Org Prep Daily

November 13, 2006

Interviewing (how to get a job interview and live through it)

Filed under: industry life — milkshake @ 6:39 pm

Credit: Adolf Born 

I was laid off once – in bad times: several pharma companies just had job cuts or closed down entirely. There were only very few openings for medicinal chemists. I wanted to stay in San Francisco so I got a complete listing of companies in Bay Area from, about 30 of them, and I wrote to each one of them at least two letters – regardless whether they advertised job openings or not. One letter went to HR and one to the head of medicinal chemistry. (One cannot presume that the hiring process at every  company is well-organized and that the application letter and resume wouldn’t disappear in a pile on someone’s desk). So I was sending at least two copies and applying online, too. With the companies that I was particularly interested in, I found out the names of principal chemists and  people publishing articles in J Med Chem and Bioorg Med Chem Lett, and I wrote them also. 

Big pharma pays well and it is a worthwhile experience (pleasant or not, the companies differ). Another good alternative is an established medium-size biotech company. Startups are riskier and the salary is lower – but they can be generous on stock options. Generally, is better to start with a bigger company after school and later get hired away by a smaller company  as an experienced guy, with a corresponding promotion.

Here is couple of hints for getting an interview: The cover letter should be short, and to the point. “I am writing to apply for a position in Medicinal Chemistry at…” The things you want them to take notice in your CV should be mentioned in the cover letter. (“As you can see from my resume…”) The resume should name all school/career achievements and professional experience (including teaching). The nature of the research you participated in, list of publications (patents,presented posters, lectures). Awards, scholarships, membership. List of personal references, (= advisors and non-student collaborators). You can name areas of synthetic chemistry you especialy like (asymmetric synthesis, transition-metal-catalyzed reactions, etc) under professional interests but be prepared that you may get asked about it. The tone of your cover letter and resume should be confident but not self-indulgent. If you got a good award/important result, you should place it in a proper perspective so that it is visible on cursory reading. But you shouldn’t dwell on it – mentioning it once is enough. Make sure that the people you ask for reference will give you an excellent one – a mediocre reference is much worse than no reference at all. 

When preparing the job interview presentation, it is best to avoid the temptation of Powerpoint (cheesy clipart-diluted blather) – so keep the presentation uncluttered, like old-fashioned projector slides at the conference, black and white if possible, without too many different fonts/sizes, and with a neutral background. Put plenty of structures (reagents, mechanisms) into your slides but minimum text. Don’t recite the full text from your slides – people can read faster than you speak (and nothing is more dull for the audience than slow repetition of what they just saw on a slide).  Avoid bullets, catchy phrases and management-speak – you will be hired by chemists, not by business people. Don’t make the slides all too entry-level didactic – you want to impress chemists rather then bore them and if someone from biology or administration doesn’t understand fine points of your talk, it’s OK.

Try to make the presentation into a coherent story (“this is what we wanted because it would be very valuable etc and we made this and we had these complications so we had to go back and re-design and eventually we got these impressive results and we also found out these other interesting things, etc.”) If you worked on several different projects, pick only two, maximum three of them – present only your best stuff and put the rest into one summary slide before concluding remarks (“I also participated in these projects and could expand more on this work if there is interest” Switching topics  can be confusing so don’t do it unless you must.) Don’t get too long – you will get usualy 45 min, but you should reserve some of this time for the discussion and have spare time for some unexpected  problem (like trouble with laptop). It is better to go faster over things rather than too slowly. Prepare few extra slides going into more detail about things that you may get asked about, and put them at the end (after the credits) and show them only when asked about it. Practice the job presentation first in front of some jaded chemistry audience (=your current colleagues can be suitable).

