Is there really a shortage of STEM workers?

February 6, 2012

Every so often, this question pops up and the debate begins again – do we have too many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers, or not enough?  Some people say that scientists are having difficulty finding jobs, so we must be creating too many scientists.  But there are still lots of places where technical expertise is needed, so obviously we’re not creating enough scientists.  Which is true?  A couple of recent reports have looked into the issue, and added more fuel to the discussion.

The first one, the STEM Report, was released by Georgetown University in October 2011, and argues that there really is a shortage of STEM workers in the United States, but not for the reasons traditionally cited.   These authors concluded that “innovation and technology change have led to the demand for STEM competencies beyond traditional STEM occupations”, and the deeper problem is a broad scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy.  They postulate that domestic STEM talent is moving into non-STEM occupations because the core cognitive STEM competencies are becoming increasingly valued in non-STEM occupations that are highly-paid, prestigious, and more in line with worker’s interests and values.  Workers leak out of the STEM pipeline at all stages, after they have acquired varying levels of proficiency in STEM competencies.  For example, only 19% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree do so in a STEM field, and only about half of those actually work in a STEM field after college.  After 10 years post-graduation, only 8% are still working in a STEM field.  The authors of this report argue that the vacated positions have in recent years been filled by foreign-born STEM students, who are more likely than non-STEM students to remain in this country and become STEM workers.

The second report recent report is entitled “Jobs Americans Can’t Do:  The Myth of a Skilled Worker Shortage”, and was published in November 2011 by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  This is a group that advocates for immigration policy reform, and not surprisingly their report concludes that “U.S. tech companies are cutting wages by discriminating against qualified American workers”, and that “there is no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists and engineers in the United States”.  In fact, they find that the “glut of science and engineering degree holders has caused many S&E graduates to seek work in other fields”, and foreign-born scientists who are willing to “work for smaller wages” are taking jobs away from native-born workers.

Even though the reports come to different overall conclusions, both agree that STEM-trained workers overall are leaving their field in large numbers, at all stages of their careers.  (They also agree that the academic market for PhDs in STEM areas is weak.)

However, the first report believes that the competencies of STEM workers are highly valued in non-STEM occupations, so workers are being pulled into lucrative careers elsewhere, and we should train more workers to fill both the STEM and non-STEM markets with technically trained professionals.  The FAIR report believes that the influx of foreign-born students and scientists has flooded the market, depressing wages and forcing STEM workers out and into other fields.  Specifically, what is it that makes STEM-trained workers so valuable?  The core competencies specifically identified in the Georgetown University report include critical thinking, complex problem solving, deductive and inductive reasoning, problem sensitivity (the ability to tell when something is wrong or likely to go wrong), systems analysis, and many others.  While we may learn these skills in a research lab, or hone them in a manufacturing plant, they are applicable to a wide variety of industries and job fields, both technical and non-technical.  I encourage you to check out the list, and think about which of these competencies particular strengths are for you, and which ones you might be able to add to your resume.

Regardless of which interpretation is you might agree with (and does it really matter?), the bottom line is that STEM-trained workers are valued in non-STEM fields, and that value is increasing over time.  It also means people trained with a STEM background have more options when looking for employment, which I think everyone will agree is a good thing.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

Preparing for a Career Fair

March 15, 2010

A career fair is a great way to talk to employers, find out what’s going on in your industry, and advance your professional agenda.  It is free and open to all ACS members who are registered for the national meeting. If you plan to participate, check out the tips below on how to make the most of this opportunity.

Before You Go

To get the most out of the career fair, you should register now, so employers can search your information. Once you are registered, you can post your resume, browse  jobs and request  interviews.

You need to have clear idea of what you’re looking for in a job – an objective that you can state in 1-2 sentences (like the objective on your resume) when you meet new people.  You may have more than one, if you’re open to multiple types of positions. If you do, make sure to communicate the right one to the right people.  Know what you must have in a new position, what you’d like to have, and what you can live without.

