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.


4 comments on “What Next?

  1. Chemjobber says:

    This is a good writeup of a chemist’s options. Would that there were a lot more.

    • David Perrey says:

      Thanks! And I heartily agree on the “other options”. To be fair, a trained scientist COULD do a lot of other jobs, it is just there are a lot of available qualified people out there already able to do them. It is merely conjecture on ym part but I imagine other professions are having similar issues – I can imagine IT folks trying to break into other areas within their own field, but finding people with the exact set of qualifications required ahead of them in the queue.

  2. Linda Wang says:

    Hi Chemical Space,

    I am an associate editor at C&EN and am writing an article on the impact of long-term unemployment on chemists. I would like to focus on things people can do to keep their skills fresh while they search for their next job. It looks like you were laid off and found another job. Would you mind sharing your experiences with me for this story? My e-mail is l_wang@acs.org. Thanks so much!


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