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How To Get a Pharma Job

Hire the Thoroughbreds?

One of my colleagues came by the other day to dispute a remark I made in a comment here the other day. The question is the role of “pedigree” in hiring into pharmaceutical research labs, which varies quite a bit between companies. Some are notorious for “old boy” systems – you’ll find an awful lot of Corey folks at Pfizer, for example. Does this consideration make sense, and if it does, how much should it count for?
It was pointed out to me that I’ve consistently claimed that there’s no one best model for drug discovery, and that flexibility is a virtue. Thus, went the argument, I shouldn’t rule out hiring by pedigree, because there’s surely no one best way to select chemists, either. I agree with that last part, but my comment against pedigree was aimed more at people who rule out hiring by any other means. I was actually making a pro-flexibility case.
But that doesn’t settle the underlying issue: is hiring based on who the job candidate worked for a good idea, or not? First off, I should note that this is mainly an issue for PhD lab-head jobs. Associate positions get filled by people from all over the place, since the job requirements aren’t as broad. With that in mind, I think this can be broken down into categories: the candidate could have worked for
1. Someone with a poor reputation
2. Someone that no one’s ever heard of
3. Someone with no particular reputation either way
4. Someone with a reasonably solid reputation, but not a star
5. Someone who’s famous
You’d probably stay away from (1), but I frankly can’t think of anyone I’d put in that category. A lot of professors in group (2) might be classified that way if anyone paid attention to them, I guess, so that group is at a disadvantage, too.
But they’re at a disadvantage for many other good reasons. The main way to stay in that second group is to not publish much, not give talks at meetings, and work at a school that’s not known for chemistry. Clearly, you don’t want to come out of a research group in this category if you can help it.
Category (3) is a step up, but not by much. Professors in this group are not totally unrecognizable, but they’re not known for anything specific. You recall hearing their name, or seeing them in a journal, but you didn’t read the paper. Closer inspection might reveal that to be either their fault or yours – it could go either way. The reason you don’t have a handle on the person might just be that no ones finds their work interesting or useful.
Category (4) is where the arguing really gets going. There are an awful lot of research groups in this category, and the quality of the people they turn out varies widely. My colleague argues that picking from category (5) instead gives you a bozo filter, that you’re at least assured of some level of quality control.
My reply was that if someone is a bozo, you should be able to pick up on that during the interview process. Personally, if I had to hire a hundred people from only one category to staff a med-chem department, and boy am I glad that I don’t, I’d go with (4) over (5) as long as I got to select from the pool. If I had to hire blind, though, category (5) people might well give a higher average.
But it could come at a cost. Just as there are all sorts of people working for not-so-famous professors, there are all sorts of famous professors. You’ve got your up-and-coming stars, your over-the-hills, your genuine geniuses and your sweatshot slave-drivers. Some of these folks damage as many students as they improve. (And there’s another downside to hiring only from the elite: some of them come complete with bonus attitude).

17 comments on “Hire the Thoroughbreds?”

  1. bronxite says:

    I can think of quite a few people who have great reputations, but I would never consider them good scientists. Perhaps the best example is John Bockris, who was one of the biggest champions of cold fusion, and a well respected member of the electrochemistry community (is he still?). His work during the cold fusion debacle is well documented in Gary Taubes’ book Bad Science.
    How often is it the case that people with stellar reputations end up becoming disgraced? Even John Bardeen, inventor of the transistor and developer of the theory of superconductivity was just about the last person to come around on Brian Josephson’s theory of tunnelling between separated superconductors.

  2. SP says:

    Don’t most of the category 5 profs still consider industry to be a kind of consolation prize? In that case they’re dumping off their lesser students on companies. (Most people have moved beyond this attitude, realizing that if every prof graduates three students a year, they can’t all become professors because the number of faculty positions isn’t exponentially increasing.)

  3. tom bartlett says:

    There are some “top names” that do painstaking,but not particularly creative work. There are some “almost top names” that give excellent training, and also prod their students into using their brains.

  4. milo says:

    One thing I have noticed, considering my PhD advisor was a category 3 guy (a new prof.), is that the old guys have lots of contacts. My advisor had next to none. Since I was his second PhD my network is a little thin.
    Of course a lot of Corey’s folks end up at Pfizer (just using the above example), they have a built in network. They don’t have to worry about applying for a job through HR and getting entered into some B.S. database (and I don’t mean a bachelors of science). Heck, if all I had to do was call someone and say “Hey Bob, EJ suggested I call you. I am getting ready to graduate, can you get my resume to the head cheese?” I would be a happy man.
    Clearly there are benefits to having a “famous” advisor, and using that as a litmus test probably cuts down on the cost of interviewing a lot of candidates. I just can’t help but wonder if a lot of really good talent and creative thinking is being passed by.

