Saturday, January 31, 2015

RIP Carl Djerassi

Via the New York Times: 
Carl Djerassi, an eminent chemist who 63 years ago synthesized a hormone that changed the world by creating the key ingredient for the oral contraceptive known as “the pill,” died at his home in San Francisco on Friday. He was 91. He died of complications of liver and bone cancer, according to his son, Dale. 
He arrived in America as World War II engulfed Europe, a 16-year-old Austrian Jewish refugee who, with his mother, lost their last $20 to a swindling New York cabdriver. He wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for assistance, and obtained a college scholarship. It was a little help that made a big difference. 
Dr. Djerassi (pronounced jer-AH-see) wrote books, plays and 1,200 scientific articles; taught at universities for five decades; created an artists’ colony in California; and obtained a patent on the first antihistamine. His work on the science of birth control helped engender enormous controversies and social changes, altering sexual and reproductive practices, family economics and the working lives of millions of women around the world...
Difficult to imagine a world without oral contraceptives. Best wishes to his family and friends.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

3 thoughts on attending my father's retirement party

My father, whom I love dearly, is retiring from a very long career today.

Thought #1: I'm incredibly proud of him -- he has given many years to this company and I hope the higher-ups know how much of his life he's poured into this place.

Thought #2: I would love to know what percentage of my father's cohort back in 197X are still working with his company? He has been through so many layoffs and reorganizations. He is, in some real sense, the living avatar of "survivor bias."

Thought #3: Whenever I tell folks that my Dad is retiring after 30+ years on the job, people always smile as if to say, "That will never happen to you, or to me." I sincerely hope I get to become a 20+ year person at a single company, but my thoughts are "nope, that'll never happen." Sigh.

Congratulations, Dad. Well done.

Brett: "leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made."

Our latest (of many!) entries in the "quitting chemistry graduate school" series is from "Brett" (this submission has been lightly edited for clarity and privacy): 
1. Why did you leave?
First, I wasn't in a chemistry program but a pharmaceutical sciences program at Big State School. I had started working for a new professor who'd only been there a year - I was [their] third grad student. While a PharmSci department, our lab was an unabashed synthetic lab with a "med chem" veneer.  
After my first year the boss ran into a family situation: [their spouse] and kids moved across country for a very well paying job and [they were] stuck. [Their] frequent week long visits to [their] family led to some friction with the department which culminated in [their] summary termination. And that was that.  
The lab was dissolved, one grad student left the school and the two more senior students were unceremoniously shuttled to other labs to start over. I kinda lucked out in that I was given off to a collaborator in the department who was looking at the biosynthesis of my target molecule. They basically just cut me loose to continue working on my molecule knowing I’d have little help from anyone else if I found a serious chemistry issue. This wore thin very fast and six months after the change I told my new boss I was giving them a six month warning and then leaving with a masters. 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
I was very devastated immediately after being told that the lab was dissolving. The chemistry problems began to stack up and I became very disillusioned with the field in general. Reading the blogs didn’t help. This was a few years after the big market crash so my future seemed pretty bleak. I stopped working weekends and started keeping more normal business hours as I began to phone it in.  
As I said above, I chewed it over for about 6 months before telling my boss I was leaving. At that point I started finishing up what I could, which amounted to very little, wrote up my thesis, and began applying everywhere and anywhere. THAT was especially soul-crushing. Nearly 100 CVs sent all over the country for anything related to the field with nary a response. At the same time I seriously considered just leaving the field and began applying to jobs at different craft breweries. I had way more callbacks for those jobs but an offer didn’t materialize before I had a very tempting offer at Big Pharma. 
3. Where are you now? 
I am a medicinal chemist at a big pharma company. My job has changed several times since I started working here from a more, support/optimization chemist to a full blown med chemist. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
I think leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. If anyone asks if I’d go back my answer is ‘no’. Full stop. No debate.  
While the decision was good, I would not consider myself overly happy right now. The job pays well and has excellent benefits; I however, find myself almost completely ambivalent towards chemistry. I enjoyed my first position a good deal since it dealt with just synthetic chemistry, no biology or SAR. I’ve come to realize I am not cut out for this and just CANNOT find the interest in the actual fundamentals of med chemistry. If I had been offered a job in a brewery post grad-school I would have taken it in a heartbeat. Even with the inferior pay I feel I would have been happier. I don’t see myself sticking to chemistry for the long run. I’ve burned out too badly and have been mulling options for a while now.
Best wishes to "Brett" and thanks to him for his story. Want to tell the world about leaving graduate school in chemistry? E-mail me at  

Daily Pump Trap: 1/29/15 edition

A few of the positions posted on C&EN this past week:

Detroit, MI: This "technical specialist" position appears to actually be, um, a technical specialist position. B.S. in chemistry/engineering with 5-10 years experience desired.

