Thursday, January 29, 2015

Brett: "leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made."

Our latest (of many!) entries in the "quitting chemistry graduate school" series is from "Brett" (this submission has been lightly edited for clarity and privacy): 
1. Why did you leave?
First, I wasn't in a chemistry program but a pharmaceutical sciences program at Big State School. I had started working for a new professor who'd only been there a year - I was [their] third grad student. While a PharmSci department, our lab was an unabashed synthetic lab with a "med chem" veneer.  
After my first year the boss ran into a family situation: [their spouse] and kids moved across country for a very well paying job and [they were] stuck. [Their] frequent week long visits to [their] family led to some friction with the department which culminated in [their] summary termination. And that was that.  
The lab was dissolved, one grad student left the school and the two more senior students were unceremoniously shuttled to other labs to start over. I kinda lucked out in that I was given off to a collaborator in the department who was looking at the biosynthesis of my target molecule. They basically just cut me loose to continue working on my molecule knowing I’d have little help from anyone else if I found a serious chemistry issue. This wore thin very fast and six months after the change I told my new boss I was giving them a six month warning and then leaving with a masters. 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
I was very devastated immediately after being told that the lab was dissolving. The chemistry problems began to stack up and I became very disillusioned with the field in general. Reading the blogs didn’t help. This was a few years after the big market crash so my future seemed pretty bleak. I stopped working weekends and started keeping more normal business hours as I began to phone it in.  
As I said above, I chewed it over for about 6 months before telling my boss I was leaving. At that point I started finishing up what I could, which amounted to very little, wrote up my thesis, and began applying everywhere and anywhere. THAT was especially soul-crushing. Nearly 100 CVs sent all over the country for anything related to the field with nary a response. At the same time I seriously considered just leaving the field and began applying to jobs at different craft breweries. I had way more callbacks for those jobs but an offer didn’t materialize before I had a very tempting offer at Big Pharma. 
3. Where are you now? 
I am a medicinal chemist at a big pharma company. My job has changed several times since I started working here from a more, support/optimization chemist to a full blown med chemist. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
I think leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. If anyone asks if I’d go back my answer is ‘no’. Full stop. No debate.  
While the decision was good, I would not consider myself overly happy right now. The job pays well and has excellent benefits; I however, find myself almost completely ambivalent towards chemistry. I enjoyed my first position a good deal since it dealt with just synthetic chemistry, no biology or SAR. I’ve come to realize I am not cut out for this and just CANNOT find the interest in the actual fundamentals of med chemistry. If I had been offered a job in a brewery post grad-school I would have taken it in a heartbeat. Even with the inferior pay I feel I would have been happier. I don’t see myself sticking to chemistry for the long run. I’ve burned out too badly and have been mulling options for a while now.
Best wishes to "Brett" and thanks to him for his story. Want to tell the world about leaving graduate school in chemistry? E-mail me at  


  1. I really didn't enjoy the biology aspect of med chem so I recently switched over to process chemistry in big pharma...I definitely enjoy it a lot more

  2. hi brett,
    time to start experimenting in your own basement it sounds like!

  3. I like how many of these stories boil down to Homer Simpson's quote: "If you don't like your job, you don't quit. You just go in every day and do your job really half-assed. That's the American way!"

  4. I wish I could contribute some sage advise on the subject of selecting a bust-proof group to join. Alas, I participated in two lab dissolving ceremonies. On top of that, after I graduated from my third group that lab was dissolved a year after I finished my degree.

    Let me know if anybody scored higher than 2 1/2.

  5. Application to industry (Pharma/Biotech) if you are giving 50% for dissolution/destruction by M&A <1 year after leaving (4x) and 100% for direct experience (2x) would score 4. Although since worked at several small start ups where less surprising could be weighted differently.

  6. The bottom line is that it's really, really hard to find a job that you truly like from the bottom of your heart. 99% of people on this planet work because they get some satisfaction from their jobs, but most importantly because it pays the bills. By no stretch do they work because it makes them feel ecstatic. So while I sympathize with Brett's sentiment about not really being able to put his heart and soul into his job, welcome to the real world.