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Careers

A sizzling biotech job market is streamlining the course to a career in chemistry

As PhDs leave postdocs early for industry, researchers are considering the future of their postdoc programs

by Rick Mullin
September 12, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 33

 

A woman in front of a beach landscape.
Credit: Courtesy of Luiza Bondila
Luiza Bondila, who was hired in 2019 as a development chemist at Sterling Pharma Solutions, says she was leaning toward a job in academia but reconsidered given the active job market in pharmaceuticals.

“What is happening with chemistry in America?” queries Matthew D. Hall, a biology group leader at the US National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in a Twitter post July 8. “We’re losing postdocs to pharma after less than 1 year in our med chem labs. Is the job market that hot in chemistry?”

The answer, in short, is yes.

The combination of a healthy drug industry, heavy venture capital investment in start-ups, and new targets for small-molecule drugs is spurring a hiring spree, allowing some young PhD chemists, particularly in medicinal and computational chemistry, to skip the traditional years of postdoctoral training and go quickly to work in the pharmaceutical industry. The boom is great for chemists looking to start their careers, but it is raising questions about the role of the postdoc in the training of chemists today.

Hall says he was prompted to start a conversation on Twitter after hearing multiple accounts of principal investigators in academic labs losing postdocs to industry. “And not in a scenario where they have done a 2- or 3-year postdoc, but 4 to 6 months in. I’m 44. I did a very long postdoc. I have a lot of friends who did two postdocs. That was not uncommon at all. Obviously, the opportunities are there now in a way they haven’t been for a while.”

Hall adds that it has become increasingly difficult to fill postdoc spots in his lab at NCATS. “I have chatted with a few people who applied for postdocs who basically said, ‘I’m not doing a postdoc. I have a job with pharma.’ ”

This is a troubling development, Hall says, given the traditional role of postdoctoral programs in training PhD-level chemists in medicinal chemistry.

Keep in mind this is exactly what our field wants to see. I love to see this type of job environment for young scientists.
Joel Schneider, chief of chemical biology, National Cancer Institute

Most PhD programs give a student a solid grounding in areas such as organic synthesis, mechanistic organic chemistry, and natural product chemistry, Hall says. “Medicinal chemistry requires you to acquire an understanding of how to work in a team, how to speak biology, how to speak modeling. How to be project-managed and how to look at and understand biological data that informs decisions that are made about the direction a chemistry program is going in. Some people get this at the PhD level, but not many.”

Joel P. Schneider, the chief of chemical biology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), agrees that a postdoc fellowship provides a path from the classical chemistry learned during a PhD program to the practical realm of medicinal chemistry as conducted in industrial drug discovery. The NCI, which, like NCATS, is part of the US National Institutes of Health, provides an ideal setting, he says.

“When a fellow joins a particular lab at the NCI, that fellow is really joining all the labs at the NCI. There is a very fluid environment,” Schneider says.

While the labs at the NCI have not taken much of a hit, Schneider says, some fellows have moved into industry before their postdoc is over. He speaks of one former fellow who left for a job with a biotechnology company. She was subsequently hired by a firm involved with crop science, and then by a top 10 pharmaceutical company. “This happened in a year and a half,” he says.

Bill Wuest, a chemistry professor at Emory University, says the hot job market in pharmaceutical chemistry contrasts with a dearth of jobs in academia. And even some of those who have jobs in academia are making a move.

“I’ve seen quite a few people in the last 2 to 3 years leave tenured positions for industry jobs,” he says. The potential for a higher salary without having to juggle teaching remotely, keeping grants afloat, and caring for family during a pandemic has a lot of people looking at where their research aligns with industry, Wuest says.

Wuest says his thinking about postdocs has evolved in recent years. Traditionally, fellowships gave young chemists an experience in a new lab, preparing them for jobs, largely in academia, he says. It has become less clear what a postdoc offers a chemist who wants to pursue a job in industry.

Opportunities in biotech

Biotech companies are in the midst of a hiring surge, fueled by sizable rounds of venture capital financing, new contracts with Big Pharma partners, and initial public stock offerings. But much of their chemistry is outsourced, meaning that in-house chemists are involved at the design level and generally manage contract researchers who do the actual synthesis.

Some companies are looking for chemists with 3–5 years of industry experience. But this requirement doesn’t necessarily rule out recent graduates or postdoctoral fellows. Rachel Meyers, chief scientific officer at Faze Medicines, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based start-up that is targeting biomolecular condensates with small molecules, questions the meaning of experience in areas of cutting-edge science.


