Sunday, July 6, 2008

Joining in

Thanks to Mad Hatter for getting this forum rolling! I'm not a blogger, but when she posted the original list of participants here there didn't seem to be anyone from the Big Pharma side, so I thought I'd chime in.

I did my PhD in a model system molecular biology lab. By the time I finished, I'd already decided I wanted to pursue a career in biotech or pharma. I looked into those options then, and found that PhD positions basically required a postdoc. I thought about industry postdocs, but was advised that the same track to get a faculty position was the recommended one here as well: go to the hottest lab you can get into and get high-profile publications. (More on these topics in future posts.)

So I went to the hottest megalab I could get into, which was -- let's just say it had its good points and its drawbacks. After a too-long postdoc, and a too-long job search covering pharmas, biotechs and national labs, I landed a position in one of the large pharmaceutical companies, and have been there for several years. By and large, it's easily been the most pleasant stretch of my career in research.

Why industry? The biggest reason is that I wanted to do something that provided tangible benefit to people. Not to belittle basic research at all, but I personally was tired of producing incremental bits of knowledge that might have some non-zero chance to (as the R01 applications always put it) "lead to a potential treatment for cancer", and wanted to get a lot closer to really doing it. Secondarily, after spending years feeling shackled to my and my wife's PI's, I just couldn't see spending the rest of my career on the opposite side of that relationship.

When I got there, I spent the first few months trying to decipher the blizzard of abbreviations and jargon that describe a research and development process I barely understood. The second or third day, I decided to hit Google and find something that might get me oriented. That's how I found In The Pipeline, and I can't begin to say how helpful Derek's posts (and attached comments) were. Despite its slant towards chemistry, the biggest recommendation I'd have for anyone interested in learning about pharma work and culture is to read through his archives. Seriously -- pick topics from the sidebar and read through them.

In general, until recently the chemistry blogs were the only science-related blogs I read, as their focus on their work and workplaces was of much more interest to me than the various obsessions of the life sciences people. It's only recently that nuts-and-bolts discussions (like the ones here) have started catching on on the biomed side, and it's a welcome development.

So, what would you like me to talk about? Things I'd had in mind included: explanations of the drug development process, the various jobs involved, the hiring process, myths about industry work. (Pablo Achard scooped me on the analysis of the FASEB study I'd planned to do next!) But I'd very much welcome any suggested topics.

12 comments:

The bean-mom said...

Thanks for joining us! Great to have a perspective from Big Pharma!

And all the topics you suggested sound interesting to me. Perhaps the one that jumps most out at me now is the "myths of big pharma." Because, uh, I don't even know what those myths would be?

Look forward to hearing more...

maddox22 said...

Welcome :)

And so you know: acronyms and jargon are not restricted to big pharma. I had a summer research fellowship at Los Alamos National Lab (yep, that one) and several hours of our orientation training were devoted solely to acronyms. The employee manual actually had an acronym index. And it wasn't small, either.

I guess my biggest question for you would be whether you think the recommended post-doc route has helped you do your job better. I have no doubt that it helped you get your job; I'm just curious whether you feel that you would have been able to do your current job to the same degree of excellence if you hadn't had that experience.

I guess I'm interested in folks' feelings about the importance of training (Ph.D., post-doc, etc) in improving actual job performance.

Mad Hatter said...

Welcome! Like Bean-Mom, I'd be interested in all of the topics you mention, although the hiring process is of particular interest to me. The academic job application process in my field tends to be fairly personal in that the applicant or applicant's PI usually knows the dept. chair or some members of the search committee, thereby providing the applicant with a contact or perhaps even a foot in the door. My limited experience with Big Pharma's application process was that it is a complete black box, so to speak. So any insight into that would be great.

Also, I'd be interested in the organizational structure of Big Pharma and the types of positions that exist for PhD scientists. Some biotech companies are structured very much like academic research institutions, with a Principal Scientist/Senior Scientist serving as "PI" of a group of junior scientists. But perhaps not all pharma/biotech is structured that way, and presumably there also exist other non-benchwork-based positions within pharma/biotech for PhD scientists.

