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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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December 19, 2007

Scrape Off Some Attitude

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Posted by Derek

There is a pecking order in chemistry. That’s because there’s one everywhere. If it’s a human endeavor, staffed by humans, you’re going to have hierarchies, real and perceived - who you did a post-doc with, what huge company you're a big wheel in. But that doesn’t mean that we have to bow down to them, and it doesn’t excuse this sort of thing, from The Chem Blog:

” Waaaaaayyy back at the ACS in San Fran at the poster session, we were walking around and introduced ourselves to this guy standing in front of his poster. Now… old boy (a graduate student) engaged us in some dialog about his poster and we were getting along famously, my friend asking most of the intelligent questions (I was still recovering from giving blood a few hours before and drinking multiple beers immediately after.) As conversations normally flow, he asked us where we were from. I told him my fine institution and my buddy told him his. I assume he wasn’t put off my by school, but the look on his face when my buddy told him where he was from was at first a “are you serious” chuckle, which melted into one of those “do they have a department” and finally to a resound(ing), “I’m done with you.”

I stood there and watched it the whole time. So, my buddy being naive to the ways of the world, kept asking questions but the answers weren’t forthcoming any more. In fact, in the midst of a question my buddy was asking, the guy actually walked away from his poster and started talking to his friends. . .”

Read the rest of the post for the rest of the story, which goes off in a different (and still interesting) direction. But as for this behavior, there’s just no call for it. As far as I’m concerned, if a person is asking intelligent questions, they’ve already provided all the credentials they need to show. Likewise, I reserve the right to discriminate against time-wasting bozos (just as I reserve the right to define that class, although I’ll bet that most of my picks would easily pass a show of hands). But if you’re presenting a poster, you have, whether you realize it or not, entered into an agreement to take on the broad unwashed masses.

Tactfully dealing with the clueless is a learned skill, but no such skill seems to have been called on here. This is tactfully dealing with the intelligent and informed, and if you can’t do that, you have some serious problems. It takes an awful lot of red-hot results to make up for a really obnoxious attitude, and a degree from Big Name U is only partially going to offset one as thick as this. Now, it's true that there are certainly some pretty abrasive folks from BNU, but the ones with the proven big-time track records can at least get away with it. Too many other morons take the shortcut, deciding that the nasty attitude is some sort of essential first step – in some cases, deciding that it and the Big Name is all they need.

Out here in the real world, where Poster Boy has yet to tread, it becomes clear that the wonderfulness of a marquee school background eventually goes stale. There are places in the drug industry where working for particular academic bosses will give you a leg up – for a while. It’s a real advantage to be able to get in the door that way, no doubt, but once you’re through the door you generally have to produce something. (And it’s good to keep in mind that even these advantages don’t necessarily last forever. A rollicking management purge can destabilize an old-boy network very quickly).

No, doing lots of work and doing it really well is a better long-term strategy. (Another part of that strategy is to make sure that people know who’s doing it, but that's a topic for another day). And having a personality that makes people grit their teeth and wait for you to leave is not such a good long-term plan. I wish Poster Boy well, but I hope that he has a lot to talk about. This isn't one of those businesses where you can get by on looks.

Comments (38) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Graduate School | Life in the Drug Labs


1. Anonymous BMS Researcher on December 19, 2007 8:18 AM writes...

Rude to somebody at a POSTER SESSION!?!?! When I present posters usually I spend enough time standing there watching people keep walking past that I am utterly delighted to talk with ANYBODY who stops to ask me questions. If the questions are actually intelligent that's icing on the cake!

I also enjoy asking people about their posters, and sincerely regret being unable to absorb them all in the time available, which is among the main reasons why I prefer smaller focused meetings to big monster meetings like the Society for Neuroscience: I went to SFN once and decided Never Again.

In any place where I would consider working, that sort of arrogance would not be tolerated, that's for sure. Many of my colleagues went to Big Name places, others did not, but when somebody comes into my office my primary concern isn't with who they are or where they came from, I prefer to focus on the reason why he or she is in my office. It is much more fun as well as more useful to focus on "how can I solve whatever their problem is?"

From time to time a job applicant will be rude to somebody he or she considers a peon; when word gets back to the decision maker that tends to torpedo the applicant. No matter how good their credentials may be, we surely don't want to hire such an attitude problem -- and since a job applicant is presumably on his or her best behavior, a hint of attitude in that situation bodes ill indeed.

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2. anon on December 19, 2007 8:48 AM writes...

There are those who weigh up facts based upon the facts; there are others who weigh up facts based upon who says them.

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3. emjeff on December 19, 2007 8:51 AM writes...

