Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Layoff Project: "I feel frustrated that I cannot help anyone"

BQ is a longtime pharmaceutical chemist who writes in with their layoff story. [CJ's note: this story has been fairly heavily [redacted] to protect anonymity.]:

Previously, I had a terrific career at [large pharmaceutical company], where I was an organic/ medicinal chemist of excellent standing (going by what my associates think of me).  After stellar years (18+, in these times it is embarrassing to talk about your experience as it also speaks of your age!), [Large Pharma] separated from me (3 years back) and there were many other friends of mine in that list.  I have to say that [Large Pharma] treated me reasonably well (as opposed to other horror stories, I have heard) and as a matter of fact my boss accompanied me (his eyes were bloodshot, I recall) on that day of my departure to the exit gate.  That said, it does not take away the fact that, I was mad as hell.  I was angry for the simple reason that the years of training in several programs had given me an air of confidence (ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the science at the interface of biology, chemistry, ADME, DMPK etc.) and it felt good.  During those years at [Large Pharma], I had worked on and impacted on many programs that delivered varied molecules for clinical studies (Rheumatoid arthritis (Phase-2), Obesity (Phase-3), and a macrolide antibiotic, [redacted] for veterinary use).  Then there were other programs that petered out,  but important lessons were garnered.   Imagine my frustration, when I thought I could deliver lot more and then this parting happened.  In many ways I felt like, I was nipped off even before I fully bloomed.

After the separation, I was 4 months into my hiatus at home and went to extraordinary length to keep me mentally and physically active (did usual chores, cooking, the kids and watched lot of TV and the saga of octet mom, the craze then!).  I still persisted on reading chemistry and biology by going to [local public university] along with a friend of mine who was also let go at that time.  In between I also applied for many jobs, but did so at leisurely phase (2 to 3 a week).  And then, I got that call from the [same Large Pharma] to work, this time as a contract employee at their process department.  The initiative towards that end was entirely mine via a recruiter when I found out [same Large Pharma] was open for contract jobs.  I was quick to jump on that offer that came my way and wasted no time in accepting the same ($46.00/hr after the recruiter’s cut and again FYI only!).  I also thought that there was no shame going back to [same Large Pharma]. Besides, that was the only credible job that became available at that time among the many places I had applied.  I also went through handful of telephone interview during that time (I am not a fan of this format, I would rather give a talk and be judged on that) at other small companies but did not graduate beyond the initial interview.

My enquiries with the people (my immediate superior and his boss) at that time at [same Large Pharma] suggested that the temporary job was just that- it was short-term and they had no way of knowing as to how long it would last.  Understand that this whole setting when I re-joined as a contract employee was against the backdrop of the impending mega merger (i.e. reverse merger) between [LP1 and LP2].  At this point I was worried if a bleaker outlook awaited if I get the boot again.  I pursued other opportunities while a contract employee.  That was until a friend of mine connected with his friend who was in need of an organic chemist (my first reaction, what were the odds?) at my present location at [R1 university].  The salary at [R1 university] was lot to be desired, but during these troubling times all of us in many ways were all “boxed” and there are hundreds of people waiting in the wings to take any job including the one from [R1 university].  Towards that end, I have to say I was very lucky that I accepted this job as a research scientist (a non teaching position) also paid benefits and with a contribution to my pension as well!  My tenure as a contract process chemist (worked on [anti-viral] program with a great minds!) at [Large Pharma] lasted 4 months, before I joined [R1 university]. The lessons of networking has been said often times and it is, either you network or no work, is very true.  When you network, you have no idea who is going to give you that call or where your next opportunity is going to come from?

Leaving my family back, I did a solo ride to [location of R1 university].  My initial reaction after accepting this job was that I would give myself about a year and then figure it out if I was in or out.   Well, it has been over 2 years since I have been at [R1 university].  My boss here at [R1U] is great man [a former industry leader] and down to earth human being.  I was hired to conduct the research on a given project (contracted to him by other people at [R1U] and industry), run the labs and also to equip the laboratory. Significant amount of time was spent on equipping the pristine labs (with LCMS, peptide synthesizers, ISCO combiflash units, glassware’s, rotavaporator etc.).  By the way, most of our equipments that were brought herein were used and these days there are one too many available at bargain prices.  A biologist who was also hired along with me (not from an industry) also did the same on a parallel track.  All told it took almost a year to furnish the labs.  Much of the things we take for granted in the industry (read [Large Pharma]) went missing here at [R1U].  We had to painfully endure the convoluted procurement procedure in the academia (competitive price, bidding, consent from a half a dozen bureaucrats, get an authorization etc.).  The whole process was excruciatingly stretched in comparison to the industry.  Suffice it to say that efficiency and alacrity were not the operative word in the academia!

