Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"P: "I am now happier"

This story about leaving graduate school is from "P"; it has been lightly edited for formatting. 
I quit graduate school (not chemistry but a closely related field) after 3 years, around the time I was starting to write up my thesis.

Why did you leave?
A combination of reasons:
I wasn’t enjoying my project. This had been getting slowly worse over time and I was at a stage where it just didn’t interest me at all.
I was already pretty sure that I wasn’t going to stay in academia long-term. Job security, pay, work culture were all rubbish.
I was offered a good job in another field on about the same money as I would have been looking at as a post-doc.

Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden?
Pretty sudden. It happened over a couple of weeks, from job offer, approach, interview, then making the decision to leave. In hindsight I think the job offer was crystallised a number of things that I’d been thinking about in the background for some time.

Where are you now?
At the same place that offered me the job, now in a higher position.

Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now? 
Very happy. If you go by Vinylogous’ criteria then it was the right decision at the time, and nearly ten years on it’s looking like an even better decision.

It’s funny looking back at it, literally everyone who I talked to treated my decision as some sort of mistake and told me that, oh, I must write up my thesis and that I would regret it if I didn’t. No-one said anything positive about it or treated it as if it could have been a good decision under some circumstances. As it currently stands, all of these people were wrong. It is possible that my lack of a PhD might cost me something later on, but it hasn’t been an impediment so far. I am now happier, love what I do, am paid better and have way better job security than if I’d tried to stay in academia.

I hope that reading this makes people realise that sometimes quitting grad school can actually work out to be a good choice.
Thanks to "P" for their story.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"LB": "Some nights I think about how different my life might have been"

Today's story about leaving graduate school is from "LB"; it has been redacted for privacy and edited for clarity. 
Why did you leave? Your thought process in leaving? 
A number of reasons come to mind in retrospect.  
First, there would be reasons what I now classify under environmental factors. I belonged to a small town in the midwest and moved to [California] for my PhD. [Big West Coast City] itself was hard to deal with---too many people with too much attitude, and I hardly had a group of friends/ acquaintances in the city, or even in California. House prices were expensive and I with the meager stipend (which was actually not that bad) I ended up with a rather s---ty studio in downtown [Big West Coast City] where going out late night meant trouble. Again, I enrolled in spring, which is rather rare for doc students. I was the only spring admit and that did not help since I ended up with seniors and juniors and no one of my cohort to crib to.  
Then there were other reasons---more important perhaps. I was brilliant in chemistry in my undergrad and ended up getting national scholarships for grad school. Which caused me to build up some hubris and made me think I could conquer everything. I had previously done research and published one solitary paper (though in a good journal) in inorganic chemistry. Now I heard that there were no jobs for inorganic and combined with my confidence (and a great talk by my future adviser) I 'changed' to total synthesis of large pharmaceutically relevant molecules.  
Total synthesis is hard and I sucked at it. Further our lab had a 'no one really wants to help anyone else' attitude which didn't help. I did not know all the techniques and getting it from others meant enduring a lot of crap (including the oft made suggestion that I should leave for a future elsewhere since synthesis was obviously not for me). The beating on my self confidence needed to end and I was soon looking for other stuff. I would have thought it was just me, but there were others later who endured the same and left.  
I first thought of changing labs, but my adviser was really supportive and had given me an RAship right from the beginning. I was grateful for that and wasn't sure what to do. Further, I thought that a career in chemistry is endless. A PhD and then a post doc would eat at least a huge chunk of my twenties. I wanted to change fields, and went on to do a MBA at a top school. I reasoned that a MBA will propel me to jobs (an undergrad degree in chemistry seems to lead nowhere) and I was correct. I announced to my adviser my decision to leave and he was rather upset (to be fair he had a lot invested in me) but I managed to get a MS (though not his recommendations). 
Where are you now? 
Perhaps not getting a PhD was a bit self defeating and I was keen to prove I was not a quitter (though quitting isn't bad in any way). After my MBA I worked a couple of years and went on to do a doctorate (yes a PhD!) in economics. Economics had no relation to chemistry and maybe since it was a non-lab based subject, I didn't have to rely on co-workers for support. I always seem to have good luck with supervisors and this time around I also had good mates and collaborators. I managed to overcome a new subject, publish and join the federal government though I hope to be in a tenure track position in a good university soon. 
Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
I am glad I left, but I am also bitter. I had invested just 1 1/2 years in my PhD and sometimes I feel I did not stick around to give it my best shot. Some other times I feel thankful that I left early and did not get stuck in a mess as some of my peers did (one of my labmates left without a pub in [their] 7 1/2 year PhD, another quit after 4 years. However one of my seniors, an international doc student from China left with over 5 pubs including a Nature just to illustrate both sides of the story).   
Yet during other times I long to go back and finish my PhD, perhaps at a different school. I am so much older and more mature and I feel I have the ability to do a PhD in just about anything now.  
But I also have a job, a wife and a whole host of animals and a tiny farm--- a second PhD would mean giving all that up. Some nights I think about how different my life might have been, but in the mornings I am back to building stochastic frontier models, a far cry from the Heck couplings and Wittig reactions and TLC plates which used to rule my life back then...
Thanks to "LB" for their story.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why place matters

