Friday, July 20, 2012

Reader question: how do you do a job talk on proprietary material?

A reader writes in with the following question [details redacted for anonymity]:
A colleague recently left because [their spouse] (also a scientist) got a job in a new city and they are relocating.  Inevitably, [they'll] need to give the usual 45-minute job talk to get a new one, but [they] spent most of [their] work on internal projects that [they] can't present outside the company.  What [do they] do for [their] job talk?  Go back and present [their] postdoc work? (This was [their] first industry job.)  What can industry workers do to make sure they have something to talk about when it's time to find the next job (voluntarily or not)? (emphasis CJ's) 
I'm at a [industry conference] this week and polled the few industry folks there (GSK, AZ, Lilly) and none had a good suggestion other than try to get on projects that you're allowed to talk about to the outside world.  
Derek Lowe talked about his solution to these problems a while back:
[...after talking about work that's in published journal articles or patents, or work in published patent applications, not disclosing full structures, but still giving enough detail to show off your work]  
The worst case is "none of the above." No published work worth talking about, no patent applications, no nothing. I actually did go out and give an interview seminar under those conditions once, and it was an unpleasant experience. I had to talk about ancient stuff from my post-doc, and it was a real challenge convincing people that I knew what was going on in a drug company. I don't recommend trying it.
But I don't recommend spilling the beans in that situation, either. I've seen a job interview talk where it became clear that the speaker was telling us more than he really should have, and we all thought the same thing: he'll do the same thing to us if he gets a job here. No offer. 
Derek also talks about mentioning biological data verbally, but not on the slides -- presumably, sharing enough general data to give you credibility, but not so much that you're revealing more than your employer would like.

I'll take a slightly different tack and say that I've mentioned techniques or general approaches that I've used, when I can't give lots of details. In process chemistry, there's the option of saying that "We were asked to fix a filtration problem, etc., etc." or "I had a troublesome alkylation, and I found that..." While it's not exactly a detailed, reproducible procedure, I think chemists are aware enough of when a job talk speaker is circumlocuting around an IP problem.

Readers, how would you solve this issue?


  1. As an analytical chemist at a coatings company, I think my resolution would be similar to yours, CJ. I'd describe projects in their general nature, what class of chemical (resin, plasticizer, monomer, surfactant, etc) we were investigating and how - without relating specific formulation or customer information.

    That being said, I could see that being a dicey situation. Our lab was recently remodeled and upgraded with new instrumentation. Since then, there have been some policies enacted with the (perceived) intent of keeping mum on the details of our analytical capabilities.

  2. There are two ways to do it: 1) A perfectly legal one - have your interview slides vetted by your boss or your IP group, and do it by e-mail so that there is a record of it. In many bureaucratic institutions this is not really option because the default position could be that you are not allowed to talk about anything at all. However, by asking about it and getting a specific answer (you are not allowed) you are making your position worse - after that you cannot feign ignorance. So use this method only if you have an inkling that it will be approved.
    2) A not quite legal way - you do not ask for the approval. You need give a job talk about confidential matters in a way that clearly explains your contributions but so that you do not give away the project. Use a common sense: If you were attending a conference and if you got into a research discussion with someone from another company working on the same target - what detail level could you safely talk about without undermining the business interests of your employer? For example, in medchem the most valuable info is SAR data on series of advanced leads. So you cannot give unpublished bio data and structure of your lead compounds on the actively-pursued project. If the project was already shelved and partially published, you are probably safe to describe some lead compounds. In custom synthesis job you often cannot give any unpublished structure and key procedure details. In process development the situation is a bit easier but you still cannot give unpublished structure of an active substance, so you may need to blank out a part of the structure.

    I was interviewing once and the highlight of my job talk was a scaffold re-design that I did, and it led to superb series but i could not show the actual re-designed structures because they were not made public yet. So I put there some (incomplete) in vitro data on the new compounds and I had the new structures partially blanked out. I explained why the polycyclic scaffold in the new series had certain shape - based on X-ray data of the old series, but I left all the key details out, and it was well received during the interview, and I got the job.

  3. Pretend you're giving a talk to a non-technical audience, and you'll probably avoid giving anything proprietary away. It's probably better to aim a little low anyway - unless you're going for a job at a direct competitor doing very similar things, you shouldn't assume your audience is familiar with the chemistry you're discussing, and the ability to explain research to non-technical co-workers is an important skill.

  4. Depends on the field. In many pharma talks, I've seen them present everything except the actual structure. People understand and respect that.

  5. @Anonymous-9:41 is spot on. Dumb it down, as there will be people there who will appreciate it.

    1. No - I would advise quite the opposite - try to make the job talk as technical as possible (without making it too detailed and dry), and if some folks from biology or management in attendance do not understand every detail, what they will take in will be an impression that you have been doing quite an advanced work and knew how to find your way around the challenging problems and fund ut something really important. You first need to impress chemists who will be hiring you into their group - no dumbing down there - then the management who will OK the choice of candidate - you. (Separately during the HR interview you need to pass impression on HR that you are a dependable drone who follows the orders and makes no trouble.)
      So your job presentation needs to follow the narrative: This was the initial assignment, these were the things we found out while working on it and the unexpected difficulties encountered in this thing I finally solved in such and such way and look now we got this totally impressive thing and we hope the results will let us advance witha clinical candidate etc.
      So it must be clear what was it that was wanted at the beginning of the project and what I got in the end, and how I went about it. There could be plenty technical details to fill in this narrative.

  6. I had to give a seminar much like we're discussing a few years ago - several times, in fact, as it was during the "down times" of 2008-2010. When it came time to discuss structures, I Markushed a few, and basically stripped others completely down (hey, look, a steroid! A dye!). I found that I was able to answer all of the seminar questions with simplified structures, very basic biology (better / worse), and by saying "I really can't discuss that" at all the crucial points.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20