Bring couple of printouts of your presentation on a nice paper to the job interview – some people may want to get a copy, some will ask questions in the office during one-on-one talk and you will not have the projector there. You can get into minute details of your research in these one-on-one meetings. The guys that will interview you can have just as little experience as you do with interviewing so things can get awkward. When the embarassing silence happens,  ask the interviewer guys about their chemistry – what kind of molecules they do, what kind of protein, if they have something close to clinical candidate, about their NMRs, etc. Don’t ask technical types about recreation opportunities, vacation time or dental benefits – you can sort this out later with HR, you are there to do a lot of chemistry first. If they ask you about negative stuff – about yourself, your school, etc – don’t take the bait. Stay positive: if you were unhappy in your school/had abusive adviser or colleagues, such remark always reflects badly on you (regardless of how you try to explain it away) so don’t talk about it at all. Don’t make any excuses. Don’t gossip. Also, don’t discuss your interviewing progress so far – how many interviews or offers you got. If they ask you, you can say that you have something already but are still looking. (Even if you are desperate and ready to grab any job, you must pretend during the interview that your job situation is excellent. Nobody is interested in hiring a desperate loser.)

Get lots of sleep the night before, the interview day will be long. Stay away from greasy foods and strong coffee. Wear formal but a comfortable suit: it is better to overdress than under-dress. Invest into some expensive bright-white shirts – they do make a difference. Get a good haircut. It is OK to be nervous and scared, nearly everybody is – much better than overconfident. But definitely get enough sleep before.

When you are scheduling your job interview, you can politely ask if you can meet with a guy who does the computer modeling there (or X-ray crystallography, or cell-based screening of compounds), this will show that you are motivated and independent. You want to come across as someone who is very bright, motivated, independent, modest, calm, considerate, with good sense of humor – but not annoying or pushy. If they bring the dumb HR question “where do you want to be in 5 years”, the best answer is “I would like to have my compound in the clinic. “ – and, now the modesty part –  “I know that only few people get lucky like this but it would be very good to work on a project where I could actually make a difference, for example starting from a weak potency screening hit and learn from my colleagues how to optimize the compound all the way to a clinical candidate”. 

At one-on-one talks, ask all people that are interviewing you for a business card or e-mail. In the evening right after the interview (or at latest the next morning)  write an e-mail to all of them. This thank you note should be pretty flattering stuff (a love letter of sorts) but it should not be outright servile – you want to drive home the point that you are an exceptional candidate, that you are excited about the company and eager to join their chemistry group and if they hire you would certainly fit into their wonderfull team and get lots of work done right from the first day.

Once you get an offer: Beware of companies that are pressuring you to accept immediately – they should give you more than one week, at minimum, so that you could compare the offers and decide. It is up to you to decide if and when to negotiate. But wait until after you got your offer in writing, before trying to negotiate.  It does not hurt to ask politely (if the number was really the best offer they can give you – the people doing the hiring often have authority to improve the offer a bit, even if they insist they don’t.)  It is up to you to sense how much they really want you and would risk losing you to a competing offer.  If you got multiple offers, don’t overplay one company against another – just mentioning the other company once should be enough.

When you have accepted the offer, don’t forget to take a good vacation: it won’t help to start a new job tired – the first impressions matter. And all beginnings are a bit frustrating, especially when you have to set up your new place in the lab. 

 A note: I should hardly advise anybody about career – since mine took hit when I left the grad school without finishing the thesis. With a MS from there, I got fairly decent pharma industry jobs, at Aventis, Pharmacia/Pfizer and Celera. (It would be better money if I finished, though).

Chad Orzel has a good writeup on how to give a non-sucking presentation in Powerpoint:  Chad is a professor in experimental physicis (and is talking about a lecture, not a job interview) so some of his suggestions are not quite applicable for a synthetic chemistry talk. But the piece – and blog – is worth the time spent reading it. 

Derek Lowe has an entire category of posts on interviewing. It is very good and informative –  please check it out:


  1. Wow the answer to the “dumb HR question” is so good, and yet so obvious, I am kicking myself for not thinking of it. Never mind, I started this job recently and I hope I wont have another interview soon.

    Comment by Handles — November 13, 2006 @ 8:31 pm

  2. guys, please send in those procedures now. I would, if i could.

