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Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Sun Sep 27, 2015 7:03 pm
by Julian
Dear all,

This is my first post on this forum even though I have been reading it since quite a bit now.

I have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and I also have postdoctoral experience (also in organic chemistry). I am currently working for a CRO as a research scientist in medicinal chemistry.

I read several posts on this forum where people would argue that working for a CRO when you have a Ph.D. is the « kiss of death » for one’s carreer since these type of companies have a low ceiling and do not offer opportunities to climb up the ladder.
Moreover, judging from the current economic climate in the pharmaceutical industry and seeing all the R&D bench jobs being moved to Asia and India, I have concerns regarding what will happen to my career since I doubt I will be able to make my CRO experience valuable outside of the CRO/chemistry world.

With everything that has just been said, I therefore considered looking for alternative careers outside of the bench but most of the opportunities seem to be administrative (regulatory affairs, patents...) whereas I am more interested in working with instruments/computers than with paperwork (I am more the introvert type chemist who lacks interpersonal skills rather than the extravert manager).

I am seeking advices to answer the following questions with the purpose of trying to find a stable job/career path even if that means accepting a position with a slightly lower salary as long as that allows me to get out of the permatemp circle:

1. Are there any readers who have been in my situation who would be kind enough to give me advice on how they managed to transition into a different career path in the field of chemistry ? More generally have any readers been able to move on to a career path that would give you the same « thrill » as the one you get when designing an experiment ?
I need to add that I do not enjoy teamwork and that I am a lot more efficient when working on my own under minimal supervision. Even though most industry jobs indeed require teamwork, I was wondering if there were any career paths that would be more suited for people who like to work by themselves and do not have good interpersonal skills.

2. The bioinformatic/computer science field seems to be in better shape than the organic chemistry one. Are there any former synthetic chemists who have transitioned into that field to become a data scientist (or any other type of « computer-science-based scientist ») who could tell me how they made the transition, how long it took them to retrain themselves or which key additional skills would be needed to be learnt.

3. I was also considering moving to the field of analytical chemistry (either by applying for an industrial postdoc or by following a one year of master’s class). Is it a transition that can be easily accomplished for an organic chemist or do recruiters always prefer to hire people with the required analytical background?

4. Another path of potential interest would be the Scientific and Technical Translator path, at least as a potential part-time job that could be done from home. Is it a path that is currently in demand in the pharmaceutical industry? Has any reader been down that road?

5. I am also considering working for a medical device company. Does anybody know what kind of position would be a good fit for someone with an organic chemistry background?

6. The last option I am considering would involve leaving the chemistry field for good to move on to something completely different. In order to make use of my lab skills, I was thinking about becoming a cook or opening a brewery. Do any reader have suggestions regarding what type of path outside of the chemistry business might be doable and could to some extent allow me to take advantage of my chemistry background ?

I apologize for the long post but I wanted to be as specific as possible regarding my current situation. I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to read it and to provide answers.

Best regards,

Julian

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2015 1:39 pm
by Dave Jensen
Hi Julian,

What a long post. It's a shame, but people just don't seem to respond well to them.

I'd like to ask you about the impression you have of CRO's being a bad thing for a PhD career. There are so many different kinds of service companies now, in broad ranges of specialties, and they are all labeled CRO's. If perhaps you are talking about a job like a CRA in a company that does clinical trials, that's one career track. And one that's probably not all that relevant for a typical PhD reader here.

But I don't remember seeing anything on our forum in the past where CRO's were trashed in general, or called the "kiss of death" for a PhD. That doesn't jive with what I remember from over 17 years of moderating this forum. Please, clarify. I think that there are solid jobs in chemistry and other sciences inside service related companies. While they may be a bit behind the large companies in salary and security, that gap has been steadily closing over the years and may not even exist in the future. If you were a VP of Product Development, there would be many reasons why "going outside" for portions of your R&D would make sense. [There is an element of concern that some should rightfully have about these businesses going offshore, however.]

Thanks,

Dave

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2015 5:17 pm
by Rich Lemert
Julian wrote:I ... considered looking for alternative careers outside of the bench but most of the opportunities seem to be administrative ... whereas I am more interested in working with instruments/computers ... (I am more the introvert type chemist who lacks interpersonal skills rather than the extravert manager.


