Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ask CJ: opportunities for an experienced M.S.-level chemist?

From the inbox, a good question (lightly redacted for privacy) from someone we'll call LS: 
I have a [master's] in organic chemistry, and I am currently employed as a R&D chemist doing organic synthesis, and I like what I do.  However, [redacted] lead me to believe that it is time to look for something new.  Considering how much time and effort it took to find this job, I was wondering if anyone else has experience with job searches and employment with a [master's] degree. 
Specifically, how do you deal with the fact that you are a “failed PhD” on a resume and during interviews?  What kinds of companies (size, industry, location) will and will not hire you?  What career options are open to someone with a [master's] degree?  Are there any roadblocks that you hit during your career, and how do you overcome them?  Is it feasible to remain a synthetic chemist throughout your career?  
I don't really have a huge amount of experience with this question, other than a couple of thoughts. First, I don't think that anyone really cares whether or not you're a "failed Ph.D." (which is a premise that I fundamentally reject) after a couple of years in industry. Once you have a year or two of the fabled "industrial experience", I think employers are much more interested in what you have done in industry (and what you could do) rather than the details of how you left school.

I suspect the biggest roadblocks for M.S. chemists are for management on the research side. It is there that you will have the stiffest competition from Ph.D.s.

Readers, there's a lot more questions from LS - any ideas? 

24 comments:

  1. If your current job was the first thing you took after the M.S., you may well find it easier to move to a second job by virtue of now having some professional experience. Jobs beget jobs, etc.

    From what I've seen at a bigger pharma company, those with an M.S. need to diversify out of R&D if they want to be promoted up (e.g. safety, business). Those same big companies are also paying more attention to equalising the non-management track so that an experienced technical person gets the same level of promotions as someone on management track.

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  2. Only people who have been to grad school know that a MS means you quit a PhD program. For all anyone else knows, you took night classes just like most people with master's degrees in other fields.

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  3. Unless you were in school for 8 years or something (then be prepared to explain it quite well because it looks like a red flag), there is nothing wrong with an MS. I have an MS in organic synthesis and left after passing all qualifiers for a PhD and have had numerous opportunities practically thrown at me from the following list below and I came from a middling university less than 5 years ago:
    four pharma/medical-based (one was a large pharma co [on-site invite, no offer], two were medical-based dyes and markers syn/production [one phone only(very large company), one offered and not accepted(very small startup)], and one at a medium-sized pharma CRO in R&D/production[offered and accepted]),
    one very large company as fine chemicals syn/production [offered and accepted]
    one very large company as petrochemical syn/production [offered and not accepted]
    one very large company as an R&D food chemist [phone only]
    two very large company as an R&D coatings chemist [phone only]

    Additionally, another MS from my group had three or four interviews immediately out of grad school at very large good companies. Alternatively, a few guys from my lab who got their PhDs are struggling adjunct profs at community colleges and a few guys are doing relatively well as PhDs. It all depends on where you would like to go and what you find interesting. I feel I would have not had the same interviewing experience if I stayed for a PhD at said middling university unless I somehow got 8+ papers and an exceptional postdoc since my advisor was not too keen on schmoozing with other profs/making industry connections.

    And maybe I am just an exception, but IMO, you need to hone your interpersonal skills; most of my interviewing tactics is essentially making conversation with people and not really talking about me or my experience. Most of the time, they do not doubt or care about your technical experience unless you're pivoting from one branch to another (i.e. pharma to petrochem, etc), they just want to see if you will fit well within the group and how safe you are in lab.

    Either way, good luck. Comb indeed any company you can think of if you are really desperate to leave as some do not advertise jobs outside of their own jobs page. Think about all the vendors and clients your company has worked with as well.

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    1. This has been my experience with an MS to the tee from a middle tier synthesis program. If you're not in the at least a top ten program, and/or with a very good professor, big pharma is likely out of reach for a PhD chemist.

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    2. I will say that it is challenging to move beyond that of an entry level PhD, but in big pharma that salary range isn't the worst place to be...

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    3. Anon 1:16pm: if you're in big pharma, your salary usually increases based on COLA and yearly merits/bonuses. A friend who is at a big pharma location told me that they have a few bachelors chemists there in the $120k+ range per year due to guaranteed COLAs and such a long tenure with the company. While guaranteed COLAs are a bit of lore these days it seems, it is certainly possible to get title promotions and COLAs to push you into the "experienced PhD" title/pay grade.

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  4. While the notion of a MS as a 'failed PhD' may be unfair, it's certainly one that persists. I think it's surmountable after 5-10 years experience, but even then I think there are limits to how high a MS will get promoted.

    In at least 1 country to the north, an MS is a standalone degree but I do think there's still a stigma about not finishing one's PhD that one started (regardless of how valid the reason for doing so is). a priori, given a PhD and a MS job candidate with equal time out of undergrad I'd almost certainly interview the PhD first unless someone I knew was pounding the table on the MS candidate.

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  5. Even if you entered school for the purpose of getting a PhD, spent a lot of time there and then left with a MS, the phrase "failed PhD" needs to not be part of your mindset. If you start out believing that, you hand over the conversation on the topic to people who believe this (and set yourself up for the conversation with the rest of the people you interview with).

