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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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August 11, 2010

If You're Not A Chemist - What Next?

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Posted by Derek

So here's an unpleasant but necessary topic: what do you do if you're getting out of chemistry entirely? The pharma layoffs of the last few years have made this all too real a decision for too many people, and I recently heard from a reader here who's facing that exact problem.

My first piece of advice is an obvious one: try, if possible, to do something where your expertise can still be an advantage. Look for fields where knowing organic chemistry or drug discovery could be a selling point, something that an employer would be interested in but can't always find. Work (at one level or another) in patent law or technical writing are options that I know some chemists have been able to find.

Failing that, I'd still try to find something where your general training as a scientist can be used to make you stand out. A lot of us are surrounded by researchers all day long, and we tend to forget that our lives are pretty anomalous. The habits of critical thinking, of asking whether what you think you know is true or not (and being willing to test things to find out) are not as widespread as you'd think (or hope). That's a more nebulous proposition to sell to a potential employer, to be sure, but it's still worth keeping in mind.

I (and a number of people out in the readership) would be interested in hearing from people in the comments who've moved out of the immediate field of chemistry - voluntarily or not. Where have you ended up, and how did it happen?

Comments (198) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. coprolite on August 11, 2010 7:56 AM writes...

those who can't do teach. also, finch fighting is on the rise. and while it may sound unpleasant, one can make a rather lucrative living as a prison snitch. whatever you do you'll probably want to do it quickly, there's about to be another surge in unemployment, at least on the east coast. whatever happened to 'green' companies on the rise?

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2. slurk on August 11, 2010 8:23 AM writes...

I feel there was a post like this a couple years ago. I got depressed making endless kinase inhibitors that weren't ever going anywhere. Off to business school, then boutique healthcare consulting in NYC and finally i'm in BD/new product planning for a medium sized pharma. i viewed bschool as a necessary evil in trying to transition from the bench to wearing dress shoes. having the phd and the industry background is absolutely helpful in establishing credibility (though frankly i rarely use specific org chem knowledge in practice).

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3. Anonymous on August 11, 2010 8:25 AM writes...

As an upcoming PhD candidate, I always love articles like this.... ugh..

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4. BFS on August 11, 2010 8:26 AM writes...

For those considering a career change, consider patent law. I left an active, successful career as a bench chemist (synthetic organic) and never regretted the decision. While the transition required a high degree of personal and professional commitment, the rewards of a more stable, not to mention lucrative, career were worth the temporary discomfort.

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5. D on August 11, 2010 8:28 AM writes...

I started my post-grad school job hunt in early 2009 with a degree in chemistry. I spent my Ph.D. years doing proteomic mass spectrometry so graduating right as pharma was shedding a boatload of mass spectrometrists wasn't the best timing.

I had taken many CS classes as an undergrad (almost enough to warrant a second degree) and done a lot of programming in grad school so I moved to a software engineering job. The company I work for is a nonprofit that does scientific software so my job is actually vaguely academic - I go to academic conferences, apply for NSF and NIH grants, etc. It's very similar to being a staff scientist at a national lab. I got really, really lucky to find such an opportunity right in my backyard.

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6. SwankySwede on August 11, 2010 8:29 AM writes...

I took the option of getting out of chemistry right out of college - I wasn't excited about pharma, and setting up syntheses all day just didn't sound that fun to me... I took a job as a process engineer at a nanotech company. My skills as a scientist carried over, and I get to do all sorts of cool stuff that's not running columns.

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7. Eleanor Howe on August 11, 2010 8:31 AM writes...

The computational biology group I work with has a few chemists the mix. Those critical thinking skills, paired with some new programming skills, make one very hire-able in bioinformatics.

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8. chris bose on August 11, 2010 8:32 AM writes...

I used to be a chemist. Then I found that successful web marketing is the same as properly designing experiments: design, test, feedback, new tests. My chemistry background taught me the correct way to test any experiment. Invaluable experience for Google Adwords campaigns.

