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About this Author
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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 20, 2014

Where the Talent Comes From

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Posted by Derek

I occasionally talk about the ecosystem of the drug industry being harmed by all the disruptions of recent years, and this post by Bruce Booth is exactly the sort of thing that fits that category. He's talking about how much time it takes to get experience in this field, and what's been happening to the flow of people:

Two recent events sparked my interest in this topic of where young talent develops and emerges in our industry. A good friend and “greybeard” med chemist forwarded me a note from a chemistry professor who was trying to find a spot for his “best student”, a new PhD chemist. I said we tended to not hire new graduates into our portfolio, but was saddened to hear of this start pupil’s job challenge. Shortly after that, I had dinner with a senior chemist from Big Pharma. He said the shortest-tenured chemist on his 30+ person team was 15-year veteran. His group had shrunk in the past and had never rehired. Since hiring a “trainee” post-doc chemist “counted” as an FTE on their books, they haven’t even implemented the traditional fellowship programs that exist elsewhere. Stories like these abound.

There is indeed a steady stream of big-company veterans who depart for smaller biopharma, bringing with them their experience (and usually a desire not to spend all their time holding pre-meeting meetings and the like, fortunately). But Booth is worried about a general talent shortage that could well be coming:

The short version of the dilemma is this: biotech startups have no margin for error around very tight timelines so can’t really “train” folks in drug discovery, and because of that they rely on bigger companies as the principle source for talent; but, at the same time, bigger firms are cutting back on research hiring and training, in part while offshoring certain science roles to other geographies, and yet are looking “outside” their walls for innovation from biotechs.

While I’d argue this talent flux is fine and maybe a positive right now, it’s a classic “chicken and egg” problem for the future. Without training in bigger pharma, there’s less talent for biotech; without that talent, biotech won’t make good drugs; without good biotech drugs, there’s no innovation for pharma, and then the end is nigh.

So if Big Pharma is looking for people from the small companies while the smaller companies are looking for people from Big Pharma, it does make you wonder where the supply will eventually come from. I share some of these worries, but at the same time, I think that it's possible to learn on the job at a smaller company, in the lower-level positions, anyway. And not everyone who's working at a larger company is learning what they should be. I remember once at a previous job when we were bringing in a med-chem candidate from a big company, a guy with 8 or 9 years experience. We asked him how he got along with the people who did the assays for his projects, and he replied that well, he didn't see them much, because they were over in another building, and they weren't supposed to be hanging around there, anyway. OK, then, what about the tox or formulations people? Well, he didn't go to those meetings much, because that was something that his boss was supposed to be in charge of. And so on, and so on. What was happening was that the structure of his company was gradually crippling this guy's career. He should have known more than he did; he should have been more experienced than he really was, and the problem looked to be getting worse every year. There's plenty of blame to go around, though - not only was the structure of his research organization messing this guy up, but he himself didn't even seem to be noticing it, which was also not a good sign. This is what Booth is talking about here:

. . .the “unit of work” in drug R&D is the team, not the individual, and success is less about single expertise and more about how it gets integrated with others. In some ways, your value to the organization begins to correlate with more generalist, integrative skills rather than specialist, academic ones; with a strong R&D grounding, this “utility player” profile across drug discovery becomes increasingly valuable.

And its very hard to learn these hard and soft things, i.e., grow these noses, inside of a startup environment with always-urgent milestones to hit in order to get the next dollop of funding, and little margin of error in the plan to get there. This is true in both bricks-and-mortar startups and virtual ones.

With the former, these lab-based biotechs can spin their wheels inefficiently if they hire too heavily from academia – the “book smart” rather than “research-street smart” folks. It’s easy to keep churning out experiments to “explore” the science – but breaking the prevailing mindset of “writing the Nature paper” versus “making a drug” takes time, and this changes what experiments you do. . .

Bruce took a poll of the R&D folks associated with his own firm's roster of startups, and found that almost all of them were trained at larger companies, which certainly says something. I wonder, though, if this current form of the ecosystem is a bit of an artifact. Times have been so tough the last ten to fifteen years that there may well be a larger proportion of big-company veterans who have made the move to smaller firms, either by choice or out of necessity. (In a similar but even more dramatic example, the vast herds of buffalo and flocks of passenger pigeons described in the 19th century were partly (or maybe largely) due to the disruption of the hunting patterns of the American Indians, who had been displaced and quite literally decimated by disease - see the book 1491 for more on this).

The other side of all this, as mentioned above, is the lack of entry-level drug discovery positions in the bigger companies. Many readers here have mentioned this over the last few years, that the passing on of knowledge and experience from the older researchers to the younger ones has been getting thoroughly disrupted (as the older ones get laid off and the younger ones don't get hired). We don't want to find ourselves in the position of Casey Stengel, looking at his expansion-team Mets and asking "Don't anybody here know how to play this game?"

Booth's post has a few rays of hope near the end - read the whole thing to find them. I continue to think that drug discovery is a valuable enough activity that the incentives will keep it alive in one form or another, but I also realize that that's no guarantee, either. We (and everyone else with a stake in the matter) have to realize that we could indeed screw it up, and that we might be well along the way to doing it.

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Drug Development | Drug Industry History | How To Get a Pharma Job

August 6, 2013

A Question for Recruiters

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Posted by Derek

Some of you may enjoy See Arr Oh's "Open Letter to Biotech Recruiters". Or then again, you may find that you don't enjoy it one tiny bit. Either way, it's worth a read, and some thought.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job

September 26, 2012

Those Drag-Over-the-Coals Interviews

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Posted by Derek

My column this month in Chemistry World is on high-pressure chemical interviews. Is my impression correct, that the good ol' "let's go to the board and draw out reaction mechnisms" sort of interview is slowly leaving the world?

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job

June 8, 2012

Lessons For a New Medicinal Chemist

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Posted by Derek

I gave my talk at the Drew University Medicinal Chemistry course, and it got me to thinking about when I was there (1990 or 1991), and my early days in medicinal chemistry in general. There are a lot of things that have to be learned when coming out of a synthetic organic chemistry background, and a few that have to be unlearned. I've written about some of these in the past, but I wanted to bring together some specific examples:

1. I had to appreciate just how strange and powerful metabolizing enzymes are. I approached them from the standpoint of an organic chemist, but p450 enzymes can epoxidize benzene, and I don't know any organic chemists that can do that too well. Ripping open piperazine rings, turning cyclohexanes into cyclohexanols - there are a lot of reactions that are common in metabolic clearance that are not, to put it lightly, part of the repetoire of synthetic organic chemistry.

2. I also had to learn a rough version of the Lipinski rules - basically, that physical properties matter, although the degree to which they matter can vary. You can't increase molecular weight or lipophilicity forever without paying for it. Small polar molecules are handled fundamentally differently than big greasy ones in vivo. This was part of learning that there are many, many different potential fates for small molecules when dosed into a living animal.

3. Another key realization, which took a while to sink in, was that biological assays had error bars, and that this was true whether or not error bars were presented on the page or the screen. Enzyme assays were a bit fuzzy compared to the numbers I was used to as a chemist, but cell assays were fuzzier. And whole-animal numbers covered an even wider range. I had to understand that this hierarchy was the general rule, and that there was not a lot to be done about it in most cases (except, importantly, to never forget that it was there).

4. As someone mentioned in the comments here the other day, alluding to an old post of mine, I had to learn that although I'd been hearing for years that time was money, that grad school had been a poor preparation for learning how true that was. I was used to making everything that I could rather than buying it, but I had to reverse that thinking completely, since I was being paid to use my head more than my hands. (That didn't mean that I shouldn't use my hands, far from it - only that I should use my head first whenever feasible).

5. I also had to figure out how to use my time more efficiently. Another bad grad school habit was the working all hours of the day routine, which tended to make things stretch out. Back then, if I didn't get that reaction set up in the afternoon, well, I was coming back that evening, so I could do it then. But if I was going to keep more regular working hours, I had to plan things out better to make the best use of my time.

6. There were several big lessons to be learned about where chemistry fit into the whole drug discovery effort. One was that if I made dirty compounds, only dirty results could be expected from them. As mentioned above, even clean submissions gave alarmingly variable results sometimes; what could be expected from compounds with large and variable impurities from prep to prep? One of my jobs was not to make things harder than they already were.

