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Business and Markets

Layoffs – Again

I’ve heard from more than one source that Pfizer has laid off a large number of research staff this week in Groton. This seems to have taken people by surprise in many cases, since the expectation was just that everyone would find out where they were on the new organization charts. Well, in a way, they did.
As mentioned in a comment to this post, the company seems to want to get more people out in the lab. They’re aiming for a 4:1 ratio of associates to PhDs in chemistry, where the cuts seem to have been deeper. That would (to my knowledge) probably be the highest average ratio in the industry. Pfizer seems to be approaching this through both the numerator and the denominator: I’ve heard of associate-level chemists who had CVs in with the company getting recent messages about some planned hiring.
But for now, there are more researchers (chemistry and biology) out of work. The Northeast, I have to say, is getting rather saturated with drug industry job-seekers. The region is still processing my own site’s closure, so I have a great deal of sympathy with the Pfizer folks who are being turned out now.

47 comments on “Layoffs – Again”

  1. Paul says:

    I have no idea how this works, but if you are a Ph.D. desperate for a job, can you apply for associate positions?

  2. chemistry is hilarious says:

    What’s the lab culture like over in Groton? Do PhDs dispense instructions from their high-rise offices without getting so much as a whiff of solvent? Or are they refluxing something all the time? These cuts ought to be accompanied by a mandate that PhDs get some more time at the bench than they do now (whatever that may be), to avoid distancing the best-trained chemists even more from their chemistry.
    Yeah, you can get 1.5-2 associates, who come with pretty much 40 hours a week of bench time, for the cost of a PhD. But if you look at well-trained PhD chemists, I’ll bet you they’re more than twice as effective at getting med chem reactions done. You don’t spend 80 hours a week for 6 years doing reactions for nothing, I would think.

  3. Canuck Chemist says:

    To my knowledge, there’s always been a shortage (more-or-less) of skilled synthetic chemists at the B.Sc. or M.Sc. level. It doesn’t take a Ph.D to crank out analogs using established protocols, so an experienced associate will do fine here. But the troubleshooting and the development and exploration of new chemistry– that’s where the Ph.D chemist can have a huge advantage (of course there are always personal exceptions).
    I think there are more technician-level chemists in Europe (esp. Germany) who can do a pretty good job at the bench without too much theory, but “bench chemist” isn’t really a recognized trade in North America. In my opinion, there are too many people being pushed through Ph.D programs who don’t have the talent to direct research groups but would do better as research associates.

  4. Mike says:

    IIRC, Pfizer PhDs do zero lab work (I imagine there are exceptions. As for the comment that ‘you can get 1.5-2 associates, who come with pretty much 40 hours a week of bench time, for the cost of a PhD,’ the salaries of the two are pretty close, and the overhead associated with either dwarfs salary+benefits, so it’s more like 1.1 associate per PhD.

  5. Jose says:

    The million dollar question for everyone: is this recent spate of big pharma layoffs just a replay of the early ’80s, or is it a signal that cataclysmic times lay ahead for the industry?

  6. bitter pill says:

    As long as they did not fire any management they should be okay (heavy sarcasm). The associates can help manage the outsourcing to overseas labs now too.

  7. LNT says:

    In my opinion, some of the blame for our current prediciment lies in academia. Academia has been churning out PhD after PhD for years without much thought into what all these PhD’s are going to do for living on the other side of graduate school. Meanwhile, an experienced BS or MS chemist could land 5 job offers withing a few weeks of serious job hunting. The whole system is completely out of whack, and nobody is doing anything to strike a balance. Meanwhile, the ACS is doing all it can to encourage yet MORE students to go into the field of chemistry. And we chemists wonder why we are underpaid…. simple supply and demand.
    FYI, Paul, no company of significance would consider a PhD to fill an MS slot. In fact, I’ve heard of PhDs conveniently “forgeting” to mention their PhD on thier CV in hopes of getting an interview. I’ve sometimes mused about going back to my PhD institution and trying to “trade in” my PhD for an MS!!
    Oh well, if all else fails I hear that the USPTO is hiring tons of patent examiners.

