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.

Laid Off in USA, Hired in Asia

This week Albany Molecular (AMRI) announced job cuts in their New York facilities, at the same time they are hiring in their Singapore and Indian outposts. There was even a net gain in jobs, which is likely small consolation to those let go.

This is not a real surprise of course, as AMRI operate to provide cheap as possible chemical services and it is still a fact that such services are more economic in the far east and also eastern Europe: AMRI also have a site in Hungary. Though salaries are on the rise in parts of China, for example, there is still a significant gap, but that is not the only factor. AMRI commented in their press release that this was what their clients wanted, so it is not just AMRI moving their operation overseas, it has been requested that they give them chemical service from that area of the world. So not only the cheaper costs, pharma companies are looking to establish themselves in those growing markets.

It is not just AMRI that are doing this, pharmaceutical companies have laid off a lot of people in the last few years and have set up either sites in China or India or have agreements with companies based there. This is a process that will continue – increase even – before it gets better for western chemists, as start-up companies here work out how to best get customers to use the local talent rather than cheaper alternatives overseas. How they might do this is not straightforward; they might offer a specialist service that is either not offered or for which the data produced needs to be of high quality. Something further along the drug discovery process might apply here – for example lead optimization to overcome PK problems, although relying on keeping a lead here might end up being disasterous. Alternately they might act as an intermediary between the two continents, which might at least be a short-term solution for pharma that wants to make use of the cheaper costs but is worried about the potential pitfalls.

The evolution of the drug discovery business in the US and Europe is likely to be a painful process for those of us directly involved. But it will have to evolve, else a lot of trained drug discovery chermists will have to find a new way of making their living.

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.

Right Place – Wrong Industry?

As someone in drug discovery, the news that caught my eye today was that of AstraZeneca’s announcement that they are cutting 8,000 jobs over the next 4 years, including 1,800 in R&D. On top of all the other big pharma jobs that have been put to the sword in the last couple of years, that is a depressing number of people.

Compare and contrast with the local news, which at least has the novelty of being relatively good. First was the list in Fortune of companies that have never laid anyone off, headed by the Triangle’s tech powerhouse, SAS (also named as the best place to work in the country by Fortune, who are clearly fans). Notice a lack of pharmaceutical companies in those lists. British electronic device maker ACW is bringing jobs to Durham county and in general, the Research Triangle had an excellent year of new investment.

Like I said, right place, but not too much happening in the pharmaceutical area. Is it too late to become a tech geek?

Outsourcing Pharma

It seems that there has been a flurry of articles talking about the state of outsourcing in the pharmaceutical industry this week. Lilly gained a mention in the Wall Street Journal on the matter. A more general look came from Fierce Pharma and also this post from Nick Taylor.

So to summarize, outsourcing will continue to grow as a route big pharma takes to develop new products. The bad news is (for us employed in the area in the west at least) that most of that outsourcing will go to Asia and, increasingly, Central and South America, though there are indications that we will see a modest increase within the US as well. This is all, of course, driven by cost.

I noticed that a lot of these were talking about development rather than the initial discovery of drug candidates. As the latter is my particular interest, I wondered a little about what will happen to preclinical discovery. A comment by Merck CEO Dick Clark made the point that the announced closure of several Pfizer/Wyeth sites made last year: big pharma is looking to shed some more weight in research. That is pretty common, I think, in mergers and acquisitions, especially in lean times. Research is easy to cut back as it gives no immediate prospect of gain. The company trims up, gets back on a steady course, more efficient and more profitable.

The long term survival of pharmaceutical companies is based on research though, so it seems very likely that heavy cuts now will result in a need down the line when the remaining resources become over-committed. So as I see it we may not see an immediate turn around in work for drug discovery scientists, but there will likely be a need for more once they realize they still need research to succeed.

The remaining question is will this be outsourced as well? And if so, where? I think the answer will be similar to the answers above. An increasing amount of initial research will be outsourced, with a goal of keeping down costs. As for where, well, some of the new companies in Shanghai, for example, are getting increasingly proficient and (importantly) trusted at doing medicinal chemistry and so there will be companies that make use of their talents and lower prices. On the other hand, there is a large talent pool of scientists in the U.S. now that are going to be making their way independently of their former employers, but still that is where they have contacts and they will do what they can to leverage those into contracts. They will be more-or-less forced to work for less than they are used to, but I can see a number of outsourcing discovery chemistry companies springing into existence, adding to those that already are in existence. It will be challenging for them too, as they will have to react to pretenders at home and abroad, while the new kids on the block look to establish their reputation and their companies in a challenging and changing world.

Peaking into the Drug Pipeline

As a constant during the news stories covering mergers and takeovers between pharmaceutical and biotech companies, people tend to talk about their drug pipeline, how they need to combine their pipelines in order to meet their financial goals for the quarter/year/decade. Often, they talk about how their combined efforts will result in a sruge of new drugs for a variety of diseases and shareholders and patients will rejoice.

Strangely, these optimistic predictions don’t seem to ever quite pan out. But they know what went wrong and the next one, they assure us, will do it.

Well, it turns out that it won’t. Or it hasn’t so far at any rate.

A recent paper appeared in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery by Bernard Munos, from Lilly. It states, basically, that the rate of new drug introduction has remained pretty much constant since 1950 and that the huge amount of money thrown at the problem hasn’t really improved things, especially not to the point where drug companies are producing multiple new molecular entities (NME, basically newly approved pharmaceutical products).

It is a remarkable read. I am still taking it all in. For more discussion, I point you to Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline (his initial post is here and there are several others) and another blog post by Eric Milgram, who are both doing a great job as commentators.

Unemployment for Chemists

The current C&E News has an article (actually a series of articles) on unemployment in the chemical industry. While the country hits double digit unemployment, ACS members are experiencing unemployment at 3.8%, up from 2.3% last year. Aside from my reaction to the number (something like “only 3.8%?!”), it is at least clear that it is a rising problem and these are record unemployment levels for ACS members.

A simple glance at the business pages tells the same story. Big Pharma has laid off a lot of people in the last year, whether part of a mega-merger or just to streamline and cut costs. The C&E News article says something I myself have said – that eventually companies have to stop cutting costs and start making things again, that they will need people to do that.

I started wondering where exactly they would get the people to do that, assuming that they do. I foresee a modest growth in the companies themselves – they can’t stand still while new talent comes on the market, but they have spent all this time and money streamlining their operations. It would seem foolishness to undo all that effort. So it would seem logical that they would do what they can in-house and outsource the remainder. That in turn would suggest a further spur to the growth of research activities in China, India and Eastern Europe. The infrastructure and knowledge is growing in these places – any American entrepreneurs wanting to get in on this potential market will have their work cut out competing against the cheaper work force available overseas. Some will undoubtedly profit from such deals, whether because the pharma company doesn’t want to let the project too far away or because of a history of success between the two entities – it is sometimes worth paying more for something, especially if you have built up a level of trust with the people doing the drug discovery for you. It does feel like it will be a challenge for small companies in the U.S. and there may be a period of transition while they adapt to the new way of doing things in the reborn economy. I can imagine a number of U.S. companies acting as a liaison between Big Pharma and the overseas researchers.

The bottom line here is that a lot of people in research have lost jobs in the U.S. in the last year or two and frankly, I don’t see all those jobs coming back. It seems a terrible waste that many skilled chemists will be unable to find work in their chosen profession, but I fear that will be the harsh reality.