More Tough Times

It has not been an easy time in the Research Triangle Park area but we got some more bad news this week. I heard a report that High Point chemical synthesis company PharmaCore had let people go last week. I don’t seem to be able to find any confirmation of that anywhere. Then I also heard yesterday that biotech company Grifols (which acquired Talecris in RTP not too long ago) has shed more R&D positions here. Again, a lack of news source, but since I actually know someone involved, I am pretty certain of my facts there.

What with the decline of GSK in the area, plus the relocation of Pamlico last year, the biotech/pharma industry has been hurting in these parts.

Best of luck to all of those involved.

More on the Life of a Contractor

Firstly, Happy New Year everyone. I wish everyone the best for 2013.

But now back to blogging and a comment on my 2011 post about Life as a Contractor, which was about my own experience here. That of course is datum – the singular of data. A recent comment on that post came from Marie, who said:

I started a new gig as a contractor, and have seen that it is worse than your experience. Contractors aren’t treated with as much respect, nor do my coworkers really give a crap about me. My boss is based in another state, I am paid below market rate, no one is eager to train me in the company’s proprietary systems, and I’m finding it very difficult to get plugged into what’s going on as I’m not on employee based email lists.

Marie has my sympathies and even in my own situation (which is much more friendly) there are a few things that I don’t get or don’t see. Some of the software we use does not work right for me, which is a little irritating (I have to give my chemical orders to my lab-mate; oddly, regular lab orders work just fine). My suspicion is that most contractors are in a situation more like Marie’s where they are not part of the company culture, just here temporarily (even if temporarily means months or years). So they are maybe not treated as well or given the perks of the employee. If there is downsizing to be done, contractors will get it first and if you are not going to be here in the long-term, the pay-off for training in systems seems to be less, or the manager may see it as less worthwhile at least. It is a rough place to be in. I know I am lucky to be a contractor that does not have most of these problems.

One thing that has changed since my earlier post (that was in 2011) is that I no longer am using the contractor health insurance package (which was very much limited and coverage maxed quickly). Now I have individual coverage with a high deductible but no max so if something Bad happens, I won’t be bankrupted by it. I am actually wondering how the changes to health insurance will affect that policy, but so far it has been fine.

I must admit to being a little in the dark with how things stand now with regard to contractors and permanent employees. Are more permanent folks being taken on now or is it still the more conservative contractor route, with a note of “if things work out we’ll hire you permanently”? My local data is that not much of either hiring is going on, for synthetic chemistry at least (analytical chemistry is another matter and there seems a relative abundance of those in and around RTP). I’d love to hear from anyone around the country to get their take on it.

My impression is that it is still a tough market, that employers can use contractors for short term fixes and then let them go when that project is done. And there is plenty of people willing to take the chance on a possible temp-to-perm hire so they suffer the short term distresses of the contract agreement. And while the recovery is sluggish as it is I don’t really see why that would change.

I started the post with a best wishes for 2013 and by the end of it, I’m thinking we’ll need those good wishes.

The Value of a Chemistry PhD

There has been a number of articles wondering if there are too many or not enough people studying science in general and chemistry in particular. Last week it was Daniel Lametti’s Slate piece, saying basically that unemployment among PhDs is much less than the general populace so we shouldn’t worry about them. ChemJobber did a very nice job rebutting that article but I wanted to add a little to what he said.

Chemistry unemployment is at a high level, with many jobs eliminated from the U.S. to go overseas or maybe just eliminated by the “synergy” created by the latest merger. But more than that, the type of jobs that are available has changed. A lot of chemistry folks have gotten out of chemistry, either out of need or disillusionment. I myself considered options beyond the laboratory when I was let go. After some soul-searching, I decided that I most wanted to stay in the lab and sought out a position, but the range of jobs of that type out there was very low indeed. The typical job in synthetic chemistry or medicinal chemistry is either a contract or, if you are lucky, with a small start-up or a more academic drug discovery effort (such as the Broad Institute in Boston or the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience). While good jobs, these are typically either short-term, lower paid or dependent on grant funding (in other words, could also be short term). Permanent medicinal chemistry jobs such as were the typical destination of a semi-decent Ph.D. synthetic chemist are now in very short supply and are savagely competitive, with many hundreds of applicants.

So to to get back to the title of this post, what is it worth to be a chemistry Ph.D.? If I wanted to be rich, I would have done something else; I did chemistry because of its challenges but also because I was interested and relatively good at it. I also followed it because it seemed like it was a degree that led to a career, rather than a qualification that would then need further training to start on the career path. So that latter consideration might cause me not to advise a young student of science to go into chemistry – the career path is much murkier now than it was when I started. And the advice I got around that time was lacking in many respects: what would set me on a true course toward a steady career? Getting a degree in a good school for a well-known professor was the basic advice (and the professor mattered more than the school). I think that remains true to this day, though it is more treacherous than it was then.