Research which companies will be in attendance at the fair, and learn as much as you can about them.  You may be surprised where the opportunities are.  Don’t forget to look at speakers in technical sessions, and identify ones to whom you want to talk.  Not just chemical companies, but personal care products, food, small companies, federal government, etc. all hire chemists to do all sorts of things, so investigate all opportunities before you go, and make note of the ones in which you are most interested.

Getting Ready

Pack a large stack of  business cards and 20 copies of your resume, and know where the copy center is in case you need more.  Pack for the weather where you are going, and of course, dress professionally.

At The Fair

During the Fair, you should check your account regularly for updates, and keep in touch with employers who contact you.

Once you are on-site, there will be lots to do.  On a walk-in basis there will be workshops on a variety of career related topics, including Targeting the Job Market, Resume Preparation, Effective Interviewing, First Year On the Job, Proposal Writing, and so on. You will also be able to sign up for a 30 minute personal resume review, or for a mock interview with an ACS Career Consultant.  Sign up early, as all slots usually fill, and you can sign up no more than one day ahead of time.

Monday morning at 9:30 am there will be a welcome mixer for candidates and employers.  This will be a way to mix INFORMALLY with both employers and other candidates.  This is not a place to ask for a job, but a place to talk with employers and find out what they are looking for in general (technical skills, interpersonal skills, etc.), what the market is like, and so on.

What to Expect

If possible, have a mock interview before you start real interviews, to identify and fix any problem areas.

If you are scheduled for a real interview, do much more research on the company.  Make sure to be on time (which means 10 minutes early), and allow for travel time.

To begin, shake hands, look the interviewer in the eye, and introduce yourself.  Sit down after invited to do so, or after the interviewer does. Throughout the interview be positive, don’t interrupt, and avoid nervous habits.  Listen to what they have to say, as well as telling them about yourself.

Be prepared to talk about your research for a 5 minute mini-seminar, with a flow sheet or diagrams handy to guide the discussion.

At end stand up, shake hands again, thank them for the interview, and ask them for their business card.


Make sure to send a thank you note, most likely an email before the end of the national meeting. Follow up with the company if you haven’t heard from them in 2-3 weeks, to let them know you’re still interested.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

Too Many Scientists?

November 2, 2009

A recent report has been causing a lot of controversy in the blogosphere.  “Steady as She Goes?  Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” looked at three issues – the attrition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students from high school to career, how this attention rate has changed over time, and changes in quality in the students who remain in the STEM pathways.  They evaluated several longitudinal data sets, and determined that retention rates have been constant (or even increasing) from the 1970s through the late 1990s overall, but retention of the highest performing students declined steeply starting in the late 1990s.  The authors suggest the reason for this is that high-performing students are “being recruited into non-STEM jobs that pay better, offer more a more stable professional career, and/or are perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies”. They argue that encouraging more students to go into STEM disciplines may end up hurting the US, since more potential employees mean lower wages, which drives the best students into other fields.

This report is generating some discussion on, in the thread entitled Study Agues US Needs Fewer, Not More, Science Students .  This thread also points back to the  National Academies’ publication Rising Above the Gathering Storm report (2006) which said the nation should “enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics” in order to remain competitive. Many others have echoed this idea, and the idea of expanding the science pipeline has been guiding policy for awhile – just the opposite of what the newer study suggests.

Part of the reasons these two reports seem to oppose each other is that it is difficult to get actual numbers and hard data on why people choose the career paths they do.  I can think of a number of things that influenced my personal career choices…..a family background in science and engineering, a great high school chemistry teacher who made science interesting and fun, a new class that I just happened to be in the right place to take, personal and family circumstances, and a whole lot of luck.  While I may have considered (briefly) law or business for the financial rewards, I was always encouraged to do something I loved, and not worry about the money (within reason).

