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How To Get a Pharma Job

If Not This, What?

One of my readers, a PhD chemist, is thinking about a career change and is looking for some advice. Having been through a mass layoff earlier this year, I can sympathize. I did everything I could to avoid a career change of my own, and I’m very glad that I was able to. I like what I’m doing, and I hope I can keep doing it for a long time to come. But there are times that a change can’t be avoided, and there are times that it’s downright desirable. That said, the question is what works out well as an alternative career for a chemist? From watching colleagues of mine over the years, I can offer some of the traditional choices.
I’ve seen people move over into clinical development, for example. This is often best done inside your existing company, because changing companies and changing job responsibilities simultaneously isn’t easy. I haven’t felt much of a pull to the clinical side myself, but the attractions include getting to work further down the drug pipeline – that is, on compounds that have a much better chance of doing someone some good. And there’s still plenty of that what-happens-next research feeling, since development is just as much of a wild unknown as preclinical work is. Keep in mind, this is a job for someone with good organizational skills, because you’re going to have to pull a lot of stuff together and get it to work on time.
Another option is patent law. This one is going to require some recredentialing if you’re going to go all the way, of course, but I feel safe in saying that there is constant employment for good patent attorneys who know the technical end of their field. If you can be good at both the chemistry and legal ends of the job, you’ll do well. There’s a reason that not many people span that gap, though – the sort of temperaments that fit the respective fields are sometimes at odds. Chemists who have struggled their way through four-page generic claim structures often wonder how any sentient being can work full-time on such things, but there’s many a lawyer who feels the same way about basic research.
Scientific writing is another possibility. Sad to say, not all that many chemists can write well, so if you’re in the minority that can, your abilities could be worth leveraging. I should talk, since I’ve been rattling away on this blog for five years, and do some paid writing as a sideline. But I’ve never seriously thought about it as a full-time career. For one thing, I like doing the actual science too much. Another concern is that freelancing, your best chance at writing on the topics you feel like writing about, can take a while to get going, and can also be an uncertain existence at any time. There are a lot of science writers inside companies, though, who earn regular salaries. But that has its own compromises.
So there are a few common career changes that make use of chemistry experience. Any readers able to add more?

31 comments on “If Not This, What?”

  1. xchemist says:

    PhD chemist covers a lot of ground and without knowing about other skills, proximity to retirement or particular accomplishments it’s difficult to be very tailored. With good connections or some course work (better yet, a completed or ongoing master’s) in finance, an MBA or the like, stock analyst is a possibility. A fair number of people in the VC community have chemistry backgrounds. But as you note Derek about scientific writing and even more for these suggestions, the skill sets can be pretty orthogonal to those of many biotech/pharma scientists.
    A few other places I’ve known former bench chemists to end up include Chem Abstracts, regulatory affairs in CMC if they have an analytical bent, and PK/ADME-related jobs. And there’s always teaching, particularly if pay scale isn’t a critical issue. There’s a huge shortage of secondary school teachers with actual science degrees and from what I understand, a number of states will allow trained scientists to get teaching credentials on the fly by doing course work during summers.

  2. anotherchemistdownonluck says:

    Another PhD chemist here. I’d like to know if anyone has feasible suggestions for part-time and/or telecommute work. I’ve had some health problems that make the 80h/week bench time in academia impossible now. I’d like to stay in science but I think bench work is out, and I can’t handle full time work of any kind yet at this stage in my recovery (which will not be short unfortunately). Any ideas?

  3. milkshake says:

    This is quite depressing subject but was reading a Nobel acceptance speech from Knowles and – apart from being a nice story on asym catalyst development – it reminded me of all the reasons why I went to do chemistry. (It is not the Nobel hopes but the bragging rights are definitely part of the attraction). It also reminded me that one can be lucky and end up doing top-class research in industry, even in modest circumstances.
    But by all means if you are unable to do synthetic chemistry or if you are not excited by it anymore, you can do business and law-related expert job, there is a great need and you will probably make more money too. There are investment/consultancy companies that hire chemists, law firms need chemistry experts – and of course patent lawyers can make awesome living (My room-mate used to date a lawyer from Ciba-Geigy central patent office and I heard stories from her 🙂