Really, does it matter all that much where you went to school? I've met plenty of dummies that went to Ivy League schools and plenty of terrific scientists who went to state schools. It's all about the individual's skills and talents - everything else is a waste of time.

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4. WC on December 19, 2007 12:42 PM writes...

Poster Boy doesn't need to worry about his career path. He'll most likely be fastracked on a managerial/VP position.

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5. LNT on December 19, 2007 12:42 PM writes...

My experience is similar to Derek’s. In my corner of the "big pharma" world, a big-name university or a hot shot advisor *might* help you get an interview, but that's about where the name benefit ends. I really don't know (and mostly don't care) where my colleagues went to school and who they worked for. If they are making some interesting molecules, and making significant contributions to the project team - THAT'S something that gets attention.

A related topic, however, is how management perceives the work that we peons do. It seems that you really have try to get the attention of the right people in order get recognition (and good ratings). When you make a significant contribution (or complete a significant project), it always helps to CC your boss's boss on the email. Otherwise no one beyond your immediate supervisor seems to know what you do with your time all day....

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6. The Flask of Justice on December 19, 2007 1:13 PM writes...

If I had been there, Poster Boy would have found out about a different pecking order out in the parking lot after the poster session.

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7. S on December 19, 2007 2:21 PM writes...

My first thoughts when I read that was exactly the same as Anon BMS Researcher's. But the fact of the matter is that sort of distinction exists everywhere.Poster boy, like his predecessors is still going to take that attitude wherever he goes, at least initially, until that sort of attitude meets someone to fizzle it out.

In my recent experience, it took me 2 months of daily interaction with "Poster boys" (and girl) to make 'em realize that some of us from U of State can match up intellectually and perhaps even surpass them in that issue.Being of international origin is a whole other issue altogether.

On the other hand, my industry mentor was the opposite kind. No amount of great, red hot results prompted obnoxious attitude of any kind. There are too few people with that sort of a personality any more.

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8. Betsy on December 19, 2007 4:22 PM writes...

My father is a chemistry professor, and he always told me is doesn't matter where you go to school (at least for undergrad), it's the work you do that matters.

Now that I'm out in the "real world", I think there are certain benefits to attending BNU--namely through the contacts you make, and the "Oh! You went to BNU!" effect that can open doors. But you're right, once you're in the door, it's what you do that matters. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who believes that.

Since migrating from academia to industry, one of the things I've noticed is that you really have to constantly be "tooting your own horn" to get people to notice your contributions. I wasn't very good at that when I first got here, but I quickly realized it was necessary. People have REALLY short attention spans, so it never hurts to remind people of what's been done and who did it.

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9. Lowly associate on December 19, 2007 6:59 PM writes...

I remember 3 years ago, I was making compounds at one of the illustrious Swiss pharma companies. There was this hot shot from Harvard, came from a lab that was run by a guy who's name rhymes with the brits name for a truck. Anyway this guy gave up on a certain derivatization of a compound from a series that took around 15 steps. My boss, the group leader, wanted that data point, so he told me to give it a try. Got it in good yield in short order. I remember the hot shot said to me, oh your just good at purifying small amounts from bad reactions, I never told him that I had worked out how to make grams of the stuff easily if need be.
Then there was the guy I worked for who came from a famous Berkely lab, Prof's name is like the mayonnaise. I watched this clown work all day trying to dissolve a small amount of intractable material during a crystallization attempt of a few grams of material, he was up to 5 liters of solvent by the time he gave up and went home. After he left, I filtered it, then took the crystals right out of the flask after I rotovaped it without heating it too much. I put the crystals in a bottle, along with the NMR on his bench, when he came in the next morning, he says, where the hell is my reaction, I pointed to the bottle of crystals and went back to work¦. Oh yeah there was the other "star" from the same lab who handed me a bottle of phthalyl hydrazide, saying that I had to finish the deprotection from the Gabriel, the idiot had thrown all the amine into the waste and didn't even realize it! As Ive been making compounds for around 15 years, I could go on and on with my stories of the appalling work I've witnessed done by people coming from these so called "World Class Labs". But then again, I find that very few who do this for a living are actually any good at it. Funny how I've been on interviews, and people tell me I'm not qualified to work as a chemist cause I only have a Bachelors degree. Hmmm I wonder if this kind of clowning around is the reason why the pipelines are all empty? One things for sure, these guys sure are practiced at making excuses sound real believable.

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10. Polymer Bound on December 19, 2007 7:04 PM writes...

I wish I had witnessed this exchange myself... I got this one second hand from an observer at a meeting:

Poster Boy: Hi, I'm Poster Boy, Harvard.

