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How To Get a Pharma Job

More on Interview Seminars

Having had the chance recently to see a number of interview seminars (other than my own, for once!), I have a few more thoughts for aspiring job seekers. It turns out that many of these are things that high school speech teachers have been telling their students for decades, but you know, there’s only so much new information in this world.
Know your audience. In this case, your audience is pretty well-informed about synthetic chemistry, since they’ve been putting food on the table by practicing it. To pick one example, there’s no point in stepping through detailed reaction mechanism slides for reactions that people already know. A surprising number of people seem to do this, perhaps thinking that it’ll demonstrate that they know their stuff, but it tends to have the opposite effect. If you want to put one of these up, don’t leave it up there for long. Just hit the highlights (you know, like you’re familiar with it) and keep going. And that brings up another key point. . .
Keep moving. I’m not saying that you should fly through your slides, although I’ve never in my life seen a job candidate who did. I’m saying that you shouldn’t linger on them. Figure out what you’re trying to say with each slide, say it, and move on. Not to be too cynical about it, but the longer your slide sits up there, the greater the chances of bad things happening: either you say something unhelpful because you feel you should be saying something, or people start fiinding the mistakes in your slide, or people start looking out the window. You don’t want any of these. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a job candidate while silently imploring them to hit a button and go to the next slide already. It’s easier to keep moving if you remember that. . .
Your slides should tell a story. Maybe you have two stories, or even three, if you’ve had to break things up and talk about more than one project. That’s OK. But what you should never, ever do is put up a bunch of unrelated stuff in no particular order. Once in a while I’ve seen this kind of talk, but I have never, ever seen one lead to a job offer.
Don’t ask for questions until the end. This may also sound a bit cynical, but trust me on it. At many companies, they’ll interrupt you if they really want to ask questions; you don’t have to invite them. If the culture is to wait until the end, then it’s in your best interest to go along with that. I say these because many people sink their chances by the way they handle questions from the audience. You want to have some questions, of course (no questions at all is a bad sign), but you want them to be the ones you’re prepared for. Give people those good answers you’ve worked up and move on. The more opportunities you give people to grill you, the better the chances of them finding gaps in your knowledge. But that said. . .
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” (or its equivalent). Some of those equivalents are “You know, we wanted to investigate that, but weren’t able do during the project” or “That’s a good question, and we’d like to know the answer to that one, too”. Now, you don’t want to use these when someone asks you why you used lithium aluminum hydride or something – those are the kinds of questions you have to be ready for. But if someone asks you a question that you really, really don’t know the answer to, punt. It’s better than trying to whip something up on the spot. But remember. . .
Put your work in context. It’s very important that you show that you know why you were doing something, and how it fit into the larger scheme. You’re always going to be working inside a larger context if you’re in industry, since chemistry is just a means to an end. A classic interview-killer is to say that you did something because that’s what someone told you to do. If you don’t have some broader reasons than that – or if it’s never occurred to you that you might need some – your chances of being hired at a drug company are very slim. And finally. . .
Remember what your talk is supposed to do. Many of the points above boil down to this one. You are not giving an informational talk, you’re giving a persuasive one, but a shocking number of candidates don’t seem to realize this. As mentioned above, you may not be able to tell your drug-company audience much that they don’t already know. But you can persuade them that you know the stuff well, that you did a good job with it, and can do the same for them. Everything you’re presenting should be aimed at demonstrating those points.

22 comments on “More on Interview Seminars”

  1. NJBiologist says:

    Excellent suggestions. This (and some research) are a great starting point for a talk.
    I’d add one caveat to the bit about not asking for questions until the end: break this rule if you see any looks of confusion among your audience, particularly if they come from the hiring manager. If there’s a major point which didn’t get across, it will be more disruptive to let that fester than it will be to stop and address it.
    Otherwise, let the questions come of their own accord; you’ll learn a thing or two from how they come at you.

  2. JSinger says:

    To pick one example, there’s no point in stepping through detailed reaction mechanism slides for reactions that people already know.
    While that’s a good point in this particular context, I’d caution the more junior readers that grad students routinely make the opposite mistake. They’re convinced that they know nothing and the professors know everything, and the postdocs and senior grad students in their lab act like only a complete idiot wasn’t born knowing every last detail of their sub-sub-subfield, so they either leave out or blow through all sorts of introductory context and go straight to data.

  3. Milo says:

    I have recently had the pleasure of seeing a bunch of candidate seminars and am amazed at how many of the candidates cannot say “I don’t know”. It is painfully obvious when a candidate is fishing for an answer.
    I second the suggestion for putting things in context. It is impossible for even the most well versed scientist to know the reason for working on a particular target/methodology or in a certain area.

