Not many chemists come into the drug industry knowing very much about biology. I certainly didn’t, not on the level that was needed. It’s not surprising, but it’s also not as much of a handicap as you’d think, at least not at first.
That’s because the first job of a new hire in the med-chem department is to crank out compounds, and that goes for both the PhD and Master’s levels. (Those roles diverge as time goes on, though). But with a few obvious rules in hand (no hot reactive functional groups, no huge greasy monster molecules, etc.), a person can contribute reasonable-looking compounds pretty quickly. No biological knowledge needed.
But if you’re going to be more valuable than a new hire (and as time goes on, you’d better be), then you have to start picking up some more of the broader science of drug discovery. That turns out to involve a lot more than chemistry, which is one of the things that chemists have to get adjusted to. If you’re going to move up to the point of being considered to lead a new project, you’re going to have to show that you can converse with the folks who know protein expression, assay development, molecular biology, PK, toxicology, and so on. You’re not going to be expected to come in and solve their problems (although if you do manage to solve one once in a while, it’ll do both you and them some good). But you are expected to understand what they’re talking about.
So that’s a piece of advice I can give to new chemistry hires in this business: get ready to learn everyone else’s business, too. Listen up when the people from the other departments talk about what they’re up to, and especially when they complain about their problems. Try to understand why they’re complaining, and ask them (especially one on one) about what they usually try when this sort of thing happens. The occasional paranoid might think at first that you’re compiling info in order to mess with them later, but you shouldn’t be the sort of person around whom that suspicion credibly lingers. In general, if the people in those other groups are any good at all, they’ll be glad to tell you what’s going on, and you’ll pick up a lot of practical knowledge.
The consequences of not doing this sort of thing become more severe as time goes on. At one of my former companies, we once brought in a job candidate from BNP (Big Name Pharmaceuticals). He’d been around seven or eight years, enough time to be considered fairly experienced. But people at that level vary a lot, and he was (as it turned out) on the low end. When we’d ask him about, for example, any formulation problems he’d had to deal with on his project compounds, he told us that well, he didn’t usually go to those meetings, his boss did. And when we asked him about how he got along with the PK group – well, they were over in another building, and he hardly ever saw them. And so on, and so on.
He was well along to being crippled by the way things were done at BNP. Actually, it may have been more the way he was doing things. From talking with other people from that shop over the years, it’s clear that it didn’t have to be that way – if you made the effort, you could go to those meetings, and if you took the time, you could go over to those other buildings and show your face. But you didn’t have to, and this guy (since he didn’t have to) didn’t bother to. And by keeping to his burrow, he hadn’t learned nearly as much as he could have. We didn’t make him an offer. So talk to people, talk to people outside your field. If you’re any good at all, they’ll learn something from you, too.