Rockville, MD: I can never tell what these USP positions are about, but here's one on "nomenclature and labeling." They want a M.S./Ph.D. or a Pharm.D. with 10 years of work experience and they seem to be paying a healthy sum.

Clinton, NJ: ExxonMobil looking for a research technologist; looks like an experienced analytical chemist position to me.

Melrose Park, IL: I did not know there were "hair fiber physics scientists", but there you are. (B.S./M.S. in physics/chemistry.)

Washington, DC: CropLife America (what's that?) is looking for a director of environmental policy, 120-140k offered. Advanced degree, experience in regulatory affairs desired.

Redwood City, CA: Relypsa is looking for a CMC scientist; M.S./Ph.D. with 4-8 years experience desired.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 247, 1302, 2194 and 19 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 560 jobs for the job title "chemist", with 74 for "analytical chemist", 2 for "organic chemist", 2 for "medicinal chemist" and 38 for "research chemist." 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

7 things every chemistry PhD student should see before they go to graduate school

From Thoreau, a funny suggestion (emphasis mine): 
Adjuncts are planning a nationwide walk-out on Feb. 25. In my ideal world, any student seeking a PhD would be unable to register for the GRE or request recommendation letters until they submitted documentation that they had attended the protests and had written a 5-page essay on “What I learned from attending the National Adjunct Walkout Day protests.”  Those seeking a STEM PhD would also be required to spend a day shadowing a disgruntled 6th-year postdoc. 
Med schools want applicants to shadow practicing medical doctors to get a feel for what they are getting themselves into.  This practice should be extended to all doctoral programs.
Here's my suggested list of things that a prospective chemistry graduate student should have to do before they sign on:
  1. One full iteration of "someone should organize this flammable cabinet" at group meeting. 
  2. Be forced to have a 20-minute conversation with a 5th-year graduate student that stayed up all night running a column and rotovapping fractions.
  3. The discomfort on a PI's face when asked "so where have your students gone over the last 10 years?" 
  4. Fill out 20 applications to various entry-level Ph.D. positions in industry. You cannot leave until the phone rings or you get 5 rejection letters. 
  5. A required signature from the 10th-year graduate student who arrives in the lab at 11 pm each night to work the overnight shift.
  6. Sign-off from NMR staff scientist, asking "so what do you think of my chances?" 
  7. Required 30 minute conversation with department chair, mostly consisting of awkward pauses.
There's my (rather silly) list -- what's yours? 

Monday, January 26, 2015

What do you do when your interviewer is wrong?

From this week's letters to the editors, a great #chemjobs question:
I read “Interviewing Insights” with interest, even though I don’t foresee having to go through that process again (C&EN, Nov. 3, 2014, page 20). As with most articles I’ve read on that subject over the years, it seems to cover most of the bases (and traps and pitfalls) except one. 
I haven’t yet seen an article on this subject that includes any mention of the following scenario, which I ran into more than once while being interviewed. It’s almost similar to the scenario Tatyana Sheps describes, where they asked her to solve a difficult (and somewhat nebulous) problem. 
In my case, however, there was not an explicit question being asked. Rather, while discussing some topic, the interviewer would say something that was clearly and obviously (and even blatantly) false. For example, the interviewer might say something that violated one of the laws of thermodynamics. In retrospect, it is clear that interviewers were not testing the knowledge of thermodynamics (or whatever the subject of the false statement was about). More likely they wanted to see how the interviewee handled suddenly being placed in a potentially awkward situation. 
Yet I’ve never seen that type of interview tactic described or discussed, or any recommendations given about how to handle it, in any of my readings on interviews, including this one in C&EN. 
Howard Mark
Suffern, N.Y.
If indeed it is a test of the interviewee's willingness to tell important people that they're wrong, it's a fiendishly clever way of going about it.

I don't really think there is much to be gained from this, but I am open to the possibility that there might be something to it?  

So that's an interesting quote about IP stuff in China: "Even if they are published, they are difficult to duplicate.”

