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January 29, 2006
Name Reactions for One Thousand, Alex
Here's a question for people who have been out interviewing in the last couple of years (with special emphasis on those who've been seeking their first position in the industry): does anyone still do the old "Let's go to the blackboard and see how many reactions you know" interview? Syntex in Palo Alto was well-known for putting people through this twenty years ago or so.
I got a couple of those back when I was first looking around, and I'd be lying if I tried to tell you that I liked them. (I did OK under these conditions, but while you're up there on you're always worrying that the next question could be the one that makes you look like an idiot. The whole thing is too close to a PhD defense to be anything but unpleasant.
And I never understood the point of this technique to start with. Chemistry is not done solo in a spotlight in front of a hostile crowd. It's important to be able to speak coherently in front of people, of course, but that's what a seminar (and its associated questions) are for. It's also important to realize that a person who can whip out answers quickly might be an even better scientist if they trained themselves to slow down and think a bit.
Knowing the mechanism (under time pressure) for the Nosenko-Golitsin Rearrangment doesn't seem to be a good predictor of research success. That was true back in the late 1980s, when I was the guy at the blackboard, and I think it's even more true now. SciFinder and the other computer databases have really gutted the rationale for committing large numbers of transformations to memory. It's important to know what sorts of things can be done, but there's little point in memorizing exactly which reagents do them and what journal they appeared in. You can always look that up, and when you do you'll likely find a dozen alternatives that you didn't even know about.
These days, being able to sort out all those potential reactions into an order of plausibility is a more important skill than just memorizing them. I think I might work up some questions like that for the next time I interview someone. "Here," I'll say, handing over a sheet of paper. "SciFinder says that you can do this reaction any of these six ways. Which one would you recommend trying first, and why?"
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