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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 29, 2006

Bad Interviews

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Posted by Derek

My "How to Get A Pharma Job" category over on the right has taken on a whole new meaning these days, what with me (and all my co-workers) scrambling around for new positions. You run into all kinds of interviewing styles out there, most of them fairly benign - but there are a few techniques that (to me, anyway) are warning signs.

The "Let's Go to the Board" folks can be in this category. (I've spoken about this before). While it's true that you want to make sure that a prospective candidate understands the science of what they're doing, a dissertation-defense blackboard grilling may not be the best way to do that. A medicinal chemists's job does not, to a first approximation, revolve around solving mechanism problems. It's a useful skill, and can be used as a surrogate for general mental acuity, but it's not the absolute first requirement.

At the other end of the scale, you have the HR-department "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" interviewers. I should point out that the people who ask these sorts of questions generally aren't the shining stars of the HR office themselves. And yes, I actually have heard of someone getting the tree question. I live for the day that someone tries it out on me.

People who have been through a lot of training courses may also try out a technique called "Behavioral Event Interviewing". That's when they ask you about some situation you found yourself it - "Tell me about a time when you had to meet a tight deadline", or the like. There's nothing wrong with this in principle, but if it's the centerpiece of the whole interview process, I think that it turns into a moral hazard for the interviewee. That is, it's an incentive to bring out the makeup crew and the special effects team, for a new, improved, version of the past. Everyone does this to a degree, of course, but the BEI style almost encourages it.

And it should go without saying that if you're treated in a disrespectful manner during an interview, and it seems like part of the company culture rather than the work of a random fool, then you should keep on walking. This is rare, but it happens. I knew an associate a few years ago who got a call for a Saturday morning interview at a small company, which was done by several of the lab heads who sat around eating breakfast in front of her. Do you really want to work for a company that thinks that this is acceptable behavior? Exactly.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job


1. qetzal on November 29, 2006 11:50 AM writes...

If a med chemist were a tree, what kind of tree would s/he be?

Maybe a Pacific Yew?

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2. milo on November 29, 2006 12:07 PM writes...

The interview I had for my current position included a whole lot of retrosynthesis problems...

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3. coracle on November 29, 2006 12:08 PM writes...

So, have you been on the other side and interviewed candidates?

How would you like to be interviewed?

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4. Keith Robison on November 29, 2006 1:00 PM writes...

A book well worth reading is "How Would You Move Mount Fuji? : Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle -- How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers" by William Poundstone -- it is an easy read & should be in most public library systems. You get a look at the history of IQ tests, a whole collection of the 'puzzle questions' that might show up at some places and a scary summary of the psychology of interview situations (that first impression not only counts, most time it is _all_ that counts!).

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5. Jill on November 29, 2006 1:06 PM writes...

funniest interview story I ever heard from a friend of mine, as a newly minted MD seeking a residency in orthopedics...

Interviewer: If you could only have one tool, what would it be?

Job-seeker (feeling clever as orthopedics being a very hands-on, fix-'em-up kind of doctoring): A hammer.

Interviewer: Why?

Job-seeker (feeling stumped but going with it): If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

Result: Not even a smile. And no offer.

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6. Derek Lowe on November 29, 2006 1:55 PM writes...

Poundstone's written some interesting stuff, so I'll have to take a look at his Microsoft book. I take it that these are Enrico Fermi-style "How many piano tuners in Chicago" questions?

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7. Kay on November 29, 2006 1:57 PM writes...

What is so difficult to digest regarding your last example: Saturday morning or can't present/respond while eating? Small companies have extremely limited resources, so execution is everything. Are you avoiding small companies? It sounds like you should.

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8. Derek Lowe on November 29, 2006 2:04 PM writes...

Every small company I've dealt with has interviewed me during working hours, actually. And even the whose-turn-is-it-to-make-the-deli-run size places didn't eat their meals in front of me while I was presenting. Small companies are fine with me; nonprofessionalism isn't.

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9. Chrispy on November 29, 2006 4:24 PM writes...

Years back, I got burned by a new hire who claimed he knew all about sterile technique when in fact he didn't. It is not a hard set of skills to learn, but by the time we realized he was clueless he'd contaminated a whole bunch of cell lines. After that, I came to give all prospective applicants a written test. It is not a bad idea, actually; it takes some of the stress out of a face-to-face meeting and allows one to ask questions which might be insulting to the person's intelligence (unless they were a total BS-er). This might have more utility for a technician-level person than a Ph.D. but maybe not...

