Chemists in the Real World

Thomas Runge

 


Thomas Runge,
Independent Consultant

Ph.D., Synthetic Organic Chemistry


Thomas Runge is weathering the storm of an uncertain job market by striking out on his own, sharing his knowledge of the chemical industry as an independent consultant. As the founder of Runge Consulting LLC, he is building his client base and providing advice on strategies for processes, registration, and intellectual property protection.

Runge focused on synthetic organic chemistry in graduate school. After he was accepted into graduate school, he applied and was chosen for a summer lab teaching assistant position. He was a teaching assistant for two additional semesters, and then was paid by his major professor as a research assistant for three more years until he got his Ph.D. Just prior to finishing in 1980, he applied for positions at several major pharmaceutical companies and went on three onsite interviews. "I received four job offers, and accepted one in process (rather than medicinal) chemistry because I always preferred practical, scalable applications of chemistry to biology-focused discovery functions," he said.

Runge spent 15 years in a group that developed appropriate chemistry to make pre-clinical, Phase 1, and Phase 2 active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), from gram quantities in the lab to kilogram quantities in the plant. He worked his way up the technical career ladder to senior scientist in charge of small lab groups. He then moved to a different group that developed full-scale commercial processes and supported routine production, and he eventually became a manager of local, multidisciplinary teams.

His company went through several mergers, during which his responsibilities broadened to multi-national teams. He also spent as much as 40% of his time managing his company's nation-wide BS/MS chemist recruiting program. After his company was acquired by a much larger company, his management position was eventually eliminated.

Runge found a lab position at the same company supporting local production in order to avoid having to relocate. He progressed up the ladder until he was again a team manager, but corporate headcount reduction continued until that position was eliminated as well. Runge left that company, and he is currently looking for a full-time position elsewhere. In the meantime, he is building his independent consulting business.

What's a typical day on the job like?

There is little typical starting up a consulting business. I spent weeks learning about business options before deciding to form an LLC (limited liability company). I spend a lot of time on networking via email, LinkedIn, ACS Network, etc. Although my first client paid my requested hourly rate, there were a lot of unpaid hours during that 4-week job. There were even more unpaid days working out Confidential Disclosure Agreements and Consulting Agreements with my next client. I have been able to bill about 50% of fulltime in recent months, but estimate I am spending ~25% additional time doing unpaid activities, including bookkeeping. There have been weeks in some months when I have had to devote full time to client priorities.

Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?

A very rough range would be 6–10 days a month. My first client required 5 days travel for a 1-month job. My second client needed 7 days travel for a 2-month job.

Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?

My personal network is really still my most important tool, as I look for full-time employment or part-time consulting. I use web-based email, a smartphone, a laptop, MSOffice suite, ACD Labs ChemSketch, my local college libraries, and the limited SciFinder access I receive as a member. Searching the literature and accessing the articles I find has become much more of a challenge to my consulting than I expected. I use Quicken Home & Business for my accounting.

Describe your work environment.

I work out of my home, where I have to share my space with others. I do have a separate smart phone and Intel Windows 7 laptop for my work.

Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?

The hours have varied from zero between jobs to full-time during travels to Europe and Asia. To meet deadlines, I have had to work multiple 24-hour days. The environment is more relaxed than my past employment, since that was always at least 60 hours each week, with spurts of more. It is especially more relaxed now, since I feel more in control as I can always decline a job. 

What do you like most about your job and why?

I like feeling useful again, especially when I am meeting new people who appreciate my knowledge. I like being more in control of my work than in the last years. I like not having to deal with the personnel issues that were the bulk of even a technical manager's job.

What is your best productivity trick?

Mainly the Covey principles (from Stephen R. Covey's business and self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)—especially "Begin with the end in mind," which in process chemistry is the approval of the registration. Make sure all work is aligned and focused on supporting approval. For email, if you can reply or resolve something in less than 5 minutes, then do it now rather than try to come back to it. You gain a reputation for responsiveness that way.

What's the best career advice you've received?

I did not follow this advice, but it always seemed to me that more rapid success came to those who did not get stuck in one job or career path. Be willing to follow opportunities when they arise and change jobs, companies, or geographies to maximize the learning you gain.

Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?

I am extremely detail-oriented. This is an asset when developing or trouble-shooting any chemical production process. The ‘devil’ is in the details. However, this is a liability for most management activities. Good managers need to be comfortable making decisions with 50–80% of the data they would like to have. I was often conflicted in my management positions. I am also skilled at interpersonal communication, and tend to seek consensus before making big decisions. This has helped me lead multi-cultural teams, but kept me from rising to higher management levels.

Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?

I have been professionally employed in "big pharma" for 32+ years. I became a synthetic chemist because creating new molecules seemed almost god-like. I became a pharmaceutical process chemist in order to make life-saving medicines affordable to as many people as possible. I spent a lot of time doing recruiting and volunteer outreach to convince others of the benefits of my chosen career, but recent employment trends have made that nearly impossible to continue in the USA. I have seen more growth potential recently in Asia. I hope in the future that I have the chance to support the industry on more than just one continent.

What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?

Being a patient listener. It is tempting early in your career to believe that you need to quickly prove your worth by spouting your knowledge. It is much more important to define the problem properly.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

SciFinder. When I lost my position, I lost the library and online resources of major pharmaceutical companies that I had come to take for granted. As a struggling consultant, I not only need to make a recommendation, but also back it up with citations, since my clients do not have a history with me to convince them that I am right.

How have you benefited from being an ACS member?

ACS helped my professional development in many ways, from C&EN magazine to professional meetings to journals to journal searching software. My company paid for my dues and sent me to many meetings. The ACS Network is a resource now that I have left that company. As an unemployed chemist struggling to find a full time position or steady consulting, I have benefited from an ACS dues waiver as well as free access to job searching resources, national meetings, and SciFinder.