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Merck Expanding on the West Coast

It’s good to occasionally mention that a drug company is opening a new facility and is looking to hire people. Merck is looking to open a newBay Area research site and employ up to 100 researchers there. Now, this is mixed news if you don’t feel like doing drug discovery around either San Francisco or Boston/Cambridge (where Merck is also moving people), but if you feel that way you’ve been getting not-so-great news for a while.

As usual, there’s also room to wonder about the pixie-dust effect of those two coastal research hubs, when there are people with ideas all over the map. The geography of small companies is more spread out, but in drug research, the geography of the larger ones is anything but (and the coastal hubs, of course, have plenty of small outfits, too). When I talk to graduate students and postdocs, I’ve been telling them to get ready to at least think about a move to SF or Boston, because the odds are that a job search will take you to possibilities in at least one of them. I speak from personal experience!

29 comments on “Merck Expanding on the West Coast”

  1. Isodore says:

    When I was starting my career in industry, back in the 1990s, I had interviews at a number of the big pharmaceutical companies and received job offers from all (my area of expertise was in high demand then, not any more). It so happened that I was entertaining two offers from two established similar size pharma companies, both large for that (pre-merger) time, one in the Midwest and the other in New Jersey (only small biotech companies in Boston in those days). Following up with my HR contact at the NJ company, after second trips with my wife to both company locations to look at the respective areas including houses, I mentioned that I was surprised that both offers were essentially the same, even though the cost of living, especially housing, was so much higher in NJ, the nice parts of which at that time were even more pricey than the Boston area. His candid response was that since most people in the industry want to live on either coast rather than the Midwest, his company, as well as other NJ or CA companies, did not feel that they had to make up for their locations’ higher cost of living by paying more. I guess people’s or at least scientists’ preferences as to where to live have not changed much in the past thirty years.

    1. Dr. Octopus says:

      When I was interviewing for positions after my postdoc several years ago, I was offered an interview with a company in Colorado. The catch was that they weren’t offering to cover any of the expenses to fly out and do an onsite. When I asked why I was told that there was an abundance of applicants willing to pay their own way so the company didn’t feel the need to. I politely declined, but your story is no longer exclusive to the coasts. It’s infected the middle of the country too (granted, I hear Colorado is a great place to live).

    2. PUI Prof says:

      I was employed at a state U in Kansas and got an offer from a state U in Colorado. When I told the dean the offer was too far below my current salary, his response was along the lines of ‘hey, I lived in Kansas. It’s worth a pay cut to get out.’ I may have agreed with him at a 1% cut or something. But a 10% cut? No way, especially as high as Colorado tuition is.

  2. Phil says:

    What preference? If you’re at the PhD level, you pretty much have to shut up and go where the job is!

    I said this in the other comment thread too – yuppie playgrounds are great if you’re 25, but I can’t imagine some 35-year-old homeowner with a spouse and kids being enthused.

    1. Anon says:

      Isn’t that the point? 25-year olds are cheaper. And no need to pay redundancy to the older, more expensive ones.

    2. Anon says:

      Boston isn’t too unfriendly in that regard, at least if you don’t mind riding the commuter rail.

      SF, however, you can barely get by on your own for what they pay scientists.

      I always wondered about this because making six-figures in SF is probably the equivalent of making 50k in North Carolina. It quickly makes you question the wisdom of working in Pharma…

      1. Phil says:

        The idea of making $35K as a QC chemist in some plant in a rural location, and living like a king on that, has crossed my mind. I have a customer who’s got a hobby farm with horses because he didn’t mind taking a job in a rural area; there’s no way I could afford that where I live.

        Even if a middle-aged chemist with kids can buy a house in the suburbs of Boston or SF, it seems pointless to trade quality of life / purchasing power for a vibrant bar/nightclub scene you have no interest in. Even for the young, single folks, a lot of us scientists are introverted types.

        I think Anon 2:03 hit the nail on the head – move the jobs to a place where the twentysomethings want to go and the fortysomethings don’t, and you can get rid of the higher-salaried people without worrying about an age discrimination lawsuit!

