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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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September 11, 2012

Careers, And Those Words "Stuck" and "Advance"

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Posted by Derek

A recent comment to another post prompts this entry. Regarding getting a chemistry PhD and getting a job, it reads:

. . .However, transitioning into corporate pharma was a big if not bigger challenge in some ways. It took a while to figure out how the system works and how to advance one's career and not get stuck in the lab.

Now this is a touchy subject, and it's two words in it that make it so: "advance" and "stuck". Pick one hundred chemists who start out in, say, industrial drug research at any given time (I know, bear with me - it's a thought experiment). Now observe them at the five year mark, the ten, and the twenty. What will you find? Some of them will no longer be employed, for sure - recent years make that certain, but honestly, it's always been certain. Some of that, remember, is voluntary. Some people find out, in any profession (once they start practicing it) that it's not actually what they want to do with their lives. It's better to find that out earlier than later. Or something that's clearly better might come along; there are any number of reasons for people to exit a field on their own power. But others true will have been acted on by an outside force, whether that force is their own difficulty in holding on to their position, or the industry's difficulty in holding on to as many people as it used to.

So among those still employed, what will you have? Some of them will have more direct reports than others, or more responsibility in other ways. People's abilities, opportunities, and motivations vary. As time goes on, some of the initial cohort will have definitely moved "out of the lab". But there are different reasons for this. The most common is what's usually called something like "the managerial track". Depending on the company, it's often the case that as people move to higher positions on the org chart, that they'll spend less time actually in the lab as opposed to their offices. In the traditional European drug research labs (especially the German and Swiss ones), this process started very quickly, sometimes on day one. And in general, the larger the company, the more likely it is that people have desk-only jobs as they move along.

But most companies like this also have a "scientific track", although it's sometimes used as a bit of dumping ground for people who (for whatever reason) are definitely not on the managerial track. That does tend to cut into the definition between the two, but the idea is to have somewhere to advance/promote people who don't want to head in the desk/management direction. It's here, I think, that the hard feelings start, because of this blurred boundary.

It's safe to say that some people who move into the managing-the-organization side of the business don't miss the lab work all that much, although some of them certainly do. And it's also safe to say that some of the people who stay on the scientific side would very much rather not have to deal with a stack of performance reviews, budget spreadsheets, making sure that everyone's up to date in the internal training database, and the like - but then again, some of them wouldn't mind that stuff at all, if anyone would give them a chance to mind it. To further complicate things, not everyone on the managerial side of the business is necessarily a good manager, just as not everyone on the lab side of it is a wonderful scientist. And people with longtime desk/office jobs are sometimes heard to say that they miss lab work, in a sort of "good old days" tone.

So you can get some pretty dismissive stuff, from both sides. These would include (but are not limited to) statements about being someone being "stuck in the lab" (as opposed to doing the really important work), or someone else being nothing but a paper pusher who's forgotten how research works (or perhaps never really knew to start with). I try to stay away from those sorts of statements, myself, but everyone in industry will know the sort of thing I'm talking about.

My own preferences? I have a hood, and I work in it. I'm not there all the time, but I'm expected (as are others like me) to produce in the lab as well as at my desk. And I do spend time at the desk, too, although I try to spend it on scientific issues - how do we prosecute the project for Target X? What are the chances for Project Y, and what do we do if it doesn't work out? What technology do we have (or does anyone have) to go after Target Z? Managerially, I've never had a long list of direct reports, nor a list of people reporting to me who also have people reporting to them, etc. I've been, it's fair to say, on the scientific ladder. But "stuck in the lab" is not a phrase I've ever applied to myself.

The key, I think, is to continue to learn and to keep up, no matter which side of the divide you might be. You should be performing at a level that you couldn't have earlier in your career, either way - dealing with issues that you wouldn't have been able to handle, bringing your experience to bear on new situations. The danger in having been around the block a number of times is that you can start to feel as if you know more than you do, or that you've seen pretty much everything before (neither of those is true). But you should definitely know more than you used to!

