview at others, presenting as he did details of his work, may that not reveal some important business information?

  6. cf says:

    Darth_Bubbster, can you give more info about the “with it” factor? You mean if the candidate cares about his/her chemistry/project?

  7. Chrispy says:

    Anyone applying to a big company should understand that the HR divisions are almost universally terrible. Do not expect them to get back to you, do not expect them to forward your CV to the right people. Ever. It really helps to know someone who will pass your CV along, hopefully with a recommendation.
    This is really a reminder to buy lots of drinks for people you met at conferences!

  8. s says:

    I’m an associate who has been through several interviews, and I’ve also interviewed a number of associate-level chemists. Knowing the mechanisms of some useful name reactions helps a lot. Most importantly… knowing WHY one is doing what one is doing makes a huge impact (“my supervisor told me to do it this way” is not acceptable.) This “why” can be anything from why you chose to go in a certain way with your analoging, to why you chose acidic conditions in a particular reaction. Someone who has this sort of understanding won’t need to have someone to hold their hand in the lab (or when they’re looking at data and trying to figure out what to make next.)
    Then again, there are plenty of associates who are perfectly happy to do what they are told, and there are plenty of PhDs who are happy to have said associates.
    The “with it” factor: this is definitely something that comes across very quickly. I have yet to identify the tangible aspect of this quality. I do think that the people who are “with it” are the self-motivated individuals who have already figured all of this stuff out.

  9. PDM says:

    I have interviewed a lot of BS/MS level people over the last 6 years. We mainly look for a combination of “easy to work with” (since we spend a lot of time together in a relatively small lab space) and pure technical and problem solving skills. In general, the difficulty of the chemistry you have performed lets us know how good your hands are. We want to see evidence that you have had to solve chemistry problems by changing the experiment based on the last results and going to literature. We really don’t like seeing a MS level chemist try to impress us with an SAR story that they did not have significant control over (which doesn’t seem to happen in large companies these days). I agree with Darth_Bubbster that in general, we know within the first 10 minutes whether we want to work with someone. So make those 10 minutes count.

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