Being an introvert does NOT mean you lack interpersonal skills. You would not have gotten to this point if you did. All it means is that prefer to deal with people one-on-one, and then with people that you already know. Furthermore, you don't have to be an extrovert to be a manager.

(I'm going to put in a plug for Toastmasters here. The program doesn't make you an extrovert if you're naturally an introvert. What is does do, though, is give you tools that will allow you to function in an extrovert world as an introvert.)

I need to add that I do not enjoy teamwork and that I am a lot more efficient when working on my own under minimal supervision. Even though most industry jobs indeed require teamwork, I was wondering if there were any career paths that would be more suited for people who like to work by themselves and do not have good interpersonal skills.


There are certainly career paths that are more 'friendly' to an introvert personality, but all career paths are going to require some interaction with others. I would therefore focus more on what you want to do and not as much on your self-perceived 'introverted deficiencies'.

First off, I would question whether or not you really are more "efficient" working alone. I can see the attraction: able to decide what you want to do without having to account for others, and able to set your own schedule. However, going off and "doing your own thing" is not very efficient when by doing so you are not actually contributing to what your stakeholders (boss, customers, funding agencies, etc.) are asking you for.

Second, this is twice now that you claim not to have any interpersonal skills. Please explain what you mean. Can you have a civil conversation with a colleague about the results of your work? Can you politely ask maintenance to come fix the hoods in your lab when they go down? If so, you have interpersonal skills. I suspect that you are making the mistake of equating 'interpersonal skills' with the type of behavior often seen in politicians - walking up to strangers and quickly 'blending in with the crowd'.

I was also considering moving to the field of analytical chemistry (either by applying for an industrial postdoc or by following a one year of master’s class). Is it a transition that can be easily accomplished for an organic chemist or do recruiters always prefer to hire people with the required analytical background?


Before taking a giant leap backwards, first see if there's any way you can leverage the skills you already have. As an organic chemist, I would expect you to have some knowledge of NMR, IR, and chromatography. Play it up. Don't automatically assume that more education is going to cure all that ails you; it generally just means that you have to start over in a new field when you're a lot older.

The last option I am considering would involve leaving the chemistry field for good to move on to something completely different. In order to make use of my lab skills, I was thinking about becoming a cook or opening a brewery.


Never change fields in order to run-away from something you don't like. You will never be happy, because no matter what you go into there will be aspects of the field that you don't care for. If you're going to make this type of change, do it because the new field 'pulls' you to it.

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2015 6:29 pm
by Julian
Dear Dave,

Thank you for your quick reply to my long post.

I would be more than happy to clarify my post, I was talking about the « Research scientist » positions in CROs working in the field of medicinal chemistry so I meant making organic molecules for clients who are usually big pharma companies. For economic reasons they outsource the synthesis of the molecules on which they want to run biological tests on.
These positions were initially made for people who had master degrees but given the lack of jobs and the fierce competition for Research positions for Ph.D holders, there are more and more Ph.Ds and less master’s holders who are working in these positions now.

My point is that once a Ph.D. signs up for one of these positions it that means he accepted a position for which he’s much overqualified which severely ampers his career. Moreover, these positions are labelled « Research Scientist » but the job itself is in fact a technician job. That’s what I was refering to as the « kiss of death » (which I might have seen on a different forum) because it’s very hard to get out of this situation since you’ll have to justify to your next employer why you accepted a Master job and took a step down in your career by doing so.

I would also argue the following points :

- Those companies are usually small companies which means it’s very hard to climb up the ladder and to leave the bench to work for a different position inside the company. Therefore it leaves the question « what’s next for you if you can’t climb up the ladder in these type of companies » open.

- They have a pretty high employee turnover rate and all the non-permanent employees (meaning 80% of the employees) are « expandables ».

- The salaries are usually low as you mentionned and employees don’t have pension, health insurance...

- The concept of « doing a lot with almost nothing » usually implies that the working conditions are not good (which leads to concerns regarding security).

- The competition with other employees in the company is very fiesty thus creating a bad work atmosphere.