From an article in this week's C&EN by Maureen Rouhi on R&D in China: 
Evonik’s Chen contends that enforcement of IP rights is improving in China. He points to the establishment of three IP courts and moves to improve judicial transparency. However, Chen adds, “the situation in small cities and remote areas is still behind that in the big cities.” 
In a sign of better IP protection for Solvay, in December 2013 the company won an IP lawsuit in a Chinese court against the Chinese firm HySci Specialty Materials. Solvay had sued HySci for infringement of patents for rare-earth mixed oxides used in automobile catalytic converters. 
The court victory aside, Solvay’s Metivier says IP protection is still a problem in China. The greatest risk, he explains, is “know-how leakage,” when staff leave the company or succumb to outside offers to divulge trade secrets. 
Prosecuting trade-secret theft is made difficult by “lack of discovery to extract key evidence from opponents coupled with high evidentiary standards in China,” says Jeffrey D. Lindsay, head of intellectual property at Asia Pulp & Paper, an Indonesian paper manufacturer with operations in China. Western companies that sue to protect their IP “tend to have success,” Lindsay adds, “although the lower level of damages in China leads some infringers to not fear the law all that much.” 
To enhance IP security, “we don’t develop products that can be easily copied,” Xenidou says. “Our materials and processes are quite complicated, sophisticated, and integrated with customer processes. Even if they are published, they are difficult to duplicate.” 
Metivier explains that Solvay institutes processes to segregate know-how, so that people do not have all the data on a product or process. “We also follow up with the people leaving the company, identifying where they go and for whom they work,” he says. 
Meanwhile, other factors may be dimming China’s innovation sparkle. Metivier notes a growing nationalism that manifests in a belief that the country will succeed on its own. A consequence, he says, is greater difficulty in bringing in foreign scientists, and that worries him. “If you want to be an innovative country, science and development needs to be open,” he says. “China needs to promote exchange to achieve diversity.”
It sure seems like a lot of work to protect one's IP in China. Better to protect than not, I suppose.  

This week's C&EN

Lots of great reads in this week's C&EN:

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Y": "I am very happy"

Our third submission in this series is by "Y": 
1. Why did you leave?  
Quite frankly, I failed my first committee meeting. I've never felt confident in my background knowledge in chemistry (had to take all 8 cumulative exams to pass - most others finished in 5-6). After failing the committee meeting, I felt deflated. I couldn't imagine going through the process again a couple more times (successfully or not). 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
After my first committee meeting (in Sept), I avoided talking to my PI about rescheduling another one until he cornered me in January. We sat down in his office and it was right there and then that I decided I didn't want to continue. This was my third year of grad school and I no longer was a TA but I realized that I wasn't satisfied without the teaching component of the job. I was frustrated with research and couldn't get results that I wanted or could make sense of. Teaching those first two years were the most enjoyable part of my time, so I wanted to continue with that. Perhaps I had been thinking about leaving in the back of my head after the failed CM but I didn't actually commit to the idea until my meeting in January with my boss. 
3. Where are you now? 
I left with a master's and worked full-time as a lab instructor at another institution for four years before moving. After my husband finished his PhD (we started at the same time but at different schools), he was offered a job out of state, so I followed him. He had moved for me when I began my prior job, so I felt that I could return the favor. I am now an adjunct at the same university he is employed at. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
I am very happy. After deciding to leave, I felt like I had something to look forward to. Even though I could have left with my master's after making the decision, I stayed in the lab to work the rest of the semester (since I was under contract) and of course, my research progress started to go forward. I don't regret my decision - I think it would have be difficult if my husband and I were on the market at the same time. Given that our academic fields are very different from each other, it would have been unlikely that we could have landed jobs in the same university or town. I have been extremely fortunate to be hired at the same school he is fully employed and I think that not having a PhD did not matter in my employment. I'm also lucky that we are able to teach a course together as part of a unique learning experience at our school.
Thanks to "Y" for their story.  

Job posting: safety and facilities coordinator, Newark, DE

From the inbox, a position at the University of Delaware's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry: 
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry invites applications for a safety and facilities coordinator. This individual will provide oversight and management of Departmental space for the safe, reliable conduct of chemical research and instruction.... 
This position requires a Bachelor’s degree in a chemistry related field and four years related experience.  An advanced degree is preferred.  Applicants should have experience handling a wide range of chemical materials in a research setting, including first hand experience handling and quenching pyrophoric materials.  Applicants should have a technical aptitude and basic understanding of building infrastructure, effective communication and interpersonal skills, and the ability to organize and coordinate the activities of people of all ages and diverse backgrounds. 
Interested? Apply here (go to the "staff" section, search for job ID 102630, "Safety and Facilities Coordinator in Chemistry and Biochemistry")

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Steve: "I was actually relieved that the slog was over."

