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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 17, 2013

Surveying BioPharma Job Ads

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Posted by Derek

This is an interesting article in Nature Biotechnology that I'm trying to figure out whether I believe. It's a combination of interviews with managers across biopharma along with an analysis of open-position job ads from thousands of sources. What the authors are trying to do is figure out what sorts of skills employers in this field are looking for, and whether that's changed.

First, let's go to what they found, then we can start the arguing. The quantitative data from all those job postings is presumably pretty solid. The degree-required distribution shows that (weirdly) 14% of the posted openings require only high-school level education, which makes me wonder if those positions, whatever they are, really qualify as "jobs in the biopharma industry" as opposed to "jobs in the hauling stuff around" industry. Past that, half of the total openings are bachelor's-level. 12% ask for a graduate or professional degree (I think that they have master's and PhD in there together), and most of the rest were unspecified.

As for the skills listed as wanted, far and away the most mentioned was. . .chemistry. "Clinical research" runs a distant second. When they analyzed the names of the positions themselves, "Medical/clinical laboratory technician" was number one, with "Chemist" close behind. These are broad terms, which surely accounts for their dominance, but the number of positions using the word "Biologist" is still only about a third of those that say "Chemist".

Now the paper switches to what they learned from all those manager interviews. Here's where I start doing the Spock-eyebrow thing:

Hiring and workforce deployment trends were consistent across company sizes ranging from small (less than 25 employees) to large (over 1,000), but there was a surprising anecdotal finding that was supported across the interview set. Whereas historically, large companies have tended to invest in workforce training, and small companies have sought employees who were sufficiently trained to 'hit the ground running', the lean human capacity models practiced by large global pharmaceutical companies have resulted in a reluctance to hire untrained individuals by companies of all sizes. . .

. . .The introductory analysis highlights a common theme addressed by all interviewees and points to a clear shift in the industry's demand for talent away from the senior scientist positions that tend to be more highly specialized and narrowly focused, to a talent pool consisting of individuals who have interdisciplinary academic training with the ability to work broadly across multiple areas and in project teams where not everyone has to be an expert in everything. Specific skill sets desired among scientists, engineers, clinicians and management teams who work within the industry include strong communications skills that facilitate the translation of the science effectively to stakeholders, a commercial market-based mindset versus an academic mindset, the ability to apply skills to real world problems, comfort with big data management, the capacity to be creative and the willingness to push boundaries.

OK, let me blow a whistle at this point. All that stuff is hiring-manager-speak, straight from HR training slides. If you ever hear someone, an actual human out there in the wild, conversationally use the phrase "facilitate the translation of the science effectively to stakeholders", you should run. If there's no ready exit, well, I hope you've read a lot of those books about how to deal with zombies, 'cause they're finally going to come in handy. What I'm saying is that this stuff is what such people always tell you that they want, on paper. "The ability to apply skills to real-world problems"? You don't say! Trying to draw conclusions from these phrases is like analyzing the stuff written on the windshields of used cars.

I adduce this line from the article as evidence of cluelessness: "Hiring managers and industry leaders made little mention of gender differences or preferences in the interviews." Did they not? After endless hours of training to drive home the point that they can get fired for doing anything of the sort? Come on.

The article ends with three mushy calls for action. The first is to "further develop and increase the scope of public-private and industry-academic internships, cooperative fellowships, and training programs". Hard to find anyone who's going to take a strong stand against that one. The second is "to build a national life science certification program that includes deep dives into topics such as regulations, clinical trial design and process validation". I'm not so sure about that one. Who runs this, and who pays for it? Do you have to have one of their pieces of paper in order to get a job in those areas? Who gets to decide the curriculum?

But it's the final recommendation that's going to set some people off. It "focuses on the need to recognize the global nature of the industry and the need for strong cross-cultural fertilization and job mobility across national borders." And once again, I come to this topic as someone who actually favors immigration of smart, competent, well-trained people into the US. But I swear, there are a lot of people who seem bent on making me squirm as much as possible while holding that position, because I can't help but think that many of them hold it because they're looking for the cheapest technically qualified labor force that they can get. It's not like I like the look of some of the people on the other side of the issue, either, because just because it's bad policy to fiddle things to drive wages down, it's bad policy to rig the system to keep them high, too. I think that there should be a market for labor, and its price should move up and down, and be therefore somewhat self-correcting. No one should get a thumb on the scale. Yeah, I'm an idealist.

