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Job Interview Advice

I find it very refreshing to be talking again, once in a while, about finding jobs in drug discovery. Via my Twitter feed, I note this fine article from Linda Wang in C&E News about job interviews. It’s a very picky world out there in the job market (still not so many jobs, still a lot of good candidates), and this is very useful reading for people on the interview trail. (It appears, for example, that the good ol’ put-’em-on-the-spot technique is not dead). I’ve never liked that one, although I don’t have much better to offer, either – I’ve noticed over the years that I’m not very good at predicting how people will be from just an interview. Is anyone?
This book, just out, could be another resource: it’s called Navigating the Path to Industry, and it’s especially aimed at academic scientists (not just entry-level ones, either) who are looking at industrial research positions. That’s always seemed like an alternate universe to a lot of people, and this book should fill a gap.

36 comments on “Job Interview Advice”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s very simple: You just need to show that you’ll do what you’re f@&$ing told without question, and smile! 🙂

  2. Nodz says:

    Good lord that article bummed me out.
    Quote I liked the most; “Amy Hamlin, a senior scientist at Ash Stevens who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, says that when she was interviewing for her current position, she learned just how important her extracurricular activities were in helping to set her apart.”
    Then lists her extracurricular activities as writing chemistry articles, and serving on an ACS committee. (This isnt a dig at Ms. Hamlin, who Im sure is a lovely and talented individual, and who probably does other things besides eat breathe and sleep chemistry).

  3. MTK says:

    The “put-em-on-the-spot” technique is just terrible, IMO, only because the number of times you really have to do that pales in comparison to the number of times that careful and thorough thought and preparation are needed.
    The best interview process I ever went through actually was one where the questions were provided two weeks beforehand.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m somewhat appalled that the ‘put-em-on-the-spot’ interview technique even exists for PhD chemists. Is it achieving anything at all? How many people remember every single named reaction. Moreover, with things like SciFinder, Reaxys and Wikipedia…what is the point if I know how two things will react and there is literature precedence?
    Maybe it is a fundamental disagreement on what having a ‘PhD’ actually means. I don’t expect PhD’s to have encyclopedic knowledge (necessarily), but rather have learned how to problem solve, think critically and drive research forward with a breadth of knowledge. Testing someone on basics seems like a waste of time and likely won’t be indicative of their job performance.

  5. steve says:

    From my experience, some of the sickest, most twisted individuals came across great in interviews. It’s very difficult (especially for scientists who usually are pretty literal) to pick out people who will fit in well from those who don’t. Unfortunately, just letting in one wrong person can destroy a small company.

  6. Anonzy says:

    One of the individuals described in that article who says he rejects resumes if they don’t spell his name right sounds a bit Adolfesque. Agree that the put-em-on-the-spot technique is somewhat ok for oral exams but terrible for professional research positions.

  7. MoMo says:

    I agree Steve. The sociopaths come across as intelligent and likable and “team” players. Then they get in and you have to have an exorcist come in to get rid of them.
    I always ask if they like to change pump oil. Watch their facial expressions for the real answer. If its obvious they are appalled DO NOT HIRE.

  8. Stephen says:

    I totally agree w/MoMo on changing pump oil.
    I know of a couple academic organic labs that require you to rebuild a vacuum pump before joining the group.

  9. CMCguy says:

    Has anyone had to take a Myers-Briggs or EI type personality assessment test as part of a screening or interview process? I had to take one once after a contingency offer but never seen early in the process. As have encountered many HR types who place great faith in these I would not be surprised if it is not part some peoples experiences.
    Although would say the majority of the time, while recognizing my own prejudices and tendencies, I have been able to accurately judge candidates, or more precisely their particularly fit with myself, the group(s) and organization. I agree it can be difficult to get a completely realistic picture of an individual from an interview as frequently the evaluation environment generates false setting for critical routine interactions which is why References (form CV and not) can be most enlightening. Too many times I have seen or heard about people who got up or down graded based on stories about how they dealt with others on a daily basis.
    #6 Anonzy in context of resume or cover letters I actually feel spelling and accuracy is potentially vital distinguishing for attention to details (maybe since my own typing sucks and must be extra diligent at times)

  10. Slurpy says:

    I don’t think there’s anyone that wouldn’t make an appalled face at being asked how they feel about changing pump oil. It’s one thing to like it, another to do it without being threatened with unemployment simply because it needs to be done.
    As an amusing aside, another one of the job outlook articles in that issue mentions James Mays’ favorite car, the Dacia Sandero (linked in my name), as being a major reason why unemployed chemists have hope for the future.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The company I work for does behavioral based interviews. The idea is that if you are invited for an interview, then you are qualified for the position. As a whole we can now use the same interview process for someone who interviews for a lab position, IT position, to sales. Technical aspects can be brought in to these interviews because most likely, the examples the interviewee describes is based on their past experience.

  12. Chrispy says:

    One of the real problems I’ve run into in hiring is that people in HR tend to toss applicants for unfathomable reasons. It has gotten to the point that I ask them to please just forward all the applicants to me.

