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.