  8. Todd says:

    I can confirm the increase in associate-level chemist. Though I’m a biologist by trade, I’ve done some chemistry work in the past, and in the past couple of months, I’ve gotten offers to work up in Groton. So I know this is going on.

  9. Bootsy says:

    LNT, having more people trained as chemists is probably a good thing overall. More traditional med-chemists with total synthesis training, perhaps not. As chemists, I think we’re often a bit narrow-minded about what we are trained to do. In contrast, I think of the people I know who have degrees in Chemical Engineering. Very few of them are out working in petroleum refining or waste treatment, but instead are designing computer chips and working at NASA. What we learn as chemists in grad school has applications beyond the bench and big pharma.
    However, the last few years have been a wake up call for us youngsters and perhaps a reminder(?) to those longer in the tooth, that job markets can be cold and fickle. It’s a rare week now where I don’t think about what I would do if my number came up next.

  10. BioGuy says:

    While I agree that academia should shoulder the majority of the blame for pumping up PhD supply without regard to demand, I think that some blame rests with *everyone* involved. How so? Well, look at Pfizer’s 4:1 target ratio. There is an implicit assumption here that their leaders are, by definition, PhD holders. I think that this assumption is held by every group I’ve seen over the years.
    The idea that all group leaders and above must hold a PhD drives anyone with ambition away from ‘BS’ or ‘MS’ positions – their jobs are a dead end. Contrast this with fields like engineering or accounting where a BS holder, with enough intelligence and moxie, can work up the career ladder all the way to CEO.
    Really, there isn’t any reason that it has to be this way in the biosciences. I say this as someone who spent the years slaving away for a PhD. IMHO, the degree was at most two years of formal education followed by four+ years of the education one receives through hard work. Did my six odd years of experience make me a more knowledgeable scientist that the tech next door with over two decades of experience? Not likely.
    The usual retort to this argument is something to the effect of ‘biology / chemistry is much more complicated than anything else. This is why our leaders have to have advanced degrees.’ My response is then to point out the world of semiconductors. There are many, many engineers in this field (I once worked there) with nothing more than a BS. Many of these engineers have direct reports who hold PhDs (albeit with a decade+ less experience). And while ‘complicated’ is a subjective term, if there is any field that technically challenges pharma/biotech it is chip design and manufacturing.

  11. BioGuy says:

    To follow my own post, I think that the requirement of a PhD for all senior scientific positions is making the job market artificially inflexible. There are too many folks with a PhD competing for too few leadership positions. At the same time, there aren’t enough folks willing to sit through the lower tier jobs. Given the choice, most folks choose the ‘leadership’ positions. So off they go to academia to get their PhD – after all, it’s the only way forward.
    The academics are more than happy to have yet more low cost labor. Further, the number of academic spots available doesn’t float with the market for PhD graduates – it floats with the NIH/NSF budget.

  12. LNT says:

    BioGuy, some good points there. I would have to agree with you about the lack of opportunity for BS/MS chemists. Hence the mad rush for a PhD. Interestingly, the “PhD” requirement for leadership position only applies in the RESEARCH wing of the pharma industry. How many Big Pharma CEO’s have a PhD? I would venture to say none — they all come out of the buisness/marketing side of the company.
    Some big pharma companies (mine included) will let BS/MS chemists march up the ranks in terms of pay level and job title — but they will never attain supervisory roles within research.

  13. tom bartlett says:

    “How many Big Pharma CEO’s have a PhD?”
    These MBA idiots “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
    Ph.D.’ s ,ideally, do lab work, like BS’s and MS’s, but their real VALUE is in advancing and accelerating progress on a program. This does not correlate 1:1 with “most compounds in a bottle wins.”

  14. Buddha says:

    I disagree with the idea that academia shoulders any blame for the “current pridicament”. Keep in mind that the majority of the PhDs hitting the market now started graduate school in ~2000-2002. The market was quite good back then. Should academia have forseen this downturn in the job market and restricted their admissions? Of couse not. I started grad school in chemistry in 1994. The job market was at rock bottom back then however when I began interviewing in 1999, the job market was as good as could be. To blame the current market woes on academia is misguided at best.