7. A second big lesson, perhaps the biggest, was that chemistry was (and is) a means to an end in drug discovery. The end, of course, is a compound that's therapeutically useful enough that people are willing to pay money for it. Without one or more of those, you are sunk. It follows, first, that anything that does not bear on the problems of producing them has to be considered secondary - not unimportant, perhaps, but secondary to the biggest issue. Without enough compounds to sell, everything else that might look so pressing will, in fact, go away - as will you.

8. The next corollary is that while synthetic organic chemistry is a very useful way to produce such compounds, it is not necessarily the only way. Biologics are an immediate exception, of course, but there are more subtle ones. One of the trickier lessons a new medicinal chemist has to learn is that the enzymes and receptors, the cells and the rats, none of them are impressed by your chemical skills and your knowledge of the literature. They do not care if the latest compound was made by the most elegant application of the latest synthetic art, or by the nastiest low-yielding grunt reaction. What matters is how good that compound might be as a drug candidate, and the chemistry used to make it usually (and should) get in line behind many more important considerations. "Quickly", "easily", and "reproducibly", in this business, roughly elbow aside the more academic chemical virtues of "complexly", "unusually", and "with difficulty".

Comments (33) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | How To Get a Pharma Job | Pharma 101

May 17, 2011

Imperfect Pitch

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Posted by Derek

Venture capitalist Bruce Booth has moved his blog over to the Forbes network, and in his latest post he has some solid advice for people who are preparing to pitch him (and people like him) some ideas for a new company. It's very sensible stuff, including the need to bring as much solid data as you can possibly bring, not to spend too much time talking about how great everyone on your team is, and not to set off the hype detectors. (Believe it, everyone who's dealt with early-stage biotech and pharma has a very sensitive, broad-spectrum hype detector, and the "off" switch stopped working a long time ago).

He also has some advice that might surprise people who haven't been watching the startup industry over the last few years: "Unless you are really convinced you have a special story that Wall Street will love, please don’t use that three-letter word synonymous with so much value destruction: I-P-O." That's the state of things these days, for better or worse - the preferred exit strategy is to do a good-sized deal with a larger company, and most likely to be bought outright.

And this is advice that I wish that more seminar speakers would follow, not just folks pitching a company proposal:

It's annoying when an entrepreneur touting a discovery-stage cancer program has multiple slides on how big the market is for cancer drugs, what the sales of Avastin were last year, what the annual incidence of the big four cancers are, etc… These slides give me a huge urge to reach for my Blackberry. We know cancer is huge. Unless you’ve got a particular angle on a disease or market that’s unique or unappreciated, don’t bother wasting time on the macro metrics of these diseases, especially when you’re in drug discovery.

Yes indeed, and that goes for anyone who's talking outside the range of their expertise. If you're giving a talk, it should be on something that you know a lot about - more than your audience, right? So why do we have to sit through so many chemists talking about molecular biology, molecular biologists talking about market size, and so on? My rule on that stuff is to hold it down to one slide if possible, and to skip through it lightly even then. I've even seen candidates come in for an interview and spend precious time, time that could be spent showing what they can do and why they should be hired, on telling everyone things that they already know and don't care to hear again.

Comments (24) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Drug Development | How To Get a Pharma Job

April 15, 2008

Walk Around Some

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Posted by Derek

Not many chemists come into the drug industry knowing very much about biology. I certainly didn’t, not on the level that was needed. It’s not surprising, but it’s also not as much of a handicap as you’d think, at least not at first.

That’s because the first job of a new hire in the med-chem department is to crank out compounds, and that goes for both the PhD and Master’s levels. (Those roles diverge as time goes on, though). But with a few obvious rules in hand (no hot reactive functional groups, no huge greasy monster molecules, etc.), a person can contribute reasonable-looking compounds pretty quickly. No biological knowledge needed.

But if you’re going to be more valuable than a new hire (and as time goes on, you’d better be), then you have to start picking up some more of the broader science of drug discovery. That turns out to involve a lot more than chemistry, which is one of the things that chemists have to get adjusted to. If you’re going to move up to the point of being considered to lead a new project, you’re going to have to show that you can converse with the folks who know protein expression, assay development, molecular biology, PK, toxicology, and so on. You’re not going to be expected to come in and solve their problems (although if you do manage to solve one once in a while, it’ll do both you and them some good). But you are expected to understand what they’re talking about.

So that’s a piece of advice I can give to new chemistry hires in this business: get ready to learn everyone else’s business, too. Listen up when the people from the other departments talk about what they’re up to, and especially when they complain about their problems. Try to understand why they’re complaining, and ask them (especially one on one) about what they usually try when this sort of thing happens. The occasional paranoid might think at first that you’re compiling info in order to mess with them later, but you shouldn’t be the sort of person around whom that suspicion credibly lingers. In general, if the people in those other groups are any good at all, they’ll be glad to tell you what’s going on, and you’ll pick up a lot of practical knowledge.

The consequences of not doing this sort of thing become more severe as time goes on. At one of my former companies, we once brought in a job candidate from BNP (Big Name Pharmaceuticals). He’d been around seven or eight years, enough time to be considered fairly experienced. But people at that level vary a lot, and he was (as it turned out) on the low end. When we’d ask him about, for example, any formulation problems he’d had to deal with on his project compounds, he told us that well, he didn’t usually go to those meetings, his boss did. And when we asked him about how he got along with the PK group – well, they were over in another building, and he hardly ever saw them. And so on, and so on.

He was well along to being crippled by the way things were done at BNP. Actually, it may have been more the way he was doing things. From talking with other people from that shop over the years, it’s clear that it didn’t have to be that way – if you made the effort, you could go to those meetings, and if you took the time, you could go over to those other buildings and show your face. But you didn’t have to, and this guy (since he didn’t have to) didn’t bother to. And by keeping to his burrow, he hadn’t learned nearly as much as he could have. We didn’t make him an offer. So talk to people, talk to people outside your field. If you’re any good at all, they’ll learn something from you, too.

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job | Life in the Drug Labs

January 23, 2008

Making the Adjustment to Smallness

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Posted by Derek

I have a reader here in the Northeast with a question about taking on a new job that I thought would be of some general interest. She’s been in the industry for a few years now, working at a pretty large site, but (as with many others), layoffs have sent her to a smaller company in another area.

Much smaller. The new gig has a dozen or so chemists on staff, and while it’s true that there are smaller places still than that, it’s still going to be quite a switch after BigCo. There aren’t many direct reports; it’s a pretty flat organization. She has several questions. For one thing, if it becomes necessary to seek another spot in a few more years – and with a site that size, that’s always in the cards – how will this job look on the c.v.? Can this be turned into a step up, or will it always look like a holding action? Second, how to adjust from having all kinds of equipment and instrumentation to the rather more Spartan lab environment of a small outfit?

My take on the first question is “It depends on what you do with it”. Duties in a place that size are going to be much different than in a large department, and you have to try to make sure that you take on things that will help out your career. You’re probably going to have a lot more say in how things are going than you did back in the old place, so make the most of it. You may, depending on how they’ve been hiring, even be one of the more experienced med-chem people there. If that’s so, try to get over your unease at the thought of someone listening to your advice and become a resource. There may be several of your fellow chemists who’ve never had the chance to see how a big research department does things.

Of course, some of those big company habits may be things you’ll have to shed. There’s no place to hide in a department that small, so you’ll have to step up and produce. You’ll also, after a suitable grace period, need to be heard in meetings – no more sitting in the back of the room, because the room isn’t going to be so crowded. And you’ll have to get used to decisions being made with less data, and in less time, than you’ve had to before. But that’s something that can be portrayed in a good light if you move on later.

The lack of direct reports for you will be something you’ll have to watch out for if it comes time for another job, as you’ve probably already figured. By that time, you’ll be at a level where people will expect you to be able to handle some people reporting to you. The best advice I can give you is, if it comes to that point, to sell/spin it as having had to work in a matrix-style organization, where you had to give some orders without line responsibility. Doing that well isn’t easy, so it’s valuable to show that you can.

The equipment problem is a harder one to deal with. Instrumentation withdrawal is nasty, but there’s no way to deal with it other than going cold turkey. You may feel at first like you don’t have enough equipment to do your job, but look around you: your colleagues are (presumably) doing theirs. Emulate their techniques, if they seem to be working for them. (If and when you move on, you can try to make people draw the conclusion that if you could accomplish as much as you did under those conditions, you must be pretty good). And try not to complain too much, or talk too much about what you had back in the old shop – it won’t make you feel much better, and it’ll definitely make other people around you feel worse (and lower their opinions of you).