In my own travels, I think lately I’m meeting more people who want to do something they are passionate about, and care more about that than making as much money as possible.  They want to make a difference in the world, and as long as they can make a reasonable living they are fine.  Some of them are even choosing to work for less money, if it means more flexible work time and more time with their family, or taking extended time off to be with their families, and planning to go back to work at some point in the future.  I’m hoping this means people are realizing that they can be happy with fewer “things”, as long as they spend their days doing things that interest, excite and engage them.  Hopefully for many of us, that includes STEM careers.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.

Resume Don’ts from Hiring Managers

July 27, 2009

I have been doing some research lately that has involved talking to a number of hiring managers in various scientific industries. In doing so, I have collected a list of a few things they don’t like. In some cases, these small things are enough to knock you out of the running for a position, no matter how good your technical qualifications are. Here, in no particular order, are things that have been mentioned to me.

Resume Portfolio

In the sciences, your “resume” is really more of a resume portfolio. It should include a cover letter, a resume customized for the particular recipient, a research summary, a patent/publication/presentation list, and perhaps other documents that the employer has requested. Depending on the type of employer, this may include a list of references, management philosophy (for senior industrial positions), teaching philosophy and research proposal (for academic positions), and so on. While the resume itself should only be 2 pages, all the supplemental material can bring the page count significantly higher.

For hiring managers, having all this information at the start of the process is a big plus. If they’re interested in you, they can dive right into the details instead of having to wait for more information. Having it electronically is also an asset – this makes it much easier to store and access from multiple places than paper copies.

However, if each piece is a separate document, this significantly increases the amount of overhead required to open and print each file, not to mention keeping them together and making sure each one has been read. Putting all the information in one file – with clear headers and delineations, makes it easier for the recipient to keep it together, not to mention being able to print and search the whole thing easily.

One hiring manager mentioned getting a resume in which the objective was a particular type of position in the pharmaceutical industry. That would be fine, except her organization is not in that industry – in fact, it’s a government agency and not an “industry” at all. She says she often gets resumes/cover letters that talk about wanting a position in “industry”, and those go directly into the trash can. After all, if you can’t be bothered to check the details on something as important as your resume, how can she expect you to be careful with details on the job?

I have often said that my claim to fame is that in the 15+ years I have been a volunteer consultant, I have never seen a resume in which I could not find at least one typo. Sometimes it’s just something that looks like a typo (for example, a strange formatting choice), but that’s almost as bad. Having a typographical error in your resume is another way to get a quick trip to the trash can…who wants to hire someone who does not pay attention to detail on something as important as their resume?

Always make sure to have someone other than yourself read your resume carefully. Pick someone who has an excellent command of the English language, whose opinion you trust, and who will give you honest feedback without worrying about hurting your feelings. Only that way can you make sure you are putting your absolute best effort forward, and have the best possible chance to obtain the job of your dreams.

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).

Where are the Chemists? And Where Should You Be?

January 25, 2009

I start each morning by scanning blog headlines, and reading the articles that spark my interest.  One of the chemistry-related blogs I read recently began: “I’m going to write this morning about a question that actually came up among several of us at the train station this morning. I’m on a route that takes a lot of people into Cambridge, so we have a good proportion of pharma/biotech people on board. And today we got to talking about ……” .  

While the technical subject matter of the post was interesting, it was that lead-in that really caught my attention.  I wonder how many professional conversations happen on those trains, and how many connections are made?  Simply by being in a place where chemists are on a regular basis, these commuters are significantly increasing their odds of making valuable professional connections.  

So, what does this mean for you?  Can you put yourself in a place where you can be more easily found, and make connections with others in your profession?  

If you live in an area where mass transit is available, identify stations near centers of high tech or chemical industry. If your regular route takes you through them, start noticing others who ride that route on a regular basis – maybe one of them is carrying a copy of Chemical and Engineering News?  How hard would it be to strike up a conversation by asking if they read the article about ….?  You’ll quickly be able to tell if they’re open to a conversation, by the tone of their voice and their body language as they answer your questions.  The shorter their answers, the shorter your conversation should be. If you both ride on a regular basis, you can build up a relationship slowly over time.

