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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

« Sorting Through the Piles | Main | Cheer Up »

August 23, 2007

". . . Jobs That Don't Exist"

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Posted by Derek

The FASEB folks have collected a large amount of data on training and employment in the life sciences (start here), and see the discussions over here at the AAAS).

Many of the conclusions are not going to surprise people, but it's good to have some data to back up everyone's impressions. I can sum the whole presentation up in a sentence: academic life science is a hard place to make a living, and getting harder every year. For example, the average age of first-time R01 grantees has been going up for the past thirty-seven years. And over the past twenty years, the number of doctorates awarded has roughly doubled, while the number of people employed in tenured (or tenure-track) positions has stayed exactly the same.

So where is everyone going? Well, down the hall from me - industry is where the job growth is. I know that my pharma/biotech readers might be startled by that statement, but compared to academia, we're a boom town. (I mean, look at it, no head count increase since 1987?) The problem is, as far as I can see, many PhD candidates and post-docs have been trained in environments where an tenure-track academic position is seen as the natural and desirable goal, and industry is just the fallback for the also-rans. If this ever was congruent with reality, it isn't now. As a commentary in the latest Nature put it:

More effort is needed to ensure that recruitment interviews include realistic assessments of prospective students' expectations and potential in the academic workplace. And training should address broader career options from day one rather than focusing unrealistically on jobs that don't exist.

Chemistry doesn't have this mindset problem to the same extent. There do seem to be some research groups who don't so much look down on industry as over-exalt academia, but there are plenty of strong people from the top-ranking groups all over the pharma landscape. But the hiring problems, well, I'm sure those track pretty close to the FASEB story.

And that gets us back to the ever-popular topics of medicinal chemistry employment, outsourcing, restructuring, and so on. For now, I'll reiterate my strongest opinion on these subjects, which is that this is not a good time to be an ordinary medicinal chemist in the US. You need skills, you need to keep them sharp, and you need to be ready and able to move into new research areas as they get interesting. It's not easy. But at least it's easier than trying to make it as a professor. . .

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | How To Get a Pharma Job


1. JS on August 23, 2007 11:40 AM writes...

For example, the average age of first-time R01 grantees has been going up for the past thirty-seven years.

More terrifyingly, a PhD born at the start of that graph, in Nixon's first term, would still be 4.8 years short of reaching that average age! (OK, even more, as it's still a moving target.)

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2. Kay on August 23, 2007 11:50 AM writes...

How much of the domestic industry must we lose before we have a Sputnik-type reaction?

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3. MTK on August 23, 2007 3:34 PM writes...


The only way we get a Sputnik-type response is if we have a Sputnik-type event. Losing jobs overseas is just to slow and too hidden of a process for a big response. With Sputnik everyone's first thought was "The Russians can rain bombs on us from space, ferchrissake! We gotta do something."

So what would be the life sciences equivalent to a Sputnik...

Here's some that I thought of off the type of my head:

i) An act of bioterrorism which threatened an entire city.
ii) A flu epidemic that was 1918-like in scale.
iii) Some new mysterious illness that kills fast like AIDS was in the 80's but whose main victims are heterosexual white men.

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4. lone electron on August 24, 2007 8:22 AM writes...

"How much of the domestic industry must we lose before we have a Sputnik-type reaction?"

Globalization means that there is no such thing as domestic industry.

It does mean that laboratory work has been demoted to manual labor status.

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5. lone electron on August 24, 2007 8:26 AM writes...

"How much of the domestic industry must we lose before we have a Sputnik-type reaction?"

Globalization means that there is no such thing as domestic industry.

It does mean that laboratory work has been demoted to manual labor status.

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6. MolecularGeek on August 24, 2007 10:13 AM writes...

In the good old days(tm), when a faculty member retired, they shut down their research lab, moved to a smaller office, came in once a week to check the mail and see one's old colleagues, covered for an occasional lecture and proceeded to collect beetles, or sit on the front porch and hand-carve bunsen burners, or whatever eccentricities were deemed proper to the well-earned retirement of an academic.

Now, emeritus status is increasingly seen as when one can stop teaching classes and serving on those thrice-damned committees and devote one's life to research once again. And with all the experience in the review process and a long track record to point to, it's even easier to get funding. What a deal.