Again, you may feel as if you’re being asked to move things along with less certainty than you’ve had to before, but the flip side of that is that the projects themselves will (or at least should!) move faster. If you find that things are really being run in a scientifically irresponsible manner, of course, you’ll need to either try to change that or (more likely) move on before things fall apart, but that’s an unlikely case. (And some pretty marginal projects and decisions can be found in the big departments, too, for that matter, as you’ve probably already noticed). All in all, you’ve most likely got a better chance of having your fingerprints on a clinical candidate than you did back at BigCo, so make the most of it. And keep your contacts with your old colleagues, and keep your resume updated, which is good advice no matter where you are.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job

September 30, 2007

If Not This, What?

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Posted by Derek

One of my readers, a PhD chemist, is thinking about a career change and is looking for some advice. Having been through a mass layoff earlier this year, I can sympathize. I did everything I could to avoid a career change of my own, and I'm very glad that I was able to. I like what I'm doing, and I hope I can keep doing it for a long time to come. But there are times that a change can’t be avoided, and there are times that it’s downright desirable. That said, the question is what works out well as an alternative career for a chemist? From watching colleagues of mine over the years, I can offer some of the traditional choices.

I’ve seen people move over into clinical development, for example. This is often best done inside your existing company, because changing companies and changing job responsibilities simultaneously isn’t easy. I haven’t felt much of a pull to the clinical side myself, but the attractions include getting to work further down the drug pipeline – that is, on compounds that have a much better chance of doing someone some good. And there’s still plenty of that what-happens-next research feeling, since development is just as much of a wild unknown as preclinical work is. Keep in mind, this is a job for someone with good organizational skills, because you’re going to have to pull a lot of stuff together and get it to work on time.

Another option is patent law. This one is going to require some recredentialing if you’re going to go all the way, of course, but I feel safe in saying that there is constant employment for good patent attorneys who know the technical end of their field. If you can be good at both the chemistry and legal ends of the job, you’ll do well. There’s a reason that not many people span that gap, though – the sort of temperaments that fit the respective fields are sometimes at odds. Chemists who have struggled their way through four-page generic claim structures often wonder how any sentient being can work full-time on such things, but there’s many a lawyer who feels the same way about basic research.

Scientific writing is another possibility. Sad to say, not all that many chemists can write well, so if you’re in the minority that can, your abilities could be worth leveraging. I should talk, since I’ve been rattling away on this blog for five years, and do some paid writing as a sideline. But I’ve never seriously thought about it as a full-time career. For one thing, I like doing the actual science too much. Another concern is that freelancing, your best chance at writing on the topics you feel like writing about, can take a while to get going, and can also be an uncertain existence at any time. There are a lot of science writers inside companies, though, who earn regular salaries. But that has its own compromises.

So there are a few common career changes that make use of chemistry experience. Any readers able to add more?

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job

September 25, 2007

Hey, Graduates! Negotiate Hard, You Hear, Now?

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Posted by Derek

An alert reader sends along this story from The Economist, on the price of talent in China versus the West. Talking about the steep rise in the stock of WuXi PharmaTech on the Chinese stock market, which is insane even by the impressive standards of the Chinese stock market, they point out that:

”. . .as in so many other industries in China, labour is cheap. Starting salaries for a PhD are $23,000 a year, compared with $200,000 a year in America, according to UBS, an investment bank.”

Well, that explains it! If that’s a real salary figure, I’m at a loss to explain where it came from, let me tell you. I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and all I can say is that I’m driving down the average for what is supposed to be a starting salary? Something is seriously awry.

Real numbers are to be found, among other places, at the American Chemical Society. These are self-reported, of course, and surely have biases in them – but not all those biases point in the same direction, and if anything, they might lean a bit toward the high side. (People feel better answering surveys about their salary when it’s a number that they’re happy with). According to the most recent ACS numbers, entry-level PhD chemist salaries in industry were between $70,000 and $75,000 in 2003 and 2004. Unless something bizarre has happened since then, I think we can take that as a reasonable starting point.

So basically, the UBS figures are deranged, and if anyone there would like to tell me where they got them, I’d be obliged. But those ACS numbers still show a large cost difference between hiring a PhD in China and hiring one here, of course. And those numbers leave out a number of costs on the employer’s side, which just might make up a lot of the difference toward the UBS figure. I’m talking about benefits, retirement plan contributions, mandatory FICA and insurance payments, etc. I don’t know what the figures are for these costs in China, but I feel safe in assuming them to be much, much lower on both a currency-adjusted and percentage basis. (I realize that the UBS figure is billed as a salary, which isn’t supposed to include these costs – if this really is the explanation, then someone at the Economist was asleep at the keyboard).

The thing is, the costs in China are increasing. The increase no doubt looks gaudiest on a percentage basis, since it’s starting from a lower number, but the price of a PhD employee there is has been heading nowhere but up the last few years, if what I’ve been hearing is any guide. Supply and demand cannot be escaped merely by traveling to Shanghai. If the global research environment stays healthy, the trend will continue, which will lead to shifts into the less-globalized inland parts of China. (I already know of some good stuff from Chengdu, for example). And after that, it’ll lead to other countries entirely. Which is the whole idea.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | How To Get a Pharma Job

August 23, 2007

". . . Jobs That Don't Exist"

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Posted by Derek

The FASEB folks have collected a large amount of data on training and employment in the life sciences (start here), and see the discussions over here at the AAAS).

Many of the conclusions are not going to surprise people, but it's good to have some data to back up everyone's impressions. I can sum the whole presentation up in a sentence: academic life science is a hard place to make a living, and getting harder every year. For example, the average age of first-time R01 grantees has been going up for the past thirty-seven years. And over the past twenty years, the number of doctorates awarded has roughly doubled, while the number of people employed in tenured (or tenure-track) positions has stayed exactly the same.

So where is everyone going? Well, down the hall from me - industry is where the job growth is. I know that my pharma/biotech readers might be startled by that statement, but compared to academia, we're a boom town. (I mean, look at it, no head count increase since 1987?) The problem is, as far as I can see, many PhD candidates and post-docs have been trained in environments where an tenure-track academic position is seen as the natural and desirable goal, and industry is just the fallback for the also-rans. If this ever was congruent with reality, it isn't now. As a commentary in the latest Nature put it:

More effort is needed to ensure that recruitment interviews include realistic assessments of prospective students' expectations and potential in the academic workplace. And training should address broader career options from day one rather than focusing unrealistically on jobs that don't exist.

Chemistry doesn't have this mindset problem to the same extent. There do seem to be some research groups who don't so much look down on industry as over-exalt academia, but there are plenty of strong people from the top-ranking groups all over the pharma landscape. But the hiring problems, well, I'm sure those track pretty close to the FASEB story.

And that gets us back to the ever-popular topics of medicinal chemistry employment, outsourcing, restructuring, and so on. For now, I'll reiterate my strongest opinion on these subjects, which is that this is not a good time to be an ordinary medicinal chemist in the US. You need skills, you need to keep them sharp, and you need to be ready and able to move into new research areas as they get interesting. It's not easy. But at least it's easier than trying to make it as a professor. . .

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August 17, 2007

More on Interview Seminars

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Posted by Derek

Having had the chance recently to see a number of interview seminars (other than my own, for once!), I have a few more thoughts for aspiring job seekers. It turns out that many of these are things that high school speech teachers have been telling their students for decades, but you know, there's only so much new information in this world.

Know your audience. In this case, your audience is pretty well-informed about synthetic chemistry, since they've been putting food on the table by practicing it. To pick one example, there's no point in stepping through detailed reaction mechanism slides for reactions that people already know. A surprising number of people seem to do this, perhaps thinking that it'll demonstrate that they know their stuff, but it tends to have the opposite effect. If you want to put one of these up, don't leave it up there for long. Just hit the highlights (you know, like you're familiar with it) and keep going. And that brings up another key point. . .

Keep moving. I'm not saying that you should fly through your slides, although I've never in my life seen a job candidate who did. I'm saying that you shouldn't linger on them. Figure out what you're trying to say with each slide, say it, and move on. Not to be too cynical about it, but the longer your slide sits up there, the greater the chances of bad things happening: either you say something unhelpful because you feel you should be saying something, or people start fiinding the mistakes in your slide, or people start looking out the window. You don't want any of these. I can't count the number of times I've watched a job candidate while silently imploring them to hit a button and go to the next slide already. It's easier to keep moving if you remember that. . .

