Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ask CJ: what are prospects for Ph.D. graduates of drug design/medicinal chemistry programs?

From the inbox, a good question: 
I'm a grad student [redacted] with projects and papers that have focused on drug design and medchem rather than the more "hardcore" total synthesis and methodology work.  Do you think I really have any chance of getting a pharma job in the current job market?
I've been asking various people in the industry and out and answers seem to vary wildly, some of the variability I'm sure is what year they are using as their reference in their mind.  Some say yes, though with much better odds at a smaller startup company.  Others say a flat out no, that you must have a postdoc, and the bigger the name brand lab you can get into the better (preferably in total synthesis or methodology). 
Great question. Since I'm not a medicinal chemist, I thought I would ask Derek Lowe. Here's our (very brief) conversation via Twitter.
Me: is the received wisdom still graduate students in medicinal chemistry programs are at relative disadvantage in hiring?  
DL: I think there's still some of that out there, but I think that it's gradually improved. Would be interested in more takes on it!
I suspect the number of data points is relatively small, so I can't imagine that there is definitive information out there. In lieu of that, I'd love to hear reader thoughts on this question, especially in reference to your company's recent entry-level Ph.D. hires. 

55 comments:

  1. In my previous job at a major pharmaceutical company they would never hire people from "pharmacy school" who got their PHD like this individual. The reason-they want you to know as much chemistry as possible (success, failure in various methodologies) so that you can get out of problems should you face one in medicinal chemistry projects in the company. My advice-do some post doc in some natural product synthesis so that you can be well complimented. But then again the pharma template has changed so much, I wonder what they believe now? Also this dude has to asses how influential is his supervisor and that can make huge (I am sorry "yuge") difference! Good luck.

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  2. I was in the job market last year for an entry-level medchem position. While I did meet some people with medchem PhD's during my interviews, they were a small minority. Industry still really likes people from total synthesis and methodology backgrounds. As the comment above stated you're mostly hired for your synthetic chemistry skills and expect you to learn the medchem once you're there.

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  3. Much like Organic chemistry Ph.D.'s, it will matter where you did you training in medicinal chemistry. Not all medicinal chemistry Ph.D.'s are the same, so it's a bit naive to say you have a degree and can you be competitive in a vacuum. I personally know people from well-respected groups that received medicinal chemistry Ph.D.'s that did very well (in recent years). However, the one question I would have is: what makes you so different to not expect to do a post-doc? I agree that most jobs still tend to go to the organic synthesis people - why, I really have no idea (yeah, I know, problems solvers, etc. - and by the way, I got my Ph.D. doing total synthesis as well) - a quality (emphasis on quality) medicinal chemistry Ph.D. would be able to start actually doing the job right away versus just making molecules for the first X months. I was speaking at an ACS conference a couple years ago with several other VP's of chemistry from pharma/biotech and they all said they wished they had more "med chem-ready" applicants; but then when asked where they were hiring from, to a person, they said - traditional organic synthesis groups with big names.

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    1. Going to apologize for calling me the Gestapo?

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    2. Hadn't planned on it. But, thanks for asking.

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    3. Shows the kind of person you are.

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    4. I have to admit I'm following this thread with interest.

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    5. It actually doesn't show anything about me. But, again, thanks for bringing it up - again. Maybe time for you to move on.

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    6. You're someone who calls people Nazis when you can't find your blog comment, and you can't find it in yourself to apologize, either, and you'd like me to forget it.

      As I said, shows the kind of person you are.

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    7. As Mike Tomlin likes to say, "you should not live in your fears", and it appears this is what you are doing. Maybe try not to censor in the future. Time to move on Chemjobber - it's good for the soul.

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    8. Your comment was not deleted. It's still there. http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2016/09/does-this-work.html?showComment=1480428100038#c553932746727217849

      You have to click on the "load more" button at the bottom of the page.

      You are an unrepentant liar and someone who cannot admit when they were wrong. Until you apologize, I will remind you of this when you post on my blog.

