Thursday, March 5, 2015

Stories wanted: "My big break"

I'm a frequent listener to NPR's Saturday evening "All Things Considered". I was a pretty big Guy Raz fan (very fond of his conversations with Jim Fallows, among other things), but Arun Rath is growing on me. 

Anyway, one of the neat/hokey things they're doing is interviewing various celebrities about their big break, i.e. something lucky/coincidental that helped them get where they are today. Here's Leland Martin, NASA astronaut (and chemistry degree holder) talking about a training accident that stopped him from being an astronaut for a period of time:
"There was blood coming out of my ear and they rushed me to the emergency room," he says. "They did surgery, they looked around, they couldn't find anything and being an astronaut, you need your hearing. If something happens and they can't explain why it happened, they won't let you fly in space." 
Melvin's hearing slowly came back but he was still medically disqualified. So he traveled to Washington, D.C., to work in one of NASA's education programs instead.... 
...As he flew across the country attending memorial services [CJ's note: after the 2003 Columbia tragedy], Melvin says the chief flight surgeon was watching him closely, assessing his ear injury. 
"He's watching me clear my ears and go up and down in the airplane and he calls me in his office and says, 'Leland, I'm going to sign a waiver for you to fly in space,' " he says. "That was one of my big breaks."
I don't think I have any fantastic stories like that, but I can talk about my first ever campus interview. After failing to get into medical school (yes, I'm one of those), I put my resume in for an on-campus interview with a relatively unknown drug delivery company. I walked into the interview wearing (I think - it's been 10+ years) a clip-on tie and the only button-down shirt that I had. After a nice conversation with the two gentlemen sent from Company T to interview me, they asked me what I was working on for my undergraduate research project. I ended up drawing the structure of the compound that I was trying to synthesize on one of the interviewer's notebooks.

They looked at me in some odd wonder and they said "You're the first undergrad we've talked to that can explain their project to us." I ended up getting the job.

Honestly, I don't think that I was particularly smart -- I think it was just a coincidence that they went out recruiting that day and I was coincidentally the most prepared for a job.

So that was one of my big breaks. Readers, what's yours? Stories of coincidences or dumb, weird luck desired. 

What's better, a M.S. or a Ph.D.?

It's been a number of years since we've had this debate, so let's do the time warp again. From the inbox (just last week), an e-mail from an undergraduate: 
Something that many of the stories have mentioned is how they're happier to have gotten an M.S. job instead of a Ph.D. job (e.g. in KT's story, he mentions the geographical flexibility of having an M.S. job versus his colleagues with Ph.D.s). But I've also seen your posts on the ACS salary figures, which show that Ph.D. jobs generally pay better than M.S. jobs, and my understanding is that an M.S. chemist usually does a job more similar to a BS chemist than to a Ph.D. chemist. 
My question is, what are the pros/cons to getting an industry job as an M.S. chemist versus a Ph.D. chemist? Aside from salary, what are some other factors (e.g. upward mobility, geographic flexibility as KT addressed, stress levels, etc.)?  
I'm fairly certain I want to eventually end up working in industry, so I'm wondering whether I should be aiming for an M.S. or a Ph.D. if my end goal is just to get a good industry job. And what would "aiming for an M.S." even entail? My impression is that there aren't many M.S. programs. in chemistry, and most people who have an M.S. got one by quitting a Ph.D. program.
My response to my interlocutor:
My personal thoughts are that M.S. chemists are more easily hired (i.e. they are subject to somewhat less scrutiny in hiring) and they have more flexible slotting into a variety of job functions. It is fairly clear that M.S. roles and Ph.D. roles are well-delineated and it is very common at large companies for senior R&D management to be a Ph.D.-only club. I have seen a variety of instances where perfectly good management candidates are fundamentally ignored because they lack the magic three letters.  
I think that what would be best is to think about the different roles of a MS chemist and a PhD chemist (i.e. more bench-oriented, versus not) and think about what would truly make you happy, i.e. if you always want to be the boss, maybe you should be get a PhD! 
Finally, I note that it is typical for people to enter Ph.D. programs and declare their non-interest in a Ph.D. about a year or two into the process, i.e. it's strangely okay to fib and say "Yes, I want a Ph.D." when you really don't (maybe I'm wrong there - we will see what my readers have to say.)
[I should note here that I forgot to point out that there are M.S. programs where you can get a classroom/internship master's in chemistry (and pay for them, as opposed to being on stipend. It remains to be seen whether those programs are better or worse than the traditional graduate school option.]

