Seeking Career Advice  


New Colleague Registered
Joined: 4 years ago
Posts: 1
July 3, 2016 3:52 am  

Hi all.

I'm going to speak to a counselor at my university regarding my career, but I thought I would also ask here.

I'm currently an undergraduate student majoring in Pharmacology. I have two years remaining. I really enjoy organic chemistry and I wish to explore this passion by becoming a medicinal chemist. I plan on pursuing a PhD in chemistry (with a specialization in organic chemistry).

I've researched online about the job market and growth for chemists, and information and comments have been mixed.

I'd like to know if it's worth going into this field, as well as how the job market is as well. I'd also like to know if there are any alternative careers that I can go into.

Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Eminent Colleague Registered
Joined: 6 years ago
Posts: 40
July 8, 2016 9:14 am  


I'm not a chemist, I'm a biologist but I work with a lot of medicinal chemists and have gone the PhD route. There are certain jobs that require graduate level training and if you want career advancement at the highest level in science, a PhD is almost always needed these days (but be warned that while PhD might be seen as necessary for those jobs, it is not seen as "enough" meaning you will be forced to get additional training and sometimes lot of it). When you get any kind of advanced degree, especially a PhD, you become overqualified for most jobs. So to distinguish yourself form all those other PhDs, you almost always need additional training after the PhD. There ratio of PhD holders to PhD level jobs is very skewed and every year the situation gets worst. My impression is that chemists do not have any harder or easier time than anyone else with a PhD. I think in general chemists are paid more than biologists but probably not as much as PhDs in computing or quantitative sciences. I think if you want to get into science, chemistry is a solid choice and medicinal chemistry is a very practical stream.

There are tons of alternative careers that you can get into if you decide not to stay a bench chemist. You can browse Science Careers Advice Columns for what some of those are. Unfortunately all those years of training that you did in the form of the PhD will do little to help you actually land those jobs. Whether you stay at the bench of leave the bench, the PhD is just one box that is ticked when you go out looking for jobs. it is almost guaranteed that you will have to go off on your own and build up your own skill set, get additional training (in the form of postdocs or something else). Especially if want to carve out your own alternative career path, because PhD gives you mainly bench skills (some writing skills maybe but the rest you have to learn on your own).

This is not a decision I would make lightly. The average length of a PhD keeps getting longer and longer. When I started it was around 5 years in my department; by then time I finished the average length was 6.5 years. Now it's common for people to do two postdocs each 3-4 years. I see it in my own cohort. If you had your heart set on a bench career, but then change your mind, you may be spending another year or two at a very junior position just to get additional training in something else (maybe it's regulatory affairs, project management, IP or something else). By this point, you may be somewhere between 33-38 years old. That is time that you didn't spend making a real salary. Those are all years that you will lose out on savings, paying down your mortgage, saving for your future and your kids education, having extra income to go travelling. So knowing all that, if you still want to do the PhD, I would go and check the thread that's called "Help me build a "Timeline" as career advice". It's important for you to come up with a plan and a timeline for yourself. I would go into it with a plan but be prepared to adapt and remain flexible.

It may be a good if you can have a vague idea of what types of alternative careers you might be considering down the road and which ones are just absolute do not interest you or suit your personality. Real up on this and talk to as many people as you can. Even if your heart is set on a bench career, it is a good idea to know what else you can do and you can spend some time and effort during your PhD getting those skills instead of waiting to finish the PhD, then a few postdocs before you think about it.

Steven Z.
Trusted Colleague Registered
Joined: 8 years ago
Posts: 60
July 12, 2016 5:22 pm  

A lot of medicinal and synthetic organic chemists have been ravaged in the pharma and chemical industry. I would not go that route. The job market is not good for them at all check out in the pipeline Derek Lowe's blog for details.

Eminent Colleague Registered
Joined: 8 years ago
Posts: 33
July 12, 2016 8:09 pm  

I've hired several organic chemists of late. There are a lot of them on the market. I have to retrain them as analytical chemists, but they have the advantage that they really understand how molecules are put together and fall apart so they make good NMR and MS scientists. Jobs strictly in Med chem are hard to find these days as much of their work has been offshored.