Monday, October 17, 2011

The Layoff Project: chemists helping chemists cope with unemployment

UPDATE II: To read all Layoff Project articles, click here. 

This is something that I've wanted to do for a long while and I've been putting it off for the right moment. With the impending announcements of Amgen and Merck layoffs, I feel like this is the right moment.

I would like to collect as many oral histories of layoffs in the chemical and pharmaceutical world as people will send me. I would also like to hear as much advice for people who will be laid off in the coming rounds (late 2011 through 2012) focusing on a few questions:
  • What should you do the first week? Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job?  
  • How can your family and friends help? 
  • Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful?  
  • What financial advice can you offer?
    • What should/did you do? 
    • What should you NOT do? 
  • When did you start looking for another position? 
  • How painful was finding another position? 
    • What should someone be emotionally prepared for? 
  • How did you spend your typical day? 
    • What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? 
  • Have you found new work? What was helpful there? 
This is at the very beginning, so advice would be really helpful. Comments are helpful, either to this post or to the e-mail address: chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com.

(I've never asked this, but I will this time: please consider e-mailing this post to your non-blog-reading colleagues. Thanks -- you guys are great.)

UPDATE: One more thing: anonymity guaranteed.

UPDATE II: To read all Layoff Project articles, click here. 


  1. This is a great idea! I hope you get a lot of stories.

  2. OK, here is my recommendation: If your prospective employer treats you like shit during the job interview, don't take their offer even if you are desperate.

    If the HR is disorganized and utterly disinterested in making your job interview a pleasant experience - or if they make you pee in the cup as a required drug test, give them negative points worth 10k /year. (The chances are that everyone working there is treated badly by the administration and the management is either impotent or disinterested to improve the situation)

    These points are self-evident but in times of greatest job crisis AFAICR the job applicants are afraid to turn down a crappy job offer or a job interview because they worry they may never get another.

  3. Some companies make you take a drug test during an interview?!?

  4. If your company may be announcing layoffs, make sure you are prepared. Bring home your personal things and personal books prior to announcements. If you have collected professional contacts throughout your career make sure you have a copy of the contact information at home, not just at work.

    Spend every cent of your pre-tax health accounts that you can!

    One thing I heard of others who were laid off (or expecting to be laid off) were rushing through refinancing their adjustable rate mortgages. Once you no longer have a job, you will not be approved by a bank.

    Outplacement companies are not generally helpful for chemistry positions. I submitted a resume to a professional outplacement consultant because it was a requirement to be able to post to the jobs in their database. The changes the person wanted me to make would have made me look like I knew nothing about chemistry! I ended up not posting my resume to their page.

    The one thing that outplacement do help with is that you can meet others that are in a similar boat as you. Knowing you are not going through it alone really helps.

    If you are invited to 'pink slip' parties, go. Again being around others is important in times like this.

    It is easy to go a little stir crazy when you lose your job. I think I started checking mail 3-4 times a day. I was checking email constantly. Find something that you can do that is free to do that will get you out of the house every once in a while.

    You should start applying as soon as you are sure that your applications will not have an emotional tone. The timing depends on the individual.

    I did find new work. However most of the interviews I got were on the other side of the country. I ended up moving. Some who I know who lost work in the same city had to change careers to find work. Be flexible, yet don't give up hope on your current career.

  5. Thanks for this important post. We have set up a blog aggregator, you can visit and subscribe to get updates via Google feed reader in your e-mail.

  6. @Unstable isotope
    A few companies administer drug tests at the conclusion of the interview if they have onsite health services and analysis. Not all require urine, but some do. Make sure you drink plenty at lunch! :-)

  7. The most important thing you can do is prepare before the layoffs happen. Make sure you have contact information for everyone you can think of, even if you think you'll never contact them. Make copies of things like evaluations - they come in handy when you're writing your resume. Make sure you have any technical information you might need. Be careful about confidentiality, but future employers will ask for research summaries and research presentations - unless you have a perfect memory, you'll need some notes so you can remember what you did, and once the layoff notices go out, you probably won't have access.

    Financially speaking, if you get severence, don't pay off debts right away. I paid off my student loans because I got this big chunk of severence and I thought I would be working again within a month or two. After 9 months, I needed the cash - I could have deferred the student loan payments. Pay very close attention to information about collecting unemployment, signing up for COBRA, etc. COBRA is frighteningly expensive but if you get sick (I got seriously ill right after being laid off), it can literally save your life. If you think layoffs are on the way in 2012, you might consider the COBRA cost when you sign up for insurance this year - you can't switch plans so you're stuck with whatever you had at the time.

    If your layoff is sudden, you may want to try and get together with your former coworkers (in person or virtually) within a few days. I found out a lot of useful information from them, and ended up getting a job lead from a coworker who didn't want to relocate. After a few days, people start scattering and you will lose many of those contacts. And this is a cliche, but tell everyone you know you're looking. I got my current job from a friend of my cousin, even though she didn't work in science. You never know.

    I found the "outplacement" assistance pretty useless, but my employer offered free EAP, and surprisingly I found it useful. I had another reason for seeing a therapist, but actually, she was really helpful to give me someone to talk to about my job search - my friends and family were tired of hearing about it pretty quickly.

  8. I am facing possible severance this month. I have been preparing for this uncertainty by updating my contacts list, LinkedIN profile, mortgage refi, and checking on which of my presentations have been cleared. And I have been networking like crazy - in other areas OUTSIDE chemistry. There is a whole other world outside science. Like it or not, the public and corporations don't value or trust scientists. So I am preparing to not be one any longer. I have to feed my family - that comes first. I greatly admire Carl Sagan's book, but there will be one less candle in the darkness. I cannot feed my family on hopes that chemistry will come back. It is a crying shame that Western society now eschews reason and critical thought, and thus scientists. Just look around at the greedy, unthinking, short-sighted corporate/political landscape. I have to feed my children and prepare them for the coming of this Medieval age.

