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.

What to do with my Stock Options

One of the touted benefits of working with smaller starting companies is the stock option, in which you get a number of stocks in your company that you can buy for some fixed (and hopefully low) price. Of course, when these are given to you, they are technically worthless, because the stock is not yet traded. But when the IPO happens and the stock starts selling, it is where you can make a nice bonus for all the hard work you put in getting the company off the ground. You don’t need to buy the stocks yet anyway, you can even use some of the money that you would get from selling the stocks to buy them (so you lose a portion of your stock holding, but the rest are now trade-able and valuable).

That is the idea anyway.

Trouble comes at times like these. IPOs are not too popular at the moment and are not the big money spinners that they used to be. So going public is delayed. In addition, the economy is such that companies are having to make difficult choices to remain in business and lay-offs are common. So what happens to those lovely stock options when you are no longer part of the company?

Well, the answer is that you have to either buy those stocks or let them go, within a certain time frame. For me, it was 3 months. And you know something? Buying a commodity that might never be worth anything is not a high priority when you have only a severance package supporting you and a tough fight to find a new job. So it was with me: I had a nice little package of options, but when I was laid off, there was no immediate sign I would be able to find a job quickly. So it was with not a little regret that I let the stock options I had earned during my time there go to waste.

My experience made me realize that I had taken them for granted. I’m not one that follows the markets. I just assumed I would be able to cash in when the time came and everything would be good. I think that was the common impression of my coworkers too.

What I should have been doing is allocating some of my salary to buying the shares, in the same way that I was putting money into a 401(k). A little every pay check, nothing I’d miss – well, not too much. Then if you get laid off – or even if you decide to move on – you have put something aside that was part of your compensation for working there. If you do not do this, then you will either have a large bill to pay if you want to keep them or you’ll lose them forever.

I should add that I am not an expert on this matter – far from it. These are just my thoughts and feelings on the subject having lost my own options. I’d appreciate any comments.

What Next?

As I contemplate more bad news in the industry, this time from local pharma giant GSK (though we don’t know yet how badly the Triangle facilities will be affected), I was thinking about a fuller answer to a question I got after my last post: What are the alternatives for a laid-off organic chemist with industry experience?

I got the decidedly non-unique opportunity to think about this first hand a year ago, so I hope I can offer some insight. Here’s the list I drew up and some thoughts on each option.

1. Get another job in medicinal chemistry.

Easier said than done. Big Pharma do still have internal research groups, but they are not growing and opportunities to find positions there are far and few between. A better bet might be in smaller companies, start-ups for the most part, or non-profit groups or academic drug discovery efforts, such as the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology or (locally to me) the UNC School of Pharmacy program. Which part of the country you are in will play a major role, as many of these companies are clustered, with Boston, San Francisco and San Diego being the main centers, though RTP and Seattle, for example, have respectable amounts of discovery going on.

2. Same field, different role.

In looking around, I found that there were jobs in the industry, just not in drug discovery. Drug development, analytical support and clinical trial management positions are more prevalent. So if you have the interest and skill set to make such a sideways move, this is certainly a possibility. The problem is, of course, anyone with direct experience in the area is automatically ahead of you in the queue and with the job market as it is, companies are able to pick and choose their candidates. Not that companies want all their analytical team to be super-experienced – that can create problems of its own when promotions need to be given out – just that you will have a fight on your hands for the more entry-level positions. Plus, you may find it is not a sideways move but a backwards one.

3. Patent law

I know several ex-chemists that have moved into patent law. It is potentially lucrative and if dealing with patents is your dream or, possibly more likely, you think you can stand all that paperwork, this is a way to go. There is an interesting post here about a chemistry professor that turned to law school after he was denied tenure. The answer to your first question: yes, you need some more schooling to do this.

4. Teaching

The most obvious alternate career for scientists, but one that is often reluctantly pursued, due to financial concerns plus the whole having to teach a bunch of high schoolers chemistry thing. I don’t think teaching should be a fall back position, this is something you have to really want to do, a vocation rather than a job. You should also realize that the subject matter is not the skill you need to master here, it is the teacher-student interaction.