So, beloved readers, let's tackle this again:
  1. What are the pros and cons of industry M.S./Ph.D. positions? Can Ph.D. positions make up the 2-4 of earning years that they give up? 
  2. Anecdotally, it is understood that there's a "glass ceiling" for M.S. positions on the medicinal chemistry side of the pharmaceutical industry. Is that true? Is it true for other subfields? 
  3. Is there more geographic flexibility? Do you trade lower pay for less/different stress? 
  4. What is the best way to get a master's degree in chemistry? Do people still do the "apply and fib" technique? 
Readers, what say you? 

Job posting: Product Manager, Homogeneous Catalysts, Johnson Matthey, West Deptford, NJ

From the inbox, a position at Johnson Matthey:  
The Product Manager for Homogeneous Catalysis is responsible for leading the Homogeneous Catalyst business, by developing and implementing a global product based strategy, to enable the growth of the CCT business. In this role the product manager will work independently, and with sales managers to introduce new products to the market, identify new products and markets and coordinate scale up projects in line with key business objectives. The position reports to the New Business Development Manager and interacts heavily with the development, sales and production departments. 
This position is responsible for supporting the new products progression from initial conception by development or licensing partners to full launch and commercial supply. This will involve coordinating the new product introduction process which encompasses scale up, regulatory affairs, new product marketing, IP considerations, pricing and product administration (specs, labelling, product codes, etc.). They will discuss accordingly with the Development, Sales, and Marketing Managers through the process. 
The jobholder will be expected to visit key raw material suppliers/vendors and when appropriate customers with the sales team to make technical presentations, as well as supporting the sales team on how to sell new technologies and identifying unique selling points.


PhD in Chemistry as well as a good understanding of fine chemical processes, homogeneous catalysis and synthetic organic chemistry is required. Experience working in Organic Process Development laboratory.  Commercial experience is a plus.  Experience with demonstrated expert technical compliance and strong written and oral communication skills. Must be willing to travel 20%-40% per year.
Best wishes to those interested.  

A comparison of AiCHE and ACS membership dues

No real comment, just an interesting comparison. I think the graded dues would be something I'd like to see for ACS. Also, getting undergrads in for free seems like a good idea for chemical engineers (a lot fewer of those than for chemists, I'll bet.) 

Daily Pump Trap: 3/5/15 edition

A few of the positions posted at C&EN Jobs this past week:

Camden, SC: Yet another Invista position, this time for a Ph.D. research scientist.

Foster City, CA: A small bolus of Gilead positions, including a B.S./M.S. med chem position. 

Carlstadt, NJ: This B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist position working on security inks is really interesting. Industrial experience needed.

Lafayette, IN: Evonik has posted a R&D project manager position that requires a B.S. and 2 years of experience. I find that fascinating (in the sense that a 24 year old seems a bit young), but hey, if they can do the job, why not?

Huh?: These "JVG Media Services DMCC" positions seem sort of weird -- I wonder what's going on there. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Is it possible to contact Jesus James Angleton via seance?

From a 1944 OSS/CIA sabotage manual, ways that you can disrupt an organization: 
Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work. 
Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one. 
Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done. 
Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again. 
Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.
I think we've been penetrated. Then again, I might be an enemy agent myself.  

"It's not a biotech bubble, it's...."

Fun story from FiercePharmaMarketing on a Cubist "Cards Against Biotechnology" expansion pack.

(For those not in the know, "Cards Against Humanity" is a popular card game amongst the youths, of which I am not one.) 

"P: "I am now happier"

This story about leaving graduate school is from "P"; it has been lightly edited for formatting. 
I quit graduate school (not chemistry but a closely related field) after 3 years, around the time I was starting to write up my thesis.