If you don’t take mass transit on a regular basis, can you make other small changes in your routine – for example, work at a coffee shop near a potential employer instead of near your home, or have lunch in a deli near a chemical company?  Especially if you become a “regular” at some of these places, you will become familiar with other regulars, some of whom are bound to work at the nearby chemical companies.  

For example, in my area there is a deli very near a major chemical employer.  During a recent lunch there, a collegue and I were chatting about science, careers, and so on. As we were leaving, a gentleman who had been working at the next table stopped me and said that he couldn’t help overhearing our conversation, and he wondered if I could give him some advice about a project with which he was having trouble.  Of course I was happy to help him out, and gave him some ideas, pointers to some web sites, and my business card. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from him again, but I’m glad he made the connection.  He got some valuable information, and I got to feel good about helping another person.  

I have also made great professional connections in airport boarding areas, and with people seated next to me on flights to and from national ACS meetings – who very often turn out to be chemists!

Companies do this too.  Check out the company that set up a taco truck across the street from a competitor who was having layoffs to woo potential employees.  

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this whole idea of putting yourself where other professionals are, being open to (and even initiating) is not new.  In fact, it even has a name…….networking.  



This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of:  “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006)

Academia to Industry….or the other way around?

January 9, 2009


The January 5th issue of Chemical and Engineering News includes an article about the University of Michigan buying the recently closed Pfizer research facility in Ann Arbor, MI.  The property formerly housed about 2,000 pharmaceutical researchers, and  includes 30 buildings over 174 acres, and decades ago belonged to U of Michigan, who sold it to Parke-Davis, which eventually became part of Pfizer.  The university plans to use the acquisition to provide opportunities for industrial partners, and to that end has already hired 13 former Pfizer researchers.  They “expect to create at least 2,000 jobs over the next 10 years”.  The specific uses of the site will be worked out over the next year or so, but possibilities include expansion space for university researchers, partnering with or providing space for private sector businesses in pharmaceutical, biotech, energy, nanotech, and so on.  

This will not be an overnight process.  In 2007, Yale University made a similar move and purchased 136 acres housing 17 buildings that formerly housed the Bayer HealthCare complex.  So far, they have appointed Michael Donoghue as Vice President of Planning and Program Development.  Over the next three years he will develop the plan for use of the space, and add neighbors for the Institute for High Throughput Cell Biology which is currently located in the facility. Current plans include a mixture of high tech companies, research, and art.  

This is an interesting trend, especially in light of other workplace trends.  We know most chemists are now working for small companies, where they used to work for large companies. We also know that since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities are patenting their ideas, and collaborating with industry to commercialize them much more than they used to.  And now we see that universities are buying formerly commercial labs and using them to house their own research institutes, and to serve as incubators for new, small, high-tech companies.  

This is both good and bad news.  There is still lots of good work being done, it’s just being done in different places. It’s no longer enough to just look at large chemical companies when looking for a job.  Though they’re easy to find, they’re not where most of the jobs are. There are more places to look for work, so finding just the right fit will take more research on your part.  You’ll need to look at small companies, new technology areas, and maybe even academic institutions to find your ideal position.  

As an interesting aside, when I viewed the article on Pfizer selling the site, right next to it was a sponsored ad from Pfizer, advertising their positions available. So even within a single company, opportunities are moving around – changing location, specialty, area of study, and so on. Keeping abreast of, and hopefully ahead of, these changes is crucial to the long-term success of your career.

After all, we all know the only thing that is constant is change.