Your slides should tell a story. Maybe you have two stories, or even three, if you've had to break things up and talk about more than one project. That's OK. But what you should never, ever do is put up a bunch of unrelated stuff in no particular order. Once in a while I've seen this kind of talk, but I have never, ever seen one lead to a job offer.

Don't ask for questions until the end. This may also sound a bit cynical, but trust me on it. At many companies, they'll interrupt you if they really want to ask questions; you don't have to invite them. If the culture is to wait until the end, then it's in your best interest to go along with that. I say these because many people sink their chances by the way they handle questions from the audience. You want to have some questions, of course (no questions at all is a bad sign), but you want them to be the ones you're prepared for. Give people those good answers you've worked up and move on. The more opportunities you give people to grill you, the better the chances of them finding gaps in your knowledge. But that said. . .

Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" (or its equivalent). Some of those equivalents are "You know, we wanted to investigate that, but weren't able do during the project" or "That's a good question, and we'd like to know the answer to that one, too". Now, you don't want to use these when someone asks you why you used lithium aluminum hydride or something - those are the kinds of questions you have to be ready for. But if someone asks you a question that you really, really don't know the answer to, punt. It's better than trying to whip something up on the spot. But remember. . .

Put your work in context. It's very important that you show that you know why you were doing something, and how it fit into the larger scheme. You're always going to be working inside a larger context if you're in industry, since chemistry is just a means to an end. A classic interview-killer is to say that you did something because that's what someone told you to do. If you don't have some broader reasons than that - or if it's never occurred to you that you might need some - your chances of being hired at a drug company are very slim. And finally. . .

Remember what your talk is supposed to do. Many of the points above boil down to this one. You are not giving an informational talk, you're giving a persuasive one, but a shocking number of candidates don't seem to realize this. As mentioned above, you may not be able to tell your drug-company audience much that they don't already know. But you can persuade them that you know the stuff well, that you did a good job with it, and can do the same for them. Everything you're presenting should be aimed at demonstrating those points.

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July 8, 2007

Starting Up Again

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Posted by Derek

I'm back! This entry comes from temporary quarters in Cambridge, which will be my home for about another six weeks. The second half of that period will find the rest of my family in here with me, but for now it's just me, an internet connection, and some take-out souvlaki.

Going to work tomorrow will be a novel experience, after a solid five-month break. But this isn't the first time I've changed jobs, and like everyone else in the industry, I've seen a lot of turnover around me. Both vantage points have suggested some avoidable mistakes when starting a new position.

First off is badmouthing your old company. It's tempting - I mean, after all, you left the place for a reason, right? And isn't the new place so much better, and shouldn't you make everyone happy by telling them so? Actually, no, you probably shouldn't. There's a real risk of coming across as someone who does nothing but moan, and most labs have enough of those folks around already. Keep in mind that you just started, and that people haven't heard you talk much. You don't want your co-workers to realize that half the things you've said so far are complaints. Hold your fire.

You can screw up in the opposite direction, too, of course. (You always can, a general principle I try never to forget). Talking about how things were so much better back at the old gig won't win you any friends either, obviously. Sure, maybe it was easier to order supplies, or get instrument time, or whatever. But no one cares, and you shouldn't either.

This it-was-better stuff turns, very quickly, into another method of complaining, and we're back to the same place as with the first mistake. My view is that grousing about work conditions is something that should be done only among peers that you've worked with for a good while, people who know you and have seen that you can get the job done. At a new job, you don't have anyone in that category yet, so it's better to keep quiet. And anyway, how silly does it look to start in on how things are done when you haven't done anything yet?

Other mistakes: coming on as if you're the answer to everyone's prayers (because that, of course, makes the inference that everyone was doing it wrong until you showed up - if you really are the answer to said prayers, that'll become apparent on its own pretty soon, wouldn't you think)? And its opposite - starting off so quietly that people start to wonder why you were hired in the first place. It's normal (and a good idea) to shut up and listen for a while at first, but that can be taken too far. Eventually, you'll need to speak up.

Well, I won't be making these particular mistakes, I hope, but that just reserves me the right to make some others. At any rate, it's good to get back to research, and no mistake about that.

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March 7, 2007

Fish Nor Fowl?

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Posted by Derek

The grad-school advice topic from the other day got me to thinking about another issue in that line. Everyone knows about how hot all the mixed chemistry-biology stuff is (and has been). Chemical biology, biological chemistry - call it what you like, a lot of people are doing it (and a lot of people are getting funded for it).

That's fine with me. I find a lot of the work very interesting (though not invariably), and some of it looks like it could lead to useful and important things. My worry, though, is: what happens to the grad students who do this stuff? They run the risk of spending too much time on biology to be completely competent chemists, and vice versa. Instead of being seen as well-rounded modern scientists, ready to take on the blurred boundaries of the new research, they might end up unacceptable to their potential colleagues in any given discipline.

I'm sure these fears have come up every time a new field of research opens up. ("Organometallics, you say? So, are you an organic chemist or an inorganic one, hey?") They've taken care of themselves in the past, and they probably will this time, too - eventually. But I'd have to think that there's going to be a lag time, which we're surely still in, during which the people who've done hybrid projects are going to have a hard time proving themselves in the traditional categories.

I should qualify that to the traditional industrial categories. Academia, following the hot topics and following the grant money, is surely more more hospitable to the new breed. But many of the tools of chemical biology are still a bit blue-sky for use in the drug industry (or are seen to be), and even the ones that are already in use tend to be used by people who are more easily classified. Probably the smaller companies are out in front on this, having less invested in the standard organizational charts and often being closer to the academic worldview anyway. Thoughts?

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March 6, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

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Posted by Derek

I've had an e-mail from someone going off to grad school in chemistry. He wants to eventually do drug discovery work, and is wondering which way to go:

I have it narrowed down to two departments. One is a large, well funded and well respected university with a specific research advisor that is actively recruiting me for his lab. He is a leader in his field and my place in the lab would be in the capacity of synthetic chemist (making various inhibitors). Although his lab is in the chemistry dept it is more on the bio-organic side. My other choice is a smaller less well respected school with fewer resources (lots of TAing) but I could do total synthesis. I would like to join the first group but obviously I want to be able to get a job. If I joined the first group, would I be unemployable in pharma? With a post doc heavy in synthesis would I be able to get a job?

My answer to him was that I'd go with the first lab. A larger school with a more well-known advisor is worth more than the chance to do total synthesis for a PhD - and just as he mentioned, he can do a synthesis-heavy postdoc if need be. Connections mean a lot - ask someone who's job hunting! - and a PhD advisor is generally the first major source of them at the start of a career. The work described is definitely not so far afield that it's going to mess up later job-hunting.

I told him, though, to be sure to get a varied chemistry background in whichever group he joins. You don't want to get too specialized - for future med-chem employment, that can be a killer. A seminar full of same reaction (or class of reactions) over and over isn't going to impress anyone later on - you need to show that you can pick up new chemistry and get it to work, and that you've had to deal with the things that didn't.

One of the reasons that we like total synthesis people is because they've had a wide range of experience, as well as practice with overcoming difficulties. Total synthesis is probably the most efficient way of getting a wide background in synthetic problem-solving in the shortest amount of time. Admittedly, it doesn't always seem like the shortest amount of time while you're doing it, but you can't have everything.

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February 28, 2007

Have We Got a Job For You!

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Posted by Derek

Since I'm still on the job-hunting trail, after the events described here, I think I'd find it a bit therapeutic to complain about one part of the process that's a complete waste of time.

Now, there are open positions that are advertised, both online and in the various science and trade publications, and there are some that are handled mostly by recruiters. I'm working both of those, naturally, since at my level of experience it's generally harder to find a position. Friends of friends, former colleagues, company websites, online job boards, headhunters of every description - if this isn't the time to pull out all the stops, when is?

But there are recruiters, and there are recruiters. I've spoken with several who really seem to know their business, and I'm glad to have had the chance to contact them. But I've also spoken with several who don't seem to have the first idea of what they're doing. Let's just say that I've been pitched more than enough positions for "Formulations Chemist" and "Clinical Research Data Scientist" and God only knows what else. There are so many things wrong about these inquiries that I hardly know where to start.