Why did you leave?
A combination of reasons:
I wasn’t enjoying my project. This had been getting slowly worse over time and I was at a stage where it just didn’t interest me at all.
I was already pretty sure that I wasn’t going to stay in academia long-term. Job security, pay, work culture were all rubbish.
I was offered a good job in another field on about the same money as I would have been looking at as a post-doc.

Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden?
Pretty sudden. It happened over a couple of weeks, from job offer, approach, interview, then making the decision to leave. In hindsight I think the job offer was crystallised a number of things that I’d been thinking about in the background for some time.

Where are you now?
At the same place that offered me the job, now in a higher position.

Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now? 
Very happy. If you go by Vinylogous’ criteria then it was the right decision at the time, and nearly ten years on it’s looking like an even better decision.

It’s funny looking back at it, literally everyone who I talked to treated my decision as some sort of mistake and told me that, oh, I must write up my thesis and that I would regret it if I didn’t. No-one said anything positive about it or treated it as if it could have been a good decision under some circumstances. As it currently stands, all of these people were wrong. It is possible that my lack of a PhD might cost me something later on, but it hasn’t been an impediment so far. I am now happier, love what I do, am paid better and have way better job security than if I’d tried to stay in academia.

I hope that reading this makes people realise that sometimes quitting grad school can actually work out to be a good choice.
Thanks to "P" for their story.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"LB": "Some nights I think about how different my life might have been"

Today's story about leaving graduate school is from "LB"; it has been redacted for privacy and edited for clarity. 
Why did you leave? Your thought process in leaving? 
A number of reasons come to mind in retrospect.  
First, there would be reasons what I now classify under environmental factors. I belonged to a small town in the midwest and moved to [California] for my PhD. [Big West Coast City] itself was hard to deal with---too many people with too much attitude, and I hardly had a group of friends/ acquaintances in the city, or even in California. House prices were expensive and I with the meager stipend (which was actually not that bad) I ended up with a rather s---ty studio in downtown [Big West Coast City] where going out late night meant trouble. Again, I enrolled in spring, which is rather rare for doc students. I was the only spring admit and that did not help since I ended up with seniors and juniors and no one of my cohort to crib to.  
Then there were other reasons---more important perhaps. I was brilliant in chemistry in my undergrad and ended up getting national scholarships for grad school. Which caused me to build up some hubris and made me think I could conquer everything. I had previously done research and published one solitary paper (though in a good journal) in inorganic chemistry. Now I heard that there were no jobs for inorganic and combined with my confidence (and a great talk by my future adviser) I 'changed' to total synthesis of large pharmaceutically relevant molecules.  
Total synthesis is hard and I sucked at it. Further our lab had a 'no one really wants to help anyone else' attitude which didn't help. I did not know all the techniques and getting it from others meant enduring a lot of crap (including the oft made suggestion that I should leave for a future elsewhere since synthesis was obviously not for me). The beating on my self confidence needed to end and I was soon looking for other stuff. I would have thought it was just me, but there were others later who endured the same and left.  
I first thought of changing labs, but my adviser was really supportive and had given me an RAship right from the beginning. I was grateful for that and wasn't sure what to do. Further, I thought that a career in chemistry is endless. A PhD and then a post doc would eat at least a huge chunk of my twenties. I wanted to change fields, and went on to do a MBA at a top school. I reasoned that a MBA will propel me to jobs (an undergrad degree in chemistry seems to lead nowhere) and I was correct. I announced to my adviser my decision to leave and he was rather upset (to be fair he had a lot invested in me) but I managed to get a MS (though not his recommendations). 
Where are you now? 
Perhaps not getting a PhD was a bit self defeating and I was keen to prove I was not a quitter (though quitting isn't bad in any way). After my MBA I worked a couple of years and went on to do a doctorate (yes a PhD!) in economics. Economics had no relation to chemistry and maybe since it was a non-lab based subject, I didn't have to rely on co-workers for support. I always seem to have good luck with supervisors and this time around I also had good mates and collaborators. I managed to overcome a new subject, publish and join the federal government though I hope to be in a tenure track position in a good university soon. 
Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
I am glad I left, but I am also bitter. I had invested just 1 1/2 years in my PhD and sometimes I feel I did not stick around to give it my best shot. Some other times I feel thankful that I left early and did not get stuck in a mess as some of my peers did (one of my labmates left without a pub in [their] 7 1/2 year PhD, another quit after 4 years. However one of my seniors, an international doc student from China left with over 5 pubs including a Nature just to illustrate both sides of the story).   
Yet during other times I long to go back and finish my PhD, perhaps at a different school. I am so much older and more mature and I feel I have the ability to do a PhD in just about anything now.  
But I also have a job, a wife and a whole host of animals and a tiny farm--- a second PhD would mean giving all that up. Some nights I think about how different my life might have been, but in the mornings I am back to building stochastic frontier models, a far cry from the Heck couplings and Wittig reactions and TLC plates which used to rule my life back then...
Thanks to "LB" for their story.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why place matters

