the Experts: How to get Hired
by Grace Wong
Nature Biotechnology Vol. 22,
#11 1481-1482 (2004)
Advice from 19 Big Pharmaceutical Experts
Input is based on the following three questions:
1) What are their most important criteria for hiring Scientists?
2) What are mistakes scientists have made during candidate
3) What key advice can they offer to Scientists seeking employment
Allen Lewis, MD
Site Head of Aventis Resarch,
160 scientific papers
Criteria: I favor
hiring scientists who have enough in-depth knowledge in their field
to be able to think aloud through a complex problem during the interview.
Mistakes: The greatest mistake
a scientist can make during an interview is to shift the agenda
to anything other than science - especially to exploration of negative
feelings about elements in the applicant's personal or employment
Advice: My best advice to scientists
is to learn to be succinct in answering questions. If asked
to consider a complex scenario, I would advise the interviewee
to build the description in a way that is structured so that
the interviewer can follow the line of thought easily. Creative
thinking can occur in either disciplined or undisciplined minds;
the difference becomes evident if the scientist is able to focus
a concept into testable hypotheses and then to prosecute those through
Lex, Van der Ploeg, PhD
VP, Site Head
Merck Research Institute,
Criteria: Great intellect;
proven accomplishments; willingness to work with others and collaborate
efficiently; excellent communication and interpersonal skills;
In the pharmaceutical industry, the true motivation is to pursue
drug development in support of major medical needs. Industry
scientists need to do what is necessary to move the major objectives
forward without getting distracted by irrelevant details.
They should continuously learn and develop skills in any area needed
to advance the projects
Mistakes: Scientists have to be clear on their
career goals; motivation to join an organization needs to be
well thought through so that there is a high likelihood of an excellent
and productive long term match; match accomplishments with
job-requirements to assure a likely fit; well rounded seminar with
excellent data is a must; candidates should not be
defensive in response to questions or issues in data; it is key
to be clear about assumptions and issues in hypothesis; interview
both ways (the scientists that is looking for a job should be sure
that he/she knows what the job opportunity and colleagues
present to them and what working at the new job will entail,
again to ensure that working together and collaborations will be
Advice: Provide a well organized CV without errors and omissions;
a short and to the point personal statement facilitates making
it through an initial triage.
Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development,
or not skills fit the position, publication record, enthusiasm,
intellectual curiosity, verbal skills, and interest in our project/company.
Mistakes: Can't answer questions during
their seminar. Don't understand the project they would
work on. Don't ask me any questions. Act intimidated.
Seem distracted, unenthusiastic. Can't give a good reason
for interest in a big pharma job. Can't tell me what their
5-year plan is and/or can't tell me what kind of position and work
environment they are ideally looking for (these answers can be somewhat
vague, but the person should give the impression that they have
given this serious thought).
Advice: 1) Send CVs to company websites,
whether or not you know there is an open position. This pool
is accessed first by HR, sometimes before advertising the job.
2) Seek out people from industry at meetings and ask them about
job openings, and what its like to work at their company (big pharma
vs. biotech vs. CRO, etc). 3) Know what kind of company, position,and
work environment you are ideally looking for. 4) Always carry
business cards and CVs to meetings. 5) Gain in vivo experience.
6) At interviews, dress well and appropriately, give a good seminar,
be enthusiastic, always have questions ready for the interviewer,
always research the company and the interviewers beforehand (ask
for their names in advance). 7) Send a thank-you letter (email
acceptable but not preferred) re expressing your interest, telling
how you would fit in to the position and the organization, and offering
to provide any additional information needed.
Juerg Meier PhD
VP, Executive Director
Criteria: Good solid
education with leading professors of the field
Mistakes: Seem to have too much
interest in their own goals and research instead of filling needs
of the hiring company.
Advice: Have some flexibility and interest
to employ your expertise to the problems of the new employer.
Seng-Lai Tan, PhD
skills and industry experience, problem-solving and communication
skills, team player, publications would be an added bonus.
Mistakes: Lack of attentiveness, enthusiasm, and relevant
questions. Negotiate salary and benefits. Negative or bitter
about previous mentors or employers.