For one thing, it shows that either the recruiter involved knows nothing about the industry, or they haven't even looked at my CV - and it's a good question as to which of those is a worse sign. I've had headhunters confidently forward me positions that focus on, say, developing generic injectables: what in my background makes that even remotely a match, unless all the other resumes they have on hand are from Linux developers and salespeople? The other day, I had someone pitch me a job that, while actually in medicinal chemistry, was at a level I wouldn't have interviewed for in 1992, much less now. And they seemed surprised that I wasn't considering it seriously.

Another problem with these is what's happening on the other end. Here's some company, paying a search firm to go out and beat the bushes for them, but the outfit's actually just randomly hitting up everyone who's walked across a drug company parking lot. You wonder what kind of progress reports these people are submitting on how their trained placement professionals are on the case, as in the background someone sits on the phone asking a cell biologist if they've ever considered running a mass spec lab. "Hello. . .hello? Cut off again. . ."

Well, at any rate, there are some good ones out there. But they sure stand out against the background.

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December 7, 2006

Are You Experienced?

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Posted by Derek

Here's a mighty topical question for some of my associate colleagues these days: what is it that people are looking for in a presentation from a MS-level candidate?

Associates are expected, first and foremost, to make SAR analogs. If you can crank out a stream of reasonable compounds, you're probably going to do fine, and if you can't, you almost certainly won't. But making a pitch to get hired somewhere can be difficult if you've worked, say, on several projects, but none of them long enough to make a big coherent story based on your own analogs. You don't want to look like you're taking credit for the work of others, and it doesn't look good to complain about being shuttled around from project to project, either. What to do?

It's also tricky if you've had a fair amount of boring-but-necessary analog work. This gets at the tension between neat chemistry and good med-chem, which two fields don't always overlap very well. What if you made a fine string of compounds, important for the direction of the project, with maybe a solid contender or two for the clinic in there - but you made them via yawner reactions that undergrads learn in the first semester of Organic?

My advice would be to make a virtue out of necessity. The thing is, it's actually a good thing when compounds can be made by old-fashioned reactions. Rather than apologize for it, I'd say make it a selling point. Of course, you would want to find some way to show that you're capable of fancy stuff (or at least fancier than what you're showing). If there aren't any examples you can dredge up from your project work, it may be worth including some slides from your graduate work if they're more showy.

The same technique can be applied to work done on a large number of projects. The best thing I can think of in that case is to show it off as a wide range of experience, and demonstrating the ability to pick up new projects quickly without getting distracted.

Anyway, I'll throw this one open to my lab-head level readers. If you're hiring an associate with some industry experience, what do you most want to see from them? Comments welcome. . .

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November 30, 2006

The Other Side of the Table

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Posted by Derek

One of the comments to yesterday's post turned the topic around by asking me how I like to be interviewed. That's a fair question, and I'm going to resist a quick answer of "In as fawning a way as possible". I have to say that I haven't been out on the conference-room trail in a few years - I'm not one of those people who goes out and interviews every couple of years just to keep their hand in. But I have been on the other side of the table a few times.

I think that one thing I look for is the quality of the questions I get asked. You want to join a company with good people, and what a person is curious about is a good window into how they think. That's one reason I'm not a fan of the mechanism-quiz technique, because at its worst it embodies some personality traits (bet-I-can-find-things-you-don't-know, test-until-destruction) that I find unappealing and counterproductive.

And that's why I don't necessarily mind getting questions that I don't know the answer to (as long as they're not questions that I obviously should know the answer to, naturally). It's good to be able to recognize anomalies and potentially interesting clues in a mass of data, so when someone picks out an oddity from a presentation of mine, I'm pleased (again, as long as it's one that I already knew about!) Many times, the answer to such questions is "Well, we don't actually know why that happens, but here are some possibilities. . ." The part of that answer after the comma needs to be included every time the first part is used, by the way.

I like seeing that the place I'm interviewing at is run in a reasonably organized manner. I'm not talking synchronized watches (which would make me run the other way), but if no one seems to have any idea of what my schedule is or where anyone can be found, it might be a bad sign for the way that projects are being run as well. (The flip side is that some apparent disorganization might be from everyone doing productive work instead, which isn't so bad).

And most of all, it's good to get the impression that people are doing things that they're interested in. At a small company, that's usually not a problem. But large companies have all sorts of people, and most places have some disgruntled time-servers taking up office space here and there. Any recruiting committee should know not to put these folks on an interview schedule. I've been on such committees myself, and you really do think about these things. So if I visit a place and end up talking to Wally out of the "Dilbert" strip, it's at best a mark against the people who made up my schedule, and at worst a bad sign for the whole department.

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November 29, 2006

Bad Interviews

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Posted by Derek

My "How to Get A Pharma Job" category over on the right has taken on a whole new meaning these days, what with me (and all my co-workers) scrambling around for new positions. You run into all kinds of interviewing styles out there, most of them fairly benign - but there are a few techniques that (to me, anyway) are warning signs.

The "Let's Go to the Board" folks can be in this category. (I've spoken about this before). While it's true that you want to make sure that a prospective candidate understands the science of what they're doing, a dissertation-defense blackboard grilling may not be the best way to do that. A medicinal chemists's job does not, to a first approximation, revolve around solving mechanism problems. It's a useful skill, and can be used as a surrogate for general mental acuity, but it's not the absolute first requirement.

At the other end of the scale, you have the HR-department "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" interviewers. I should point out that the people who ask these sorts of questions generally aren't the shining stars of the HR office themselves. And yes, I actually have heard of someone getting the tree question. I live for the day that someone tries it out on me.

People who have been through a lot of training courses may also try out a technique called "Behavioral Event Interviewing". That's when they ask you about some situation you found yourself it - "Tell me about a time when you had to meet a tight deadline", or the like. There's nothing wrong with this in principle, but if it's the centerpiece of the whole interview process, I think that it turns into a moral hazard for the interviewee. That is, it's an incentive to bring out the makeup crew and the special effects team, for a new, improved, version of the past. Everyone does this to a degree, of course, but the BEI style almost encourages it.

And it should go without saying that if you're treated in a disrespectful manner during an interview, and it seems like part of the company culture rather than the work of a random fool, then you should keep on walking. This is rare, but it happens. I knew an associate a few years ago who got a call for a Saturday morning interview at a small company, which was done by several of the lab heads who sat around eating breakfast in front of her. Do you really want to work for a company that thinks that this is acceptable behavior? Exactly.

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March 6, 2006

Man Hands on Misery to Man

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Posted by Derek

Some comments here called my attention to a piece by Philip Greenspun, "Women in Science". That's not the best title, because his points aren't so much about the position of women in science, but of everyone. And a pretty damned bleak position it is:

"Why does anyone think science is a good job?
The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:
1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
5. age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s."

I note that this is an academic career path, for one thing, and I also note that even from that perspective it's not very accurate. Eight years in grad school? Five more as a post-doc? I'd have lost my mind long before the end of that. I know that the molecular biology people take longer than chemists, but I don't think even they take that long. As for me, I spent 4 1/2 years in grad school, and one year on a post-doc - all finished and in the work force at age 27. (Keep those figures in mind - later on he's going to tell us that I wasted my time and earnings potential).

Greenspun goes on to contrast his view of a science career with his take on some other professions. Someone with the same intelligence and drive to get hired into a tenure-track job at Berkeley, for example, would (according to him) likely be a top specialist as an MD by the age of 44. In business, at a company such as GE, this person would be "handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options." As a lawyer, they'd be a half-million-dollar-per-year partner or "a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000/year salary with some private work". Even public school teachers do better than scientists, he contends - by his calculations, they're making $50,000/year by the time they're thirty. I'll defer to others from those professions who can assess how realistic these comparisons are; I'll only say that I entertain grave doubts.

No, where I can speak up is in his description of my own job. His belief is that students only go into science because they have the examples of their own professors in front of them, and they don't have the foresight to ask anyone about what the profession is really like:

"Some scientists are like kids who never grow up. They love what they do, are excited by the possibilities of their research, and wear a big smile most days. Although these people are, by Boston standards, ridiculously poor and they will never be able to afford a house (within a one-hour drive of their job) or support a family, I don't feel sorry for them.

