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Need some advice on my mixed feeling about a MedChem phD


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I am currently enrolled in a Medicinal Chemistry program. I have just finished up my first semester, and I am re-evaluating my decision to go to graduate school. The main reason for this is due to the lack of job opportunities for phD’s upon graduation. I understand that a postdoc has become standard, which means I will not have a well compensated job for another 8 years. (I will be in my 30’s). I know money is not everything, but I hope to have a job in which I can someday support having a wife and kids. I do enjoy science, but I would choose my goal of having a good family life over science every time. I also did not come from a wealthy family, so I have racked up quite a few undergraduate school loans.

Of course the first year is loaded with the joys of a TA assignment, class work, a daunting written and oral cumulative. I have never been afraid of hard work when it leads some place. As Viktor Frankl wrote, "In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” But if there is no meaning (aka a job) at the end of 5 years of being an indentured servant (aka grad student), I do not believe I can continue.

I do want to say, I enjoy research. I do thoroughly enjoy the benchtop lab work. I like the idea that my research may someday help people. (I know this is a little idealistic.) These are the reasons I went to graduate school to begin with. I also enjoy the biology class I am taking. Graduate school has turned me off to the chemistry somewhat, which is unfortunate since I am in essentially a chemistry program. This has made me contemplate moving departments to a more biology heavy program. But I initially choose chemistry in hopes it would help me find a job in the future.

Furthermore, I am realizing all the politics that occur in academia and “scientific research.” The power maneuvers, work dumping on TA’s, and treatment of people. Serveral times I have witnessed faculty talking behind students back and broad line verbal abuse from. My department seems to be unprofessional and childish at times.

I guess to make a long story short, should I continue with my phD, or get out now before I commit any more time and energy into it? (And of the course the reverse of letting the department put money, time, and energy into developing me.) Any advice or thoughts would be welcomed.

Also I would enjoy suggestions on other possible career routes. I have been contemplating applying to pharmD programs.

Edited by adidasattack04
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medChem is pretty narrow. the problem is that it prepares you for a single career in a single industry: synthetic organic chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. if this single industry has trouble, you're also in trouble.

have you thought about switching to a general organic synthesis or inorganic synthesis program especially in things like polymer or inorganic materials synthesis? these are broader and let you work in more traditional chemical industries with a very similar set of skills to medicinal chem. I don't think you'll be interested in analytical or physical but just letting you know, at my school the analytical/physical guys all found jobs on graduation (in companies like Nanomix, Agilent and Intel) and only very few had to get a postdoc. These require a totally different skillset though.

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There are politics in every corporate environment and field. I think people tend to expect them in the business world, but seem shocked when they move into the "ivory tower" and find them here too. Academics are people, and universities are business/organizations. There will always be politics. That's not a reason to leave, though, because you will find that everywhere.

Finishing graduate school and successfully moving into a professor position isn't just about liking research. I know how you feel; I came to graduate school for the same reasons (loving research and wanting to help people) and graduate school made me a lot more cynical. I say this to mean that it's okay to really love research and still realize that academia isn't for you for other reasons - the salary, the unstructured schedule, hating teaching, hating the administrative environment, not wanting to get on the postdoc wheel for another 3-4 years, etc.

Should you finish? only you can answer that. You sound like you're in the middle - not a person who absolutely should quit but not a person who absolutely should stay, either. What I would do is explore other career opportunities - google, visit your career counseling office - and see if most or all of the ones that appeal to you require a PhD in chemistry. I decided to finish my PhD because even if I don't go into academia, most of the careers I want to do would benefit from me having a PhD. But if I didn't think it would benefit me, I would've left.

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As far as I am concerned, Med. Chem and Synthetic Organic are dead fields. They prepare you for two directions: 1) Jobs in Big Pharma, that don't exist anymore, 2) academia, which you will have to do at least 2 post-docs to have a shot at a job. I just switched from synthetic organic to Organometallic /Inorganic Synthesis in my first semester. I knew I wanted to work in Catalysis, but not from a purely synthetic view point. I went through the same thing. I was sitting in Organic Synt., bored out of my mind, and I knew that wasn't the area for me. The work seems convoluted, but the Inorganic synthesis and spectroscopy that I learned in my Inorganic lecture caught my interest. I feel that I will have many more career opportunities working in a broader filed.