Advice: Recommend summer research project or internship in
industry; establish contact with decision-makers and seek out mentors
in the industry; postdoc training is not necessary for a job in
biotech/pharma. But it does not hurt to have one, especially
in a good and reputable lab.
Vonderscher, PhD VP
Global Head of
Criteria: 1) good
track record in sciences (publications or patents or positions hold)
2) Vision on the defined field's future directions; 3) management
skills (organized, decisive, open-minded); 4) inter-personal skills
Mistakes: 1) don't show passion
for what they want to do; 2) give too general/generic answers; 3)
didn't prepare and understand the type of job offered.
Advice: 1) get all elements about the
offered job to understand that it is fully corresponding to your
wishes; 2) If not sure about the content of the position please
ask; 3) give the impression you know what you want and what you
don't want; 4) be offensive but get quickly a sense where the no
cross line is beyond which you would be perceived as rude, sticky
or even impolite.
Vice President of Preclinical Research and Development
Criteria: We look
for several core competencies including; 1) technical expertise,
2) know how in their field of expertise, 3) proven track record
of success, 4) understanding of all facets of drug discovery, 5)
ability to work on multidisciplinary teams, 6) ability to lead,
7) ability to be a member of a team, 8) ability to manage and 9)
finally their overall person-the right fit.
Mistakes: 1) Too much credit for the work that they
have done as a member of a team, 2) not being able to articulate
what their top career successes have been, 3) not giving direct
answers to questions, 4) too many sentences, not understanding that
they are assessing us as much as we are assessing them, 5) not asking
the key questions that they want answered, and 6) finally not being
Advice: 1) Remember that they should be assessing the opportunity
/ company as much as they are being assessed, 2) Present a balanced
view of yourself and identify key strengths and areas for development,
3) provide concise answers to questions, 4) ask questions that show
that you have thoroughly researched the opportunity.
8. A Big Pharma
A. M, PhD
A Group Leader,
Global Program Manager
for CNS Discovery in the Molecular Sciences Department
Criteria: 1. Ability
to describe clearly and concisely their work or a piece of their
work, demonstrating good verbal and presentation skills. 2. Ability
to answer question pertaining to the work as well as the ability
to be objective about it. 3. Ability to think on his or
her feet without stumbling over them. 4. Demonstration of some
passion, energy, and self confidence. 5 Assertiveness not aggressive
and defiantly not passive. 6. Ability to be a team player
as well as a team driver.
Mistakes: 1. Too passive in interviews. 2. No
eye contact. 3. Dropping too many names. 4. Using one
word answers and not embellishing answers a little to demonstrate
reasoning skills as well as scientific thinking. 5. Not
speaking clearly or speaking too softly. 6. Long presentations
and leaving no time for questions.
Advice: 1. Be honest and consistent with your answers, the
interviewer will compare notes, 2. Be friendly and tastefully
energetic and be prepared to engage in small talk especially while
walking from place to place. 3. Keep good body posture, when walking,
walk along side the interviewer, not behind; when sitting, do not
slouch in the chair. 4. Dress appropriately but not the time
to make a fashion statement and nothing too loud or revealing. However,
splash of color tastefully done works well. 5. Take your time
to think the question through, then answer as assertively as possible
but do not ramble 6. When giving a presentation, try to tell
a story and keep it focused. Do not try to be all inclusive;
it may come for disjointed and incomplete. It is better to
describe a part of your work well, than all of your work poorly.
High Throughput Biology Discovery Research
understand the pharma business, communication skills.
focused on telling what they know, failed to speak to the big picture.
Advice: Prepare a succinct resume,
highlight skill sets and experiences; don't forget to include patents,
peer review activities and awards for scientific achievement. Give
a clear and logical seminar, not so much in telling the story but
also illustrate the value of the story. Be prepared for the
interviews; know who you are talking to and what their interests
are. Talk about your leadership skills and your understanding
of working in a matrix environment.
excellent technical knowhow in relevant field, strong self initiative.
Mistakes: Overselling of skills and
previous contribution, failure to show a passion to excel.
Advice: Be truthful to yourself and
come out of the shell to share your passion without overhyping.