From an anonymous reader, a Boston-area Amgen recruiting billboard. I have seen this for coders, but never for "biotech professionals."

(Of course, I've only lived in one of BioSpace's "hotbeds.")

(12 "hotbeds"?!?!? You gotta be kidding me.) 

Nice to see

This past August, I took a day to visit the national ACS meeting in San Francisco; I was badged as press, even! I sat in on a portion of the Sunday meeting of the Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs. I thought it was interesting to watch the committee members discuss and debate the ACS policy statement on retirement security. Here's a portion of the final statement:
...A concern is that small companies and businesses, such as chemical or high-tech start-ups, can be disproportionately disadvantaged in establishing such plans for their employees. Complex government regulations for these plans result in high administrative costs that need to be distributed over a small employee base, effectively increasing the costs for small business owners and employees versus larger companies. As a result, many small businesses choose not to offer 401(k)’s. For those that do, the administrative fees are high, and the investment options often limited, thus negatively impacting employee returns on investment. Considering that a significant fraction of the approximately 163,000 members of ACS are employed by small companies (less than 500 employees), this has a substantial impact on our membership. 
Another detrimental component in many 401(k)’s is lengthy vesting periods. According to the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics National Survey, 69 percent of 401(k) plans accrue on either ‘cliff’ or ‘graded’ vesting schedules. ‘Cliff’ schedules require employees to remain with an employer for a minimum number of years or they receive no match, and ‘graded’ schedules are plans that slowly increase the employee’s vested portion with years of service. Unlike corporate careers of the past, current careers in the physical sciences are now characterized by multiple shorter-term professional positions. Therefore a professional in the chemical enterprise can be negatively affected by slow vesting 401(k)’s resulting in lack of portability. 
Specifically, in the area of retirement plans and 401(k)’s, Congress needs to take action to
  • Reduce the regulatory complexity of 401(k) plans available to small business owners in order to make them more economically efficient and effective.
  • Enact policies that promote the development of faster vesting and more portable 401(k) programs....
I gotta say, as a statement of desired policy, I agree with most of it. I have worked for an employer who claimed that 401(k) complexity and cost was too high (and of course, they would have never have gone for a match.) But the pre-tax nature of 401(k)s is pretty great, in my opinion.

(I wonder if Vanguard has a small-company 401(k) option? I am going to guess the answer is 'no.')

Glad to see that CEPA (among other ACS committee) has put together a statement -- good stuff. 

Oh, that's all

From the letters to the editor in this week's C&EN:
I don’t know why there was such a flurry of indignant letters about the review of the book “The Birth of the Pill” (C&EN, Sept. 22, 2014, page 32). This is a book for a popular audience by an author whose claims to fame are books about baseball and Al Capone. It might better have been titled “Politics, Religion, and the Pill,” but it certainly was not designed to explore the intricacies of organic synthesis. The author does indeed reference Carl Djerassi and Frank Colton. 
If there is frustration in the chemistry community about the lack of recognition of these outstanding chemists, may I suggest that some charismatic organic chemist design a PBS TV program for “NOVA,” along the lines of what Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done for quantum mechanics and cosmology, respectively. 
Ivan E. Leigh
West Chester, Pa.
Heh, there are plenty of charismatic organic chemists, but chemistry just doesn't get producers excited like space and physics. I dunno why.