Unfortunately, this kind of child-like joy is not typical. The tenured Nobel Prize winners are pretty happy, but they are a small proportion of the total. The average scientist that I encounter expresses bitterness about (a) low pay, (b) not getting enough credit or references to his or her work, (c) not knowing where the next job is coming from, (d) not having enough money or job security to get married and/or have children. If these folks were experiencing day-to-day joy at their bench, I wouldn't expect them to hold onto so much bitterness and envy."

The average scientist he encounters is like this? Fun crowd he hangs with. I'm just imagining what a scientific meeting would be like if his statement reflected reality: hordes of shuffling, pissed-off scientists, hands jammed in the pockets of their threadbare trousers, scowling at each other as they joylessly trudge through the hallways. Off in the distance is a chortling Nobel Prize winner. . .

Of course, there's always the objection that I work in industry, far away from the salt mines of academia. And it's true, after a good close look at the academic world, I decided that it wasn't for me. But Greenspun has me covered in an appendix:

"For people with PhDs in Biology, there are a lot of jobs at pharmaceutical companies paying more than $100,000 per year. Considered on purely economic grounds, these jobs don't justify the time and foregone income invested in a PhD. There are 22-year-olds earning $150,000 per year selling home mortgages.

What about the working conditions? Surely it is more interesting to be a scientist at a drug company than to be selling home mortgages? It depends on the worker's personality. Are you introverted? Want a job where you seldom have to meet anyone new? Want to sit at the same desk or bench year after year and work mostly by yourself? Get most of your satisfaction from solving puzzles? Have we got the job for you: industrial scientist!"

Ah, that clears things up. Yes, despite his talk of pharmaceutical company jobs, it's obvious that Greenspun has not the faintest idea of what those jobs are really like. Just for the record, we work in groups, in teams, in departments over here. We have to talk to our colleagues and present our results constantly in front of rooms of people. The most successful folks in the industry are the ones with the skills to talk to, listen to, and deal with people from all the other science and business areas in the company. If you can't stand to meet or talk to anyone, your career is going to go nowhere.

My problem with Greenspun, after that otherworldly section on industry, is that I can't trust him in any of the other parts of his piece. (Can he find me one of those 22-year-olds earning 150K/year selling mortgages?) He's shown a willingness to just make stuff up and present it as fact - and you know what we scientists think about that. It's a pity, because he has a few good points to make. But despite his denials, they're buried in bitter fantasies.

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January 31, 2006

Here's A Shovel. Could You Dig Yourself In Some More?

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Posted by Derek

Talking about reaction-quiz job interviews the other day really seems to have brought out a lot of stories (check the comments to that post). I'm glad to hear that this kind of interrogation seems to be disappearing.

I had more than one experience with this sort of thing when I was on the interview trail. Probably the worst was a lunchtime interview back in 1989 with a director-level person who looked over my background and said "Hmm. . .post-doc with Bernd Giese. . .free-radical chemistry, eh? So, tell me, who would your ten favorite free-radical chemists be?"

The first thought that went through my head was that I didn't even know of ten free-radical chemists. Favorites, my foot. I probably would have been better off saying that, although maybe not in as many words. But instead, I thought furiously, stalling for time: "Well, let me see. . .there's X. . .and Y has done some interesting stuff, although I'm not sure that he'd agree to being called a free-radical chemist. . .and. . ." I ran some time off the clock like this, and was beginning to panic a bit at the shortage of further names that were coming to mind, when I was interrupted by my interviewer. I was foolish enough to be grateful.

"Hmm. . ." he began again, "I see that you mentioned Z on your list. I don't think I would have ranked him that highly, personally. What recent work of his impressed you?" Cursing foully but inaudibly, I stammered out the only paper of Z's that I could even think of (which was indeed recent, and was the only reason I remembered him at all). "I'm not familiar with that one," came the response. "Could you draw those reactions out for me?" Over came a paper napkin for my use. Where the hell, I wondered, was my artichoke and fennel pasta, and could I perhaps fake choking on it?

So there I was, trying to remember and explain a paper I'd looked at once, by someone whose work I didn't follow, wondering all the while with the spare 1% of my brain how I ended up fighting on this particular battlefield. The rest of the interview proceeded along similar lines, and I gave what was surely one of my least impressive performances. I mean, I've had interviews where I knew, mid-way through the day, that I was either going to get an offer or something was so seriously wrong with the place that I wouldn't want to work there anyway. But I lurched out of this one thinking that they'd have to have something seriously wrong with them to call me back. Which indeed they didn't.

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January 29, 2006

Name Reactions for One Thousand, Alex

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Posted by Derek

Here's a question for people who have been out interviewing in the last couple of years (with special emphasis on those who've been seeking their first position in the industry): does anyone still do the old "Let's go to the blackboard and see how many reactions you know" interview? Syntex in Palo Alto was well-known for putting people through this twenty years ago or so.

I got a couple of those back when I was first looking around, and I'd be lying if I tried to tell you that I liked them. (I did OK under these conditions, but while you're up there on you're always worrying that the next question could be the one that makes you look like an idiot. The whole thing is too close to a PhD defense to be anything but unpleasant.

And I never understood the point of this technique to start with. Chemistry is not done solo in a spotlight in front of a hostile crowd. It's important to be able to speak coherently in front of people, of course, but that's what a seminar (and its associated questions) are for. It's also important to realize that a person who can whip out answers quickly might be an even better scientist if they trained themselves to slow down and think a bit.

Knowing the mechanism (under time pressure) for the Nosenko-Golitsin Rearrangment doesn't seem to be a good predictor of research success. That was true back in the late 1980s, when I was the guy at the blackboard, and I think it's even more true now. SciFinder and the other computer databases have really gutted the rationale for committing large numbers of transformations to memory. It's important to know what sorts of things can be done, but there's little point in memorizing exactly which reagents do them and what journal they appeared in. You can always look that up, and when you do you'll likely find a dozen alternatives that you didn't even know about.

These days, being able to sort out all those potential reactions into an order of plausibility is a more important skill than just memorizing them. I think I might work up some questions like that for the next time I interview someone. "Here," I'll say, handing over a sheet of paper. "SciFinder says that you can do this reaction any of these six ways. Which one would you recommend trying first, and why?"

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November 27, 2005

Hire the Thoroughbreds?

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Posted by Derek

One of my colleagues came by the other day to dispute a remark I made in a comment here the other day. The question is the role of "pedigree" in hiring into pharmaceutical research labs, which varies quite a bit between companies. Some are notorious for "old boy" systems - you'll find an awful lot of Corey folks at Pfizer, for example. Does this consideration make sense, and if it does, how much should it count for?

It was pointed out to me that I've consistently claimed that there's no one best model for drug discovery, and that flexibility is a virtue. Thus, went the argument, I shouldn't rule out hiring by pedigree, because there's surely no one best way to select chemists, either. I agree with that last part, but my comment against pedigree was aimed more at people who rule out hiring by any other means. I was actually making a pro-flexibility case.

But that doesn't settle the underlying issue: is hiring based on who the job candidate worked for a good idea, or not? First off, I should note that this is mainly an issue for PhD lab-head jobs. Associate positions get filled by people from all over the place, since the job requirements aren't as broad. With that in mind, I think this can be broken down into categories: the candidate could have worked for

1. Someone with a poor reputation
2. Someone that no one's ever heard of
3. Someone with no particular reputation either way
4. Someone with a reasonably solid reputation, but not a star
5. Someone who's famous

You'd probably stay away from (1), but I frankly can't think of anyone I'd put in that category. A lot of professors in group (2) might be classified that way if anyone paid attention to them, I guess, so that group is at a disadvantage, too.

But they're at a disadvantage for many other good reasons. The main way to stay in that second group is to not publish much, not give talks at meetings, and work at a school that's not known for chemistry. Clearly, you don't want to come out of a research group in this category if you can help it.

Category (3) is a step up, but not by much. Professors in this group are not totally unrecognizable, but they're not known for anything specific. You recall hearing their name, or seeing them in a journal, but you didn't read the paper. Closer inspection might reveal that to be either their fault or yours - it could go either way. The reason you don't have a handle on the person might just be that no ones finds their work interesting or useful.

Category (4) is where the arguing really gets going. There are an awful lot of research groups in this category, and the quality of the people they turn out varies widely. My colleague argues that picking from category (5) instead gives you a bozo filter, that you're at least assured of some level of quality control.