VP, Drug Discovery
caliber, perseverance, and enthusiasm for research and
Mistakes: Overstating qualifications, not being honest,
not asking thoughtful questions.
Advice: Be prepared, be honest, bold but not cocky, make
sure your enthusiasm and energy is clearly communicated and
Ted Johnson, PhD
that they are willing and eager to learn new skills and concepts.
Evidence that they are able to work on a team. Evidence of
persistence, problem solving, and general interest in science.
Evidence of following good scientific methods to solve problems. Be
open minded. Look at problems from all points of view. Be able to
accept points of view other than your own.
Mistakes: Pretending they know something
that they don't. Trying to sell themselves as an expert. Arrogance.
Do not anticipate basic questions in the seminar presentation.
Advice: Be persistent, don't lose hope.
Finding a good job can be difficult. Don't limit your search to
a few large companies. Be open minded and look at all possibilities.
Make sure you show what you know without coming across as arrogant.
Show enthusiasm and excitement in the prospect of working in the
company that you are interviewing in. Be friendly and warm.
Group Director of Lead Discovery & Profiling, Bristol Myers
Squibb (Wallingford CT)
Criteria: They read
the job description carefully and have the right qualifications
and experience. I can waste a lot of time reviewing applications
from individuals, who invariably are over qualified or who do not
have the requisite industrial experience. Invariably, we are
looking for scientific and technological prowess coupled with important
behaviors e.g. leadership skills, an ability to work in diverse
teams, an ability to motivate others etc.
Mistakes: Be honest. Don't give the answer you think
I want to hear. Normally we have a series of people interview candidates
and some candidates tell a slightly different story to the same
question from different interviewers. We do compare notes.
Don't argue with the interviewer. Speak clearly but don't be verbose.
Present a positive non verbal style. Be interested, ask questions,
and seek clarification.
Advice: Build a goal oriented career plan for yourself,
research the area of interest, try and find what skills are required
for the job e.g. is industrial experience important. Research
the company and the job you're applying for; there is nothing worst
than interviewing someone who obviously knows nothing about your
Christopher P. Miller, Ph.D
Criteria: Must have
strong oral and written communication skills. Must have strong scientific
credentials and publication record (especially for PhD level scientists).
Must be able think on their feet and anwer questions. Must be enthusiatic
and passionate about science. Must have clear reasons for wanting
to be in industry as opposed to academia.
Mistakes: Not demonstrating enough
passion or drive. Not asking questions or showing enough interest.
Being poorly prepared
Advice: Show their enthusiasm and passion
be clear and concise in how you ask and answer questions prepare
themselves by researching the company they are interviewing with
demonstrate they know the issues facing the biopharmaceutical industry
provide specific examples of how their efforts in previous roles
had tangible impacts on projects
this greatly depends on the job and the responsibilities associated
with it. However, there are some basic things I look for : a) ENTHUSIASM:
As the interviewee describes previous work it is easy to read whether
the work evokes enthusiasm in the person. Usually, people who loved
what they have done previously and thoroughly understand why they
have been doing the particular experiments or other work can give
you a succinct, well thought out and enthusiastic response. people
who have in general been dissatisfied with particular work setups
in their previous jobs, yet love the field, can talk about their
work giving indications of what could have made things better. I
try to formulate my questions to bring out these issues in the open.
b) INTEGRITY: I like to ask interviewees to describe a tough situation
that they found themselves in where they have made a mistake and
describe what it took to right it. It is sometimes difficult to
answer such a question, but an honest person should be able to do
this easily. c) ADAPTABILITY: In pharmaceutical research these days,
change is the name of the game. This is sometimes not as evident
to or well understood by people who are moving for the first time
from academics to industry. However, I think one can tell if a particular
person would adapt to the Pharm. world of changing priorities by
asking the right questions. I ask questions to feel for this adaptability
by asking about how particular moves in the interviewee's life went,
e.g. moving from the life of a graduate student to that of a post-doc.,
or from one previous job to the other. d) BACKGROUND RESEARCH regarding
the hiring company is important and it is easy to see when an interviewee
can interject this information into the conversation - there can
also be too much research- see below! However, one does need to
understand and be able to convey how their experience is commensurate
with the requirements for the position advertised.