  4. Thomas McEntee says:

    People should also consider support to the US Government, either in the form of becoming a federal employee or in the ranks of contractors. in 1986, I faced the same thing that Derek and his colleagues toiling on the Gold Coast of southern Connecticut faced…a European-based company shutting down our company and leaving me and my family of 3–soon to be 4–wondering what to do next. To keep this story reasonably short, I ended up with a not-for-profit research & engineering company of 5000+ with a major operation in the Washington DC area, working under contract to EPA reviewing PMN packages. After 2 years, the contract ended and I moved on to an Air Force-wide contract working on AF Base environmental cleanup issues and design of an Oracle database to handle sampling & analysis data. This led to other projects and other contracts. Now, 21 years later, we’re living in the same house and I’m working for the same company. Periodically I work on fascinating chemistry issues for US Government agencies but their needs for scientists who can work on other issues have led to work on topics in molecular biology, materials science, nuclear energy, energetic materials, etc., etc. My early work with the Air Force Oracle database design has blossomed into my main line of work, in the identification and evaluation of software applications supporting intelligence analysts and in intelligence itself. Quite a change from my days as another throwaway-chemist working at the bench for some pharmaceutical company.
    Leaving the world of pharmaceuticals and industrial chemistry was a difficult decision but I have no regrets. Cynics will say that the US Government, or any government, will never solve all of its problems and will always need contractors. In this regard, Government contracting provides infinite job stability if you’re flexible, know how to think, and know how to present scientific and engineering topics in a logical form.

  5. NJBiologist says:

    I know this question is hopelessly over-broad, but here goes…. What’s involved in the transition from bench scientist to consultant? Is that a practical option for someone like PhD Chemist?

  6. straddleplayer says:

    No one has posted any suggestions about a career in computers or computational chemistry. This seem like a nice transition since you would still be involved in the science. Either molecular modelling or database management are logical and there are examples of chemists who have made this transition. Any thoughts on developing the skills for this transition?

  7. LNT says:

    There is an entire industry and career track based around computational chemistry. It’s really not something that a PhD organic/medicinal chemist could jump into. Chemo-informatics might be a better possibility. The chemo-informatics guys I have met seem to be a combination of organic/computational chemists with a good skills in computer programming & database design.
    How about working at the FDA or USPTO? It might be a boring job — but probably far more stable than the big-pharma industry. From what I understand, it’s quite easy for someone with an advanced science degree to become a patent examiner. After spending 4 or 5 year there, you can move to a law firm and make the big bucks.

  8. Mark M says:

    Well, I switched over to recruiting. I am not the only PHD in the field, but there arent many of us I can tell you that (and I have my fair share of stories about dufus recruiter calls–so obviously I thought I could do better than that).
    This career switch was not my desire intially but out of necessity to maintain stability and income flow to my family.
    But I wouldnt recommend this path for everyone–you have to basically be able to withstand 5+ months of no income and limited income for a year or so until things pick up and you build up your business.
    And, you have to genuinely enjoy working with people and be able to withstand tremendous amount of disrespect from HR personnel. But all sales jobs have a fair degree of rejection and BS you have to put up with from your customers. If your ego is too big to take this, you will fail in this profession.
    On the positive side, I feel I can make a wider impact in this role vs working for a single firm. And I get to choose where I live and have job security as long as I can continue helping my clients fill their positions. The pay is OK also (commission only).
    How much is it worth for you to never have to relocate and have your small kids grow up enjoying grandparents, aunts, uncles and even great grandparents around for holidays, B-day parties, etc. For me, far more valuable than shuffling around every few years just to say that I am a practicing synthetic medicinal chemist.
    I really thought I would die inside if I ever stopped making molecules. That all changed when I was laid off and had 4 other mouths to feed and faced drastically limited options for future employment in my chosen geographic locale.
    I guess if you are a control freak like me and cant stand that some fickle board of directors has total control over your immediate financial future, then maybe a career move such as the one I made could be a wise choice.
    **But I want to reiterate a point from an earlier post, without the advanced didactic and hands-on knowledge acquired in obtaining my PHD, there is no way I could have quickly switched gears to this profession and continued to provide for my family. If you are smart, motivated and have the time to spend: get your PHD; it will let you switch gears easier down the road if you ever choose to.
    -Mark M

  9. WC says:

    I’m considering a transition to a financial/stock analysis career and I’d like to hear from anyone else who has done this.