  15. LNT says:

    You have a good point. But the ratio of PhD to MS chemists has been out of whack for much longer than just the past few years. Most companies want a roughly 1:1 ratio of PhD to MS. From what I understand, that has been the case for many, many years. How many graduate schools to you know of that produce graduates at that ratio? Academia simply HAS to change their attitude that a MS candidate is simply a PhD program dropout.

  16. Jose says:

    LNT, you are very correct. Pfizer wants a 4:1 ratio? I suspect the ratio at most top tier grad schools is the inverse (or greater) of that, with 4 PhDs to 1 MS. Obviously that does not include BS candidates, the rate of attrition to other fields of BS/MS scientists nixes that anyway. Good luck with that, Pfizer folks!

  17. MTK says:

    Despite the fact that grad schools churn out more Ph.D.’s than M.S. chemists, it shouldn’t be that hard for Pfizer to get to a 1:4 ratio. Just pay M.S. chemists more and Ph.D. chemists less. Of course, that sort of defeats the purpose of having a target ratio then, doesn’t it.

  18. Chemist of Sorts says:

    Paul’s question got me to thinking, “Why not hire inexperienced PhDs for associate positions?” If there are a glut of these folks who are willing to accept the lower salary, why not? Some companies allow MS/BS people to advance to lab management roles as it is. MS/BS people are in short supply but there is a surplus of PhDs- seems to make sense on some level? Perhaps the industry should adapt to current market supply…

  19. BioGuy says:

    Groups don’t like to ‘hire down’ for the simple reason that the person hired will probably work while continuing to look for a proper job at ‘their level’.
    As the process of completing a hire is expensive, you’d like the employee to be committed to the job and to stick around for a few years at minimum.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Thats a good point, but the reality is that the shelflife of good BS/MS chemists often is only 1-3 years. This is precisely because an associate position is a career plateau. How you can you expect to attract smart driven people and then not give them opportunities? For an inexperienced PhD looking to enter the pharma industry, entry as an associate may be the only plausable option if they lack a synthesis background and/or pedigree. If the option was obscure custom chemical synthesis PI or pharma associate, many might look at it as an opportunity.
    Also, for those commenters suggesting that Pfizer PhDs don’t work in the lab, I would suggest withholding your opinion unless you have actually worked at Groton. I can tell you that most PhDs I knew there did a significant amount of labwork, this new era of goals and useless meetings aside.

  21. milkshake says:

    A good MS chemist can make 100k in the industry, after few years. So money is not the only reason. The main advantage of a MS chemist is that he is not doing a corporate career – by not having a PhD he cannot be promoted to a boss position in medicinal chemistry. (The are some groups in process development/manufacture though that are headed by MS chemist.) To have too many people in the group who are itching for a promotion is not healthy for the lab environment so getting more carrer-stunned lab technical people is probably a good idea.

  22. Hap says:

    I understand their position if hiring costs so much, but considering companies don’t seem to want employees for the long term anyway, it seems more than a little hypocritical of them. If they don’t want to train employees, don’t want to have to employ them longer than they have to, and don’t want them looking for more secure or lucrative jobs, then one might suggest that their business model is roughly 200 years too late.

  23. BioGuy says:

    There are a lot of people who aren’t necessarily ‘itching for a promotion’ but would like to know that it might some day happen. If career progression is a formal impossibility then people will eventually look elsewhere for this progression. Or at least this is my take on the situation.

  24. Chrispy says:

    Rumor has it that Genentech is now hiring Ph.D.s at the associate level.
    The problem of not being able to get promoted to management unless you have a Ph.D. has a converse issue, too: those who have Ph.D.s tend to get bumped into management roles irregardless of their skill in management and despite their skill in the lab. This is really perverse, as a lot of people end up in Ph.D. programs in part because they aren’t so great at dealing with people.
    I have definitely “dumbed down” my CV in the past in order to apply for jobs which required less experience than I had. It’s a brutal world out there for experienced scientists looking for jobs. I was at a company once which receved two CVs from the same candidate — one which mentioned the Ph.D. and one which didn’t. This is maybe not an advisable strategy, although she did end up getting hired!

