PharmaView: Via the Blog, a Pharma Star is Reborn

By blogging and networking, Michelle Alton beat the unemployment blues.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

Our annual job satisfaction and salary survey, the subject of this issue’s cover story, looks at matters of importance to those of you gainfully employed in the industry—we query you about salary, workload, vacations, and your overall happiness, and it gives us all a chance to contemplate what it means to work in the life sciences industries.

What we don’t do is ask questions aimed at the unemployed. (Note to self for next year!) In researching this year’s article, I did have the chance to speak with several of you who lost your jobs. Among the things I heard is that being out of work is a serious gut check, and a chance for deep reflection on one’s career. That was the case of Alan Bergold, a former VP of Operations at a contract manufacturer who told himself he’d have a job by the end of the year, then found that job market conditions were more brutal than he expected. Bergold says his mindset took a serious hit, but starting the new year he has recommitted himself to the fight, and is looking to possibly relocate or move to another industry to find the “right” job for him.
 
Another of those I spoke with was Michelle Alton, who might be termed a pharma lifer. Alton worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb for 32 years, then left the safety and security of Big Pharma to work for a one-drug biotech company. It rejuvenated her career, doubled her salary, elevated her title, and gave her a chance to, as she says, “wear a zillion different hats.”

“It was great,” she says, “until the axe fell.” The axe was a critical review of the drug from FDA, and suddenly the can’t-miss company was sputtering. More than half the staff, Michelle included, were let go.

After four decades in pharma—beginning with a clerical job at BMS, then positions in statistics and data management, and finally to managing development projects at the startup—Alton is out of work and assessing her career, past and future.

“For the first time in my career, I haven’t had a job to go to when I wake up the next day,” she says. “I’ve come to terms with it, but the first two-and-a-half months I was either depressed or flat. I really didn’t know what to do.”

For Alton, getting another job wasn’t so easy in a market where she was competing with thousands of other qualified candidates who were also out of work. “I started to feel kind of worthless, and that was pretty hard for someone used to being a star.”

What helped to turn things around was the power of the Internet. On LinkedIn.com, she reconnected with people she had worked with through the years but had lost touch with. She also began to converse with other former Big Pharma employees who had left the nest and become successful entrepreneurs. “They started to generate ideas for me,” she says. “I suddenly realized there were people out there that wanted to help. I felt buoyed.”

Alton has also gotten a lift from an unlikely creative outlet—blogging. Alton’s blog—serendipitously titled “Talented Sr Clin Ops Professional Seeking Position”—runs the gamut from practical to philosophical. She offers tips about how best to use LinkedIn, for example, but most often she is waxing optimistic about job hunting:

“If you are feeling down, out, and alone, take heart: You are NOT alone! You will find that people WANT and are eager to help you. If this comes to you as a revelation, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. You will also find yourself changing in wonderful ways. . . .
Keep in mind: This IS NOT happening because of anything you did—you are no less competent than you were when you were working. Drum that into your brain!”

Blogging is Alton’s way of staying sane and giving back, something she hopes to keep doing after she is again gainfully employed. “You tend to get cynical about human nature, but there’s a lot of good will out there,” she says. “I realize that I need to turn around and help people, too.”

The optimism has carried over into opportunity. She now has “a couple things in the works” that may lead to a job.

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