You'll definitely need to know why manholes are round!

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10. RKN on November 29, 2006 4:26 PM writes...

I knew an associate a few years ago who got a call for a Saturday morning interview at a small company, which was done by several of the lab heads who sat around eating breakfast in front of her. Do you really want to work for a company that thinks that this is acceptable behavior?

I don't know; if I was offered to eat with them I might find it a rather comfortable atmosphere for discussion.

Years ago at the outset of the dot bomb boom I interviewed at a mess of companies, big 'n small. I thought the questions that prompted the most revealing discussions - revealing for them and me - were of the kind, "If you joined us what kind of work would keep you interested?" Conversely, "What kind of work do you find tedious, what turns you off?"

The ol' "How would you skin a whale?" questions seemed to me to be pretentious.

I also liked being given the opportunity to present the results of a project I worked on. Frankly, I would not have cared if all those in attendance were eating or not.

There's all sorts of straightforward ways and questions to ask to discover if people can think logically and speak coherently, which I'm guessing is what employers want to see?

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11. Kay on November 29, 2006 5:01 PM writes...

I am still not clear regarding what's wrong with Saturdays or with eating during a presentation. Many folks routinely work on weekends in the sciences, so maybe it was a work-ethic test. "Nonprofessionalism" is perhaps too strong.

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12. Jan on November 29, 2006 5:11 PM writes...

I was once in a round for selecting a new professor for our faculty. The question which broke everybodies neck was: What would you do with unlimited funding. What do you WANT to buy? A fair and easy question but they all failed...Since then I think about an answer if someone would aks me this question and I have none by now...

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13. Morten on November 29, 2006 5:37 PM writes...

If you were a tree you wouldn't be applying for a job.
Thing about those questions are that there is no way you can answer them wrong. Unless you say a petrified tree because you mainly just sit around without any discernible use. That would be wrong.

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14. qetzal on November 29, 2006 7:40 PM writes...


We had a similar experience in a group I ran a few lifetimes back. We hired a technician who supposedly had extensive mol biol and PCR experience. This was based on experience listed on the resume, co-authorship on a relevant paper or two, and very good recommendations from a previous lab.

Turned out this person lacked some very basic knowledge of standard bench technique. As a result, few of their reactions ever worked, and they didn't stay with us very long.

Subsequently, we also implemented a test. There was a written part that asked things like how to troubleshoot a PCR reaction and how to prepare a specified buffer solution, and a bench part that asked them to do a couple of simple things like dilute a stock buffer 1000-fold and set up a restriction digestion.

Being able to watch someone's bench technique and test their basic scientific thinking before hiring them was enormously valuable. Severeal candidates were screened out on that basis.

However, the testing did make some people uncomfortable. (We did inform them they would be tested in advance of their interviews.) And I agree that it's probably harder to test relevant skills for higher level positions.

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15. Jake on November 30, 2006 4:59 AM writes...

This is always a problem in any sort of technical hiring. Anyone can talk a good game, and most people can understand what the right way to do something is. But absent an honest recommendation from a previous co-worker (against the request of their HR department), there's no way to tell if they'll actually do it the right way when push comes to shove.

The best way I've found to get around this is only hire new people with at least two man-years of shared work experience with current employees. This is of course not always practical, and also seems to directly counter any efforts toward workplace diversity, justifiable or not. But if it's a small enough company that hiring one or two bad apples is going to cause serious problems, can you take the risk?

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16. DrSnowboard on November 30, 2006 5:18 AM writes...

Mmm. Definitely against the saturday morning breakfast thing. And I would put working on a weekend 'routinely' as unprofessional as well, unless you are contracted for a particular function that has to occur then. SOunds like a bunch of academics who don't know how to treat people.

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17. Harry on November 30, 2006 8:51 AM writes...

Re: the breakfast interview/working weekends.

As the owner of a (very) small company, I can testify that working weekends, while not necessarily the norm, is pretty routine. I generally end up working at least part of the day about one Saturday out of four. Ten-hour days are pretty much the norm for me as well, and I suspect not at all unusual in a small-company environment.

As far as the breakfast interview goes, I agree that chowing down in front of the prospective employee is unprofessional, not to mention rude.