        1. John Adams says:

          Hey, YOU GET IT😞

  3. barefootscientist says:

    Put yourself in the shoes of a freshly-minted “destined for pharma” Ph.D.: after 5-9 grueling years of grad school + post-doc at poverty wages, you graduate, close to age 30. Now find a job, get married, buy a house, start a family…A job in SFO or Boston/NJ will guarantee another decade of apartment budget living…compare that to a career in RTP, Austin. Indianapolis etc etc where you can finally enjoy some of the fruits of your labor. What’s not to love about the second, low-cost destination?

    I think employers overestimate the “halo” effect of the big metro areas…they would do better in employee attraction/retention if lower cost hubs were used for research. Many older, experienced scientists living in exorbitantly expensive houses would gladly make that swap too. Executive management favors glamorous locations in SFO/Boston etc., because their outsize paychecks allow them to enjoy the experience. For the research peasants, it’s a budgetary struggle or tight fit. Maybe that’s the real reason for R&D underperformance?

    1. anon says:

      I am a postdoc in the bay area. I have lived in a number of other cheaper areas, and my husband (also a postdoc) grew up in the rural south, so we know how much cheaper housing could be. Despite the cost of living, we enjoy living here and would not mind putting down roots here in the long term. I enjoy the mild weather (especially after growing up in the midwest), access to stunning nature/natural beauty, cultural diversity, and the really intellectually vibrant scene for biotechnology in general (I’ve already been exposed to so much excellent science between the top tier universities, startups, and national labs). The bay area is generally a 2 income region–and 2 non-postdoc PhD level scientists typically make ~200K in combined income, which is enough to buy a house or larger condo and raise kids here. Also, the entire region is not as expensive as the city of San Francisco and has much more to offer than nightclubs. Quality of life goes beyond buying a large, fancy house. To each their own.

      As far as being a grad student or postdoc here goes, it has really blown my mind how much easier job searches are for my peers compared to my PhD university, which was well regarded but not in a hub region. Part of this has to do with the prestige of my postdoc institution/PI, but a huge part of it has to do with networking and contacts. Companies not having to pay for relocation also doesn’t hurt.

      1. Anon says:

        Menlo Park’s firefighters don’t think they can afford to live there.

        And they make more than you do…

        1. BayAreaBiotechie says:

          Menlo Park is not a middle class suburb! It (and neighboring Palo Alto and Atherton) are some of the most expensive places in the Bay Area. Most biotech folks live further North on the Peninsula (i.e. closer to South San Francisco) or in Sunnyvale/Santa Clara/ San Jose.

      2. anon says:

        To me, the biggest factor affecting quality of life is not how big a house I can afford but rather what fraction of my time am I going to have to waste commuting or even just getting around the city in order to take advantage of its cultural opportunities.

  4. MTK says:

    Sometimes this place makes me laugh.

    It isn’t enough for us to bitch about job losses, we’ve got to bitch about where jobs are to found too.

    There’s no satisfying us!

    1. johnnyboy says:

      The comments section does feel a bit too much like a whine-fest these days, I agree.

  5. anon says:

    Scientists are always under threat of restructuring, so why wouldn’t you want to be in a major hub? If you’re in Indianapolis and get laid-off, you’re pretty much screwed for another similar position. If in the Bay Area, at least you have options with so many other companies, and won’t necessarily be forced to move.

  6. Biff says:

    I wonder about the impact of consolidation in Cambridge and SF on the culture and politics of the industry. When the industry was more geographically dispersed, it seemed more culturally and politically diverse. Over the long run, I suspect that the industry will become much more parochial without necessarily yielding any measurable improvements in successful R&D productivity. Pixie dust, indeed.

    1. wlm says:

      Why would “politically diverse” be a factor? Is there a conservative or liberal way to analyze a binding curve? At any rate, politics in the bay area run the gamut from techo-libertarian to quasi-socialist. Plenty diverse by my standards.

      Depending on what you mean by it, I think there’s a better case to be made for cultural diversity. At least people coming from the midwest state schools might have been exposed to different academic trends in their education.

  7. anonymous says:

    @PUI prof- about your statement..But a 10% cut? Hey listen up, I came from the east-coast (big pharma) to the midwest with 25% pay cut! I am not making this up and we all see the writing on the wall and that is these med.chem positions will go extinct or there already. The pharma market is flooded with unemployed or underemployed medicinal chemists. And, it has been about 5 years since am here and if anything it has gotten worse. Bottomline-enjoy what you have, while you have it. A real tragedy is unfolding right in front of our eyes.

