The Harvard Chemistry Department Reunion — Part III

Readers of “In The Pipeline” know how grim it is out there for chemists in Big Pharma (not so much in academia, assuming they get in).  I was interested to talk to Harvard chemistry PhDs minted in the past 10 years for their take on this.

First, a caveat.  At my 50th college reunion, our area was well attended by younger graduates (we had a free drinks for all policy).  One of them remarked that we looked pretty good for a bunch of people in their 70’s.  Of course the few hundred or so dead ones weren’t there, and presumably those down on their luck or their finances weren’t there either.  The same probably goes for the PhD’s who decided to attend. (The grad students and post-docs were mostly there for the free eats according to my wife).  So even though it’s likely an unrepresentative sample, I did talk to 15 – 20 relatively recent PhDs.

They all agreed that there was relatively little job security in big pharma.  Did a Harvard degree help?  Most thought not in terms of retention, but a few said that getting a job in big pharma would be next to impossible for a PhD from a program not in the top ten (of which Harvard presumably is a member).

Interestingly, most of the recent PhD’s were in big pharma.  2 of them were patent attorneys.

The grad students agreed that the zeitgeist was that times were bad, and most hoped that things would be better when they finished.  Some said they could take a post-doc to wait things out further.

I did meet a remarkably adventurous individual at the chemistry reunion.  The following day was the big conference for anyone who ever got a Harvard graduate degree (in anything).  His PhD was in economics, and he worked for NASDAQ and with essentially no technical background, he decided to listen in to the chemists.  There were 8 brief presentations by faculty in the afternoon and 7 of them had obvious medical applications.  This impressed the economist, but a fellow grad student of my era (and current department chair) told us that it was nearly impossible to get a grant for anything else.  Showing that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, he said that he picked up an excellent and very experienced NMR jockey for his department from one of Pfizer’s many bloodlettings.  Ordinarily, he’d have little hope of hiring someone of that caliber.

Only one of the 8 presentations had anything to do with synthetic organic chemistry, but it was one that Woodard would have loved, a pseudosymmetric molecule, built from the inside out rather than from the outside in.  Even so, the molecule, a natural product, had medical implications.

Back in the 60s there were plenty of grad students and postdocs from the Indian subcontinent (mainly Sikhs).  This time, just one. The Asian contingent back then (all postdocs) was largely Japanese.  This time mostly Chinese, including 2 grad students from Beijing.


Libraries have certainly changed. The library in the Harvard Chemistry Building is a beautiful wood paneled affair with comfortable chairs and big elegant wooden tables. All the returnees on our tour of the department wanted to see it. The graduate student leading our group noted that she almost never goes there, getting what she wants from her computer.

The library was unchanged, except for the fact that there was no one in it about 11AM. The librarian came out of her den anxious to talk to a few living breathing humans, and wouldn’t let us go. Solitary confinement is hell.

Addendum 30 April 11 — On getting to the handouts from the affair, there is an interview with John Lechleiter CEO of Eli Lilly, who started out as a bench chemist after receiving hisPhD in ’80 from guess where in Chemistry and Chemical Biology.  Interesting.

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