Volume 95 Issue 46 | p. 25
Issue Date: November 20, 2017 | Web Date: November 15, 2017

Layoffs and the midcareer chemist

Chemistry blogger Derek Lowe shares his advice on the job search
By Chemjobber
Department: Career & Employment
Keywords: Employment, chemjobber, bench and cubicle, layoffs
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
An older chemist standing outside an employment office.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

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.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Frank (Wed Nov 15 14:35:40 EST 2017)
Nice article; uncertain times now; with big business as well as small business. While I sometimes miss "being in the game"; there's something nice about retirement as well!
» Reply
Paul E. Eckler (Wed Nov 15 14:49:18 EST 2017)
After 10 years or so out of school, you find yourself competing with recent graduates if you stick with the basic skills you learned in school. Recent graduates work cheaply. Competition can be tough.

Usually it’s the experience shown on your resume that gets you an interview. The recent graduate may be very sharp, but he/she needs some time to become productive in many job situations. Hiring experienced people means I want someone who can make immediate contributions and not require much training.

In hiring people I usually have others looking over my shoulder. My requirements are often very specific in terms of experience needed. It also helps to have worked for leaders in the industry (often competitors or customers). Previous employers matter and can be a plus as long as non-competes don’t get in the way.

After 10 years you probably have specialized in certain areas. If yours are fields in demand, job searching will be easier. Specialized experience can be valuable, but it may take time to find the right employer.

After 10 years you also tend to be in upper salary brackets. That makes you more vulnerable in cost cutting layoffs. Unless of course you are a key player in a major project.

Networking is often listed as a key for the mid career professional looking for work. People you have worked with over the years know your accomplishments and reputation. They can be sources of opportunities. They may well know who is hiring and what they are looking for. Do let your friends know you are looking.

Don’t forget to consider temp agencies. Manpower and Kelley Scientific, to name two, have listings for temp professionals including chemists. Their salaries are negotiable. Some companies prefer to hire temps. Temping is a opportunity to show what you can do.

Guard against negative thoughts while you are looking. Depression can be a problem. Find some people you can relax with and talk it out. Finding that next job can take time, but most of us find something. Keep your chin up.
Terence Walker (Wed Nov 15 16:08:58 EST 2017)
Great suggestion re Manpower, etc. It may seem obvious in retrospect, but I hadn’t considered the idea
Linda Wang (Wed Nov 15 16:27:59 EST 2017)
Thank you, Paul, for the words of wisdom and valuable advice.
Robert Buntrock (Sun Dec 03 21:32:59 EST 2017)
Definitely network but to expect your friends to directly help you find a job. However, up to 705 of the job recommendations you wil get will come from their friends, contacts, and networks.

Experience counts but be prepared to take a pay cut from your next employer. Experience also includes organizational "moxie" which can take at least a year to acquire in your new company.

Finally, I've advised students and others that there meaningful jobs and careers in chemistry other than lab work and professorship and still be a chemist.
Dan Eustace (Wed Nov 15 17:28:54 EST 2017)
Is it true that this example is one of a independent contributor / project
manager with mature, applied research-- problem solving skillset.
It is a valuable discussion and worth much broader readership.

It is linked as a comment in our local section blog.

Please continue to do your excellent blogging work.
Brian L (Thu Nov 16 00:30:50 EST 2017)
For Derek and others I would recommend being open to reinventing yourself when this happens. My career as a PhD chemist sailed along happily until I was 50 years old and was essentially “let go” (long story for another time). Promptly found another job and a second until it was time to break out of my mold and do different things outside of my organomettic chemistry Home. You know what - it is actually good for you - you have picked up new skills along the way (Patent skills? Business development? Leadership?). I am now proudly inventor of 100 or so patents in disparate fields. In your particular case Derek - the World of cannabis needs you - the World is your oyster!
dattatray (Thu Nov 16 01:17:59 EST 2017)
Best artical so far.
Rajkumar (Thu Nov 16 12:10:02 EST 2017)
This is great article. Everyone should take in consideration. He has highlighted mostly drug discovery but the situation is almost same in all areas of work and this is my opinion. To compete with youngster is difficult for the exprienced. In one line I want to tell you that keep always option B ready with you.
Alex (Fri Nov 17 14:49:36 EST 2017)
This is a thought provoking subject. Also pays to network, even if you think you are in a good, long-term job situation. Nice job.
Naren B (Sun Nov 19 15:09:37 EST 2017)
A well timed article with great comments and apt suggestions. The key takeaway is that uncertainty at the work place is ubiquitous as well as here to stay. A job layoff is neither personal nor does it reflect on one’s performance, rather a reaction to a satisfy a business need (usually financial).

As a veteran of two job searching adventures (one current and the other 18 years ago), I am intrigued by how little has changed. Resume writing, job aggregating sites, robotic resume searches for keywords still abound. In the search of the holy grail that your resume is picked by a hiring manager who has a key upcoming project with needs that match your skill set, every tool counts. An updated list of contacts in diverse job functions/areas should be one of those tools in your portfolio.

From my point of view, a good paying job in a prestigious company can be dangerous, especially if you lull yourself into believing that the status quo will last for ever. Easier said than done, but working on topics that are relevant, not being afraid to taking on new responsibilities (if available), and constantly updating your skills should be a good recipe of making yourself viable in an ever changing workplace.

And talking about skills, though open innovation has been around for some time now, there is a burgeoning need of "on-demand" specialists whose knowledge skills may be needed by the hour/day/month. This avenue may not suit every expert, but below is a partial list that I have compiled.
Kolabtree , LabMate, Data Detektiv, Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship, CORES Science and Engineering Limited, upwork.com, NewtonX…

Robert Buntrock (Sun Dec 03 21:37:27 EST 2017)
I'm a semi-retired "baseball chemist". I've lost 3 jobs but the catcher dropped the 3rd strike so I was safe at first. My wife and I formed a consultancy providing information services, the same thing I did for 23 years at my last employer. That was 23 years ago and the consultancy no longer makes any money but I have plans on fully retiring, still having too much fun.
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