Money for jobs
Venture capital investment in biotech companies is on the rise.
A bar chart of venture capital funding in the biotech industry from 2016 through the second quarter of 2021.
Source: Evaluate Vantage. Note: Most financing was raised by companies based in the US and Europe.

“Some of the targets we are working on are not fully understood and have never been drugged before,” she says. “There are few people in our industry that have experience drugging biomolecular condensates.”

While the four full-time chemists at Faze had all worked in industry before joining the company, it is not requiring industry experience of new hires, Meyers says.

“Of course we are talking to the new folks all the time,” she says. “By definition, the person we need has to be unafraid to be at the cutting edge of interesting biology, to bring a really broad tool kit of ideas, strategy, and creativity to the problem of making drugs. Sometimes it’s the new folks who don’t know how to be afraid.”

Jnana Therapeutics, a 4-year-old Boston biotech company with a chemoproteomics platform for drug discovery, recently completed a round of financing and is looking to hire synthetic medicinal chemists this year and next.

“Last year we started in earnest to hire PhDs early in their career,” says Joel Barrish, cofounder and chief scientific officer at the company. “We hired a couple at the end of last year when we first noted the hot job market—that we had to be on the ball and use our networks to find really good-quality people, which we did.”

Barrish says the steady influx of venture capital into biotech is fueling job creation. “But I think it’s more than that,” he says. “I think there is a renaissance in small-molecule drug discovery.”

For others, a renaissance favors the highly skilled and most experienced. Joshua Horan, vice president of discovery chemistry at Nuvalent, a structure-based drug discovery specialist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says the company, which outsources all its wet chemistry, has one position open, which requires 5 years of prior industry research.

“We are seeing a number of people still in postdocs applying for this position. I guess the hope is that the market is very hot, that they have a chance,” Horan says. “This is something I haven’t really seen before.”

A man standing in a laboratory.
Credit: Courtesy of Josh Born
Josh Born shortened a postdoctoral position at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences once he received a job offer for a research scientist position at Eli Lilly and Company.

He speculates that more surprises may be in store if the job market remains tight. “If there are not enough people compared to the positions available, I think industry would have no choice other than to lower requirements and train people. As of today, that is not the model, but it would not be a huge barrier if we had to do that.”

Contract development and manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) are also hiring at a record level. TCG GreenChem, a CDMO beginning operations at a site in New Jersey, has 32 chemists working in its labs and plans to grow the chemistry staff to 60 by year’s end.

“I’m receiving 400 to 500 résumés a week,” CEO Chris Senanayake says. “My group is mainly PhDs, but we are looking at people with master’s degrees and industry experience.”

Senanayake sees the CDMO sector as a good training ground for emerging chemists. “Our company is small enough for someone to learn the subject matter very fast,” he says. “In 3 years, they are at the level of 6 or 7 years at a pharmaceutical company.”

Turning pro

A man standing in a laboratory hallway.
Credit: Courtesy of Justin Shapiro
Justin Shapiro, a scientist at Circle Pharma, received industry job offers while waiting for responses to applications he'd sent to universities.

Luiza Bondila, who received her PhD in supramolecular chemistry in 2019 from the University of Oxford, says she was unsure what she wanted to do next but was leaning toward a career in academia. “As my PhD was nearing the end, I applied to a couple of postdocs in western Europe,” she says. “I had a couple of interviews but didn’t hear back.”

While waiting, she was contacted by a recruiter on behalf of Sterling Pharma Solutions, a CDMO in England. “I sent my CV and they invited me for an interview,” she says. “The response was positive, and they gave me an offer.”

Bondila says that when she weighed the advantages offered by industry, she liked what she saw as a better work-life balance than afforded by an academic position involving teaching and research. On the other hand, the deadlines in industry are tighter. Overall, she says her experience so far has disabused her of what she believes are common career-choice misconceptions among PhD students.

“I think a lot of young chemists don’t have a good enough overview of what industry means,” she says. Some view a job in industry as selling out. “They see it as not as much of an intellectual pursuit—going for the money for a job that is not as satisfying. But seeing it as less intellectual is a stretch. There are a lot of things involved in scaling up a process that you have to think about that you wouldn’t think about in academia.”

Justin Shapiro, who completed his PhD in organic chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis in 2017 before a postdoc at Emory, has also vacillated between academia and industry.

“When I first started my postdoc, I was pretty dead set on industry,” he says. “But early on I had some opportunities to get involved in teaching and mentorship as well as grant writing.” He enjoyed the academic sphere enough that he began considering it for a career.