  25. milkshake says:

    I have seen the ‘itching’ situation at one chemistry group in Celera SF, and before that in one biology group at Aventis. Not healthy at all. The problem was compounded by incompetent management – and the most ambitious folks started emulating their style. When you hear a scientist using wods “Go-nogo”, “facilitate” and “de-emphasize” on the meeting, you know that something horrible is happenning to him and to the group.

  26. Bioorganic Chemist says:

    The goal in the end is to have the most productive team of chemists possible for a given number of $, no? If that is true (which it should be), in a competitive BS/MS market where demand outstrips supply, I don’t understand the logic in reaching for marginal BS/MS chemists when you can get a PhD chemist (experienced by definition) for only slightly more salary. For example, a very, very marginal recent MS student from my group had no problem finding employment and is very well-paid. Meanwhile, the postdoc who trained this student and was the project leader, developing a functional 14-step synthesis, can’t find work, even though the MS student was almost entirely dependent on the postdoc for nearly everything he did.
    The situation is certainly different in large companies, which can attract, hire, and retain the best BS/MS chemists. However, I have spoken with numerous people at smaller companies who are truly hiring the dregs of the PhD dropouts merely because of the bias that you can’t hire a PhD for an associate position. There needs to be a recognition that not all PhDs are the same. If I were hiring at a company, it would be difficult to rationalize hiring my postdoc for a “leadership”/advancement PhD position. But as someone who is a talented chemist and who can guide a defined project to completion and provide problem-solving along the way, absolutely. If you’re not getting the better group of BS/MS chemists, PhDs (several years of experience by definition) can provide more value.

  27. Chemist of Sorts says:

    “Itching” is just a nasty way of talking about ambition. If someone, works hard, does good work, and has the ability, promotion is good for everyone. Do you really want a company full of ambitionless people who come for the paycheck only, or is it better to have people who get involved with their projects and are driven to succeed. Ambition, properly and realistically managed, is an asset.
    Make sure you judge people and not the degree. I have known too many gifted BS/MS people and too many numskull PhDs to let the degree sway me to strongly. Same goes for pedigree. Just because someone got their degree from Harvard in EJ’s group doesn’t make them a better scientist than someone from say a lesser renowned school.

  28. milkshake says:

    Competitiveness within a group is a nasty problem – you cannot work with someone whom you suspect of trying to steal your credit or expect badmouthing you with the management. People do nasty things to each other when money and promotions are at stake.
    I had a very pleasant experience at a company with a rather small and less-than-awesome chemistry group that was full of Chinese chemists (50%) including all the chemistry bosses. The place was very pleasant and relaxed because these people knew how to work well together (they were quite content with their roles within the group). The only discord I remember there was generated by two ambitious people who were trying to get more control over the same people and project. (Whereas the biology part of the company was pretty high-profile and lot more friction was happening there).
    A well-financed industrial backwater is not a bad place to work – you can do your main job-related work with a little effort while having time to play with what other stuff that you enjoy. And most importantly, you keep your soul and sanity.

  29. Dr. Strange says:

    Hear that hissing sound? It’s outsourcing. The future of chemistry lies outside the US. Costs are lower elsewhere hence the money follows. I know of two small startups run by ex-colleagues that employ more workers in China than they do in the US! Quite frankly my friends are shocked at the poor quality but VC and management love to keep the numbers down.
    I do agree with some of the opinions expressed that there is an overproduction of PhDs. It keeps the salaries of both grad students and postdocs low, obviously. It’s bizarre that
    the American Chemical Society is calling for expansion in the number of new visas provided to foreign chemists. I think Bill Gates is calling for abolishing the limits entirely. As if saturating the country with chemists will somehow
    inspire new innovations. Possibly these are related to the 101 ways to cook spam developed by unemployed chemists.
    I think the powers that be believe a technical workforce divided by nationality and squabbling over a barren job market is good for US society as an aggregate. The media facilitates this process by constantly claiming there is a deficit of scientists. Well, welcome to the club chemists! Engineers and computer scientists have been complaining about displacement for decades.
    I hear short term contracts are now all the rage in chemistry. Expect that the terms or those contracts and their brevity to become harsher in the future