 This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of:  “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006)

Persistence: 2009 Word of the Year

December 31, 2008

In many ways, 2009 will be a challenging year for each of us in terms of career management and development. Persistence will serve as the key to success.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

~ Calvin Coolidge

There is little that is certain about 2009 except that there will be discord in the financial markets. As a result, the workplace will continue to evolve into a new and more stable configuration. Among other things, the second law of thermodynamics states that energy naturally flows from areas of high to low concentration. Unless countermanded by a persistent external force the system will progress to a greater state of disorder—entropy. The governments of the world are currently amassing a response to the financial entropy that is rampant in global markets, but there will be no quick fix. All parties involved will need to doggedly and consistently pursue subsequent solutions to ensure our recovery and success.

Likewise, we must be persistent in our pursuit of personal success. We must be aware of the opportunities and the challenges looming in our future and we must position our selves to our best advantage. When seemingly insurmountable obstacles present themselves, we must either chip through them, tunnel under them, or jump over them. We must be persistent in our resolve to solve the situation.

Growing up in rural west Texas, most of my afternoons and weekends were spent working with my Dad on various outdoor projects. I credit my Mom for these experiences. Her core philosophy was that we could not mess up the house if we weren’t in it, and the chief weapon in her arsenal was a list of to-do items that was a mile long. As a result, Dad and I were in a state of perpetual motion. As it turned out, most of our projects included digging: digging a post hole, tilling a garden, or simply removing rocks from the soil so that plants would grow. In retrospect, I realize that many of my chores were busy work intended to keep me occupied and out of trouble. I also realize that digging was a free activity that could be accomplished with little supervision. But digging holes also taught me a lot about persistence. In west Texas the soil is poor. It is composed of caliches and gypsum. The only way to dig a hole is to chip your way through the calcite deposits found in the soil. Dogged persistence was the name of the game. At the end of the day, we almost always got what we wanted. Another hole would be dug, another fence pole installed, and for my Mom, the house would remain clean.

“I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”

~ Frank Lloyd Wright

By committing ourselves to a personal set of goals, we can be successful in the coming year, but there will be challenges. We must resolve to persevere, to find solutions that face our society and to overcome the barriers that we face in our professional lives.

Best wishes to you and yours in the year ahead!

David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Career Management and Diversity Programs at the American Chemical Society.

New ACS Careers Programs Help Ensure Economic and Professional Success

December 1, 2008

The current economic situation has caused much uncertainty and worry for our members and others within the chemical enterprise. New graduates are experiencing greater difficulty in obtaining full time employment, and many mid- to late-career chemists are transitioning from one job to the next. Mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations are once again reshaping the chemical landscape, and business cycles once measured in years are best calibrated on a much shorter timescale.

As we face uncertain economic times, it is important that each of us positions ourselves as competitively as we can to be successful. Today’s workplace requires ingenuity, flexibility, and continuous professional development from its practitioners. It also requires a practical understanding of current business practices. In order to help ensure the continued prosperity and success of our members, and the companies for which they work, the Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs (CEPA) is pleased to announce the addition of two new programs to the ACS Careers portfolio.

Through a collaborative partnership with Harvard Business Publishing, ACS is offering a suite of 42 introductory online business and management skills courses through the new ACS Center for Professional Development. The course library includes topics such as Career Management, Negotiating, Leading and Motivating, Presentation Skills, Strategic Thinking, Team Leadership, Time Management, and many other high-quality courses. At $25 per course, this offering is substantially discounted for our members. Even lower rates are available for members who are currently unemployed. To enroll in one of these courses or to find out more about the topics covered, go to

The ACS Careers Industry Forum is a monthly teleconference featuring luminaries from the chemical industry who speak about economic and other trends affecting employment. This is a free service of the Society. The series which debuted in September featured Dr. Magid Abou-Garbia, Senior Vice President and Head of Chemical and Screening Sciences for Wyeth Drug Discovery and Development as the first speaker who discussed strategies for a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. Since then, the forum followed with Dr. Carolyn Ribes of Dow Benelux BV in the Netherlands who spoke about the challenges and opportunities of working abroad, and Dr. Michael Stem of Strem Chemicals Inc. who spoke about the differences between small and large companies. The upcoming forum in January will showcase incoming ACS President Dr. Thomas Lane of Dow Corning Corporation who is the Director of Global Science and Technology Outreach. To sign up for upcoming ACS Careers Industry Forum teleconferences, visit the ACS Careers Blog at

