Issue Date: September 27, 2010
Leaping To New Opportunities
For the past two years, the job market for chemists has been dismal. In the midst of a weak economy, thousands of chemists have been thrown out of the workforce as companies merged, cut costs, or outsourced jobs to other countries.
In the wake of these moves, many chemists have been left shocked and angry about how they could be severed from positions they held comfortably for five, 10, or 20 years in seemingly stable companies. “Every hour of every day, we see unemployed scientists who are very discouraged and confused about what they will do next,” says Josh Albert, managing director of executive search firm Klein Hersh International.
To be sure, some of the recently unemployed have been able to return to research and development positions within the pharmaceutical industry. However, many others, for better or worse, have opted to repurpose their education, skills, and experience or go back to school to move into new fields that are sometimes on the periphery of or outside chemistry.
Of those chemists affected by mass layoffs in big pharma, “about 25% of them are shifting into new jobs in regulatory, clinical, or quality functions, or moving into teaching,” especially if they are unwilling to relocate, according to Marc Miller, director of medicinal and process chemistry at Klein Hersh. Many chemists have also gone from the traditional pharma setting into agricultural chemicals or renewable energy businesses, he says.
Interestingly, the unemployed are not the only ones who are making this kind of leap into nontraditional careers. “Fed up with the employment landscape, and particularly with where pharma is going,” many working scientists have made moves such as enrolling in law school or pharmacy school, Miller observes. And some recent graduates, unable to find first jobs in the pharma and biotech sectors, have gone into nontraditional careers immediately after finishing their education.
Regardless of the motivating factors, finding a new career path isn’t easy. Many chemists struggle to find ways to bridge the gap from research to a new field or profession.
That was the case for Philip Skinner, who was laid off from his “dream job” as a medicinal chemist at San Diego-based biopharma firm Arena Pharmaceuticals in April 2009 (C&EN, Dec. 7, 2009, page 53). The Ph.D. chemist had already logged eight years at Arena when the company laid off its discovery team after the release of clinical data that caused its stock price to tumble. Unable to find another medicinal chemistry job, he says he “immediately started investigating every possible career path.”
Although Skinner was initially thinking he might be able to find a position in project management, he landed a software sales position with CambridgeSoft, a provider of electronic lab notebooks and other products and services to the pharma, biotech, and chemical industries.
The key to getting the job, he says, was the long-term relationship he had previously built with CambridgeSoft. While at Arena, he had helped pilot, and later steer implementation of, CambridgeSoft’s E-Notebook. Later, CambridgeSoft had called on him to help out with an E-Notebook demonstration for a potential customer, he says. Then, about a year into his unemployment, the firm offered him the sales position, which he accepted in March of this year. “CambridgeSoft had seen me in action, knew me for many years, and felt that my science background would add a lot of credibility,” he says.
“I love my new job,” Skinner says. “Although I do miss the investigational side of chemistry, a lot of what I do is strategic in nature, and the thrill is somewhat similar.”
Like Skinner, Ryan Lauchli has found a stimulating new career path after being laid off from a medicinal chemistry position last year. A Ph.D. organic chemist, Lauchli had worked at Redwood City, Calif.-based biotech firm Genelabs Technologies, designing and synthesizing libraries of heterocyclic compounds that might have potential as drugs for hepatitis C virus. However, after only 17 months at the company, he lost his job when GlaxoSmithKline purchased Genelabs in early 2009 (C&EN, May 17, page 4).
After applying “halfheartedly” for medical chemistry positions for a couple of months, he decided to redirect his career path and pursue biocatalyst engineering—a field for which he had developed a passion. He began interviewing experts and reading everything he could about biocatalyst engineering. “I wasn’t sure how I would enter the field, but I was sure I would find a way,” he says.
Lauchli finally landed a postdoctoral position, which he began a few weeks ago, in Frances H. Arnold’s lab at California Institute of Technology. Arnold agreed to allow Lauchli into her group on the condition that he secure independent funding, which he obtained in the form of a National Institutes of Health fellowship, he says.
Although Lauchli now earns half of what he earned at Genelabs, and is “working much harder,” he says, he expects to end up in a more satisfying career. “If medicinal chemistry jobs had been easy to find, I probably would have stayed in the field,” even though he did not find it “stimulating from a scientific perspective,” Lauchli says.
Unlike Lauchli, Daniel Becker never stopped loving his work as a medicinal chemist. However, after 17 years in the pharmaceutical industry, he left that career when he was laid off from Pharmacia after Pfizer acquired it in 2003.
