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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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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September 26, 2012

Those Drag-Over-the-Coals Interviews

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Posted by Derek

My column this month in Chemistry World is on high-pressure chemical interviews. Is my impression correct, that the good ol' "let's go to the board and draw out reaction mechnisms" sort of interview is slowly leaving the world?

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job


1. Anonymous on September 26, 2012 7:26 AM writes...

Interview? What's an interview?

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2. bbooooooya on September 26, 2012 7:38 AM writes...

Draw the mechanism is how interviewing has always been done, and it's the way interviewing SHOULD always be done, dagnabit! Look at how well it's positioned the industry currently in this country? Pipelines are overflowing, jobs are being created, and serious health problems (did you see that life saving new drug for restless leg syndrome?) are being solved.

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3. The Iron Chemist on September 26, 2012 7:51 AM writes...

When a colleague of mine interviewed for a faculty position in organic chemistry at another university, the hiring committee asked her to take a standardized exam in organic chemistry.

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4. DrSnowboard on September 26, 2012 7:58 AM writes...

I think it's fair to ask someone mechanisms that have cropped up in work they have done plus a couple of 'what else might get made in this reaction?' as it's relevant to a practical science (well, it used to be). If a job required someone to speak fluent French, you might ask them to speak a little in the interview to judge their fluency...but you wouldn't ask them to quote Zola. Named reactions are less important unless you believe human pattern recognition is better than Scifinder skills. If your day-to-day work requires the ability to resist Gestapo style questioning, then maybe the interviewing company has lost its way?

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5. Trellis on September 26, 2012 8:01 AM writes...

For me, the focus should be on demonstrating Problem Solving skill, preferably using real examples from the interviewers experience. I look for breadth and originality of approach with the assumption that SciFinder etc will be used to help refine them subsequently. In the Industrial setting, an ability to apply (rather than just recant) organic chemistry knowledge is central.

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6. Vince Mulhollon on September 26, 2012 8:37 AM writes...

Chemists apparently have it very easy... In the computer industry things have devolved to asking riddles and puzzles that have nothing to do with the job.

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7. nitrosonium on September 26, 2012 9:08 AM writes...

do these go to the board (test your mechanism knowledge) type of interviews go for people who've been doing synthetic chemistry already for 10 yrs or more??

it seems like your body of work would speak to your accomplishment/ability more so that can recall of mechanism.

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8. Anonymous on September 26, 2012 9:20 AM writes...

Iron Chemist, I would find that absurd if I didn't know a few people who got PhDs just for hanging around long enough. They definitely wouldn't be able to pass a standardized exam.

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9. Chemjobber on September 26, 2012 9:26 AM writes...

There's certainly some amount of (I won't use the H-word), uh, "I had to go through this, so you will too" that comes along with this sort of pop quiz.

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10. Direct Arylator on September 26, 2012 9:38 AM writes...

When I interviewed I was grilled non-stop for ~4h at the board on mechanisms and retrosynthesis. That was after my 1h seminar and 2 ~1h HR-type interviews. Very memorable...

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11. nitrosonium on September 26, 2012 9:42 AM writes...

i am saying this out of "rustiness". i have not done any serious arrow pushing since graduate school...mainly getting ready for prelims...but i do synthesis all day. usually 5-6 projects running at once for various customers. sure we discuss reaction byproducts, side reactions etc around here in terms of mechanism but there's just not a lot of it. i have never done a Dotz benzannulation and would be really hard pressed to push arrows to tell you how it's done. guess i need to "study" more. between bottle feeding and diaper changes I'll blow the dust off March and get in touch with my mechanistic side.

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12. Hap on September 26, 2012 9:52 AM writes...

I would have done great if the problems in my research had stemmed from arrow-pushing problems and been as easily solvable...but they didn't, and weren't.

If companies were having problems with people not knowing enough organic chemistry, or if the patterns of solving problems with mechanisms were similar to those in research, it might make sense to ask lots of mechanistic questions. In my limited experience, though, that doesn't seem to be the case. The problem solving recommended by Dr. Snowboard would seem to make much more sense.

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13. cookingwithsolvents on September 26, 2012 10:00 AM writes...