Unfortunately, the department which has now lost a member still has teaching and service requirements to be covered, and that slot has to be filled by someone else. Unless the department is in such a desirable position that they can poach someone away into a senior position, they are going to have to hire a junior faculty member to meet their commitments. In the aforementioned good old days, the number of faculty leaving the funding arena would roughly equal the number entering, meaning that (in theory) the funding that the retiring scientist would relinquish would make funds available for new applicants. Now, even as the pool of money shrinks, we get emeritus faculty holding multiple R01s and otherwise retaining all their research activity well after their successors are hired by the department in question. It's no wonder that the age at first time PI status keeps rising, and the odds of getting tenure keep dropping.

The other side of the coin is that the NIH and NSF have become incredibly risk-averse in their funding decisions. The fundable zone is a narrow band between proposing interesting science that you can't prove will succeed, and just repeating work that someone else has already done (which, of course, is also unfundable). The best way to expand the zone is to have a good track record to be able to accurately predict outcomes. Another way in which new investigators are seriously hampered.

I'd suggest solutions here, but none of them would be popular enough to be implemented. There was a time, not that long ago, that the NIH was funding proposals at the 80th percentile, and they sent out a letter apologizing to the 20% who did not get funding. The standards for success in academic science are still calibrated to those days. This cannot continue forever, and I don't want to imagine what the eventual meltdown will look like. I just know that private industry won't be able to swoop in and solve the problem.


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7. HelicalZz on August 24, 2007 11:10 AM writes...

I had the good fortune (and grades) to get accepted at Cornell for chem grad school. There were exactly 2 of us in the incoming class of some 35 to 40 (as I recall) that had industrial rather than academic aspirations. This honestly stunned me (and I was clearly out of place there).

I left Cornell for another program to get involved in Biotech, which to me at the time was oligonucleotide chemistry, and left that program too early (so no Ph.D on me) to take advantage of an offered industry position (this has been both a good and bad decision from time to time).

I can understand the appeal of the academic life, but I have the sense of a salesman and would rather launch a product than write a paper. Sales over citations - LOL.


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8. JCA on August 24, 2007 12:34 PM writes...

After two post-docs, I recieved a research track position in a highly ranked US academic department. My salary was completely dependent on NIH grants. However, my research was out of fashion and the funding rates were plummetting. So seeing the handwriting on the wall, I left for a more secure job - a start-up small medical device company.

As much as I liked academia, I'm amazed (and somewhat sad) that I didn't leave academics much sooner. MolecularGeek correctly summarized the funding "zone". Does interesting science really take place in that zone??

Good luck to those folks who are chasing "the dream".

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9. Jonathan on August 24, 2007 1:03 PM writes...

I wrote a whole long post here yesterday but NNW seems to have buggered it up.

I don't know that I'd agree with your viewpoint that an industry job is second place - As a PhD student at Imperial College and then a postdoc at Scripps, I and my colleagues would have loved to be able to land a job outside of academia, but with very few exceptions, the answer was always "sorry, you need more experience." Mergers never helped the situation either - who needs to hire more scientists when you've got 3 R&D labs and only need 1?

The chemists at Scripps seemed to have a far easier time of it than us bio-types, with postdocs that lasted a year and then a real job, but on this side of the fence second postdocs are becoming the norm, and third postdocs are now not unheard of.

Of course, in about 10 years, the demographic trends will mean a lot of tenured academic jobs will suddenly start opening up, but there's a generation of scientists who've been created with far fewer jobs for us to go into.

The US's system of training new scientists is fundamentally broken now, leading to the formation of the National Postdoctoral Assoc. a few years back to try and improve the working conditions and training experience of young scientists in the US; thankfully that effort is starting to pay off. NIH Dir. Zerhouni gave the keynote speech at this year's NPA meeting, and he focused on how the NIH is (slowly) working to fix things.

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10. Hap on August 24, 2007 2:46 PM writes...

"It means that laboratory work has been demoted to manual labor status."

