Monday, November 22, 2010

Interview: Kay, chemblogosphere commenter

Kay is a longtime reader and commenter on the chemblogosphere and I’m pleased that she’s reading and commenting here as well! Kay is a former Big Pharma chemist; I asked her some questions about her background and experiences in chemistry. This e-mail interview was edited by CJ and checked for accuracy by Kay.

Chemjobber: Can you describe your background a little?

Kay: I always loved chemistry as a kid, but I also loved books and reading and writing. I went to a small liberal arts college which had an excellent chemistry department but also allowed me to take a lot of other classes outside of science. I decided to go to graduate school in chemistry, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to get an MS or a PhD. I was in the PhD program for a while but I spent more time writing articles and reviews with my advisor than I did at the bench. I eventually decided to leave with a master's and get a job.
I stayed at my first job for 9 years, then left and worked at a small biotech for about a year. It went under, and I got a job at another big pharma company. I'd been there about 3 months when they announced a major "restructuring" was coming. I was eventually laid off after I'd been there 9 months. I started interviewing and I was offered another job at a medium-size pharma company, but by that point I was burned out on working in the lab. I was also worried about my future job prospects in the pharmaceutical industry. I didn't want to go through layoffs again in another year or two, but that seemed to be where the job market was heading. I decided to hold off on taking another pharma job and I started looking into other career fields.

I heard about a job with the federal government through a friend-of-a-friend, and I applied. The job seemed very appealing to me, a way to use the reading and writing skills that I hadn't used much since graduate school. It took a while, but I was eventually hired, and I've been here about a year and a half.

CJ: What was your first position? How did you get it?

Kay: My first job after graduate school was as a research chemist at a large pharmaceutical company. I got the interview through a former colleague of my graduate advisor. The first project I worked on involved a large natural product. I think I got the job because I was "trainable", because I didn't know anything about natural product chemistry. I had to learn everything on the job.

CJ: What was your favorite memories of your time in the industry?

Kay: I had a wonderful supervisor at my first job - he was a great mentor and teacher. I learned a lot of medicinal chemistry and synthetic chemistry from him. The last project I worked on there was really interesting, an oncology project involving peptides. The team worked really well together, and the science was fascinating. I was able to work more independently by that point and getting the reactions to finally work was very satisfying. I left before the project was finished, and I still wonder what happened to it. (I check the patent literature occasionally to see if it pops up.)

I also learned a lot during the year I worked for the biotech company. My supervisor was a process chemist, and when I expressed an interest in process chemistry, he started teaching me about it. We were working on optimizing the synthesis of our lead compounds. I had to look at scale up problems, the most effective reagents, different purification methods, ways to maximize yield - things that you don't normally think about as a medicinal chemist. If I'd stayed in pharma, I think I would have looked for a job in process chemistry. It's something you don't learn in school and so you have to learn as you go, but it's a great challenge.

CJ: What distinguishes a good scientific supervisor from a bad one? Any warning signs from your time in the industry?

Kay: I think a good scientific supervisor provides advice and guidance while still allowing you to work independently. You may need different things from a supervisor at different points in your career. When you are first starting out, you may want a more hands on supervisor, and later on you may prefer someone who gives you more independence. (The best supervisors can do both depending on what you need at the time.) A good supervisor also champions you to other parts of the company. This may not be as important at a small company, but if you're working within a large bureaucracy, the people who make decisions about advancement may not be familiar with your work. They only see the team leaders and division directors. Your supervisor has to make your case, and a supportive supervisor can make all the difference for your career.
I think the biggest warning sign is if your supervisor doesn't seem interested in you or your work. Some supervisors are more hands on than others, but if your supervisor doesn't care about what you're doing, then one or the other of you isn't going to be around much longer. I would also be wary of a supervisor who doesn't want you to present your work or participate in meetings. At first it may seem very appealing to skip tedious meetings and just let your supervisor present your work, but in the long term it can be detrimental to your career. This is a particularly dangerous trap for BS/MS chemists. You want to be seen as an important part of the team, not just a disposable "pair of hands," especially in today's climate of layoffs and outsourcing.

CJ: Looking back on some of your comments on In the Pipeline, do you think you got the broad trends about pharma right?

Kay: I don't think I've posted long enough to get trends right or wrong yet - the story is still ongoing. However, I think the decline of the pharmaceutical job market has been going on for a long time, at least 10 years, but it was slow and had some ups and downs, so most people didn't pay that much attention. But when I look back at the job market of the early 90's, when I was an undergraduate, the decline is astonishing. Most of the companies that were recruiting chemists when I was an undergrad don't even exist any more. I've been posting about the job market in the pharma industry for a long time, going back to the days of mailing lists in the 1990's, but it wasn't until the job crash of the last two years that people really started paying attention.

CJ: If you could assign blame for the current state of pharma, how would you apportion it?