  5. burt says:

    You look at Pfizer’s track record and you see that “EJ’s” boys don’t perform too well, with regards to filling the pipeline. I guess they shouldn’t have been so quick to push almost all of the Pharmacia talent out the door.

  6. Jim says:

    Two divergent thoughts:
    First, regardless of pedigree, resume/CV preparation and decent interview skills are still among the most important factors in landing a job. In all of the interviews I’ve conducted (as a hiring manager) it has never ceased to amaze me how poorly some people interview. The sterotype of a nerdy scientist with no people skills is there for a reason. For instance, one guy who was interviewing for a group leader position had a new oxford shirt fresh out of the bag. That was obvious because the perpendicular creases were still visible, and he hadn’t taken off the round “L” sticker. I’m sure he would have been a GREAT manager. While pedigree might get your resume to the top of the pile, it gets thrown out the window once you sit down with the 8-10 people that interview you.
    Second thought: I think an overlooked part of working in a superstar’s lab is that they’re usually in great institutions where your colleagues outside of the lab are good people to get to know, and the facillites and resources available to you put you at a distinct advantage.

  7. biohombre says:

    I was going to leave this one alone, because any of us who have had to hire know it is a lot of work that you sort of end up doing on top of everything else. And, fine, you find that a recommendation from someone you know to be more valuable than someone you do not know. But if it is really about science, can the science not speak for itself? Read the reports! Is it only good science if it comes from the best labs (best connected labs). Are the papers from ‘underlings’ before the PI received a Nobel (or some other prestigious recognition) a lower level of science? EXAMINE THE WORK, NOT THE ENVIRONMENT. The environment can enable or squelch innovative approaches, it does not produce them.

  8. Jim Hu says:

    Re #1. Bockris is retired…and believe me, he was not beloved among the chemists here at TAMU for the headlines he got. After his support for the original cold fusion stuff, he actually claimed a method for transmutation of Hg to Au via a cold fusion process. This got him entangled with a very shady operation raising money to commercialize the process, as I recall.
    As part of a graduate molecular genetics class, I once wrote a question on how one might isolate a gene for a fictional enzyme, mercury dehydrogenase, which I called Bockrase.

  9. bronxite says:

    If I remember correctly, Bockris was a pretty influential character before the cold fusion fiasco. People tend not to “all of a sudden go crazy”, but perhaps that’s what happened here. I’ve read that Francis Collins was implicated in a fraud case.
    The comments regarding Corey and the current problems of Pfizer are interesting, especially in light of this article. Hollywood is famous for being cliqueish.

  10. JSinger says:

    Heck, if all I had to do was call someone and say “Hey Bob, EJ suggested I call you. I am getting ready to graduate, can you get my resume to the head cheese?” I would be a happy man.

    If it’s any consolation, Milo — I came out of a lab that was at the top of category 5, and it sure didn’t make me a happy man. This is getting into the domain of “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it!”

  11. JSinger says:

    People tend not to “all of a sudden go crazy”, but perhaps that’s what happened here. I’ve read that Francis Collins was implicated in a fraud case.

    “Implicated” is rather excessive, I’d say. A grad student in his lab was falsifying data, and he withdrew the questionable papers when it came to light. The handwaving in your link notwithstanding, it’s unclear how he could have possibly handled things any better, at least by any reasonable expectation of what a PI does.

  12. bronxite says:

    I guess it just shows how much science by management goes on these days. Not to brag, but it seems almost impossible to imagine this happening in the group where I did graduate studies.
    Do you know more about what precipitated the investigation in this case?

  13. JSinger says:

    Here’s a link on the Collins story, which may or may not be publically accessible.

    I really find it very difficult to see how he could have handled it any better, short of looking over grad students’ shoulders every time they picked up a Pipetman.

  14. bronxite says:

    Thanks. Unfortunately, it’s not publicly available, but the reference is handy. It’s an interesting debate. I worked in an experimental group as a grad student, so this type of student is a lot harder to check up on than one working on theory. Still, trust counts for a lot, and some sort of breach occurred here. I’ll opine that a lot of the sort of work Collins supervises is drudgery, and that it might not be possible to get smart students (those who realize that fraud will destroy their career) to do this. It also suprises me that more of this work isn’t outsourced to developing countries, where fraud might be less of a risk. Wasn’t there an article (perhaps alarmist) in Nature recently about the proliferation of misconduct?
    Sorry for the departure from the original line.

  15. A.Rec says:

    So…anyone knows what become of Woodward’s “old boys”? How are they doing now?

  16. UndergradChemist says:

    You mean, Woodward’s “old boys” as in Schreiber, Kishi, and Houk?

  17. Susan R says:

    Of course the brain related patients also increase in my country.

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