OTOH, I see nothing wrong with a Saturday interview, and inviting the prospect to eat breakfast (preferably at a decent restaurant) WITH those conducting the interview could be conducive to a relaxed atmosphere- if necessary, the meeting can be adjourned to the office and/or labs.

I don't have a lot of experience (on either side of the table) interviewing, so I may not necessarily be well-informed from that perspective, but I can testify to small-company experiences.

My $0.02, YMMV

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18. Andy on November 30, 2006 9:19 AM writes...

A top tip for employers (possibly originally a Viz Top Tip): Avoid employing unlucky people by throwing half the CVs you receive out without reading them.

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19. Brian Siano on November 30, 2006 9:32 AM writes...

I interviewed at a company that designed websites for pharma companies, and it was the oddest job interview I'd ever had. The place looked like a dot-com, with a stainless-steel kitchen, espresso bar, and restaurant-style tables where the creative people poured over transparencies and printouts and color wheels. The interviewer walked me around the office (which _was_ nice), stressing that there were no walls (except for the ones around the boss's offices) and that they didn't like strict hierarchies or explicit rules. (Which made me wary, because it's those _unstated_ ruels that trip people up.)

Anyway, the interview consisted of questions like "What would your ideal job be?" and "What do you think of organized chaos?" Being an honest sort-- and I really hate buzzwords-- I replied that "organized chaos" was an oxymoron, but it sounded as though it meant an unstructured environment that still produced good work, and I enjoyed _that_ a lot. She shook her head.

The job was for writing web content, and I stressed that I would love to do the job, but I was very concerned about the accuracy of material being published. (I'd written an article about PR and science, so it was a concern of mine.) She replied that the information was accurate: they had three _lawyers_ vet it for content. I asked about researchers, or doing Medline searches, and she seemed surprised.

The job might've been fun, but it did have that childlike 'creative synergy dynamic' vibe; I had the feeling that I'd have been the only actual adult in the room.

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20. burt on November 30, 2006 10:57 AM writes...

"Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle -- ....a scary summary of the psychology of interview situations (that first impression not only counts, most time it is _all_ that counts!)."

This probably explains a lot about their User Interface design skills (or lack thereof); it's all MEANT to be cryptic.

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21. A Chemist on November 30, 2006 11:39 AM writes...

The Saturday-morning breakfast interview sounds extremely unprofessional to me. Does this company ask their investors or customers to come in for weekend meetings as well? It just screams disorganization and bad time-management and insults people who would prefer to spend their weekends with their families.

A major beef for me is post-interview feedback. Twice this year I've been in situations where I had to wait over two months for a yes/no answer from a company after a full-day site interview.

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22. harry on November 30, 2006 12:23 PM writes...

Not attempting to be disagreeable, but there are many, many companies where it is not possible to work 9-5/ 5 days/week. This is not necessarily due to poor time management and/or disorganization. Small companies are generally understaffed (by comparison to large companies) and employees generally fill multiple roles and have to work until the work is done.

The "I only want to work 9-5/ 5 days/week with an hour for lunch and 3-weeks paid vacation and 20 year full-retirement" attitude that a lot of people have nowadays certainly plays a part in the attractiveness of China and India to firms.

I'm not advocating 14 hr/7-day work schedules, but a prospective employee for my firm would need to be aware that they would be asked to perform more than 9-5 as the work requires.

Once again- my $0.02.

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23. Chrispy on November 30, 2006 3:30 PM writes...


It is an entirely different situation when you own the company. One needs to be the low man on the totem pole only once at a company which gets bought to understand in very stark terms what all your overtime, etc. was worth: diddly relative to those higher up.

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24. Tim Mayer on November 30, 2006 3:59 PM writes...

The absolute worst job interview I ever experienced was with a company that told me, just after sitting down, that I would now be subjected to a "mechanical comprehensive reasoning test". Needless to say, after twenty-five years in my industry, I was not about to put up with such absurdities. The interview ended early and I went home. I think it functionally ended when I gave the "Are you joking?" response. Honestly, where do they get some of these HR wonks?

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25. Atompusher on November 30, 2006 8:01 PM writes...

My favorite industrial recruiting interview in grad school was with a guy who kept falling asleep during my 15 minute overview talk. I was left trying to explain chemistry to his bewildered HR colleague. I wrote the thanks-but-no-thanks e-mail before I even changed out of my interview clothes.