  10. JP says:

    Let’s see…I was a PhD that switched over to consulting. There are lots of opportunites out there, but it can be tough if you don’t have connections and/or a pretty solid understanding of business. I went to bschool up at Cornell (they have a one year program for scientists…worth checking out) and now work in Manhattan. Couldn’t be happier; I still lean on my science background but feel like I’m moving the needle a lot more than I was as some faceless chemist churning out kinase inhibitors all day long.

  11. lone electron says:

    @Thomas McEntee
    How exactly did you make the transition to the EPA? I am also a PhD looking to make a career switch. It has been fairly challenging to find positions that are open to someone with a PhD in organic chemistry. Most government positions are for analytical slanted training.

  12. molecularArchitect says:

    I faced this issue myself for the past 19 months. After 22 years in the biotech/pharma industry, I was laid off when my company closed. I really enjoy bench work, making new molecules, solving problems, and the thrill when something finally works. It became painfully obvious that there are very few opportunities in the industry for a 50+ year old chemist.
    I looked hard at alternative careers. Becoming a patent agent/lawyer had less appeal for me than undergoing multiple root canal surgery – I just don’t have the right temperment for that sort of drudgery. Likewise, regulatory or quality work.
    I found that consulting opportunities for a typical medicinal chemist are rather limited, unless you can claim a blockbuster product on your resume. Most consulting firms are looking for people with experience in CMC, drug manufacturing, regulatory affairs, environmental sciences, and the like. Synthetic/medicinal chemistry is not typically part of their portfolio. Unless you have extensive contacts outside your former companies, it’s tough to build a consulting business.
    I think the future of Med chem in the US is very dicey and would not recommend it to anyone just starting out. These skills are increasingly being considered to be a commodity, to be outsourced to the lowest bidder. It’s tough to fight the forces of global economics and corporate suite greed and incompetence that are hurting this industry.
    I’ve opted to do what Thomas McEntee did, join the Federal Government. Next month, I will start a new job with the NIH coordinating and facilitating work in academic, government and industrial labs to develop new cancer treatments. I won’t get to spend much time at the bench anymore, but at least I’ll be involved in some exciting research. It will be interesting to see the difference between corporate nonsense and the government variety.
    Salaries in government are lower but biggest attraction is stability. Since leaving my first big Pharma job, I’ve rolled the dice with three different biotechs and lost each time. One was bought for its IP and dismantled, one still limps along with incompetent management – going nowhere. At the third, upper management just quit the drug business (with clinical trials in progress and over $600M in the bank). My reward for all my hard work at these three companies: worthless stock options and meager severance.
    In addition to stability, the government offers a real pension (defined benefits) plus a 401k – unheard of in the private sector anymore – and health insurance for life. Finally, for those who really love doing science, there is no mandatory retirement age, so one can keep working as long as one wishes.
    It will take a few months before I will know for certain that government is the right choice. For now, it offers a safe haven where I will have an income and can evaluate other alternative careers.

  13. molecularArchitect says:

    One alternative career that I investigated and seriously considered pursuing is Project Management. While primarily a business field, PM in the pharma/biotech arena can stradle the interface between discovery/development/clinical trials/business development. The tools employed in PM are rather technical and the best project managers need to be knowledgable/conversant in all area of drug discovery/development.
    The role of the PM varies greatly depending upon the corporate culture of the individual companies. It can be a position of real influence or a background supporting function. There are academic programs tailored to the needs of the pharma/biotech industry. I’m not sure how to break into the field, probably easiest to make the transition at your existing employer.
    If the transition to outsourcing and virtual companies continues, PM may increase in importance. Companies will need experienced managers with understanding of the entire drug discovery/development process to coordinate research at scattered locations.

