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June 4, 2008
Tote That Barge, Lift That Bale
I was talking with a colleague recently about the different cultures that have grown up in different drug companies where lab associates are concerned. For those outside the industry, those are non-PhD-holding scientists, who (for the most part) do not move into managerial positions. There's room for a whole separate blog post on the people who (for one reason or another) never got the PhD degree but are the equal or superior of anyone who has, but for now I'm talking about the rest of the associate population.
As people get more experienced, they become more valuable, or at least they should. An experienced chemistry lab associate is one of the most readily employable people in the industry, under normal conditions. A company may or may not feel a need for another twenty-year middle manager type, but there's always a need for hands at the bench to make compounds, and good associates are the people who make the most. And with some time in the industry, they have a far better understanding of the real world of drug discovery than any PhD coming in fresh out of their post-doc.
Or at least they should. There are, though, some companies that treat their associates more like draft animals, putting them in the position I held in the summer of 1979 when I worked for in a greeting card factory before going to college. I was a "materials transport handler", which meant "See that big pile of stuff here? Haul it over there." It's the only time I've done manual labor for money for more than an afternoon, when I think about it. But I'm told that there are shops in this industry that tell their associates exactly what to do at every turn, up to the point (so I hear) of having them take spectral data and turn it over to their supervisors rather than interpret it themselves.
That's something you associate with the old-style German and Swiss labs, where there's a clear heirarchic division between the PhD holders in their offices and the "laboranten" out in front of the hood. Even there, I don't think this is quite as rigid as it used to be, so the thought of this here in the US is quite odd. But it does seem to go on, so I'm asking the readership: what's the status of the usual lab associate where you work?
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