Chemical and Engineering News
November 3, 2014
Marathon interviews have become the norm for Ph.D.-level industrial jobs in the chemical sciences. Typically consisting of a seminar-style presentation, one-on-one meetings with multiple interviewers, and sometimes even impromptu brainteasers, these interviews last an entire day and are not for the faint of heart.
With hiring slowly picking back up, companies are increasingly using such lengthy interviews to evaluate candidates on everything from personality to communication skills to creative thinking. It's not enough for candidates to have all the technical qualifications for a job: They also need to be versatile and well-rounded and fit in with the company culture.
"There are a ton of great candidates out there, so in this market one can afford to be picky," says Stephen Munk, president and chief executive officer of Ash Stevens, a contract pharmaceutical manufacturer based in Riverview, Mich. Companies such as Air Products are looking for individuals with strong communication skills.
To help job seekers prepare for such interviews, C&EN asked companies large and small to share their interviewing strategies and what they seek in a successful hire.
At Ash Stevens, psychometric assessment tools have become a standard part of the evaluation process in the past five years to help companies better understand candidates' behavioral traits, Munk says. Promising candidates are sent these tests to complete at home, and those whose results don't trigger any red flags are invited for an in-person interview. "We try to see if a candidate's style and culture are going to be a good fit for Ash Stevens," Munk says. "Our hope is that it's a long-term marriage, and if they are not going to be a good fit for our organization, we should know that up front."
It's important that candidates demonstrate attention to detail, Munk says. "When somebody sends me a resume, if there are typographical errors, it goes in the garbage. If they misspell my name, which is easy to do, I will not tolerate it," he says. "In this business, when you're dealing with 4,000 L of flammable or toxic materials, a seemingly simple error could have disastrous consequences."
The scrutinizing actually begins the night before the interview, when Munk takes the candidate out for dinner. And that's not just to be nice. "I want to see how they interact in a social situation," he says. "You don"t want somebody with poor manners and habits representing your company."
Munk says a typical interview lasts an entire day and includes a seminar. "Generally, in the seminar, I ask questions even if I know the answer. I don't care about the answer," he says. "I try to put a candidate on the spot, very much like an oral exam. I just want to see how they think, and I want to see how they approach a problem." Munk also takes candidates on a tour of the facility and observes their body language. "I want to see how curious they are," he says. "Do they ask questions? Are they enthusiastic?"
Demonstrating enthusiasm is extremely important, especially for a small company, says Scott Lockledge, CEO and cofounder of Tiptek, a West Chester, Pa.-based firm that manufactures ultrahard and ultrasharp probes for atomic force microscopy applications. "Sometimes you get somebody who looks great on paper. They have all the right qualifications, and they come highly recommended, but they just don't seem that enthusiastic about your company," he says. "Maybe they're very good, but do they want to come work with us? That's really important."
One way Lockledge gauges a candidate's level of interest is to find out how much he or she knows about what Tiptek does. "Something that I usually ask fairly early in the interview is, "So what do you know about us?" and I let them talk," he says. "You find out very quickly if they've done their homework. If that person has taken the time to learn about what we're doing beyond just going to our website, that's key because it shows they're genuinely interested in what we're doing."
For a small business, "making a wrong hire can just kill the company," Lockledge says. "We work in a very small team, so how we interact interpersonally is very important, and the chemistry of the team is really important."
At Kalexsyn, a small contract research organization in Kalamazoo, Mich., the entire staff participates in interviewing a candidate, from attending the seminar, to asking questions, to meeting with the prospective hire one-on-one. "Everybody has the ability to influence the decision-making process on who's going to be brought in," says Robert Gadwood, president and chief scientific officer of Kalexsyn. "If somebody says, 'No, I absolutely will not work with that person,' that's pretty much it."
Gadwood acknowledges that interviewing is not an exact science. "That's why you have a process in place that gets the opinion of multiple skilled interviewers on a particular candidate," he says. "You can feel more confident that you've made the right choice."
