Friday, October 15, 2010

Did you have a pop quiz during your on-site interview?

It's October -- sometime in the near future, a lucky few folks will be visiting corporate campuses for on-site interviews. I don't really have much to say about interviewing that other people haven't; be your most impressive self, be willing to listen and interact is my mundane advice. The typical on-site interview consists of lots of one-on-one meetings with a 45 to 50 minute presentation by the candidate somewhere towards the beginning of the day. It's a long process, but it's a big decision for any group of people, so they're going to take their time.

About half of the on-site interviews that I've been involved with as a candidate (an N that's not very big, BTW) also involve some sort of pop quiz. Mechanisms at the board, synthetic schemes and the odd named reaction were my experience. I've heard that in the UK, written and oral examinations are common for industrial positions. I'm not convinced of the value of those exercises; they're dependent on the vanity level of the quizzer. At the same time, only asking details of the candidate's own work is allowing the candidate to play with a considerable (hopefully) home-field advantage. It seems only fair to ask the occasional "here's a molecule -- how would you make this?" question.

Beloved readers, what has been your experience with "test questions" during on-site interviews? Do you think they're worthwhile?

8 comments:

  1. For all of my on-site interviews, I was asked synthetic questions that could be solved using simple chemistry (e.g., Diels-Alder, SNAr, Wolf-Kishner Reduction, etc). The problems could be deceptively challenging, so candidates may try to respond with convoluted strategies and start throwing around some exotic reagents. I would advise those who are going for on-sites to refresh their "sophomore-level" organic chemistry before trying to use their current groups' respective methodologies to solve every synthetic problem. Also, be pleasant yet mostly "neutral" when dealing with HR questions. Although all companies claim that they want intelligent and inspiring leaders, above all they want people who can work with a broad demographic of colleagues.

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  2. Interviews? What interviews? People are hiring?

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  3. @Anon 8:19A: They're hiring, just not from your school.

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  4. I will give you a split answer that I can fully justify: No and Yes.

    NO: I just never understood the correlation between those types of questions and the ability to do the job well. Some of the best minds work along the "let me get back to you on that" approach. The challenge in the interview is to separate that approach from the unqualified. (Sorry, I have no insight into making that distinction. If I did, I'd be on some Carribbean beach with an umbrella drink.)

    YES: Some jobs do require the ability to think and speak on your feet. I am often pulled into client meetings with no notice and have to impress them with my ability to quickly start working on their problems while I'm still in the room with them. If I took the "let me get back to you approach", we would not win their business as anyone of our competitors can do that. So given that, yes, I do ask pop-quiz questions to see what happens, because our clients will. In this case, the correlation is perfectly clear.

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  5. I went on 7 on-sites before accepting my current position, and they ran the gamut, between no actual questions about my presentation to a 45-minute session with me and two chemists at the company locked in a room with only markers, a whiteboard, and our brains.

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  6. A5:01: What did you think of the whiteboard session? Did you think it was useful/illuminating?

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  7. @anon 5:01: Just curious, was it Merck? I did one of the 2 chemists, myself and a white board though it was a bit shorter.

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  8. During one of my onsites, I had the "pleasure" of performing paper chemistry in front of a committee seated in a U-shaped arrangement of tables...not kidding! To top it off, there wasn't a dry-erase board...I had a sketch pad on an easel! I felt like I was playing "Win, Lose, or Draw"! I didn't get the job, but I think they at least believed in my gauche interactions.

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