I'd say the best solution, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. Sure you can search the lit for things FAR FAR more easily. However, half the art is correctly framing the query and that still requires basic chemical knowledge of mechanism and such.

For a slightly different take on the "interview grilling": I find it kind of appalling how little some students fresh out/almost out of grad school know about fields OUTSIDE their little bubble of synthesis, spectroscopy, organometallics, DFT, materials, or what-have-you. That is the sort of ignorance which really can impact your job performance/learning curve, too.

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14. luysii on September 26, 2012 10:32 AM writes...

This is nothing. The legendary Dr. Funkenstein, interviewer for Harvard Medical School in the 50's and 60's, used to ask hapless interviewees to open a window as it was warm in the room (not much air conditioning around back then). The window had been bolted shut, Dr. Funkenstein wanting to see the reaction of the pre-med to failure. Eventually people caught on (or I'd have never heard of it).

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15. Henry's cat on September 26, 2012 11:00 AM writes...

#14 and Dr Funkenstein is on to something there. I have had enough of chinless wonders booming a technical only to turn out to be an imbecile in the lab or a sociopath or both. Sometimes I think interviewees should have an hour of HR, followed by a week in the lab. Sure it would cost more and take longer but after five days you have a better idea of what you are getting...

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16. InfMP on September 26, 2012 11:03 AM writes...

You don't have to grill, but having casual conversations at the board with no pressure during an interview is important. There are a lot of research associate level chemists in industry who helplessly spend weeks repeating reactions that can not work mechanistically. Ask them to push arrows and they unknowingly create carbenes and carbanions.

I lived through the same interview once as comment 10 (direct aryl), probably at the same company... very painful but at least you know you won't get the job if you don't know what you are doing.

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17. Direct Arylation on September 26, 2012 11:40 AM writes...

InfMP, you are absolutely right. With the exception of 1 interviewer I had a rather plesant and fruitful discussion on chemistry for the rest of the time.

I also agree that confirming that the candidate has enough mastery of organic synthesis to be able to have ideas on how to solve a problem or extend a known disconnection to a new problem is important.

A lot of this can be done and moved on from quickly when the candidate is doing well. Overall leadership ability and willingness/capacity to thrive in a teamwork environment have to be evaluated as well!

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18. newnickname on September 26, 2012 12:44 PM writes...

@15: "I think interviewees should have an hour of HR, followed by a week in the lab. Sure it would cost more and take longer but after five days you have a better idea of what you are getting..."

Professional HR people will insist that they can accurately read and perfectly pick candidates in only 5 - 10 minutes. In a small company, where HR might have a lot of influence, they can then go on to protect their choices and prove themselves to be brilliant recruiters ("self fulfilling prophecy").

Many of those biotechs fail.

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19. MTK on September 26, 2012 12:58 PM writes...

If it's germane to the research that was presented at the seminar then I think it's fair game. If it's just some random reaction then I don't think it tells you that much.

As an interviewer, and employer, I value preparation far more than I do "thinking on your feet."

heck, one of the best interview processes that I ever went through was when all the interviewees were given the questions beforehand.

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20. CMCguy on September 26, 2012 1:57 PM writes...

Such detailed probing during an interviews did seem to be more in vogue years ago, particularly at most Big Pharmas that had an (over)abundance of people from Big Name Groups. While inquiries along these lines can be useful in evaluation of candidates, and fair game if involves reactions or chemistry in presentation or CV, it often appeared to me to portray more about the people asking the questions as attempts for sign's of arrogance or superiority rather than tests of knowledge. I actually was less concerned with high degrees of mechanistic awareness for MedChem positions than if seeking a Process Chemist since based on missions for the former is nice to have skill but with the latter it should be a core part of thinking. Additionally had(have?) to take in to account this could be indication of the training/PI and the level of interests of the candidate as could tell (or knew) if this type exercise was standard group meeting practice. It always reflected well on people who came from groups/PIs where was less common to dig into details but they themselves would go deeper into literature so they would understand not only what transformations took place but the proposed hows of what occurred.

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21. Chemjobber on September 26, 2012 2:12 PM writes...