I definitely agree with you about the concerns of R&D businesses going offshore, the main question is then whether it will come back someday and if it does when will that happen...it’s a tough decision to make because once you leave the bench it’s very difficult to come back, so I’m wondering whether it’s worth waiting for something that might not happen or if a Ph.D. holder should move on to something else asap. Long story short, my post has more to do with what kind of long term careers are left for Ph.D.s in organic chemistry.

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Mon Sep 28, 2015 7:53 pm
by Julian
Thank you very much Rich as well for your detailed reply to my post and for your helpful comments.

Rich Lemert wrote:
Being an introvert does NOT mean you lack interpersonal skills. You would not have gotten to this point if you did. All it means is that prefer to deal with people one-on-one, and then with people that you already know. Furthermore, you don't have to be an extrovert to be a manager.
(I'm going to put in a plug for Toastmasters here. The program doesn't make you an extrovert if you're naturally an introvert. What is does do, though, is give you tools that will allow you to function in an extrovert world as an introvert.)
There are certainly career paths that are more 'friendly' to an introvert personality, but all career paths are going to require some interaction with others. I would therefore focus more on what you want to do and not as much on your self-perceived 'introverted deficiencies'.
First off, I would question whether or not you really are more "efficient" working alone. I can see the attraction: able to decide what you want to do without having to account for others, and able to set your own schedule. However, going off and "doing your own thing" is not very efficient when by doing so you are not actually contributing to what your stakeholders (boss, customers, funding agencies, etc.) are asking you for.


Very good points, I had never thought about it that way but I have to admit that you’re perfectly right in your statements. I will definitely look more into the Toastmaster program you mentionned. As you noticed, I am having issues trying to figure out what I would enjoy doing if I was not an organic chemist...it’s particularly difficult after having spent so many years inside a lab which have clouded my judgement as to what opportunities exist outside the lab. Moreover there’s also the fear of making the wrong decision again, « wrong » as in jumping in a field that you like but that does not offer employment opportunities !

Rich Lemert wrote:
Second, this is twice now that you claim not to have any interpersonal skills. Please explain what you mean. Can you have a civil conversation with a colleague about the results of your work? Can you politely ask maintenance to come fix the hoods in your lab when they go down? If so, you have interpersonal skills. I suspect that you are making the mistake of equating 'interpersonal skills' with the type of behavior often seen in politicians - walking up to strangers and quickly 'blending in with the crowd'.


You’re right again, I can indeed have the two types of conversations that you mentionned but it’s just that I am not a very talkative person in general (I don’t like to have randon conversations with people in general) and also that I am bad at « wearing a mask to play a role that is required by my job but in which I don’t believe ». Long story short, I am not good at faking my emotions/speech even if I am paid to do so and I guess that is what you meant when you were speaking about « the type of behavior often seen in politician ».
Also being an introvert makes it very hard for me to network with people I do not know which seems to be a requirement these days to manage to get interesting jobs.

Rich Lemert wrote:
Before taking a giant leap backwards, first see if there's any way you can leverage the skills you already have. As an organic chemist, I would expect you to have some knowledge of NMR, IR, and chromatography. Play it up. Don't automatically assume that more education is going to cure all that ails you; it generally just means that you have to start over in a new field when you're a lot older.


You’re right on point again. I do indeed have the skills that you mentionned. The main
problem regarding the first paragraph is that if I look at the « peer + 2, peer + 3, peer +4
or peer +5 » who followed the « Research Scientist in organic synthesis in a CRO » path...well they were all trapped in the « permatemp » circle i.e. endless 7-8 months renewable contracts until you reach an age where employers tell you that you’re too old for permatemp contracts and then you end up having to start from scratch at 45 years old because no one wants to hire you anymore since you’ve switched from companies to companies too often and never were able to hold a permanent position in any of them. My point is actually that things will get worse for me as I get older.
I would actually love to avoid going back for more education because I assume it’s something very difficult to do both from a psychological and financial viewpoint. I do not think more education would cure all that ails me, I just see it as a necessary means to broden my skillset and make myself a more employable person outside the lab.

Rich Lemert wrote:
Never change fields in order to run-away from something you don't like. You will never be happy, because no matter what you go into there will be aspects of the field that you don't care for. If you're going to make this type of change, do it because the new field 'pulls' you to it.