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. exlabdabbler on September 11, 2012 8:50 AM writes...

I think the opportunity to pop into and out of the lab is extinct, at least in Big Pharma. Lab work that can wait on the shelf while a scientist completes his/her corrupt foreign practices training, approves 25 purchase orders in Ariba, and signs off on CRO SOW's is probably not on the critical path for any project.

Same goes for one's time, which is now tracked, billed, and audited like that of an attorney. If it's not "portfolio support" i.e., if you can't blame someone else when an experimental trail goes cold) it's radioactive, and you'd better not even think of spending money or time on it. Unless you want to spend more time with your family, that is.

Managers who long ago left the lab now run the entire kit and kaboodle, and aren't brave enough to allow what are often useful skunk works projects to continue.

Accountants run R&D. Don't get sick.

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2. anchor on September 11, 2012 9:19 AM writes...

#1-accountants run R and D .....and lawyers do chemistry!

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3. John Wayne on September 11, 2012 9:39 AM writes...

Bravo Derek! You have brought up a touchy subject and have done a great job of both summarizing it and not taking sides. In my career (starting when Pfizer was a cute little company in 1994), there has always been some tension between 'management track' and 'scientific track;' and in exactly the way you describe. I feel that these sentiments have gotten worse as our industry reacts to the downturn.

In the absence of other ideas, many organizations have started counting things. As such, it is much safer for a PhD to exist outside the lab. It is much easier to prove your value to the company by budgeting your time between different bureaucratic tasks, rather than explain (usually to a MD/PhD VP of biology) that you chased a few different routes for a molecule that came up short.

I love lab work, but it is getting harder to prove it's value.

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4. Jim on September 11, 2012 10:07 AM writes...

Very nice post, Derek. What you've caught here is the importance of semantics and how they can show what one's true mindset is and even the course his or her career may take. As I was progressing through the early parts of my career, I always assumed that a time would come in which the number of hours I would spend in the lab would be dramatically reduced if not eliminated altogether. The established professors spent their time writing grants, administering budgets, dealing with deparment meetings, giving seminars, etc. As I moved into industry, the brightest and most motivated scientists were very often the ones who served as program leaders and oversaw multiple activities and not the ones running screens. Time in the lab for them was often more for troubleshooting and ensuring that new assays were being set up appropriately. For academics as well as the industry folks, it wasn't so much that they wanted to do those things it was the natural progression of a successful career. One thing my advisor told me early on in graduate school was that I should enjoy this time in the lab because it will be taken away from me later in my career. It's the other side of the coin of the "stuck in the lab" mindset.

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5. CMCguy on September 11, 2012 10:17 AM writes...

Most places talk about a dual career ladder however observationally I would suggest the scientific one is more often an artificial construct chiefly designed as HR tool for attempting to induce candidates/control staff. If technical ladder exists relative to the managerial escalator its a climbing rope with widely spaced knots (and some of the management types at the top swinging it back and forth or even cutting rope with a knife).

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6. alig on September 11, 2012 10:29 AM writes...

My observations is during layoffs, everyone on the scientific ladder is let go, because the people on the mangerial ladder are the ones who make the decisions about who gets laid off.

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7. NoDrugsNoJobs on September 11, 2012 10:32 AM writes...

Nice post Derek, it definitely resonates. You can count me in the camp of those who miss working in the lab, at least part of the time. For me the ideal blend was about 50:50.

There is a satisfaction that comes from successfully completing a synthesis that is simply hard to beat. I recall the first time as an undergraduate doing research and I had suceeded in making my first synthetic target which was the endpoint of a synthetic method we were trying to develop and exemplify. My undergrad professor/advisor dragged me to the library and begin to look up in the CAS for the structure (yes, I'm that old). After about 30 minutes I heard him say "Crap". With some concern, I asked him what was wrong and he said the compound hadn't been made before by anybody. I was in shock, like, "you mean as long as the Earth has been turning, this molecule has not been made (or at least reported)". I thought it was the collest thing in the world - as if I had created life itself! He didn't look at it that way, he looked at it like just more work since now I would have to micro-distill it and get an elemental analysis.