Prof. Robert Grubbs: Hi, Bob Grubbs, Kentucky.

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11. lowly associate on December 19, 2007 7:15 PM writes...

BTW I told the Swiss what they could do with their job, if anyone is looking for a good associate......

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12. Polymer Bound on December 19, 2007 7:17 PM writes...

Lowly associate: shame on them for snubbing their noses at you.

To be fair, experienced research associates -should- be much better in the lab than PhD-level researchers.

In general, I think it's the job of the associate to turn the compound crank, while the PhD analyzes data, chooses which compounds to make, and if they're halfway decent chemists, provide suggestions if you get stuck. That you were able to solve their chemistry problems isn't embarrassing... that they treated you poorly, should be.

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13. Skeptic on December 19, 2007 8:12 PM writes...

The misguided bravado displayed here in the commentary is amusing but the crux of the issue is that neither the grads nor the industry veterans have the requisite skills necessary to tackle multi-factorial diseases. Thats why its a prime target for outsourcing.

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14. Harry on December 19, 2007 8:57 PM writes...

Skeptic- why don't you educate us poor, benighted ignoramuses? Obviously YOU have the solution to "tackling multi-factorial diseases", right? (Try to use as few large words as possible, so that we may follow along.)

Please let us know when your start-up is ready to go public so that we (unworthy as we are) might share in a small portion the bounty generated by your genius!

Of course, you know and we know that you're verbalizing from your defecatory orifice.

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15. milkshake on December 19, 2007 9:32 PM writes...

Sceptic: While we in the industry have to toe the line - which at the end of the day leaves lots to be desired, you are firmly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people from all beer-loving nations.

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16. zt on December 19, 2007 10:37 PM writes...

Re Polymer Bound (comment 12): "In general, I think it's the job of the associate to turn the compound crank, while the PhD analyzes data, chooses which compounds to make, and if they're halfway decent chemists, provide suggestions if you get stuck."

I recognize that one size does not fit all (and you did preface your remark with "generally"), but I would like to mention that, as an associate, I would not be happy merely turning the crank while a PhD tells me what to do. I am more motivated when I am directly involved in analyzing the data, coming up with targets, and providing intellectual input. I have a vested interest in my work when I am independent and following through on my own ideas, so I actually care about what I am doing and this drives me. Personally, I see the primary difference between associates and PhDs as being that of leadership. PhDs have to keep things moving from a big-picture view, deal more directly with other people (biologists, management, associates, etc.), make sure the project is moving along, and, yes, provide input into target selection etc., but not by just giving me a laundry list of things to do that I am supposed to follow blindly.

Anyway, this comment is incidental to the point of the thread, but I felt like clarifying that different people have different expectations about their ideal roles.

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17. weirdo on December 19, 2007 10:41 PM writes...

Rather than call skeptic names, just call him out.

His premises are mis-guided. Anti-TNFs are about the most specific drugs man can envisage, yet are extremely effective against what can only be called "multi-factorial diseases".

Lack of the "requisite skills" (which he/she declines to define) cannot be outsourced to CROs with employees who are, generally, by far, less skilled than those here with "misguided bravado".

There is no "crux of the issue". The "issue" is mighty complex.

One might say it's, well, multi-factorial.

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18. MTK on December 19, 2007 11:20 PM writes...

Skeptic, you and Kay need to get together. Both of you are really good at pointing out all the things that the rest of us do wrong.

Your wisdom and insight is matched only by your assuredness.

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19. milkshake on December 20, 2007 12:49 AM writes...

Nah, Sceptic sounds like a dude who bought some pharma/biotech stock, lost a lot and now holds a grudge that medicinal chemists let him down

He should be doing something more productive - like running around and strangling some company execs. A rope in the hands of a practicioner skilled in art can be lot more impressive than big words

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20. Anon on December 20, 2007 5:20 AM writes...

From the other side of the coin, I went to a BNU and have recently been made a team leader. I generate all my own target ideas, have a history of delivering potent, progressible compounds, and novel workable synthetic strategies towards them. And I might add, have been more successful at doing this that my peers.
However, apparently, 'You have only been promoted because you went to a BNU'.

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21. Stroom on December 20, 2007 8:01 AM writes...


I don't think anyone is saying that coming from a BNU means that you're by definition a moron... Needless to say, many great chemists and researchers come from such institutions.

We're just saying that coming from a "no name" school doesn't mean that your abilities and potential are inferioir to yours.

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22. RET on December 20, 2007 11:39 AM writes...