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9. Anonymous on August 11, 2010 8:41 AM writes...

I'm a former synthetic chemist now working as a patent examiner in the area of polymer chemistry. My experience with a less traditional career has, so far, been positive. The schedule is flexible, the benefits are great, and the pay is as good as, if not better than, most private sector jobs (at least for someone with my level of experience). Also, I work from home, which is a huge bonus.

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10. Greg Hlatky on August 11, 2010 8:49 AM writes...

After 24 years in R&D, my position in polyolefin catalysis was eliminated in 2008 and there were no other openings with any company.

I had done literature searching as an amateur for a number of years and had some experience as a technical/legal liaison and because of this I was able to get a position with the legal department of a chemical company as a technical information specialist.

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11. John Spevacek on August 11, 2010 9:15 AM writes...

I'd would be very cautious about making any such move as it is irreversible. If you try and come back in say 5 or 10 years (even at a lower level position) you will be competing for a position against people who are still active (or very recently were until they were layed off).

Why would anyone take a chance on someone who hadn't done anything in the field for 5 years when they can get an active person instead?

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12. Nodz on August 11, 2010 9:22 AM writes...

Good topic, and great blog by the way!

I started making natural wooden chairs from deadfall cedar as a way to combat frustration during my grad school. I got pretty good at it after a while. I quite often get offers for them. Im doing a postdoc now, but if this thing doesnt work out (and Im fully aware that it may not), Im gonna go back and make artsy-fartsy chairs again for sale. Thank god my wife isnt a chemist as well! When Im making chairs, I get the same thrill of creation that I like from doing synthesis. I think that doing chemistry for so long teaches you to have "good hands" and an eye for patterns eg - when youre walking in the woods, see a funky piece of wood, you can envision the part of the chair it can become. Well see how this whole thing works out...

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13. Virgil on August 11, 2010 9:28 AM writes...

Judging by the number of comments above in which the individuals moved into the patent/legal area, the consensus would seem to be "when you get fired as a chemist, get a job suing other chemists".

For those not afraid of going back to the bench, there are plenty of jobs which require chemistry skills, for example...

-Chef (ability to follow a recipe/instructions)
-Biodiesel maker (chemistry)
-Open a microbrewery (yay beer!)

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14. Jak on August 11, 2010 9:29 AM writes...

This is my 6th year with pharm. 2 sites close down since 04. I am hesitating to leave pharm to work for a small start up LC supply company with 30% pay cut. I like my current compensation, state of the art instruments, talent resources in the big pharm, but I don't know if it is sustainable. Are we following steel industry?

I hate to ask if you guys really believe the biologics are the future? or this is the last straw for desperate big pharms?

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15. DC on August 11, 2010 9:34 AM writes...

I used to be a Medicinal Chemist at Big Pharma which also makes a lot of baby products. After a layoff last November, I was unable to find a similar opportunity as chemist. I had an interest in Clinical Develeopment and Regulatory Affairs. In the next 3-4 months following the layoff I talked with people in the above fields asking about the their job and tried to get an idea about what they look for new candidates. At the sametime I completed a certificate in Project Management and Regulatory Affirs. Pretty soon I started getting job offers initially parttime positions followed by fulltime ones. Now I am a Regulatory Medical Writer at a fortune 500 company. I still use knowledge of Chemistry and never a dull moment at work.

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16. Anon on August 11, 2010 9:38 AM writes...

Is being a chemistry-focused patent attorney such a good idea if all chemists are being laid off? Surely in a few years the supply of chemical things to patent will proportionally reduce, and so will the number of chemical patent attorneys.

Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about but the thought just occurred to me.

I would totally go for the microbrewery route - maybe the big pharma lay-offs will bring a golden age of artisan beer!

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17. Modeler on August 11, 2010 9:42 AM writes...

Some fields of chemistry can be safer than others. At my company they laid off synthetic chemists as well as computational chemists. The synthetic chemists had a hard time finding jobs, but some of the modelers found programming jobs in bioinformatics and related areas because of their computational skills. As usual, having general skills (like computer programming) rather than very specific ones helps.