The analogy correlates to reality, but one wonders how one expects to recruit people to a field when the pay and security are what one could obtain with 4-15 years less schooling, and with no particular aptitude. If people are smart and have other choices for careers, why do companies think that people would invest long periods of time and lots of money into fields if the people can receive no return on their investments? The contrast with companies' own choices is sort of stark - they invest only in fields which can make money (and usually only those which can make lots of money for them) but implcitly expect that people will invest their lives in careers on which they can make little or no return. Something might be amiss here.

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11. Orbit on August 25, 2007 7:25 PM writes...

As far as I know, the NPA (national postdoc association) was funded and run by the AAAS. The goals of the NPA seem to be to flood the job market with foreign scientists. If you look at the NPA website their prime agenda is to increase the number visas for foreigners, claiming a critical shortage of technical people. The whole things just reeks! More cheap postdoctoral and grad student labor. You really need to remove the University Profs from the decision making loop to improve the lives of chemists.

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12. Jaded on a Saturday night on August 25, 2007 11:11 PM writes...

There is nothing sinister, or amiss, or conspiratorial here. It's simple supply and demand.

Nobody I know went to chemistry graduate school expecting to make a lot of money, either in school or later. We were happy to get a stipend we could live off of, and concentrate on our projects. We went because we liked -- and/or were good at -- chemistry. Personally, I did not consider my Ph.D. and post-doc to be an "investment", in the monetary sense. But it has paid off handsomely. So far. I'm not holding my breath, since I am now clearly overpaid.

On the other hand, every single MBA I know got an MBA to "get ahead" and "make some coin".

Post-docs and grad students are SUPPOSED to be cheap. Enough to live on, in a cheap apartment. Why should taxpayers spend more to send us to school? It's essentially an internship. University Profs in the decision making loop to improve the lives of chemists? Bull spit. Their job is to do research and train scientists. It's up to the chemists to determine their own fate.
The sad fact is, there IS a shortage of post-docs -- to do the research profs would like to do. But will raising post-doc salaries really increase the pool? Really? And where will those post-docs find jobs later, anyway? It would probably be best for grad students and post-docs to not be paid at all, to limit the pool of freshly minted Ph.D.'s flooding the job market. Maybe I'm being a little facetious here. But, then again, maybe not. I know that without a stipend, I could not have afforded to go to graduate school.

If you (the generic you, not directed at any particular poster here!) are selecting a post-doctoral appointment based upon how much you will be paid, you are incredibly short-sighted and likely to be one of those who has a hard time finding the "right" job. It's two freakin' years, for gosh sakes. Live cheaply, and do something cool that will give you options.

Then join a biotech or big pharma later, and complain about how those stupid MBAs are screwing up your company . . . .

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13. Hungover on a Sunday morning on August 26, 2007 11:25 AM writes...

Jaded(#12) makes some decent points. Getting a Ph.D. as a way to secure an income is misguided. For less work, there are paths to much more money. We've been over this ground before, though.

I can't speak to other fields that well, but others have and will. In chemistry at least, I do wish that some of the professors doing the advising were a bit more frank in their discussions with first and second year students about career goals and motivations. I'm sure we all know people who started a doctorate without seriously considering why and then, for for a variety of possible reasons, ended up finishing it without any further reflection. To me, this is just as much the fault of the school and the advisor as of the student.

On a related note, perhaps some of our European folks could comment further on this. I have heard that in many university systems on the other side of the pond mandatory retirement at a fixed age is the rule for professors. Once you hit 65, or 60, or what have you, that's it. The group is closed and the labs are forfeit. Does this help in keeping the academic jobs available and avoid what MolecularGeek was describing, or are the unintended consequences too negative?

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14. BioPhD on August 27, 2007 10:12 PM writes...


The postdoc may have one point been an educational position. But it is far from that today. As most positions are funded by research grants, not training grants, the positions include no educational component whatsoever. Sure, postdocs learn lots on the job, but when *isn't* that the case? The day we stop learning is the day we die. No formal educational component = work.

Postdoc times have increased not because individuals need more training, but because they need ever higher resumes to exit the pipeline. From your 'two year' comment I assume that you're in chemistry. The average postdoc time in the biosciences has been trending much higher of late. Especially for those entering academia.

Personally, I think you've actually got the solution almost correct. If most of the money used on graduate student/postdoc support were used to support *professional* scientists you'd see the demand for scientist services increase. Supply would of course drop initially, but then later rise along with the increase in career prospects.

