Pierre has a lot to say in his story, so I’m going to bring it to you under the jump. I hope you enjoy; I certainly did.
What follows is an e-mail exchange between Pierre and Chemjobber; it has been lightly edited for clarity.
Chemjobber: Can you tell us a little about your background?
(Hmmm... “ChemDraw wizard”, I wonder if I can get that written on my business card)
I am 30 years old, heavily trained in Chemistry and I come from a French educational background. I did a 2-year undergrad technician training in chemistry at the IUT of Orsay, France. I then went on to a so-called Engineering School of Chemistry, called Chimie ParisTech (formerly known as ENSCP in Paris, France) from which I graduated in 2006. The French Engineer degree would be equivalent to an American Master's degree.
Early on I was attracted towards chemical research, and as part of my training at the IUT of Orsay I worked as a technician intern at BASF in Ludwigshafen, Germany, which gave me a first exposure of industrial research. While studying at Chimie ParisTech I did an internship as a medicinal chemist at GSK in Stevenage, UK, where I was exposed to the pharma medchem environment and I really liked it. In 2005 I thought it would be easy to get a job in pharma after finishing my Ph.D. I took part in an exchange program between Chimie ParisTech and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I started my Ph.D. studies in Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2005, at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Division of Medicinal Chemistry and Chemical Biology (known at that time as Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products).
It may be getting into too much detail, but I think it helps to better understand who I am: I was trained as an organic chemist, and organic chemistry was already my favorite course very early in undergrad. My Ph.D. project was quite interesting in that it was a mix of organic chemistry and biology, consisting in synthesizing chemical tools to probe biological systems. We reached a bottleneck rather early in the project, because there were too many chemists making molecules and too little biologists to test them. I switched from organic synthesis to protein biology (I was never formally trained in biology) and I learned everything on the fly at the bench with the help of biology Ph.D students and postdocs. So you may say I acquired a "dual" chemistry/biology profile and I graduated in 2010 from UNC. I am quite proud of what I did, even though the project didn't work out in the end (drug target identification is a very tricky business) I learned a lot from it, which is I guess the most important thing if you're doing a Ph.D. I do have to point that I had a wonderful advisor, Harold Kohn, who made this possible by giving me the independence to drive my thesis project. After graduating I went to do a 2-year postdoc in medicinal chemistry in Strasbourg, France.
Obviously the crisis changed everything in the research world while I was doing my Ph.D., but I thought that an American Ph.D. degree would give me an edge later when looking for a job in Europe. It would have probably been the case without the crisis, but that’s not true anymore. For U.S. readers, I do have to mention that in order to get a high-level research position in Europe, either academic or industrial, it is somewhat mandatory to have been trained in the U.S. For most people, it's the postdoc training.
How long had you been looking for a position in chemistry? What was your goal?
I had been looking for positions since end of January 2012. Obviously I was still in my postdoc (that ended in Sep 2012), so I would look for jobs in the evenings and on weekends. I should also add that I was looking for industry positions WORLDWIDE, as in the US, Germany, Belgium, UK, Switzerland, China, Singapore, Australia. Actually everywhere but France, mainly because research salaries in France are not what you can call competitive, and the Ph.D. degree itself is not even well recognized. My personal impression, and also the impression of many of my Ph.D. friends in France who look for jobs, is that it's actually more of a handicap when you're looking for employment.
I wasn't as efficient at it as I could have been, because looking for a job actually IS a full-time job, but I think I kept it up well, and then starting my unemployed period in September 2012 I had much more time to look. Actually it's the only thing I had to do! Despite all of that, despite being open to relocate worldwide, I only got a few interviews that didn't pan out or for which the follow-up process got long and the rest was negative replies (in cases where I had a reply). To be fair, I also understand a company's point of view who's not going to hire someone thousands of miles away when they have hundreds of local candidates equally well qualified.
Of course, I was just replying to posted job offers on companies' websites, or job searching engines. I had very few connections, because in grad school they don't teach you how to get a job and how to network. Maybe they should seriously think about it. Aside from my last (successful) job interview, 4 of the 6 interviews I got invited to were obtained through former colleagues and friends.
So that's what I was aiming for: Industry R&D. And after 2 months of unemployment, when you start getting REALLY fed up of sending applications everyday without a reply, I decided to capitalize on my ChemDraw skills to get some publicity. I already had in mind the potential a YouTube video could have, mainly because I had done live software demonstrations in group meetings and seminars and every single time the audience was blown away. But for sure, when I posted the video I wasn’t expecting a reaction that enthusiastic!
