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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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« Not The End. Not At All | Main | Going Hollywood »

August 20, 2010

Reporting on Alternative Careers

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Posted by Derek

I have another journalistic blog request for those who are willing to help out. The folks at C&E News were following that recent alternative-careers-for-chemists post with interest, and are working on a story along the same lines.

Susan Ainsworth, a senior editor in Dallas, is looking to talk to chemists who've had to retool for new careers. She's interested in looking at movement in both directions, too - what happens if and when people try to come back into the field? Anyone who would like to help out can contact her at Thanks!

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Shocked on August 20, 2010 8:25 AM writes...

It took your Blog post to get them to take notice?

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2. Ed on August 20, 2010 8:48 AM writes...

I think out of work medchemists might want to look into Clinical Trials Management. It is a way to stay close to the science but not be at the forefront. The work can be tedious but the FDA process is unlikely to change dramatically over the next 10 - 20 years. Besides, no matter where a new drug comes from - big pharma, biotech, a garage lab in San Jose it still needs to go through a strict and regulated approval process. Medchemists have a lot of knowledge that could help them in the job and make them a valuabe resource to any clinical trial CRO. Perhaps this suggestion has already been made but I don't recall reading it.

On another note - I have long considered research (particularly organic / medchem) a privledge rather than a right or entitlement. In our democratic/capitalistic society I don't think there is any other way to view it. At the end of the day, researcg collectively is a very valuable public good, but can any one scientist really monetize his/her value? In most cases, unlikely. What is the economic value of making compounds for a medchem project? For the most part the answer is zero dollars unless you happen to be the lucky one who actually makes a drug that makes it all the way to the market.

People outside of research get paid becuase what they do has value to someone else. It is very difficult to monetize chemistry/medchem research at an individual or group or even company level. As scientists we have the privledge of working on interesting projects that may or may not have value (although collectively over the whole field scientists are surely adding value). For this privledge there are trade-offs. Recently, it would seem that one of these trade-offs is job security.

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3. Greg Hlatky on August 20, 2010 8:54 AM writes...

And what would the slant of this story be? Would it be the tragedy that in order to earn some kind of salary intelligent, creative scientists have had to stop doing what they were trained for and enjoy because their profession is disappearing? Or would it be the usual ACS-C&EN palaver of "Oh, look at all the opportunities that can open up for you when you become a chemist! Isn't it wonderful?"

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4. Bubba on August 20, 2010 9:38 AM writes...

C and e news is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Nero fiddles while rome burns.

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5. emjeff on August 20, 2010 9:45 AM writes...

#2 Ed

No one in their right mind would trade job security for some non-quantifiable "Privilege" to do research. At about your 3rd lay-off, you are going to look around and do something else. Kids getting out of college today , if they have a brain in their head, will bypass grad school for business/management careers. Let the foriegn nationals be slaves for the professors...

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6. bbooooooya on August 20, 2010 10:12 AM writes...

"Kids getting out of college today , if they have a brain in their head, will bypass grad school for business/management careers"

A nice idea, and one I sort of took myself (though went to finance after PhD and a couple of layoffs in biotech). While this is fun, it only works if there are people to manage and $ to invest. If we stopping producing things of value in this country, we'll soon find fewer $ to manage.

Just like there's no reason Americans are better at chemistry than those in lower wage countries, they'll also soon figure out that we're no better at managing people or $. Hopefully this won't happen until I'm ready to retire....

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7. DevicesRUs on August 20, 2010 10:48 AM writes...

I know this board really is about MedChem but we often talk about chemists as if the only job chemists do is small molecule synthesis. I work in medical devices and we have lots of chemists around but most of them are not small molecule guys. Many of them are analytical of course but quite a few are making materials and characterizing them. Mostly polymers and some alloys but it is indeed chemistry and an area that I think most chemists don't think about as a place to work.

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8. Jose on August 20, 2010 11:45 AM writes...

Oh, that's just rich! The official organ (cough cough) for an entire industry only considers writing an article on a truly staggering trend following the post of a (highly talented) blogger that goes to 150+ comments? That's the best attempt at a trend analysis the officialdom at the world's largest *scientific* organization can muster? Perhaps it is time to dig deep into those pockets for everyone's hard-earned dues, contact the professionals at AAPOR, and learn how to run a proper survey? Sheeesh.

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9. Klaus on August 20, 2010 12:09 PM writes...