Just do what you love. Is it a possibility for you to switch programs at the same school. If I were you, I would talk to your Biology professor, and see if he/she can arrange for you to work in her lab, or see if she can help you change grad programs.

From the politics stance, you are never going to find yourself in a situation (unfortunately) where adults don't gossip, play politics or have favorites. The way people acted in high school, is literally the way they will act the rest of your adult life. I worked as a researcher in corporate america before grad school, and the same thing happens there. I got work dumped on me, people gossip, they set people up for failure, etc. You are never going to get away from that.

You just have to put you best effort forward, but you also have to build a rapport with not only your fellow grad students, but with the office staff, and other professors besides your boss. So when the gossiping starts, your mentors (professors with who you have a rapport) can speak favorably about you in the midst of the gossip. The office staff has helped me more than I can imagine with everything from paper work, scheduling, getting classes next semister. These people are invaluable resources.

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I really wouldn't switch into bio. It's oversaturated. Job prospects for them are even worse (thanks to an extreme glut of PhDs). And what makes you think that bio TAs aren't abused or that bio profs aren't gossipy? I'm sorry that you're dissatisfied w/ your program and I agree that med chem is on its way out, I just don't think bio is the solution. Before jumping ship, be sure to explore the other chem subfields.

Also, do your homework on the PharmD. Make sure it really appeals to you/meets your needs. You don't want any unpleasant surprises should you decide to attend.

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+1 to the stay the hell away from bio viewpoint. Its saturated like hell.

In my opinion, chemistry in the last 15 years has shifted VERY far away from traditional analytical, inorganic and physical chemistry and has strongly focused on bio/organic since that's where the dough was rolling in. This has also led to a severe decline in the math skills of chemists. Some schools even changed their curriculum to reflect that and deleted classes that weren't related to biotech and added multiple biotech related electives.

That was very shortsighted. After all, one field can't keep making money forever, and just from its sheer fundamentals (high risk, high concentration of cost centers, reliance on policy for profit) pharmaceuticals just can't keep getting bigger. So now what you have is a total disconnect of the chemistry curriculum and what employers actually look for.

Indeed I believe that chemistry departments have made a terrible mistake in the organization of the curriculum. Just as physicists don't take a 1 year upper division class called "Classical Physics" that tries to cram advanced mechanics and electrodynamics into a single class, why should chemists be forced to settle for a 1 year "physical chemistry" class with a one size fits all book, instead of a 4 semester series with separate books on the core of physical chemistry: quantum mechanics, molecular spectroscopy, statistical thermodynamics, and chemical kinetics? Gives the added bonus of giving deeper insight into analytical chemistry through a dedicated undergrad molecular spectroscopy class too. Guess where most chemists in industry are actually employed? Process, formulation or QC, not doing synthesis, and those 3 fields will NEED the extra depth.

That's what employers are not liking about chemistry graduates - not enough depth in their undergrad studies.

Note that the "biologization" of the chemistry curriculum has taken a toll even on biochemistry. Why shouldn't we change biochemistry from "one big book taken with bio majors" to 2 classes, one purely on physical biochemistry and one purely on "biological" biochemistry? Chemistry is after all supposed to be a quantitative physical science; you can't build physical intuition with a year of rushed presentations on vastly different topics. Instead chemists should be trained at the BS level on the very basics needed to get a job, then take electives for their specific direction.

Remember, learning about DNA is useless to a guy working in a soap factory, but both DNA researchers and soap chemists benefit immensely from thermodynamics.

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Here's a thought: Interdisciplinarity might make some of the other chem subfields more appealing to you (and might make you more appealing for future employers). For instance, if the notion of p-chem doesn't float your boat initially, maybe there's a group doing some really cool biophysical research. That way you acquire a skillset that's broader (and perhaps more in demand?) than med chem, and satisfies your bio itch. For a while, inorganic chem was viewed as half-dead, but thanks to nanotech and materials, it's doing better than it was before. So, maybe keep an eye out for more interdisciplinary labs on campus- they might make you more attractive and prove to be a good fit.

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Thank you for your advice. It seems like my worries about finding a job are well warrented. It would seem that I should do my research into looking for a field with more job opportunites, by either moving programs or into an interdisciplinary lab.

Also it is unfortunate that politics and gossip are everyway. I am figuring this out more and more. It is a game I would rather not play, but I guess I need to.

Again thanks for the advice, and I welcome any other comments and suggestions.

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