  30. eugene says:

    “”Itching” is just a nasty way of talking about ambition. If someone, works hard, does good work, and has the ability, promotion is good for everyone. Do you really want a company full of ambitionless people who come for the paycheck only, or is it better to have people who get involved with their projects and are driven to succeed. Ambition, properly and realistically managed, is an asset.”
    Bull, I agree with milkshake’s view. It’s better when you have a bunch of ambitionless people who come for the paycheck who happen to be good chemists and like their jobs and have a family that they enjoy coming home to every night. Having people fight over the “rear vice admiral of research” position is not for me. Those idiots haven’t really moved beyond middle school in terms of human development and are just so many dung beetles trying to steal the big ball of shit away from each other.

  31. anon says:

    Dr. Strange is right. I am in my early 30’s with a MS, and am definately concerned with having a future plan when even more stuff is outsourced to China. My current employer outsources anything that they possibly can, from small intermediates to cores with sufficient patent coverage. The company that they use advertises on their website that they do everything from med chem to process. It is a one time cost for the compounds, with no benefits to be paid and much cheaper labor. Everything is a financial decision.
    “Moving up the ladder” isn’t all that realistic for most of us MS/BS chemists (unless you get into a different field). It is more of a game of survival to keep up with the ambitious people around you.
    It is not my intention to come across as being cynical or bitter, but I hope that someone in grad school will have their eyes opened by what is being posted here by myself and others. Good luck…

  32. Chemist of Sorts says:

    Surviving grad school is absolutely tied to ambition and the drive to succeed. I have seen people come into grad school with the ‘time in grade’ attitude. For them, its more about getting on your advisors good side. Have you carried a project by yourself? Ambition and the drive to succeed leads to inovations. Inspiration may come on the drive home or when you are in the shower and can’t stop thinking about your project. This mindset leads to breakthroughs (I refuse to use the word IP here). This is true for any research based profession.
    I used the qualifer ‘properly and realistically managed’ for ambition for a specific reason. Uncontrolled ambition can lead to huge egos and unethical behavior, and that is clearly is unproductive. Every positive attribute has a negative side.

  33. Cat Herder says:

    I’m of the opinion that outsourcing is a flash in the pan. The cost advantage realized by outsourcing research in medicinal chemistry is evaporating quickly as wages increase in China and India (something on the order of 20%/yr). I’m not saying it will go away, but the economics of the situation don’t support a permanent switch to overseas research. This is especially true when one considers ancillary/opportunity costs such as lost time when compounds are in transit, poor quality control, etc.

  34. eugene says:

    You’re right. You need to have some sort of interested attitude towards your job or project, but it should not be the most important thing in your life. I don’t think you need ambition to think about your project at home and to come up with new ideas though. It is possible to be interested in your project, but to have no dreams of grandeur.
    I’m still planning on winning the research award at my school in my final year, but I’m not going to go out of my way to change my lifestyle or compete with members of my own lab (arguably one of the most productive in the year I can win it) to do so.
    In my defense, I posted on Friday after a few beers with some friends. So I apologize if my message was overly aggressive.
    P.S. Yes, I carried four projects by myself at the current place and one at the previous workplace. Ambition tends to define people rather narrowly. In my view, if it’s only ambition that makes you care about your work/project, then you’re were probably not meant to be a chemist. Not that there is anything wrong with that; a lot of people are stuck in professions they don’t like and still do a decent job.

  35. interestedchemist says:

    Look for a position at a company controlled by someone from MacDonald’s for true leadership~0))

  36. RET says:

    Fundamentally, Pfizers recent layoffs included PhDs from once independent companies Searle, Pharmacia, UpJohn, Parke-Davis, Warner-Lambert, Agouron and maybe others.
    Would you not agree that each one of those companies have had recent success with the discover of a new drug and thus, in a different environment could have sustained itself and its employees?
    If so can you really blame academia for too many PhD’s? It may have to change in this current environment. In fact, some “third teir” programs are establishing more professional Masters degrees with focus on things like the pharmaceutical industry. I would expect this to expand further.

