Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview: what's it like to do chemistry in China?

I am terribly pleased to have secured an interview with Paul of China Bonding, the blog of an American chemist working in China at a chemistry CRO. Paul graciously agreed to answer some questions about his journey and his experiences so far.

This e-mail Q&A was lightly edited and formatted by Chemjobber and checked for accuracy by China Bonding.

Chemjobber: Can you describe your US-based background?

China Bonding: Before coming to China, I worked for 12 years in the US. After getting my BS on the east coast and PhD on the west coast,I spent 7 years with a large biotech, then 5 years with a big pharma. I enjoyed both of those jobs and learned a lot from having smart co-workers.

CJ: What was the catalyst for your decision to move yourself to China?

CB: A good question, and I get asked this by Chinese people all the time. ‘Why would you come here?’ is the implication. For me, it was a perfect storm of events, and I think no single one would have been enough for me to make the jump, so maybe my situation is unique. I advised my cousin, the recent undergraduate chemistry major, on how to proceed with a chemistry career. He listened attentively, then, soundly contrary to my helpful advice, took a year off to teach English in China. I was upset at first, until I realized the anger stemmed from simple jealousy. Since I had gone straight to grad school, I did not get a chance for a travel adventure of that kind and seeing such a similar version of myself engage in it, I could not help but feel an opportunity lost.

About the same time, I had a chance to give a talk in Germany and spend some time there, which I really enjoyed. I had not been outside the US for sometime, and started seriously thinking about options to live abroad. Unlike my cousin, though, I did not feel comfortable taking a year away from my career.

Given the climate in large pharma at the time, I feared for my future professional development. I wanted to explore non-traditional ways to expand my skill set. The search ultimately pointed towards China/India.

So there it was, I wanted to live outside the US without putting my career on hold. I looked around and serendipitously the CROs at the time were beginning to do IP-generating medicinal chemistry. I could live outside the US, design compounds, do medicinal chemistry, and keep sharp. My single status kept moving problems to a minimum. It was now or never. I feared the regret of not trying more than the fear of the unknown, so I leaped. I also comforted myself with the thought that if I hated it, I would return in a year. But I did not hate it, so I’m still in China now.

CJ: What is it like to work in chemistry at your company? Are you at the bench or are you managing chemists?

CB: I’m managing here, not at the bench. I run a group of ~65 medicinal chemists over three projects for a single large US pharma client. Sometimes the demands at being at a small company create pressures beyond science issues, and oftentimes I have to wear more than just my chemists cap, though my group is large enough now that I can mostly deal with the science and rely on others in the group to help with logistics or Chinese-speaking tasks.

CJ: Are there any differences between bench chemists in the US and China? What could US chemists learn from the Chinese?
CB: It’s always difficult to talk about generalizations and although there are some cultural differences here (group first, don’t complain) I think some similarities about being a good chemist trump social/cultural differences. It pays to be inquisitive, thoughtful and meticulous no matter where the reaction is taking place. Having a love of making compounds is still the most important determinant of a successful bench chemist, no matter where they are.

Chinese chemists often have to work under conditions that western chemists would find objectionable. ‘Room temperature’ reactions can very by as much as 30°C here. The level of capital equipment support and logistics support is still short of a modern big pharma lab, but adequate. Maybe the best traits I’ve found in some Chinese chemists is the high desire to be helpful and to improve their own skill set, while the best traits of the Western chemists would be independence and creativity. In both, I’ve found that people who enjoy the work, work the best.

CJ: What opportunities are there currently for non-Chinese speaking Americans such as yourself? Could you describe a general background that is most desired? (i.e. Ph.D. with 10+ years experience, M.S. with 3+ years, etc.?)
CB: There are lots of opportunities here, but there are trade-offs. For non-Chinese speaking Americans there is a big difference based upon one’s experience level. BS/MS or even PhD chemists coming here with limited industrial experience will share the same pay scale as local chemists, supply and demand. If money is a concern, a person with such experience may be financially better off teaching English than doing chemistry, at least for now. I would say the tipping point is at about 10 years of experience.

Industrial experience is a skill set still lacking in China and, while still compensated much less than in the west, is enough to live comfortably here. Even big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are very affordable compared to Boston or New York. Although that cost analysis changes with familes and international schools and how much imported western goods one needs to consume to feel comfortable.

That’s really a med-chem centric view. For process chemistry the picture may be different. The demand for scale up of generics seems to be increasing, and China still needs a lot of everything.

CJ: How has it been to interact with your group and your company? There's a good deal of contrast between your "cranking" post and your "praise" post.
CB: The people I most often interact with here are great. My main interactions are with the team leaders, my boss who is a returnee, and the client contacts, who are interesting smart people with about 15-20yrs of industry experience. While everyone here can write English, the team leaders are also good speakers and I lean on them heavily for communication with the bench chemists.

