Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Say, what's the job market for industrial chemical biologists like, anyway?

From the inbox, a good question:
Would you be willing to submit a post for feedback on the outcome of the future job prospects for a chemical biologist verses an organic chemist? Chemical biology is a relatively new graduate path and the difference between this path and biochemistry is vague. 
I asked this question almost 3 years ago and was pretty skeptical about it. I presume that there are more jobs now than there were in 2012 for chemical biologists in industry, but I have no date. 

A brief check of Indeed shows 1 (one) position for a "chemical biologist" and lo-and-behold, it's at Pfizer (or was, anyway.) So maybe there's room for hope?

Readers, what do you think? 


  1. I did my postdoc in a chemical biology lab. It seemed to prepare people really well for academia, but I don't know where these people would fit in industry. Post-docs that came in with strong backgrounds from more traditional disciplines (organic, biochem, mol bio) seem to have found jobs in their original fields, but more on the merit of their Phd work. I don't think it helped me when I interviewed for industry jobs. I would have been better off doing more synthesis. That being said, I am in academia, so maybe it helped me get here. Regardless it was a fun multidisciplinary environment and I enjoyed doing research there.

    I definitely got the sense that the Phd students were neither trained as exceptional organic chemist or biochemist, so I don't know where they would get industry jobs. Something for all Phd students to remember is that you only have to put in X hours on mastering your project/field and it is a good idea to study up on other things you find interesting.

  2. In industry chemical biologist means the "new" natural product chemist. By that I mean the resurgence of natural product chemistry fueled by the rapid advances in sequencing/genomics. Heavy on microbiology and molecular biology/bio-informatics. In academia, chemical biologist means making very simple "tool" compounds and maybe running some simple assays. Be very careful if you choose a "chemical biology" group for your Ph.D. No one will hire you unless you are an expert at something.

  3. I'm actually coming out of a division named "chemical biology", and my peers and I have found positions. Most of us aren't moving into hardcore organic synthesis, but that is a field with limited options these days anyway. If I were to be over-broad, I would say that the emphasis in our training was less hard core biochemistry than learning how to answer biological questions with chemical tools. At the risk of being flippant, think pharmacologists who aren't afraid of molecular structures. I might not do it exactly the same way again, but the overall experience was good and I am employed.

  4. Somehow industry complains that no one is properly 'training' the people coming to them, but insists that for drug-discovery work combining chemistry and biology that you have a total-synthesis background and not have wasted your postdoc learning chemical biology or other silly things.


  5. I always loved, and still love, chemical biology. I did PhD and postdoc projects that involved both synthesis and biochemistry/molecular biology. And there is a place for chemical academia.

    Industry is different. You don't see people synthesizing compounds, then running down the hall to run them through biological assays. Chemists make the compounds; biologists run them through assays; in vivo biologists run the animal models; bioanalytical chemists do the DMPK... Because time is more important than money (somewhat the opposite of academia), it's better to have dedicated experts in every area than a bunch of jack-of-all-trades.

    That said, if I had two expert biologists, and one of them came from a chemical biology background, I would probably hire the candidate with a better feel for chemistry--all other things being equal.

  6. Narrow specialization still rules in hiring and promotion. While an inter-disciplinary experience will help understand what downstream people need the company will seldom recognize anything outside of the candidate's main specialty.

    This is the principle of the specialist - generalist - philosopher food pyramid in a R&D based company. Most openings are for specialists and usually there are more generalists around than needed.

  7. I got my PhD with arguably one of the top (or maybe even the top) chemical biologists in the world (I'll let you guess which, I guess). Everyone who wanted jobs in industry was able to find a job. I think most of the people only had to apply to a few places before they got offers. Yeah, a chemical biologist is not going to be able to compete with someone who did their PhD in a total synthesis group, but they're all too busy competing for 3 different positions anyway.

    At least the way my advisors group was set up, you typically specialized on a specific skillset during your PhD. For example as a chemist, you spent most of your PhD making compounds, and then you'd work with a biologist in the group to test them. So chemistry PhDs left the group with strong synthetic skills, while biologists left with all their required cloning and cell experience. The nice thing though is that as a chemistry PhD in a chemical biology group, you leave with an ability to think about biology the way a biologist does. Every person who I've talked to that has gone on interviews has said that this was seen as a positive during their interview process.

  8. Anonymous: Exactly. There's such a difference between expecting everyone to come out with all the skills of both disciplines and having enough experience to jointly discuss approaches with one's colleagues in another discipline. In our division, I saw several of my peers go into assay development and target validation. It's not so much that you are expected to synthesize a novel nanomolar enzyme inhibitor in those groups as being able to find reasonable probes and tool compounds, and use those small-molecule tools intelligently for better assays. If the probe being used can be exploited to get some SAR data, all the better.

  9. Well I did my Ph.D in a synthesis group and my post doc in "one of the top" chemical biology groups too. I've been on three plant trips so far and no one gave a shit about any of my post doc work. All they cared about was the synthesis. On a side note though, I probably only got the interviews because of where my boss works.

  10. Here I was thinking the arrogance of the Pharma about only org syn chemists as making the best med/discovery chemists (saw capability for making compounds more important since can train up "anybody on biology they require" mantra) had faded somewhat with surge in past decades with less small molecules/more biologics and trend for outsourcing analog preparations however the comments appear to suggest this type attitude remains well ingrained. As pointed out drug R&D really takes multidisciplinary teams and people who can cross over, in communications and lab ability, can often make the difference in making things go smoothly. Encountered smart people who are prejudiced against others of different scientific backgrounds (or school/PI heritages) that created more disruption than contribution because would not consider input form "lesser colleagues".


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20