In a small company, where HR might have a lot of influence,

Depends on the small company, I think.

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22. Anonymous on September 26, 2012 3:20 PM writes...

For medchem, Pd coupling has taken away "some" of the need for electron pushing on the synthesis end. However, electron pushing should be invoke more often when it comes to understanding metabolite formations in order to design more stable compounds. Now that some of my former medchem colleagues are doing more intermediates scale-up work, understanding the mechanism can save the CRO a lot of money.

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23. The Iron Chemist on September 26, 2012 3:51 PM writes...

@8: True, but those sorts of Ph.D.s generally don't make it past the first phase of the application screening. The current job market for four year colleges is simply too competitive for marginal Ph.D.s to stand a chance. If you've published high quality work (and plenty of it) and received your degree from an institution with a reputation for producing strong chemists, being asked to take a sophomore year exam to demonstrate that you're a competent chemist is pretty insulting.

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24. Jas Strong on September 26, 2012 9:14 PM writes...

I'm a quite different form of electron pusher (I work in electronics engineering and software design), but we have the same thing in our world too. The typical "technical interview" for a coder involves having them write code on a whiteboard.

This is harder than it sounds. If you spend any time writing code- and I do- these days you usually do it with a text editor open in one window, a couple Google searches open in another, and compiler output in a third showing you where you made the obvious mistakes. You write, you compile, you iterate, you synthesize references.

Not once in twenty years of electronics design and firmware hackery have I had to write code on a whiteboard that wasn't during an interview.

Instead, I prefer to interview candidates by posing them thorny bugs, and having them walk me through their process of solving them. "We built a machine to do X, but it failed in Y way. How do you find the problem?" is a much more illuminating question, to me, than "Implement a mergesort on this whiteboard".

Another question I might ask is to give a brief design specification and ask them to walk me through their completion of that design- for something simple like a desklamp with a timer function, or a radio frontend, or something like that. I learn a lot more about how they approach engineering that way, and usually, if they know code and copper, it becomes apparent during their design.

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25. Anonymous on September 27, 2012 7:43 AM writes...

This brings back bad memories of grad school, where it was a feather in your cap to humiliate somebody. I'm really glad I now work in a small company with no PhD's!

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26. Nothermaus on September 27, 2012 8:49 AM writes...

@ 6. Vince Mulhollon:

Rather like the LSAT for prospective law students.

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27. ayatollahOfTheOutcomes on September 27, 2012 11:03 AM writes...

When I was in the software industry I recall seeing an ultra super-smart programmer fail miserably in his reviews after a year, when working in a product team. Ever since, I like to test only for basic knowledge (corroborated via papers and references) and the ability to work in a team. In the real world, Google and databases help with tasks. Its the coordination of tasks for a project that's way more important. Team work and the ability to think together matter a lot more.

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28. RJH on September 30, 2012 9:00 AM writes...

One of the things I think is useful in asking a mechanistic question after a candidate seminar is you get get a feel for whether the candidate is truly familar with the chemistry they've claimed as their very own. Sometimes a candidate intimates that all of the work shown was done by them, or were their ideas, only to later figure out they were taking more than their share of credit for team efforts, and in some cases only minor players in the work. Not a characteristic I like to see in a potential colleague/teammate.

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29. Anonymous on October 5, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

I would rather see someone come up with an alternative mechanism. Most of the arrow pushing is just theory anyway IMHO. Ever run across a product that you can't readily explain but simply justify? Ever work with DMPK and try to explain how a metabolite forms? Some of it defies most of the traditional mechanisms that we tend to memorize at the university.

Team work and collaboration are more important.

@ 28 RJH, I agree if you put it on your CV or present it in your candidate seminar you should be prepared to talk about it.

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30. lowlychemist on October 8, 2012 7:07 AM writes...

It's funny, with only an undergraduate degree, I'm able to solve problems that "esteemed whiteboard chemists" flail on, time and time again. It's also comical how these "PhD's" complain to the boss about associates working on problems that they should be doing, they are worse than union workers in a car plant. After 20 years in this industry it's obvious that most people on the hiring end are incapable of recognizing, and even utilizing, real talent in chemistry.

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