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18. Hap on August 11, 2010 9:43 AM writes...

I went to work in chemical information out of grad school and like it a lot. I get to read a lot, and analyze what people do in depth. The pay and benefits aren't bad, and I can at least keep up with what people are doing, both people I knew and people whose work interests me. Irreversibility is a problem (at least back to the bench), but I guess I don't have much hope that the recent wave of layoffs is itself reversible - if the jobs aren't coming back, then any transition is irreversible. I also have perceived that jobs are either looking for people with particular skill sets or people who are young and cheap, and if you didn't study in the field, the first is beyond you, while the second is beyond everyone (time doesn't reverse). Anything out of pharma will probably be limiting, and if there's nothing in pharma (unless you can start your own business, of course), then one is inherently limited.

Greg Hlatky's experience seems more problematic to me, because I had heard that there were lots of chemistry jobs outside of pharma, and industrial/oil chemistry would have been one of the first places I would have thought of. If those jobs are going away, well, I don't know whose jobs will be left henceforth. It also makes the push for more scientists sound like a sick joke - if you want people professionally devoted to chemistry, then there have to be jobs somewhere. If there aren't jobs, then people will do research where they can (I don't know where, though, since homes are unlikely), but not in the numbers people claim they want. There are lots of reasons people don't want to work in food service - being cheap and expendable is not a (beneficial) career choice if you have one.

I know someone who used to work at the FDA, and I wonder if that's an option, as well - it might keep one close to pharma, at least.

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19. Mark on August 11, 2010 9:46 AM writes...

I did the b-school route.

Many years as a non-PhD bench chemist, saw jobs fleeing overseas and the general lack of productivity in big pharma R&D. The writing was on the wall.

I got a great response when looking for MBA jobs as many on the commercial side of biopharma appreciate people with a science background (BD/strategy/project management/operations).

The work I do now is very interesting and challenging, I still use my science background (not so much org chemistry, but general medical/biology knowledge) and the career options are much better.


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20. BFS on August 11, 2010 10:13 AM writes...

Anon on August 11, 2010 9:38 AM writes...

"Is being a chemistry-focused patent attorney such a good idea if all chemists are being laid off? Surely in a few years the supply of chemical things to patent will proportionally reduce...."

Only if one assumes a significant proportion choose to pursue the patent attorney path. For many former chemists, this simply isn’t viable. For starters, there’s the expense. A typical 3-4 year law school course of study runs around $80K. Second, there’s a certain intellectual discontinuity between a heuristically-based discipline, such as chemistry, and the study of law and legal matters. The former derives answers deemed correct and accurate subject to peer review, while the latter reaches conclusions that are mere opinion, subject to broad interpretation depending often on the political bias of others.

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21. Vader on August 11, 2010 10:15 AM writes...

Going into some kind of programming is a possibility, but if the only programming you've ever done has been in FORTRAN, beware. There is a feeling in the software development community, not without basis, that folks who learned to program in FORTRAN permanently crippled their latent programming talents. At the very least, learn a more modern language before attempting the jump.

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22. FDA on August 11, 2010 10:19 AM writes...

After 12 years working as a bench chemist in pharma, I moved to the FDA. I'm still technically a "chemist" according to my job description, but I review chemistry, biology, manufacturing processes, etc. I was nudged into this by layoffs, but I really enjoy it. I was getting frustrated with bench work, particularly with all of the pressure and upheaval in the industry in the last few years. It's a great job for someone who likes to write.

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23. Wavefunction on August 11, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

I agree with the above quip regarding general skills like programming. If you want to try your hand at programming, among other things I would recommend Python/Perl scripting which is widely used in many computational approaches these days. I would also second the point about knowledge of statistics; it's remarkable how many chemists cannot accurately define a p-value.

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24. iridium on August 11, 2010 10:31 AM writes...