That acquisition signaled a change not only for the companies involved, but for the industry as whole, Becker says. At that point, “it was clear that the era of making pharmaceuticals to improve the quality of life for people was waning,” he says. “The primary focus turned to making money as quickly as possible, which involved a greater focus on lifestyle drugs and on obtaining products through acquisitions and mass layoffs,” he says. “The inventors were then superfluous.”
This sad realization is what prompted Becker to leave the career he “had dreamed of since youth and enjoyed for so many years.” He evaluated many alternatives that year, including consulting and government jobs. But he returned to thinking about the time he served as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, during his time in industry. He realized that he loved teaching as much as he loved research and that “academia was where I wanted to be,” he says. In 2004, he became a tenure-track associate professor of chemistry at Loyola University Chicago, teaching organic and medicinal chemistry and conducting research in medicinal and supramolecular chemistry.
“People often ask me if I prefer the university to industry, and if that’s why I changed careers,” Becker says. “I tell them that I love what I do now, and I also loved discovery medicinal chemistry in industry.”
As they take stock of the troubled employment climate within many pharma and biotech firms, some chemists are moving toward nontraditional careers even without the impetus of a layoff. “An awareness of the increasing insecurity surrounding R&D jobs in the U.K. and U.S.,” was one factor that prompted Ph.D. chemist Laura Mace to quit her job and pursue an M.B.A. degree after working for four years as a process development chemist at a U.K.-based major pharma company.
Working in an environment where many people feared for their jobs, Mace sensed that “development opportunities for young scientists were being curtailed,” she says. “There’s a ‘you should be glad just to have a job, so let’s hear no more about that promotion’ message being handed down,” she says. “For bright, ambitious young scientists, like the many handpicked by big pharma over the past 10 years, that’s not a great thing to hear.”
Her decision to pursue a business degree also sprang from “an awareness that many decisions that affected me were being made elsewhere in the company by people who didn’t necessarily have the best or most complete skill set to do so,” Mace says. “Managers with a scientific background might not possess the business training to make sound judgments about business issues, while other managers might lack the scientific understanding to appreciate the impact their decisions had on scientists, science, or the R&D process,” she adds. “Therefore, I decided that I should acquire some business training to hopefully bridge those gaps,” says Mace, who began an 18-month M.B.A. program at the University of Manchester’s Manchester Business School, in England, last month.
When she finishes her master’s, Mace hopes that she will find a job in which she can apply her new business skills and still make use of her scientific understanding of chemistry and the R&D process in pharmaceuticals. That might involve joining a large pharma firm again or going into consulting, she says. However, she plans to ask herself “some hard questions” about what she wants to do with her life. “I am open to the idea that I might completely change direction—become an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or do something that hasn’t even occurred to me yet.”
Although Mace was able to work briefly in a pharma company before deciding to pursue a nontraditional path, Michael Perham had to make that call just out of school. After finishing a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at Rice University in 2008, he was disappointed to find few jobs open to him in the biotech and pharma sector. Because of “what I had heard and read when I entered graduate school, I knew that either the job market had changed or I was naïve to believe that there would be ample job opportunities for me when I finished my education,” he says.
Determined to find work in the Houston area until his wife finished her master’s program at the University of Houston, Perham leveraged the experience he gained in an internship in Rice’s technology transfer office to land a position at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Then, in May 2009, he moved into his current position as a licensing associate at the University of Virginia Patent Foundation, which focuses primarily on patenting and licensing the university’s inventions. “The great thing about this job is that I get to use almost everything I learned in science,” he says. “Every new disclosure we get is different, and I could be handling anything from a synthetic drug, to an antibody, to a medical device, to a piece of software on any given day,” he says. “I know enough about these subjects to give me a place to start to learn more,” which often requires “filtering through loads of literature”—something he trained to do in graduate school, he says.
Using a Ph.D. in chemistry as a springboard to a nontraditional career is something Mary O’Reilly is doing, after having completed postdoctoral work at Scripps Research Institute last month.
Not being able to find a biotech position in the same part of the country as her husband led O’Reilly to pursue other options, “and now I am so glad I did,” she says. As she finished her Ph.D. in biological chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she did “a great deal of candid self-evaluation, not only about what I am capable of, but what I want in life,” she says.
Recognizing that she had always loved both chemistry and art, she decided to investigate a career she had long dreamed about—working as a science illustrator. She conducted informational interviews with those in the field “and tapped into the outstanding career exploration resources at Scripps,” she says. She then started building a portfolio by volunteering to make illustrations for the Scripps newsletter and for other members of her postdoc lab. She also set up a website (www.oreillyscienceart.com) displaying her artwork. In addition, she is working to earn certificates in art and graphic design through the extension program at the University of California, San Diego. She now has a growing list of clients.
