Monday, March 18, 2013

Derek Lowe, on a career in pharma

From a very interesting interview in Trends in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Derek Lowe speaks:
TIPS: What advice would you offer someone interested in pursuing a career in the pharma industry today? 
I’m tempted to say ‘Run for your life!’ But that's not quite accurate, or not yet. What I would emphasize, though, is that it's a terrible time to be an undistinguished scientist doing drug discovery, at least in a high-wage country. The grunt work is easier to hire out to people who will do it for less money, so my advice to people is to try to give them something that they can’t buy so easily in Shanghai or Bangalore. And even as these places get more expensive, and the acute phase of outsourcing passes, the point remains that you should always have a good answer to the question ‘Why do we pay you?’ You should try, as much as possible, to be able to do some things that no one else around in the company can do, which will usually mean keeping up with new research ideas as they emerge. Or thinking up your own, of course. 
Other advice: you’ll probably find yourself starting with, or working at, smaller companies than you might have imagined. I think that there's a shift in the population of drug researchers, with proportionally fewer of them at the large organizations and more in the smaller ones. So you’d better be prepared to move from job to job as well, because the smaller companies are probably going to be a bumpier ride. A corollary to that is to strongly consider moving to an area that has a good startup culture, so that there's a better chance of finding somewhere else to go when and if the time comes.
Well, that's all over good news.

7 comments:

  1. So basically its no longer enough to be a smart guy doing a decent, basically competent job.

    You now have to be the best of the best.

    I think this kind of sucks.

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    1. My adviser tried to convince me once that things weren't that bad- You just have to be in the top half. I said that works the first round of cuts, but how many places have just had one?
      For years I felt bad for blue-collar workers that had their jobs shipped overseas. For years I convinced myself that I would be inoculated against that fate by getting an education. It seems I was about twenty years behind the times. It's one thing to be expected to stay on top of developments in your field and make yourself useful to the company. It's quite another to do it in the present environment of continual re-organizations and lay-offs, where even if you are doing all you can your division might just go poof as the executives decide to refocus for the umpteenth time.

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  2. "Definitely be a graduate of one of the oldest and most established groups at the top schools, because thirty years after tenure is when these professors are most creative and innovative. You have to be an expert in synthetic organic chemistry, even though that's the thing that's easiest to export, and not a medicinal chemist, because medicinal chemistry is what they're going to want to train you in. And focus on natural products isolation and synthesis, since that's where we get none of our leads."

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    1. Worth noting that Dr. Lowe dogs classic total synthesis pretty hard on ItP.

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    2. Yes, good point, and no disrespect meant to Dr. Lowe. The weird institutional hiring criteria, to judge by posts and comments here and at ItP, are the intended target. :)

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  3. The best advice was to run, and run far!

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  4. Everything Dr. Lowe says is true. In the long run you just can't compete by keeping your head down and chugging away. In order to be a successful scientist in industry you have to keep improving your skills. The range of skills necessary extend beyond specialized techniques to getting better at creating value both by building your understanding of what creates actual value in the laboratory and reducing waste. Of course this all works best if the entire company is thinking this way.

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