If you can get by that, then you can get into teaching relatively easily. If you have an advanced degree, many educational programs will let you begin teaching while getting your teacher certification, especially in the sciences, where there is a distinct lack of teachers. If you get into teaching relatively early in your career, you do still have the option of giving it up, but for a mid-career transition, I’d recommend thinking long and hard about it before committing.

5. Consulting

If you are established enough in the field, you may be able to get enough work in an advisory capacity. This obviously requires some specialized knowledge in a hot field and a good-sized network of contacts so that you can talk to the right people to get that consulting work. Certainly a nice line of work if you can get into it and make a name for yourself, but limited to a relatively small percentage of the population.

6. Start your own company

Talking of taking the hard road, you could just start your own company. There are a great number of challenges here, but to start, you will need some niche that your company can fill, whether it is cheap drug discovery (maybe good contacts in Asia?), some amount of specialized knowledge, something that makes a larger company want to bring their work to you. Perhaps you have some idea for a product to help drug discovery. That initial idea seems key, but then the hard work begins, as you exchange working 8 hours for someone else for working 18 hours for yourself. There are resources to help entrepreneurs get started, though this is out of my own experience, I have a few colleagues who have gone down this road. Be prepared to lose money hand over fist for 2 years. At least.

7. A brand new career.

Leave behind chemistry and make your fortune elsewhere. Sounds good? But not unlike changing roles within the pharmaceutical industry, changing to something new means you are competing with people who have previous experience in the new field. Very hard in this job market. Good networking will be essential, though that applies to pretty much everything in this list.

My own experience centered on the top 4 items, as I hadn’t the experience nor the sheer will to do consulting or my own company. I did decide early on that I wanted to stay in chemistry (ruling out #7). I thougth about patent law, but felt the paperwork would get me down. I like writing papers, but then they are done and I can go back to the work in the lab. Teaching I gave a lot of thought to, people have said they think I’d make a good teacher. I got forms for the course at UNC, started on an application. But the soul-searching said it was not really for me. I kept my options open with alternate roles in drug development, or process, or analytical, but none of those came through. In the end I got my first wish, which was a role in the lab, doing medicinal chemistry at RTI.

General Job Search Advice

General advice on the current thoughts on how to approach a job search.

The Job Seeker’s Top 10 List general approaches to gain an edge in the job market

Sourcing Opportunities (Online Job Search) good advice on making the best use of the internet in your job search.

27 Rules For Your Job-Search a pretty comprehensive list of what you should be doing.

Advice: Keeping Spirits High During a Long Job Search job searches take a long time – you need to keep at it.

Seven common job search blunders, and how to avoid them tailor your applications to the job, network, watch out for typos

The Stupidity of the “40 Hour” Job-Search Week and Why it is a Waste of Time a lot of people advise that you should treat a job search like a job – work 40 hours. This article advocates a results-based approach.

Seven observations from my day at the job fair some observations on what job seekers should and very much should NOT be doing.

Ways to energize your job search focus and set yourself goals – “click and apply” does not work.

Hundreds of Applications and Still No Job? note from Careerbuilder with general advice on the whole process of job seeking.

Downsized? Fired? Here are the new rules of finding a job excellent article about making your online presence an advertisement for you.

21st Century Job Search

Over the last few months, I have done a lot of reading about how the job market has changed, what you need to do to get a job these days and other great career-in-transition advice. I had the sudden epiphany that I should collect it together so I could find it again. So over the next couple of weeks I am going to be working on just that: collecting together articles from around the web, putting them in separate blog posts (together with my comments or notes on them) and linking to each from this central repository blog post.

The list of subjects I have drawn up (subject to severe and sudden alteration) is as follows:

General Job Search Advice
Resume dos and don’ts
Cover Letters
General Interview Advice
Difficult Interview Questions
After the Interview
Networking
Social Media in Job Searching (may end up adding additional links to different sites)
Blogging as part of a job search
Online presence
Job Application Advice
References
Negotiation
Getting Noticed
Informational Interviews
Preparing for and Recovering from being Laid Off

I’ll add updates to this as this project develops.

Update: I have added links for those that I have gotten a start on. Still quite a bit to add, but some of it is there now.