…Not today! Nowadays, more specific questions for life science candidates are in style – not to mention, far more useful. Instead of ultra-vague cliches, consider carefully thought-out inquiries to really get to know your candidates.
Of course, you can never know for certain how an interviewee will perform based on a short series of questions. That said, some questions are meatier than others, and can get you a pretty good idea of how a candidate might fare if offered the position.
The Four Questions for Life Science Job Candidates
Question 1: What first made you interested in a career in the life sciences?
From reading their resume, you probably already know where a candidate has worked, and what they can do with their knowledge. What you may not have read is the human story behind their choice of career.
Maybe they’ve traveled extensively, and were inspired by the many opportunities for biotech innovation around the world. Or maybe they’ve been reading life science magazines since they were six years old, and have always been fascinated by the potential of technology to save lives. Learning a candidate’s backstory will give you a sense of the passion they would bring to your company, and where it might lead them within their new role.
Question 2: What is the most complex life science project you have worked on? How did you overcome the associated challenges?
There’s nothing like past behavior to help you predict future behavior. That’s why you should ask any candidate about their past experience – ideally, working in a setting that closely mirrors the work environment of the position in question.
If your candidate has experience with large projects like running clinical trials or developing new products, you’ll want to hear about the specifics. Education is great, but it’s their experience, and of course their success stories, that really tell you what they bring to the table.
Question 3: What Do You Know About Our Company, Our Products, and Our Product Pipeline?
Looking to test whether an interviewee has done their homework? This question will speed-track the process. Let’s face it: if they didn’t think to do a quick background check for the interview, they probably won’t be the most thorough workers, either.
Assuming they can answer the question, their response will shed some light on their interests and values as a life scientist. If they have a penchant for a particular product, or a specific reason they’d like to work for you, this question offers them the chance to share.
Question 4: How Would You Improve or Expand Our Current Product/Trial?
Above all, this one is a test of critical thinking. To answer this question well, a candidate will have to think about your business through a big-picture lens. This takes in-depth knowledge of the workings of the biotech/life science industry, both internally and externally, and the ability to apply it to the context of a single company. If your candidate hasn’t prepared for this one, cut them some slack – but if they do land on their feet with an intelligent answer, they definitely deserve bonus points.
Other Important Questions to Ask
At the end of the day, the particular cocktail of interview questions you settle on will depend on what you really need to know. If the position in question will be data-heavy, for example, ask candidates how they go about evaluating new information as it becomes available. If they’d be in charge of enforcing regulations, ask them which ones they feel would affect your current product pipeline.
Depending on the candidate and the role in question, you can also ask about their lab experience, biotechnology experience, and/or their knowledge of a specific technology or lab technique.
Choosing a new candidate to onboard is an exciting process! It’s also a scary one – especially when you consider the immense costs of training someone new. Naturally, you’ll want to find the candidate that checks as many important boxes as possible. Specific questions will let you zoom in on those essential areas, leaving less room for vague, useless answers.
Have you ever considered working for a start-up? It’s almost a buzzword nowadays – that’s how much the term “start-up” is tossed around. But what really is a start-up, and why is there so much chatter about working for one? In truth, working for a start-up comes with many exciting opportunities – but like anything else in the working world, it can be a trade-off. As always, the most important thing is discerning if it’s the right fit for you, your career, and where you are in your life.
What is a Start-Up, Anyway?
A start-up is any company that is still getting off the ground – indeed, “starting up”. Around 90% of start-ups are unable to expand past the start-up level, with 10% of these failures occurring within the first year.
Working for a start-up often entails irregular hours, a wide variety of job duties, and a sense of closeness with your team members. You’re expected to show up with a can-do mindset, and to prioritize growing the company above most else. You’re also likely to get interesting development opportunities that may never come your way at a larger company.
Biotech start-ups can be unique in that they allow you to develop a wide range of skills, and build connections to many different pharmaceutical companies. Even if you end up working at a start-up for a shorter stint, you may be able to leverage these skills in an unexpected context later down the line.
Growth Potential When Working for a Start-Up
When you work for a small company, the potential for growth is huge. Should the company succeed, you could profit in a big way. And truthfully, there’s not much that looks better on your resume than having helped catapult a little-known name to success.
But there’s a significant chance your company won’t become the next Facebook – or worse, will have to shut down. So if you do opt to work for a start-up, make sure it’s one that offers great connections, learning opportunities, and chances to prove your skills.
If the business does have to close up shop, you may feel like you’re back at square one. To mitigate this, come up with an action plan for if and when this happens. That way, if it (unfortunately) comes to pass, you won’t feel panicked trying to figure out your next steps.