  14. Thomas McEntee says:

    lone electron — The transition to EPA was in the form of joining my present employer who had a contract with EPA until October 1988 to review industry PMN submissions. We had originally advised EPA in setting up their information security system for the PMN process and because we had a number of PhD organic chemists on our staff, they asked us to help jump start the PMN review process itself. Today, the for-profit contractor sector assists EPA in the PMN and other regulatory programs. EPA still runs good analytical chemistry programs but I think most of these are outside the Washington DC area.
    Federal government positions are available but you will find far more positions with contractors. The pay is generally considerably higher for contractors than US Government personnel. The retirement programs that previously made government service so attractive are largely a thing of the past.
    If you’re interested in more information, we can do this via e-mail. If Derek doesn’t mind forwarding your e-mail to me, send something to him; he has my e-mail address.

  15. Devices R Us says:

    Lone Electron: I dont think that Thomas works for EPA but rather for a company that does work for the government. The real point I think is that if you only want to do synthesis you might have a tougher time than if you are willing to work on other types of things. Scientific training is the important point; if you are willing to be a scientist and do things other than making molecules the FDA and EPA have lots of opportunities as do many of the engineering driven companies like Boeing, TRW, Hughes, etc. You won’t be making new drugs but you can be doing really neat stuff

  16. scooter says:

    I left the industry 15 years ago. I was worked as a BS chemist for a small pharmaceutical company for a few years. I have worked in the computer industry since then. While it has many of the same problems as other science careers(threat of outsourcing, too many qualified people, age discrimination,etc) it is not an industry that is controlled by academics and their need for slave labor. The atmosphere is completely different. I was able to quickly work my way into some high level positions with just a couple of programming classes. In the software part of the industry, where a person went to school or even if a worker went to school almost never came up. I am completely convinced that academia has ruined medicinal chemistry or maybe it’s just industry’s lack of backbone in making a stand against the way things have always been done. I enjoyed synthesis more than anything I’ve ever done, but every time i feel the urge to go back to graduate school I just look at forums like this and remember why i left in the first place.

  17. eugene says:

    I’m completing a doctorate in chemistry. A year after I started I also started reading Derek’s blog and this theme has come up again and again. I’ve seriously thought of quitting when a thread like this came up right before Candidacy. However, I’d like to re-iterate what I’ve said before so that others don’t think it’s all doom and gloom: ‘I look at the degree as my ticket out of the country’.
    It’s harder to get your foot in the door of a European country if you don’t have a doctorate and immigration is a cinch with one and relevant experience. Not that I would want to immigrate, just work there for a few years, or a decade. A post-doc (which is easy to get) is a good foot in the door. The idea of staying here and doing a post-doc at MIT or Urbana-Champaign makes me physically sick when I seriously think about wasting another 2 years of my life working 80 hours a week as a cog in a famous prof’s lab, surrounded by downtown Boston or corn fields… And by the time I come back to North America, it would be good to explore the alternative ideas suggested molecularArchitect, Thomas McEntee, and others. The government contractor positions sound particularly enticing (thanks Thomas!).
    This life plan might be a little naive, but it’s something that I was set on very much a long time before I ever started graduate school. A bonus is that I really enjoy the chemistry and what I do right now, but after reading this blog, I don’t have many illusions anymore.
    So yes, a PhD is still worth it (if you don’t have a family and like changing your life around).

  18. Shane says:

    After a PhD and short post doc I decided to get out of research and academia. Im in Australia so our industry is pretty scant also. The decision was based on the deteriorating work conditions in academia, deteriorating academic teaching standards also. The clincher though was seeing the effects of our debt driven economy coming to a critical point and the imminent oil supply crunch coming. I don’t think the universities or the drug companies will be doing very well in coming decades. Instead Im re-aiming lower down the intellectual food chain with highschool sci/math teaching and I’m setting up a small farm with my extended family for partial self sufficiency. I could have started chasing short term jobs around the world but the rewards didnt seem to stack up with the personal costs.
    Ive realised that the right decision for what job you do has to be responsive to the time in history in which you live, and I am making a bet that things will be substantially different in the future.