For me, the coolest thing about med chem lab work was there was so many levels you could play to win at. Of course, the ultimate jackpot, the three gold bars, the lotto winner is making a compound that becomes a drug. Ok, maybe it hardly ever happens but it can, maybe you even met a chemist or two who has had that great fortune. But just below that, maybe you get a compound in clinic...we can't control the end results but getting a clinical candidate under your belt is, as Joe Biden once famoulsy said, "a pretty big f*(&^%$ deal".

But maybe you don't get that far but you get the program lead for a while with your compound. I've often noticed that the chemist who has the current best compound in the program tend to walk a little straighter, smile a little more, maybe stay a little later.

On down the line, there are many possibilities. Even at the bottom, maybe your compound stinks but you discovered some cool chemistry along the way or solved a synthetic problem that gave you a real sense of satisfaction, the universe makes sense again, at least for a little while. Or maybe your compound is crap but you just made a new compound, one that has never been know to mankind before. That's a good feeling too - maybe you are not quite God but you are a little like him in the creator sort of way.

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8. johnnyboy on September 11, 2012 10:35 AM writes...

Good post, nicely summarized. I think this division into managerial and lab tracks mostly makes sense, as it allows people who like labwork more to concentrate on it, and allows people who prefer managerial stuff to not feel 'trapped' in the lab; at the same time, it's a positive that such managers have the same science background as the lab track people, rather than being non-science MBAs parachuted in.

However there is a danger in that, which I saw in my previous job, where one track was clearly valued more than the other by upper management. The lab track people tended to be taken for granted and looked down upon a bit, even when they were highly productive, while the folks with managerial ambitions were the ones more often rewarded by raises and promotions. The result of that was that everyone wanted to go on the managerial track, even people with no perceptible managerial skills, and in order to accomodate them, upper management created a myriad layers of mid-mid-mid- management type positions - and has to hire more people to do the lab work. Not a situation that favors high productivity, I can attest to that.

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9. InfMP on September 11, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

nice post #7

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10. KVB on September 11, 2012 11:13 AM writes...

This reminds me of when I used to work on the grounds-crew at a golf course back in the old days (bear with me). The perception especially for newbies was that raking bunker (i.e., at the bench) was somehow a lesser job than sitting on a machine cutting grass all day, or sitting in a cart telling everyone else how to do their job (i.e., management). This perception was likely because that was how you saw people progress - senior people on mowers, junior people in the bunker.

The kicker is that we ALL to a person realized at some point after the euphoria of being "promoted" to the machine wore off that it actually was kind of lonely and boring. The best part - the most camaraderie - was in the bunkers, elbow-to-elbow with your crew making the place hum. I miss the lab, I miss making a real impact, instead of convincing myself that strategizing was way more cross-cutting. Funny thing is, nobody ever asks to go "back" to the bunkers, even though it would be much more fun and rewarding. I suspect that we all suppress a lot of our logical voice in the interests of status, or perceived status.

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11. Victor Rosas on September 11, 2012 11:33 AM writes...

Nice post, Derek.

A similar thing happens in academia, where a lot of professors leave the lab stuff to grad students, while the do the "reading, thinking and writing". I find it frustrating that the people that should really know how to do research (the professors) stay away from the lab, while the research at the bench is left to the people that don't know yet how to do it well (grad and undergrad students).

And then we wonder why so many universities do not produce as much as they should.

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12. JC on September 11, 2012 11:40 AM writes...

The bench is my oyster.

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13. John Li on September 11, 2012 12:02 PM writes...

If professor was doing all the lab work, who is going to do all those writing, reading and thinking? grad student?

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14. John Li on September 11, 2012 12:05 PM writes...

Typo, should be #11 in stead of #7

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15. Hap on September 11, 2012 12:26 PM writes...