Becca said...

Ok, I've been dying to ask this of someone
"In industry, you can't pick what you want to work on"
Truth or myth?

Citronella said...

So, was a career in industry really considered as "alternative" in your field?

Lots of the grad students I know who work (at large) in the domain of drug discovery (that includes chemists and biologists and computer scientists) want to go to industry. And by that I mean that they started their PhD in order to gain the qualifications to get a high-profile job in industry (whether in drug discovery or not, by the way), and never really considered academia. When we ask each other "so what do you want to do after that?", the question means "industry or academia?", and receive about 1/3 "industry", 1/3 "academia" and 1/3 "I'm not quite sure yet" answers.

On another note, I'd be delighted to hear about the myth vs. truth of the pharmaceutical industry!

The Mad Chemist said...
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The Mad Chemist said...

Ok, I've been dying to ask this of someone
"In industry, you can't pick what you want to work on"
Truth or myth?


I had always heard that too. I think the answer is it depends on the situation at one's company.

I joined a small start-up contract research organization recently (My impression is that things may differ in big pharma.).

I can choose and pick between the projects we have available from paying clients. I can also suggest an internal project if I like (though suggesting it and getting to do it are two separate issues.)

While industry doesn't have the same freedom as academia, you can find niches in industry that allow more freedom than others. However, industry, once interested in a project, can usually throw more money at it than one could in academia...so there are trade offs in either situation.

Science Cog said...

In response to the question "In industry, you can't pick what you want to work on" Truth or myth?

Depends on the company, but in general much less flexibility than as a professor. For example, Google lets employees work one day a week on a pet project (related to Google's interests of course, but the project can be a far out research idea with no obvious benefit to the bottom line).

The same holds in many large companies, but not before you earn your stripes. That means working really hard on whatever you are given the first couple of years. The research has to be related to the company's interest. If it matches your dissertation work great, otherwise you need to reinvent your research area. Not a problem, unless you really want to continue your dissertation work. There are many pluses to working on a hot topic in industry.

If you are teaching 4 classes a semester then probably one day a week is all you can spare (if you are super organized). But you get to continue working on your favorite research topic. For that privilege you get paid much less than in industry.

Silas said...

"In industry, you can't pick what you want to work on"
Truth or myth?


Like the others said, it depends on the company, your boss and upstream people, what function you're in and, obviously, your seniority. Typically it's like a good postdoc: there's an overall direction that's dictated from above but you're there to be a scientist and you get to shape how it's carried out.

BTW, I've heard that Google's 20% side project time is more legend than reality nowadays. But as long as you're getting your job done, you can look around for side projects anywhere, and the nice thing about a large company is that there are all sorts of things going on that you can latch on to.

But there's no question that if you go to an industry lab head job out of your postdoc, you won't have the kind of latitude you'd have as a new associate professor. If that's important to you, it's not the job for you.

I guess my biggest question for you would be whether you think the recommended post-doc route has helped you do your job better.

To me, the upside of the postdoc was getting to work with some extraordinary people and doing some interesting work myself. Obviously, I grew as a scientist over that time, just like I continue to grow. If I had been able to start an industry job straight out of grad school, would I be behind or ahead of where I am now? I'd guess ahead, but who knows?

Jennifer said...
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The Mad Chemist said...
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The Mad Chemist said...

I guess I'm interested in folks' feelings about the importance of training (Ph.D., post-doc, etc) in improving actual job performance.

Hmmm, that is hard to say. I have done two postdocs in academia and I definitely learned a lot of chemistry and skills that I may not have been able to pick up elsewhere. But if I hadn't postdoc'd, I would have picked up a different skill set along the way in industry.

Since I have a job at essentially a small start-up, it helps to know the things you learn from wearing multiple hats in an academic lab because you wear multiple hats at a small company. It is my impression that this is not the case with entry level positions in big pharma.