Thursday, April 7, 2011

Interview: MQ, pharma veteran

MQ is a long-time commenter of the chemistry blogosphere; I'm terribly pleased to have to have obtained an interview with them. This e-mail Q&A was formatted by Chemjobber and checked for accuracy by MQ.

Chemjobber: Can you describe your background a little?

MQ: I have a MS degree in organic chemistry from a very reputable Midwest school, and have been in the pharmaceutical industry as a medicinal chemist for over 16 years, primarily at one research house in the Midwest. I was laid off from this company several years ago, but managed to land back here. I have experience in a variety of therapeutic areas and I am currently at an entry-level PhD equivalent position, and have been so for several years.

CJ: How has the industry changed since you've been working?

MQ: How hasn't it should be the question. It always seemed as if ‘times were tough’, as management told us in our yearly all-employee meetings. Merger rumors circulated yearly. A variety of fads have come and gone Natural Products research vanished right as I entered the business, infamously replaced by combinatorial chemistry (Bohdan Blocks and Quests, anyone?). Now instead of parallel synthesis or on-bead based mix-and-split library work, we're simply replacing those fads with the more hands-on-deck approach thanks to cheaper labor at the CRO du jour. The mega-mergers over the last 10 years have, in my opinion, destroyed this industry. The Midwest used to have a vibrant and successful pharma community until Pfizer single-handedly laid waste to it.

Also, good BS/MS scientists used to be worth their weight in gold. With the advent of more and more outsourcing, I fear that the days of associate level scientists are numbered, just like those old Quests.

CJ: Did you live through other downturns? How is this one different?

MQ: The job market was very tight when I graduated in the mid 90s, and that was the driving force for me not to finish my PhD. Things actually did get better for a while in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Companies were hiring, there were salary adjustments, and things seemed a bit more stable. The downward job trend in the industry now is irreversible, I believe. Job growth for organic chemists in the pharmaceutical industry will continue to shrink for PhD level folks, and virtually evaporate for BS/MS level chemists, at least here in the US. There is no going back to the staffing levels of old. Those jobs are long gone, or at least until the costs become so prohibitive to outsource. At that point I wonder if big pharma will simply stop doing the R part of R&D and move towards a development-driven model and let someone else do the risky parts of the business. Risk-sharing is the corporate-speak, but it seems like risk-aversion, which is funny considering that science and discovery is inherently a risky business.

CJ: What were you hearing from the other people that were also part of your previous layoff? Have they all found new positions in chemistry?

MQ: Most of my friends and colleagues were willing to relocate, and had a fair amount of success in finding jobs within 6 months or so. Many had to move to the big biotech hubs of the Bay area or Boston, but most did find work. Some landed back in big pharma only to get laid off again, sadly. Several colleagues did leave science for careers in project management, technical sales and some non-profit work. I wasn't really looking to move which is why I was willing to take a position in development initially. It was a really good experience, but also taught me that I’m still happier doing drug discovery. I was lucky (maybe) to land a very rare opening in drug discovery nearly a year after the initial layoff.

CJ: If you were to apportion blame for the current state of the industry, where would you put it?

MQ: I think it is fashionable to blame non-scientific management for the current ills of the industry, but this train started long before this current economic environment. The low hanging fruit had been picked and companies seemed more interested in me-too drugs, keeping their profit margins high (along with the bonuses) and the delving into latest trends in technology. The industry got complacent, and maybe a little lazy. Wall Street and its investors got very, very used to yearly double digit growth; so did Pharma executives, as well as everyone else in the industry. I heard the stories about how yearly raises for employees were 8-10% minimum back in the day, along with fat bonuses, stock splits, and people retiring as millionaires. When the easy target well ran dry and insurance companies changed reimbursement practices, investors still wanted their earnings growth, and didn’t care how companies went about keeping the numbers up. We watched the steel and car industries dramatically change over the years, and now we're watching the pharmaceutical industry reinvent themselves. There's plenty of blame to go around, along with the hard realities of a changing global economy.