I've always assumed that actual managerial skills are rare - that while people who can count things or figure out how to dodge difficult decisions or who can figure out what will make the best short-term payoff are easy to find, that the people who can help a company succeed are not. If that's the case, it seems like a bad idea to make the only (real) path to advancement managerial, since few people will actually be able to help the company in those jobs, while most of them impede those who do useful things and cost money that can't be spent on things that actually do you good. Is this accurate?

If my assumptions are not accurate, and competent management is reasonably common, why are managers and upper management paid so much, and why do you need so many? If it's hard to find, then the management ladder would be a filtering system to find good managers, but it could sacrifice lots of the people who were good in lab (and you can't manage projects well if they never go anywhere). If (as in #1) management at intermediate levels is rewarded mainly for evading blame, the management ladder wouldn't even be good for evaluating talent, at least at a company with a chance for survival.

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16. nord on September 11, 2012 1:15 PM writes...

Did anyone mention a difference in pay salary etc between these two alternative job descriptions? Is such a thing a significant factor?

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17. bbooooooya on September 11, 2012 2:20 PM writes...

"I've always assumed that actual managerial skills are rare"

No no, there are tons of books instructing how to be a good manager.....

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18. DrSnowboard on September 11, 2012 2:29 PM writes...

Let's face it, the Dilbert Principle is alive in Pharma (joke)...Actually, people get promoted because they are comfortable taking responsibility for things and reasonably able at the job they were doing. The problem becomes when they are primarily taking responsibility for their career rather than what's good for the project / company / patient.
I think you can get respect in both 'ladders' but pay grades may differ.
Once you see people joining global bandwagons, extra-mural working parties and change management initiatives, you know that the scientific ladder and your PRP scheme isn't working.

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19. SwedenCalling on September 11, 2012 3:51 PM writes...

Anyone actually seen the scientific ladder working? I haven't, and to me the reason seems to be that the people on management ladder are afraid of letting other people than themselves take important decisions...and use their budget. It is sad that the ratio manager:scientist seems to be increasing every least in the western world but that's another topic

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20. K the Knight on September 11, 2012 5:31 PM writes...

Returning from a MedChemMeeting in Berlin, talking to scientists about the difficult situation of med chemists in many companies and reading your blog and the true comments this comes to my mind:
"I take pride in the words I got stuck in the lab."
Even I don't work at the hood (German system), but I'm close to whatever my two coworkers do and I enjoy discussing with them the actual work and receiving their input. Then I'm going in my office just around the corner and read about beta-cells and apoptosis, finally at the end of the day your blog. I will never loose my curiosity in science,either chemistry or biology or even science history..and leave the bean counting to those managers who are highly experienced in excel and net working, but lost contact to every day work.

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21. GladToMoveToProcess on September 11, 2012 8:26 PM writes...

Great post! Way back when, I was a pretty good med chemist, and a much better process chemist. Then, moved to the management track, where I was OK but didn't like it. Asked my boss to move me back, but the company moved to an unappealing place before that could happen. Since then, and now in semiretirement, the lab work is what I really enjoy. If it came to that, I'd probably do experiments in my garage, at least until the DEA or EPA shut me down.

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22. GladToMoveToProcess on September 11, 2012 8:32 PM writes...

To follow up a bit on #7: "When the world was created, God made everything a little bit incomplete. Rather than make bread grow out of the earth, God made wheat grow so that we might bake it into bread. Rather than making the earth of brick, God made it of clay so that we might bake the clay into bricks. Why? So that we might become partners in completing the work of creation." (Midrash)

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23. Anonymous BMS Researcher on September 11, 2012 9:14 PM writes...

Not all non-bench R&D roles are in management: my hands last touched a pipette over 20 years ago, but I have never been anybody's supervisor and have little desire to become anybody's boss. I prefer to think about science, though I've had to learn a bit about office politics to protect myself.