  9. If your employers' severance package involves education reimbursement start looking for programs which you can complete with the funds and time allotted.

  10. It is very painful starting another position if your new position is in a company that is much further along in the changes the field of chemistry is currently undergoing. It is hard not to mourn the losses to the field. R&D is fundamentally changing. Some companies are further along in the cycle than others.

  11. EAP programs give financial advice. They aren't always the best but they can get you pointed in the right direction if you have specific questions.

  12. "the public and corporations don't value or trust scientists."

    I don't believe this is true. In my,admittedly limited experience, they're are other industries that value science. I work in finance evaluating drugs. this is a job, i feel, is really best done by chemists (I don;t think biologist/MDs really get how drugs work). I'm not tryiing to encourage people to try to do this and make my catchet less special, but you'll be aazed the salary and how much fun it is.

    Scientitists are still underrepresented on wall st. I think a group of 5 or 6 biologist and chemists could form a powerful hedge fund. I could have a connection to raise several hundred million to to start, which could lead to some profits. Also, think og how fun it wolf be to ask your former ceo how to justify X decision......

    if interest, conatct me

  13. I haven't experience a layoff myself but I have been through several layoff cycles. I think it should be very important to keep your contacts with your former colleagues, even if you do feel betrayed and angry. I doubt they will contact you, so you will probably have to contact them.

  14. Bridgestone took three chunks of my (freshly cut) hair at an interview several years back for a drug test. My wife was pissed.

  15. @bboooooooya:
    I think you missed the point of the statement. Scientists in the lab are generally undervalued and not trusted.

    Would you give up your amazing salary to work in a lab? Probably not, as it would probably be a huge step down in wages.

    Finance decisions such as merger and acquisitions are the reason why these scientists feel so undervalued. There are many examples of scientists who invented drugs which save or improve lives, just to have their employer acquired and their job terminated. Would you tolerate such treatment in your compensation package? Would any of your colleagues in finance?

  16. What should you do the first week? Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job? I jumped into a new job and really wish I'd taken some time off.
    How can your family and friends help? I don't think they can other than being as loving and supportive as usual (but maybe spending less).
    Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful? Updating of CV was helpful but none of the external people had any experience of research - they were all ex-financial people! Wish I'd pushed more for outplacement to chemical biology lab. It was a possibility but you always imagine this is going to be more hassle.
    What financial advice can you offer? Try and avoid unnecessary expense and re-evaluate your needs. Car share. Eat all the free stuff on offer at work.
    What should/did you do? If they are closing down labs get involved in donations of equipment/chemicals. I ended up in an academic group and really regret all the stuff we threw out.
    What should you NOT do? Try and settle grudges. One guy tried this in a public town-hall meeting at our site and I think everyone suffered as a result.
    When did you start looking for another position? ASAP.
    How painful was finding another position? It was clear pretty quick that I really had to be prepared to move to achieve a similar position/salary or look for something which would allow me to develop new skills even if it did mean a drop in salary.
    What should someone be emotionally prepared for? All emotions. Try not to dwell on the bad stuff - instead think of what you have learned that you feel have improved your skills/expertise/nature.
    How did you spend your typical day? Its weird but from the day of our closure announcement all useful work stopped! This left everyone with time on our hands and to be honest it was a real struggle to fill your day.
    What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? At the time I, like many people, were very critical of the company and how badly we'd all been treated. However, with hindsight I know I was allowed to wok at the cutting edge of drug discovery for a good number of years. I enjoyed it and I know it has left me with a great skill-set and a broad base of experience and knowledge.
    Have you found new work? What was helpful there? Yes. What was most helpful was to decide which directions I did not want to go in and this allowed me to focus on what I would consider. I ended up capitalising on my postgraduate work to allow me to move back into academic research.

  17. I was fortunate.
    At the time of my layoff, I had already survived years of downsizing, so I was at least mentally prepared for the possibility that the axe would hit me. I just didn't think it would come out of the blue. One day I was in a meeting receiving assignments on projects which would take months to fulfill, and the next day, I was called into the office to see the director, the assistant director, and the HR person behind a table with a single sheet of paper on it- my termination letter.

    Fortunately I was able to remove my personal belongings from my office- they were kind enough to give me a full day to do it. I had long ago started the habit of backing up my work computer and keeping personal files at home (away from the work computer). I had a nest egg too, that could tide me over for about a year if needed.

    I was already teaching college chemistry as an adjunct at nights, and when the next semester began, I was able to pick up more classes by asking for them. I was able to survive for a few years as an adjunct at two schools, working virtually full time for about 1/3 the pay. A short while after I lost my full time job, my husband was hired at a new job (that I found because I was constantly scanning the want ads).

    In my part time adjunct work, I tried to do as much as I could for my departments as though I were a tenure track assistant professor. I did research, I helped write grants, I advised students, I put in service- all with the idea that if I were not hired full time at one of these schools, at least I was gaining experience for my next job.

    Eventually, I ended up in a full time teaching position in a community college, and it pays much better than my research job or a faculty position at a private college would. I found that I love teaching, and though I do miss research, eventually... I'll pick it up again. I've kept up with my friends at the old job, and from time to time I talk with my former supervisor. It's not so awkward now that I'm in a good position.

  18. A1:45p:

    Would you like to answer the above questions and e-mail your answers to me? I'd love to hear more from you about your experiences.

    chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom