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How To Get a Pharma Job

Making the Adjustment to Smallness

I have a reader here in the Northeast with a question about taking on a new job that I thought would be of some general interest. She’s been in the industry for a few years now, working at a pretty large site, but (as with many others), layoffs have sent her to a smaller company in another area.
Much smaller. The new gig has a dozen or so chemists on staff, and while it’s true that there are smaller places still than that, it’s still going to be quite a switch after BigCo. There aren’t many direct reports; it’s a pretty flat organization. She has several questions. For one thing, if it becomes necessary to seek another spot in a few more years – and with a site that size, that’s always in the cards – how will this job look on the c.v.? Can this be turned into a step up, or will it always look like a holding action? Second, how to adjust from having all kinds of equipment and instrumentation to the rather more Spartan lab environment of a small outfit?
My take on the first question is “It depends on what you do with it”. Duties in a place that size are going to be much different than in a large department, and you have to try to make sure that you take on things that will help out your career. You’re probably going to have a lot more say in how things are going than you did back in the old place, so make the most of it. You may, depending on how they’ve been hiring, even be one of the more experienced med-chem people there. If that’s so, try to get over your unease at the thought of someone listening to your advice and become a resource. There may be several of your fellow chemists who’ve never had the chance to see how a big research department does things.
Of course, some of those big company habits may be things you’ll have to shed. There’s no place to hide in a department that small, so you’ll have to step up and produce. You’ll also, after a suitable grace period, need to be heard in meetings – no more sitting in the back of the room, because the room isn’t going to be so crowded. And you’ll have to get used to decisions being made with less data, and in less time, than you’ve had to before. But that’s something that can be portrayed in a good light if you move on later.
The lack of direct reports for you will be something you’ll have to watch out for if it comes time for another job, as you’ve probably already figured. By that time, you’ll be at a level where people will expect you to be able to handle some people reporting to you. The best advice I can give you is, if it comes to that point, to sell/spin it as having had to work in a matrix-style organization, where you had to give some orders without line responsibility. Doing that well isn’t easy, so it’s valuable to show that you can.
The equipment problem is a harder one to deal with. Instrumentation withdrawal is nasty, but there’s no way to deal with it other than going cold turkey. You may feel at first like you don’t have enough equipment to do your job, but look around you: your colleagues are (presumably) doing theirs. Emulate their techniques, if they seem to be working for them. (If and when you move on, you can try to make people draw the conclusion that if you could accomplish as much as you did under those conditions, you must be pretty good). And try not to complain too much, or talk too much about what you had back in the old shop – it won’t make you feel much better, and it’ll definitely make other people around you feel worse (and lower their opinions of you).
Again, you may feel as if you’re being asked to move things along with less certainty than you’ve had to before, but the flip side of that is that the projects themselves will (or at least should!) move faster. If you find that things are really being run in a scientifically irresponsible manner, of course, you’ll need to either try to change that or (more likely) move on before things fall apart, but that’s an unlikely case. (And some pretty marginal projects and decisions can be found in the big departments, too, for that matter, as you’ve probably already noticed). All in all, you’ve most likely got a better chance of having your fingerprints on a clinical candidate than you did back at BigCo, so make the most of it. And keep your contacts with your old colleagues, and keep your resume updated, which is good advice no matter where you are.

8 comments on “Making the Adjustment to Smallness”

  1. Mark M says:

    As a recruiter, let comment on this statement:
    ” if it becomes necessary to seek another spot in a few more years – and with a site that size, that’s always in the cards – how will this job look on the c.v.? Can this be turned into a step up, or will it always look like a holding action?”
    As long as she is continuing to grow with respect to her reponsibilities it most likely wont be seen as a negative. This will offset the reduction in number of direct reports.
    Does she now have oversight of third party scientists at CROs? This can be a positive and is increasingly seen as a plus in job descriptions.
    Does she have the opportunity to go on road shows to present the firm’s work to investors? Again, this can be a positive.
    As many of your readership will attest, one can actually wear more hats at a smaller firm. It will be important for this candidate to position herself favorably for as much additional responsiblity as possible while still staying focused on her core skill set.
    What I dont like seeing is resumes from candidates at the Senior/Principal Scientist level who say they can do formulations AND analytical development AND oversee mfg of clinical supplies–the story that is their resume gets diluted and confusing.
    As a final note, she should assume she WILL be looking for a new position in 1-2 years and each day should be preparation for that event.