  13. Anonymous says:

    @#5: Actually, it never fails to amaze me how much trouble some candidates have managing to behave themselves for even that one day when they know they are being watched!

  14. hypnos says:

    If someone comes with a PhD in chemistry, you can normally expect a certain degree of knowledge (and an ability to fill gaps, where necessary). However, hiring mistakes can be quite costly, so it can certainly be useful to double-check the actual degree of knowlegde. I’m not suggesting to ask for obscure name reactions that nobody actually uses, but to ask for things that a decent chemist should know immediately.

  15. hn says:

    @14: Distressing examples from one candidate… 1) Yell at the secretary. 2) Send text messages during an interview because you have nothing to talk about.

  16. M.R. Nelson says:

    I’m the author of the book linked in the post, and I can now definitively confirm there is a Derek Lowe bump. Thanks for the shout out, Derek! This book is never going to be a big money maker, but it makes me happy to see it getting to its intended audience.
    I was a hiring manager for more than 10 years, before deciding to chuck it in and go out on my own. I wrote the book to do something useful with what I learned about job searching in those 10 years, and with the hope that it would help people avoid the mistakes I saw over and over and over again when I looked at the resumes in my pool, particularly from people transitioning out of academia.
    Incidentally, I’m happy to answer follow up questions from readers. My email address is on my blog, which is linked above and also included in the about the author section of the book.

  17. notbob says:

    100% agree with @15.
    I do think you have to probe the breadth of chemistry a candidate is familiar with because there is a very wide range in abilities out there. If I ask a PhD candidate how many protecting groups they know for nitrogen and they can name ten off the top of their head with pros and cons for each – then that tells me something. If all they can come up with is “Ummmm… Boc?” – well that tells me something too.
    You give a candidate 4-5 “softball” questions covering different areas of synthesis and you get a pretty good sense of what they know. If that is putting people on the spot then so be it.
    Scifinder is an amazing tool, but the more chemistry you know the more powerful it is. There are a lot of non-obvious transformations (e.g. Curtius, Sandmeyer) that you’re less like to find if you don’t know them beforehand.

  18. fajensen says:

    I do “put them on the spot” in the sense that I will pick up on something the candidate claims to have done in the CV and ask them detailed questions on it. Usually I will ask them to select a technical achievement or project they were especially happy or proud over and explain why.
    I look for several things;
    Most of all, I want to see the candidate “light up” when they explain something they did and were happy with, hopefully they will get derailed into some technical details.
    As an experienced person, I do know categories of problems that always happen with certain jobs. If the candidate was involved with the job on the expertise level I need, they will have done some screw-ups and got out themselves of the mess somehow. Or they found a way to live with it and work around the problem like PLM-systems, which are all shit, or formal change control processes – the Eater of Souls.
    I will probably also ask if they ever worked with a difficult person and how they handled that situation (I work with accelerator science, We are all difficult people in many ways, the genes seem to click that way).
    Surprisingly often one get bland and generic “PR-answers” – which means that I wont’t hire the person. Not that they are lying, but, I don’t “see” them. And a person who get along with everyone is an android!
    I want to see some of the real person during the interview.
    Oh, and, *After* the interview we have a coffee and a chat while waiting for the taxi. A surprising amount of people blow this part of the interview by being rude and unresponsive. I also see people blow the interview by being rude to the secretary / maintenance person showing them around.
    I do not like people who think they are entitled to be rude to “lower intelligences” and “menial staff”. I think I am right in this. In my experience, people who value their status and place within the pecking order, normally have marginal skills anyway. The really great people generally have plenty of self-confidence and ample “computational powers” to be genuinely unconcerned about what others think of their importance.
    PS: In my opinion, Psychometric Tests are no better than Voodoo (except that Voodoo might work and at least have a credible model behind it). I have not found a single independent scientific paper validating any of them.

  19. small company cso says:

    I always call references, just not the ones the candidate lists.

  20. InsilicoConsulting says:

    The weak shall inherit the earth and insects and HR, accountants, auditors and rating agencies will survive the great global job cataclysm! And then they shall rise as never before to pigeonhole scientists and engineer into socially acceptable boxes…
    HR is a slightly important function to avoid mediocrity in organizations not a tool for companies to achieve everlasting greatness by choosing the bestest candidates with social graces…

  21. Some Idiot says:

    @#19: agree completely…
    Love the bit about how people treat the technical staff… I have far too many stories about that (both positive and negative) and I always maintain that the quality of a research group stands or falls with the quality of the support staff. You can’t (or at least it is very difficult to) do good research without good technical support staff…
    And no, I am not technical, I am a senior PhD with very many years experience behind me….!

  22. Anonymous says:

    I navigated the path to industry and found the pay atrocious and the long term prospects non existent.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, just letting in one wrong person can destroy a small company.
    I see you’ve met my boss

  24. Anonymous says:

    When I worked at MegaloPharm, we’d interview arrogant, obnoxious, rude, incompetent, lazy cretins from big name labs. And then we’d hire them. And now they’re in charge at MegaloPharm. MegaloPharm just announced another 20,000 layoffs too. Did I mention that I don’t miss MegaloPharm?