I have a lab mate who is graduating this fall with his PhD in synthetic organic chemistry. After five full years of developing methodology and workin towards a total synthesis, he decided with the economy the way it is and the poor outlook for jobs he decided to what he had originally planned to do...go to pharmacy school. It seems (from discussions with this person) that the need for pharmacists is remaining steady, and upon completing the Pharm D. there are many options available...such as clinical pharmacy for a hospital/organization or your local grocery store pharmacist. If you are willing to go back to school for three more years (after 5 + years of graduate school) then I believe a PhD in chemistry (especially organic or medicinal) could defeintely give you the upper hand.

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25. Brett on August 11, 2010 10:31 AM writes...


80k for law school?

If you plan on going to a good school you can expect to pay 100-150k easily. That said, I just finished my first year at law school and have a slew of interviews for summer positions, my school friends haven't been so lucky. The PhD makes all the difference.

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26. Scott on August 11, 2010 10:33 AM writes...

I'd agree with Mark. There are a lot of escapees from the lab who went and got their MBAs, who are now quite happily running things over on the business side. After working on a PhD, an MBA is a snap to get through, and quite a lot of fun. Also, it tends to provide a nice bump to your paycheck, which never hurts.

For any of the regulars on this list who are research scientists and who are going through a transition career-wise, I'd be happy to pass along your resumes to the people I know at one of the top 5 b-schools' admissions department. Good minds are always appreciated.

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27. Curt F. on August 11, 2010 10:51 AM writes...

Here's a question: what should the chairs of university chemistry departments conclude from reading this thread? Here are some possibilities.

1. Undergraduate chemistry degree programs should incorporate more coursework related to computer programming, patent law, and the business needs of the pharmaceutical, biochemical, and/or chemical industries.

2. Graduate chemistry degree programs should incorporate more coursework or more research work related to computer programming, patent law, or the business needs of the pharmaceutical, biochemical, and/or chemical industries.

3. Don't worry, everything is fine. Just make sure that prospective students don't read In The Pipeline, keep the grant money coming in, and we can get away with having our students run columns all day long, just like always?

4. ...?

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28. anonymous on August 11, 2010 10:57 AM writes...

I married rich.

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29. Cloud on August 11, 2010 11:16 AM writes...

Well, I was never an organic chemist, so I'm not really in the group you're asking. But I'll answer anyway. I veered away from "pure" chemistry into biophysical chemistry/structural biology in grad school. And then I got interested in informatics, and went that route after grad school. I got lucky in my timing- it is not nearly so easy to do that now. There are a lot of people with actual bioinformatics training who are competing for those jobs now.

Anyway, I now work in informatics, but I tend more towards the "making systems work in a production environment" than the "designing new algorithms" side of things. There are a lot of different jobs in informatics, and not all of them involve actual coding. (I haven't written real code in years. In fact, my husband- who is a software engineer- would probably say I have never written real code.) I use my science background all the time, but I don't do experiments anymore, and haven't done them in a long time.

Another route to consider is project/program management. I don't know very much about that career path in pharma, though. My impression is that sometimes the work is at the level that would keep a PhD happy, and sometimes it isn't. It depends on the company and how they've organized things.

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30. Anonymous on August 11, 2010 11:17 AM writes...

Not a chemist.......but a Ph.D. molecular biologist. Spent over 15 years at the bench doing early stage drug discovery. After 2 layoffs in my middle age and looking at very few, if any research jobs available (yes, even in the bay area) I made the transition into regulatory affairs. I'm paid almost as well as before even though I started at a "lower" level than my research position. The job is fun, different almost everyday and actually satisfying. I should be able to exceed my previous salary/title within a few short years. There are 20 regulatory jobs for every research posision (probably more) and the experience allows you the flexibility to find work in many other divisions within a pharma/biotech company.

I'm never looking back.............

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31. silicon scientist on August 11, 2010 11:19 AM writes...