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    9. Again, you should not live in your fears. Do what you must, but you cannot say you haven't deleted posts in the past. Kettle and pot, come to mind. With your last comment, I have to believe you are in 6th grade?

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    10. Of course I've deleted comments from you and others. I do not apologize for having a fairly firm hand in moderating this blog's comments.

      But I didn't delete that comment that you left on the Faculty Open Thread (it's still there), and you called me a Nazi. This demonstrates that you are unable to admit when you are wrong, and someone who tosses off insults and expects others to forget them.

      You seem like an intelligent person, which is why, in the past, I've appreciated some of the comments you've left on this blog. You seem smart enough to realize that calling someone a Nazi in this time in America is an insult that is not easily forgiven or forgotten. Until you apologize, I will remind you of this when you post on my blog.

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    11. This is getting old and I'll leave it here. But, to be clear, I did not say Chemjobber is a Nazi. The exact quote was: I hope this will pass muster with the Gestapo. You've admitted you censor, so..

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    12. A distinction without a difference. Non-apology not accepted. And now you recognize that I didn't delete your comment to begin with.

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    13. Good lord. It wasn't a "non-apology" and was wasn't meant to be "accepted". Again, you've admitted to censoring, so, not a stretch. This is over, move on.

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    14. I'll move on when you apologize, bub. I also do not accept your characterization of me deleting your insults of other commenters as "censoring."

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    15. You can accept it or not, doesn't change the fact that you've censored (admitted to it even) - plain and simple, so my description may not be too far off. And we can do without the name calling.

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    16. Doesn't change the fact you've called me a Nazi for moderating my blog comments, either. You're so much better than this, Lyle. Admit you screwed up and resorted to referring to me as "the Gestapo" rather than realizing that you needed to click the "load more" button.

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    17. Okay, one last time...I didn't call you a Nazi. Revisionist history is alive and well. Have a nice one Chemjobber, hopefully this thread can get back to normal since it has been highjacked by the owner (Is it okay to say highjacked? Not calling you a "highjacker" to be clear).

      PS, you mention calling someone a Nazi "in this time in America is an insult", so, when was it ever not an insult? Have things changed that much "in this time in America"? Such an odd statement from you, almost saying that you were okay with that before "this time in America", because only now "it is an insult". You may want to look into sensitivity training.

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    18. You didn't call me a Nazi, you just suggested that I was the Gestapo. Oh, I see the difference there, yes, indeed. Lyle, you have a long and distinguished history of trolling the chemistry blogosphere, and you calling me a Nazi over your inability to find a blog comment was the last straw for me. Until you apologize, I will remind you of this when you post on my blog.

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    19. I accept your apology on not calling you a Nazi. Let's move on (and can you please stop using the word Nazi for goodness sake - unfortunately, as I said above, you seemed to be okay with that not being an insult until just recently).

      Now, again, let's get back to the original topic of the thread...

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    20. Don't feed the trolls chemjobber, they live off this.

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    21. No, I didn't apologize to you. You couldn't figure out a simple blog comment box, and decided to call me a Nazi instead of having a quick think. You called me a Nazi and I am not going to let that go. Until you apologize, I will remind you of this when you post on my blog.

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    22. Anon5:52, thanks for the reminder. Homes has it coming.

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    23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    24. Your comments aren't welcome here anymore until you've apologized. Enjoy.

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    25. Amusingly, until today, I didn't have many hard rules for the blog, other than "don't insult other commenters", especially by using the word "you."

      And now, I have a second rule: "I don't take well to being called a Nazi, or insinuated as such by being called a member of the Gestapo, especially by folks who have spent the last 4+ years trolling the chemblogosphere."

      I most certainly do not apologize to Lyle, but I do apologize to all you other commenters who've been watching this little pie fight. Questions about my commenting policies, or my (very, very rare) deletions of comments are very welcome, either in this thread or by e-mail.