  19. Thomas McEntee says:

    The term ‘contractor’ has all kinds of negative insinuations…to some. I am sure that many professors would sniff at the thought of ever being tagged with that moniker. However…you can develop a certain sense of pride at being good enough at chemistry and science to be paid to do work on a contract basis, year after year, for US Government agencies who work in areas that we deem very very important to our national security. EPA and FDA are two whose main missions are very close to our training as chemists. There are other agencies whose broad missions are defense and intelligence, areas that include very real issues in organic, inorganic, analytical, polymer chemistry, and _molecular_ biology. Fold in the other areas I mentioned in response #4 to Derek’s topic and you’ve got a lot of science where Uncle Sam needs scientific expertise.
    While the US Government does have scientists–some are outstanding scientists–one of its dirty little secrets is that it doesn’t have enough. Enter the ranks of contractors. As Devices R Us points out, in the for-profit sector, these include Boeing, TRW, and Hughes, as well as SAIC, Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and on and on. In the not-for-profit sector that I work in, there are labs associated with universities, places like JPL (Cal Tech) and APL (Johns Hopkins), and firms like Battelle, RAND, Aerospace Corp, the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), and the MITRE Corporation.

  20. lone electron says:

    I’ve looked into quite a few of the government agencies. Unfortunately, most of them do not know what to do with a synthetic (medicinal) chemist. Not that pharma knows what to do with them either. While graduate school certainly provides plenty of training in logical thinking and problem solving, many of the government agencies sees our training as very narrow and not applicable. Although school is what got me in this mess in the first place, I’m seriously considering going back to be retrained in something else. Pharma seems to be falling over itself to outsource the menial labor of medicinal and process chemistry, so I’m wondering what field has a different vision of long term sustainability. I like the farm idea Shane. Good luck with it.

  21. MolecModeler says:

    I have a PhD and I want to switch. I’ve been looking at patent law, and let me tell you guys, it’s not quite as easy to get into as you may think. You have a PhD, so what? A law firm wants someone who’s going to be a good lawyer, not a good researcher. If you want to work in the top markets, DC, NY, etc. I think it’s even more challenging.
    There’s also the whole law school thing: how do you get them to hire you with no legal experience AND pay for your education? If you have a family and a mortgage, you pretty much have to go down that road unless your spouse can totally make up for your current income. I know it’s possible, as I know friends who are doing it, but I don’t think law firms are falling over themselves hiring PhD chemists.
    That being said, if there’s anyone here who works for a firm that’s actually looking, I’m very interested.

  22. My wife has a Ph.D. in chemistry and left it after 12 years of successful product development (6 patents) and management (she was reporting to the GM of a $150 million division in her last position) to become a realtor. She thoroughly enjoys working with people, especially in a transitional period of their lives. Most clients are floored that her degrees are in a hard science, although there are some that are threatened and prefer a realtor that that can feel superior to. She loves it and would not go back. Do what you love and you will succeed.

  23. Anonymous says:

    As WC wrote above, I am also interested in learning more about switching from med chem to finance/stock analysis. I think the skills learned in med chem are applicable to almost any discipline/field. Especially with the drug discovery background, you would have an easier time rating a pharmacutical company as you can read and understand the clinical trials, grasp how big a market the drug might have, etc.
    In addition, as molecularArchitect wrote above, more information on pharmaceutical project management would be appreciated as well. I know schools have programs specifically for this degree (MBA in Pharmaceutical Managment), but I would like to know more about what the job would entail with this degree.
    In response to MolecModeler in post 21, I have been at a big pharma company for less than 3 years but have already seen 2 Ph.D’s (out of maybe 50 or 60 total) and 3 or 4 associates (out of maybe 100 or so) leave and go into patent law, with the companies using them as a consultant for now and paying for the law degree at the same time, so from what I can see, Ph.D’s are in high demand for patent law. By the way, I am in north jersey, and they are all working in Manhattan right now. So the bigger the market, the easier it may be, at least from what I have seen.

