Issue Date: April 18, 2011
Every morning, John K. Thottathil puts on a suit and tie and prepares for the long workday ahead. He’s up earlier than anyone else in his house, and he’s the last one to go to bed.
Thottathil, a Ph.D. organic chemist who lives in the Chicago area, has been looking for a full-time position for the past three years. As a result of industry mergers and acquisitions, Thottathil was laid off in 2005 from Abbott Laboratories, where he was director of chemistry, and again at the end of 2007 from New River Pharmaceuticals, where he was chief scientific officer.
Yet Thottathil has never been busier. He’s consulting, giving presentations at scientific meetings around the country, reading the latest scientific literature, developing new product ideas, and tweeting about his activities. He’s even helped a client file seven patent applications.
“Not only am I working as a productive team member, but a very creative team member,” Thottathil says. “I’m struggling to do all these things to show the world that I’m very current and very active, and I’m looking for a regular opportunity somewhere. I have an awful lot to give to society, and I’m not ready to let my skills go to rust.”
For Ph.D. chemists who are unemployed, keeping their skills sharp is challenging and can feel like a full-time job. But in the current hyper-competitive job market, staying current isn’t optional—it’s essential.
Employers “can have a bias against people whom they perceive to be stale,” says David E. Harwell, assistant director of career management and development at the American Chemical Society. “If there’s not an indication that somebody is trying to better themselves, that’s probably an indication that they’re not going to try and better themselves for the potential employer.”
According to ACS’s 2010 ChemCensus employment survey, 3.8% of the society’s members are unemployed, which is one of the highest rates of unemployment since ACS began tracking member employment in 1972. More troubling, the median amount of time that chemists are unemployed has risen to nine months, compared with a median of six to seven months in 2006, before the recession hit. “Once that figure moves past a year, you enter a new category where it becomes incredibly difficult to keep your job skills fresh, to maintain your résumé, and to get back into the workforce,” said Gareth Edwards, a research associate in the ACS Department of Member Research & Technology, during a Feb. 24 ACS webinar titled “Employment (and Unemployment) Trends in the Chemical and Pharma Industries.”
Thottathil does not let these statistics dampen his resolve. In addition to consulting, Thottathil volunteers with several local organizations including Chicago Innovation Mentors, which matches the expertise of area professionals with the needs of university professors who are trying to commercialize new technologies. Thottathil hopes that his mentoring efforts will eventually pay off. “Let’s say down the road the professor forms a company and there is a need for a person like me, I can potentially see regular employment there,” he says.
At the same time, Thottathil has learned to manage his expectations. “But that’s down the road,” he says. “You cannot count on any of these things.”
For Ph.D. synthetic organic chemist Molly E. Hoke, the time she spent volunteering did pay off. After working for Wyeth for 10 years, Hoke was laid off in early 2010 when Pfizer acquired the company and closed the Wyeth R&D site where Hoke had been working.
“There’s a mourning period that you go through because not only have you lost your job, but you probably aren’t going to have the same type of role again,” she says. “While it was quite sad, I saw it as an opportunity to do something different. I was open-minded and explored different areas that I thought I would enjoy and that would be a good application of my skill set and experiences.”
Through her network of friends and colleagues, she learned about the Mini-MBA program on biopharma entrepreneurship at Rutgers University. Hoke fell in love with the business side of pharma and soon found herself pursuing opportunities in business development and technology transfer. During a networking event, she learned about a volunteer opportunity in the business development unit at Provid Pharmaceuticals. That work grew into a part-time paid position at Provid as manager of business development.
In the fall of 2010, Hoke applied for an internship with the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey’s Office of Patents & Licensing that was intended for third- and fourth-year graduate students. “It was a little humbling to have to e-mail them and explain my situation, but they were really receptive and excited to have someone with my skill set and experiences be a part of the program,” she says.
In January, Hoke found a full-time position as an associate consultant with Defined Health, a business development strategy consulting firm for the pharmaceutical, biotech, and health care investment industries.
Aileen Nicoletti, a vice president at Defined Health, remembers the day that Hoke’s résumé caught her eye. “A lot of times, we get résumés from people who are coming off the bench who are clearly looking for something different. But it’s not obvious to me that they’ve thought through it and started moving toward it on their own,” she says. Hoke’s résumé “showed that she was committing herself to pursuing this career path, and that it wasn’t just one of many ideas.”
Early and midcareer chemists, such as Hoke, have the option of changing their career focus, but for more senior-level chemists, reinventing themselves is much less practical. For this group, becoming a consultant is one approach to staying current and connected.
After being laid off from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based biopharmaceutical company Scios in 2006, Ph.D. organic chemist Daniel E. Levy found himself out of work for the first time in his 15-year career. He decided to start his own consulting business, DEL BioPharma, and one of the opportunities that arose was to consult for Pharmadyn, providing strategic planning, grant application, and intellectual property services to the Sunnyvale preclinical drug R&D company. Pharmadyn even gave Levy the title of acting vice president of R&D.