Kay: I'm not an economist, but I think part of it is a long term trend toward consolidation and outsourcing that's happening everywhere. Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to change. I also think the pharma industry is focused more on short term profits than it was 10-20 years ago. (This is also a problem that's affecting many other industries.) Research is a long term investment and no one wants to make long term investments these days. Science also requires creativity, and it's hard to think creatively when you're worried about whether you'll have a job tomorrow, or wondering if the project you're working on today will still be around next week. But that's not a factor that shows up in a balance sheet.

I also think universities bear some of the blame for the situation. Universities need a lot of students to serve as teaching assistants. Professors need a lot of students to work as research assistants. Graduate schools tell students that they have a great future in chemistry in order to get bodies in the doors. At one point there may have been jobs for all those graduates, but as the job market has shrunk, the number of graduate students has stayed the same or even increased. It was unsustainable and now we're paying the price. Unfortunately, most university research and grant funding is built around cheap graduate student labor, and I think that's going to have to change.

CJ: What do you think needs to happen to reverse current trends?

Kay: Some of it may be irreversible. I don't think all the jobs are coming back. At some point someone will start investing in chemistry research again, since there is still a lot of medical need, but it's not all going to be done in the U.S. Outsourcing is here to stay. I hope that the big pharmaceutical companies will decide to invest in research again, but I think it will take a while.

If the pharmaceutical industry moves toward smaller companies, such as contract labs and biotech companies, then the type of person who becomes a chemist may change. One reason people went to work for big pharmaceutical companies was that they offered a fairly stable work environment. Pharmaceutical companies sold themselves as family friendly. The job market in the future may be a lot more uncertain, with companies only lasting a short time and chemists moving from job to job. That may discourage chemists who want a more stable career, especially those with families. But the chemists who are left might be more willing to take risks and maybe that will lead to something new.

I also hope students are more savvy about the job market than I was when I was a student. The internet was just getting started when I was an undergrad. (That makes me sound incredibly old - it wasn't THAT long ago.) Hopefully by reading blogs and online discussions, students will find out what the job market is really like, and they can decide whether or not to go into chemistry based on reality, not on the promises of professors and graduate schools. In the long term, the number of chemists is probably going to have to decrease, or at least, students will want to study a wider range of topics so they can be prepared for a changing job market. The current system where students work on one narrow topic for 5-7 years may train students to work in a big pharma lab, but it may not be the best approach today, when jobs may not last and careers change.

CJ: Are you at the bench in your new position? If no, do you miss it and why?

Kay: In my new job, I don't work at the bench at all. I read and write all day. I thought I would miss lab work more than I do. I was ready for a change. Occasionally I miss the satisfaction of getting a reaction to work, of making a new compound. There's nothing quite like working up a reaction and seeing a perfect white crystal forming in your flask.

CJ: What advice would you give a new BS/MS or a new PhD chemist going into the pharma world?

Kay: Make sure you keep up your writing and presentation skills. When you're busy in the lab, it's easy to brush off writing reports or presenting your work at meetings. But those skills are important in the long term. You can be a terrific bench chemist but if you can't communicate, you will have a hard time getting jobs and advancing in your career. You have to sell your work and you also have to sell yourself. Those skills are also crucial if you ever decide to leave the bench or move into another career.

Try to keep up with the people you work with during your career. This is something I've struggled with, because I tend to be an introvert and I'm not very social. But every job I've ever gotten has been through a personal contact. It's especially important to keep in touch with former supervisors, because references are still a huge part of getting a job in chemistry. You should always have 3-4 people that you can call up and ask for a reference. It's also a good idea to get along with people in the lab as much as possible. The pharmaceutical industry is small and interconnected. Wherever you go, you will probably run into someone who knows someone who knows you. You don't have to change your personality, but in pharma you have to work in teams. If you have a reputation as someone who works well with others, it will help you get a job. (This may seem obvious but it's surprising how many people don't do this.)
I would also keep an open mind toward other types of jobs beyond pharma. When you're in college and graduate school, you are funneled toward one type of science and one type of job. I don't want to sound like a C&E News cheerleader, but there are other options out there. When I first started in pharma, I loved being a synthetic organic chemist, but over time I found other parts of science that suited me better. Keep your options open.


  1. Love the interviews. Always great to hear people's stories.

  2. "When I first started in pharma, I loved being a synthetic organic chemist, but over time I found other parts of science that suited me better. Keep your options open."

    If you venture into other areas, is the exit from synthetic chemistry irreversible?

  3. Fantastic discussion! And dead on about the changing climate in grad would be nice to see more of those interdisciplinary people come into pharma, the ones who have both a good handle on synthetic techniques as well as biological assays.

    IMHO, it also wouldn't be too terrible to have more chemists take the "pride chip" off their shoulder and let others proof their manuscripts and presentations. Some of the grammatical mistakes I've seen in public have been atrocious...and embarassing.


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