Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What's happening to pharmaceutical synthetic chemistry jobs?: the Lowe/Laird/Anon hypothesis

I. The past was better than now

In April of this year, Derek Lowe made a statement that I found interesting, but not proven: "there are far fewer med-chem jobs out there today than there were five years ago." Later in the post, Dr. Lowe tends to define the term by "the number of well-paid US-based positions at large pharma companies."

For the most part, I think he's right. The list of former large pharma sites listed by one of my commenters recently is too large to list and too large to ignore -- not all of those positions could have been resorbed by their parent/merged companies.

However, I have been unable to locate a census-type count of industrial medicinal chemists; to my eye, this would be the only way of falsifying Derek's hypothesis.

II. Now is not good. 

On July 16, Trevor Laird (the editor of Organic Process Research and Development) wrote a depressing and truthful editorial titled "Is there a Future for Organic Chemists in the Pharmaceutical Industry outside China and India?"  He discusses the current state of affairs ably; I suggest you read the whole thing. But here's the key portion:
"The impending closure of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) sites in the UK and Italy, and the announcement by Astra Zeneca of the closure of the Loughborough (Charnwood) site with the loss of 1200 R&D staff along with the loss of jobs at the Avonmouth manufacturing site mean that many scientists in process R&D in the UK are falling on hard times. At the same time, Pfizer has cut staff in Medicinal Chemistry and Process R&D at Sandwich, UK, after the merger with Wyeth and has reduced the number of manufacturing sites in Ireland and elsewhere. So in the UK, the three major companies carrying out medicinal chemistry and process R&D are all reducing staffing levels. Now, where do those out of work, or for that matter new recruits from universities, find jobs? I wish I knew the answer!... In the United States I am sure the situation is no better with many major multinationals announcing layoffs in the last year, and even the biotech sector is not immune to similar problems."
His advice to his colleagues? Find a CRO position or a job with a private pharmaceutical concern that isn't affected by all the merger-mania and keep networking. Good advice, but (as he would likely admit) there's not a lot of positions there, especially in the Western half of the world.

III. The future isn't looking too bright either

A recent comment (by the mellifluous sounding Anon906p071710) summarized his/her thinking this way:
"Almost every industrial chemist I know who has been laid off remains unemployed. I am in the biotech/pharma industry and know of hundreds of synthetic chemists who have lost their jobs as pharma/biotech/ag/chemical industry has moved jobs off shore/downsized and as biotech companies focused their little remaining money on clinical development.

The real question is: what is the unemployment rate of industrial chemists who did medicinal, synthetic, and other laboratory-based organic chemistry work? If you were highly trained as a medicinal/synthetic or other organic specialty, you are not likely to move into green inorganic material science without going back to graduate school.

Unless I am missing something, I do not see our industrial jobs ever coming back, so a whole generation of organic chemists will be lost, thrown out like so much useless trash. The profession will wither away outside of academic departments."
To me, Anon906p's comment really has two relevant parts: A) the industrial synthesis jobs aren't coming back and that B) retraining synthetic/medicinal chemists for material scientists is more-or-less impractical. I hate to say something so trite, but only time will tell. (I hope he's wrong.)

Derek Lowe tends to agree in his April post: "I hate to sound like this, but I think there's been too much of a shift in recent years for anything to undo it. Costs have gone up, drug-development success rates have (at best) not increased, and there are cheaper ways to get a good amount of work done which used to cost more. Which of these things are going to change back, and how?"

IV. What does this mean? 

I don't know -- nothing good, I suspect. Over the next year, I plan to try to figure it out. I hope you'll help me.


  1. I really wonder where all these recently redundant UK chemists are going - anyone? Low salary, short term contracts with Peakdale, Evotec and Sygnature? Is that really the best that the UK has to offer people who may have spent the best part of 8 years to train in organic chemistry to PhD level?

    [To illuminate for US readers, a UK-based PhD chemist such as myself with about 10 years post-PhD experience can expect to earn 35-40k GBP, which translates to about 55-60k USD, so very cheap I think in comparison to Germany, Switzerland or the US.]

    Add in to Trevor Laird's editorial the recent closure of ex-Organon/SP/Merck site in Scotland and med chem layoffs at UCB in Cambridge and Slough too!

    It is hard to imagine a more dire situation.

  2. Fine ... there is not an hour that goes by when I do not second guess my chosen career. So there are no jobs, and those that maintain their jobs are doing it through politics and general dickery and less science. This is depressing as hell, and ultimately why I went into science and NOT business. Sometimes I look at some of my friends who went into the corporate world, and the ass kissing and ego stroking that we do as academic scientists goes leaps and bounds above what my corporatist friends do ... and that is even more depressing.

    But even at that, what the hell else is there to do? I'm perpetually stumped by this? I know people with law degrees who have it worse than me. Everyone one of us head strong go-getters, is miserable and relatively socially isolated (especially if we have to leave the city). We are overworked, and drowning in loneliness, depression, student debt, and social isolation.

