How (Not) to Get a Job in Science - Part 2 - The Interview

My last post ended up getting a lot more views than the typical code-heavy Cheminformatics stuff that I write.  I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up to share some of my views on the interview process.   Fear not, faithful readers, I haven’t sold out and become a pundit.  Posts with code will resume shortly.  As with the previous post, these are my views, other hiring managers and organizations may see the world differently. My last post laid out some of my thoughts on writing a CV and getting a hiring manager to notice your application.  In this post, we’ll cover the next steps, the phone screen, and the interview.

The Phone Screen
The interview process usually begins with a phone screen.  In some cases, your preliminary phone screen may be with someone from a company’s HR group, in other cases the phone screen may be with the hiring manager.  For me, the phone screen serves a number of purposes.  More than anything, I want to understand how you, the candidate, are going to fit into our team.  I need to figure out whether your skills and interests will complement those of the existing group.

  • I want to talk to you about your work and get a better feel for what you’ve done and how you think about problems.  I might ask something like “if you had to do your Ph.D. project again, what would you do differently?”
  • I want to understand how well versed you are in our field.  I might ask you to tell me about a recent paper you’ve read.  Don’t say one of mine (people have), that’s just being obsequious.
  • I want to tell you about what we’re doing and what the job will entail.  I realize that we’re in a competitive job market and I want to let you know how exciting our work is.
  • I want to know that you will bring new ideas to our group.  I’ll probably ask you what you want to work on, and which approaches you’d like to take.  I typically don’t hire people to simply continue their graduate work or work they’ve been doing in another company.  The phone screen is a great way to see if someone has varied interests.
  • Back to my earlier post, I’d like to understand why you applied for this job.  Again, do your homework, know something about the company you’re applying to.  This can sometimes be easier for a big pharma than it is for a stealth mode biotech, but you can often learn a lot from a few web searches.
  • More than anything else, I want to know that you’ll be an enthusiastic collaborator.  I like it when people have a lot of questions.  It gives me the impression that you’ve put some thought into this.  I’ll ask if you have any questions about the job, the company, or our work.  If you don’t have questions, that could be a problem.  More on this below.
If you successfully run the gauntlet of the phone screen, the next step is usually an on-site interview.  I can only speak to organizations I’ve worked in, but in my experience, these things typically follow a similar pattern.  You will come in and spend the day at the company, give a seminar, have a bunch of one on one interviews, and perhaps a group lunch.  In many cases, the people you meet will come from a variety of scientific disciplines.

The Seminar
A seminar is almost always a component of pharma and biotech interviews, especially for scientists at the Ph.D. level.  In most cases, the seminar will be the first part of your visit and will take place shortly after you arrive.  Take this very seriously. It’s the first, and perhaps the only, opportunity that those making the hiring decision will have to see you in action.  The seminar also sets the tone for the rest of the day.   If you give a great seminar, people will have a good impression of you, and you can almost coast for the rest of the day.  If you give a bad seminar, all is not lost, but you’re going to be digging yourself out of a hole.

There are a few things that your audience is going to be looking for.

  • Your ability to communicate.  If you’re working in drug discovery, your impact, and your success, will largely be dictated by your ability to communicate with others.  This communication is not limited to scientists within your discipline.  Drug discovery is an interdisciplinary activity, you’ll typically be working on teams with chemists, biologists, biophysicists, and individuals from a number of other areas.  Your ability to communicate your work to those who are not experts in your area is essential.  As I’ve said many times before, a computational chemist only has two jobs, to convince someone to do an experiment and to convince someone not to do an experiment, that’s it. In Comp Chem, or any other scientific discipline, your success will largely be dictated by your ability to communicate.
  • Your ability to think on your feet.  At the places I’ve worked, we tend to ask a lot of questions during seminars.  Prepare to be interrupted.  We aren’t trying to be rude or trying to rattle you.  Usually, we are asking because we’re genuinely interested.  Many of the best seminars I’ve seen end up being as much of a group discussion as a presentation.   If you don’t know the answer to a question, feel free to say, “I don’t know”, it’s ok, we don’t expect you to know everything.  Don’t try to deflect questions you don’t know the answer to.  This is just as obvious with a job candidate as it is with a politician.  When we debrief to discuss a candidate, the first responses are often, “they did a great job answering questions” or “they didn’t do a very good job of answering Sam’s question”.  The way in which you interact with people and answer questions is as important as the content of your seminar.  One more thing, try not to preface every answer with “that’s a great question”, after about the fifth time it starts to sound kind of phony.
  • Your knowledge of the subject.  I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that science isn’t a key component of the seminar.  Ultimately, we want to see what you’ve done and how you’ve attacked problems.  This being said, it’s important to know your audience.  If you’re speaking to a multidisciplinary audience, people’s eyes are going to start to glaze over after you’ve shown you’re 27th complex synthetic scheme or your 54th gel.  I’m surprised at how few candidates ask about the seminar.  Talk with the hiring manager, or whoever contacted you, and find out who is going to be in the audience for your seminar.  If you’re in contact with the hiring manager, tell them what you plan to talk about and see if they think the topics are appropriate.  I’ve even been known to look through a candidate’s slides before they come in for an interview and make some suggestions.

