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How To Get a Pharma Job

Getting Hired as a PhD

Continuing with my “How to Get Hired” series, tonight I want to talk about getting a job as a new PhD. If you’re in this market, the first thing you should do is go back and read that previous post about getting hired with a Master’s degree or lower, because most of that applies to you, especially in your first few years in the industry.
That is to say: if you’re a chemist, you’re going to be making compounds, and if you’re a biologist, you’re going to be running assays. The difference is that with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree at most companies, those things will remain your primary jobs. With a PhD, you’ll be doing them and more. (A future post will address the “more” part.)
So, since the starting points for PhD and Master’s hires are fairly similar, the same advice applies to your background. As a chemist, you want to demonstrate versatility and problem-solving ability. If you’ve got plenty of those, we can overlook quite a few other things. Problem is, those aren’t the qualities that just leap out at us during a one-day seminar and interview schedule – unless you make them leap, of course, which is your job for the day.
That means that you shouldn’t show a bunch of slides of perfect reactions that all worked perfectly every time. Some people do this to show what amazing hands they have, but that’s a mistake. No one gets everything to work all the time, not around here, anyway, and you’d better be ready to deal with that. Show us some things that stopped you in your tracks, and show us how you got around them. As long as you didn’t get into the initial bind through your own stupidity, these examples will do you a lot of good. Even if you didn’t manage to fix something in the end, show us that you took some good cracks at it and were able to move on. You’re going to be doing plenty of that here, too.
On another topic, when you’re interviewing for a chemistry position, don’t try to impress everyone with your knowledge of biology. You’re not a biologist, and that’s not the position you’re being brought in for. If you sound too much like one, we’ll wonder if you every got around to learning enough chemistry. We’re all convinced – most of the time, with good reason – that academic medicinal chemistry and academic drug discovery don’t train you well for what industry is like, so if that’s your background, you need to avoid sounding as if you already know all these things it took us years on the job to learn.
But on the other hand, if that’s not your background, don’t worry about not knowing all the details of enzyme mechanisms, pharmacokinetics, high-throughput screening assays, and the like. Heck, don’t worry about not knowing any details of some of that stuff. Most of us didn’t know it, either, and we picked it up just fine. You will, too, if you show us that you’re the sort of person who can learn new material.
With a doctorate, you’ll be expected to show a capacity for independent work as soon as you start picking up the basics of drug discovery, so show us that you’re ready for it. It’s not going to look good if you got all your ideas by asking one of the post-docs in your group, for example. I don’t mean that have to have invented all your reactions, of course. Lifting ’em from the literature is just fine; that’s what we spend our time doing here. But did you motivate yourself to go look, or did someone have to poke you?
As I advised earlier, be ready for all the obvious questions about your work. If you show a weird reaction, someone is going to ask you the mechanism, and not only should you know it, you should show that you knew that the question was coming. If you got some unexpected results – and I hope you did – you should have some explanations ready, even if you don’t know which one is correct. A real interview-killer is to be asked why you think something odd happened and to answer that gosh, you don’t really know, it must have just been one of those things. . .

4 comments on “Getting Hired as a PhD”

  1. Alex says:

    How important is doing a post-doc before trying to get a job in industry ie do you look for people who’ve done a post-doc or is “just” the PhD good enough ?

  2. schinderhannes says:

    IMHO a PostDoc is always a good idea. It can be a real eye opener to work under a different boss than the one supervising your PhD. You learn different chemistry, different management styles etc.
    And there is one other thing to consider: (o.k., I´m from Germany so over here it is quite common, but…)
    If you really want your PostDoc to be a worthwhile experience and to beef up your CV, go abroad!
    You never know if you have a second chance in your life to do this, and there a plenty of good groups in Europe 8or Japan etc.) that would welcome PhDs from the US.

  3. Derek Lowe says:

    Well, since I did my post-doc in Germany, I agree with Schinderhannes’s comments above, naturally.

    But it’s true that a post-doc can help. But don’t do one just for the sake of doing one. From a future employment view, It’s best used as an opportunity to go off and do a different sort of chemistry than you did for your PhD. I don’t mean like natural product synthesis and then switch to inorganic photochemistry. But if you did a lot of alkaloid work, say, in grad school, make sure that you’re not in the same area in your post-doc.

    That gives you hard evidence that you can drop into a new area and pick up what you need to know, which is just what we’re looking for.

  4. RKN says:

    Would you comment on the role of “dry-bench” pharmacology in new drug discovery, both now and what the future trend in industry might be?

    Specifically, I’m wondering if a PhD in pharmacology who also has significant experience in modeling and software development is (or will be) a more desireable commodity in industry.

    Also, if it’s not too much of a tangent, are PhDs whose research focus was in pharmacogenomics getting hired in the pharmacuetical industry?

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