Mistakes: a) TOO MUCH RESEARCH- I have had an occasion where
a person had actually gone through my resume on some website or
other and kept talking about how interested he was in my background
!! b) SEEMING UNINTERESTED in the proceedings - I have had one person
comment on how we should change our interview strategy since according
to this person it was too long and tiring! c) PRESENTATION - the
job may require lab. work in full protective gear and no one may
bother what you wear when you work here, but do come to the interview
looking like you did not just roll out of bed and get here! Presentation
also includes the presentation of previous work, some successful
interviewees bring in nice files with slides of their data (if permissible
by previous employer) that they can take the interviewer through.
d) FOLLOW Up: Sometimes the difference between 2 good candidates
is the follow up- not just a thank you letter. I have had a follow-up
letter that showed that the interviewee had listened carefully during
the interview and had formulated some thoughts based on that to
come up with potential solutions to some problems being discussed
during the interview.
Advice: However, I think one of the
most important things is to weigh your expertise and experience
against the job requirements and present yourself without under
or over selling yourself. Easy to say but I think it is a cultivated
Alexander Kamb PhD
Head of Oncology
prefer athletes to roll players. I look for intelligence,
flexibility, interest, and a reasonable personality.
Mistakes: The most common trait
that harms an applicant's chances are lack of enthusiasm. An
applicant who conveys bitterness or negativity is also unlikely
to get very far.
Advice: Don't worry about your particular profile of talents.
It takes all kinds in science: those with broad experience
and knowledge, those with deep, specialized training, those with
encyclopedic command of the literature, and those with vivid imagination.
Some see forests and some see trees. It's important
to have both types in an organization. Most importantly, though
it sounds trite, make sure you do what really gets you excited.
If you do, you can't help but succeed, because success comes
with hard work, and if you love your work, you'll work hard without
Joanne Kamens, PhD
ability and ability to execute on plans. Proven ability to
work constructively with others.
Mistakes: Not seeming excited
about the job!
Advice: Every job you interview for
should be the perfect one you want!
Dejan Bojanic PhD
Head of Lead
- Good scientific abilities. Good people and listening skills. Collaborative
nature. Energetic. Goals driven. High integrity. Wants - Experience
in area we are hiring in. Excellent knowledge of the business.
Mistakes: Not knowing what they
want. Not showing drive to succeed. Not being prepared.
Advice: Do the research before applying.
Meet informally with scientists working in the area. Start networking
Hunt, Ph.D Executive Director, Oncology Drug Discovery
place great value on a candidates demonstrated ability to
work well in a team setting, as this is the predominant working
environment they will experience in the pharmaceutical industry.
At the same time, a demonstrated ability to be creative within the
context of an applicants scientific program is equally as
important. That being said, top candidates exude a certain
passion for science. Its that unspoken signal that sends
a message to the interviewer that this candidate can be expected
to maintain the enthusiasm and tireless work ethic researchers must
possess over the long time periods it takes to develop new therapeutic
Mistakes: In many cases applicants are so intent on demonstrating
their technical accomplishments in what may be a relatively brief
interview that they make it difficult for the interviewer to fully
explore their range of abilities or their less quantifiable personal
attributes. In a similar vein, while graphics may be useful
to explain a candidates research to an interviewer, if used
too extensively they may lead the interviewer to believe that the
candidate does not have full command of his/her own research material.
Finally, I always leave time at the end of interviews for the candidates
questions. Individuals who do not have questions convey an image
of being unprepared for what is a standard part of any interview
or uninterested in the position or the company.
Advice: In the context of a job interview, be attentive to
the interviewer, and let the interviewer find out what they need
to about you. Be specific with your answers and offer examples
that directly illustrate your point, opposed to long, unfocused
responses. If your answers are not expansive enough, the interviewer
will probe further. Above all, be enthusiastic about your
work and what motivates you, and be inquisitive about the position
and company you are interviewing for. In a broader sense,
network as much as possible and use your mentors for assistance
in this pursuit. Furthermore, seek out experience that demonstrates
your commitment to science, such as internships and, for younger
students, research coursework. Recommendations from supervisors
who have seen you do research are much more valuable than those
from course teachers.