  4. CRH says:

    These are all excellent points and I would suggest they be taken seriously by any presenter–not just those looking for a job. With the ACS meeting only a few days away–this should be required reading for all presenters. I’ve been totally amazed after attending the last two ACS meetings (San Fran/Chicago) at how horrible most of the organic talks have been. So bad in fact, that I stopped going to the sessions. The med chem talks have been far superior, in my mind, simply due to experience. But more importantly because they have a reason for doing something. Most organic talks at these meetings fail every category that is brought up here. Very rarely do the presenters know their audience, and very rarely are they able to put their work in any context. But the worst offense is not telling a story–even in a 15-20 minute talk there should be a purpose. I would say 80-90% of talks presented at these meetings spend 15 of the 20 minutes showing background material and only the last few minutes of actual ‘new’ data. I understand that most of these presenters are grad students and their advisors should be more on top of the situation, but please limit that background and show only ‘new’ work. That’s what these talks are supposed to be about. I can’t tell how many talks were given that were re-hashes of FULL papers. Anyway, excellent points and I hope the Boston ACS Organic Division is better than it has been.

  5. These are all useful points, an I agree in particular with what has been said about saying “I don’t know”. The only thing that makes me wonder is your remark on “you may not be able to tell your drug-company audience much that they don’t already know“. Are drug company people really that smart? My experiences are limited to academia and biotech industry, but in none of the interview seminars I have attended, the audience appeared to know everything (or at least more than just a little) about the presented topic. Maybe the MedChem field is more narrow, but in biotech most applicants come straight off academia and were talking about their PhD or postdoc projects. I really would not expect anybody in the audience to be familiar with the lastest buzz in the regulation of planarian neuronal development, or root hair formation in barley.
    As a consequence, a more detailed explanation of the project’s background cannot hurt – at least not if you are talking about unusual subjects. And in biology, many subjects are unusual.

  6. Eric M says:

    5: I read as ‘there are only so many ways to make a 300 mw molecule.’ Whatever leads you start with, there are a standard set of bolt ons and substitutions to try so the same synthetic issues crop up repeatedly.

  7. bootsy says:

    4: CRH
    I agree completely about the Organic Division talks. In my experience, it’s not just the grad students, but the big names as well. I’ve certainly spent far too much time in the large lectures at ACS meetings listening to a well known professor recounting a synthesis that was published 3+ years before. Rarely do they add any insight either.
    I’ve always liked wandering into sessions where I know very little and coming out educated, or at least newly confused.

  8. Pd on charcoal says:

    Heck’s talk and slides at ACS Atlanta were terrible

  9. MTK says:

    Good advice to any postdocs or grad students. (I’m assuming that those of us that have been around know better by now.)
    I was recently invited to give a lunch seminar to a bunch of students about this very topic. The things I tried to stress were that 1) the seminar was the one time during the interview that you are in total control of the process. Don’t waste that opportunity! 2) Everyone in that room knows that. You have to be prepared and you have to perform.
    The other thing I tried to stress was that one has to look at this thing as a marketing exercise and that the product is you. To be frank, most people could give a flip about your science at that point. They’re assessing you as a person, a scientist, and a potential co-worker.
    As a tangent, the one thing that I find people (interviewers and interviewees) overvalue is “thinking on one’s feet”, while the most undervalued is preparation. The ability to answer a tough question on the spot doesn’t mean nearly as much to me as a seminar that’s well thought out and well presented.

  10. SynChem says:

    Good points. But IMHO, I doubt anybody in your audience didn’t already understand the two things you stressed. No offense, I just don’t think stressing those two points add any value to the students other than more pressure, which tends to make a person underperform. I’ve once had a coworker (who’s a well spoken American no less) in grad school who just completely went blank in a PRACTICE talk within our own group.
    I find people tend to overprepare and don’t know they need to relax. I have yet met a person who underprepared his or her talk. The poor performance might be mistaken for “underpreparation”. Some people are good speakers and some are not, period. What the fresh job hunters need are real tips (like Derek’s list) and a broader perspective on life so they don’t kill themselves for one interview and one job.

  11. MTK says:

    I think you may be surprised how little knowledge some grad students and postdocs have when it comes to the interview process. Not their fault obviously, but some programs just do not do that.
    Given the feedback that I received, the audience must have thought it highly useful. The organizer said that the avg. evaluation score was the highest they had seen in over a year of running the program.

  12. Polymer Bound says:

    I agree with MTK. I went through the recruiting process for the first time not too long ago, and I noticed that the reception to my talk got better and better as I continued to polish it until I eventually got a job. Students could save themselves a lot of worry and stress by doing that work on the front end. What you gain when you over prepare a talk is that next set of words when you blank because of nerves… it’s especially vital to really rehearse introductions or potentially awkward transitions, like between unrelated projects.
    Being able to think on your feet -is- important, but that usually comes naturally if you were actively engaged in your own research. I tend to think that people who fail at this were probably in the passenger seat while another post-doc/grad student was driving.