The only good part about unemployment is that you have time to do stuff... so I really took my time and prepared a video that would look professional. I learnt from watching other YouTube video tutorials in general what to do and what not to do and with my laptop, a pair of headphones and a mic, a free screen video capture software and Windows Live Movie Maker, I prepared this video. It took me 5 days to get everything done. Learning from my mistakes, and if I had to redo it again I could probably get it done in 2 days. The subtitles took me 1.5 days to type and insert properly in Windows Live Movie Maker but I guess a proper video editing software could also drastically reduce that time.
I released it on November 18th and I started the advertising campaign right away. That is to say: sharing/spamming massively on Facebook, LinkedIn, sending the link by e-mail to my professors and asking them to forward it, as well as to everybody I could think of, scientists or not. I guess what has played a big role was sending it to Derek Lowe right away and luckily he blogged about it the very next day. Stuart Cantrill, the editor of the Nature Chemistry blog, also covered it. The overall result is over 3700 views in the first 24h and over 10,000 views in 10 days. Right now it’s been online for 2 months and it's above 16,500 views. That’s nothing more than a logarithmic curve I’m describing.
As a result of the buzz that was generated, Philip Skinner, Director of U.S. Field Marketing for Perkin Elmer Informatics, was invited to do a Q&A session on Derek's blog one week after the video was released, and then after that session I decided to simply ask him by e-mail if "there were positions available within Perkin Elmer Informatics for an organic chemist who doesn't know how to program but who knows how to use the software".
Since I’m based in Paris, he forwarded me right away to Mary Donlan, Director of the European Field Marketing for Perkin Elmer Informatics, for whom I now work, who happened to live literally 10 min away from my apartment. As a result, I had lunch with her 2 days later, to talk about an open position she had in the European Field Marketing team, and 2 weeks after that I had a formal interview with the rest of them. A couple days later, I had a job offer that I accepted and I officially started to work for Perkin Elmer Informatics on Jan 2nd. But after posting my video on YouTube, I essentially got a job offer within the next month.
If you need a definition of Field Marketing, it is synonymous with Application Specialist, that is the person demonstrating the capabilities of our software to potential customers (pre-Sales role). The very nature of the job is to travel to wherever the customers are in your area - for me Europe, Middle-East, Africa - to offer tailored scientific software solutions to companies or institutions. And my scientific training also comes in handy, since a researcher understands well what other researchers may need! Finally, as a child I grew up in many different countries, and I really like to travel, so from that perspective too the job is quite a nice fit for my profile.
What are the differences in the job market for chemists in Europe and the US?
In my opinion I think it's bad on both sides of the Atlantic. A lot of companies, US or European, are relocating their R&D towards Asia, so if you're willing to relocate there may be some chances but I do understand how difficult it could be for somebody who's not used to travel, or simply somebody with a family. There are really just the same problems in Europe as there are in the US. Just to be clear: I’m talking about chemical research jobs because that’s my area of training. I don’t know much about the state of the market for process or chemical engineering jobs, but my personal guess would be that the situation must be quite similar.
If you look for advertised open positions, there are almost exclusively only "senior" positions open. That or every company wants an entry-level with at least 2-3 years of "experience" and a postdoc in academia doesn’t generally even count. Give fresh graduates a chance guys! It breaks my heart as a research scientist to hear that research-dependent companies cut their R&D budgets to get short-term profits. I haven't done an MBA but to me that's more like shooting yourself with a rocket in the foot. It really feels like some of these companies are led by businessmen rather than business-trained researchers. To me that’s a pity, but what can I do?
I do have to say that despite this trend of big companies to hire mainly experienced personnel, there are a few, like Perkin Elmer, that have no problems hiring some fresh blood and train them. And a few other ones within the chemical industry also show a similar way of thinking based on the interactions that I've personally had with their Human Resources. These companies are not Pharma, but they still do Chemistry and need talented chemists to work for them. I do believe that too many researchers or Ph.D. students looking for jobs are exclusively focused on pharma after an organic chemistry degree (that's also a mistake that I've made).
Can you tell us how you got your skills in working with ChemDraw?
How I got my skills... Simply put: A) through boredom and B) because I'm an ex-video gamer. Let me explain:
A) I acquired my skills via trial and error. Some days in the lab, you just don't want to do anything at the bench - I’m sure quite a few readers here can relate to that statement - and it happened that one day I took some of this time to get a better knowledge of ChemDraw, and I decided to methodically press every single key of the keyboard while positioning my mouse cursor over an atom, or over a bond, and I discovered quite a few interesting things! Namely the most important one was the sprouting command, which I consider the outmost useful command in ChemDraw (by default pressing "0" for those of you who don't know yet!). A bit later I realized that there was this thing called an instruction manual, where 90% of the things I present in the video are actually described!