  25. adam says:

    I am a software engineer in a biotech startup. For developer positions, we conduct pair-programming interviews – when we have a candidate coming in, we pick out a straightforward project from our queue, and the candidate spends a couple of hours sitting with one of the developers working on that project. After we send the candidate home, the team’s question for the interviewer is, “Could you work with this person every day?” It has so far worked brilliantly, because the interviewer gets an accurate idea of how the candidate works through a problem, and the candidate gets a glimpse into what they’d be doing if they came to work for us (unlike most fields, our candidates are interviewing us as much as we’re interviewing them). Everyone we’ve hired has worked out well, which isn’t something I can say about any previous team I’ve been on.
    The extent of my knowledge about what chemists do on a daily basis comes from reading this blog, but it seems like chemists could do something similar…bring the candidate in the lab, work side-by-side with them on a reaction, and gauge their aptitude, safety, efficiency, personality, and whatever else you need to screen for.
    I could think of 20 reasons why this might be impossible, but if it’s possible, it might be better than sitting candidates in a room and quizzing them…

  26. boronsaur says:

    This might be a bit out of topic but anyway here’s the question: How adverse is a candidate’s need of visa sponsorship? I’m an alien chemistry Ph.D. doing a postdoc in the US. It’s been several months in the hunt for job and I’m appalled by the lack of interest from any potential employers, that is, no interviews so far.

  27. Sylvia says:

    As Steve in 5. said “From my experience, some of the sickest, most twisted individuals came across great in interviews. ”
    I made this experience as a hiring manager in a former job and learned from it.
    Now I interview and hire people I know from having worked with before or who I met during work and gave a mental thumbs up. LinkedIn is a great way to keep in touch with those people and I dip into this resource often. So far this worked great, shortened interview times and got us the best of the best.
    The other direction works too. Would I need a job then I would first reach out to the hiring managers in my network who I respect most. Except my first job I got all my (great!) jobs through my contact network so far.
    So in essence: Keeping in touch with good people is essential both ways. For hiring and for getting hired.

  28. jarjarbinks says:

    #27 – requiring visa sponsorship is definitely a big minus – unless you published papers in Science and Nature, in which case the larger companies will be willing to jump through hoops to get you. Even then, the smaller companies might not want to go through the time and expense to get you a visa when they have a lot of choice among citizens/permanent residents for employees. The trouble is companies cannot tell you to your face that they can’t hire you because of visa issues. They fear potential law suits. I hope this helps. From my prior experience, this blog is full of trolls who don’t care at all for postdocs/grad students from overseas trying to ‘take their jobs’!

  29. Featherson says:

    My job search/ interview advice:
    Do not be a male because every recruiter or HR decision is made or approved by a female and I guess they are mad at the male world. Sad. This attitude is reflected in the decaying orbit of pharmaceutical company successes.
    Over and out.

  30. Son O' Gashira says:

    #26- Ain’t no way I’m going into the lab wearing my new interview suit 😎

  31. NH_chem says:

    One thing that I wish I learned earlier was that the interview is a two way street. In other words, you are interviewing the company you are applying to as well.
    I had a situation where I lost my job and have the opportunity to take another job rather quickly after being let go. After my interview, I used my gut feeling to turn down the offer even knowing that I had no other prospects at the time.
    The interviewer was not a person I could report to. Also, I hate the “carrot at the end of the stick” offers. They will say “this position will allow you to move up in the company after a few years” or “we anticipate that you will be able to grow into a larger role”. This is all BS.
    MY favorite past employer used to tell employees that they needed to work harder and spend more time at the company yet would not compensate anyone for their efforts nor ever thank them for their efforts. Thankfully, those are in the rear view mirror now.
    Go with your gut. It is usually spot on!

  32. Nick K says:

    #32: Good advice that, to follow your gut instinct. I just wished I’d done that when faced with a job offer from a well-known company, and turned it down….

  33. Argon says:

    CMCguy: “Has anyone had to take a Myers-Briggs or EI type personality assessment test as part of a screening or interview process?”
    No, and I would seriously question the intellectual competence of any organisation that required one. That stuff is basically voodoo and about as predictive as reading a chicken’s entrails. I think the only psychologically validated use of those tests is to provide a conversational icebreaker between people who don’t know each other.

  34. Anony says:

    Why is women-bashing allowed on this site – ie. remark by “Featherson”. The remark is illogical and adds nothing to the conversation.

  35. Kaleberg says:

    Featherson – That would explain why there are so few male research chemists. Right.

  36. CMCguy says:

    #34 I am inclined to agree that may reflect poor usage of these type assessments to prejudge candidates because may slant viewpoints without any proper context. I have seen value in these profiles for Team building and organizational leadership but as a raw tool in interviewing I doubt these provide correct info on an unknown individuals. Although certain personality types may align better with some jobs there does not seem to be absolute enough correlation to be fair to candidates.
    That said in the C&ENews article Dr Munk (or should I type Monk?) of Ash-Stevens suggested they were using what I interpreted as such profiling for screening and I have heard of other cases but overall I would hope this is not becoming a common practice.

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