    1. Bender says:

      The pay cut from East coast to midwest would be more expected due to the drastic shift in cost of living. PUI Prof was going from Kansas to Colorado. If my friends who grew up in Kansas are any indication, then the cost of living in Colorado is likely higher, so he’d be taking a pay cut to go live somewhere more expensive. You gotta really love a place or be stupid to take that kind of offer.

  8. Truth says:

    Anonymous at 09:28 am is right. Medicinal chemistry is dead as a profession. I’ve read this blog since 2006. In 2007 and 2008, I could see the field beginning to crumble and left graduate school with a MS. Aside from some dear friends – the majority of professors and students told me what a mistake I was making. In the nearly 10 years that have passed since then, how much has the field of medicinal and process chemistry declined? Even more scary is the thought of what the field will look like in another 10 years with the rise of biologics and the further decline of small molecule research and development. I transitioned into medical devices and couldn’t be happier. After I left, my big pharma site was closed and everyone was laid off. No site transfers were offered.

    Chemistry is no longer a viable career option for anyone. If you don’t live in Boston or the Bay Area – your chances of getting a job are nearly zilch. Your chances of making it to 45 without getting laid off are nearly zilch – that’s even if you can find a job! Unless you and your other make $250k+, you will either starve in these areas or be commuting over 1.5 hours in each direction to work. I know there are more important things in life than money – but chemistry has the among the very worst pay to education ratios there is. To be in post-undergraduate schooling for 7-10 years and make under $100k is deplorable. My college roommate went into medical device sales with a BS in biology and and made $150k at the age of 25. Another college roommate was in school longer than an average PhD and postdoc to become a gastroenterologist – but makes a salary of $350K at the age of 32. We wonder why the best and brightest leave chemistry behind? The profession requires the most sacrifices for the least amount of career upside and compensation in almost any profession.

    If you are under 30 years old – please save yourself the heartbreak of a career in chemistry and walk away. Do something else with your life.

    1. Truth hurts says:

      You are spot on with that assessment about chemistry or really any basic science education in Pharma.

      I’m at a crossroads now, and wonder if I should ride the Pharma wave until it crashes or bail out on my own terms. I have told my wife that I would not encourage our kids to be a chemistry major after what I’m experiencing now.

      1. Nick K says:

        A few years before the Sandwich site closed in 2010, a Pfizer chemist took a poll of his colleagues by asking them a simple question: “Would you recommend Chemistry as a career to your children?” Not one answered yes.

    2. SteveM says:

      BTW, I’ve mentioned this before. I was a B.S. level chemist in AgChem, Then went to grad school to study Operations Research (Applied Math). I do all kinds of more sophisticated computer modeling and stat analysis.

      If any physical scientist is considering moving to something else, consider Decision Science. You no doubt have the analytical skills, the work can be pretty interesting because you think the same way, the opportunity space is very large and there are a ton of (almost) free MOOC courses to spin up on the methods. E.g. the Coursera Hopkins program on Decision Science. You don’t need a computer analytic degree as much as you just need to know how to solve those kinds of problems.

      I taught myself R and some stat modeling in R over a couple of months via Coursera. The software is free and very powerful. Piece of cake. Formulated up a client model in R in no time.

      I’m just shotgunning this out there. Maybe something to think about.

      1. Phil says:

        There is also a dire need for good decision scientists in pharma. Instead of doing the grunt work, set yourself up to choose the right projects in the first place. You will have more control over your destiny at least.

  9. SteveM says:

    About the SF Bay area, I’m guessing the preferred H-1B scientists are less resistant to living in the converted shipping containers now up for sale/rent.

  10. biotechtoreador says:

    “when there are people with ideas all over the map.”

    What? Can’t be, the only place one can do Science is Boston or SFO. It’s just a fact, it is.

  11. nowincambridge says:

    I’m with Derek: getting bounced around for several years by ever-contracting pharma in Philly and NJ, I finally got tired of “networking” events where everyone was part of the latest layoff, and moved somewhere with more than one company hiring.

  12. Mike B. says:

    Unless I’m going to get paid $150k or more per year, I am never moving to SF. Nope, not happening. The worst homes in SF go for close to $1 million now.

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