To solve your employment problems you need look no further than basic supply and demand. Universities are overproducing chemists to justify larger grants which pay for lavish salaries and new facilities.

See last Sunday’s New York Times

The disconnect between the unionesqe academics and the private sector is growing at light speed.

Couple that discontinuity with the wonders of the temp L-1 and h1-b visas used by industry and academic to staff their labs with cheap foreign labor (the Asian Carp) and you have an economic catastrophe for the native species of chemist (the Noble Buffalo).

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10. Curt F. on August 20, 2010 12:27 PM writes...

I don't know what it is with so much of Derek's commentariat. Why all the bitterness?

1. People complain that the ACS doesn't represent members' interests and that C&EN paints a rosy picture of the job situation.
2. Derek starts a thread about chemists changing careers because of the many layoffs in medicinal chemistry over the last few years.
3. Derek reports that C&EN is interested in writing an article about chemists that have to "retool for new careers".
4. People complain that C&EN didn't write this article earlier, and that C&EN is irrelevant.

??? What?

In the real world, shouldn't the fact that C&EN is interested in this story be taken as an indicator that ACS can occasionally respond to chemists' interests and that C&EN might be preparing to deal honestly with some of the career issues that medicinal chemists are facing?

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11. Jose on August 20, 2010 12:58 PM writes...

The yearly ACS employment poll is nothing short of a travesty of survey methodology, yet there have been no efforts to really examine what's going on.
It has been obvious to everyone for almost ten years (!) that the industrial employment situation was worsening. I, for one, would expect the ACS to *take a leadership position* and explore the trends in a professional and competent manner. A straw poll of blog readers is just a sad joke, and symptomatic of how little the ACS actually cares, or of how staggeringly incompetent they are. A 5 pg article based on a few random interviews is the best they can do? That's the bitterness.

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12. Petros on August 20, 2010 1:15 PM writes...

the ACS response is probably par for the course. The RSC tends to similar lines. When my med chem dept was closed ( a small branch of the WDF) Chemistry in Britain (now Chemistry World) extolled the new investments (not in chemistry) that the WDF's owner was making in the UK.

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13. befuddled on August 20, 2010 1:47 PM writes...

@11, Curt F.

The bitterness is because so many have been laid off and/or unable to find work over the years. And while this has happened, C&E News has taken the role of cheerleader for the outsourcing and downsizing trend. The ACS as a whole has continued to represent the interests of chemical industry management and senior academics rather than those of working chemists.

So word that C&E News is working on a story regarding unemployed chemists is viewed with suspicion rather than relief.

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14. David formerly known as a chemist on August 20, 2010 2:27 PM writes...

#14 befuddled,

Why do you say that C&EN is a cheerleader for the outsourcing trend? They report on the trend, but I've never gotten the sense that they're cheering it on. Do you have a particular article in mind that you could link to? I'm not trying to challenge your perspective, I'm just curious what specifically led to it.

But I do agree, the bitterness on this blog (not the blogger, but the readership) is directly related to the horrendous employment situation for chemists. I, like many on this blog, have plenty of former colleagues that have been out of work for a long, long time. Several have recently found positions, but all had to relocate (again). Many have found nothing. But most of them still only look for chemistry positions, and never think outside that box. These medchem jobs aren't coming back, at least nowhere near the numbers in which they were lost, so people need to take action and find something that works for them. Whining about the situation does not help! It sucks, but everyone needs to swallow the reality and solve their own situation. No advocacy group is going to change the trajectory, so every individual must forge their own path.

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15. Significant_polls on August 20, 2010 3:32 PM writes...

Could the CEN article be a real case study which traces what has happened to chemists after layoffs? Anonymously of course, take all the chemists from one (or more) closed research centers and find out where they are now, which ones are unemployed or employed, and if employed, in what, looking at salaries&benefits. It is a big ask, but that is what I would be interested in reading.

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16. FormerMolecModeler on August 20, 2010 3:40 PM writes...

C&N always recycles issues. There's the soaps and detergents issue, the oil issue, the nano issue, etc. One of the career switching issues 2 years ago prompted me to leave chemistry and get into patent law, a move I have been quite happy with.

Ultimately it is up to each individual to change their lives. I think every industry chemist is now on notice that the good times are probably not coming back. If you want to make a switch, best do it on your terms (i.e., while still employed), instead of waiting for a layoff.

I don't think the PhD situation is going to change anytime soon. That scam will continue until the NIH/NSF funding model changes somehow.

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17. RLV on August 20, 2010 8:12 PM writes...