From an anonymous reader, a Boston-area Amgen recruiting billboard. I have seen this for coders, but never for "biotech professionals."

(Of course, I've only lived in one of BioSpace's "hotbeds.")

(12 "hotbeds"?!?!? You gotta be kidding me.) 

Nice to see

This past August, I took a day to visit the national ACS meeting in San Francisco; I was badged as press, even! I sat in on a portion of the Sunday meeting of the Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs. I thought it was interesting to watch the committee members discuss and debate the ACS policy statement on retirement security. Here's a portion of the final statement:
...A concern is that small companies and businesses, such as chemical or high-tech start-ups, can be disproportionately disadvantaged in establishing such plans for their employees. Complex government regulations for these plans result in high administrative costs that need to be distributed over a small employee base, effectively increasing the costs for small business owners and employees versus larger companies. As a result, many small businesses choose not to offer 401(k)’s. For those that do, the administrative fees are high, and the investment options often limited, thus negatively impacting employee returns on investment. Considering that a significant fraction of the approximately 163,000 members of ACS are employed by small companies (less than 500 employees), this has a substantial impact on our membership. 
Another detrimental component in many 401(k)’s is lengthy vesting periods. According to the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics National Survey, 69 percent of 401(k) plans accrue on either ‘cliff’ or ‘graded’ vesting schedules. ‘Cliff’ schedules require employees to remain with an employer for a minimum number of years or they receive no match, and ‘graded’ schedules are plans that slowly increase the employee’s vested portion with years of service. Unlike corporate careers of the past, current careers in the physical sciences are now characterized by multiple shorter-term professional positions. Therefore a professional in the chemical enterprise can be negatively affected by slow vesting 401(k)’s resulting in lack of portability. 
Specifically, in the area of retirement plans and 401(k)’s, Congress needs to take action to
  • Reduce the regulatory complexity of 401(k) plans available to small business owners in order to make them more economically efficient and effective.
  • Enact policies that promote the development of faster vesting and more portable 401(k) programs....
I gotta say, as a statement of desired policy, I agree with most of it. I have worked for an employer who claimed that 401(k) complexity and cost was too high (and of course, they would have never have gone for a match.) But the pre-tax nature of 401(k)s is pretty great, in my opinion.

(I wonder if Vanguard has a small-company 401(k) option? I am going to guess the answer is 'no.')

Glad to see that CEPA (among other ACS committee) has put together a statement -- good stuff. 