Levy did the work pro bono because the company couldn’t afford to pay him, but he worked out an agreement where he could use the firm’s laboratory space at a sharply discounted rate whenever he needed it. So when another consulting opportunity came along to do custom synthesis for Intradigm, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., that produces RNAi-based therapeutics, Levy was able to fulfill the contract using the lab space at Pharmadyn. “While I wasn’t able to generate income from my relationship with Pharmadyn,” he says, “I was able to get hold of resources that allowed me to generate income.”
Levy’s collaboration with Intradigm eventually led to a full-time position at the company. But after Intradigm merged with Silence Therapeutics in 2010, Levy was laid off again.
“These days, you can’t expect a job to last more than three to five years before mergers and restructuring force you to look for new prospects,” he says. “In this kind of environment, networking and constant job searching are essential in order to maintain your ability to move to the next opportunity.”
After accepting a buyout from Lexicon Pharmaceuticals in 2008, Ph.D. chemist Terry R. Stouch founded the firm Science For Solutions, which provides consulting in areas including drug design, drug discovery research, and computational chemistry software.
His business has been so successful that he plans to expand his practice to include several partners. He says consulting has helped him keep his skills sharp and expand his network. “I’m constantly dealing with new people and new situations and new types of science,” he says. “And staying networked is now more important than ever.”
Consulting is not for everyone, however. “If you’re a consultant, you’re very much on your own to make things work,” Stouch says. “You have to be driven and self-motivating. You have to have a good network and continue to grow it.”
Sometimes, spending time honing skills while unemployed can help people refocus their research interests. Ph.D. polymer engineer Tamal Ghosh left Ciba Specialty Chemicals in Switzerland in late 2007 after a company reorganization. From his work at Ciba, he knew that demand was growing for expertise in sustainable packaging. That was a field he enjoyed, so he spent the next year strengthening his experience in the area.
He leveraged his background in polymer science and engineering, and soon he was consulting on projects involving sustainable packaging. “I have experience in coatings, but instead of marketing myself as an expert in coatings, I marketed myself as an expert in packaging with deep knowledge of coatings,” he says.
Two years after he left Ciba, Ghosh accepted an offer from a leading consumer packaged-goods company to join its new-product development team for sustainable packaging. “I wouldn’t have gotten this job if I was straight out of Ciba because there were some gaps on my résumé,” he explains. “But because of my consulting work, I was able to offer knowledge and skills that made me a competitive candidate.”
When Ph.D. chemist Steven A. Weissman was laid off from Merck & Co. in 2008, he knew that it would take a while before he found a new job. “I was mentally prepared for a long-term search,” he says. “I had no illusions that it was going to be a one- or two-month thing.”
After allowing himself two weeks to regroup, Weissman immediately got to work. He completed the Mini-MBA program at Rutgers, attended scientific meetings, read scientific publications, served as a coinventor on two patents with former colleagues from Merck, and bolstered his online presence. “You definitely have to answer the question, ‘What have you done with your time in transition? What have you accomplished?’ ” In late 2009, Weissman was offered a job with Concert Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass., where he is now associate director of process chemistry.
Sometimes, cobbling together several low-paying positions is the only way to bridge the gap on one’s résumé. While Ph.D. chemist Paul Young was unemployed after being laid off from Nalco in 2001, he served as an adjunct professor at several colleges in the Chicago area. “My teenage son was making more from his part-time job as a grocery cashier than I did from my part-time job teaching college chemistry,” he recalls.
But the experience helped him improve his presentation and public speaking skills. He also kept his mind sharp. “There’s a lot of creativity in teaching when you’re trying to figure out the answer to a good question,” he says.
During this period, Young also consulted for St. Michael, Minn.-based U.S. Water Services, which provides water treatment services, and it was this work that eventually led to his current full-time position with the company.
Staying positive and believing in your own value is half the battle in finding a new job. “You’ve got to be able to pick yourself up from off the floor and be able to convince somebody that you’re the right person for this job,” ACS’s Harwell says. “The more positive you are, the higher your chances are of getting employment. So you have to bolster yourself, whatever it takes.”
ACS is responding to the growing number of unemployed chemists by developing programs to help them better identify their strengths. “We’ve never had this large a group of mid- to late-career chemists who are unemployed, so what we’re having to do is retool to develop programs for them,” Harwell says.
One tool, which he expects to be available online later this year, is a set of core competencies for chemists and an online self-assessment instrument based on these competencies. With this tool “people can better assess where they are and figure out where they might like to go. Then we’ll help them bridge the gap either through courses or training that we provide,” Harwell says. “Chemists tend to focus so strongly on their technical skill sets that it’s hard for them to see the broader picture of who they are and what they bring to the table.”
But it’s not only the unemployed who need to be constantly building their skills. “No job is secure these days, so while you’re employed, you have to diversify your skills, training, and experience,” Thottathil says. “That will save you if you’re forced to look for another job.”
As for Thottathil, he is pushing ahead. “The goal is to stay active in the field and keep my name alive,” he says. “Otherwise, I will disappear into an abyss.”
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