But still, things can change and today’s nadir could be tomorrow’s zenith. Labor differences between China and the US are narrowing, the US economy does at least appear to be recovering, albeit slowly. There will still be a need for new medicines. There is some kind of future for the pharmaceutical industry even if we don’t know exactly what that will look like. So if you were passionate about the subject, if it was something that you really wanted to do, then I would tell you to pursue that dream. I haven’t regretted it. But if you are looking at it as an easy way to a career, then it might bear some serious thought, because that easy path is no longer so straightforward. Pure research is a narrowing market, though if you are interested in chemical engineering, a talented engineer is still in demand (as seen by their consistently higher average salaries). Plus, further down the drug development track there is room, in drug formulation for example, but this rapidly becomes more clinical studies rather than medicinal chemistry. Something beyond benchwork is also a possibility – law or teaching or scientific writing for example. Some of those can be pursued without a PhD, though teaching, for example, can be easier to get into if you have a higher qualification, partly due to a lack of teachers in some subjects and science tends to be one of those.

I have had periods where I have questioned the value of doing a Ph.D., where we collectively wondered how easy it would be to erase that part of our life from our resume and take on the life of an associate. It is hard to separate all the things that have happened to you such that you could remove one facet and still remain the same person. But I have enjoyed the challenges of becoming a Ph.D., it gave me opportunities I never would have had otherwise. If I was to do it all over again, I might do it a little differently, apply myself a little more to some things, but as youth is wasted on the young, maturity can’t be granted retroactively. So I’d do it all over again, but if it were someone else, I would make sure they knew what they were getting into.

Life as a Contractor

For the last 18 months or so, I was been employed in a contract position at a non-profit research institute in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. From word of mouth and from the employment data I have seen, I am not alone in being in such a temporary position. I thought it might be interesting to describe the similarities and differences from (for example) my last job which was a full-time permanent position. While mine may be somewhat different to others (being as it is at a non-profit), I hope it will give some insight into the world of the contractor.

Having said that, broadly speaking it is very much the same as my old job: I work in a laboratory, running reactions and a lot of the main differences from my last job are in the way those respective entities do business rather than due to my relative status. My old job was all about what the customer wanted in an efficient drug discovery project and my current work is more like basic research and in any case is funded by a grant and run by my boss, the P.I. on that grant. I have less meetings, but that is more a reflection of the fact that our project team is him and me and so formal meetings are not really a necessary part of the weekly agenda.

The main difference is that I am paid hourly now, not just on salary. So hours count. And if I am not at work, I don’t get paid. I am free enough to work a flexible schedule but at the end of the week, I get paid for the hours I work. Well, up to 40 hours anyway – overtime is an option that has to be agreed in advance. My usual approach is to work a little over 40 hours just to make sure I am over the mark, then fill in a time sheet to 40 hours. The overall pay is about the same and depends partly of circumstances, experience and the like as usual. My impression is that it evens out.

The benefits are another big difference. My benefits are not from the institute directly, they are arranged and offered by the agency. They are not in business to offer long vacations and comprehensive insurance plans. During my initial period of employment I had no paid time off at all. Having been there a while, I get a small amount (much less than I had as a permanent employee), plus the major holidays. So, yes, I worked the Friday after Thanksgiving (note the previous comment about hours). Insurance coverage is better than none, but isn’t as good as it was. It isn’t terrible by any means though large medical costs will quickly max out the coverage. I think the term I am looking for here is ‘enough to get by’. Not a long term solution and I dread what would happen if I (or one of my family) got seriously ill or injured. This is part of the problem of having a basic need (health coverage) linked to something that is not necessarily permanent (employer) and the issues with it are particularly acute when you know the job you have is temporary.

There are some little perks for the permanent employees that I can’t get. There is a fitness center on campus and employees can get in, but I can’t. I have heard tell there are some hoops you can jump through to get a pass to get it, but I haven’t been able to figure them out yet. This is minor stuff and doesn’t really affect me much.

Broadly, doing medicinal chemistry or whatever is going to be pretty similar no matter how you come to be employed there, but it is in the perks and especially the benefits that a contractor feels different. I’d add stability, but in some ways knowing that your contract is up in 6 months is greater certainty than some of the permanent employees I have met have.

I’d welcome any comments, especially from other contractors that have their own take on the subject.

Prospects for MS Chemists

There have been a number of articles and blogs asking if we are generating too many Ph.D. chemists for the number of jobs in the U.S (with Bethany Halford’s C&E News article prominent). But less attention has been given to the prospects of Masters (and also Bachelor) level chemists.

I’ll confess that I had not given a great deal of thought to it until I got an email asking me my opinion. As we are all aware, a lot of chemistry is being outsourced and a major amount of the work that MS chemists get is exactly that which is most commonly being outsourced. A lot of the lab leg work, the working out synthetic routes and trying out chemistry. The production of a bulk intermediate. So is there much of a market for the Masters now and in the future?