Joining a start-up may in some ways feel like being vacuum-sucked into the most chaotic, most ambitious group of friends imaginable. Employees tend to be close, and leaders tend to be open to ideas from everyone – as long as it helps the business, it really doesn’t matter what your title is. You may also be asked to do things that don’t fall strictly within your job description – or feel inspired to, because you know exactly what the company needs.
We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the ambitious twenty-something busting their guts in the start-up world. That trope exists for a reason – clearly, said world can be demanding and unpredictable. Of course, you can join a start-up at any age, but if work-life balance is your top priority, the lifestyle may not be the best fit for you.
All that being said, start-up workers often experience higher-than-average job satisfaction. This isn’t surprising – working for a smaller business, you’re far more than just a number. Everyone knows your name and probably at least some of your story. And because the stakes are so high, your contributions are deeply valued.
Is the Start-Up Life for You?
The stress and uncertainty of working for a start-up can be worth it – if you’re willing to shoulder some risk.
Some people feel most comfortable working for a large corporation, where security is high and the path forward is clear. Others may prefer a more unpredictable, chaotic environment with a small but real chance of paying big dividends. Maybe you want something in between – a mid-size company still trying hard to grow, but with an established presence in its field. Different strokes for different folks, as they say!
Online courses – how important are they once you’re employed? Once you’ve finished with college, you’re done learning and can now sail by on the skills you have, right? Wrong! More than ever, learning is a lifelong process, and new skills can come in handy when you least expect them to.
If you work in the life science industry, chances are your whole career is built on discovering and analyzing new information. It never hurts to broaden your perspective with a little more! Whether you’re looking to enhance your skills in your current position, level up into a new one, or prepare for the workplace of the future, an online course on your resume can help show employers and peers that you’re ready for a challenge.
General Courses for General Knowledge
Chances are, you’re not an expert in every single scientific field. If you can identify an area of study that would help you in your current role, it may be a good time to bulk up on some learning! For the record, willingness to learn is high on the list of qualities employers look for in potential employees. Show them you’ve got what they’re looking for by skilling up in a relevant field.
Maybe you work as a geneticist, and you’d like to gain a more thorough understanding of anatomy. You may not need the knowledge, but a course in the subject would likely deepen your knowledge and understanding of your own practice. As a science/biotech practitioner, other subjects you may want to consider learning more about include biostatistics, immunology, and computer science.
Online Courses on Hot New Topics
There’s no quicker way to learn about a new industry than a one-and-done online course. With so many virtual education options literally at our fingertips, we can easily dive into topics that aren’t relevant to us yet, but that we believe will be soon.
So, what’s trending now? Well, for example, ChatGPT – and so are discussions about exactly what it can and can’t do. Ever considered taking a course to get some real answers? Then there are up-and-coming scientific and medical fields like health informatics, nanotechnology, and quantum biology. If one of these highly current fields piques your interest, don’t hesitate to jump on the bandwagon and learn more.
Developing Specific Skills
If you want to level up into a new position or refine your craft in your current one, a highly specific skill set is your golden ticket. For traditional science positions, some useful in-your-pocket skills include data analytics, bioinformatics, and digital literacy for scientists.
Maybe it’s not even a skill you need for your career, but one you’d like to understand because you work with others who use it. In this case, you can still go for it! There’s very little downside to learning a new skill. In fact, scientists who continuously learn new skills can expect to reap many benefits in their careers.
Consider a Communications Course
If information can’t be communicated, it loses its value. As a result, writing, speaking, and presenting are fundamental aspects of any industry. Consider a course like this offering by the American Society for Biochemistry and Microbiology to kick your science communication skills up a notch.
You may or may not see yourself as a communications expert, but even a small improvement in your verbal skills can lead to major breakthroughs in your job performance. For example, if you’re working as a data analyst, strengthening your writing skills could inspire you to write a LinkedIn post about applying statistics knowledge to the real world. Naturally, this could broaden your network and lead to new career opportunities.
Bottom Line: Up-Skill to Reap Rewards
Sometimes it’s intimidating to take the leap and learn something new. Keep in mind that you won’t become an expert overnight, but even a bit of extra knowledge can set you apart from the crowd. Online courses are abundant and generally affordable – so if you have the time, there’s no reason not to level up your skill set!
You might think of a “science job” as a lab-coat-wearing, number-crunching, sitting-and-calculating kind of affair. But science jobs can call for a full gamut of abilities – including “softer”, more “human-based” communications skills! If you’re used to seeing yourself as a “pure scientist”, this might seem intimidating – but basic communications skills are very useful in the modern life sci/biotech industry. Never fear: if you are able to understand a concept, chances are, you can learn how to communicate it.
Here we’ve outlined some useful communications skills for the life scientist of 2023, and how to go about cultivating them.