  13. rookie says:

    I’m a grad student working towards a career as a med chemist in big pharma. I’m very knowledgeable about my (total synthesis) project and have a pretty good grip on synthetic chemistry in general. On the other hand, I don’t know too much about what all of the different kinases do and how viruses replicate. To what extent should I be studying biochemistry to prepare for interviews as a med-chemist?

  14. weirdo says:

    If you know Freshman biochemistry, you’re fine. Everything else you’ll learn on the job. Might want to take a glance through J. Med. Chem. weekly, though.
    Good luck. This is no longer a growth industry. If you are focused on Big Pharma, you limit your opportunities . . .

  15. Polymer Bound says:

    I’m a paid medicinal chemist and I don’t know what most of the kinases do. I do recommend having a rudimentary understanding of biochemistry, though. Get a used copy of Stryer or Voet^2, read it in your spare time, and sneak into biochemistry lectures when you have a chance. I don’t think these things are all that necessary to get a job, but knowing some biochem will really help you once you get it.

  16. MikeEast says:

    I’d like to add one more point: Be able to talk about your project for 50 min, 30 min, 15 min and 5 min – YES, 5 min! Especially if you are interviewing at the ACS meeting but also on campus interviews and site visits. You never know how much time you are going to have to get your message across. I have seen too many candidates faced with a time constraint only quickly flip through all of their slides and cram a 50 min talk into 20 min – not the way to go. You’ll get way more kudos covering “the most important message” or “what I am most proud of”.
    Secondly, just a pet peeve of mine, but I hate it when a job candidate (or even a highly accredited invited speaker) starts the answer to my question with “good question…”.

  17. Lou says:

    MikeEast, I agree with you about answering by first saying “Good question…”. I think it can sound a little arrogant, depending on the person.
    I have a question. If you are giving a seminar as a candidate for a job, would you occasionally stress how difficult a step in a reaction was?
    What I mean is…
    For example, I went to a talk given by a PI, where he described everything to be going fine, until a certain point in the project – things just did not work. He went into some detail about why it didn’t work, and the troubleshooting he did; it was interesting to the audience, as they all had experienced something similar before.
    In the end, he changed his strategy and carried on.
    From a person in academia, I thought that was interesting and informative (problem solving interests me anyway). However, would you do that in a job interview situation? Is it okay to do it, especially if you had quite a tough project to work with?

  18. Derek Lowe says:

    Lou, that’s an excellent thing to do, especially for a tough project. This kind of thing happens all the time in any useful sort of research, and showing that you’ve experienced it and can deal with it is just what an interview seminar should do for you.
    Don’t overdo it and try to make everything look like it was the toughest thing ever, and make sure that the problem you solved was actually a tough one. But if you have a good story like this, now’s the time to trot it out.

  19. Mark M says:

    Well said Derek.
    In my new role as a recruiter I often relay these same points to candidates. It is very important to give a good presentation if you want to have a solid chance at landing the job.
    I usually further suggest to candidates that this is likely the only point during the interview day that one has control over the tempo and flow of information and that most folks will make up their mind during the presentation if you should be hired.
    If you dont do well, folks will likely probe harder for reasons you shouldnt be hired to back up the feeling they got while you were presenting. So, it pays to spend considerable effort preparing for your presentation.
    I will add three point to Derek’s list:
    1) practice as many times as possible. This helps one to remember all the cogent points to be presented and will help the candidate appear less nervous (and more confident).
    2) have another pair of technically competent eyes look at your talk to find any errors
    3) bring hard copies of the talk in a binder to your visits with the interviewers to answer additional questions outside of the seminar. This way you have graphic content available when answering questions during the individual sessions.
    PS make sure you eat a high protein breakfast that morning–really helps with cognition and stamina. And dont drink too much coffee.
    PPS please dont bring overheads–bring the talk on a flash drive or CD; go buy a copy of powerpoint and learn how to use it.

  20. emjeff says:

    Your points on presenting should be required reading for anyone searching for a job. So many candidates shoot themselves in the foot at the seminar that I think schools should really start beefing up the seminar requirements. Kids (and even those with experience) are coming out with very poor communication skills.

  21. BCP says:

    One more on thing on the “should I know/demonstrate knowledge of biology” score. If you’re straight out of academia, no-one expects you to know all about medicinal chemistry or biochemistry or pharmacology. These are the things you learn after you’ve got your job. I’ve honestly seen a fair few folks credibility go down in flames because they’ve tried to impress an audience with some “med chem” they’ve done, and accidently forgotten to stress their synthetic abilities — the main point most people want to know about. Not knowing the difference between an EC50 and an IC50 is unlikely to get you passed over, not telling people how you solved synthetic problems and overcame challenges will.

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