As a postdoc at Stanford I watched the bottom of the class get multiple offers from Big Pharma while at the same time they do not even send representatives to supposedly "second-tier" institutions. It is clear to me that the top set of graduate students at most universities are better than the bottom of the top schools. But it is of course, the safe decision of recruitment committees to choose the Big Names at the BNUs.

During my visits to pharmaceutical companies, I have been asked "How can we get more of you top MS students?" and I always reply "Interview our best PhD students."

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23. Hap on December 20, 2007 12:50 PM writes...


As someone said, going to a BNU is likely to help you get a job, but not whether you succeed at it or keep it - that's on you. I think the complaint here is that both your coworkers and PB are making the mistake of using residence at BNU as an excuse. In PB's case, he wanted his residence at BNU to give him a blank check of credibility with others, implying that he either couldn't earn credibility with his results or didn't think that he could. Your coworkers would prefer to blame your residence at BNU for your success rather than your works (and, presumably, their lack of such). Where you go may be an indicator of your abilities, but determining whether it is or not is what context (your body of work) is for.

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24. Hap on December 20, 2007 12:51 PM writes...

Sorry about the multipost - either the server on my end or at Corante is unhappy.

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25. Merck Expatriate on December 20, 2007 12:56 PM writes...

When I worked at Merck, the hiring decision tree in Medicinal Chemistry wasn't much of a secret-- There were a handful of groups at a handful of schools that had been validated by some people in Sweden. If you didn't have that pedigree, they wouldn't even look at a resume (trust me--I sent them resumes and saw the results). The rest of us shook our heads at that.

I worked in a different discipline down the hall from Med Chem. Some of my colleagues had excellent pedigrees, and others were just sharp, deserving people from lesser background who bloomed where they were planted. I love love love Merck, and wouldn't have wanted to start my career anywhere else, but the arrogance that reared up in pockets of Merck was one part I wasn't ever proud of.

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26. Mark M on December 20, 2007 2:52 PM writes...

"This isn't one of those businesses where you can get by on looks."

Don't be so sure Derek. Your attitude is far more open-minded than many in pharma (big and small).

I think a lot of the shortcomings on pharma can be traced to arrogance and a feeling of entitlement.

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27. marlin on December 20, 2007 7:12 PM writes...

"As a postdoc at Stanford I watched the bottom of the class get multiple offers from Big Pharma while at the same time they do not even send representatives to supposedly "second-tier" institutions."

I went to a well know second tier school with a supposedly top 25 ranking. In my 5 years there we were never visited even once by Pharma reps. Since I and my fellow students were producing Jacs and Joc papers I wondered what the heck was going on. And yes as a post-doc at a top 10 school I saw armies of recruiters appearing.

So why do we allow non-top ten schools to grant degrees? If there is a shortage of scientists it seems to be a shortage of IVY scientists. Obviously only certain zip codes produce good chemists.

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28. Polymer Bound on December 20, 2007 8:32 PM writes...

zt: you're absolutely right. I was oversimplifying.

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29. MTK on December 21, 2007 9:12 AM writes...

As someone who has done a share of on-campus recruiting for Big Pharma, here's my take. For background, I myself went to a "second-tier" school. The recruiting I have done has been at both top-tier and second-tier institutions.

First let me state that there are exceptional chemists at every school. The difference is in the depth. I've constantly been amazed at the level of consistency at the top flight schools and groups relative to second-tier schools. I mean that in a good way. They are more likely than not to be well prepared and able to articulate their project goals and approach well. The second-tier school it's definately not as consistent. You'll see some great candidates , but you'll also see some real clunkers. So if I'm talking to 15 students, I might get 10 at the top school that are worthy of consideration, but only 3-4 at a second-tier school.

Recruiting and interviewing is a major task and a big investment in time. Given that, concentrating your efforts at the big name schools is, in my experience, a better bet. You'll identify more qualified candidates with less time invested than if you canvassed every school. That may sound to some like laziness, but it's really about time management. None of us are full-time recruiters. We have other responsibilities.

Unfortunately, this means that 10% of the students end up with 90% of the offers. This also means that some very good chemists have a tough time through no fault of their own. I know that many of you are going to think that's elitist, but that's far from it. I could care less what your pedigree is, this is a simple matter of concentration of good candidates.

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30. Skeptic on December 21, 2007 5:01 PM writes...

"...this is a simple matter of concentration of good candidates."

This supports by earlier comment that the skill set of the medicinal chemist is non-differentiating.

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31. MTK on December 21, 2007 5:55 PM writes...



First, I was involved interviewing candidates for a process chem job, not med chem, so any conclusions you make about med chem based on my statement would be incorrect.