This was certainly a bit of a wake-up call to me. My impression had always been that MS/BS chemists had an easier time getting a job than Ph.D.s, even if it was not always the ‘dream job’ they could get A job. Good research associates were a valuable resource, people you wanted as part of your organization. There have been points in my career where discussions have been had about how we could undo our Ph.D. and become MS chemists instead. Usually after seeing an ad for a nice job at a desirable company.

Some of this remains true. There are a number of MS/BS where I currently work who tend to be the longer term research associates, complemented by the more fluid post doc population and headed by the Principal Investigators. As a non-profit, money for salaries is tight and tied to grants coming in, so a large posse of research scientists is not sustainable. The research associates – under the direction of the P.I. – are well placed to do the lab work the projects need to move forward.

However, a non-profit like mine is a little removed from the norm. A lot of chemists have been laid off and the most recent report from the ACS (the 2009 survery) noted that unemployment was higher among MS chemists than their Ph.D. counterparts. There is still a need for associates, but my impression is that it is increasingly on short term contracts. The currently employed are not likely to give up their position to move around, making new opportunities scarce or short term.

One advantage is that MS chemists are not so specialized as Ph.D.s and so can be more adaptable. A colleague of mine had a roller coaster of a time, had two contract positions that were abbreviated even from what was initially mooted, but eventually landed a permanent position with a polymer company. Moving from a particular area like pharma into polymers or green energy perhaps looks more difficult for the Ph.D., but a MS should have more success. I think there are those contract positions out there too, which gives time to consider what you want to do. That might end up being getting out of lab work altogether and I will guess than more than a few will make that jump out of the lab.

I want to believe that there will be more opportunities down the road for chemists at all levels. They might be more in smaller companies (though getting the funding for such an enterprise still looks hard right now) but the challenges of working across disparate time zones means that some of the drug discovery work will remain on these shores. Companies will try to find ways to compete. Good associates are still a part of making that a success, so I hope we don’t lose all the best and brightest.

I’d welcome comments and feedback on this subject.

Getting By

I had a couple of realizations recently. The first was that I had not managed a blog post on here for quite a while. Sorry, all. Time and chemistry wait for no man.

The one that got me to finally sit down and write something was the sudden thought that for the first time in a while, I don’t know a chemist that is out of a job. Oh, I know there are plenty of chemists that are currently unemployed, but no one I actually know.

That has not been true for quite a while, but slowly they have found a way to get by, found something to pay the bills. Sometimes it meant doing something a little bit different: a job in the Patent Office or setting chemistry tests and quizzes for the university. One chemist started his own business and has done well enough that he employed another old colleague. The piece de resistance was a masters chemist I worked with who, after a rough time involving contracts cut short and being a little bit messed around, ended up with four job offers in hand at once.

So does this little anecdotal evidence mean the turn-around is happening? Will there be good times ahead for the chemistry field? Well, I won’t go that far. Several people (including myself) I know are technically on finite contracts,w hich may or may not be extended further. Some have found something but it was not really what they were hoping for. Then there are those coming to the end of post-doc stints (we have several post docs where I work), looking, looking, looking, but not having a lot of success. It is still pretty hard to find any job, let alone the One True Job that you want to do for the rest of your career. For myself, I have the prospect of a little more stability and longer term employment, but it all comes down to funding. If we get it, I am looking good. If not, well, since I know all these employed people, I should be able to find something. To get by at least.

First Anniversary

Today is my first anniversary: one year ago today I took up my current position at RTI International.

I suppose it is a sign of the times that such a landmark goes noted. Less predictable is how much longer it will last but it is a good sign that I’d say I don’t know but have some optimism that it could be a while yet.

If I look back two years, I was in a different position, well-established at a young company, no thought in my head that things might change. I did know that the economy was having an impact, but I was definitely much more naive: I just thought our management team would find the new contracts to keep everyone employed. They had never had to let anyone go for financial reasons; indeed until not long before then, the company had only been growing. But things did not go well, other contracts were cancelled. In August 2008, the impending doom was still six months away but until it actually landed, I had no real clue it was coming.

I am not the only one to have had an invigorating dose of reality given to them. It is extremely tough out there for practising medicinal chemists working at the bench. Non-profit research establishments like RTI and similar organizations in the academic sphere are the main refuge right now (for those determined to keep running reactions at least) and there are nowhere near enough positions to absorb all those let go by the industry in the last two years. Even these positions are fed by government grants for the most part, a resource that is ever more sought after and competition is fierce.

I’m aware of that. So I keep my ears open, looking to network, to help those I can, so that if the time comes, they will be there for me. I hope this current adventure will keep me busy for a good while yet, but if it doesn’t, well, we’ll have to be ready for the next one.