  24. Marmoset says:

    I just finished my PhD and I’ve been working for a big pharma while writing my thesis for the last year. I’ve finally admitted that my skin conditions(eczema and contact dermatitis) and increasing sensitivity to numerous solvents that I can’t be a labrat anymore. Not sure what I’m going to do (my contract finishes at Christmas). There’re loads of jobs out there but getting an interview in a different area of work is proving hard. I’m heading towards knowledge transfer, science communication or health and safety. I’m just pushing on through and hoping that I’ve not spent 8 years at Uni just to start at the bottom again!

  25. MolecModeler says:

    Anon: the cases I am aware of are in Manhattan as well.
    The minus against going into finance is that I think you would do less and less science. Or maybe that’s a plus. 🙂

  26. Superiggy says:

    Switching is never easy, regardless of whether you have a PhD or not. You have to step out of your usual environment and can’t rely on your immediate network. As a molbio PhD who has gone through many changes in a short time span (two biotech companies, one large-scale academic genomics project, a university tech-transfer office and finally a medtech start-up as director of ops), I’ve learned a lot along the way and refined my approach at every step.
    If you’re looking at a different field, be it patent law, technical writing or finance, try talking to as many people in the field as possible. Use your network and all available resources (professional associations, alumni societies, networking sites) to find people that are willing to talk to you about their job and how they made the transition. Don’t ask for a job; that will just shut most people down right away. Most people like to talk about themselves, you just have to approach them in a non-threatening manner.
    Once you have decided what direction you want to take, find a way to set yourself apart from the crowd. Take a few classes, go to seminars and workshops. Or go all the way and get another diploma (I went back for an MBA). Not only will you expand your knowledge base, you’ll expand your network as well, which is crucial. There are many, many scientists looking for a different career track, so you have to give prospective employers a good reason to take a chance on you. Patent law is mostly about law, not biology or chemistry, venture capital or stock analysis is mostly about finance not science, so give yourself the tools to make the transition!

  27. Mebbe you can consider working for Department of Homeland Security…just a thought.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I can recall two fellow employees transitioning to finance. One was definitely not considered a strong chemist. My recollection is that they went to Wharton for MBAs. Apparently they have some slots for science types to make career moves.

  29. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    I had reason to give these matters very serious consideration about a year ago at the nadir of the Plavix debacle, though at the moment things look as stable as they have in years for my corner of BMS. I certainly do hope I can keep doing what I do now for a long time to come, though I am aware of the need to prepare myself for contingencies.
    The thought of Law School did cross my mind more than once in 2006 — as did some of the downsides. I doubt I’d be as happy doing patent law as I am doing science, and although my spouse is also employed in a different part of this industry we’d be very constrained living off one salary. Nor did I exactly relish the prospect of studying for Yet Another Degree at this stage of my life. When I Piled my dissertation research Higher and Deeper, I was a lot younger and more energetic than I am now.

  30. Yttrai says:

    All of this advice is excellent, but keep in mind that (as far as i can tell) 50 % of bench chemists are Bachelor’s or Master’s level education.
    Some of the fields that have (hypothetically, of course) interested me (specifically, computational) in the past made it very clear that without a PhD no way could i transfer, even though after 10 years working i’d argue that my knowledge and skills are on par with any chemist who got their bachelor’s the same year i did and have been working continuously in the field since, be it in grad school or industry.
    Also, most of the jobs mentioned are in the finance/law/business side. What jobs are out there for those of us who are not people people, and don’t have what it takes to survive in a business environment?

  31. Biologist Turned Consultant says:

    I did my PhD in Biology, which is different enough from Chemistry that I don’t even remember half of what I learned in my P-Chem class in college; yet it’s similar enough in the kind of skills you learn in research, and job prospects in academia/industry. So if I may offer my 2 cents here
    I joined a large management consulting firm right out of grad school and have been happy with my transition. It’s not an “easy out” for chemists or biologists who don’t enjoy research; nor a job that suits everyone. But if you enjoy the analysis aspect of research but don’t want to do focused benchwork for many years, and you are good at communicating and working with others, and you don’t mind jumping from one project to the next and one client to the next, this can be an option for you. You can find plenty of information on how to make the transition through google; but what’s more important is to first figure out whether this is for you, and whether you are ready to leave academia (which is almost always a one-way street).

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