Good to see that no one has suggested the semiconductor industry, the other high-tech mega-industry. It's going down a similar route with talent oversupply (despite what Intel says,) and the cyclical nature of the industry makes a long-term career a long-shot.

I also have to warn people against the patent agent route. Right now, the field is being flooded with out-of-work scientists, so finding a job (even after passing the exam) requires some major networking on the inside.

The only people hiring are the U.S. government and the companies that serve it.

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32. Don Corleone on August 11, 2010 11:19 AM writes...

As a former Ph.D. chemist now running a software shop, I am hesitate to recommend computer programming to my fellow chemists unless you plan to start on your own at some point. Computer programming is FAR too easier to be outsourced than chemistry. We do it a lot by using Indian programmers. They are very good and amazingly affordable (1/4 - 1/5 vs. U.S. based programmers with similar skills). All they need is a computer and desk. India (China in that matter) graduates tons of young and eager programmers, with endless supplies of young graduates with latest skills. That means barrier of entry is quite low, which keeps cost low. That is the reality we see.

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33. p on August 11, 2010 11:19 AM writes...

Perhaps Big Pharma is failing/has failed because it pays more to marketers, managers and lawyers than to chemists. What is it everyone will market, manage and negotiate when there are no more products?

Curt, I would argue that programming is a valuable skill for any student, in any discipline, from a job skills perspective. It is a skill I dearly wish I had more of.

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34. john on August 11, 2010 11:23 AM writes...

After my 6 years of phd I've decided to get out of the bench science/research area. It's just not for me.
This question is a little different but related, science, specifically academic science, is very much a culture. For example in a lab if we're having a discussion and I disagree with someone I can comfortably say "I think you're wrong, if you read paper X you'll see...." but you really can't do that in regular society. When I'm not around scientists I catch myself doing it and offending a lot of people. The idea of taking long vacations or not working on weekends is also something thats very strange to me.
Has anyone who has left science had any trouble adjusting to different work environments, or different social environments? I almost feel like the guy in Shawshank Redemption, I've been institutionalized in a way (although the institution is a lab).
I am however excited to leave the field, I've decided to go on and teach at the highschool level. Taking a salary hit, but I think it has the opportunity to be just as rewarding but give me time to pursue some of my other interests that I just haven't seen in science.

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35. Janson on August 11, 2010 11:37 AM writes...

This thread fails to differentiate between PhD and MS, BS chemists. I can assure you that in most positions such as reg affairs no BS or MS manager wants a PhD under them. They all think you want more pay and that 'you'll leave once something better comes along'.

When I was re-training I must have sent out 100 resumes to reg affairs positions.

A PhD has 1/10th the opportunities that a BS or MS chemist has when changing careers. That's because 99.9% of all jobs DO NOT REQUIRE A PHD!

Unless you are heading towards academia a PhD is a liability to anyone from a middle class background. My wealthy friends who escaped the lab did so by spending hundreds of thousands to reinvent themselves.

If you're not wealthy, DO NOT get a PhD.Your trust-fund baby Ivy league professor is lying to you about your prospects.

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36. James on August 11, 2010 11:39 AM writes...

I still have a lab job, but I'm increasingly tutoring organic chemistry on the side. Working for myself is something I have more control over than being at the mercy of an employer. Tutoring keeps me sharp, I really like the one-on-one, and running a small business is rewarding. I expect I'll be doing this full time before too long.

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37. Wavefunction on August 11, 2010 11:39 AM writes...

I agree with the above quip regarding general skills like programming. If you want to try your hand at programming, among other things I would recommend Python/Perl scripting which is widely used in many computational approaches these days. I would also second the point about knowledge of statistics; it's remarkable how many chemists cannot accurately define a p-value.

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38. Anonymous on August 11, 2010 11:39 AM writes...

John Spevacek says, "I'd would be very cautious about making any such move as it is irreversible." Haha, this sounds like the typical dogma that comes from the rite-of-passage, fuedal system school of thought that's found in organic chemistry - in