But this is the first time I've heard "cross-cultural fertilization" brought up as a reason, I have to say. Personally, I think that a reasonable amount of immigration is a good thing for American society (if only we could define "reasonable"), and that we should favor letting in people who are smart, competent, and hard-working. I'd like to have new citizens who want to be part of the economy, and who can appreciate the ideals that this country was founded on. "Cross-cultural fertilization" is a bit too nebulous for me. I worry that it's one of those feel-good diversity slogans designed to make anyone who complains about it sound like a Neanderthal. Maybe I'm showing my prejudice against Neanderthals by saying that, though. I should check with HR.

No, this survey is starting to sound a lot like that PriceWaterhouseCooper thing I wrote about here and here. "Gosh, we just can't seem to find anyone to hire!" Keep an eye on this sort of thing; we're going to see more of it.

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. G2 on September 17, 2013 8:40 AM writes...

You can replace in the final paragraph the consultant company by Booz & Co and then you have the present publication

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2. irondoc on September 17, 2013 8:46 AM writes...

If you sift through all of this, it also gets to the notion that I've always had, which is that the people who enjoy, and show an aptitude for, chemistry, tend to REALLY enjoy it, and want to dive into it full on. When I tell people that I'm a chemist, I tend to get one of two responses: (1) "Oh?..." (confusion); or, (2) "Oh...I hated chemistry". Us chemists seem to be an all or nothing bunch. Which means, the hands-in-the-trenches jobs (injecting samples into clinical analyzers, running titrations, queuing samples up for GC-MS, etc., tend not be be very interesting to us. These are basically assembly-line jobs, though assembly line jobs where a knowledge of chemistry is certainly helpful, especially in trying to determine if something is going wrong. I guess this is where having stronger programs in science and chemistry in K-12 would be helpful.

Unfortunately, these are the jobs that of less interest to those of us already in the industry...

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3. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 8:52 AM writes...

It all sounds like typical corporate HR BS to me: Completely generic and/or irrelevant to what the companies actually need, yet they follow these stupid hiring checklists so rigidly like the ten commandments.

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4. will on September 17, 2013 8:57 AM writes...

Well of course you need zombies to translate science to stakeholders, the vampires won't go anywhere near them!

/i'll show myself out...

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5. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 9:03 AM writes...

PWC actually offered me a job recently, but for less than half my previous salary for the last 5 years (and less than any salary I had in the past 10 years), so of course I turned them down to look for something else...

Perhaps that's what they meant by a "skills shortage"?

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6. Guest on September 17, 2013 9:27 AM writes...

"Avi Kulkarni is vice president and global health industry partner at Booz & Co., San Francisco, California, USA."
Those good ol' editors of Nature! I'm guess enough money will let you remove the "advertisement" disclosure.

You've got management consultants Booz, PWC, etc. pushing to compartmentalize (or pigeonhole to you and I) research positions so they are easier to shift. That way you can scale up/down operations and "save money." And instead of technicians, they are doing this with the PhD/Masters level scientists in an attempt to compartmentalize their efforts also. As though you can train someone to solve only one type of problem, they will always be successful, and they will always do that for minimal wages (such as crystalize this protein, find its structure). You've then got the other half of the equation complaining that they need independent thinkers and people that will solve their drug pipeline shortages (also for low wages). You can't have both.

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7. MattF on September 17, 2013 9:32 AM writes...

The statements from managers are not completely vacuous, although some translation is required. What they are actually saying:

1) 'We prefer to hire people like ourselves.'
2) 'We prefer to hire people who want to become managers, and not those pesky scientists whose skills we can't measure and who never read our memoranda. And who mock us behind our backs.'

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8. Hap on September 17, 2013 9:43 AM writes...

People who can solve problems want to be paid as if they're important (because without them, the people who actually get paid the big bucks don't have anything to sell or manage or defend legally), but companies in general want to pay them as disposable entities holding particular skill sets (presumably defined by the people who helped create the problems that need to be solved). If you train people to be able to do lots of things and pay them not well, then not only do you have surplus consciousness (because they can't actually use their brains to do most of what they are capable of) but surplus anger (from being valued as disposable and paid accordingly).

We need lots of smart people who can help make a better country, and I wouldn't mind the concept of a labor market (so that people can make their abilities and skills most useful), but I don't see it being a fair market. If labor is short (or just wants to be paid according to their skills and education), then we must have a shortage that can only be solved by government intervention (even though many of the same employers want that government not to do much of anything else). If there are too many people for a given field, it's time to laugh and complain about the lazy and haughty people who are unwilling to work for pennies. No one wants to play in a market where the sellers have their hands on the scale.