    What opportunities could you pursue because you took the MS path? The more positive light you put on this, the more productive your interview conversations will be.

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  6. I work in Big Pharma Medchem and have several people on my team that received their MS as part of a terminal MS program. During initial hiring from school, they were probably honestly viewed more like BS candidate-plus-a-little-experience rather than "failed PhD". My own grad school experience demonstrated that people leave a PhD program for a million reasons and "couldn't hack it" is just one of them. Like others have said, moving up in the management track with no PhD is less likely but certainly not impossible.

    Your goal during interviewing is to wow them with what you have done, not what you haven't. Speak intelligently but also let your passion come through. Working well with others is hugely important in Big Pharma.

    As far as the last question: "Is it feasible to remain a synthetic chemist throughout your career?" I don't think anyone knows. Your best bet is to develop other areas of interest/expertise so when the time comes, you'll have multiple options. At least, that's what I tell myself...

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  7. I have an MS... but it's not a 'failed PhD'... I started working with BS.. Could not stand doing technician type work so after couple of years I started a part-time non thesis MS program at a large university. Being non thesis I wound up having to take just about EVERY graduate course in the department, which gave me both a lot more breath and depth go knowledge than a BS. And got lab experience at work.

    Just being in the program got me hired by a major corporation and I was there over a decade... After getting laid of from there I got hired by a pharma start-up on the R&D side where over time I got promoted to Associate Director.

    I think an experienced MS stands the best chance to advance in a startup if they come in early enough. That said that is no guarantee.

    After the FDA torpedoed that startup (again I was there over a decade) I got a job at a biotech startup... and there, despite establishing my department doing the initial hiring, and effectively running it for years, ... I have never even been given a Manger, never mind a Director title ... those titles are all held by PhDs who started after me.

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  8. Piggybacking on this thread: What are job prospects like for MS chemists in non-pharma-land? Been thinking about mastering out and wondering what my job and career advancement prospects would be like.

    I'm currently doing a PhD in an organic materials/polymers group. I like the research and ideally would like to work in polymer chemistry in industry after grad school. I worked briefly after my BS and really liked it, but wanted to be a few steps up the totem pole, hence deciding to go to grad school. However, I've been having second thoughts about sticking it out, mostly because academic research feels so much more isolating, the lack of short-term goals makes it hard to find a direction and motivate myself, and I really dislike the pressure to publish / paper factory mentality. I'm in a good department (top 20) with some pretty highly regarded organic synthesis groups but it's quite weak on the polymer side, and my advisor is a relatively new/unknown asst prof.

    From reading various chemistry blogs, I get the impression that pharma is the main option for MS chemists. I could try to get an MS job in pharma, but I'm not sure my synthesis skills are up to snuff and I'm not sure I'd enjoy it.

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    1. I might argue that there are MORE opportunities outside pharma for a MS polymer chemist. When I was at my last company, I did technical consulting work for dozens of companies working in coatings, adhesives, sealants, & elastomers (CASE). A lot of that work is formulation science, and a good formulator is worth his/her weight in gold. While a lot of bigger companies (ahem, Dow) use PhDs for routine formulation work, I saw more MS employees at the mid-tier and smaller companies. I also met quite a few MS chemists working in process groups (CJ might be able to speak to this in more detail). As far as doing research at a non-pharma company is concerned, I think the glory days of science are over, even at big materials science companies like Dow-Dupont, BASF, Bayer (now Covestro), etc. Having spent a number of years at one of those companies and surveying the patents coming out, I see very little in the way of fundamentally new polymer science. Most patents appear to be based on application development and formulation tweaks. If you like the interface between materials science and chemistry but don't care about silly things like enantioselectivity, steer clear of pharma and try to find a job at a formulated systems house.

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    2. I gradually fell out of love with chemistry during my grad school experience and then eventually HATED it due to the papermill mentality however chemistry is one of a few things I truly know very well, but with zero industry experience, it's kind of hard to get a managerial job... So I am putting in my time in the lab in industry with aspirations to move in the management soon or pivoting to something outside of lab like patent associate/agent.


      And as a daily "window-shopper" for jobs, I find that MS or PhD materials/polymer jobs are far more prevalent than organic syn jobs and being an organic syn guy, that frustrates me. You are probably better off with a PhD if you want to move up the ladder and end up managing/directing in a mid to large company and ultimately make more money over your career. If you want to stay in lab forever though, you could go the MS route or remain as a lab rat as a PhD but I truly feel the PhD's have a higher rate of layoffs than the MS folk.

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    3. Indeed, in CASE there are a lot of opportunities for all degree levels. I'm at a smaller company. Two of the manager's have PhDs. One has a BS (or BA). The other has an MS (and the person the MS replaced due to retirement also had an MS). The Director of R&D has a BS (or BA). We have/had some people in R&D with no degree. No PhDs in upper management at my company.