I think you're incorrect about being able to 'afford' a PhD on your own. Given the right set of economic circumstances you'd have had no problem getting funding from your local S&L. Sure, debt is bad and all that. But assuming that they were correct in giving you the loan then you'd probably also come out ahead in taking it. It's this calculus that sustains the legion of MDs, JDs, and MBAs after all...

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15. Radiochemist on August 28, 2007 8:37 AM writes...

The UK has the same problems as the US by the sounds of it, over surply of PhD level chemists. Of the 10 graduates who started a PhD at the same time as me, 2 left before they finished the second year, the rest graduated and of them only 3 managed to find a chemistry job. I spent six months looking for a entry level position and managed to charm my way to three offers, mostly from companies with less than 50 employees. The trend here has been for big pharma to take on 100 PhD's on a 18 month contract and then select a small (tiny, 5-10 people) proportion to make permanent. A large number of associates are currently working in the chemical equivalent of a sweatshop to "hopefully" land a post (as are the over 100).
Luckily for me I found a group within a company that was run down and needed some energy input.

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16. Joanthan on August 28, 2007 9:40 AM writes...

Sorry Orbit, but your comments bear no relation at all to the facts. The NPA was not formed by AAAS, but by a grant from the Sloan Foundation. It was set up by a group of postdocs a few years ago who got pissed off with being treated like indentured servants.

Furthermore, it does not exist to increase the number of cheap foreign workers, although it has just (as in last friday) released a white paper on the issue.

Then again, when 60% of postdocs living and working in the US happen to be foreign nationals, it would be a pretty poor show to fail to represent their interests, wouldn't it? Perhaps you're one of those "they tuk err jerbs!" types?

Regarding shortages of skilled technical workers, sorry, but the NAS, FASEB, and many other organisations all say the same thing. Why don't you go read the Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 report and get back to me.

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17. srp on August 29, 2007 7:36 PM writes...

As an economist, I look to the funding formulas used by the granting agencies to explain many of the phenomena described here. Is it not true that

1) Most NIH and NSF grants require that the grantor train more PhD students, thereby guaranteeing a supply of cheap technical labor for the nation?

2) The "funding zone" described by an earlier commenter excludes most research where the outcome isn't known in advance, i.e. true experimentation?

If these two premises are true, two potential solutions occur to me.

a) Lobby Congress and the agencies to get them to stop oversupplying PhDs through grant requirements. That will be hard, because the cheap technical labor policy is not an act of inadvertence.

b) Find a rich donor or pool of rich donors to start a foundation whose sole purpose will to be fund NIH and NSF rejected research proposals WITH HIGH VARIANCE IN THE RATINGS ACROSS THE PANEL. The theory is that if some people loved and idea and some hated it, it's probably going to be more interesting than a lot of the safe stuff. And since the foundation would be funding proposals that had already been written up, there would be no additional burden on the actual research time of the investigators, a feature that especially appeals to me.

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18. Mike on September 2, 2007 3:24 PM writes...

Good solutions srp. The teaching requirement is overdone.

As to Johnathan, you're dead wrong. What was there 20,000 chem layoffs this year? And I do recall IBM
and HP laying off tens of thousands. The NAS and FASEB benefit from the status quo, and that means bringing in an excess of outlanders to destabilize the rights and expectations of the US scientist and student. I dont blame foreigners such as yourself for trying to lick the cream off the American cake. You come here on a jet and want it all and want it now. Don't delude youself on the NAS (the low quality of their Journal says alot about the organization). Hey it's a tough world but the NPA is a bunch of foreign post-docs teaming up with the old guard to keep the US scientist down in the mud.

P.S A guy like Derek should never had a moments uncertainty about his employment future. He should have been fought over like a first string stud.
Regardless, I doubt he's making 500K.

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19. David Fleck on September 5, 2007 7:41 AM writes...

"Of course, in about 10 years, the demographic trends will mean a lot of tenured academic jobs will suddenly start opening up..."
Yeah, that's what they told us back in the 1980's, too. Didn't really happen, what with the ever-increasing number of Ph.D.'s being churned out the whole time. Permalink to Comment


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