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March 6, 2007
I've had an e-mail from someone going off to grad school in chemistry. He wants to eventually do drug discovery work, and is wondering which way to go:
I have it narrowed down to two departments. One is a large, well funded and well respected university with a specific research advisor that is actively recruiting me for his lab. He is a leader in his field and my place in the lab would be in the capacity of synthetic chemist (making various inhibitors). Although his lab is in the chemistry dept it is more on the bio-organic side. My other choice is a smaller less well respected school with fewer resources (lots of TAing) but I could do total synthesis. I would like to join the first group but obviously I want to be able to get a job. If I joined the first group, would I be unemployable in pharma? With a post doc heavy in synthesis would I be able to get a job?
My answer to him was that I'd go with the first lab. A larger school with a more well-known advisor is worth more than the chance to do total synthesis for a PhD - and just as he mentioned, he can do a synthesis-heavy postdoc if need be. Connections mean a lot - ask someone who's job hunting! - and a PhD advisor is generally the first major source of them at the start of a career. The work described is definitely not so far afield that it's going to mess up later job-hunting.
I told him, though, to be sure to get a varied chemistry background in whichever group he joins. You don't want to get too specialized - for future med-chem employment, that can be a killer. A seminar full of same reaction (or class of reactions) over and over isn't going to impress anyone later on - you need to show that you can pick up new chemistry and get it to work, and that you've had to deal with the things that didn't.
One of the reasons that we like total synthesis people is because they've had a wide range of experience, as well as practice with overcoming difficulties. Total synthesis is probably the most efficient way of getting a wide background in synthetic problem-solving in the shortest amount of time. Admittedly, it doesn't always seem like the shortest amount of time while you're doing it, but you can't have everything.
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