Oh, that's all

From the letters to the editor in this week's C&EN:
I don’t know why there was such a flurry of indignant letters about the review of the book “The Birth of the Pill” (C&EN, Sept. 22, 2014, page 32). This is a book for a popular audience by an author whose claims to fame are books about baseball and Al Capone. It might better have been titled “Politics, Religion, and the Pill,” but it certainly was not designed to explore the intricacies of organic synthesis. The author does indeed reference Carl Djerassi and Frank Colton. 
If there is frustration in the chemistry community about the lack of recognition of these outstanding chemists, may I suggest that some charismatic organic chemist design a PBS TV program for “NOVA,” along the lines of what Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done for quantum mechanics and cosmology, respectively. 
Ivan E. Leigh
West Chester, Pa.
Heh, there are plenty of charismatic organic chemists, but chemistry just doesn't get producers excited like space and physics. I dunno why.

(Worth noting that Djerassi himself was more world-historical than NdGT, but I don't think he got any (or very many) TV programs.) 

This week's C&EN

Plenty of interesting tidbits in this week's C&EN:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Gotta love George Whitesides

Courtesy of See Arr Oh (who has a very cogent (and funny) post on this), here's George Whitesides criticizing (again) the chemical industry: 
This choice of direction has had several consequences: 1) it has ended (or constrained in scope and character) the unique and mutually beneficial intellectual partnership between industrial and academic chemistry that characterized the 1960s to 1980s (Figure 3). 2) It has increasingly limited the number of jobs for chemists in industry, and made a career in industrial chemistry less attractive for students choosing what to study. 3) It has limited the options for chemistry to explore new areas, since many of these areas (e.g., the materials science of porous media under hydrostatic pressure, or “fracking”; understanding if there is new chemistry—especially chemistry relevant to sequestration—that can be applied to carbon dioxide; the management of flows of material, energy, and information in cities; the development of new strategies for using solar energy) require the kinds of resources and skills in large-scale project management that only industry can provide.  
Industry continues to place a few large-scale bets in research (for example, synthetic biology to make fuels and specialty chemicals), but the number and audacity of these bets have declined sharply. Even the pharmaceutical industry—a long-term contributor to, and user of, sophisticated synthetic organic chemistry—increasingly considers synthesis a valuable, but primarily technical skill, and has turned to organismic and disease biology as the source of new products and services.
I couldn't agree more with Uncle George, but I would, wouldn't I? 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Now that's an unfortunate title

I suspect this is actually one of those academic drug discovery former-pharma group leader positions, but tagging it with "adjunct professor series" is kinda painful. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/26/15 edition

A few of the positions posted at C&EN Jobs this week:

Cleveland, OH: West-Ward Pharmaceuticals is hiring for 4 positions, including a B.S./M.S. Scientist I position. (0-2 years experience.) (Zeroes!)

Malvern, PA: Progenra (new company?) is looking for 2 experienced medicinal chemists, 1-10 years experience, all levels of education.

Menlo Park, CA: Pacific Biosciences is looking for a surface chemist, M.S./Ph.D., 5 years experience desired.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 260, 1340, 8769 and 22 positions for the search term "chemist." That's way, way up for Careerbuilder and Indeed, I believe. LinkedIn shows 619 results for the job title "chemist", with 37 for "research chemist", 87 for "analytical chemist", 2 for "organic chemist", 3 for "synthetic chemist" and 3 for "medicinal chemist."

What is Global Pharma Tek's business model?

Saw this ad through an Indeed search. What is this about? Global Pharma Tek has a website listing lots of QA/QC-type/GMP positions; something tells me that this is a temp/recruiting service that hires international folks only?

I'm confused.

(Hey, check out their partners - including the "Havard Clinical Research Institute." Something is very fishy here.) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bill Carroll: "to get the sharp corners knocked off you"

I have thrown a fair bit of criticism at ACS director-at-large Bill Carroll's way over the years. 

That said, like every experienced industrial chemist (even the ones who have left the lab), he has good tales to tell. He's starting a blog over at the ACS Network. I thought his first post was a good one, where he talks about his first years in industry: 
When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl.  Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles.  But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped.  The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley.  I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow. 
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly.  But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast.  I wanted to make a difference in a hurry. 
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix.  I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about. 
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military.  After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion. 
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up. 
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths.  I couldn’t help but laugh.”  He was right.   He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you.“

So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress.  No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1.  Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can.  The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed...
I'd like to think I've had my sharp corners knocked off, but it's hard to say, maybe I have a few more that I don't know about. Folks like Tom Loughlin are truly great and they have a lot of smart things to say.