Our second story of quitting graduate school comes from Steve: 
I spent five years getting no results.  My supervisor was hired to be the director of a research institute at my university after spending years in industry and government labs in the States, and I was his first grad student.  The first year or so was lost in setting up the lab and waiting through renovations.  Another year was lost chasing a compound that a collaborating group had published (turned out later that the results they got were actually due to the steel walls of the pressure reactor and not the compound - and they got another paper to correct this). 
My difficulties were not entirely due to circumstances.  Synthetic research and I are not a good mix.  I've said in the past that I suck at research, and my supervisor told me not to be so hard on myself, because if the project had involved measurements or anything other than air-free metal complexes I would have had a much easier time. 
After banging my head against the wall for five long years, during which time I tried to write up and discovered my work filled 32 pages, including introduction and literature review, I admitted that it wasn't going to work.  My project was dead and never going to produce results, and while I had some momentum going on a side-project, I was just too burned out to carry on.  An hour after I sent my withdrawal notice, I got an email from the university telling me they were giving me the boot because of an unsatisfactory grade at a presentation six weeks before.  Efficiency has never been this school's strong suit. 
Rather than being crushed, I was actually relieved that the slog was over. The unwritable thesis was no longer hanging over my head, and I was so worn down at that point that I didn't really care my life's ambition had dissolved.  I had a sessional gig at a second-tier regional university, and they didn't seem to care that my promised credentials weren't going to appear.  After that, my current position fell into my lap.  It's a postdoc, but they knew they entire story and hired me anyway.  I've been far luckier than I deserve.
 Thanks to Steve for his story. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"N": "a very blunt conversation with my boss"

From "N", their story of why they quit graduate school in chemistry:
After three and a half years of graduate school, I left the program with a Master of Science degree. I was attending graduate school that had a smaller faculty, lots of equipment, and is located in a beautiful area. To fully understand my dilemma, I wanted to study synthetic chemistry, but I didn't feel comfortable with the available research groups once I was already enrolled at the University. I joined an [redacted by CJ: "non-organic"] group with the understanding I could choose my projects and still be involved with synthesis. 
I decided to leave the program when I realized I was not receiving the mentorship that I was expecting. My boss was not well versed in this area and I was left on my own figuring out how and what to do when I was stuck. This was both my fault for not understanding my boss’ skill set and my boss’ fault for allowing me to join his group. 
My process for leaving was deliberate. I was unhappy and started reducing my research hours in lab. The fewer hours I worked, the less I moved forward. However, I did not realize research was the thing that was making me upset until I had a very blunt conversation with my boss. He informed me I would be in school eight years if I did not increase my hours in lab. Due to that conversation, I was certain I would not be staying for my PhD. 
I was concurrently studying to receive my MBA at the same University, so I continued on with the MBA program while finishing in the Chemistry Department. I am graduating [redacted by CJ: "soon"] with my MBA and plan to apply for full time management jobs in the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry. 
After one year, I regret that I did not look into transferring to other programs that would fit my research style better. I need a little more structure and guidance and I felt uncomfortable transferring to other groups at my University. I also wish I would have talked to somebody on my committee to ask them for help and guidance. I believe finishing with my PhD would have been beneficial for my career path, but I would rather be happy than stay in a program that was not the right fit. 
"N", thank you for your story and for also being our first submission! Best wishes in your new path. 

Stories wanted: "I Quit Graduate School in Chemistry"

At the end of Vinylogous' recent excellent post on mental health and graduate school in chemistry, he posited questions that people considering leaving graduate school should consider: 
There's a pervasive thought--"I've already put in 2 years, so it would be a waste of time to quit now." (Or however many years). But time already invested is a sunk cost. It doesn't matter how much time you've put in if you're not going to get anything out of the degree. Only three factors should matter when deciding whether to quit grad school: 
1. Am I happy right now? (Am I mentally healthy? Are there variables I can change about my current situation to make myself happier?) 
2. What is the future benefit of me getting this degree in comparison to not getting it? (is it necessary for your career? Is it limiting?)  
3. What am I missing out on by following through with grad school? (This is known as "opportunity cost" and includes the salary you could collect at a different job, time spent with friends, family, and your SO, traveling while young and unencumbered, etc).  
If the answers to those aren't positive, there's no reason to stay.
I don't feel qualified to talk about these questions and answers at all. Because of that, I would really like to hear from people who left graduate school in chemistry. I'd like to hear:
1. Why did you leave?
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden?
3. Where are you now?
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now? 
While you're welcome to put submissions in the comments, I'd be happier to take e-mails for posts later. You know the e-mail address:

UPDATE: Me, being an idiot. Confidentiality guaranteed, of course. Publication not until you say "yes, CJ, it is okay to publish."