Ah, I was waiting for someone from CEN to appear, ready to interview people willing to share their stories.

Does the journalist want to hear from people with a variety of experiences trying to switch to other careers, or just the successful ones? My impression of these types of articles in CEN is that they find 3-4 people who've had a relatively positive experience work-wise, and then that presented as the norm. There's already too many of these kinds of stories in CEN, so in my view there's no point in having anymore of them in the magazine.

Speaking just for myself, I find irritating that CEN continues to run articles about encouraging high school/college students to be interested in chemistry careers. What for? So they can someday be adults with chemistry degrees who now have to figure out some alternative to a chemistry career?

At least this blog has got someone at CEN taking this issue seriously.

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18. JoesephPeabody on August 20, 2010 10:04 PM writes...

It is a relief to FINALLY hear so many colleagues say: But the Emperor Has No Clothes to the ACS and especially C & E News

The constant "Good News" PR-hype, the unwillingness to represent their members' principle concern (employment) and the arrogance of their reporters (examples available) must stop. And: much of it is lousy journalism, to boot.

Why not a new chemical society to represent the American Chemist? (title suggestion: Professional Society of American Chemists?)

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19. Anonymous on August 20, 2010 10:59 PM writes...

It's called a union...hummm

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20. JoesephPeabody on August 21, 2010 10:36 AM writes...

If you think that my suggestion amounts to a union, then I ask you what would be an appropriate functional name for the ACS? Whose interests is it serving?

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21. Andrew on August 21, 2010 4:02 PM writes...

I've been wanting to say this for a long time concerning the ACS. ACS has become (or maybe has always been) a political organization which has little if anything to do with representing professional Chemists.

Consider the C&E News contents: maybe 4 pages are spent talking about science news and actual science, while the rest is taken up by low quality exposes, business and goverment/policy coverage.

Consider the pet issues of C&E News: global warming, "diversity", bisphenol A.

The only reason that the ACS has been able to maintain their grip on chemistry is due to the ACS journals and perhaps the ACS conferences. Maybe it is time that alternatives be established in the United States.

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22. Anonymous on August 22, 2010 5:06 AM writes...

"Why do you say that C&EN is a cheerleader for the outsourcing trend? They report on the trend, but I've never gotten the sense that they're cheering it on. Do you have a particular article in mind that you could link to? I'm not trying to challenge your perspective, I'm just curious what specifically led to it."

Actually C&EN ran an article this year talking about outsourcing chemistry companies in the UK having received a boost from the downsizing activities of big pharma, and how it all offered new opportunities for chemists. At least one company talked about enjoying being able to "exploit" the current weak labour market. They have also unthinkingly swallowed press releases announcing "expansion" plans at Pfizer neglecting to mention that these contract positions replaced permanent staff who were made redundant earlier in the year. So I don't think it is being unfair to ask C&EN to follow normal reporting practices and actually investigate what these changes in the marketplace actually mean for their members, and maybe talk about the effect on salaries and contracts (most being temporary positions with no benefits). And perhaps while cheerleading for outsourcing in the Far East they could perhaps investigate why it is so much cheaper to operate out there - it is not just salaries, it is also about lower safety and environmental standards. In my last role with big pharma, the rate of accidents and injuries sustained by our contract colleagues in the Far East was far higher than we would tolerate ourselves, and yet was always swept under the carpet, as it was the CRo's problem not ours.

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23. anon on August 22, 2010 9:23 AM writes...

#19-Forming a union would just kill more American jobs. It would give companies more incentative to outsource to China and India for cheaper wages, ability to exploit workers, no problems with environmental regulators, and so on. As if they needed any more incentative. Based on comments in the last blog entry on this topic, and personal experience, China is not quite up to speed with developing new processes and is far better at repeating existing processes. Of course, with time and further re-importation of American- or European-trained Chinese workers, this will undoubtedly be fixed. Face it, unless something drastically changes with the international economy, chemistry in US and Eu is essentially done. Professors just want job stability and money for themselves and don't care about telling their American or European students the truth about the job situation, and there is still a market for professors to train foreign nationals. I'm holding onto my job as long as my employer will let me, but suspect I will have to retrain in another field if I am laid off.

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24. Anonymous on August 22, 2010 9:49 AM writes...

