Friday, February 24, 2017

Ask CJ: What to present when you're doing a stealth interview?

Credit: etsy
From the inbox, an evergreen of a question:
I'm hoping to have a on-site job interview coming up, and since I am number of years removed from grad school I am faced with a dilemma. I will need to present something technical, but I'm really not sure what would make sense. My graduate work is getting a bit stale at this point, and since it was what I worked on [a number of] years ago I don't know if its an appropriate topic. I am employed at the moment, and have plenty I could present about from my current work, but I know there is a confidentiality line in the sand that I don't want to cross.
I didn't know how to answer this, but I kept remembering this old Derek Lowe post and I finally found it. From 12 years ago, a great set of answers from the Blogfather himself:
There was a good question asked in the comments to the previous post on first job interviews: what do you talk about when you work at one company and you’re interviewing at another? 
Well, I’ve done that myself, more than once (note to my current co-workers: not in the last few years, folks.) And it can be tricky. But there are some rules that people follow, and if you stay within their bounds you won’t cause any trouble. That’s not to say that my managers wouldn’t have had a cow if they’d seen my old interview slides at the time, but I was at least in the clear legally. 
He starts with work that was published, material that is in patent applications and worst of all, material from previous academic work. Read the whole thing.

I think that about sums it up, although I will make a note that this is why it's probably good practice to routinely be working on side projects that are both publishable and not immediately, directly work-related (not that it is easy to find time for such endeavors, nor are they encouraged by management.) Readers, how have you threaded this particular needle? 


  1. Talk about stuff that is in academic papers or has been presented at conferences -- or comment on the state of the industry / field in general. I personally would avoid talking about even patented stuff.

  2. It's tricky indeed. I have seen people present graduate school research that was 5-6 years old, and that seems like a good cutoff to me as long as it's relevant. Any older research and people would start to wonder if you have done anything worth presenting after grad school.

    Startups that have never publicly presented their data pose a special problem. In all my job talks I have always had problems with this, especially since the entirety of my professional career has been spent in startup companies which have not published or publicly disclosed anything. In most cases targets cannot be noted, and in cases where targets cannot be noted precise molecular structures certainly cannot. The best you can usually do is to talk about general principles and results, and try to show side chains or specific generic parts of the molecules which demonstrate SAR data and your contributions to explaining it. Some audiences understand the issue and try to ask you astute questions in your face-to-face interviews that allow them to judge that the sparseness of your talk was simply a result of your inability to present proprietary data and not a result of having an actual lack of familiarity with detail. Other don't, and in that case you are out of luck.

    It can still be a problem though, and you might have to go the extra length to overcome it. I recently got a call from a hiring manager at a startup who wanted a reference from me about an old co-worker of mine. His problem was that while she seemed competent and a team player, her presentation had so little detail in it that he was having a hard time judging her exact contributions. That is where his call to me became valuable since I managed to convince him that, irrespective of what she presented, she had been very detail-oriented and contributed significantly to the success of the project. I think what he did was very smart, since many other hiring managers might have dismissed this person purely based on her talk. The bottom line in my opinion is to go beyond the job talk and try to get a peek under the hood; in most cases it works.

  3. I did this several times a couple years ago, and I was successful with a combination of grad school work and vaguely presenting my current industry work. If you're interviewing for any role remotely close to your current role, they understand the confidentiality concerns (and do not want to hear anything confidential from you). There's an important element of "show what you learned" or "show how you attacked a problem" that doesn't necessarily require the specific chemical structures or product types. I used a lot of smart art to black-box steps in the process and illustrate the work I did. I also found it worthwhile to work with a recruiter in my field, as they could give you knowledgeable feedback about what sort of presentations would be effective.

  4. So extensive use of R-groups to present unpatented work in the most generic sense, such as ".... method to prepare this (extensively R-grouped) substituted amino acid" would be ok?

  5. It may be too late for this bit of advice, but I'd recommend trying to build a portfolio of "externally released" content. My company didn't publish very much in academic journals, but we patented like crazy and I always pushed to give promotional talks at industry conferences and specialty venues. Over time, I developed a nice bundle of technical slides that can be used in talks. Patent applications are a double-edged sword: on one hand, they take 18-24 months to enter the public domain. On the other hand, they provide a nice temporal buffer or "controlled release" of productivity. My opinion is that once data or information enters the public domain, it's precisely that--public. The challenge is to stay within the scope of public domain material and not veer into proprietary information or commercial strategy.