Second, we brought in good scientists. The actual work they were doing whether it be in total synthesis, materials, chemical biology, etc was immaterial. We tried to judge candidates based on their ability to recognize and overcome problems.

Third, my post only described our on-campus recruiting efforts. We also brought in people from other schools based on resume's that were mailed in and individual recommendations. In my own case, I was hired for the position without the benefit of an on-campus interview.

Nice try, though.

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32. weirdo on December 21, 2007 7:35 PM writes...

Yeah, MTK hit this one right on the head.

It all comes down to how many schools you can realistically visit. 10? Well, why WOULDN'T you rank them based on how many good candidates you are likely to see at each.

As to Skeptic, who at this point I must admit is either some kind of dolt, or simply a troll -- one of the very best things about the "top 10" universities is the diversity of backgrounds and research groups from which one can recruit. Let's just start with "Hah-vahd": does anyone really think Evans, Corey, Myers, and Jacobsen students are all trained in the same way, and are clones of one another?


Doesn't mean there aren't damn good synthetic chemists elsewhere. But they're going to have to try harder to get noticed that first time.

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33. Polymer Bound on December 21, 2007 7:54 PM writes...

I'm agree with MTK 100% on this one. I'm at a huge company and we just hired someone who hadn't set foot inside a top 10 school. Our department is full of people from "the names" of chemistry, but we still have plenty of good people who arrived from lesser known labs.

I'm in med chem and I find that we hire all types as well... offers are made to people who spent their entire graduate careers reaching into a glove box and people who spent their careers making a single natural product. You do need to demonstrate that you're a capable synthetic chemist (it -is- what we do, and all), but other than that, we're just looking for the best scientists.

It's not a single factor... we want intellectual diversity in our department, and above all, we want good scientists capable of overcoming difficult problems.

If you wanted to critique pharma for strategic flaws, I'd listen to your arguments... but assertions that the problems arise from homogeneity of the talent pool and poor science are just nutty.

"either the grads nor the industry veterans have the requisite skills necessary to tackle multi-factorial diseases"

Enlighten us, master.

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34. Anonymous on December 22, 2007 9:29 PM writes...

I would have thought that with all the brilliant minds wandering the corridors of big pharma, they would be doing a lot better. Unfortunately, as the pedigree of hiring gets better, the fate of pharma gets worse. IMHO, you need a hungry organization to be successful. But from the some of the comments of the pharma recruiters above, it would appear that the ability to BS (identify problems yada yada) appears more important that producing results and moving projects forward.

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35. Ralph on December 22, 2007 10:05 PM writes...

"Unfortunately, this means that 10% of the students end up with 90% of the offers. "

Why my goodness, I thought there was a shortage of chemists? If they're so scare why can ten schools fill up all the slots? Since you obviously know that 90% of the offers go to 10% of the students you are aware you will only be able to hire 1/10th the # people you actually try to recruit. Since all the recruiters must be aware of this fact, it can only mean that ten schools are ALL that are needed to supply the entire US with chemists.

Otherwise nothing you say makes sense. I think you make a fine argument for closing the rest of the schools.

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36. MTK on December 23, 2007 4:29 PM writes...


1) This is only about the pharma industry. There's plenty of other industries that hire chemists. In fact, the pharma industry is a small fraction of total chemistry jobs.

2) # of offers in pharma far exceeds the number of actual openings. Most of the top folks do have lots of offers.

3) don't take the 10/90 literally. Maybe it's 20/80, the point is in terms of pharma, a small number of candidates have the majority of offers.

4) read the post again, we all agreed that there were good chemists everywhere, but that it's just harder for those at the second-tier schools to get noticed when it comes to interviews.

Anon, believe what you want.

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37. Jonadab the Unsightly One on December 27, 2007 7:28 AM writes...

Does anyone else think it's weird to take seriously a story told by someone who admits up front that he'd given blood *and* had multiple beers, before witnessing the events in question? I don't consider it reasonable to assume that his impressions of people's behavior at that point were necessarily a close match for what was actually going on. Was "poster boy" actually reacting to mundane facts like where these two guys went to school, or was there perhaps another reason, like maybe it was becomming more and more obvious that he was dealing with a pair of jerks who came to a chemistry conference drunk? There are still limits to how much rudeness that excuses, but I'd hesitate to judge the guy too harshly without hearing the other side of the story.

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38. brcc on December 28, 2007 8:59 AM writes...

Having been to many ACS poster sessions, I never witnessed behavior like this, and I attended what many would consider a second tier school. I wonder if this was anomalous behavior, or is BNU elitism happening more frequently? In the final analysis, Derek is right, it is hard work and perseverance that brings many rewards.

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