The Interview Process

The interview process as a whole typically involves three main steps: the screening interview, the preliminary interview, and the on-site interview.  Looking at the big picture can help you know what to expect at each stage in the process.

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The Screening Interview

The first person-to-person contact a candidate has with a potential employer is often a screening interview. This interview is often conducted not by the hiring manager, but by someone in the human resources (HR) department. It can be done in person - campus interviews and career fair interviews at American Chemical Society national meetings, for example - or over the phone. The conversation may last from 30 minutes for B.S. and M.S. candidates to 60 minutes for Ph.D. candidates.

This interview is a business conversation to determine the mutual levels of interest on the part of both the candidate and the company. The interviewer, looking for a candidate with a solid background, will ask about the experience listed on your résumé and other information.  They are trying to determine if you have the technical skills to do the job. In a screening interview, the interviewer usually doesn’t have the power to make a hiring decision; determining your qualifications is uppermost in their mind. The purpose of this interview is to eliminate all but the top 10% to 15% candidates.

The phone interview may be planned, or may occur unannounced. If an unannounced interview comes when you’re unable to talk freely, ask to reschedule. During the interview, have a copy of your résumé and other pertinent information at hand, and find a place where you can talk undisturbed.

Although it may seem that a screening interview benefits only the organization, it’s also an opportunity for you to confirm your interest in proceeding to the on-site interview if you’re selected. Ask only general questions about the position and the employer, and don’t try to control the interview.  Save more in-depth questions for the on-site interview.

Although this interviewer may not have the power to hire you, they do have the power to screen you out, so proceed carefully. Your goal is to convince the interviewer to recommend you for the next step.

The Preliminary Interview

When you get through the screening interview, you will hopefully move on to the preliminary interview. This is often conducted by the hiring manager (who is likely to be a scientist), typically on the phone. The purpose of this interview is to qualify a candidate for an on-site interview, and to give the candidate a better understanding of the job.  If it goes well, some time may be spent arranging logistics of an on-site interview as the third and final step.

What’s the difference between an interview done by an HR person and one done by a hiring manager? The hiring manager has a personal stake in hiring the best possible candidate, as well as having inside information about the nature of the job.  Since they most likely have a technical background, they can probably answer questions that the HR person could not.

Even though this is a telephone conversation, you need to remain focused. Even though the interviewer can’t see you, stand up and smile to convey as much enthusiasm as you would in person. Your goal is to sound professional, upbeat, positive and prepared. Have the appropriate version of your résumé handy for reference. Again, if the call is inconvenient, get a call-back number and reschedule.

The On-Site Interview

Once you make it through the first two stages, you are in a small group of candidates who are invited to the on-site interview. The purpose of the on-site interview is to determine the candidate’s suitability for a job offer. The interview is typically a series of face-to-face interviews conducted by the hiring manager, the department manager, and HR manager, and even potential co-workers. As the name suggests, the on-site interview is typically conducted in connection with a visit to one of the hiring company’s facilities.

The interview is arranged by the organization to determine whether to extend an offer of employment to you. It also should give you enough information to know whether you’d like to accept the job. The site interview will focus on your qualifications, skills and accomplishments, as well as your motivation to do the job well, and how well you will fit with the corporate culture. At this stage, you are considered a viable candidate, so impress the interviewer with both your questions and your responses. Also take the opportunity to observe and determine whether you could contribute to, grow, and enjoy working in that organization.

At the end of this interview, you may be told when to expect a decision. If not, when you should expect to hear, or what the next step will be. If you don’t hear by the specified date, call to ask about the status of your application.