In regards to "an area that's... reasonably mature", there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, I feel. Truly low-hanging fruit doesn't happen very often - and when it occurs to the novice chemist (like myself), I always wonder "I am sure this has been considered before -- I wonder why it was rejected?"

Either way, I really enjoyed the piece and I hope to see more like it. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Job postings: senior scientist II, Abbvie, North Chicago; chemistry project manager, Wuppertal, Germany; senior analytical chemist, Cambridge, MA

From the inbox:

AbbVie: A process chemistry position: B.S./M.S./Ph.D. desired.

Wuppertal, Germany: A chemistry project manager position at Aicuris (new drug discovery firm?). No education requirement.

Cambridge, MA: Another analytical chemistry position at Broad, this time Ph.D. level.

Best wishes to those interested. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/24/15 edition

A few of the positions posted on C&EN Jobs:

INVISTA: The Koch Brothers are hiring, with 6 positions over the last week.

Pleasanton, CA: Clorox is doing its usual spring hiring -- anyone have any comment about these positions?

Berkeley, CA: LBNL is hiring a "chemist research scientist" to manage its catalysis research facility. Ph.D. and 5 years experience desired.

Long Island, NY: Brookhaven is hiring a chemist/physicist for synchotron work. Ph.D. and 3 years of relevant experience desired.

Greenville, SC: A startup called "NUBAD, LLC" is hiring a synthetic chemist for a postdoctoral position. I would like to know "if this is a postdoctoral position, 1) will I be able to publish my work and 2) what kind of training are you offering?"

Livermore, CA: Assay Technologies is hiring a general manager.

Job posting: 2 visiting assistant professorships, Crawfordsville, IN

From the inbox: 
Visiting Assistant Professor of Analytical Chemistry 
The Wabash College Chemistry Department invites applications for a one-year position in Analytical Chemistry to begin July 1, 2015. Undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry required. The successful candidate will teach analytical chemistry and contribute to first-year chemistry courses.  
The Chemistry Department is ACS certified, has six full-time faculty, excellent facilities and instrumentation, and support for undergraduate research. Further information about the department can be obtained here.   
Apply here;  and submit a letter of application, vitae, undergraduate and graduate transcripts, statement of teaching principles, and three letters of recommendation. Materials must be received by February 27, 2015.  Questions may be directed to Dept. 
Chair, Lon Porter at  
Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry 
The Wabash College Chemistry Department invites applications for a one-year position as a Visiting Assistant Professor beginning July 1, 2015. The area of specialization is open with renewal for a second year possible based on department and college needs. Undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry or biochemistry required. The teaching assignment of approximately 12 contact hours per semester will be primarily in general chemistry with other courses determined by area of specialization. 
To apply, go here  and submit a letter of application, vitae,  undergraduate and graduate transcripts, statement of teaching principles, and three letters of recommendation. Materials must be received by February 27, 2015.  Questions may be directed to Dept. Chair, Lon Porter at  
Wabash College, a liberal arts college for men, seeks faculty and staff committed to providing quality engagement with students, high levels of academic challenge and support, and meaningful diversity experiences that prepare students for life and leadership in a multicultural global world. We welcome applications from persons of all backgrounds. EOE.
Best wishes to those interested!  

Ivory Filter Flask: 2/24/15 edition

A few of the academic positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website:

Rise of the VAPs: Everyone's looking for visiting assistant professors...

Davidson, NC: Davidson College is looking for a visiting assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University desires a visiting assistant professor of general chemistry.

Hamilton, NY: Colgate University wishes to hire a visiting assistant professor for a 2-year term, any subject.

Forest Grove, OR: Pacific University seeks 2 visiting assistant professors, one for inorganic and one for analytical.

Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong wishes to hire a tenure-track assistant professor of inorganic/organometallic chemistry.

Espoo, Finland: Aalto University is looking for a professor of biochemistry.