CEPA is also proud to support the ACS Network. The ACS Network is a professional networking tool for the global chemistry community, hosted by the American Chemical Society. Combined with our already successful ACS Careers Jobs Database, the Network promises to be one of the most empowering tools for today’s job seekers. The addition of ACS Global Partners to the ACS Network will make it even more powerful. ACS Global Partners are those with electronic access to ACS journal subscriptions through their library or other institution. To use these tools in concert, simply search and apply for jobs from the jobs database, and then conduct a search within the ACS Network for people working at your potential employer. To join or use the ACS Network follow the link on the ACS homepage,

Healthcare and health insurance were identified as the top workforce concerns of ACS members. In response, CEPA, in conjunction with Office of Public Affairs, developed a public policy statement on the issue, which was subsequently approved by the ACS Board of Directors. The policy advocates removal of barriers to allow national Association Health Care plans. In addition CEPA will be polling members of the Legislative Action Network to help identify other workforce issues and concerns.

These new services complement existing ACS programs that offer ACS members a means to remain competitive in a changing economic environment. For example, ACS members benefit from free weekly issues of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) including the special report “Employment Outlook,” published in the November 3, 2008, issue. To sharpen and increase marketable technical skills, continuing education courses are available both in-person and on the web at a discount to ACS members. Membership in ACS Divisions provides a network of colleagues in your own discipline of chemistry.

CEPA continues to monitor the economic and professional status of our members, and is working to create additional programs, products and services with the chief goal of enabling the professional success of Society members in the U. S. and abroad.

This article originally appeared in the November 17, 2008 edition of C&EN. It was written by Dr. Martin Gorbaty Chair of the ACS Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs.

Reacting to Economic Pressures

October 21, 2008

Jeff Kindler, CEO of Pfizer, addressed the HSM World Business Forum in New York a couple of weeks ago. He stated that Pfizer had sufficient cash flow to weather the storm, but what does this mean for you and me?

Although Mr. Kindler acknowledged that hardships were ahead for all world markets, he stated that “With Pfizer, we are very fortunate. We have lots of cash flow and a strong balance sheet, and project we’ll generate $18B cash flow this year.”

At the time of the address the US Congress was still in discussions about whether to approve the $700B rescue of Wall Street. They have since acted, sending Ben Bernanke’s team into overdrive, but the recovery is slow and a global recession is looming.

Pfizer, along with almost every publicly traded company in the world has taken an economic beating. At the time of this writing, Pfizer’s stock performance roughly matched that of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In recent days, Pfizer’s stock prices have shown modest gains from a low of $14.31 on October 10, 2008.

The effects of the market have also spread to privately-held companies, academic institutions and even the government. At times like these it is best to avoid any sudden moves. If you have a job, keep it. If you are looking for a job, consider accepting an offer of employment that meets your minimum salary and work requirements with an eye toward “upgrading” to a better job after the economy recovers.

Now more than ever it is important to check on the people in your network. Say hello and find out what they are doing. In some cases, they may ask you for help, but it is important that you keep up with these connections, because you may need them later.

This is the time to be indispensable, versatile and resilient. Take a moment to update your resume. Keep your knowledge base current through reading or training. And be willing to try new projects that push you beyond your comfort zone. The worst thing that you can do right now is to bury your head in the sand and wait until this all blows over.

In the coming months, we can expect the current wave of mergers and acquisitions to continue as well-established and more stable companies shop for bargains among highly leveraged start-ups. We can also expect reorganization, restructuring and realignment in corporations as they reinvent themselves and eliminate or spin off any underperforming units. In many cases, this will be bad news for our members; however, some companies are still hiring. Vertex has added two dozen job listings to the ACS Careers Jobs Database in just the past few weeks. All the same, most companies will take a wait and see stance as the markets regains its focus and center.