A couple of additional random seminar tips.

  • Don’t forget your acknowledgments slide.  Not having an acknowledgments slide can make you appear arrogant and ungrateful.  Sometimes you can get rushed at the end (more on that below), or just get caught up in the moment and forget to show your acknowledgments.  One safe trick is to put that slide at the beginning of your seminar so that you don’t forget to show it.  
  • Be aware of the time and, whatever you do, don’t go over time.  People are taking time out of their workday to attend your seminar.  If you run over, it can seem somewhat inconsiderate.  If you run out of time, just figure out a way to wrap it up.  Don’t try to rush through your last 10 slides in 5 minutes.  Trust me, it won’t help you.  Remember to leave time for questions, this provides another way to make a good impression.

I realize that some people are not comfortable with public speaking and that the seminar can be intimidating.  The one piece of advice I can offer here is to relax and have fun with it.  Your seminar is not the Spanish Inquisition, your audience actually wants you to succeed.  Your potential coworkers have read your CV, you’ve made it past a phone screen, the company has paid to fly you in for the interview.  Trust me, we want your seminar to be good.  This is work that you’ve dedicated the last five years of your life to, hopefully, you’re excited about it.  You have the opportunity to tell a group of smart people about cool work that you’ve done, what could be better than that?

A trend that I’ve seen in recent candidate seminars is an initial one or two slide summary describing an individual’s background and how they arrived at the current point in their career.  I like this, it brings out more about who the candidate is as a person and often provides a good place to start a conversation.

One other point, most people who are working in industry won’t be able to talk about their recent work.  That’s ok, we understand.  Remember that, in many cases, the interview team is as interested in how you communicate and how you think as they are in the scientific content of the seminar.

The 1 on 1 interview
The next step in the process is typically a series of one on one interviews.  In my experience, you’ll usually have somewhere between five and ten (this is a lot and can be exhausting) of these over the course of the day.  Depending on the position you’re interviewing for, these may all be with people from your discipline, or they could be with people from a number of other disciplines.  In some cases, the interviewer may want to get a better idea of your technical capabilities and how you approach problems, but they also want to see how you interact and whether you’re someone they could work with.

As with the phone screen, I’m looking for someone with an intellectual curiosity that will help to steer our group into new and interesting areas.  For me, the questions you ask are as important as your answers to my questions.  I’m always surprised when, midway through an interview, I ask “do you have questions for me”, to which the candidate answers “no, not really”.  If you’re going into an interview, have some questions prepared, it’s important.  Here are a few examples of questions that have impressed me over the years.

  • What are the best and worst things about working here?
  • I’ve never lived in a cold climate, what do people do for fun in the winter?
  • How do you handle mentoring?
  • I’ve noticed that your group publishes a lot.  How do you determine which aspects of your work can be published?
  • How will your group enable me to expand my skillset?

This is another case where doing your homework can pay off.  Before you go on an interview, ask who will be on your interview team. Look these people up and see what they’ve done.  Asking a question about a paper that the interviewer has published can be a great conversation starter.   Remember though, there’s a fine line between being informed and being a creepy stalker.  I remember going into a candidate seminar where the candidate, who had never met any of us, greeted each of us by name.  That was a little weird.

During your one on one, make sure you let the interviewer know what you did.  It’s great to be part of a team and talk about what “we” accomplished, but remember, you are the one who is applying for the job.  Be specific about your role in projects, let the interviewer know how you worked as part of the team and what you contributed.

It’s important to remember that you’re not just selling your capabilities to an employer.  You should also be looking at the group you’re interviewing with and trying to figure out whether these are people you want to work with.  Ask questions about company culture.  Ask questions about opportunities.  You’re making a huge commitment, are these people that you want to spend all day with?  Pay attention to the behavior of those interviewing you.  If the person interviewing you is looking at your CV as they walk in the door, and trying to figure out who you are, this is a red flag.  I’m not suggesting that you should just leave at that point, but this should be something you file away as part of your decision-making process.