CJ: What "in the lab" advice would you offer young chemists new to the industry? What should we be spending our work-oriented free time doing?

MQ: Keep learning. Take the time to learn as much as you can about the biology going on within your project, especially your primary assays. Talk to the biologists; ask them how they are run, and how to best interpret the data. Talk with the pK folks as well, and anyone else your project interacts with for data. Try to attend as many higher level meetings as you can to get a feel for how the decision making process is handled in your company. Make it a point to go to general informational seminars in other therapeutic areas. Keep learning new things because you just may find yourself transplanted on very short notice.

CJ: What long-term career advice would you offer younger chemists?

MQ: I'm not sure I'm the person to ask this right about now, being quite cynical on the notion of a ‘long-term’ future of chemistry careers in my industry right now, at least here in the US.

I guess the best advice I'd offer is to be realistic. If are in graduate school dead-set on working in pharma, understand that unless you walk on water, work for the ‘right’ professors, or get extremely lucky, the odds are against you landing a plum job right now. If you are a new person to pharma, keep your CV current, try to publish as much as you can, and make sure you cultivate contacts throughout a variety of industries. Be flexible, always keep your eye open for alternate career options, and don't be shocked if one morning you're called into a mandatory meeting and told your position has been terminated. It sucks, but it's the reality we all face. Always have a plan B, C and maybe even D ready to go.

CJ here again. Thanks to MQ for a sobering interview -- good luck to all of us.


  1. What's a Bohdan Block? (I'm a little newer to the industry, having worked in pharm only between 2001-2004)

    Is it a commercially-available synthon for CombiChem?

  2. Any suggestions for plans B, C, D for an experienced MS med chemist?

  3. SAO:

  4. Oh wow, Irori, teabags, and the absurd Quest KCN Greek Mythology schtick... and don't forget the halcyon days of yore: the ACS J of Combi Chem: 12 action- packed issues a year!

    Now what? Two meagre pamphlets a year now? Ooops, sorry, re-launched as a catch-all basket of silliness. The endless cavalcade of quick-fixes to all of pharma's woes speeds ever onward....

  5. So ... the only optimistic interview Chemjobber had was, the patent clerk. I wonder how I wake up every morning.

  6. Oh, the first interview (older chemist) had a nice ending. :-)

  7. This is a terrific post. I am (a PhD) one of the few who were able to land on my feet 9after let go from major pharma) and lot many are still in the job lot. MQ was right on the money that Pfizer started this disaster and took along with them others as well for this sorry situation. I have no doubt in my mind that the "job letting" was needless exercise carried out at the behest of Wall street along with irrational exuberance of the mangers. Truth be told, those who still hanging on to their jobs are the very people who brought us to this state! I am still waiting for the new model to appear. That said, there is still some role for biologists. As for the organic chemist's- their days are numbered and I am deeply concerned for those who are currently enrolled for PhD's. I asked an enthusiastic fellow not to enroll for PhD and that his masters will see him through retirement.
    CJ: You are doing terrific service and you must also get the perspective of PhD students out there who are ready for the job, but disillusioned.

  8. @Anon8:44 - Here, here! Tell those PhD's to get out of school, so that I might apply for the jobs they would have had otherwise! :)

  9. @Arr Oh. They'll probably make more money than you, too. Win-win!

  10. @1:02

    Exactly what I was thinking when I read Anon@9:50, lol.

    As bad as MQ's outlook is, it's about time we just got real. Chemists have been getting shafted for a decade now and it's time we just started moving on. It's happened before (manufacturing and farming?) and it's going to happen to us.

  11. If anyone would like to paste their stories up to discourage young chemists from taking your job this site seems to be taking anything:

    I'm not alone...that is so comforting.

  12. All of you which state that people should leave with a MS, please take MQ seriously:

    Also, good BS/MS scientists used to be worth their weight in gold. With the advent of more and more outsourcing, I fear that the days of associate level scientists are numbered, just like those old Quests.