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24. Ted on September 11, 2012 10:29 PM writes...

Fundamentally, chemistry is an observational science.


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25. Student on September 11, 2012 11:58 PM writes...

From a student's perspective the researchers are regarded (in my academic center at least) as technical blue collar workers. They are expected to perform tedious, repetitive tasks, payed poorly, work in a dangerous environment (chemical/biological exposures), and are readily replaceable. Without a clear path to promotion (do X receive Y)...You can claim it's as easy as Phd>postdoc>Tenure track/big pharma position...but as we go on we know this is not true.
Meanwhile management is full of metrics that are easily identifiable and make it easier to see your success. Get the sales, get more money. Get that contract, get a promotion. etc.
And as has been said here, if pay isn't what pushes people away from the bench it is authority. No scientist likes the idea of spending a lifetime learning only to have someone with a 2 year MBA using Excel to determine they are not longer valuable to the company

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26. sepisp on September 12, 2012 2:57 AM writes...

The phrase "stuck in the lab" makes sense if you consider what "lab" means. The "lab" can mean very different things in different kinds of companies. In a company that specializes on manufacturing, the lab is the place where technicians do standard quality tests. Student trainees may work there, but the PhD scientists just give orders and write instructions, and occasionally visit the lab to check that everything's in order. In this environment, if you have a PhD and work in the lab, you *are* stuck.

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27. synchem on September 12, 2012 4:20 AM writes...

My observation is that good lab scientists get promoted into managerial positions, that they believe they want (more perceived prestige, more power, whatever) based upon their abilities as a scientist rather than their management capabilities. Many turn out to bw rubbish at managing people. Conversely, poor lab scientists are overlooked for management positions that may suit them much better.

Perhaps if the "science ladder" was better valued this wouldn't happen. It has always seemed strange to me that many (all?) Pharma/chemistry companies value their scientists - on whose work their very success depends - so poorly compared to their support services such as IT/HR/legal/accounts

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28. NoDrugsNoJobs on September 12, 2012 9:01 AM writes...

#22 - Beautiful!

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29. last of the mohicans on September 12, 2012 12:59 PM writes...

Could I add a slightly different point of view? Being on the manager track also means being more involved in the strategy and being able to influence things [admittedly, the other side of the coin is that you have to cope with the company politics]. This is why chemists try hard to get onto that track, even though they may have
poor management skills. Plus, bench chemists tend to have fewer opportunities to get exposed to other groups ( particularly crucial DMPK) which means that they may have a lower understanding on how to produce the highly needed clinical candidates. In my experience, the chemists that ended up on the management track were the ones who were more able to "talk the talk" and tell how good they were to management. The
scientific track was left to the geeks.

That said, I have always been amazed to see that in LO projects, breakthroughs would often come "from the floor". Bench scientists would find THE moiety which turns an average molecule into a candidate [Thinking about it, why wouldn't
they? while they run their fourth chromatography of the day, they have time to mull over how to solve their selectivity problem]. It's the revenge of the geeks! Sadly, they don't know how to tell anyone...

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30. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 8:00 PM writes...

#13: False choice.

There are some (not many) professors who manage to mentor their students/post-docs in both lab and desk work. Many of the big cheeses, however, are so far removed from the actual research they are not able to do a decent job evaluating data. They look for a story, not if the experiments were done properly. It's a major failing of the combined academic and grant systems, and contributes to the high percentage of crap getting published in top journals despite the "peer review" filter.

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31. Anonymous on September 25, 2012 12:54 PM writes...

Since I am currently looking for work I am neither "stuck in the lab" or on the "managerial track". Personally I prefer 50:50 since most satisfaction for me came from working in the lab finding a new compound and hopefully turning it into a drug candidate at least. My experience is that often those who didn't like being stuck in the lab were the ones who weren't very good at it and sought the fastest route out of the lab into the labyrinth of powerpoint, excel spreadsheets endless meetings and company politics. Life seemed less complicated and more satisfying sticking to the science.

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