I applied for 52 faculty positions and got three interviews. I only sent out seven résumés to industry, and I got four interviews and three job offers.
Jackson Cahn, senior scientist, Merck & Co.

Shapiro assembled his application materials and fired them off to a handful of universities. “It’s a long process,” he says. “And while I was waiting, a couple of industry interview opportunities came up. Before I knew it, I had industry offers in hand and had to think about what I wanted to do with my career. Ultimately, industry was the right route for me.”

He ended up taking a job at Circle Pharma, a macrocyclic peptide drug discovery company in San Francisco, where he works on solution-phase synthesis with about a dozen chemists. Several are PhDs, and some have master’s and bachelor’s degrees. Some came directly to work for Circle after finishing their degrees. Some had industry experience before joining the company.

“All my coworkers have been incredibly smart and nice and capable and have brought me on board very quickly,” Shapiro says. He says he’s not sure whether the unexpected number of industry job opportunities ultimately influenced his career choice, but as he landed interviews, he realized that he was headed where he wanted to be. “What I really wanted out of my career is to work in the drug discovery space, gain medicinal chemistry experience, and stay in the laboratory.”

Things also moved quickly for Josh Born, who received his PhD in organic synthesis from Purdue University in 2020 and now works as a research scientist at Eli Lilly and Company. In between, he spent a year in a postdoctoral fellowship at NCATS, leaving earlier than he’d planned.

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Born says that as a classically trained synthetic chemist, he viewed his postdoc as an important step toward a job in the pharmaceutical industry. “I wasn’t necessarily privy to all the biological aspects of medicinal chemistry, such as assay development and how large an impact it can have on a small-molecule drug program,” he says.

“My goal was to get this kind of experience and use it in applying to the job market,” he says. “My timeline when I first got there was a typical postdoc, 2 to 4 years.”

Nonetheless, Born began hearing from recruiters and responding to job postings. He applied to the job at Lilly, which he saw listed online. It was outside his research field but in “an area I was very interested in,” he says. “I ended up hearing back rather quickly. Lilly was the career opportunity I was looking for the entire time.”

Jackson Cahn received his PhD in chemistry-protein engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 2016. He finished a 3-year postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, before taking a job with Merck & Co. in Rahway, New Jersey.

“I spent a year applying for academic jobs,” Cahn says, noting that the interview process was brutal. “I spent 2 months putting hundred-hour weeks into getting my job applications together while being a vaguely helpful member of the lab I was in. I got a few interviews.” Then the pandemic hit, causing a drag on an already slow-moving job search.

A man standing outside a building on what looks like a corporate or university campus.
Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Cahn
Jackson Cahn, a senior scientist at Merck & Co., found that collaboration among industry researchers accelerates timelines in getting an idea up and run in the laboratory.

The pandemic didn’t seem to be slowing down the industry job market, however. “I applied for 52 faculty positions and got three interviews. I only sent out seven résumés to industry, and I got four interviews and three job offers,” he says.

Speed also characterizes work in an industrial lab, Cahn learned. “It’s a much faster time from having an idea to having it up and running in a lab,” he says. The timeline is accelerated by collaboration at a level new to him. “In academia, even if you are working with a team, you have your project, answerable to your principal investigator. Here, because I’m working with a team, people are waiting for me to deliver my part of the project. It’s been a learning curve in a good way, forcing me to learn new ways of thinking.”

The postdoc’s future

The flurry of hiring in the pharmaceutical sector has academia looking closely at the educational role of postdoctoral fellowships.

“There is absolutely still a place for the postdoc,” but it needs some attention, says Jen Heemstra, a chemistry professor at Emory and a C&EN columnist. “There is a huge gap between what the purpose of a postdoc should be and what postdocs end up being. That gap is created by things we need to change in our academic system and by imperfections in the economy. Hopefully this is a moment for us to have more dialogue in the community about the purpose of the postdoc and how we should align our practices in academia to meet the needs of early-career researchers.”

Hall at NCATS is concerned about the effect of PhD recipients’ skipping the postdoc. “I have this hang-up about chemists never really getting the right training experiences,” he says. “From a selfish point of view, it can impact some of the research programs we do in that if we can’t recruit postdocs, some programs might not ever move forward or take off.”

Hall says he is glad he raised a balloon on Twitter. “It gives you an idea of how really hot the market is right now for both medicinal chemists and computational chemists.” Which isn’t a bad thing, he says.

Schneider at the NCI agrees. “Keep in mind this is exactly what our field wants to see,” he says. “I love to see this type of job environment for young scientists. If we have postdocs that leave a little early, that’s just great. Let them start their careers, right?”

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