    I am also a MS chemist and this is so true! Who is being laid off? It is not the PhDs with their closed door offices! Its the folks in the lab being outsourced to make their managers look good. If you are not sure don't go to grad school at all. A BS has so much less opportunity cost, and I've seen BS chemist promoted to MS level in less time than it takes to go to grad school.

  13. "Those jobs are long gone, or at least until the costs become so prohibitive to outsource. At that point I wonder if big pharma will simply stop doing the R part of R&D and move towards a development-driven model and let someone else do the risky parts of the business. Risk-sharing is the corporate-speak, but it seems like risk-aversion, which is funny considering that science and discovery is inherently a risky business."

    I have been wondering the same thing. If you believe it cannot happen, take a gander at other industries. What has happened in consumer products? How much R is in their R&D? If any R bench work is being done, is it being done internally or externally?

  14. @1:48 ... uhm that was by far the most depressing link ever.

  15. The phrase "One more brick in the wall" comes to mind for some reason. Can't imagine why...

  16. When CJ and I discussed this interview, my company had just gone through another series of layoffs, which included some really good friends of mine. I did the Q&A, but held onto it for a while, then went back and cleared out a fair amount of the negativity. Clearly it's not a happy-go-lucky blurb, for sure, but I think it captures how most people working in pharma feel right now. We're all feeling the pressure.

    I apologize for the heaviness of the tone. We all could use some cheering up, that's for sure.

    About the only thing that might be cheerful is the understanding that the CROs are cutting each others throats to poach good employees from each other, especially in China. This is bumping salaries up in a substantial way, so much so that there has to be an increase in the cost to companies using their services because the profit margins at those places can't be large. At some point the cost is going to become an issue, but the goal of working with those places isn't strictly cheaper pairs of hands. It's establishing a presence on the ground, and developing relationships with the movers-and-shakers so we can sell products to those massive markets going forward.

    @anon 5:35am

    I wish I had a real concrete answer for you, because I've been trying to figure it out myself.

    The main issue is that jobs that MS level folks with experience used to try to go into are now being taken by PhDs who realize they might be next in line for the axe in their discovery positions. Patent liaisons, Program Management, Regulatory Affairs, Decision Sciences. A number of PhD colleagues of mine have moved into those roles in the past few years. I can't tell you how many folks I know who have gotten or are getting MBAs. It's somewhat ridiculous, really, because now there's an over-saturation of science folks with MBAs thinking they'll be more marketable. Again, if you've got an MS and and MBA and have 15 years in, it will be hard to compete with a 25 year old with an MBA fresh out of school...

    It's harder and harder for a non-PhDs to even be considered for other positions right now (at least where I am) because hiring managers have their pick of the litter, and they almost always seem to go with someone with a PhD if they can. Being an MS guy with my experience makes it really hard because I'm at a PhD equivalent level, but don't have that degree. Makes it harder to do a lateral move, and many managers don't want to drop someone's title for fear of 'demoralizing' them. Rock, meet hard place.

    I'm thinking about doing an internship in the cafeteria here. I make one hell of a burger!


  17. Ugh this is all very depressing, all around. I'm currently writing my thesis and leaving a pharm sci (doing med chem) program with a masters partly due to the sour outlook for chemists and partly due to some real bullcrap that went down in my department. It sucks because looking back at my notebooks stirs passion for chemistry, but then i read things like this and it pours water on the fire.

    I've been applying for jobs some in pharma, some adjunct/instructing, and some in the industry I want to go into...craft brewing. I think they're more receptive currently than any science jobs I've applied to. There also seems to be a future of non-outsourceable jobs over there.

  18. " it will be hard to compete with a 25 year old with an MBA fresh out of school..."

    I don't agree with this statement. I am currently in a MBA program. Average age of people starting an MBA program at my school is 29 or 30. Even if a 23 year old could get into a decent MBA program (highly unlikely), they would have a difficult time gaining as much from the program as someone with work experience.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20