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9. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 9:44 AM writes...

@7: In other words, people who create powerpoint slides rather than drugs?

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10. Cellbio on September 17, 2013 10:04 AM writes...

This is pure garbage. Being in the very fortunate position of hiring a team to translate a start-up's potential to 'real world problem's' I have hired 19 workers in the past 1.5 years. These range from brand new graduates to mid-career to very experienced. In each and every hire, we look for technical fit, for instance, hiring chemist to be chemists, Dx scientists to be Dx scientist, formulation scientists to formulate, etc. We also need entry level workers who are smart, motivated and trainable. To invoke that we need these folks to do more with communication skills for the translation to stakeholders is laughable.

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11. Hap on September 17, 2013 10:16 AM writes...

If you want people with the appropriate desire and ability to work and the intellectual flexibility to solve the problems you really want solved, hiring people for their specific skill set (and getting rid of them when you don't need it anymore) and being unwilling to train anyone seem to be entirely inconsistent with those ends.

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12. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 10:22 AM writes...

@10: I notice you didn't mention over-paid MBAs who can make pretty charts and slides, but not much else. Are you sure you know what your needs are?

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13. alig on September 17, 2013 10:29 AM writes...

We need cross fertlization of internation ideas such as: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional ... we must not forget that God created us equal"

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14. dlib on September 17, 2013 11:15 AM writes...

Are you sure that last line is about immigration and not about a chemist diaspora from America to the BRIC countries they would like to facilitate?? Would the industry benefit from that?

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15. annon on September 17, 2013 11:19 AM writes...

I read with some bemusement that companies, big & small, are preferring to hire experienced rather than new staff members. Ha! My experiences and that of many others has been the large companies initiatives to cut expenses by eliminating higher level, longer employed (eg older) staff in favor of younger, newly minted graduates because the newbbies cost less in salaries & benefits.

It's all about saving money, no matter how much hit employees might take.

Speaking of benefits, GSK has just announced that they are following the lead announcement by IBM & others, in moving retirees who are Medicare eligible from the GSK sponsored healthcare & drug program to an HSA which can be used by the ex-employee to purchase supplemental insurance on the market. The yearly contribution to be made to the HSA will be pitiful. It's nuts that a drug company, a "healthcare" company, would throw their 20+ year retired employees into the public marketplace for getting their drug requirements.

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16. johnnyboy on September 17, 2013 11:32 AM writes...

Very funny post today Derek. About those high-school education level positions, I think these might be in part in animal care departments, which typically do not require college technical degrees.
As far as "cross-cultural fertilization", I think the authors refer not only to immigration, but as a back and forth between nations, ie. bringing people over from Asia, training them, then having them return so they can work in CROs offering services at a 1/4 of the western price.

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17. Hap on September 17, 2013 11:59 AM writes...

@14: Yes, they probably would - lots of low-cost labor they can use. As long as they keep the money here, they can sell high-margin drugs and use low-cost labor (and with the diaspora, it'll be even lower-cost). I think they call that a win-win.

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18. Bruce Hamilton on September 17, 2013 12:00 PM writes...

Perhaps zombies and similar should be included in your "I won't work with" series?.

I doubt their data could produce anything other than a GIGO validation. They should stop now.

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19. anon on September 17, 2013 12:12 PM writes...

when its theoretical with no comparative salary, I love experienced workers!

why buy the starting material when the product is the same price right?

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20. Cellbio on September 17, 2013 12:21 PM writes...

Yes #12, not a single MBA. If we are successful the time will come for them, but we have built something special because the idea is to really do something rather than tell stories.

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21. Curt F. on September 17, 2013 3:49 PM writes...

The vitriol for "MBA" types on display here is a bit much. I've known many MBAs -- and am even married to one. Sure, some of them might not be able to do much more than make pretty charts and slides, but in my experience the fraction of MBAs in that category is pretty much the same as the fraction of Ph.D.s in that category.

Most MBA's I've met were intelligent and had very broad skill sets. Most have wanted to do well for their company, not only for themselves.

I don't have any experience with pharma. Maybe pharma should be changing the way they hire and recruit MBA talent? Maybe they are hiring the wrong ones? Or maybe it is everyone's attitude here, rather than the MBAs they are working with, that is the problem?

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22. annonie on September 17, 2013 4:26 PM writes...

21: Yes, some MBA's are nice people. That does not mean they know how to best manage scientific endevors if they have no experience in the area.