In situations where the staff is split on a candidate, "we haven't hired those people," Gadwood says. "We have to have pretty much a unanimous decision that this person will fit in well here." The company typically hires two to three scientists a year, he notes. "We've gotten pretty good at identifying the people that we think would fit in well at Kalexsyn."
For large companies, it's equally important to get the input of multiple interviewers. Amir Famili, director of technology for performance materials at Air Products & Chemicals, says it's typical for candidates to meet with at least six scientists who work in different areas of the company. "The ability of that individual to answer the questions of such a broad spectrum of scientists and connect with them, it really tells you that that scientist is capable of working in a wide field of technology," he says.
Famili says another way to judge a candidate's versatility is from his or her responses to certain questions. "If they're working on a toughener for an epoxy, you ask them where else you can use the toughener," he says. "We try to stretch their creativity to see if we open up the door for them, can they relate to that or not. Some people when you ask the question, they just stare at you because they can't think about anything else. But other people when you start expanding their horizons, they start being very creative and bring a lot of new ideas to the table."
Being well-rounded often means having interests outside of one's research, says Gary Allred, president of Synthonix, a contract research organization in Wake Forest, N.C. These activities can provide insights into what additional skills the person might bring to the job, he says. "If someone likes to work on cars, it tells me they're good with wrenches and if something goes down, they might be able to fix it," Allred says. "Or if someone is really good on the artistic side of things, a big function of a small company is marketing, and we produce our own ad materials" so they could potentially contribute to that effort as well.
Amy Hamlin, a senior scientist at Ash Stevens who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, says that when she was interviewing for her current position, she learned just how important her extracurricular activities were in helping to set her apart.
On her resume, she had listed several extracurricular activities such as writing for inChemistry, the American Chemical Society's magazine for undergraduate students, and serving on the ACS Graduate Education Advisory Board. During her interview, one of the interviewers complimented her on her articles and said she was a good writer. The interviewer also pointed out that the position required someone with good writing skills. She got the job.
Mark McAuliffe, global staffing manager at Waters, an analytical instrument and software company in Milford, Mass., says the company has shifted its interviewing strategy to give candidates more of an opportunity to tell their story and share their successes. "Communication skills are a linchpin to success," he says.
To help candidates open up, interviewers are encouraged to "listen more and talk less," McAuliffe says. All interviewers go through training and are given a set of questions that aim to reveal a candidate's aptitude as well as their attitude.
"Typically, the primary reason that companies make a bad hire is that the right questions just weren't asked in the interview process," McAuliffe says. "You have to have interviewers who can ask the right questions and listen between the lines to better understand what the candidate is saying."
Likewise, it's possible for candidates to be so well prepared that responses to certain questions can come across as rehearsed. To elicit a more authentic response, Tiptek's Lockledge will sometimes ask for multiple answers to the same question. For example, he'll ask candidates about a time when they overcame an obstacle. He'll then ask them for a second example. "You have to think on your feet," he says.
People interviewing for positions at high-tech companies could even encounter some difficult brainteasers. In one of her interviews with a semiconductor company, Tatyana Sheps, an applications engineer who has a Ph.D. in chemical and material physics from UC Irvine, was asked to figure out how many gas stations there are in the U.S. "The questions aren't meant to trip you up. They're meant to give you an opportunity to show how your mind works," she says. "A lot of times, in the sort of work that we do, we're presented with problems that we don't know how to solve."
To tackle the gas station problem, Sheps went through a series of extrapolations, starting with the U.S. population. The estimate she came up with was in the ballpark of the correct answer. She says that even though her response didn't make or break the interview, it certainly didn't hurt to show that she could reason through the problem. She got the job.
Whatever approach a company uses to evaluate its candidates, Lockledge says it boils down to three basic questions: Can you do the job? Will you do the job? And can you get along? "If the answer is yes to all three," he says, "you will do well."