At a company level, it’s certainly been a learing experience for me. If it takes about 6mos to start learning a new position, then here maybe it’s taken me a year to understand the culture, both Chinese and the CRO company. Just like there are different end points for academic versus industrial chemists, similarly there’s an adjustment in focus between big US pharma and CRO. If academics do chemistry with a nod towards publication, industry does chemistry with a nod towards biology data, CROs do chemistry with a nod to the client. 

Also, as a small company, there are a lot of people concerned about making quarterly numbers and that pressure can lead to stress. I take a longer view. Long term value of proving that we can put compounds into preclinical development will win out over whatever short term ups and downs occur in the market. Since I feel more comfortable now with the group and what and how we are working, these short term ups and downs really don’t stress me as much anymore...

CJ: I have to ask: Do you see yourself in direct competition with American companies or working in concert with them? Do you see this changing 5 years in the future?

CB: The CROs here would have nothing to do without ‘Western Pharma’, so we most certainly fall into the partner category. We work here for the good of the client. Five years from now there may be more home grown China-pharma, I ‘d be excited to see a Chinese-Genetech or Chinese-Merck spring from a Chinese start-up, but that is likely more than five years away. Much more likely that there will be research sites here for all the big companies all in competition with each other.

It does seem as though there are many generics companies taking off here.

CJ: Would you recommend a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry to younger graduates in the
US? Why or why not?
CB: That’s a tough question, I would say the job market for PhDs remains tight and seems like there will not be much relief in the near future, my darkest fear being that chemists will become blacksmiths of the 21st century. There is much talent floating now, hopefully there are restless geniuses formulating more innovative small companies that will require fresh talent.I would say to undergrads that if you enjoy your organic chemisty classes, try the lab, if you like the lab classes, like making compounds go to grad school. Don’t fear too much, no choice is irrevocable.


  1. Stewie Griffin:
    Very interesting interview. I'm curious if Paul mentioned anything about his own future prospects? If he wanted to return to the US, how easy/hard would that be? Would US companies considered his experience a highlight or a blemish?

  2. Great to hear what it's like on the other side of the East/West equation. It would be interesting to find out more on where to locate opportunities in China/India for westerners
    [heads off to dig through China Bonding]

  3. I'd like to know how much Chinese language training (if any) Paul had to do before he went to China, or if his new employer offered to teach as part of his hiring process.

    Same goes for writing...or is every prep in English, too?


  4. From Paul, answers to questions:

    1. What do you think your prospects might be if you tried to transition back to the US? Would they view your experience positively or negatively?

    Really good question, I've often thought about what the re-patriation scenario might be like and I'm not sure how future employers will value medchem experience at CRO vs medchem experience at big pharma as I'm not sure anyone has been a 'returnee' to the US yet!

    Compared to my pre-China resume, I'll have more experience in managing medchem projects and experience in managing Chinese resources and dealing with CROs…I think for certain jobs that's a good skill set to have, just not sure if those jobs will be there when I'm looking to come back.

    With the present changing so fast, it's hard to predict the future with much accuracy, though, so I mainly worry about how to push my current projects forward.

    2. How much Chinese language training did you have before to went to China? Did your new employer offer to teach you the language?

    I had no training before, but I've been pretty diligent about taking chinese class while here. It's a tough language to pick up coming from English. But even just speaking a little bit facilitates the china-life experience. Many expats don’t learn any chinese, so it's possible to get along with just English, at least in Shanghai. Almost everyone speaks some English and likes to practice with native speakers, you can usually find someone to help with day to day chinese situations.

    No, there was no system in place for teaching new arrivals chinese, there have only been a few non-chinese speakers here that I'm aware of so that infrastructure has not been developed.

    Private chinese teachers who come to your office or home will run about $13/hr.

    3. How do you communicate chemistry to your subordinates? Is everything in English?

    All the labnotebooks, the reports to the clients and the teleconferences are in English. Everyone can write english pretty well, but speaking levels vary. I rely on my team leaders a lot to communicate with the bench chemists. Usually the team leaders are PhDs with several years expereince and good verbal english.
    I speak Chinese whenever there's something to say that is within my vocabulary range, but that does not happen very often!

  5. This is a very useful article, I always like hearing about chemists in other countries.

  6. So I'm curious, I'm both a Chemistry and Chinese major. You said that, " For non-Chinese speaking Americans there is a big difference based upon one’s experience level. BS/MS or even PhD chemists coming here with limited industrial experience will share the same pay scale as local chemists, supply and demand. " Is there also a big difference based upon one's experience if you speak both Chinese and English and are an American?


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