Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Interview: Michelle M., analytical chemist

Michelle M. is a M.S. chemist; she recently obtained a job as an analytical chemist and I talked with her via e-mail about her interview experience.

This e-mail interview was written by Ms. M. and lightly edited for formatting by Chemjobber

Can you talk about your background? 

I have been into chemistry since doing it at school, though it wasn’t until 2nd year in college I knew that it was my true love, and not physics! I have a first class honours degree in Chemistry, and a Master’s degree in chemistry by research. My Master’s degree came out of what was originally a PhD program, but that is a whole other story. Suffice to stay that during this time, I realized that the work I really enjoyed and was good at was analytical/physical type chemistry, which meant my organic synthesis focused group was a poor fit. Deciding to leave wasn’t easy, but ultimately I wouldn’t change anything about the whole experience, as it taught me a lot about the work I enjoy doing, about not jumping into things feet first (oh, reckless youth….),
while the research and writing up my thesis made me a much better scientist in my opinion.

During the course of my undergraduate research I also did 2 summer placements, one in a research lab and one in pharmaceutical industry. For the last few months preceding this job offer, I’ve been working unpaid in a food safety laboratory in order to get more instrumentation experience.

How long were you looking for your current position?

I seriously started looking for jobs in my field around 3 months ago. After college, I took a few months to relax and did some seasonal, non-chemistry related work, as well as giving tutorials to undergraduate students. I then applied for and was accepted for the aforementioned unpaid work, but I continued to look for paid employment. The majority of analytical positions advertised through jobs websites were QA/QC type roles, but from what I can tell, unless you have 2-3 years instrumentation and troubleshooting experience, you will not get short-listed for an interview. I found the advert for the position I eventually got through the company website. It’s funny looking back on it – if I’d been accepted for any of the QA/QC positions, I wouldn’t be starting this role, but in my opinion this role will be much more stimulating and rewarding (as well as better paid!). So what is initially bad news might be good news in disguise.

What did your interviewers ask you about? 

The first round of interviews comprised on 3 one-on-one interviews with different people. In the first he went through my CV and asked about the instrumentation I said I had experience with – he was mainly interested in my HPLC experience. I talked about what I had used each for, which led into discussion of different detectors, different columns etc. We then discussed more niche techniques which I had previously used which this group also used – for example, differential scanning calorimetry, what’s it used for? Why does knowing about that matter? What other factors might affect that? What could you do to avoid these issues? He asked if I had experience in validating analytical methods and I discussed the process which might be involved in this. He then asked me to describe the work I had done in my Masters. He also asked about why I had applied for this job, which I used to emphasise not only how I felt I suited the role but also to show off that I had done research on the company, by mentioning products they had in the pipeline etc.

The second interview was a lab tour, very conversational and relaxed,  so it was less full on but I could tell he was checking me out. I did my best to point out machines I had used before. Again, we discussed the merits of different HPLC detectors and columns. He asked me about work I had done previously, the work I did currently, what was the main challenge associated with my current work? I was asked about why I had applied and would I mind moving (the role is UK based whereas I am Irish).

The third interview was more orientated about active pharmaceutical ingredients.  I was well prepared for some of it – for example, what happens to a drug in the body when you take it? What properties of the drug should you have a good knowledge of and why? I kind of stumbled through some other parts – how do you think drug targets are selected? How do you think these are narrowed down? I was also asked about my decision to write up a Master’s and not a PhD (an alumni from my college knew the interviewer so he had asked about me).

During the second round I had three interviews, only one of which was technical. The technical interview was really tough – for example he put examples of experiments they’d done and results they’d achieved on a projector screen and asked me to comment. I found it really hard to get my brain to actually think when confronted with so much unfamiliar information. Towards the end (and we ran mightily over time) my brain just started to give up, and my answers were a bit more haphazard and less logic based, which I was really worried about.

I had 2 other interviews second time round, with heads of departments which ‘my’ department would sometimes work with. I was asked by both why I had applied for this job, why this company, why I enjoyed this type of work etc. One of the guys went through my CV chronologically, so again I explained my Master’s work, before discussing the work I had done in my placements etc. He asked me if I had any questions, and I felt he was really expecting me to ask something, so I asked him what he expected of someone in this role. He emphasised team work, so I talked about what I thought was important to consider when you’re working in a team.

I've never been in a situation where there's been a 2nd interview -- what do you think they wanted that they didn't get the first time? 

I think mainly they wanted to check out if I would integrate into the company well, not only into ‘my’ team, but with other teams who I might work with sometimes. To this end, as well as an informal dinner with some of ‘my’ team members, there were interviews with the heads of other departments. I also think they wanted to see how serious I was about the position, as they asked stuff like ‘Why do you want to work here?’ quite a lot. After the second technical interview, he asked me if, having seen examples of the type of work they do, if I thought this type of work was what I was interested in. This position involves quite a relocation for me, so I guess they wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get homesick 6 months in and go home.
5. What's the most helpful piece of advice that you were able to apply? What was the least helpful advice?

It’s a cliché, but ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’. Prepare as much as you can beforehand. Pull in any favours you can to help you prepare appropriate topics. I was lucky in that I knew someone in a similar position, so I got a few pointers on stuff to look up. Prepare answers to questions you’re likely to be asked by writing responses down using the STAR format, and practice saying these answers out loud. It will help clarify the answers in your mind and iron out a lot of the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ that would crop up, and will also help you practice slowing down your responses if, like me, you’re inclined to rush when nervous.  It’s impossible to anticipate every question you’ll be asked, but if you go in feeling prepared and in control you’re more likely to respond well to those unexpected questions.

The least helpful thing I’ve been told is that employers would think less of me for leaving a PhD program. While this might be the case in some places, in my experience people seem to have respect for the fact that I realized this wasn’t what I wanted, and that I had the strength of character to do something about it (while switching from a PhD to a Masters might be common in other institutions, it was pretty much unheard of in mine). It’s not as if I just threw a strop and stormed out the door – it was a considered decision, I did good work which I saw through to its conclusion and wrote up my thesis. When people tell you things like this, just remember that there is no ‘one fits all’ career path. Have patience; think about it, think about what you want and not what most people want - what works for someone else may not work for you.

CJ here again. Thanks to Ms. M.M. for a great interview.


  1. Great post. Made me feel good when I read it. Good luck, Ms M!

    1. q, for some reason, the stupid spam filter doesn't like you. Next time it eats a comment of yours, e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom, and I'll fish it out.

  2. Great interview. As an Irish research masters student in the analytical field, it makes me glad I didn't take the phd plunge straight out of undergrad.

  3. Tks very much for your post.

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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