At the same time, O’Reilly is realizing her dream of building an academic career by working as a part-time adjunct faculty member at the University of San Diego. In her new position, she is willing to “teach whatever the department asks me to teach in order to gain more experience,” she says.
Although she does miss “the thrill of discovery in research,” she has concluded that “we do not have to be at the bench to make discoveries,” she says. “Both teaching and making art are thrilling to me.” For now, “I feel that I am exactly where I want to be, although the jury is still out on whether my story will be a success story.”
Although some chemists “seamlessly shift into nonlaboratory positions, others have more difficulty,” says Lisa M. Balbes, a scientific communication consultant and author of the book “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists.” Most people are not aware of the almost limitless number of possible career paths that exist, and “picking the right one takes some self-knowledge,” she says.
Balbes advises people who aim to leave traditional chemistry careers to think beyond their previous role and define themselves more broadly than as just a medicinal chemist or an analytical chemist, she says. She encourages them to identify skills and experiences that give them an edge in the job market. Many chemists don’t realize that their training has helped them develop strong critical thinking skills, for example, she says.
She often asks scientists to identify the most significant accomplishments in their careers—an exercise that provides clues about what kind of work they truly enjoy. For example, someone who has been particularly good at assembling teams in a previous job might want to look for a position in human resources or project management, she says.
After identifying a potential new career, chemists should join the professional society that represents that area, talk to others in the field, and investigate what certifications or degrees are required to do that work, Balbes says. She summarized this advice in a recent article on the ACS Careers blog (acscareers.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/change-your-career-in-six-easy-steps). Chemists may find other resources at the upcoming ACS Virtual Career Fair (see page 70).
Before shifting into a new field or profession, experienced chemists also need to consider how the change will impact their salary level and hard-earned seniority. “If you have been leading a group in chemistry and are laid off, you are not going to be qualified to immediately go and run a group in regulatory affairs,” Klein Hersh’s Albert says. “You’ll have to start somewhere above an entry-level position and work your way back up. People simply can’t expect to achieve that same level of financial remuneration right off the bat.”
Chemists who move into a nontraditional field also risk being unable to return to their work in chemical research. “The longer you are away from the bench or drug discovery, the harder it will be to go back,” Albert says.
Having now invested more than two years in a tech transfer career, Perham does not ever expect to work as a research chemist. “For one thing, my technical skills would certainly be behind the times if I were to go back to bench research,” he says. “And I’ve become a generalist, which I enjoy more.”
For his part, Becker does not entirely rule out returning to a medicinal chemistry position in industry. He is able to stay current in the field with his research projects at Loyola and with industrial research consulting. “Right now, I have no intentions of heading back to industry, but it’s nice to know that it’s a possibility. I haven’t burned any bridges.”
Skinner, too, says he might someday want to go back to work as a chemist. However, he would only return “if and when it is a valued career again, perhaps when organic chemistry becomes the dominant skill set in organic solar cells or some new industry,” he says.
Like many chemists, Skinner does not expect to see a rebound in demand for medicinal chemists anytime soon. For now, the state of chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry “is not good and wasn’t good for years before the recession hit,” which doesn’t lead to confidence that those jobs will return, he says.
Albert is more optimistic. “Companies in the U.S. are going to have to renew their commitment to discovery research because that is the only way we will have new drugs going forward. And new drugs are what drive new revenues,” he says. As a result, he expects demand for chemists will be on the rebound in 2012 or 2013.
If that is true, and if scientists continue to move away from research positions, “we could potentially have a labor shortage in the future,” says Albert, acknowledging that many people—especially those who planned their careers around the expectation of high demand for chemists—would strongly disagree with his prediction.
Regardless of how the future supply and demand of chemists balance out, it seems likely that the retooling trend could have a negative impact on the drug industry.
“If large groups of chemists who have been in the industry for five to 15 years begin leaving, this would be a very serious issue,” says the blogger known as Chemjobber, a Ph.D. synthetic chemist who tracks chemistry employment. “Their experience, leadership, and any potential positive changes they would have made to the industry would be lost,” he says.
Less critical would be the loss of “extremely senior people,” he says, reasoning that they would be “more likely to remain connected to the industry via consulting and other roles,” adds Chemjobber, who spoke with C&EN on the condition that his identity not be revealed.
However, unless companies begin to move in a different direction, “there are going to be thousands of bench-level scientists who were employed from about 2000 to 2010 who will never work in pharma again,” Chemjobber predicts. As a result, “they will simply have to find positions elsewhere—and retooling into different fields and industries will have to happen.”
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