It is important to remember that an economic recovery will happen. People still need basic goods and services including medications, and they will also want the high-end electronics and accessories that our industries provide. The world is currently holding its breath. We must wait for it to exhale.

This article was written by David E. Harwell, Ph.D.,Assistant Director for Career Management and Development at the American Chemical Society.

Interview with Dr. Abou Gharbia, Sr. VP at Wyeth – Part 1

October 6, 2008

Advancing Your Career in Pharma: Part I

The recent launch of the ACS Careers Industry Forum was a success with over four hundred registrants from all over the world calling in to listen to our guest speaker, Dr. Abou Gharbia, Senior Vice President at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and head of its chemistry and screening discovery research program.  He joined Wyeth in 1982 and rose through the ranks, eventually overseeing a group that included some 500 scientists at four research sites in the United States, as well as an additional 150 chemists at GBK bio in Hyderabad, India.  For a full biography of Dr. Abou Gharbia please go to our website.

Dr. Abou Gharbia discussed trends that can affect your career path in the pharmaceutical industry. He provided a brief overview of Wyeth as a company outlining the organizational structure, mission and goals.  The organization has about 45,000 employees world wide, and ranks in the top 10 global companies.  Wyeth discovers and markets innovative pharmaceuticals in various platforms, such as small molecules, vaccines and proteins.  Research is conducted mainly on the east coast of the U.S., with recent partnerships and collaborations with companies in Dublin, Ireland, and Scotland Chemists at Wyeth are involved in all stages of discovery from initial synthesis to clinical evaluation.  Therefore, they must have a comprehensive view of the process approach utilizing various multidisciplinary skill sets.  For example, medicinal chemists must work with other scientists to design the best possible drug candidate taking into account predictions from computational chemists, results from biological pharmacokinetic and metabolic studies.

Dr. Abou Gharbia suggests “… when try to  treat any illness you try to find out…what causes the disease (called target), and make molecules which actually alleviate or modulate those targets…”

Molecules will have an effect on the human body and vise versa.  Therefore, it is not enough to make a molecule to act on a disease agent.  A chemist must also be aware of what other effects the drug may have on the body, and what alterations to structure of physical properties the body may make on the drug candidate (metabolic pathway).  The daily job of a medicinal chemist is multifaceted.  They not only synthesize molecules but also , interact with colleagues on the team, attend meetings and give presentations.

“That is why you’ll find communication skills, even though we’re talking about just the chemist, it is important.

At Wyeth, approximately 50% of Chemical sciences organization  work on the synthesis of target molecules, and the remainder of the staff vary in their role from those in testing and assay development, to screening, structural elucidation, and purification, to computational chemistry.

There is a high attrition rate for drug candidates in the clinic where almost 100,000 molecules are initially screened.  The list of viable candidates is quickly winnowed to a few hundred through initial testing, and subsequently down to 1-2 of the candidates will make it to the market.  This is a very tedious process, but it ensures that only the best drug candidates make it into the marketplace.

To help reduce attrition,  a chemist will conduct pharmaceutical profiling.  An analytical chemist will look at the drug-like properties and see if the molecule is soluble and whether it will reach the appropriate biological target so that the molecules can reach the target and produce the desired effect.

“If you treat patients with depression, it [is] no good for the patient, [if] you give them a molecule which cannot reach the brain because [it can not] cross blood-brain barrier.  So when we work in the lab, we make sure that the molecule we make will have the properties to reach the brain to treat the patient.”

There are a multitude of job opportunities for chemists in the pharmaceutical sciences.  They can work in drug discovery as medicinal chemists , performing analytical analysis, computational analysis, or biochemistry.  We will continue our discussion with Dr. Abou Gharbia in Part II of our series on our blog.