      Cheers, Chemjobber (chemjobber@gmail.com)

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    26. In general I've found Lyle to be knowledgeable, but felt he was often trolling an unpopular opinion just for shits and giggles. Ironically, the parent comment here is one of the more useful comments I think I've seen from him. It's your blog to run and I'm not necessarily sorry to see him go, but this isn't the way I thought he'd see the banhammer.

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    27. "You're acting like a professor CJ"

      I'm not an academic

      "I didn't call you an academic, I called you a professor"

      *boggle*

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    28. "I do not apologize for having a fairly firm hand in moderating this blog's comments."

      I seriously doubt about the firm hand. The moderating is actually pretty lose, but it might be a testament to the community, as Derek Lowe has said once. I usually post incoherent shit about DOOOMMM and don't get moderated. I normally don't run into Lyle and I also don't get upset when people call me Nazi or other names (it's just so ridiculous that I ignore it), but Paul Bracher lost it over him a couple of years ago, so I know he can push everyone's buttons very well. He probably had the ban coming.

      This is why I need to absorb his talents before I jump into the human-resources manager track though. It's a steady salary and I get to learn how to wear a tie. Plus they don't care if you got your degree in total synthesis or medicinal chemistry, or organometallics... as long as you can make the lab plankton cry. I hope he apologizes so I can become his padowan.

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    29. Hey, Dr. Z:

      First, thank you for your many years of great comments here.

      Second, perhaps I am being a bit tendentious, but I don't see myself as pulling out the banhammer in this case. A sincere apology to me is all that is desired. I remain ever hopeful that he will do so.

      Cheers, CJ

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  4. The hard truth is that, if you want to do med chem, you're going to have to be comfortable with getting a job at a small startup company regardless of your background anymore. It's the only place the research jobs are. If you can't deal with that, start planning on doing something else. Out of 3 recent (<2 years) PhD hires at my (small biotech) company, all were total synthesis/methodology. Two of us didn't postdoc (but did internships at big pharma for a year during grad school/writing phase) and one did a med chem postdoc. If you really want to do med chem, your chances are going to be much higher if you do a postdoc in a methodology/total synthesis lab or convince your advisor to let you get the type of internship mentioned above during your writing phase (you make a lot of great connections in the industry which helps a whole lot during the job search).

    The exodus of early stage research from big pharma is not going to turn around, and any that is done in-house will be biologics. It's been said many times, but all the preclinical stuff is going to be done at the small companies and the big companies will (already are?) become marketing/commercialization firms. Just hope you're one of the lucky ones and your stock options are worth something one day. The startup environment is really simulating/exciting and you might find you like a whole lot more than you thought you would. We all have to deal with the uncertainty now regardless of company size.

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  5. For what it's worth, medchem PhD's are very attractive in patent law due to the ability to work on physical sciences and life sciences applications. Something that a medchem PhD should keep in mind if (like I was) you are very opposed to doing a postdoc.

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  6. I can't comment on pharma, but when I worked for the former Rohm & Haas, they very seldom hired new PhD's with polymer backgrounds. There was a mentality that the company's internal expertise was superior to anything others in the field knew (probably true in the area of emulsion polymerization, but still arrogant). I suspect the pharma companies feel the same way about academic med-chem research.

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  7. The answer is that the only people who should do total synthesis/methodology or med. chem PhDs are people who are so passionate about chemistry that they don't care where they live, work, earn, or if they have a life outside of the lab. If you don't eat, breathe, sleep and live for chemistry, you will get fed up with the lifestyle. If you are lucky enough to get a pharma job - you'll have to deal with getting laid off every 3-5 years. Once you're 50+, unless you've made director level or above - you're virtually unemployable.

    In the good old days of the late 1990's and early 2000's, the top tier grads, as always, got the best pharma jobs. There were enough companies and jobs that the people who went to good/decent schools/post-docs (but not elite) could get a job. The industry has contracted massively since 2005. Big pharma only wants total synthesis grads from elite labs. Small and mid-sized companies want total synthesis grads from elite labs - but usually those grads don't want to work at small to mid-sized companies, so the grads from lesser labs and schools go there. The supply of applicants to any pharma or biotech job far exceeds demand.

