STEM Alumni Spotlight – Pfizer

Throughout September, Career Services is hosting a series of online chats with graduate alumni working in STEM fields.  On September 18th, we heard from a chemistry PhD graduate who is working at Pfizer as a staff scientist.  Below is a summary of his experiences and advice for current Penn graduate students.

How he began to think about a career in industry/how he explored the interest

  • He worked in industry prior to obtaining a PhD and came to the PhD interested in returning to industry
  • Take advantage of the talks around campus on various topics – he learned a lot which helped to shape his desire to work in big pharma
  • His interests narrowed into medicinal chemistry – now he works in this field in oncology

How he applied/the structure of the application and interview process

  • Applied well in advance of graduation – they reached out approximately 6 months before he was set to finish
  • His first interview after initial one was with a scientist – this was to check for fit
  • Then invited to on site interview – full day with a dinner the night before. Note you must dress professionally for the dinner – even if other attendees are not – he has since seen interviewees not take the dinner seriously and this shows
  • Interview day was very intense – started with a 45 minute presentation. Very important that you practice this ahead of time as much as possible – use good visuals and tell a story.  Don’t need to focus on every single experiment you have ever done – do not need to have good results to tell an interesting story of scientific exploration.  Use your department to practice!
  • Then had a 60 minute tech interview – like a chalk talk exam – very challenging and got harder as he went on – he reached a point where he could not answer the question and that was the point – to see how he handled being unable to answer a question
  • Then 12 1-on-1 interviews with scientists – mostly friendly “fit” type questions but also a few light technical questions
  • Very important to bring questions to each interview! They expect you to ask questions – no matter how tired you are – can ask multiple people the same question
  • He got an offer soon after that and was able to negotiate – they expect you will negotiate – look at the total benefits and not just the salary
  • He had two offers – Array and Pfizer – and took Array. But Pfizer acquired Array before he could start so he works for Pfizer.  This happens in pharma when you work for small firms.

Advice for informational interviews

  • Internal referrals can lead to a phone interview – cannot overstate how important these referrals can be – do as many informational interviews as possible

Did he need specific skills?

  • For some jobs yes – he is using less than 50% of his bench skills from his PhD so it was more his research skills than specific bench skills that helped him

How and when to apply

  • He estimated that he applied to 300+ jobs (note from Career Services – this is not typical!)
  • He began applying to roles 1.5 years before graduation – he feels in retrospect this was not a good use of his time and he should have waited – he thinks 14 months ahead of when you graduate is a good time to start looking (not necessarily applying) – interest in you will grow as you get closer to graduation
  • Applied to medicinal chemist roles at both Array and Pfizer – they were interested but it was too far before his graduation, so they held off bringing him for a site visit until he was 6 months away from graduation
  • He utilized a CV format to apply to his job. They also requested a cover letter and a research summary – this should be no more than 2 pages (inclusive of everything, including figure you may include)
  • Your job as an applicant is to sell yourself – you really need to tailor your documents to the job you are applying to – they get 200+ applicants and you want to stand out as someone who is qualified AND wants the job

Transitioning from academia to industry

  • He did not do a postdoc and feels that it was not necessary – there are some roles which require it, but not the case at Pfizer.
  • About 50% of the people he works with did a postdoc –

Future plans and hiring in the next few months

  • His goal is to be a director of medicinal chemistry – this could become less lab based but he likes the lab and likes working with people so he hopes to stay in the lab somewhat
  • Hiring is definitely happening in pharma despite covid – you should apply if interested! His team is working in shifts for social distancing but very busy

 See the notes from our alumni chat with Incyte here!



By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs