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How To Get a Pharma Job

How To Get Hired: Associate Positions

I thought I’d expand my recent thoughts on getting employed in the drug industry, and start a new category to put them in. Perhaps they’ll be a helpful reference to job seekers. I’ll be writing from a chemocentric point of view, but I’ll try to make reference to other areas of the pharmaceutical job market.
Tonight we’ll discuss lab associate positions, since there are more of those than anything. This job goes by different names in different companies, but there’s one thing about it that doesn’t change: it’s a non-PhD position. This is where you’ll be with a Batchelor’s or Master’s degree, count on it.
In a med-chem department, you’ll report to a PhD lab head, and you’ll be at the bench making the bulk of the new compounds for testing. That’s the single biggest requirement for this job: you need the hands to make new drug candidates. You’ll turn out strings of compounds inside a given series, then hop to another and run that one for a while.
You’ll need to switch between making 20 milligrams of a compound and making ten grams of it at times, and you’ll need to do it with some reasonable speed. We don’t care as much about reaction yields in the drug discovery labs. Someone who can hack out ten analogs in 40% yield apiece is a lot more valuable than someone who takes the same amount of time to make one of them in 90%.
If you’re that kind of person, you’d be happier in the process and scale-up side of the business, where we try to find the best and cheapest way to make the compounds we’re really interested in. That’s a vital area, and anyone who tries to sell it short to you is not to be trusted. Keep in mind, though, that those folks work under some of the least flexible deadlines in the whole chemistry department.
If you’re in drug discovery, which compounds you make and how much you get to move the chemistry around all depend on who you report to and how good you are. Personally, if I have someone competent reporting to me, I take a hands-off attitude, as much as possible – I try to do only the minimum of “Make this, make that” requests. That’s clearly not possible with someone just learning the business, though, and anyone coming in right out of school can expect a lot of pretty direct assignments. As you show what you can do, you’ll be given more room on your own, and if you aren’t, you should look elsewhere, either inside your company or beyond.
That brings up another key thing about these jobs. Let me speak frankly: at almost every company, there will be a ceiling over your head. The PhD is the terminal degree in the field, and you will never rise as high (synonymous with “earn as much money”) as those who have attained it. This will be true even if you’re smarter than many of them, and even if you could do the job if they’d just let you. In many organizations, for example, you may not ever have to chance to have someone report to you. If that’s important to you, you need to choose carefully, or you need to hang in there for the PhD itself.
That’s not to say that an associate position can’t be a good career. It can be, and I’ve known people who’ve done well in these roles for decades, both professionally and financially. But you really should know the score going in.
How do you get hired into this kind of position? Most companies have a mix of Batchelor’s and Master’s people filling these roles. Naturally, we expect more from the latter, and you should be prepared to meet that expectation. You’ll need to show that you’ve done a variety of different reactions, because you’re sure going to be seeing a variety of them if you’re hired. It’s going to be a tough sell if all you’ve done are eighty-seven different aldols. For the same reason, it helps to show that you can be a quick study. If you’d never made any whateverazoles or done the Whatsis reaction, but had to pick it up on short notice, be very sure to mention that in your interview seminar. (For more on that seminar see this post.)
And, unfair though it might be, you should be able to demonstrate that you can get things to work. Now, not all projects work, true. But even if you were stuck on a loser project, you need to show that you cranked away at it, tried new approaches when you got bogged down, and succeeded wherever you could. Because, let’s face it, there are truly people out there who can’t even boil an egg, and we sure don’t want to hire any of them. (Or any more of them.) Put the best face on things that you can, without crossing the line into overt bullshitting, because that’ll be spotted instantly. You may well be talking with some people who’ve been doing chemistry for as long as you’ve been alive; trying to snow-job those folks is not recommended.
You should be reasonably competent in the majority language of the company’s labs. It’s true that every department has some non-native speakers that are rather hard to make out, but that’s not a category that we like to add to. While chemistry can be conducted fairly well through drawings and sign language, if someone runs into the lab and yells “Run for your life!”, you’d better not just give them a blank look.
And there’s another thing that it may be too late to do anything about: you need to look like the sort of person that people can stand to be around. We don’t have one-man isolation labs; you’re going to be rubbing elbows with people all day long and working on large teams. If you give off odd or nasty vibrations – and let’s face it, some of us in the sciences do – then it’ll be harder to get hired. There is, at least as of this writing, no affimative action program for the weird.

11 comments on “How To Get Hired: Associate Positions”

  1. Chad Orzel says:

    Are these the sorts of positions that can be parlayed into money for grad school/ a promise of a job after graduation for those who decide to go after a Ph.D.? That seems to be fairly common in a lot of engineering fields (anecdotally, anyway), but doesn’t really happen much in physics, because of the general lack of non-Ph.D. positions, and the fact that nobody actually pays money to go to grad school in physics.

