A reader sends along this dilemma, and asks for advice:
"I will soon be graduating with a Masters degree. I have been invited to interview at a major Pharmaceutical company, and have been invited to dinner the night before with the Vice President of Drug Discovery. No one I have asked has any idea of what I should expect for this dinner, or how I should prepare.. . ."
Well, the VP isn't going to spend the meal asking you about name reactions - and if he or she does, then scratch that company off your list. You don't want to work at a place where they make you feel like only the select few ever get past their interviews. You'll get asked a bit about your degree work, and you'll be expected to answer pretty fluently - after all, if you can't give a straight and reasonable answer, who can?
You'll get the standard intro to the company, its research structure, and what sort of job you'll be interviewing for. It wouldn't hurt to do some homework before you show up. Check out the company's web site - don't worry that it's full of happy talk and propaganda, because what corporate web site isn't? But this is where you'll find what's known to the public about the research that's going on at the company. If they're strong in cardiovascular research, for example, it won't hurt if you show that you took the time to learn that. That'll give you an opening to ask a question, too, if you want: ("Is this position in the cardiovascular group?")
Other questions that are good to ask (and will help fill up the time, without any awkward gaps) might be: what the area is like to live in, what the mix of people is like in the department (experienced/younger), how often people switch on to new projects, if the person interviewing you has ever worked on anything that made it all the way through the clinic, and so on.
Mostly, these dinners are to make sure that a candidate can hold up their end of a conversation and appears appropriately intelligent. Order something good, and don't worry about having an appetizer and/or dessert. I wouldn't advise drinking any alcohol, though, just to be on the safe side. You should just try to be reasonably pleasant company, and act as if you have a clue about chemistry and research. (Hey, if you've been reading this site for a while, you should at least be able to fake it convincingly. . .)