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26. Harry on November 30, 2006 10:15 PM writes...


I had a great (long) comment eaten by the preview button, so I'll just say that I've been there and done that.

I worked 8 years at a small family owned company. I was the low man on the totem pole and on salary to boot, so I ended up working about every job in the plant and tons of uncompensated overtime.

To top it off, the company folded without notice (although we knew it was in trouble) and I was unemployed without any severance and out 8 years of (unvested) pension contributions. (Lest you think the owners screwed us, they lost pretty much everything as well, having put up about all their assets to try to keep things going).

Anyhow- was it worth diddly? Maybe, maybe not.

I got a breadth and depth of experience and the self-confidence to go out on my own that I would have been hard-pressed to get at a larger company working a well-defined job.

My $0.02

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27. Pharma Market Researcher on December 1, 2006 8:21 AM writes...

Every time I have been at an all day interview session, they will schedule a lunch interview.

I tend to get the least sloppy / crumb producing meal and always end up eating about 15-20% of it.

It just seems strange to eat and interview at the same time, but maybe that's me.

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28. A Chemist on December 1, 2006 11:08 AM writes...

I understand that working overtime is a fact of life, but doesn't asking a job candidate to come in on the weekend because you can't find the time to interview her during normal business hours reflect poorly on the company?

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29. Hap on December 1, 2006 5:17 PM writes...

I understand that people's time is expensive, but it would be nice to know when you are rejected.

I went to an onsite interview at a large company, for which they paid to fly me there and back, the time for their employees to interview me, and lunch, but they never sent a rejection letter. I called them back (assuming already that I was rejected but wanting to know anyway), and they said they were waiting to hear from the first round of people they had offered jobs to; I didn't hear from them after. Another interview at a smaller company didn't start well (I didn't know where they were and the person who was supposed to pick me up at the subway was a hour late), and everything went fast. I either didn't understand that I wasn't what they needed when I left or didn't know, but I never heard from them.

Compared to the indirect costs of interviewing (let alone the direct costs in the first case), the rejection letter is a negligible cost, and while it doesn't make the (no longer potential) candidate feel good, at least everyone knows where they stand.

As a side note, it seems impolite to eat during an interview, at least when you haven't offered any to the person you're interviewing, because I thought that not eating in front of others if they can't have any is common courtesy. In addition, if you asked the interviewee to come at a time convenient for you (and at a time more likely to be inconvenient for them), like a Saturday morning for example, the least you could do would be to give them your full attention - that is what the interviewing company is paying for, right?

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30. Dave on December 4, 2006 2:24 PM writes...

Having to work an occasional weekend is a pain. Anybody accepting that as a way of life belongs in academia. A Saturday interview would definitely be ominous signs to come. In fact, the last company that hired me I flat out told them I would not work weekends. Period. And they still hired me....and they still tried to get me to work weekends....and I still refused. I spent too many years in graduate school and post-doc to put up with working weekends. Life is way too short. On your deathbed you're not going to wish for one last weekend so you can go into the office.

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31. AA on August 7, 2008 9:04 AM writes...

I recently went on an interview at a big pharma company doing a lot of hiring for a new division. The interview was planned a month in advance. When I got there no one was expecting me! The hiring manager wasn't even in town. I hadn't even been put on the schedule of the other two people I was supposed to meet with. I was able to talk to the two who were present after some scrambling, and I was told they'd get back to me about arranging a phone call with the hiring manager. The next day I got an impersonal rejection from HR without a word of apology for having completely messed up. I'm even having problems getting reimbursed for my out-of-pocket expenses.

Another interview was also completely disorganized. I was told the interview would last 2-3 hours and I planned accordingly. When I got there it appeared they had planned nothing. I just met with group leaders and no one at the level of the job I was interviewing for. They kept me there until mid-afternoon and didn't even feed me lunch! I was starving by the end. Later it turned out my flight was cancelled and I was stuck there for another two nights, and they actually called and asked me to come back the next day since things had been so rushed the day before! Needless to say I didn't since they'd had the entire previous day and hadn't bothered to get their act together then. I did get an offer, but they even managed to screw that up - rescinded the offer due to supposed budget cuts, then re-advertised the position a few weeks later.

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