Preparing for the Interview

One of the most important factors in handling tough questions is preparing your answers in advance.  This preparation will serve you in any interview with any company. Another aspect of preparation involves getting up to speed on the background of a specific company. When you go to an interview, the potential employer expects you to know about the company and the industry. Not knowing puts you at a disadvantage because other job seekers will have done their homework, demonstrating their interest in the position.

There are three steps in preparing for an interview with a specific company - conducting due diligence, anticipating questions and preparing answers, and preparing your questions for the interviewer.

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Conducting Due Diligence

Due diligence involves gathering information about the company and the industry. Studying the industry includes identifying trends, problems, and challenges; the industry structure and who are main competitors; and compiling important industry statistics (Chemical & Engineering News’ annual “Facts and Figures” and “Global Top 50” issues are good sources for some of this information).

At the company level, you want to look at strategy (what the company counts on to prevail over its competitors); the structure and how it is organized; its main product lines; profitability profiles and stock price trends; and its main challenges in the marketplace.

Doing a background investigation before the interview is essential; gather as much information as possible about the employer, so you can intelligently describe how you will contribute. Current data says less than 10% of candidates take time to do this, so it will certainly make you stand out above other candidates.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Your first stop should be the organization’s Web site. Take time to navigate the site, especially sections like company news to read news about the company’s officers, recent mergers or acquisitions, various divisions and subsidiaries, and product lines, and the employment section, where you may find information about the different career paths and job openings available. Some companies have posted video interviews with current employees who talk about why they enjoy working there.
  • For a publicly held company, obtain a copy of the most recent annual and 10-K reports. Again, many companies have these posted on their Web sites, usually under a heading such as “Investor Information.” You’ll find a mission statement, goals for the coming year, highlights from the preceding year, milestones, and financial statements. The 10-K is an annual report required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that gives a comprehensive summary of a public company's performance. The 10-K includes company history, organizational structure, executive compensation, equity, subsidiaries, and audited financial statements, among other information.
  • Google the company using Google News (link is right above the basic search box) where you'll find coverage of the company and its key executives in the business press. Also, try Google Finance for insights into the company’s financial performance. Ask chambers of commerce in their city for information sources.
  • Get to know your local reference librarian — a valuable resource for information sources. Some general references include Standard & Poor’s Register of Corporations, Directors, and Executives; Directory of American Research and Technology; The Thomas Register of American Manufacturers; and the manufacturing directory for your state.
  • There are lots of online resources available that will help you get the answers to questions about the industry and company: Hoover’s, BNET, the Wall Street Journal, Fidelity and other investment Web sites.
  • Contact any current or former employees, vendors, or consultants you may know. Faculty members, who may have former students now in that organization, also could be helpful. Try to set up an informational interview with one of these contacts.
  • Search your professional networks on or the ACS Network for employees at the organization.

Arriving for your interview after conducting thorough research enables you to:

  • Search the names of your interviewers, to find things that you have in common as well as to familiarize yourself with their research.
  • Create a favorable impression by showing you made the effort to acquaint yourself with the organization.
  • Set yourself apart from the competition, because few candidates bother to do this.
  • Communicate a certain degree of respect for the employer (and the interviewer).
  • Not have to answer “Gee, I’m really not that familiar with what you do.”

Anticipate Their Questions

Another of the job of preparing is to find out as much about the job in question as you can before going in for the interview. The job description is a good source to help you prepare for questions. You might also call the HR department to get a copy of the description, if you don’t have one already.

Here’s an example:

“PhD Medicinal/Synthetic Organic Chemist :Major responsibilities will include the design, synthesis, purification and characterization of novel chemical entities. The qualified individual must be proficient in identifying structure activity relationships (SAR) to address lead optimization, potency, selectivity, pharmacokinetics and in vivo efficacy. The qualified individual is expected to contribute to pre-clinical research projects as a project team member. Additionally, the qualified individual will be expected to supervise the professional development and mentoring of junior-level scientific staff. The individual will collaborate / interact with a broad group of scientists within the company and with external collaborators. These scientists will include biologists, medicinal chemists, pharmacologists and a variety of personnel in Discovery Technology.”

The job description details the skills the hiring manager is looking for, such as “design, synthesis, purification and characterization,” “identifying structure activity relationships,” and “supervise…junior-level scientific staff.” This particular job description also tells you that you’ll be working with non-chemists inside as well as outside the company. Pull specific examples from your work performance of times when you have demonstrated those skills. Be able to describe how your particular skills would advance the company’s strategy or help meet its challenges. Practice your responses aloud as well as with a friend to get some feedback.

Will you have every skill listed in a job description? Perhaps not; you’ll need to determine from your interview questions how important each skill is or how to get it. Generally if your skills match about 75% of the job description, then you should feel comfortable applying if you really want the job. The bottom line is interviewers want to know that you feel qualified, knowledgeable, and confident about your own abilities.

Finally, realize that talking about yourself is okay—it’s essential in a job interview. Self-promotion is not typically a part of the scientific laboratory culture.  Scientists are used to saying “our group did this” or “in the Jensen lab we did that.” The interviewer wants to know what you did, so be comfortable promoting your own qualifications and accomplishments.

With this information as a background you can move on to the next step of your preparation.

Preparing Your Questions

Part of the interview process always includes the interviewer giving you an opportunity to ask him or her any questions you might have. You need to have several good questions to ask when this happens.

What characterizes a “good question”? It’s a question that indicates that you’ve done your homework about the company, and have been paying attention during the interview. This is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Your due diligence should uncover a number of questions. Here are some other ideas:

  • How does your company differ from its competitors? Why do customers choose this company?
  • What can you tell me about the corporate culture of this organization? What are the key qualities it takes to succeed here?
  • Can you tell me about how this group is structured? Who reports to whom?
  • How does this work group contribute to the company’s strategic plan?
  • How did this vacancy occur?
  • How do you evaluate an employee’s job performance?
  • What are the biggest challenges facing this group and why are they challenging?
  • What is the turnover like in the group?
  • What is the focus of the team now compared to a year ago?
  • How long have you managed the team?

Save questions about salary, vacation, and benefits for the negotiation process, once you have an offer in hand. If you bring up these topics too early in the interview, you risk giving the impression you’re interested in only what you can get from the employer. Besides, without an offer, you have nothing to negotiate.