  37. Canuck Chemist says:

    In Canada, a M.Sc. is not considered to be a “failed Ph.D”, and many chemistry M.Sc. graduates go on to do great things. Sure, they are not generally research directors, but at the last company I was at (a medium-sized biotech which is sadly shutting down), several of the chemistry group leaders were at the M.Sc. level. Usually smaller companies don’t have the luxury of being snobby about who their managers are. An above average M.Sc. with excellent interpersonal skills makes a better leader than a loner Ph.D. with no ability to inspire anyone other than him/herself.
    In terms of promotions for B.Sc./M.Sc.’s, the degree should only determine your starting level. At my old company, if you meet the qualifications and characteristics of the next level, you get promoted. I see no reason for a glass ceiling if the job levels are thoughtfully defined in such a way that people will strive to better themselves (and their salary at least).

  38. lucky PhD says:

    I am interested to hear more on the “outsourcing” debate. My experience has been mixed – some very very good chemists working hard and communicating well in a country far away while in some cases we get back brown gunk after 6 months of trying to follow a published route!
    The feeling I get is that share-holders want to get the impression that “their company” is exploiting the available cheap labor to maximise the return. So pharma senior management throws money at China and India to make sure that the relevant box is ticked. Meanwhile the research guys,trying to make progress and get drugs to market, are having to jump through hoops just to find something they can outsource that is not time, IP or quality critical

  39. weirdo says:

    Anyone else see the irony there?

  40. weirdo says:

    Sorry, my cut and paste didn’t work: I was trying to quote:
    “but at the last company I was at (a medium-sized biotech that is sadly shutting down), several of the chemistry group leaders were at the M.Sc. level”
    I see a lot of irony there.
    Look, if a company cannot hire Ph.D. synthetic chemists that are both better scientists AND better managers than the absolute best MS-level chemists out there, than that company is going to have a hard time of it.
    There ARE good companies out there that hire great scientists who are also great people, at all levels. In that situation, the Ph.D.’s are going to have an advantage — better trained, more experience, blah blah blah. It has nothing to do with a “glass ceiling” or bias against non-Ph.D.’s. But the MS (and BS!) level chemists are trusted with more responsibilty, even if it doesn’t come with a big title. In my experience, the more talented and self-confident a scientist/manger is, the MORE they are willing to subjugate their own ideas/career to further the careers of their subordinates.
    Companies with scientists like that are the most likely to deliver quality molecules to the development organization time after time, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

  41. Retired Med. Chemist says:

    As someone who had worked as a MS biochemist and
    Ph.D. med. chemist some time ago, I offer my sympathy to the new and mid-career Ph.D.’s.
    The craze of merger, combined with ‘outsourcing’,
    had turned the pharma world upside down. Good and often self-sustaining companies are being bought
    up (for 1 or a few of their products). At the same time, employees are being laid off, sooner or later. The immediate commercial gain over-rides
    everything. When Wall Street rules, there’s no
    place for good science, nor bright future of a nation.

  42. anon says:

    I was only at my previous employer for a short time before they listed on the US stock exchange, and things were dramatically different afterwards. It is all about giving the stockholders a competitive (relative to “industry standards” for similarly sized companies) dividend now.

  43. srp says:

    Two points:
    1) Don’t the granting agencies require recipients to train new PhDs as a condition of funding? And doesn’t that guarantee a large supply of scientists? No one’s ever said this explicitly, but I think many policymakers believe that the US benefits from having access to cheap science talent, even if it makes scientific careers less secure and less desirable.
    2) I’m sure non-science managers make plenty of stupid decisions at pharmaceutical companies. They make plenty of stupid decisions at all companies. But the attitudes expressed here by some–basic hostility to profit-seeking and financial growth–suggest that they might be happier in academic or non-profit environments. Of course, stupid MBAs may not be much worse than stupid referees and editors and grantors…plenty of stupidity to go around in the world.

  44. CET says:

    basic hostility to profit-seeking and financial growth
    I get the sense that the hostility is directed at a mindset that values immediate payoffs (temporary increase in stock value) over potentially greater long term rewards (having a successful in-house pipeline in 10 years).
    Am I allowed to ask if there are any companies known (in a good way) for their internal culture?

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