Underemployed at Big Pharma?

An article this week in the NYTimes got me wondering about the work prospects for the tens of thousands of scientists laid off by big pharma. The piece profiled several of the so-called “underemployed”—people who in a dismal labor market took jobs for which they were overqualified. A few years back, I followed a group of chemists that lost their jobs when Bayer decided to close the doors of its New Haven, Conn., campus as they searched for new employment. The take away was that it was a snap for folks with a masters degree—or “hands to make molecules”—to find a job, but much tougher for mid-career scientists to find positions. Nearly every PhD ended up leaving the state, and all but three went to biotech firms. At least they found jobs. That was in 2007. Just three years later, I’m wondering how much worse it has gotten out there. The mega-mergers (Pfizer/Wyeth, Merck/Schering-Plough, Roche/Genentech) and the arrival of the patent cliff have prompted a fresh round of research cuts across all of the major players. In theory, this would mean there are even fewer jobs out there and more people looking for ‘em. And with financing tight, it has gotten harder to get the funds to start-up a new venture. For biotechs looking to hire, the employment glut is obviously a boon. When I interviewed the folks at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forma Therapeutics in December, it was clear that it is a great time to be in an expansion mode. And Joseph Gardner, the CEO of Akebia, a tiny company that was borne out of the ashes of P&G’s pharma unit, told me during the JPMorgan Healthcare conference in January that he had opened a satellite office in Ann Arbor, Mich. The move was solely to accommodate four ex-Pfizer scientists that were affected by the closure of the research site there. I’ve heard similar stories from many small- and medium-sized biotechs. Still, it seems the companies adding significant numbers of researchers are few and far between (a situation underscored in our recent story about the lack of jobs in California). The Times piece talks about mid-level managers taking significant steps back in their career to stay in their field, or even ending up at Starbucks. What I’m wondering is whether most biotech or pharma companies will even consider letting someone come in so many levels below where they left off and, if so, whether that arrangement can actually work out. Or are folks looking into new careers? If so, what’s out there? Leave your thoughts in the comments or, if you're shy, feel free to email me.

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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  1. I have a master’s in chemistry, and I spent 15 years in pharma, both large companies and small ones. At first it was a great job, but over the last five years of my career, I was laid off three times. Every time, I found another job, but I had to pick up and move to a new city, at great personal and financial cost. After the last layoff, I was offered another job fairly quickly, but I didn’t believe that this job would be any more stable than the last 3, despite the lofty promises. I was also worried because I was approaching 40, when career opportunities start to dry up.

    I took a chance, didn’t take the pharma job, looked at other careers, and eventually found a government job. In less than a year, I’ve already been given leadership opportunities that would never have been offered to an MS chemist in pharma, and I enjoy the challenges of my new career. My only question is, why didn’t I do this sooner? (And the company that offered me a job the last time? They’re having more layoffs.)

  2. Toberead, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you end up doing? I’m also thinking that pharma is far too unstable to make a good career out of it any more (and having a Ph.D makes me even more likely to go under the axe).