  2. CMC guy says:

    Having made the transition from BigPharma to Biotech many years ago I concur with Derek’s main point it “depends on what you do with it”. The amount and types of interactions and influences is at much different levels and the often less formalized decision making is adjustment (can be both good and bad). One is and has to be more directly responsible for self and projects worked on.
    Although resources are typically thinner there are ways to accomplish things through different pathways. HPLCs might have to be shared more but is only problem if there are inconsiderate users (who should get restricted if they break things). Not having NMR onsite was at first disruptive however typical access (paid time) to local university instrument (or have friends at other companies with an NMR). Two resources missed most were Literature Searching Capabilities (individual computer and/or department) and diverse collection of Knowledgeable Colleagues. Eventually competition and cost reduction for on-line searching provided limited availability so no longer had to do manual searches and think should no longer issue at most small companies currently. Never found a substitute for walking down the hall and talking to someone who ran the reaction in grad school.
    I take a bit of exception to Mark Ms comments: he right about having to wear many hats and because situations someone was needed I have done formulations, analytical development and vendor oversight in addition to process and med chemistry. Maybe those functions not critical for a bench medicinal chemist (although is valuable that they understand what is downstream). Those are the core skills for advancement beyond discovery stage. Is it worse to get pigeon-holed doing same type of work or expand to cross-functional drug development? Unfortunately there is less focus/demand on such diverse skills which are needed even more at small places since BigPharma has whole Departments for each activity.

  3. SNP says:

    (or have friends at other companies with an NMR)
    Out of curiosity, did you and your friends do that through proper channels or did you just show up with a box of samples and a pizza? If the latter, I’d fully expect to get fired if I got caught letting other companies run stuff on our equipment.

  4. milkshake says:

    The things to emphasize when putiing a spin on your the transition (a comparison between the old big Co and current startup):
    1. We are a lot more motivated and productive – look at my list of patents and publications from the last two years, etc etc
    2. Friendly informal group where people figure how to deal with project problems based on a common sense rather than on a detailed flowchart and formal reporting structure. Very few meetings and all of them to the point. You know who made what decisions because you are all on the same floor; people behaving in a more sensible way when the outcome of a decision is easier to track to a particular person.
    3. Responsibility. Since you have to be a part lab manager to take care of running the lab and part administrator to deal with the ordering/billing/subcontracting the synthesis, you have to be very organised to do chemistry at the same time but it gives you appreciation of how much the research and related overheads cost. Sure you would love to have a dedicated person to do this thing for you but in a small place one is forced to be flexible.
    So present your small-job experience as a some kind of tough adventure expedition (as opposed to the crusie-ship tourism of big pharma) and show how you made the best of it, in the face of adversities

  5. MTK says:

    It depends on what type of company your friend works at. If it’s another nearby small company, it’s not big deal. If there’s enough small companies around, there’s a lot of resource sharing that goes around. I’ll let you use my NMR and you let me use your lyophilizer. quid pro quo.
    As for literature searching, SciFinder is really expensive. I’ve found that Google Scholar is actually pretty good at author, topic, and compound searching. And it’s free. What you miss, however, is the ability to sort through the hits and refine them. I save SciFinder for substructure and reaction searching.

  6. SteveM says:

    I have to agree with SNP, but from a slightly different perspective. If I interviewed with a small firm and inquired about available instrumentation and they told me I would have to go hat in hand and knock on doors asking to borrow the neighbor’s NMR, well that’s telling me something right there about the viability of the enterprise.
    About the CV, the volatility of the pharma business environment these days probably makes no explanation necessary for taking that kind of position. There is the at least tacit recognition on both sides that but for the grace of God, the interviewer could be in the same boat.
    And lastly, our prescient head-hunter Mark M has it right about assuming she will be repeating the process in a year or two. Because a twelve person outfit is almost certainly a one trick pony. The big question is whether the science works before the venture capital gives out. So she should also prepare for a series of “deferred” pay periods with real compensation replaced by equity options as the last shekels are shoveled over from salaries to expenses. At that point, there will be maybe eight (four have already left) new scientist-owners racing frenetically in front of the capitalistic Grim Reaper who looks to add the company to the sack of failed startups flung over his shoulder. And at the end of this wild ride, she will come out it either comfortably rich and wizened or else just wizened.

  7. Kay says:

    Methinks I see inflated expectations and a lack of preparation for the norms going forward.

  8. CMC guy says:

    SNP- to answer directly was done only a few times out of urgency and with permissions then the payments were in lunches. I only provided the samples in vials, since had neither my own NMR tubes or solvents, and only got the print outs back not hands on analyses. We had a Japanese Curtain as I didn’t give the structure although when I asked for a certain region expansion I could only smile when they asked if I was dealing with a certain type of compound. MTK is correct about a quid pro quo as I was once able to provide a reagent that was back ordered.

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