Coming to [state of R1U] also opened my eyes to the immense poverty across the board in this rustic state that is full of very hardy people.  I did lot of leisurely travelling in and around where I lived.  I was convinced that the people of [state of R1U] were hurting big time and perhaps lot more than the folks at [east coast state].  Recall that [state of R1U] had lost lot of manufacturing jobs and we are to witness the similar fate with medicinal/organic chemist at both East and West coast.   Seeing the poverty here at [state of R1U] had a very sobering and profound impact on my thinking.  It left me with a feeling that I had it good in the past  and by any measure was still doing fine at [state of R1U].
The work in our laboratory involves cooperative research and our own home grown research projects as well.  The former was mostly “service industry type” type while the work on the later would help us write the grant.  For whatever it is worth, this dual strategy is perhaps the best way to go about for staying buoyant as a group in an academic setup.  Upshot of this dual strategy was, you will come out on the top with a nice publication, visibility etc.  While I take care of the chemistry aspect of our research (synthesis etc.) the biology end is another story.  For collaborative research I would synthesize and deliver to the biologists (clinicians, MD PhD) and they would take forever to give me back the results.  My impression to them that the faster results from them could help me design better analogs often fell on deaf ears.  For a known biological targets, when I informed them we do not have to rediscover the wheel (meaning no need to set up new assay for binding or functional studies), none was heeded.  My point was that lot of time were wasted and at this writing, am still waiting for the results.  As is the case with many academic jobs our funding comes via soft grant money and I just simply have no idea as to how long it will last.  I also realize that when it comes to collaboration, your priority may not be his and so on.  At [Large Pharma], we would hear all sort of accolade about academic research, but being here for two years it is a real revelation to me.  I am actually watching inefficiency on a driver’s seat from the backseat!    Trust me it takes a lot to maintain the semblance of normalcy here in academia, especially if you are from an industry.

My take on the whole issue is that there is a very big difference from an operational standpoint, when it comes to discovering drug in industry and academia.  Research in the industry is like a super “Wal-Mart” where one can do and buy everything on a one stop shopping (PK, PD, and Toxicity etc.).  By contrast, the academic research is like a “Mom and Pop” store, where you do not know if you are going get all the ingredients to get it done.  I see an impediment at various levels because of usual politics, alpha male attitude, misplaced priorities etc.  I could go on and on filling in pages.  As for me, I am going with the flow but also ruminating at the same time.  Here are my other reflections during the last two years of my employment here at [R1U].

1. I worry and wonder if the kids who are feverishly chasing their dream (PhD in biology and chemistry) would have a fulfillment in their career in their chosen profession?  I am also bothered if they would get a job knowing well that many of these jobs are vanishing fast and are not coming back anytime soon.  Of course, some could be employed in teaching, but then that meant adding more to the job pool with more PhD’s, we could do without during decade or so (supply and demand!)

2. Closer to home, the Chemistry department at [R1U] is really looking desolate with no reputed person to speak off.  I am an organic chemist by training and I do proudly recall people such as [R1U's old greats].  These individuals in the past here at [R1U] were really heavy lifts and there are none today.  Yet I see there are many pursuing their PhD’s and as to what sort of future awaits them is an open question.

3. I also come to work with lot of guilt riding on me.  I feel frustrated that I cannot help anyone and feel helpless at many times.  Here I am employed and paying my bills but agonizingly watch many friends of mine still in the job block.  The broken political system (in DC) and pharmaceutical companies has levied extra ordinary prices on all of us.   Their collective action (or inaction) has exasperated the whole situation and I see we are not going to come out of this pit anytime soon. At times I feel that my life here at [R1U] is like that of swinging pendulum caught between keeping my job to pay my bill at one extreme and not being able to help anyone at another!

4. I share the outlook with others that I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.   I do not see any newer model for the pharmaceutical industry uplifting us (yet!) that is going to replace the earlier one.  Until that happens, the bleeding will continue.  That said no doubt that the period from the mid eighties (of last century) to 2005 was the golden period for the pharmaceutical industry (new therapeutic targets, chemistry, HTS etc.) and I was fortunate enough to ride that wave.

CJ, I could go on and on and fill in many more pages.  One of my biggest ironies is that I came to this great nation after getting my PhD in [international location] and did my part to help some and also help me along the way.  There were many friends of mine who also came along with me to the USA for their post doctoral training.  Many returned to [international location] when they found no opportunities here in the USA.  I count myself as very lucky to find this great job in a premier pharmaceutical company and I had it good!  Now, we all hear that [Large Pharma] has outsourced many of the jobs to CRO companies headed by same friends of mine, who went home empty handed a decade plus back.  I am very sure, they must be having their last laugh and the joke was on me!

Listen CJ, you have been nice enough to print the unfortunate stories of many laid off employees in your postings.  Many were gut wrenching (like the story of that lady falling victim to the cancer) and some with sweet ending, like mine.  On a scale of 1 to 10-one being really bad and ten being great, I would give myself 7 or 8.

CJ here again. Thanks to BQ for their story and their time. Best wishes to us all.

The Layoff Project is an attempt to collect the oral histories of chemists who have been affected by the changes in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. The explanatory post is here; stories can be left in the comments or e-mailed to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed. 


  1. Thanks BQ, I appreciated your story.

    As for the inefficiency of academic research, it drives me nuts. As an organic postdoc, I constantly wait for data from collaborating biologists. Like you said, their priorities dont always match mine.

    Keep your eyes and ears open, you may be able to help someone when you least expect it. I makes me happy that there are people out there that are frustrated that they cant help others, at least you care.

  2. A very nice story. It makes me feel good that there are people out there like yourself who cares.

    I also agree with you. The outsourcing is killing science in this country. In addition, sending our manufacturing jobs overseas is contributing to the decline of this country.

  3. WOW, BQ, thank you so much for sharing your story. And, thank you, CJ, for posting this.

    I've always wonder how much frustration one experience when they move from industry to academia. Number one, the PACE!!! You put it perfectly here: watching inefficiency on a driver’s seat from the backseat. And watching more and more passengers (innocent students) getting on this very very slow-moving car.

    One positive thing: we have more time to reflect! :)


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