  2. qetzal says:

    I don’t know if the following applies to chemistry, but it’s a major factor on the biology side, so I’ll throw it out there.

    Say you’re a junior working on your BS, and you plan to get a job after you graduate. No matter what else you do, MAKE SURE you get some real, working lab experience. Work in a professor’s lab during the summer. Full time.

    Even better, work full time during the summer, and part time during the rest of the year. You’ll probably spend most of your time cleaning glassware, ordering supplies, restocking the cabinets, etc. That’s OK, but try to get involved helping one of the grad students or post-docs. Pour gels for them. Set up simple reactions. Anything.

    If you absolutely can’t get a lab job, then be certain you do an independent study project.

    Two reasons for this advice, both of which stem from the same fact: most college lab courses give you almost no idea what it’s really like to work in a lab doing science. And you desparately need that if you’re going to pursue a research career.

    You want real work experience so you can find out if you really like working in a lab. (Especially if you plan to go to grad school. It sucks to invest time and money in a grad degree, only to decide after 2+ years that you hate lab work and want to drop out. Sadly, it happens a lot.)

    And you also want real work experience to show your first potential employer. If you take your new BS and try to get a lab job, but your only lab experience is coursework, you’re going to have a very hard time. As Derek points out, your potential boss will almost certainly be a Ph.D., who will know from painful personal experience that lab coursework alone does not prepare you to work in a lab.

  3. Derek Lowe says:

    Chad, chemistry grad school is similar to physics, in that no one pays to go there, either. (Man, in some cses that that would really be insult-to-injury.)

    There are associates who go back to grad school for their PhDs after a stint in industry, but I haven’t heard of any jobs being promised. Generally it’s a good idea to go work at a different company once you come out with the new degree, anyway, so you can start over in everyone’s perceptions.

  4. Bob Powell says:

    There is “no affimative action program for the weird” – I’m not sure truer words were ever blogged! Although they’re not in drug discovery (or any of the sciences – heck, they were barely high school graduates), I have some relatives (all on the wife’s side, honest!) who seem to be deliberately weird and manage to rub everyone the wrong way.
    Keep up the excellent blog!

  5. The Novice Chemist says:

    Does anyone know if ‘no-one pays to go’ also carries over to engineering graduate school? This was a topic of conversation over the family dinner table the other night.

  6. RKN says:

    Interesting comments about lab experience. I’m 45 years old, and this fall I’m matriculating a PhD program in biomedical science at Case Western. I want to do work in pharmacogenomics.
    This is a total re-invention for me; I earned my first degree in 1985 in geophysics (M.S.). Since then I’ve worked (mostly) in the oil ‘n gas industry as a scientific software developer. The last three years I’ve been taking ad-hoc chemistry courses, most recently biochem. The only lab experience I’ve had came during a two-semester course in organic chemistry. I had intended to get more wet bench experience before applying to grad schools, but with working and other responsibilities I couldn’t find the time.
    Clearly the biggest thing about my application that caused concern for professors, was my lack of research lab experience.

  7. Peter says:

    To answer Novice Chemist’s question, engineering programs are similar to science programs in that most grad students receive a tuition waiver and a stipend. Engineering grad school isn’t really very different from that in the sciences from what I can tell. A bit shorter, perhaps; I think ChemE grads get out in about 4.5 years vs. about 5 for Chemistry.

  8. kodi says:

    “Because, let’s face it, there are truly people out there who can’t even boil an egg, and we sure don’t want to hire any of them. (Or any more of them.)”
    I’m one of those people. I can say from experience that a well-written lab report explaining your total failure to complete the lab in a meaningful fashion, despite spending four hours on a 90-minute lab, for every single lab, can still result in a respectable grade on the transcript. If anyone hires someone with a Bachelors to work in a lab on the strength of their transcript/interview alone, I can’t help but think that they deserve to end up with someone like me.

  9. Thanks, Peter! Even more hope for my cousin.

  10. CatCube says:

    I think ChemE grads get out in about 4.5 years vs. about 5 for Chemistry.

    Wow. I hope you’re talking about getting a PhD in that period. Over in the Civil Engineering side of things, I’m coming up on a year and a half in my Master’s program, and a lot of my fellow grad students that got their baccalaureate degree at the same time as I did are leaving. (I’ll be done in 1 yr 10 mo)

  11. Greg Hlatky says:

    “Because, let’s face it, there are truly people out there who can’t even boil an egg…”
    And what do you call these people after they’ve worked in industry for five years?

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