    Medicinal chemistry PhDs put you at a disadvantage because you learn a bit about drug design, assays, synthesis, etc - but you don't become really good at any one thing. Entry level hires in companies are usually doing biological assays or medicinal chemistry - not both. The breadth and depth of synthesis a med chem PhD learns compared to a total synthesis PhD is no comparison. That was when the job market was good.

    Only top-tier PhDs get hired in pharma today. The rest scramble for jobs at CRO's and biotechs outside of Genentech and Amgen. As a PhD chemist, you'll almost certainly have to move to where the jobs are - which is SF bay area or Cambridge. Think about doing something else with your life.

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  8. There's seems to be a dilemma to me in regards to why are total synthesis/methodology folk getting these positions. As a medicinal chemist, I've only had to implement cookie cutter chemistry so what's the point of picking up a pure chemist. I understand there's a level of problem solving that is valued, but why wouldn't it be the case for a medicinal chemistry PhD. All the applicable problem solving in drug discovery I gained not through a degree in chemistry, but from on the job doing medicinal chemistry. You don't even learn all the variables to optimize for drug discovery in a total synthesis/methodology lab so why wouldn't you take someone whose already been doing that? I've asked around my company and I can't get a straight answer other than the value of problem solving that comes with a PhD in chemistry. Could someone explain that?

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    1. The explanation is simple. Because historically that is where the higher-ups came from, so it has to remain. You know, the "I did it, so that's the way it must be done" thinking. I agree, my synthetic "skills" were rarely put to the test as a medicinal chemist. And I asked that exact question after the symposium and couldn't get an answer from the VP's either.

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    2. I agree the explanation is simple. There is a unspoken assumption that folks in a pharmacy school, medical chemistry program couldn't get into a traditional chemistry graduate school. Always go after the brightest, then you are more likely to get a creative and successful scientist.

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    3. That's assuming the unspoken assumption is correct. Much like in everything, there are going to be really talented people in the medicinal chemistry programs just like there are going to be real duds in traditional chemistry graduate programs. It's all cyclical and the old thought of "that's what I did, so that's the way it must be" is still alive and kicking - whether that be in the graduate school attitude of PI's or job hiring. It is, what it is, I suppose.

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  9. I suppose I'm living up to my username, but I don't consider this a good question. Just another re-hash of "I'm getting a PhD, can I get a job if my situation is xyz?" All situations vary, but in general, no, the job market is shit.

    I'll also add that a pure methodology PhD isn't very helpful unless it's within the broader context of target-oriented synthesis. If, for example, you make some metal catalysts and get 4 papers worth of substrates but you don't do anything beyond that single transformation, you won't get many looks from biotech/pharmas.

    There's a dirty little secret that the big pharmas only hire Ivys. These rumors are fairly well-known and I've been told as much from people who worked for some of these companies. I have no reason to think it's untrue. It's possible to get into startups and smaller biotechs though, and that can actually be really great. In my experience with the startups I've been with, we wouldn't discriminate between total synthesis or med chem, we'd evaluate them in the interview as long as they had the right hands-on experience.

    Personal anecdote: when my postdoc group was trying to brainstorm on ways to make a bicyclic cyclohexene compound everybody immediately jumped to Diels-Alder. When my PI probed for alternatives in case that was unsuccessful the med chemists were quiet and the organics worked out a couple other routes. Those types of things are probably why organics look down their nose at med chemists.

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  10. The job prospects these days and even in the past often comes down more to strong connections and network rather than background and degree focus. A strong Post-doc can be good to both expand capabilities to fill gaps then create wider and more well integrated connections. This partly explains the prejudice for elite schools/PI Org Syn types, especially at big pharma, noted in several comments since historically such Big Names ties were more highly sought after and then would advance to certain level in candidate selection process and then natural nepotism perpetuate cycles that are harder to break into organizations. On occasion people can overcome these largely artificial barriers but can take extraordinary accomplishments or again knowing someone at the right time to get foot in the door.