My reply was that if someone is a bozo, you should be able to pick up on that during the interview process. Personally, if I had to hire a hundred people from only one category to staff a med-chem department, and boy am I glad that I don't, I'd go with (4) over (5) as long as I got to select from the pool. If I had to hire blind, though, category (5) people might well give a higher average.

But it could come at a cost. Just as there are all sorts of people working for not-so-famous professors, there are all sorts of famous professors. You've got your up-and-coming stars, your over-the-hills, your genuine geniuses and your sweatshot slave-drivers. Some of these folks damage as many students as they improve. (And there's another downside to hiring only from the elite: some of them come complete with bonus attitude).

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November 16, 2005

What Sort of Training?

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Posted by Derek

I had some email from an undergraduate chemistry major who's interested in doing drug discovery work eventually. He was wondering if organic synthesis was still the way to go in graduate school, and my answer is "definitely." I've warned people away from too much of a medicinal chemistry focus in their graduate work before, and I'll be glad to do it again.

Let me be clear, though, that I'm talking about academic medicinal chemistry programs as they've usually been run. What you often end up doing in these is learning a fair amount about each of the major areas of drug discovery, but you generally don't get really good at any of them. And since there's no market for a one-man drug company, you're left in a bad situation. We don't need fair-to-middling chemists who are also fair-to-middling pharmacologists. Perhaps there are other ways to run a med-chem department at a university that won't lead to this problem, but the only one I can think of is to run it like a little drug company, which I don't think is going to work out very well.

The reason we like for people to do lots of organic chemistry before they join the drug industry is that we (the medicinal chemists) are the only ones who understand that stuff. Other departments have members (sometimes) with a reasonable knowledge of the main points of organic synthesis, but it's only the chemists who can really dive into it. Someone has to, and by golly, it's us. So we need people who really know what they're doing: people who can use the fastest and cleanest routes to making the most diverse analogs, who can think up structures that no one else has ever made and reduce them to practice, and who can find the cheapest, most reliable ways to scale up a synthesis for real world use. The wider the range of serious organic synthesis experience you have, the more we'd like to talk to you.

This might eventually become a problem for us in industry, as the field of organic synthesis continues to mature. Already, I think we have a bit less emphasis on people who've done total synthesis of natural products, because fewer groups are doing that these days. (And some of the groups who are, aren't doing it in a way that everyone in the group gets the kind of training we need - the "team of lab Sherpas" approach damages as many people as it improves, as far as I'm concerned).

But total synthesis, done right, is still the perfect sort of training for our needs, even though we don't do thirty-two step reaction sequences. It sends you all over the state of the synthetic art, gives you a varied problem-solving workout, and trains you to always look for alternatives to the chemistry you're doing. We couldn't ask for more. I find this state of affairs a bit irritating, though, since I think that total synthesis is a slowly dying art form, and rightfully so. There's less and less need, in my opinion, for those thirty-two step routes. I can almost imagine keeping it all going just to provide the drug industry with the kind of people it likes to hire, though. In fact, I can almost imagine that this is already happening right in front of us. . .

One of the major alternatives to total synthesis is working on new synthetic methods, which is a valuable service to the science. But while that can train people very well for drug research, it can also leave them partially crippled. It depends on how broad their experience of different reactions has been, and how general their approach to problem solving has had to be. If you come out of graduate school as the world's best set of hands for one particular reaction, my advice is to go do a completely different sort of post-doc, to prove that you have the hands to do something else. And that's because "do something else" is pretty much the job description of a working medicinal chemist.

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July 5, 2005

Dinner the Night Before

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Posted by Derek

A reader sends along this dilemma, and asks for advice:

"I will soon be graduating with a Masters degree. I have been invited to interview at a major Pharmaceutical company, and have been invited to dinner the night before with the Vice President of Drug Discovery. No one I have asked has any idea of what I should expect for this dinner, or how I should prepare.. . ."

Well, the VP isn't going to spend the meal asking you about name reactions - and if he or she does, then scratch that company off your list. You don't want to work at a place where they make you feel like only the select few ever get past their interviews. You'll get asked a bit about your degree work, and you'll be expected to answer pretty fluently - after all, if you can't give a straight and reasonable answer, who can?

You'll get the standard intro to the company, its research structure, and what sort of job you'll be interviewing for. It wouldn't hurt to do some homework before you show up. Check out the company's web site - don't worry that it's full of happy talk and propaganda, because what corporate web site isn't? But this is where you'll find what's known to the public about the research that's going on at the company. If they're strong in cardiovascular research, for example, it won't hurt if you show that you took the time to learn that. That'll give you an opening to ask a question, too, if you want: ("Is this position in the cardiovascular group?")

Other questions that are good to ask (and will help fill up the time, without any awkward gaps) might be: what the area is like to live in, what the mix of people is like in the department (experienced/younger), how often people switch on to new projects, if the person interviewing you has ever worked on anything that made it all the way through the clinic, and so on.

Mostly, these dinners are to make sure that a candidate can hold up their end of a conversation and appears appropriately intelligent. Order something good, and don't worry about having an appetizer and/or dessert. I wouldn't advise drinking any alcohol, though, just to be on the safe side. You should just try to be reasonably pleasant company, and act as if you have a clue about chemistry and research. (Hey, if you've been reading this site for a while, you should at least be able to fake it convincingly. . .)

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May 10, 2005

Getting Hired as a PhD

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Posted by Derek

Continuing with my "How to Get Hired" series, tonight I want to talk about getting a job as a new PhD. If you're in this market, the first thing you should do is go back and read that previous post about getting hired with a Master's degree or lower, because most of that applies to you, especially in your first few years in the industry.

That is to say: if you're a chemist, you're going to be making compounds, and if you're a biologist, you're going to be running assays. The difference is that with a Bachelor's or Master's degree at most companies, those things will remain your primary jobs. With a PhD, you'll be doing them and more. (A future post will address the "more" part.)

So, since the starting points for PhD and Master's hires are fairly similar, the same advice applies to your background. As a chemist, you want to demonstrate versatility and problem-solving ability. If you've got plenty of those, we can overlook quite a few other things. Problem is, those aren't the qualities that just leap out at us during a one-day seminar and interview schedule - unless you make them leap, of course, which is your job for the day.

That means that you shouldn't show a bunch of slides of perfect reactions that all worked perfectly every time. Some people do this to show what amazing hands they have, but that's a mistake. No one gets everything to work all the time, not around here, anyway, and you'd better be ready to deal with that. Show us some things that stopped you in your tracks, and show us how you got around them. As long as you didn't get into the initial bind through your own stupidity, these examples will do you a lot of good. Even if you didn't manage to fix something in the end, show us that you took some good cracks at it and were able to move on. You're going to be doing plenty of that here, too.

On another topic, when you're interviewing for a chemistry position, don't try to impress everyone with your knowledge of biology. You're not a biologist, and that's not the position you're being brought in for. If you sound too much like one, we'll wonder if you every got around to learning enough chemistry. We're all convinced - most of the time, with good reason - that academic medicinal chemistry and academic drug discovery don't train you well for what industry is like, so if that's your background, you need to avoid sounding as if you already know all these things it took us years on the job to learn.

But on the other hand, if that's not your background, don't worry about not knowing all the details of enzyme mechanisms, pharmacokinetics, high-throughput screening assays, and the like. Heck, don't worry about not knowing any details of some of that stuff. Most of us didn't know it, either, and we picked it up just fine. You will, too, if you show us that you're the sort of person who can learn new material.

With a doctorate, you'll be expected to show a capacity for independent work as soon as you start picking up the basics of drug discovery, so show us that you're ready for it. It's not going to look good if you got all your ideas by asking one of the post-docs in your group, for example. I don't mean that have to have invented all your reactions, of course. Lifting 'em from the literature is just fine; that's what we spend our time doing here. But did you motivate yourself to go look, or did someone have to poke you?

As I advised earlier, be ready for all the obvious questions about your work. If you show a weird reaction, someone is going to ask you the mechanism, and not only should you know it, you should show that you knew that the question was coming. If you got some unexpected results - and I hope you did - you should have some explanations ready, even if you don't know which one is correct. A real interview-killer is to be asked why you think something odd happened and to answer that gosh, you don't really know, it must have just been one of those things. . .