I actually like to be an organic chemist, the only reason why I would be running away from it is because of how the job market looks like today for us and the fact that there’s not guarantee that things will come back to the way they used to be « back in the days ». Moreover I feel like working for a CRO is very similar to the « postdoc-exploitation » in that you get asked a lot by your employer without receiving any chances of decent long term career prospects (and decent salary) in return. It makes me question whether this scenario is true in every field or if it is just something that happens in lab sciences. This is why I’m currently trying to look for fields which have reasonnable job prospect first and which offers jobs that cannot be easily outsourced.

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Tue Sep 29, 2015 11:29 am
by Dave Jensen
Julian,

This is why things need to be made very clear here, so that others don't get confused by this. Just as in every single business niche, there are companies in the CRO sector that are small, don't pay well, who try to get PhD's into non-PhD jobs, and who don't have health insurance. Sounds like you work for one of those.

But, that's no different than a myriad of other business types, where there are little businesses trying to do the same thing. Tiny biotech startups without financing, or little agricultural or nutraceutical companies, and so forth. The problems you mention are not CRO problems, they are just "workplace concerns" that apply to many different kinds of employers of scientists.

But in the CRO world (and in all these other niches) there are ALSO companies that pay well, that offer health insurance, that have a PhD track and so on . . . So, this is more of a matter of you finding a job that fits your expectations and getting away from some kind of abusive employer. That's different than branding an entire business niche as a kiss of death!

That kiss of death designation comes from posts that I started and which were echoed by others about the disgusting trend of some employers (even very big and credible ones) to hire PhD's (generally postdocs who are caught in their third and fourth postdocs) as Research Associates. It is indeed a "kiss of death" to take a BS or MS level job and later think you can find a job on someone else's PhD career track!

Just to repeat - this is NOT a "CRO problem!"

Dave

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Tue Sep 29, 2015 2:41 pm
by Dave Walker
Hi Julian,

I think the others got to your main points here, I can add some some of my own flavor of advice to the mix -- I hope it's useful.

- In my opinion, the broad career paths you are interested in (data scientist, analytical chem, translator, devices, cook, brewer) show that you haven't really ruled out what you want to do. As Rich said, really start with what you like. Which one of those pulls you in the most? It is a fact that for each of those jobs, there are successful people with rewarding careers (even being a cook, so I'm told). I think the job search has to start with being as selfish as possible -- what do you really want to do, above all things? From there you can take steps to get closer to that answer.

- If you can find a field that you are interested in, I believe networking will uncover job descriptions (not opportunities) that will make you excited. I know someone who recently started working for an equipment manufacturer, and after networking with them I learned that there are several PhD-requiring job titles that I never heard of before; the problem is that these can be business- or industry-specific. These are well-paying jobs that require training and the skills of a PhD. But you may not even find them on this forum, or on the internet! That's because...

- Networking is essential, and should be your next step. Once you find what you want to do, talk to as many people in the line of work as possible and you will learn many things, including how to find a job in that industry.

All of this can be done at your current station in life. You don't need to quit your job or go back to school or take a year off to search. All you need is a telephone and some time to yourself to think.

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Tue Sep 29, 2015 7:44 pm
by Julian
Dave Jensen,

Thank you for the clarification, I don’t have experience with other CROs so I shouldn’t have generalized my purpose to the whole CRO world indeed.

Dave Jensen wrote:
But in the CRO world (and in all these other niches) there are ALSO companies that pay well, that offer health insurance, that have a PhD track and so on . . .

Your statement gives me hope that there still are some decent opportunities left in the field. I was wondering if you had some advices for people like me who have spent a lot of time in academia and who don’t have much experience in the private sector on how to find these companies. Are they best found through networking by reaching out to people who work for them and trying to get insight on how it is like to work there? Cold-calling/inviting through LinkedIn someone who works in your “dream job” to ask him how he got there, what his work looks like on a daily basis and so on?

Dave Jensen wrote:
It is indeed a "kiss of death" to take a BS or MS level job and later think you can find a job on someone else's PhD career track!

I thought having some experience in the private sector was better than signing up for a second postdoc in academia since it would at least give me some experience in a company even if the job itself is not at the PhD level. I cannot reverse time anyway so I am currently trying to figure out what I should do to get back on track in my career despite that step down that I took in my career when I came to work for that company. That’s actually my biggest fear since almost all the previous PhDs employees who came to work there ended up leaving the field due to that “kiss of death”. What would my best move be as to how I should address this experience to my next employer during an interview? Shall I tell him that I wanted to have some work experience outside academia and that based upon the few opportunities in the field at the time being I had to start at a lower level than what my academic credentials should allow me? Do you have an advice to help me get out of my current situation?

