Zakiya Qualls: Acing the Interview

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Current position: Ph.D. Candidate, Immunity, Infection, & Inflammation (I3) Research Track: Freelance medical writer & blogger
Program start date:  September 2011
Institution: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

Happy New Year! Lets bring in a new beginning by embracing the changes and uncertainties of the future, while vowing to put our best foot forward as we continue our academic and professional journeys. As I prepare to defend my dissertation (hopefully before our blog series wraps up) I am also preparing to start a new career in the field of medical communications and/or regulatory affairs.  This means interviews, interviews, and more interviews.  In fact, over the last month, I have been on quite a few.  For me, the thought of interviewing causes that all too familiar nervous twinge in my stomach forcing me to push my inner scientist introvertism back into my inner depths! However, the more interviews I go on I feel more confident about the process and I am more certain what each team is looking for. Here are some interviewing details specifically related to medical communication positions, but also relatable to other fields.

The interviewing process

The interview process in general is pretty standard across professions, but there are some additional tasks you may be asked to perform frequently during the medical communications interview process. These include:

The portfolio- When you are contacted by hiring managers or apply for a position online, often times you will be requested to provide samples of your previous work. For newly graduated Ph.D. students and post-docs this can include published manuscripts along with PowerPoint presentations (often time referred to as slidedecks), and other writing samples you have accumulated through freelance assignments, coursework, and career related blogging. These samples give the hiring team a sense of your writing style and attention to detail. A well-written cover letter can also give an idea into your personality and writing technique.

The pretest- At this point, if the hiring team decides to go further with your application, before you are even asked to come in for a face-to-face interview, you may be asked to perform a small writing test on your own time and send it into the team for review. Typical at home writing test include writing an article introduction or abstract with provided information, figure generation for data sets, or preparation of slidedecks explaining a given topic. Here, it is important to pay attention to grammar, intended audience, and stylistic consistencies because this is what will determine whether you progress to the face-to-face interview stage. This requirement is often waved if you were personally referred or the hiring team is already familiar with you skillset through previous interactions (why networking is so important).

Once you make it to the in-person interviewing stage you can expect the standard question and answer period along with some other unique tasks common to communication agencies and jobs where writing/editing are requirements.

The presentation- You will often be asked to present a slidedeck you prepared in your own time before the interview. Here, it is important to show that you took the task seriously and can accurately and clearly present on a topic in a fixed amount of time. Do make eye contact!

The on-site writing test- Generally you are given a large amount of clinical or scientific data and asked to summarize and present it in varying ways in a fixed amount of time (<1 hour). You typically, don’t have time to get too creative and I am convinced that these just test your basic competency to accurately understand and relay complex information in the fast-paced environment typical of industry life.

Common questions you may be asked

Personality agreeability questions (to see if you’re a good match with company culture):

  • What motivates you?
  • What are your interests?
  • What do you think about teamwork? Are you a team player?
  • Tell me something about yourself?
  • What are your weaknesses? What are your strengths?

Job specific questions:

  • Why did you choose medical writing as a career?
  • Have you written anything previously? Has any of your work been published?
  • Have you completed any training or certificate courses?
  • What do you know about the drug development process?
  • What type of documents do you think you will be writing in this position?
  • Can you give an example of your multi-tasking ability?
  • Can you handle pressure at work? How do you deal with it?

By this point you will be brimming with questions that arose throughout the day like the standard questions of when will you hear back and any position related topics, but it is also a good idea to come prepared with questions about company life, culture, and expectations. This is your opportunity to show that you want the position and to interview the company to make sure it’s a good fit for you too!

Questions to ask the company

  • What are your expectations for the first month, 6 months, or a year?
  • How does this position fit into the team structure?
  • How would you describe the company culture and management style?
  • What traits or skills have you noticed that successful candidates share?
  • Are there any work-from-home opportunities (very common in the field)?

No matter what your specific industry or professional transition goals are, the interview is your time to communicate how all of the skills and expertise you’ve worked hard to develop in graduate school are directly translatable to the position for which you are applying. Be creative and come with examples. Good luck and happy interviewing!

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