    And then what? These days, I tell myself that a job is a job. It's less about "passion for research" and more about groceries and keeping angry creditors off my ass. It just sucks all around. And I'm not in THAT much debt, it's just the science lifestyle that makes it suck more.

    I'm hoping for a day where research will be done exclusively by some arbitrary public entity and we abolish the Ph.D and tenure system. We can have realistic expectations we can be passionate about our work again. No more late night Hail Mary reactions that rarely ever work anyways, and dangerously adding a half a liter of butyl lithium with 4 hours of sleep. But when our projected salary is what ... 30% what we made 5 years ago ... I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen.

  3. The next few years are definitely going to see a drop in employment (for organic chemists in particular), it may level off around 2012. Many of the layoffs are planned through that time. If the Bush tax cuts and capital gains tax cuts expire at the end of this year, this could make it hard to come up with money for new companies that could absorb even the cheapest, most desperate labor.

    The healthcare legislation gives lots of incentives to investors to put their money into biologics (extended patents). The extra taxes levied on pharma because of the bill will force them to cut costs (layoffs), especially if governments don't let them increase prices.

    Though the healthcare bill certainly increases the amount of people that may benefit from Pharma's products, we are not likely to see that profit increase for many years.

  4. Respectfully disagree. It's obvious the boomers have made their money, and plan on trying to take it to the grave with them, as opposed to invest back into the economy.

    Seriously, health care might be valuable, but not medicine development. Things that seem to pay the rent for my peers: Nursing, fitness, training, physical therapy, waiting tables, bartending, food service. At the extreme ... surrogate mother, nannying, egg donation (funny those workaholics who already earned their fortunes want the families they missed out on.)

    These are all careers to provide services for people that already made their fortunes. The surreal? Financial planning, money markets, gold, and ta da! the Bush tax cuts!

    You want to make money? Find yourself IMMEDIATELY useful to people who are well off and at least in their late 40's. Pamper them until they collect their check and die. I'm sorry but a brilliant idea that needs 5-10 years to develop to save the world and make bank is just not going to cut it.

    It's going to be brutal trying to create our futures ... we aren't getting a lot of cooperation. I'd rather wait for money to rain from the sky than for trickle down economics to work.

  5. I don't know if anyone else has noticed, but Org. Process Res. Dev. has been very populated by articles from GSK Verona lately. Laird's editorial also makes note of the sudden abundance of articles being submitted to OPRD.

  6. @AlchemX: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe that any new taxes were levied on the pharmaceutical companies because of PPACA. I believe that medical device companies, however, will have to pay an excise tax.

    @J-bone: You know, I think I was vaguely aware of that, but I don't think I had put two and two together. Nice catch.

  7. There's also been a huge flurry of BMCL papers from Schering-Plough (rough calculation at >20 on searching Elsevier site).

  8. @Chemjobber

    I think you are right. I may be getting two things mixed up. Pharma was supposed to "help out" with some pricing issues. I keep hearing at least $80B over the next decade. But the companies I've been too have still used this as a justification for "restructuring". The new taxes may only apply to medical device companies.

  9. The $80 billion over 10 years is the drug industry "contribution" to O-care to pay for closing the donut hole in medicare drug coverage. They bought peace on any type of price controls and re-importation in the bill. $8 billion per year is ~20% of the industries R&D budget and 10 years is 1-2 generations of CEOs.

    To keep profits up even as drug patents lapse,can you guess whose hide this $80 billion is coming out of? R&D of course!

  10. Exactly Anon1021, that was the point I was trying to get too. Without more flexibility to maintain profits, R&D is gonna have to take the hit to satisfy those shareholders.

  11. Ahhh, yes. I forgot about the "donut hole". Appreciate the comment, Anon10:21a.

  12. The simple answer is ... start up company! A few years at a mediocre start up will guarantee your pay check for a few years in a decent start up community environment ... more or less on the governments dime. They are great resume builders, and show independence, resiliency, and marketability. Mostly you don't have to impress an angry impressionable frump. You have to impress nonscientist, who at the end of the day really really want to give you money, because they want to see their investments grow, and are fully aware of the high risks involved.

    Ok, so it's not that simple. There is just a lot of footwork to get the cash (seemingly mostly from gov. grants). The less ties you have to a University, the more likely you get to be reasonably profitable (a lot of universities are turning into patent leaches) And I think the biggest deterrent to the having a start up ... the mind numbing repetitive drudgery that grad school really (and pretty much your post doc) that kills your opportunity to have free and rational thought. Or even a chance to explore the real world ... hell you can't even BUY consumables on a grad student stipend.

    I guess one of the reasons why we want more Ph. D.s in the market is that we are supposedly great idea generators, we can continue to peruse great innovations and really provide legit competition to big pharma, creating more diversity down the road. Maybe if I wasn't so dragged down in infinite column land, I'll come up with more ideas, really ...