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Tue Sep 29, 2015 7:48 pm
by Julian
Hi Dave Walker,

Thank you very much for your advices, they were indeed very useful and I really appreciate the time you have spent replying to my post. I would just have some question/comments on them.

Dave Walker wrote:
- In my opinion, the broad career paths you are interested in (data scientist, analytical chem, translator, devices, cook, brewer) show that you haven't really ruled out what you want to do. As Rich said, really start with what you like. Which one of those pulls you in the most? It is a fact that for each of those jobs, there are successful people with rewarding careers (even being a cook, so I'm told). I think the job search has to start with being as selfish as possible -- what do you really want to do, above all things? From there you can take steps to get closer to that answer.

You’re right, I haven’t ruled out what I want to do yet. The main reason for that is that from everything I have read on other forums, it seems to be almost impossible to break outside of your field to find a job unless you sign up for more schooling.
My point is the following : « why would an employer hire an organic chemist for say a data scientist position when the market is already flooded with freshly out of school students who have the exact requirements that are sought after by the employer » ?
I doubt that employers would take these kind of risk anymore especially in an unstable economy such as the one we’re going through ?
I think the main reason why I haven’t made the decision yet is because I’m afraid to make the « wrong choice » again (as in jumping into a field that I like but which has very few work opportunities in the end).

Dave Walker wrote:
- If you can find a field that you are interested in, I believe networking will uncover job descriptions (not opportunities) that will make you excited. I know someone who recently started working for an equipment manufacturer, and after networking with them I learned that there are several PhD-requiring job titles that I never heard of before; the problem is that these can be business- or industry-specific. These are well-paying jobs that require training and the skills of a PhD. But you may not even find them on this forum, or on the internet! That's because...
- Networking is essential, and should be your next step. Once you find what you want to do, talk to as many people in the line of work as possible and you will learn many things, including how to find a job in that industry.
All of this can be done at your current station in life. You don't need to quit your job or go back to school or take a year off to search. All you need is a telephone and some time to yourself to think.

Your comment is extremely interesting and I firmly agree with you that networking should be my next step but I’m curious about a few points:

- I have read on several forums that one shouldn’t ask for a job when networking which I guess is what you’re implying when you say that “networking will uncover job descriptions (not opportunities)”. Nevertheless if those “hidden opportunities” are not advertised then how does one find them and apply to them? By sending resume to the HR department of the company?

- Also, how does one hear about these jobs during the networking process? I don’t see how a job candidate can reach out to someone to ask questions about a job title which he has never heard about?

- More generally, I’m wondering how to approach/meet/network with someone who has never heard about me before and who does not work in the field in which I have been studying all my life. Do you have any advice to give me to get in touch with these kinds of people? In a fast working environment like the one of today’s world, I seriously doubt that these people have time or interest to reply to LinkedIn / email invitation from people who are just curious to know about what their jobs look like.

- You do mention that the types of jobs that you describe require training but you consider I shouldn’t need to go back to school to get that training.
I know that ten years ago or so, companies used to pay to train their employees “on the job” so they could get additional skills that will benefit to the company in the end. Do these kinds of opportunities still exist today because I had the feeling that companies were only willing to hire employees that will hit the ground running from day one? Is it the kind of training that you were thinking about in your comment?

I apologize for the large number of questions I have asked to all the members of the board and I thank you all very much for all the useful advices but like most of people who spent too much time in academia, I lack the skills/state of mind on how to tackle the current job market...especially the “hidden job market”!

Re: Leaving the CRO world and evaluating career options

PostPosted: Wed Sep 30, 2015 9:00 am
by Dave Walker
Hi Julian,

I had a long reply here, but I really think you should read through as many of Science Career's Tooling Up articles on careers. I believe each question you have asked is covered by an article, and there are hundreds!: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... t.a1400269

If you have specific questions after doing your reading, you can post them here. Preferably one per topic so we can address them (and that they are searchable for the future).

Dave