There was a time when the ACS had a standard for employers when they let chemists go. The ACS would report in detail in C&EN the number of employees fired and whether or not the employers followed the ACS guidelines. However this all got to be too embarassing for the ACS (even as it called for training more chemists), as so many chemists were being let go by companies. The ACS abandoned their guidelines and C&EN stopped reporting on the specifics of chemists' firings and companies' violations of ACS guidelines when they fired them.

The ACS is an awful organization for chemists. It is a self-serving organization whose only reason to exist is to maintain its publishing empire for the benefit of the ACS, its leadership and employees. It gets free content thanks to the taxpayer; free reviewers thanks to chemists and then charges we chemists an arm and leg to get access to our work which we fund with our tax dollars. Chemists are just a beard for this POS to justify its tax-free status and competitive advantage over private scientific publishers. It fights like a trapped wild animal when someone challenges its monopoly on content citing ASC jobs, but ACS is totally MIA in discussing or fighting the loss of chemists' jobs. That says it all. Push them out of business by advocating free open source access to our chemistry literature!

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25. Anonymous on August 22, 2010 2:18 PM writes...

@anon 23 said- Forming a union would just kill more American jobs"

As if this is not happening at an accelerating pace already?

Forming a profession union/ organization which sets standards and limits the number of chemists would be a positive start. To tell the politicians that NO, THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF CHEMISTS!

The trick is to get newly minted BS chemists to sign up before the filthy university professors get their grimy hands on them. Grad school is nothing more than a cult that brainwashes the students into believing University professors are their sole path to salvation.

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26. Skeptic on August 22, 2010 6:30 PM writes...

With IT networks, it is estimated that there are over 1 trillion hours per year of cognitive surplus up for grabs.

The new plutonomy doesn’t need us to make money. It doesn’t need us to spend money, apparently. “Emerging markets” are going to replace us any day now and then, as far as Wall Street is concerned, we can all live in tents under bridges. This is capitalism. It’s not their problem.

Since WWII, their desired framework has been to fuel global empire by milking the US population through the debt-dollar system centered around the Fed. Now that the US has been milked dry, things are shifting to a new milking center for the 21st century–China. Behind the scenes will be the senior capital pools currently in London and New York and the banking establishment in Switzerland, but on the surface Asia will emerge with profound power as China becomes the operational center of a new global empire based on a new global currency. At that point, the key dealers will simply plug into that new system. The world will think this represents the end of the US empire. But a US empire never really existed. More accurately the US was simply the latest host of the parasitic international banking empire that leeches off countries and plays them against each other. The parasite will quietly slither into Asia while using its media to blame the US host for the damage it has done.

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27. JoesephPeabody on August 22, 2010 7:36 PM writes...

It is noteworthy that the 'live' topic in these comments has changed from 'alternative' careers for professional chemists to the shoddy job that the ACS and C & E News both do in representing the main, current concern of its members: employment. Some questions that crossed my mind - and which no one having an e-mail address ending with "" will likely entertain are:

1. How would one go about establishing an organization to represent the employment rights of American chemists?

2. Would it be possible to demand a reduction in ACS membership fees for not receiving a copy of C & E News in the mail each week ? (interesting approach of forcing the C & E News "journalists" to represent their constituents' interests) and

3. Would the bloggers Derek et al care to discuss the real thread of these contributions/comments next week in Boston?

just checking

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28. formermedchemist on August 22, 2010 8:18 PM writes...

Would anyone be willing to volunteer their time to set up a new organization of chemists, dedicated to issues chemists really face? I wonder how far we could go if we got a good amount of passionate volunteers?

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29. cliffintokyo on August 22, 2010 10:05 PM writes...

#7 Yes,
Chemists should stick to doing chemistry (what they are good at, Duh!), in one form or another, and not necessarily med chem.
And #14 Yes,
Every individual must forge their own path out of the hole.

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30. goldilocks on August 23, 2010 8:47 AM writes...

The problem with these comments is that it ends up becoming a place for people to just vent their frustrations and moan and groan.

I wish that ACS would provide a little more career support for people looking for alternate careers... perhaps stressing to potential employers outside of chemistry that chemists have a lot to offer that can be applied to non-chemistry roles: attention to detail, analytical thinking, the ability to multitask and prioritize, etc.

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31. C on September 9, 2010 7:37 AM writes...

#2 Ed,

Noone told me research was a privilege before I went to gradschool. I heard a lot of other positive things, but not that. Is that how they recruit from the undergrads days? Maybe that could be some sort of motto for all our prestigious universities: 'Research- it's a privilage! Don't expect a job' Hey, sign up now kids!

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