(Worth noting that Djerassi himself was more world-historical than NdGT, but I don't think he got any (or very many) TV programs.) 

This week's C&EN

Plenty of interesting tidbits in this week's C&EN:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Gotta love George Whitesides

Courtesy of See Arr Oh (who has a very cogent (and funny) post on this), here's George Whitesides criticizing (again) the chemical industry: 
This choice of direction has had several consequences: 1) it has ended (or constrained in scope and character) the unique and mutually beneficial intellectual partnership between industrial and academic chemistry that characterized the 1960s to 1980s (Figure 3). 2) It has increasingly limited the number of jobs for chemists in industry, and made a career in industrial chemistry less attractive for students choosing what to study. 3) It has limited the options for chemistry to explore new areas, since many of these areas (e.g., the materials science of porous media under hydrostatic pressure, or “fracking”; understanding if there is new chemistry—especially chemistry relevant to sequestration—that can be applied to carbon dioxide; the management of flows of material, energy, and information in cities; the development of new strategies for using solar energy) require the kinds of resources and skills in large-scale project management that only industry can provide.  
Industry continues to place a few large-scale bets in research (for example, synthetic biology to make fuels and specialty chemicals), but the number and audacity of these bets have declined sharply. Even the pharmaceutical industry—a long-term contributor to, and user of, sophisticated synthetic organic chemistry—increasingly considers synthesis a valuable, but primarily technical skill, and has turned to organismic and disease biology as the source of new products and services.
I couldn't agree more with Uncle George, but I would, wouldn't I? 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Now that's an unfortunate title

I suspect this is actually one of those academic drug discovery former-pharma group leader positions, but tagging it with "adjunct professor series" is kinda painful. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/26/15 edition

A few of the positions posted at C&EN Jobs this week:

Cleveland, OH: West-Ward Pharmaceuticals is hiring for 4 positions, including a B.S./M.S. Scientist I position. (0-2 years experience.) (Zeroes!)

Malvern, PA: Progenra (new company?) is looking for 2 experienced medicinal chemists, 1-10 years experience, all levels of education.

Menlo Park, CA: Pacific Biosciences is looking for a surface chemist, M.S./Ph.D., 5 years experience desired.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 260, 1340, 8769 and 22 positions for the search term "chemist." That's way, way up for Careerbuilder and Indeed, I believe. LinkedIn shows 619 results for the job title "chemist", with 37 for "research chemist", 87 for "analytical chemist", 2 for "organic chemist", 3 for "synthetic chemist" and 3 for "medicinal chemist."

What is Global Pharma Tek's business model?

Saw this ad through an Indeed search. What is this about? Global Pharma Tek has a website listing lots of QA/QC-type/GMP positions; something tells me that this is a temp/recruiting service that hires international folks only?

I'm confused.

(Hey, check out their partners - including the "Havard Clinical Research Institute." Something is very fishy here.) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bill Carroll: "to get the sharp corners knocked off you"

I have thrown a fair bit of criticism at ACS director-at-large Bill Carroll's way over the years. 

That said, like every experienced industrial chemist (even the ones who have left the lab), he has good tales to tell. He's starting a blog over at the ACS Network. I thought his first post was a good one, where he talks about his first years in industry: 
When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl.  Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles.  But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped.  The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley.  I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow. 
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly.  But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast.  I wanted to make a difference in a hurry. 
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix.  I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about. 
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military.  After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion. 
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up. 
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths.  I couldn’t help but laugh.”  He was right.   He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you.“

So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress.  No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1.  Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can.  The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed...
I'd like to think I've had my sharp corners knocked off, but it's hard to say, maybe I have a few more that I don't know about. Folks like Tom Loughlin are truly great and they have a lot of smart things to say.

In regards to "an area that's... reasonably mature", there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, I feel. Truly low-hanging fruit doesn't happen very often - and when it occurs to the novice chemist (like myself), I always wonder "I am sure this has been considered before -- I wonder why it was rejected?"

Either way, I really enjoyed the piece and I hope to see more like it.