Finding Jobs in “Small Pharma”

September 27, 2010

There are still a lot of pharmaceutical R&D jobs out there. However, where they are is changing. Drug industry mega-mergers over the past ten to fifteen years have resulted in the formation of some extremely large drug companies. The dozen or so largest are collectively known as “big pharma.” Big pharma includes: Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, Abbott Laboratories, Merck & Company, Bayer Health Care, Eli Lilly and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Lists of large pharmaceutical companies are available online (

Until recently R&D employment opportunities for chemical professionals were becoming increasingly concentrated in big pharma. These companies have impressive R&D centers, often several, employing a thousand or more people. However, industry innovation, usually measured as the annual number of FDA approvals of new drugs has declined over the last decade.

There are a number of potential causes of this decline despite increased industry R&D spending. It’s been suggested that these mergers have resulted in innovation-stifling bureaucracy at big drug company research centers. Another factor may be changes in U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations for permitting of new drugs.

In an effort to overcome the problem of reduced innovation, the drug industry appears to be in the process of switching over to a different R&D model – one involving more outsourcing of R&D and supporting functions and less internal R&D. The result has been reduced R&D staffing levels at many big pharma companies. According to Russell Reynolds healthcare recruiter Jacques Bouwens, the ten largest drug companies have eliminated approximately 27,000 R&D jobs since the beginning of 2009 (
). Big pharma staffing levels may continue to decline due in part to work force reductions and in part due to reduced hiring of young researchers.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) provides a representative example. Since 2006, the firm has cut its global R&D staff by 20%. At the same time it has substantially increased funding of outside projects performed by small biotech firms and academic research groups. About 30% of GSK’s drug discovery research is now outsourced.

As a result of extensive outsourcing, overall drug industry R&D spending has declined relatively little. However, new laboratory jobs are increasingly in smaller companies that work on projects outsourced by big pharma. This shift creates a challenge for job hunters. Smaller firms are less well known to job hunters than big pharmaceutical firms. Information on these smaller firms is often harder to find than information on big pharma companies. To identify these smaller firms requires the use of Internet search engines using search terms such as “contract research organization” and “list.” C&EN and drug industry trade magazines such as “Drug Discovery News” carry reports of outsourcing alliances established by big pharmaceutical companies with contract research organizations and biotech firms.

An ACS employment workshop, “Finding Jobs at Small Companies” provides tips on how to find employment opportunities at smaller firms. This workshop is sponsored by several ACS units and is usually offered at an ACS National Meeting.

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the author of the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and more than 1,400 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is also an ACS career consultant.

Navigating the Federal Employment Process

September 12, 2010

 Whatever your field of chemistry and type of job you want, there is probably a job suitable for you with a unit of the federal government. The federal government offers laboratory and non-laboratory employment opportunities for chemical professions. Laboratory employment opportunities include the national laboratories and laboratories operated by U.S. cabinet departments such as the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Defense. Regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency also offer chemists employment opportunities. Independent government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office are additional sources of employment opportunities.

Jobs under the Office of Personnel Management are subject to Civil Service laws found in Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations. Excepted Service job are not subject to appointment, pay, and classification rules under Title 5. Excepted government units set their own qualification requirements that are less stringent. These government units can hire non-citizens but preferentially do hire veterans of the U.S. armed services.

Where to find information on job openings

Nonstatus jobs are those for new entrants into government service. These must be posted on the Internet website. This job site is free. (Another job site for federal government jobs, charges job hunters for their services.) Job listings are updated daily and searchable using keywords. At any time, approximately 15,000 jobs are posted. Most job openings for chemical professionals are posted in the 1320 job series. Status jobs are for those with three years of government service and veterans who have completed three years of military service. Posting of these jobs on USAJOBS is optional.

Applicants must set up a USAJOBS account. After doing so, they can create their résumé online and post it. Job hunters can also set up a search agent to alert them when jobs matching their interests are added to USAJOBS. They can focus their searches by job location and job specialty such as analytical chemist or job title.

Job listings indicate that a government agency is seeking to fill a position. They also provide the salary, job grade, provide the job location, and promotion potential. In addition, listings detail how to apply for a position, provide the key requirements applicants must meet, and describe how the applicants will be rated. Job listings are usually purged after three months; however, some agencies such as NIST maintain continuous listings on USAJOBS.

The national laboratories do not use USAJOBS. Instead they post their job openings in the careers section of their website.

Qualifications, pay and benefits

Job classifications and degree requirements for many government positions are:

  • GS-5                 BS Degree
  • GS-7                 BS Degree with 3.0 GPA or higher
  • GS-9                 M.S. Degree
  • GS-11                PhD Degree

Government jobs have a 1 to 3 year probationary period. Citizenship and security clearance requirements vary from one government job to another.

Pay scales for many government jobs are available at Salaries compare well to similar industrial jobs and are generally higher than in academia. Actual salaries vary from one locality to another because they are adjusted for the local cost of living. Medical and dental insurance, life and long-term disability insurance, saving plans equivalent to 401k plans, retirement benefits, vacation and sick leave vary from one government unit to another.

How jobs posted on are filled

After an application is received the candidate is assigned an appropriate GS level. A competitive list of eligible candidates is established for each job opening. Many applicants are disqualified because they fail to show the required education or experience for a specific job opening, do not submit all the required forms, or fail to demonstrate that they have the required knowledge, skills and abilities specified in the job posting. All these requirements are quite rigid. Other reasons for disqualification include lack of required college transcripts, failure to provide other required information, or improper or late submission of the application.

Variations in hiring practices

Some government units have different employment application procedures. For example, the EPA posts job openings on their own website ( and the Department of Justice uses Avue Digital Services to provide the software its job applications process.

The most important factors in applying for government positions include:

  • Job-related experience
  • Weight given to previous job responsibilities with less attention paid to skills
  • Qualifications of candidates
  • Performance in interview
  • Recommendations from known persons
  • Reference checks

Since government jobs are public service, more weight is given to volunteer work the candidate has done than is the case in the private sector.

Knowledge, Skills Abilities (KSAs) statement

A job announcement may ask you for your KSAs. Each question asks about responsibilities and accomplishments that you can claim and that show why you’re qualified. Make sure your responses are complete but concise. It helps to use the same keywords in your response as used in the job announcement.

There are many similar jobs available in units of state or local government. The procedures for applying for these jobs vary from state to state and city to city.

Government service offers many rewarding careers for chemical professionals. So wise job hunters will include government job opportunities as part of their job-hunting strategy.

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the author of the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and more than 1,400 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is also an ACS career consultant.