Interview with a chemist

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What’s the worst thing about interviews for chemistry jobs? With recruitment for the Chief Editor of Nature Chemistry in full swing, I’ve been thinking about this recently – and no, that doesn’t mean that I’ve applied for the job…

In particular, I was thinking about one of the most contentious and feared aspects of chemistry interviews (in the UK at least) – the technical questions. This is where interviewees are grilled about any aspect of chemistry; for organic chemists this usually means that you’re presented with a target molecule and asked to come up with one (or more) synthetic routes on the spot. In many respects, this is fair enough. But the whole thing can be very arbitrary.

As regular readers may know, I was unlucky enough to work at an industrial site that was closed down, so my colleagues and I suddenly found ourselves going through lots of technical interviews. Several trends immediately became apparent. The first was that we would always be asked about the pKa values of acids and bases. We’d also frequently be asked to write out mechanisms of reactions such as the Swern oxidation. Many people felt that this sort of thing had no bearing on how they performed in a lab, it was just a memory test.

But the worst thing was when interviewers were inflexible on synthesis questions. One company in particular asked people how they would make a certain diamide. There are, of course, many ways to do this, but if the hapless interviewee didn’t suggest an Ugi reaction, they were deemed to have got the answer wrong. Now the Ugi reaction is a wonderful thing, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first option that springs to my mind for such a target.

So, what do you think – are technical questions a reasonable way to assess chemists for jobs? Or should candidates just be asked to put on a lab coat and do a recrystallization? And what’s the most bizarre thing that you’ve been asked at an interview? The most random question I got was about redshift and the expansion of the universe…


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)

Andy Mitchinson

Chief News & Views Editor, Nature