Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Job Hunting in Unprecedented Times, by HappyChemist (Part 2)

(This is a part of a three part series written by HappyChemist, who was hired in industry during the pandemic. It has been lightly edited. Part 1 is here - CJ

Step 2: Phone and/or Video Screening

I will be discussing phone and video screenings together for the following reasons: (1) they are similar in format and sequence of questions, and (2) both exist to make sure you are who you say you are and if you will be suitable for both the company and the role. The overall format for both is similar, usually starting with an introduction of the role / company, followed by their interview questions, giving you time to ask your own questions at the end. I never had technical questions at this point in the process, and received those only during the second stage of the interviews. 

In my experience, if a recruiter contacted me, the first interview was a phone interview with the recruiter. If they felt I was a good fit, a video screening call would be set up with the hiring manager who would ultimately decide if I was suitable for the on-site interviews. In some cases, it was the hiring manager who contacted me directly for an interview, when this happened there was no phone interview and we skipped straight to the video screening. Phone interviews are “easier” because you don’t really have to worry about the location you are interviewing from and the calls are on average fifteen minutes long. Though the call is short, you still have to prepare for the potential questions the interviewer will ask. Video screenings with the hiring manger are longer (30–60 min) and require additional preparation, in terms of interview location and attire 

A Few Key Tips for Video Calls (screenings and on-site):

  • DO find a private location, free of distraction, and most importantly…a reliable internet connection!
  • DO make sure you are in a location with ample artificial lighting in front of you. Do not rely on natural lighting, as it looks bad on camera. On that note, be wary of placing yourself in front or on the side of a window, if this is unavoidable, close all blinds. The light should be in front of you, not behind you otherwise it will become the focus and you should be the focus.
  • DO NOT interview in a place where you will have to wear a mask. Find a private, well-lit, location where you can show off those pearly whites. 
  • DO dress up and dress professionally as you would for an in-person interview. This will help keep you in the interview mindset throughout the entire interview. 
  • That being said, DO dress comfortably! Do not wear uncomfortable shoes and clothing, even for a short interview. Uncomfortable clothing can make you come across…well…uncomfortable, which is awkward for everyone. You want to come across relaxed and being comfortable is the first step!
  • DO test your tech, try to do this in the location you will be interviewing from, at least one day before your first interview. Set up a meeting with someone and make sure you have no problems screen sharing and the internet connection is reliable. While you are at it, ensure that your sound isn’t muffled and your video quality isn’t poor, if so, you may want to invest in headphones and/or a web cam to combat these issues. 
  • DO ensure the surroundings that are visible to the interviewers look professional, neat, and reasonably distraction free. 
  • DO have your camera at eye level, this will likely require a stack of books or something to rest your computer on, but ultimately it will allow you to make stronger eye contact and it won’t seem like you are sheepishly looking down through the entire interview…plus no one wants to see up your nose through the whole interview. 
  • DO prepare for common interview questions and strategically place any key talking points on post-it notes in easily visible areas. I like keep them at eye level but if you can’t, just make sure you aren’t looking down too much. I had these, but rarely used them, they did come in handy once or twice though!
  • DO make sure you are in a location you won’t be disturbed by animals, co-workers, or children. Obviously, you cannot plan for everything, but do try to limit the distraction. I interviewed in an office at work and always put an “Interview in progress: Do not disturb” sign on the door because I still had interruptions from co-workers if I didn’t. Make sure to take scheduled noises into account; for example, if the landscaper uses a leaf blower every Monday at 9:30, schedule your interview for another time or find another place to interview.
  • DO come prepared with questions for them and make it an overly long list starting with the most important! It can be awkward if you have none for them when they ask. You will likely not be able to ask every question, but you don’t want to run out of questions awkwardly early. 

