Saturday, August 14, 2010

Interview: a Canadian chemist looks for work

I recently had the chance of talking by e-mail with CanChem, who is looking for a position in chemistry in the Boston area. The following has been lightly edited and redacted for privacy. Here is his story, followed by a Q&A:

CanChem: I'm a rather new entrant to the world of industrial chemistry, being just [a few] years out from grad school in Canada where I received an MSc under [respected professor] in synthetic organic chemistry. I was lucky to get a job in Toronto shortly after my defense with a small start-up contract med-chem outfit (lucky as there are very few synthetic positions available in Ontario / Canada at any given time, maybe 1 every couple of months) where I was hired as a senior research associate. After [less than 3 years] in collaboration with a pair of start-up companies the contracts expired and no new ones could be obtained so the company closed up shop and laid me and the other chemists off.

During this time my wife moved down to Boston to pursue a law degree, and I've been trying to join her down there for a year now, and despite our marriage and generally jovial relations between Canada and the USA it's a protracted and relatively unfeasible process to get me residency in the States. As such I've been applying as an international applicant to companies, able to enter and work under the TN (NAFTA class) visa, without the headaches of the H1-B process, but that hasn't seemed to make a lick of difference. My previous employer was incredibly supportive when he heard that my wife was returning to Boston and provided me with his contact list for individuals and companies in Massachusetts, and it's only because of his connections that I've even had any face time with prospective employers. However, despite his help and applications to everything I've seen come up online and everywhere else I could think of, I've only had two interviews in 12 months, and I haven't seen the environment improving of late.

Chemjobber: Do you think US employers balk at the issues with immigration status or do you think they're pretty used to dealing with it?

CC: I've found it's depended on who it is; one job I was expecting an offer on got completely shut down because of internal policies regarding any visa sponsorship (TN or H1-B) for anything less than PhD, whereas another it it wasn't even a consideration. The first was a research institute affiliated with a university, the second was a mid-size company. From past lab-mates (Canadians) who've gone down in the last 5 years, I've heard that unless the company is totally new and the HR people don't understand what TN's are all about it's not been an issue to work.

CJ: How many positions have you applied for? What have you been hearing?

CC: I think I've sent in around 50 unique applications. About 45 of those have gone into the void, with two resulting in interviews, one getting a "no actual positions at this time" reply, and the other two being the "Thank you for your interest, we're receiving so many qualified applicants..." form letter.

CJ: Can you describe the employment situation for organic chemists in Canada? Am I right in thinking there's Merck Frosst (well, not anymore) and not much else? Anything in the western provinces? (pardon if that's a dumb question)

CC: I'm by no means an expert, but from my looking Canada has a small VC-funded pool of start-ups, maybe 25-40 (?) doing medchem, with about half being in Toronto, most of the rest in Montreal, and a couple in Vancouver / Calgary. There had been a good concentration of pharma research in the Montreal area (most biggies had a shop there), and while Toronto has many Big Pharma branch offices, very few do anything resembling chemistry. Gilead opened a site in Edmonton AB, and otherwise I don't know of much out west.

Organic chemists wanting to stay in Toronto have a few options; the hospitals and universities have small research institutions with maybe 100 total chemists in Toronto, there's Apotex doing process work with a staff of ~50, my former company, whose fine chemicals business employs 25 chemists, and a couple of other custom synthesis / off-the-shelf places with maybe another 75-100 chemists among them. People from my school have in the past 3 years either gone to a) the states (50 %), b) Apotex/my place/one other shop (15 %), c)  Merck Frosst (10 %... for now) or d) out of organic chem (25 %). When my company closed down my co-workers were either looking in the States (none of the PhD's had much faith in finding anything in Canada) or branching out in chemistry to stay in Toronto, or going back to school for something else. Online job boards have not held any organic chemistry positions for months now.

CJ here again. Thanks for CanChem for his frank and interesting insights into life as an organic chemist in Canada.


  1. I know it's bad all around, but it I think it down right embarrassing and pathetic when relationships and family are the greatest liability to finding a place in research. You think KCN gives a damn about your family?

  2. Best bet might be to just go to grad school as an economic shelter...

  3. Anon1003,

    That's exactly what is happening. The dumb ones can't find jobs with their BS/MS and think it's cuz they don't have all that special "PhD" experience. Sallie Mae is calling them asking for an arm and possibly a leg. So they run to academia, thinking 7-10 yrs of merit building will actually translate to a job. They live by the labs, driving up their loans even further with housing they can't afford. When they get out, Sallie Mae calls and but they have no job to counter her with. Their boss never told them their career in science was over the time they stepped foot on the wrong college. They were just being used.

    The smart ones? They know it's a joke, they diss their PI's, they are just waiting to get a job doing anything else. They are getting paid too look for work, avoid their loans and pass the interest on to the remaining taxpaying chemists to handle. It's a sad situation, grad school really is just a joke now. Unless you are at the best school with the best PI in the world, don't even bother.

  4. Deflation is at least making the lifestyle of being a grad student more worthwhile. Don't need the loans to cover living expenses so much, and well ... going out to eat has gotten much cheaper in the past couple of years. I would rather be in grad school now, then before. The continuation of "character building" is really not making me a better person.

    My advise seriously would be to just go to grad school, treat it like a real job ... strike on the slave labor aspects of it, more or less tell your adviser to piss off, because kissing his ass won't guarantee your job. Network and be flexible when you look for your real job. Ultimately selling our souls to chemistry was our biggest mistake. Liking and being good at chemistry was a great thing, but assuaging the collective ego of the system ... didn't work. IF the science market recovers, awesome, no harm no foul. If it doesn't ... oh well, you got to learn a few cool things without making yourself crazy and collect enough of a pay check to feed yourself.

  5. It is very tough for US citizens to find jobs as chemists in the US. Why should companies sponsor visas for these positions if they can easily be filled by locals? Isn't the point of those visas to fill high speciality jobs which can't be filled otherwise?

    I wonder how many of those Canadian chemical companies have US citizens as employees. My bet is that every one of those companies would prefer Canadian citizens over Americans.

  6. To Anonymous August 21, 2010 5:02 PM , many Canadian companies and universities hire Americans. Many of my professors and many of my coworkers were American.


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