    When I had my period of unemployment, I would have LOVED to just say screw the world, hit the literature, and use the time to write proposals.
    Oh ... start a business.

    Wait ... unemployment also becomes literature blind, so that didn't exactly work either.

    Still, the lesson learned from the playground days. If you don't like the games kids are playing, start your own game and see who comes along, sometimes you'll be surprised at what happens. I mean are we supposed to just sit around BEG ass holes who ... flunked o-chem ... at best ... for a job?

  13. I make 96500$ US with no PhD working less than 20 hr a week, because that is how little effort I have to put in to look better then the legions of PhD's Ivy leaguers that are so dumb that they can barely find their way out of a paper bag. And no need to mention that these hot shots take in even more cash than me to attend useless meetings all day long where they try their best to chip in a remotely relevant comment.

    The cult of the PhD degree and the credentialist system is what is killing this business. Nothing else. And the reason we got into this mess in the first place is the american way of doing business: Put a flamboyant MBa from Harvard at the top, instead of a technical leader (like the asian way), and soon the ignorance will propagade downward and turn everything into moosh.

    I bought a big house, paid off my debts and placed a large sum in my 401K. I am ready to leave this industry altogether overnight (in my mid-30s) with absolutely no regrets. I feel sorry, however, for the pathetic loosers that still insists on sticking their head in the sand and pursue their marathon graduate degree just so they can be one day a "fake" doctor complaining that the world has nothing to offer them.

    Well, that is not anybodies duty to provide the latest swarm from the PhD farm with a big fat salary. Suck it up. And I'll have a #1 meal with fries, please.

  14. @Anonymous 7/29/10 7:31 PM:

    I assume that you are not a technical writer, given the plethora of grammatical errors in your post: "anybody's" (possessive) vs "anybodies", misspelling "propagate", failing to capitalize "American" and "Asian", and noun-verb disagreement between "loosers" and "insists".

    I don't understand your animosity towards graduates of prestigious schools. Not having obtained a PhD from the Ivy League, I can't make wild assumptions, as you do, about the value of the "marathon graduate degree". Anyway, kudos to you for somehow making almost $100K per year while working less than 20 hours per week in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry. It's nice to hear that you are debt free (so am I) and capable of retiring in your mid-30s. I suggest that you make you exit soon before you HRD finds out how much you've been scamming your company.

  15. I agree with the unemployment situation for PhDs and post-docs. I went into teaching as I couldn't get a job in med chem/synthesis. I spent several years teaching A Level chemistry in China. Go East, my friend and reculturize to a dynamic culture!

  16. Anon3:59:

    Want to tell your story? Interested in being interviewed? E-mail me at chemjobber-at-gmaildotcom. Confidentiality guaranteed.

  17. First Generation American, believed higher education was the way to secure a strong economic future so I went into Bio-Organic Chemistry and Postdoc in Molecular Imaging. I wrote several grants for small business but never got funded due to the corruption and network systems inside government. Academia would not hire me because of my publication record, they actually wanted me to remain a postdoc for 5 years and publish more before offering me a mediocre 45K tenure track position. Some of my competitors were hired at universities without ever doing a postdoc or even changing their field of study. I refused to be kept into a narrow specialized box, thats the reason I have been somewhat lucky out in biotech because I am diversified. However, politics have made it difficult for me to move away from the bench despite my talent for innovative research ideas. People with masters and bachelors degrees have no true responsibilities and are much better off in the sciences than PhDs. Industry frowns on PhDs, and academia is full of corruption and a mentality that graduate students and postdocs are worthless. Why would anyone want to make 50K a year and give up 15 years of their lives to specialize in a narrow field. I clearly regret the choice I made to go into science. This is more money and more job security by training at community colleges.

  18. Mar. 11, 2011

    Dear Anonymous:

    I am curious HOW you made $100,000 with 20 hours a week. I am an organic chemist who is thinking about trying to work in the biotech industry.


  19. well like people say grass is always greener we in india think all big moolah is in the west,so theres a mad rush to go to west here, while the west complains all the jobs are here, i agree we have quite a lot of vacancies here, but we are paid pretty shite money, i have completed my master and working in a pharma co and i only 400 usd !!!!

  20. For those out there, who are worried that the jobs are shifted to China and India. I would welcome you to join over here and spend some time. I am pretty sure that you can't even make it an year. The working conditions in CROs here are very poor and the expectations are very high. For instance, I am talking about a CRO based out in Hyderabad, India, which claims itself as Asia's leading one. I worked here after my Ph.D. and Post-Doc from North America. The expectations from them are 40 reactions and 4 molecules shipment for a month with a lab having twelve people, who supposed to share seven fume hoods and three rota.

    The point here, it's not that the jobs are outsourced to save money, but the entire profession has become very difficult to carry on for life time.


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