Key Questions to come prepared to answer (screenings and on-site):

“Tell me about yourself / past research experience”

Summarize your past research experiences. This is essentially your elevator pitch. Try to do this in 2-3 minutes or less (whatever you do, try not to go on more than 5 minutes here). Do not mess up the elevator pitch! Prepare, rehearse, repeat. 

“Why do you want to work at [insert company name here]?”

Do your research here! I think you would be surprised how many people haven’t thought the answer to this question out. “Because I need a job” isn’t sufficient even if you are thinking that in the back of your mind. I do a deep dive into the company website and find a couple of things that appeal to me that aren’t necessarily cookie cutter answers. 

“Why this role?”

You want to show your passion for the role. I always applied to jobs with a materials focus so I always started with, “My passion is bringing innovation to materials...” and then would lead into highlighting things in the job posting that would allow me to fulfill that passion, and finally would list the skills they are looking for that I have. 

“What are your plans for the future within the company? Do you want to stay in a more technical role or transfer to a more business/managerial role?”

Every company I interviewed at seemed to have two promotion ladders: a technical ladder and a business ladder, so have an idea of which you see yourself climbing. 

“Walk me through how you solve a research problem at work”

They want to make sure you aren’t a lone wolf or too needy, there is a balance, and knowing the point when and when not to ask others allows them to see how willing you are to work on a team and gauge time management skills / ability to meet deadlines. 

“Can you give an example of a conflict you had at work with a co-worker and how you resolved it”

Pretty self-explanatory, but ensure whatever answer you give here shows that you are a pleasant person to work with despite any challenges you may have had with a co-worker. 

I am currently a postdoc and I always had aspirations for industry. However, because I am doing a post doc and have a strong publication record, I was always asked why I was not going into academia. If this is also your situation, come prepared to answer that question. 

(Thanks to HappyChemist for their thoughts, and stay tuned on Wednesday for part 3!)


  1. I've always thought the "Why do you want to work at [insert company name here]?” question was stupid even when I was asking said question when running out of things to ask an interviewee (which is why I assume the question is used). I assume a good answer, probably more relevant to a btech than a big pharmer, is something along the lines of "looking over your corporate presentations it's clear the tiny tweak you've made to a decades old technology is sure to change the world and is something I want to be part of! You're clever work reformulating/repurposing X to improve its ADME properties by 3% is groundbreaking and sure to help thousands of patients the world over."

  2. I really like the idea of coming prepared with a written list of questions. I've had a few awkward situations where I honestly didn't have any questions at the end because the ones I had in my head at the beginning were all addressed during our discussion.

    “Walk me through how you solve a research problem at work”

    They want to make sure you aren’t a lone wolf or too needy, there is a balance, and knowing the point when and when not to ask others allows them to see how willing you are to work on a team and gauge time management skills / ability to meet deadlines.

    That was a really good clarification of what they're looking for. I always hated that question in interviews; I would flail around like an idiot trying to come up with an SOP to do research (there isn't any such thing)!

    1. Hi KT, HappyChemist here! Glad I could be some help! One of my favorite questions to ask every group interviewing me, that might be beneficial to your list, is: "Can you tell me about the team dynamic?" I think it can tell you a lot about the work environment. Especially if you consistently ask it, everyone will have a slightly different answer and sometimes it helps you see some the of red flags ahead of time. No joke, at one company I had one person answer this question saying, "they don't do promotions, you will never be promoted, so don't take the job if you want career growth" and at the same company another person answered the question saying that no one will ever want to talk to me about the work I'd be doing because they don't care since none of them know about synthesis or photochemistry. Those were big enough red flags that I withdrew my application. I then asked every single person that I interviewed with that question from then on. In most cases it was just nice to see how many top companies have strong team dynamics.

    2. The team dynamic question is one I always ask as well.

      Another one I like to ask to the manager as well as the team is "How would you describe your management style (or how would you describe Mr/Ms Manager's management style)". I would like to hear it from the manager and contrast that info from his or her direct reports. You can kind of sense tension, even online, if the manager is perhaps on the crummy side...


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