In many cases, the final one on one of the day is the HR interview.  I’ve found that this can take a variety of forms.  In some cases, the HR interview is with someone who just lays out the company’s benefits, relocation and holidays.  In other cases, the HR interviewer will try to get a better idea of how you interact with others.  You might get a question like, “tell me about a time when you and a colleague disagreed and how you resolved the disagreement”.  On a couple of occasions, I felt like the HR interviewer was trying to psychoanalyze me.  Pay attention to these interactions, they can tell you a lot about a company’s culture and whether it’s the kind of place you want to work.  The HR interview is also a great chance for you to learn more about the opportunities a company can offer you.  Ask about opportunities to expand your skillset, mentoring, and learning about other disciplines.  Find out about social activities, seminars, and other company events.  Again, this interaction can tell you a lot about whether the company is the kind of place you want to work.

Final Thoughts
Finally, if you’re interested in the job, send an email to follow-up with the hiring manager and potentially with other members of the interview team after the interview.  Let the hiring manager know how jazzed you are about the company and how you think you could contribute.  I’m surprised at how many people fail to follow-up after an interview.  I guess they just didn’t want the job.  Who knows, maybe it’s me.

In summary, none of this is rocket science, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Be enthusiastic, let the employer know what you’ll bring to the job.
  • Do your homework, know what the company does.  If you do, you can make a much stronger case for why you should be hired.
  • Ask questions before you come for the interview.  Find out who the audience is for your seminar and how much time you’ll have.  If possible, find out who you’ll be talking with.
  • Remember than an interview is a two-way street. Does this company feel like the kind of place that you want to work?

As before, these are my views and they may not be right for every company and every interview. At this point, I’ve given away all of my secrets, so I probably won’t ever be able to conduct a successful interview again.  Oh well, I hope this helps someone get through the interview process or, at the very least, gives them an idea of what to expect.


  1. these two posts are gold! Thank you!

    They cover a lot and I love the emphasis on "communication" and "know your audience". Especially nowadays there are a lot of different backgrounds and groups involved in bigger projects and that makes it more difficult to get information through the "jargon speak" and give the right pieces for informed decisions.

  2. Now we all have to send our applications to Pat just to apply the opposite of what is outlined in this post ;)

    Just kidding. We also noticed that when candidates don't have questions at all it is in general not a very good sign. Also, enthusiasts are easy to spot and for now we are very happy with these hires !

  3. Thank you for the post. Could you write another post regarding a second interview? In the past, I didn't expect one, got one and failed. Aside from impressing the people that you didn't meet the first time, what should your strategy be?

  4. Not sure that I can provide a lot of advice here. We rarely, if ever, do second interviews. In my experience, you can usually tell everything you need to know from one day of interviews. As with any interview, I think communication is the key. If a company is bringing you back for a second interview, ask the hiring manager what they are looking for. As with any interview, do your homework and go in prepared.

  5. Hey, Pat.

    This post and your previous one ring true from my own experiences interviewing and building teams. I have a few random additional thoughts I'd add:

    Regarding the interview:
    -- I've seen many a candidate seminar where the interviewee included slide after slide after slide after slide listing every calculation they'd ever done and every project they'd ever worked on. That practice gives me the impression that the interviewee is trying to prove that they've worked really hard and know lots of stuff. I'd much prefer that you (the interviewee) distill the work you've done into a cohesive story: what conclusions did you draw, and what were the key research decisions that led you to that conclusion? what themes emerge from your body of work? I promise that during your one-on-one interviews through the day, you'll have plenty of chances to show us the full picture of everything you've done!
    -- Especially for early-career candidates with just PhD, you will often have done work using only the methods, codes, algorithms developed by your PI. Do know that we are going to ask about your choices about method/code/algorithm! We do understand that sometimes the answer will be, "cause that's what the PI wanted", but we do want to know that they've thought about the problem more broadly and can speak thoughtfully about other approaches that could be taken.

    I'd echo your comments about knowing the audience, both in the seminar and in one-on-one interviews. In particular, if the candidate is applying for a computer aided drug design role, they will be working with teams of chemists, biologists, enzymologists, etc, etc, and it's likely that one or more representatives from those communities will be on the interview schedule. Those parts of the interview give us important signals for what kind of collaborator and team member the candidate will be.

    And I can't agree more that the candidate is interviewing the company and the team as much as we are interviewing them! Is this a place where you can do your best work, where you and the culture are a good match, where you can bring unique contributions to making the team and the company successful?



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