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    4. OP@ 9:41 here: I didn't mean to oversell the CASE angle and make it sound easy to land a job. Like any field, it's hard to break into without previous experience, patents, etc. After a few years in the field, I started getting calls from recruiters. I was at a Fortune 50 and other companies couldn't touch my salary, but it was encouraging to see demand for people with experience. I've even seen a few guys get pulled back into the game after 4-5 years of retirement, something that I've never even heard of in pharma. This is a pretty specialized field, though. Not many people leave college or grad school with a "formulated system" mindset. Most of us were taught how to make something pure rather than throwing in fillers, plasticizers, pigments, adhesion promoters, antioxidants, etc. Not glamorous, but it's a talent that some people have and others simply don't.

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    5. I have a MS in organic synthesis and I work as a data analyst/technical consultant for a marketing automation software consultancy. Life is pretty weird sometimes, but when they are no opportunities you have to branch out a little. None of the lab skills apply to anything (except to my cooking), but the mindset of a scientist can be usefully applied in many situations

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  9. OP here, thanks everyone for the comments. It's certainly encouraging to read.

    Are there any books or papers you'd recommend to get a taste of CASE/formulations work and learn more about it or see if I'd like it?

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    1. Oops sorry, this was supposed to be in reply to the June 1, 2017 at 2:12 AM thread.

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  10. I am an experienced MS organic chemist that has worked in the agrochemical industry for 15 years. I have no opportunity for advancement at my current company and want to pursue a position in pharma in medicinal chemistry department. I have tried numerous companies for a year now with no response. I believe these pharma companies are only looking to hire PhDs and post-docs. I am now going to pursue my PhD degree in Organic Chemistry. I hope to one day land my dream career position in medicinal chemistry.

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    1. As an experienced organic chemist that has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, this feels very sarcastic to me. You can very easily land a job in pharma with an MS, but your experience level may push away some companies. If you REALLY wish to head this route, look at jobs at CRO/CMO's to prove your mettle, then perhaps you can graduate into big pharma as I do not see big pharma taking a chance on someone such as yourself. No disrepect intended, just being honest.

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    2. I'm a little confused as to why someone with a background in another area would want to move into the pharmaceutical industry. Did you find an old article saying there are lots of great jobs at Wyeth, Parke-Davis, Warner-Lambert, etc?

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  11. I left grad school after 3 years, having passed all of my cumulative exams and being involved in some very difficult, but somewhat fruitful, research. It was the best choice I could have made, for several reasons:
    1. If I'd stuck around for my PhD, the overall quality of my thesis work would have been middling at best. I was looking at 2-4 years of postdoc work.
    2. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the pharma industry was about to start collapsing in on itself, and I've always been able to procure multiple interviews and job offers whenever I was laid off or simply looking for a better position. Many of my PhD coworkers and friends have not been so lucky and had to leave the industry.

    I've held jobs with startups, an academic group, mid-sized pharma, and big pharma. The latter is the most difficult to get - my current employer hasn't hired an MS chemist in years and years. But there are benefits to working at smaller companies.

    I don't know if it's feasible to remain a synthetic chemist for an entire career. We have only 2 chemists in my department over the age of 50, so it wouldn't seem so! I fully anticipate being forced out of chemistry in my mid-50s unless something major changes. I'd like to keep doing what I do (medchem), but it's not ultimately up to me. So I save my pennies for when the gravy train goes off the rails.

    In regards to interviews, you simply say you felt you had the skills necessary to do what you like to do - bench chemistry. Couple that with successful research, which proves you know how to drive a project, and most employers don't care to question further. They're looking specifically for an MS chemist, after all! And let's face it - we're CHEAPER than PhDs! So if they're not gonna pay me the same, they shouldn't expect the same level of work (although you can get promoted at most places to incoming PhD levels pretty easily if you're competent, work hard, and try to help your team). Getting promotions to Principal Scientist/Chemist, the level above Senior Scientist, however, is very, very difficult.

    Hope that helps. Keep your chin up, apply yourself daily in your job, prove yourself to be competent and hard-working, volunteer for extra responsibilities, etc., and you'll do well. But you won't be rich!

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    1. I love this comment. Thank you for your relevant expertise, Anon8:18pm.

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  12. Got my MS (originally going to be PhD) from the US recently. Full disclosure: I was interviewing in the UK, where we don't have the same system, but due to the rest of my CV it was obvious to my interviewers that it had originally been going to be a PhD. I had two on-site interviews, and they both asked me if that was the case, and then why I hadn't continued. At no point was it awkward or accusatory; rather it was an interesting part of the conversation. They want to know why you moved on. So tell them why you think life will be better in their company and why you are motivated to do industry work! If you have any bitterness or jadedness this is the time to shove that in a corner (or preferably, off a cliff) - even if the primary reason was "I failed X viva/exam/requirement", "my boss hated me and I them", "my boss was a %$£&*!" or any other you might have, they don't need to know. Detail to them why your new life kicks ass and it's only going to get better. It's a conversation!

    Heck, you can bring this up yourself. Bravely finishing your answer to some other question with, "actually, that's why I left grad school with an MS. I felt I could do so much more in industry/wanted to help people/really value teamwork" etc. is totally acceptable and makes you sound and feel more confident.

    LS, feel free to chat to me. I'm on Twitter with this username...

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