    Comment by sks — November 14, 2006 @ 9:26 am

  3. This is a great post. With a few modifications I’d say that your recommendations apply to people looking for an industry job in other areas of chemistry / science R&D too.

    Comment by Jordan — November 14, 2006 @ 11:21 am

  4. This is a first-class post. I’ve been on the hiring side in pharma and in academia. I’d add a few points:
    * never take yor presentation for granted (this goes for any presentation). If you assume you can just “revise it in the cab” or whatever you may suddenly realise you have missed something out.
    * make sure you treat everyone in the process with respect. A good interviewer may well ask the opinions of other staff the interviewee is introduced to. I know of cases where a panel was impressed with a candidate and minded to appoint, but they also asked around other staff. Those made it clear that the candidate’s arrogance would wreck the carefully built up team structure.
    * do your homework on the company – its products – its sites – its current market position. Interviewers like to be appreciated. But don’t be a know-all and tel them what they already know.
    * there may be non-chemists on the panel. You need to be able to communicate with them as well. Don’t be patronising.
    * you might get asked strategic questions – “what do you think are the greatest challenges facing medicinal chemistry?” “do you think biologicals will replace small molecules?”. You may not “know the answers” (there aren’t any rights ones) but it may give you a chance to show some breadth of vision.

    Also, be aware that the interviewers may also be nervous or underprepared.

    I don’t think there are trick questions, but be prepared for the unexpected. I heard a story of an engineering company many years ago where the interviewer asked the candidate to examine a small box. It was booby trapped – full of springs and balls and was designed to disintegrate all over the room. The point was not whether the candidate could put it back together but whether they stayed calm and not embarrassed. I have no idea how valuable it was!

    Comment by petermr — November 14, 2006 @ 6:59 pm

  5. Great article, but what is with the picture?

    Comment by Monica — November 14, 2006 @ 11:31 pm

  6. What’s depicted is clearly a candidate under scrutiny. Have you ever been to a fierce interview?

    Comment by milkshake — November 15, 2006 @ 12:26 am

  7. Hmmm.. okay… didn’t really see that but I can see it now. I guess I didnt infer ‘scrutiny’ from that.

    Comment by Monica — November 15, 2006 @ 12:33 pm

  8. Wow…great post, even better than the one on TLC stain recipes.

    Comment by Paul — November 28, 2006 @ 4:03 am

  9. Paul, the TLC stain recipes were lifted from our group recipes almost verbatim. And the interviewing tips: I had to go through series of nerve-wrecking job interviews after the school – and the situation would have been completely avoidable. It takes no genius to write “How to get into a rehab and live through it”

    Comment by milkshake — November 28, 2006 @ 6:28 am

  10. Having just completed a search…. I can whole heartedly agree with everything Milkshake said. I would add that there are lots of other opportunities for organic chemists besides pharma. There are many non-pharma companies that have positions that require a high level of synthetic competence and creativity.

    Not that I am down on pharma, I am not… it is just that many chemists fail to take off their blinders when looking for industries to join.

    Comment by Milo — November 28, 2006 @ 8:48 pm

  11. This may sound stupid, but the federal government has some qulality positions too….most agencies still have a traditional pension too, which is $$$$ for doing nothing but staying with them for a chunk of your career. just a thought

    Comment by Organic Chemistry — January 11, 2007 @ 1:56 pm

  12. I have mixed feelings about working for the government, anywhere. Also my good friend spent long time at NCI-Frederick in Ft Detrick, MD doing medicinal chemistry there. What he was describing sounded as total Diltbertese – much worse than what normally goes on in pharma industry. And he was making less money than if he were at a startup. I know him as a bright guy who loves chemistry so I don’t think he was making things up. (A big part of his problem was probably the dishonest pompous and incompetent boss he had there)

    Places differ so I am sure there must be some decent secure jobs to be had at government agencies – the pay scale is going to be government-like though.

    Comment by milkshake — January 11, 2007 @ 6:37 pm

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