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May 8, 2005

How To Get Hired: Associate Positions

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Posted by Derek

I thought I'd expand my recent thoughts on getting employed in the drug industry, and start a new category to put them in. Perhaps they'll be a helpful reference to job seekers. I'll be writing from a chemocentric point of view, but I'll try to make reference to other areas of the pharmaceutical job market.

Tonight we'll discuss lab associate positions, since there are more of those than anything. This job goes by different names in different companies, but there's one thing about it that doesn't change: it's a non-PhD position. This is where you'll be with a Batchelor's or Master's degree, count on it.

In a med-chem department, you'll report to a PhD lab head, and you'll be at the bench making the bulk of the new compounds for testing. That's the single biggest requirement for this job: you need the hands to make new drug candidates. You'll turn out strings of compounds inside a given series, then hop to another and run that one for a while.

You'll need to switch between making 20 milligrams of a compound and making ten grams of it at times, and you'll need to do it with some reasonable speed. We don't care as much about reaction yields in the drug discovery labs. Someone who can hack out ten analogs in 40% yield apiece is a lot more valuable than someone who takes the same amount of time to make one of them in 90%.

If you're that kind of person, you'd be happier in the process and scale-up side of the business, where we try to find the best and cheapest way to make the compounds we're really interested in. That's a vital area, and anyone who tries to sell it short to you is not to be trusted. Keep in mind, though, that those folks work under some of the least flexible deadlines in the whole chemistry department.

If you're in drug discovery, which compounds you make and how much you get to move the chemistry around all depend on who you report to and how good you are. Personally, if I have someone competent reporting to me, I take a hands-off attitude, as much as possible - I try to do only the minimum of "Make this, make that" requests. That's clearly not possible with someone just learning the business, though, and anyone coming in right out of school can expect a lot of pretty direct assignments. As you show what you can do, you'll be given more room on your own, and if you aren't, you should look elsewhere, either inside your company or beyond.

That brings up another key thing about these jobs. Let me speak frankly: at almost every company, there will be a ceiling over your head. The PhD is the terminal degree in the field, and you will never rise as high (synonymous with "earn as much money") as those who have attained it. This will be true even if you're smarter than many of them, and even if you could do the job if they'd just let you. In many organizations, for example, you may not ever have to chance to have someone report to you. If that's important to you, you need to choose carefully, or you need to hang in there for the PhD itself.

That's not to say that an associate position can't be a good career. It can be, and I've known people who've done well in these roles for decades, both professionally and financially. But you really should know the score going in.

How do you get hired into this kind of position? Most companies have a mix of Batchelor's and Master's people filling these roles. Naturally, we expect more from the latter, and you should be prepared to meet that expectation. You'll need to show that you've done a variety of different reactions, because you're sure going to be seeing a variety of them if you're hired. It's going to be a tough sell if all you've done are eighty-seven different aldols. For the same reason, it helps to show that you can be a quick study. If you'd never made any whateverazoles or done the Whatsis reaction, but had to pick it up on short notice, be very sure to mention that in your interview seminar. (For more on that seminar see this post.)

And, unfair though it might be, you should be able to demonstrate that you can get things to work. Now, not all projects work, true. But even if you were stuck on a loser project, you need to show that you cranked away at it, tried new approaches when you got bogged down, and succeeded wherever you could. Because, let's face it, there are truly people out there who can't even boil an egg, and we sure don't want to hire any of them. (Or any more of them.) Put the best face on things that you can, without crossing the line into overt bullshitting, because that'll be spotted instantly. You may well be talking with some people who've been doing chemistry for as long as you've been alive; trying to snow-job those folks is not recommended.

You should be reasonably competent in the majority language of the company's labs. It's true that every department has some non-native speakers that are rather hard to make out, but that's not a category that we like to add to. While chemistry can be conducted fairly well through drawings and sign language, if someone runs into the lab and yells "Run for your life!", you'd better not just give them a blank look.

And there's another thing that it may be too late to do anything about: you need to look like the sort of person that people can stand to be around. We don't have one-man isolation labs; you're going to be rubbing elbows with people all day long and working on large teams. If you give off odd or nasty vibrations - and let's face it, some of us in the sciences do - then it'll be harder to get hired. There is, at least as of this writing, no affimative action program for the weird.

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April 20, 2005

Sneaking Out for an Interview

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Posted by Derek

There was a good question asked in the comments to the previous post on first job interviews: what do you talk about when you work at one company and you're interviewing at another?

Well, I've done that myself, more than once (note to my current co-workers: not in the last few years, folks.) And it can be tricky. But there are some rules that people follow, and if you stay within their bounds you won't cause any trouble. That's not to say that my managers wouldn't have had a cow if they'd seen my old interview slides at the time, but I was at least in the clear legally. Here's how you make sure of that:

First off, it would be best if you could confine your interview talk to work that's been published in the open literature. That stuff is, by definition, completely sterilized from an intellectual property standpoint, and you can yammer on about it all day if you want. The downside is that published work tends to be pretty ancient stuff by the time it shows up in a journal, and you've may have done a lot more interesting things since then. (The other downside is that published projects are almost always failed projects.) Work that's appeared in issued patents is also bulletproof, of course, but it suffers from the same time-lag disadvantages.

Second best is work that's appeared in patent applications. This stuff hasn't been blessed by the patent office yet, so things could always change, but it's at least been disclosed. When you talk about it, you're not giving away anything that couldn't have already been downloaded and read. (Of course, you do have to resist the temptation to add lots of interesting details that don't appear in the application.)

If you've at least filed the applications, then you can still be sort of OK, since they're going to publish in a few months, anyway. This is a case-by-case thing. If the company you're interviewing at is competing with you in that very field, you'd better not give them a head start. But if you're talking antivirals at a company that does nothing but cardiovascular and cancer, you should be able to get away with it. It would be best if you didn't disclose full structures - leave parts of the molecules cut off as big "R" groups and just talk about the parts that make you look like the dynamic medicinal chemist you are.

The worst case is "none of the above." No published work worth talking about, no patent applications, no nothing. I actually did go out and give an interview seminar under those conditions once, and it was an unpleasant experience. I had to talk about ancient stuff from my post-doc, and it was a real challenge convincing people that I knew what was going on in a drug company. I don't recommend trying it.

But I don't recommend spilling the beans in that situation, either. I've seen a job interview talk where it became clear that the speaker was telling us more than he really should have, and we all thought the same thing: he'll do the same thing to us if he gets a job here. No offer.

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April 19, 2005

Getting A Job

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Posted by Derek

I've been seeing quite a few candidate seminars recently, so allow me to pass on some advice to those of you out on the first-job-in-the-drug-industry trail.

First off, some presentation tips: Speak up, if possible. I hear ten too-soft seminars for every too-loud one. Don't give your talk to the screen - either the one on your laptop or the one on the wall. Give it to the people in the room. Look up, turn around, do what you need to do to give them the sense that you're passing information on to them. Find a way to sound somewhere between the extremes of here-is-my-script and gosh-I-don't-remember-this-slide.

As for that information, slides in a scientific presentation should have a medium amount of information on them. A whole slide with one big reaction on it is OK during the introduction, but you'd better fill things out a bit as you move on in the talk. Your audience can tell if you're padding things out.

But don't make the opposite error, putting all your information on one slide in One Big Table. You might think it looks more impressive that way, but it's just irritatingly illegible and uninterpretable. Spread those big data heaps out a bit into coherent piles - put all the aliphatic examples on a slide, followed by the aromatic ones, and so on. You'll find more things to talk about that way, too.

Be honest. If you have to come in with a thin talk, for whatever reason, admit it to yourself and be prepared to admit it in some fashion to your audience. Find some ways to show them that you know more than your slides can illustrate. And don't try to pretend that your results are groundbreaking and exciting, unless they really, really are. Exciting results usually speak for themselves, and your audience will know 'em when they see 'em.

Be prepared for the obvious. If you put a weird reaction up on the screen, someone is going to ask you about the mechanism. If you have some unusual results in a series, someone's going to ask you why you think they came out that way. Be ready with some ideas - it can be fine to not know the answer yet, as long as you've shown that you've thought about what the answer might be. Looking unprepared for down-the-middle pitchs like these will get you crossed off the list very quickly.

And look as if you can learn. No one comes into the drug industry knowing what they really need to know. It comes with experience, and you need to make it clear that you're the sort of person that experience is not wasted on.

That should help. I'll settle for a fee of 10% of your first year's salary, OK?

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