Life Sciences 2023: Communication Skills are Key
Nowadays, the general public is more interested than ever before in being scientifically literate. As such, there is no shortage of non-traditional, communications-based life science jobs to consider. From Social Media Specialist to Marketing Manager to Scientific Editor, jobs in the science communications space abound. Even if you don’t have one of these jobs, you’ll be a huge asset to your employer if you’re able to take on communications tasks in a pinch.
On its own, information isn’t actually all that useful. For it to bring actual value to actual people, someone or something needs to come along to communicate it. If you’re employed in the life sciences, at some point, you’ll probably have to be that person! That’s why basic communications skills are actually indispensable for the life scientist of today. Even something as simple as writing a clear and well-laid-out email is an extremely important business communication skill, and can help you stand out in the corporate world.
Another important skill, oft-overlooked: knowing your audience. If you’re writing for a presentation, think of it like a performance – for a bit of dramatic flair, you can add some extra variety in sentence structure and punctuation. If you’re writing an article for a scientific journal, on the other hand, feel free to indulge in some jargon – but maybe hold back on the poetic license. If you’re writing for a popular magazine for non-scientists, you’ll want to take a more conversational tone, and go easy on the obscure terminology. Whatever the case, knowing how to reach your unique readership can make or break the engagement factor of your work.
And let’s not underestimate the importance of visuals as communication techniques. At some point in your career, you may be asked to prepare a slide deck for a presentation at a pharma conference, or create an Instagram carousel about your company’s latest product line. If and when this happens, you’ll find that an eye for design, layout and color is crucial.
Practicing Your Communication Skills
As we’ve discussed already, “good scientific writing” means different things in different contexts. That said, there are some general rules to keep in mind. For scientific writing that is at once concise and compelling, remember these tips:
Ask yourself, “Would I want to read this?” If you wouldn’t – why not?
Also keep in mind some common writing mistakes. Is your writing:
Using more words than it needs to convey a simple idea?
Full of dull, uninformative “filler” phrases?
So repetitive in sentence structure and word choice that it’s… boring?
These are very common mistakes, so don’t feel bad if you make them too. Just keep an eye out – they can creep in pretty easily if you’re not careful! As for design, keep these general ideas in mind:
Don’t use too many different shapes, fonts, etc. – unless you have a clear reason to
Use different shades of the same color on the same page for a simple, visually pleasing aesthetic
Position your most important elements slightly upwards and leftwards of center for maximum visual impact
Communication Skills – the Life Raft of Information
It’s always a good idea to have extra skills in your arsenal – you never know when they might come in handy! If you practice your writing skills, design skills, and overall ability to concisely convey concepts to different audiences, you’ll be well on your way to being a pro scientific communicator.
If you’re new to the biotech job market you may hold the following common misconceptions about recruiters (put your hand up if you’ve believed either of these things): recruiters are indiscriminate in who they reach out to, and they only care about meeting hiring quota.
In reality, biotech recruiters are often very familiar with the industry, because they have long standing relationships with pharma clients, and are trained as scientists themselves. Many recruiters are STEM graduates like yourself, and love talking about science with jobseekers and clients.
If you’re overwhelmed by the post-graduation hunt for a job, working with a boutique biotech recruiter will make your life easier. But if you’ve not worked with specialized recruiters before, you might not know how to build a relationship with one, or let them know you’re job-hunting.
If a biotech recruiter hasn’t reached out to you, here are proactive ways to reach out:
Attend mixers or networking events at events in your field (e.g. a Working in Biotech career panel, a young professionals mixer) – it’s likely you’ll find one or two recruiters among the attendees
After introducing yourself: your current role, when you expect to graduate or begin job-hunting, and the job positions you’re interested in – the recruiter will likely ask for an opportunity to chat with you on the phone to learn more.
What to expect in initial phone conversations with recruiters:
Don’t be shy – recruiters speak to a lot of people like yourself, and are familiar with conducting these types of conversations and putting you at ease.
Practice a brief couple of sentences’ introduction. E.g. I’m an Immunology PhD candidate at X university. Give the other person space to ask follow-up questions.
Think about when you are looking for a job and what skills you have. What analytical instruments do you work with? What laboratory techniques do you regularly perform (e.g. PCR, western blot)? Decide what you are looking for in a role, and if you don’t know, think broadly: do you want to work with people, are you interested in being a bench scientist? Would you like to work in a fast-paced start-up, or a more traditional large pharmaceutical company? These answers will help the recruiter decide which roles to put your name towards.
After your initial phone call and emails, don’t be afraid to follow up if you haven’t heard back within an agreed upon timeframe. Recruiters are busy, and clients can experience delays in their hiring process, so recruiters are unlikely to be ignoring you! Checking in regularly demonstrates your continued interest in the roles discussed, as well as your good organization skills.
At Sci.Bio, we’ve helped hundreds of STEM graduates get into their first biotech job. Get in touch to schedule a chat with one of our friendly, knowledgeable recruiters today.