It was a bolt out of the blue. Earlier this year, I read on Derek Lowe’s pharma industry blog, In the Pipeline, that he had “parted ways” with his employer. In the March 27 post, Lowe wrote: “A number of my other colleagues are going through similar experiences as things reorganize, but for my own part, I’m looking into several new opportunities in the Boston/Cambridge area.”
As an industrial chemist in this volatile job climate, I immediately knew what he meant. It was a reminder that we are all a bad quarter or two away from losing our jobs. Even a thoughtful, widely respected figure in medicinal chemistry like Lowe isn’t immune to being laid off.
In the months after his surprising news, Lowe continued blogging as if nothing had changed. I’ll admit that I was terribly curious about how his job search was going, but I know how annoying it can be to be asked, “How is the job search going?” It wasn’t until months later that I decided to email, and I was happy to hear that his search was coming to a successful end and that he had accepted a job offer. Not long after, I asked to interview him about his job search, and he graciously accepted.
After Lowe parted ways with his employer, he didn’t take any time off before starting to look for a job. From a previous layoff earlier in his career, Lowe anticipated that his search might take several months. So he assumed a normal routine: Every morning, he thought about how he would advance his job search that day. This meant connecting with other people, by email or occasionally by telephone—a networking effort aided by the fact that he lives in the Boston area, where drug discovery is strong. Lowe also found time for a bit of relaxation, like hiking or indulging in amateur astronomy.
While Lowe considered some of the common alternative paths (that is, small companies or academia), what he really wanted was a position in industrial medicinal chemistry. How many interviews (both in person and on the phone) did he have? Only half a dozen. People might be forgiven in thinking that Lowe, a seasoned chemist with excellent communication skills, would be inundated with requests for job interviews. But the mathematics of the job market reigned. Even in a densely populated cluster of the drug industry, only a limited number of positions were available for someone of his level of experience. Moreover, I suspect that hiring for a relatively senior position is a far more deliberative process than hiring for an entry-level role.
This speaks to one of the tensions of being a midcareer chemist: As you grow older, job searching is often slower because your skills have grown more specialized. In addition, there are the usual factors limiting potential job opportunities, such as hiring freezes. Meanwhile, the financial needs of the midcareer chemist continue apace: There are mortgages to pay and children to send to college.
If there was one message that Lowe wanted to pass along to his fellow chemists, it was the importance of communicating one’s passion for science. It’s a tricky endeavor, and he consciously did not want to be the jaded, grizzled scientist in the back of the seminar room who had seen it all and didn’t care anymore. Rather, he tried to convey his enthusiasm, his love of research, and his willingness to try new things. He still wanted to work on the science side, and part of reaching that goal was convincing a potential employer and potential younger colleagues that, after working in medicinal chemistry for over 20 years, he was still passionate about fundamental research. I know that I want to be able to communicate a sense of the joy and wonder I still feel about chemistry—and that may turn out to be a valuable skill.
Before we closed our conversation, I asked if he had any final words of advice. Very quickly, he said, “Don’t let this stuff catch you by surprise. If you haven’t thought about this, you should.” That’s certainly sobering, and it’s something that is worth remembering. Even more sobering was his assessment about the potential for layoffs for those who have higher levels of experience; he believes the chances of being targeted are higher, not lower. What to do? He knows that it sounds cliché, but Lowe mentioned the importance of a network and keeping it up. He also recommended having an elevator pitch that summarizes why your skills are unique and valuable.
These job-search skills apply even to those of us who aren’t necessarily worried about what’s around the corner. In this unpredictable job market, it’s equally important to be ready for when opportunity knocks. “What would I do if something better came along?” Lowe had asked at the start of our conversation. That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.