(I feel like, someday, the blog should have a phone number and a voicemail box. That'd be awesome.) 

Glassdoor Review of the Week: Moderna Therapeutics

Speaking of Moderna, I am reminded that a couple weeks ago, someone at In the Pipeline posted a pretty awesome-not-awesome Glassdoor review of them (the review was written a year ago): 
Moderna takes advantage of all employees below the executive level- overworked and grossly underpaid, they feel as though they can get away with this type of behavior because of rival companies recently closing their doors. When the bubble bursts, the executives will have handsome rewards while the little guys will be have a place firmly set in the unemployment line. This mentality is not serving them; however. Within the last six months, both the CSO and the VP of Manufacturing quit on short notice. 
Moderna tried to spin it as a shortcoming of those employees; however, both of which worked consistently 100 hours a week only to be on the receiving end of the CEO's wrath and arrogance. I do wish I could give specific instances regarding the CEO; however, that would be telling of my identity- just take it that most of the things that come out of his mouth are positively flabbergasting and without a doubt abusive. He is unjustly paranoid and prone to wild attacks creating an atmosphere of deceit and hostility. He will pit employees against each other, overtly lie, and then find an ideal scapegoat among the lower employees and hang them out to dry. He is a master of creating a very toxic environment and I genuinely pity the people who are still employed there. 
Should you decide that you want to work here, just know what you're getting yourself into. 60 hours a week in the lab is a vacation, that alone, wouldn't be bad. The sophomoric and soap opera-esque drama that unfolds on a daily basis does; however, have a proclivity for making an 80 hour work week feel like eternity.
There was also this little tidbit written in September 2014:
I was the first Director of Chemistry. I helped Moderna setup their chemistry department, negotiate to acquire lab assets from my previous employer. Hire staff and filed first two Chemistry Patents applications. Honestly speaking, I had never experienced such an abusive, manipulative and arrogant CEO and the-then-CSO at any company in my entire life. The behavior from management was to blame every thing on others. Change projects on a fly, then fire some associates for failure if results to their like were not produced over night. Random firing of associates was a common practice. I am speaking facts here. I am not sure Glassdoor will publish it.

Let's make this a routine feature, shall we? If you see a Glassdoor review of a company that you find worthwhile to point out, feel free to e-mail me. 

Daily Pump Trap: 1/20/15 edition

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

Rocky Hill, CT: Henkel is looking for a Ph.D. synthetic polymer chemist; looks to be adhesive-related?

Oak Ridge, TN: Interesting ad for a Ph.D. physical chemist to work on "helium ion spectroscopy." Sounds fancy.

Cambridge, MA: Moderna Therapeutics (recipient of just a little money recently) is hiring an B.S./M.S. bioorganic chemist.

Athens, GA: This ad for a scientist by Argent Diagnostics is a little bit strange and I can't quite put my finger on it:
...Specific Duties and Responsibilities: 1. Project management and leadership of current and future SBIR/STTR funded grants. 2. Spectroscopy testing, data collection and chemometric analysis for ongoing research activities as needed. 3. Develop quality control protocols, new product ideas (hardware and software), and other detection opportunities. 4. Research, prepare and manage future SBIR/STTR grant submissions. 5. Supervise other employees and manage collaborative multidisciplinary research activities...
Will this position mostly be a grant writer? I dunno, but there are about 15 references to SBIRs in the ad.  

Ivory Filter Flask: 1/20/15 edition

A few of the academic positions posted this past week on C&EN Jobs:

Goodbye, assistant professorships: We seem to be transitioning into "visiting assistant professorship" season. 

Sherman, TX: Austin College looking for a visiting assistant professor for fall 2015 to teach general chemistry. 

Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College looking for two VAPs in biochemistry and physical chemistry. 

Qatar: I can't tell what this "teaching specialist - organic chemist" position in Qatar is about, but hey, maybe you want to do it? 

(Should we think of taking teaching positions in wealthy Gulf oil states like an organic chemist going to work in Shanghai at WuXi, or should we think of it like college kids going to Alaska for a season of crab fishing?) 

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: The Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation is looking for a M.D./Ph.D. director of radiopharmaceutical chemistry -- looks lucrative: $125,000-$175,000. (CAN)

Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College looking for a M.S./Ph.D. instrumentation specialist.