I vividly remember an experience when HR and benefits representatives were presenting the "newest" benefits policy to an R&D audience, aand afterwards commented on the difference in the nature of the audience from other groups as corporate, sales, as the like. They could not understand why the R&D staff had so many probing and specific questions when the other groups had just accepted the new program without much commentary. The presenters still did not understand it was pointed out to them that people in R&D spnd their lives asking probing questions, and looking a new proposals from all angles, not just accepting on promised appearance.

It's this lack of appreciation in function and purpose that makes the generic MBA such an easy target for commentary.

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23. Anonymous on September 17, 2013 5:29 PM writes...

The biggest problem with MBAs is that just a year or two of training gives students a false and very dangerous sense of knowing everything and infallibility, without willing to question the very fundamentals that have been spoon fed to them, while science is the ultimate lesson in humility, to keep asking probing questions and doing real experiments to discover the ultimate truth.

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24. Cellbio on September 17, 2013 6:25 PM writes...

Hi Curt,

In my post, you'll notice I wrote that the time will come for MBA's, because indeed they do play an important vital role, but at the right time and place. But my experience is different than yours in seeing MBA's as having broad skills. In fact, overly playing the value MBA's bring to functions like R&D efforts, where they have no chops, has wreaked havoc to large organizations and has impeded continued investment by squandering investments in poorly conceived start-ups. You are right to call out an over-reaction, and also right to suggest hiring practices must change. The change, in my opinion, is to use the strength of the MBA where it fits, and not as the sharp end of the stick to "fix" R&D. That experiment has failed and driven the attitude you pick up.

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25. simplebiochemist on September 17, 2013 8:44 PM writes...

Further translation: Willingness to push boundaries = not a team player during performance reviews = no raise

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26. paolo d. on September 18, 2013 6:52 AM writes...

More than "Surveying BioPharma Job Ads" I would say "Surviving BioPharma Job Ads"......

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27. Grignard on September 18, 2013 7:51 AM writes...


when confronted with such a staccato of well-meant advices, I ask the "prophet" how many people he/she had already hired in their career (requirement: the hired people should work productively for more than 5 years in the same company).

As you can imagine, the answers are quite uniform and guide me in the question how much attention I should pay to it.

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28. Curt F. on September 18, 2013 11:45 AM writes...

@27. Cellbio

Thanks for the reply. I think we're reaching an agreement of sorts: most MBAs I've met do have broad skills, but I would agree that the ability to manage large R&D groups isn't a common one, and is definitely not one that business school alone would prepare anyone for. (Nor would most Ph.D. programs, though.)

I don't know what the career path is for most MBA-types who wind up as R&D managers in pharma. If it doesn't involve a lot of non-managerial work done side-by-side in close collaboration with researchers, then it probably isn't good preparation for managing R&D groups.

@22. annonie and @24. Anonymous. Scientists definitely do not have a monopoly on asking probing questions. If the only people who ask probing questions at pharma companies are scientists, that doesn't bode well for the corporate health of pharma companies. But in my non-pharma experience, I've met plenty of MBA types who asked lots of probing questions, on a variety of topics, including technical ones.

And if it is true that "science is the ultimate lesson in humility", then a lot of commenters here do not seem to be very good at science.

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29. Cellbio on September 18, 2013 3:54 PM writes...


Indeed, PhD programs do not train scientists to manage large R&D efforts, which requires both the technical domain expertise and success in the trenches and the ability to speak to financial types. This has led to a leadership vacuum as out industry, thinking of biotech, has matured that led to some trial periods where the fix was to come from outside of the research ranks (because we just didn't get "it"). This was commonly a role filled by newly minted hot shot MBAs or commercial types. And, for a period of time, prior to 2008, the game made money as many start-ups with shaky science but a good story were sold to pharma. Feels different and more healthy now, however, training PhDs for leadership and management skills is still almost non-existent.

BTW, loved your comment humility. I think the disconnect technical folks have is that knowing what they don't know is a requirement for being able to make solid contributions and not be wandering in the weeds, while appearing to know more than you do often reaps rewards for the MBAs we mix with, and sometimes with the cost of our jobs.

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30. Lu on September 21, 2013 11:57 AM writes...

analysis of open-position job ads from thousands of sources

So they just downloaded the junk that staffing agencies like Aerotek pollute the job boards with.
No wonder the result looks so weird. Garbage in - garbage out.
I sifted through these postings for years during graduate school and "Chemist" was always a ghost position posted by middlemen for resume collecting purposes.

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