    Almost every place I worked, large and small, bought into the notion that it was easier to have Syn people learn medchem/biology verses medchemist do synthesis. I found this odd (and wrong in many cases) because majority of chemistry efforts typically ended up being fairly common or at least established enough where BS chemists and even interns did that work to generate analogs (why outsourcing now popular). Bigger struggles usually happened when interpreting data and attempting understanding the biology, where those that had education could sometimes pick up faster and communicate better with biologist to aid fruitful directions to pursue.

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    1. I tend to agree with your first paragraph, and in the long run, it would be awesome if I could figure out a way to get data on this.

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    2. It doesn't come down to just one thing or another. Publication record, your PI/institution, your network - all of these things factor in.

      If you are a superstar (10+ publications including several first author JACS or maybe a first author Science/Nature), you can land a job at a big pharma straight out of your Ph. D. even if you aren't from an Ivy. If you slogged through a Ph. D. and a post-doc from two big names, you can probably get a job even if your publication record is thin (studies toward uselessamycin A).

      There are multiple paths, but you are fooling yourself if you think you can skip a post-doc unless you have already demonstrated badassery through multiple publications in prestigious journals. Otherwise, your advisers have to vouch for your badassery, and two is much better than one for this.

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    3. I agree with your first 2 paragraphs but not necessarily the final one. I completed my PhD 2010-ish and found a job as a medicinal chemist without doing a postdoc. I was neither a superstar nor working for a big name. I feel like my publication record was only slightly above average (papers in total syn and methodology). I spent a few years at a start-up and am now a med chemist in big pharma. It's less common but I'm not the only one in my current group that did not do a postdoc and joined industry somewhat recently. Of course, expect to live in CA or Boston.

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    4. Exceptions make the rule, but I did mean my qualification of big pharma to apply throughout (though my 3rd paragraph did drop the big pharma qualification). Startups are typically less predictable, especially since many are started by people who hate big pharma culture and are more willing to let someone prove their mettle in an interview. For better or worse.

      And once you have a few years of job experience, including at a startup, big pharma certainly looks at you differently.

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  11. Just graduated from a synthetic chemistry group, so I have two points of data biased to that fact. Both PDs in the group with medicinal chem training were advised (at least one in industry interview feedback) to do synthetic chemistry postdocs to stand a better chance of being hired. Both of them graduated from med chem groups I would consider to be pretty prestigious in the USA, looking for jobs in the USA.

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  12. any comment on doing a postdoc in peptide chemistry/chemical biology after having PhD in methodology and job prospects in this combination?

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    1. I did exactly this, I've been working in biotech for the past several years. It was tough sledding finding a job, but there's opportunity. That postdoc helped me out a lot, pure methodology just isn't that attractive to folks. (I'm assuming you're doing solution phase peptide chemistry and not purely solid phase)

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    2. Peptide synthesis is almost completely a service function. There's always hard molecules that require more than routine work but still. Bigger problem is that it's easy to outsource to China.

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  13. I work at a moderate sized CRO and even we won't hire anyone directly out of grad school unless you did A LOT of synthesis/methodology...

    And to be honest, we are really in no shape to be that selective in my opinion, but I'd rather have someone with experience than a fresh grad student, regardless of background.

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    1. That's the thing, the market is now full of post docs looking for work. It is a buyer's market. Somehow, many people (likely still in their PhD) are convincing themselves that post-docs are unnecessary and that they are certainly going to be hired out of grad school.

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    2. More evidence, if it were needed, of how useless a Chemistry PhD is when it comes to getting a job...

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    3. Well, you can't do a post-doc without one...

      If you're totally against doing a post-doc, you should consider non-traditional careers. If you're dead set on a bench role at a big company (pharma or otherwise), you probably have to grit your teeth and do a post-doc.

      Best of luck to you.

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