B) The remaining 10% may be written, but difficult to find unless you dig deep. That was the "hotkeys" file. I used to play quite a bit of video games when I was younger, and I enjoyed from time to time playing Counter-Strike with friends. In this kind of game you essentially have to rely on hotkeys to access different “tools” quickly. Or you die. That's also one of the reasons why I really like also Adobe Photoshop, because every tool within the software has a designated key that you can press to quickly access the tool. I started using ChemDraw during my Ph.D. and very early on I was telling myself "the only thing that’s missing to this software is a quick way to change the drawing tools just like in Photoshop". There actually is such a way to do so but it took me a while to figure it out.
Bottom line is: it shouldn't take you longer to draw a molecule on a computer screen than to draw it by hand. And you know what? When I (nicely) draw Viagra by hand, I actually take more than 20 sec... But really, how I got there is trial and error, and digging. Just like research.
There are a lot of chemists who like working with computers -- what advice would you give to them?
Chemists who like working with computers: check out Perkin Elmer Informatics! There may be a position for you if you are knowledgeable about chemistry and programming. Or if you're just an expert user of one particular software but have no programming skills (like myself for example) and you're looking for something different, yet related to research, then have a look! Seriously, if your skill set includes expert proficiency in Tibco Spotfire, contact me!
More generally, my message to young research chemists out there looking for a job: Observe and learn from the current market: in 2013 it won't work anymore for you to have a Ph.D. and a postdoc in the same field (say, Organic Chemistry for example), unless you have had the proper postdoc advisor everybody wants to work for and who has the right contacts within the pharmaceutical industry. There are plenty of other non-pharma chemical companies to work for, or the food and fragrance industries, patent offices. I applied for a position as scientific attaché for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I got an interview. If it doesn't work go to Australia, there are research jobs in Australia (or so it looks)! Some countries within the Middle East are taking off in terms of research activity (but more on the biomedical side). If the market is overcrowded in the US and Europe, go where it's not crowded, take a chance! I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s not impossible to do! As scientists you know about Evolution, and the need to adapt in order to survive, and right now the job market is for sure putting a lot of evolutionary pressure on everyone.
DI-VER-SI-FY! Change is GOOD, change is FUN! … but be careful how you phrase that sentence if you’re talking about it to your partner. Getting out of your comfort zone is extremely important, and it's the best way to keep learning. If you're reading this, have not finished your Ph.D. and if you are seriously thinking about a postdoc: do it in a different field! If you've never done polymers or material sciences go do a postdoc in polymers or material sciences! You'll get better chances to find a job later, and it'll also show you're open-minded. And if you’re not seriously thinking about a postdoc, then don’t do one and try to find a job directly!
Get out of the lab more and network! If you're in grad school and need an accurate definition of networking at your level: go get drinks with your labmates and bring some outside friends (you don't HAVE to necessarily get hammered, but you get the picture). These students you're having fun with on a Saturday night in a bar will one day become lab managers, directors, and if they get there before you do, they'll help, and vice/versa. If both of you have jobs, you'll go get get a couple drinks one evening to talk about “Remember that time when you didn’t secure the water hose on your reflux condenser before going home?” - Rings a bell huh? - and you'll recommend each other people who you know are looking for a job. Seriously, that's how it works. Roughly 80-90% of the industrial positions you're looking for are filled in internally or by word-of-mouth. The remaining 10-20% are what you see on job searching engines and companies' websites career sections. Find something only you are good at and capitalize on that! Help others! Companies really like it when you make a great publicity for a product they sell. You can take my word for it.
I’ll wrap up with a message that I hope can inspire some of the younger (but also the less young) crowd who reads this blog and for whom things are probably gonna be tougher than they were for me. In real life things often don’t go the way you were envisioning them to go. It’s all about taking opportunities when you see them. There are no opportunities? Create them! That’s what I did, and the result is a pretty sweet how-I-got-my-first-job story. Creativity and initiative - these two qualities that are required to do research - can/should/must also be used outside the lab, and they may take you to different, unexpected places. And with my personal traveling experience, I know how scary it can be to move to a brand new place especially when you don’t know the language. But guess what, languages can be learnt! And man, after those first weeks passed on my new job and all those exciting challenges that lie ahead, you cannot imagine how glad I am to have posted that YouTube video (and maybe, just maybe, there’s a second one in the making). I can safely say that Viagra has changed my life … but perhaps not in the way it’s intended to.