the Experts: How to get Hired
by Grace Wong
Nature Biotechnology Vol.
22, #11 1481-1482 (2004)
The right skills will get you a job interview,
but only a successful interview will get you the right job. I asked more
than 77 experts from academia and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries
to tell me:(1) what they look for in a candidate and what criteria they
use for hiring scientists; (2) what mistakes scientists commonly make during
job interviews; and (3) what key advice they would offer to the job-hunting
scientist. Some of their answers are below. The experts provided practical
advice from diverse perspectives, as the cultural environment and needs
of academia are different from those of industry. Academic scientists have
a degree of freedom, but need to support themselves through grant writing
in a very competitive environment. Scientists in big pharma have the security
generated from existing product revenues, but they may be subject to layoffs
if a project fails or the company changes direction. Biotech scientists
have the excitement and promise of great financial rewards, but work very
hard and have little security. Each of these experts has a different point
of view and emphasis, and their advice is valuable for all job seekers.
David Baltimore, president, California
Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA).
Jordan Pober, professor of pathology,
dermatology and immunobiology, Yale University (New Haven, CT).
- Scientific excellence and the ability to work effectively with others.
- Not being prepared to intelligently discuss with the interviewer the
full range of implications of the work of both the interviewee and the
- Acquire laboratory skills, but more importantly, gain a wide-ranging
understanding of the issues in the field and the approaches that can
be used to make progress.
Bruce Stillman, president and
CEO, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Cold Spring Harbor, NY).
- We seek faculty who we believe will run a lab that will make a difference,
and we look for candidates with novel ideas and/or approaches. For junior
faculty recruits, one-on-one interviews are generally less helpful and
important than seminars; in particular, second-visit chalk talks focused
on plans for the first several years as a lab head.
- Showing a lack of interest in the interviewer's work.
- Do some homework on other members of the department or program so
that the interview can be used to effectively demonstrate the possibilities
of potential interactions.
Thomas J. Kindt, director,
division of intramural research, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases (Bethesda, MD).
- Individuals who have a vision of what they want to accomplish and
know how they will go about achieving their goals. Broad thinkers with
interests outside their own work.
- Failure to appreciate the existing science at Cold Spring Harbor and
inability to define how they will fit in with potential colleagues.
- Carefully think about your choice for postdoctoral research as it
will affect your early career, and choose to solve a problem that will
have broad impact in many fields.
Charles M. Vest, outgoing president,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA).
- Skills and accomplishments with a reasonable fit to our needs, but
if one has been successful in previous positions, that usually signals
that they will be good for the new job.
- Making judgmental statements about a program before they have complete
information about it. For example, saying that the system is broken
and they would make major changes to fix it is not well received. Also,
making a list of things they would never do. If they don't want the
job, they shouldn't accept it, but they should never try to limit the
scope of the position by saying something like "I will never touch a
dangerous pathogen or never work with animals."
- Do a review of the organization and the key players in it and comment
positively about this if the opportunity arises.
- Excellent taste in selecting problems and areas of inquiry, demonstrated
scientific talent, intellectual independence, passion and persistence.
- Not communicating clearly what they have done, how they have done
it and why it is important, implying a greater contribution to team
efforts than may be the case.
- Communicate clearly and concisely. Demonstrate scientific insight
and curiosity, and an appropriate understanding of how you could contribute
to the mission of the organization to which you are applying.
Robert Allen Lewis, senior vice president
and site head, Aventis (Bridgewater, NJ).
Lex Van der Ploeg, vice president
and site head, Merck Research Institute (Boston, MA).
- Scientists who have enough in-depth knowledge in their field to be
able to think aloud through a complex problem during the interview.
- Shifting the agenda to anything other than scienceespecially
to exploration of negative feelings about elements in the applicant's
personal or employment history.
- Learn to be succinct in answering questions. If asked to consider
a complex scenario, build the description in a way that is structured
so that the interviewer can follow the line of thought easily.
Lee Babiss, vice president
of preclinical R&D, Hoffmann-La Roche (Nutley, NJ).
- Great intellect; proven accomplishments; willingness to work with
others and collaborate efficiently; excellent communication and interpersonal
skills. Do not get distracted by irrelevant details; continuously learn
and develop skills in any area needed to advance the projects.
- Being unclear on career goals; Lack of thought about motivation to
join organization or how candidate an organization are likely to provide
an excellent and productive long-term match; failing to match accomplishments
to job-requirements to assure a likely fit; a badly prepared seminar
with poor data; being defensive in response to questions or issues in
data; being unclear about assumptions and issues in hypothesis; and
forgetting that an interview goes both ways.
- Provide a well-organized CV without errors and omissions; a short
and to the point personal statement facilitates making it through an
Ted Johnson, associate director,
Pfizer (San Diego, CA).
- Technical expertise, a proven track record of success, understanding
of all facets of drug discovery, the ability to work on multidisciplinary
teams, the ability to lead and to be a team member.
- Taking too much credit for the work they have done as members of a
team; not being articulate about what their top career successes have
been; not understanding that they are assessing us as much as we are
- Present a balanced view of yourself and identify key strengths and
areas for development.
Martyn Banks, Group Director
of Lead Discovery & Profiling, Bristol Myers Squibb (Wallingford CT).
- Candidates should present evidence that they are willing and eager
to learn new skills and concepts and that they follow good scientific
methods to solve problems.
- Pretending they know something that they don't. Trying to sell themselves
as an expert. Arrogance.
- Be friendly and warm, yet persistent. Make sure you show what you
know without coming across as arrogant.
- Read the job description carefully and have the right qualifications
and experience. I review applications from individuals who are either
overqualified or who do not have the requisite industrial experience.
Invariably, we look 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).
- Candidates may give the answer they think I want to hear. Normally
we have a series of people conducting interviews, and some candidates
tell a slightly different story to the same question from different
interviewers. We do compare notes.
- Build a goal-oriented career plan for yourself, research the area
of interest and find what skills are required for the job.
Kenneth Carter, CEO, Avalon Pharmaceu-ticals
Gordon Vehar, vice president
of research, Raven Biotechnologies (S. San Francisco, CA).
- Good publications not only indicate a person's scientific prowess,
but also give a strong indication of whether they can finish a project,
which many smart scientists struggle with. Also, I always look for people
who work well with others. Therefore we rely heavily on checking references.
- There are many things that candidates cannot control about the interview
process, but you can completely control your actions. The little things
can make a big difference; candidates should show up on time, act interested,
pursue aggressive but polite follow up. In a competitive job search,
the small things can make a difference.
- Figure out what you want to do and go do it. It is much better to
work hard in a scientific area that you are interested in and follow
your nose through good work, good relationships and good networking.
Alex Harris, vice president,
Applied Biochemistry, Chiron (Emeryville, CA).
- A broad set of skills combined with a strong technological basis in
at least one area. The ability to speak clearly and get your thoughts
- Being unable to make eye contact when talking with someone.
- For young scientists, first go on job interviews at places that are
not of the highest interest. This allow you to become familiar with
the interview process, pace yourself through a day of talking, get over
the nervousness of spending a day with strangers, practice the scientific
presentation and handle questions. Consequently, you will be much more
comfortable when on an important interview.
Steven R. Gullans, CEO, RXGen
(New Haven, CT).
- The potential for being a 'drug discovery scientist'someone
who understands the drug discovery process and why we are here. A well-organized
and planned seminar.
- A poorly organized and rambling seminar, including poor time management
of that presentation. Making 'demands' during the first interview.
- Design a seminar/presentation that demonstrates your scientific, organization
and judgmental skills.
Craig S. Gibbs, senior director,
corporate development, Gilead Sciences (Foster City, CA).
- Showing a passion for research, very strong recommendations, the ability
- Indicating that they plan to work for only 6 to 12 months before returning
to school. Showing very little interest in our area of research.
- The best candidates have read our papers and know a lot about our
work before they arrive.
- Intelligence, technical skill and knowledge relevant to the job description,
but what is more difficult to find is passion, creativity, leadership
and communication skills.
- Not doing enough homework on the company and the background of the
managers who will be interviewing them. Not practicing their seminars
enough so that the delivery is flawless, and not tailoring it to suit
their audience. Giving long-winded answers to questions and not letting
the interviewer ask follow-up questions.
- Find a position where there will be an opportunity to expand your
skills and responsibility (that is, a new position where 50% of the
work is already familiar to you but 50% will involve new challenges
People approach the hiring process in
different ways, so there is no single right way to succeed in getting hired.
During your job hunt, do not expect to get the perfect job, and if you do
not get an offer, do not get discouraged. Unfortunately, the interview process
can be very subjective. Learn from each interview and get better and wiser
from the experience.
The full responses from all the experts can be seen at http://www.studentvision.org/.