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Now what do we do? Challenges abound in life sciences for new graduates and experienced alike
November 2008
by Pete Kissinger  |  Email the author
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Having been through several recessions and mentored generations of newly minted B.S. and Ph.D. chemists, I am very familiar with the anxieties of today. Employment opportunities begin to look scarce in the face of many announced layoffs and the closing of R&D centers. Pharmas are announcing they are no longer interested in pursuing certain therapeutic areas, an admission of low R&D productivity vs. society's expectations.

This can also suggest that existing therapy is perceived to be good enough or that competitor pipelines look nice from across the fence. Pfizer, Wyeth and Bristol-Myers Squibb have all declared major reductions in the therapeutic areas they consider to be of interest to their discovery R&D.

We also read that all the systems biology "-omics" technologies graduate students, post-docs and instrument companies have been pursuing may "represent the culmination of all delusions" (Adriano Henney and Giulio Superti-Furga, Nature 455 (9), November 2008, p.730-731). These authors argue that the promise is still there, but the work has not been well-organized with appropriate standards. They recommend a community effort to reduce the chaos. The new tools of research show much promise, but we are now moved off the hype phase into the hard slog of analytical and biological validation. Words like systems biology, proteomics, metabolomics and biomarkers are not aging gracefully, but this is normal for disruptive technologies like electricity (AC or DC?) and the Panama Canal (sea level vs. locks?).

I've been a part time faculty member at Purdue University for decades and the anxiety of our students is palpable in the present climate. They ask, "What am I to do?" When we apply generalizations to individuals, we are asking for trouble, but my long answer goes like this:

"Consider a post-doc or graduate school right now and compete for a slot. What is important is catching the wave 2-6 years from now when you finish, not when you start." Recessions do increase the pool of applicants to grad school, and this is not a bad thing for those with a long view. We sure will need talent to tackle the global challenges of today. But don't expect a lifetime of security. Prepare for flexibility. Combine depth with breadth. Both bad and good luck happen regardless of your plan. I suspect the pharma announcements mentioned above will suggest a tough time for young scientists who've already joined an effort that has now been cancelled. They, too, will have to scramble with little seniority and may well be furloughed.

There are jobs available right now, but they may not be in the place or the field to fit your original dreams. There is plenty of churn between large and small firms. There are good opportunities in government laboratories, contract research firms and in teaching K-16 science. As universities build infrastructure for more centers and institutes, you will find more professional positions in academia which are not tenure-track, but support the research of traditional research groups. Good examples are out there in NMR, MS, molecular imaging, cell culture, laboratory animals, X-Ray structure, peptide and oligo synthesis and the like.

It may well be prudent to think about a smaller, older house. The current problems no doubt have come from avoiding "delayed gratification," also known as "I want it and I want it now and I'm borrowing money to get it". We older conservatives have been leery all along, but let's not look back, let's look ahead. I now share with you an abstract for a talk I've given in the past month at several colleges and universities.

"A new life science ecosystem involving academic research, contract research companies, start-up discovery companies and traditional pharma/biotech."

Twenty years ago, life in Big Pharma was genteel and secure. Today, it is neither.

Vertical integration in life science businesses is, to a large degree, a historical concept. It has been replaced by a dynamic global set of associations that reconfigures frequently. This has increased the opportunities for those with a sense of adventure, while limiting traditional concepts of security, such as lifetime employment and defined benefit retirement plans. Every technical worker now must think in a new, entrepreneurial way and develop skills that are flexible to accommodate rapid changes in direction. Working across wide geographic boundaries and cultures is common. Communication skills, while always important, are now much more so, given that many activities are dispersed.

Society is disappointed in the productivity of medical research, and thus, we hear terms like the critical path, bench to bedside, translational medicine and the valley of death between discovery and the clinic. There are many opportunities for entrepreneurship and solving these problems. Society is expecting great things from us.

Scientists today must first of all be adaptable and not married to any hypothesis, instrument or job description. It's up to us to keep learning outside of our immediate comfort zone. I've often run into mid-career academics feeling a bit down because their area of work went out of fashion and funding dried up. I'd always think, and even now and then, say: "Throw those old instruments away, change direction, sit in on some classes, go to some seminars, use your imagination and get into gear."

Smart people say things like: "Success is never final" (Winston Churchill) or sing things like: "So take a deep breath, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again" (Frank Sinatra). Given the season, "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up." (Vince Lombardi). I've personally been knocked down pretty hard several times and even have felt sorry for myself from time to time, just like Churchill, Sinatra and Lombardi. I'm now "doing" two very novel startup companies and experimenting with journalism here in DDN. Times are tough. I'll write for food just as Churchill did.

There are always good career opportunities for the best and the only way to be the best is to get to work and not wait for miracles. Make it happen. If you end up for awhile as the Ph.D. driving a taxi, enjoy the ride and you will meet interesting people. Getting down on yourself brings you down. Don't do it, my friends. DDN

Pete Kissinger is Chairman Emeritus of BASi, CEO of Prosolia, Indianapolis and Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University.

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