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Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess.

And thank you for kicking things off, Chemjobber! Remember, tomorrow we go to Paul for why tenure is teh suck, and Thursday the Mighty Matt enlightens us on what science policy can do to help us fix the employment mess.

So in yesterday’s post, CJ talked about the present and future of industrial jobs in chemistry. “Chemists are facing lower-than-average hiring and an unemployment rate that is the highest in 20 years at 3.9% (according to the 2009/2010 ACS Salary Survey),” CJ said. And it came up in the comments, like it always does: how much of this can be blamed on new PhDs coming into the marketplace? Are we really overproducing chemistry PhDs?

Fortunately, the numbers of doctorates produced each year in many fields of study are tracked by the NSF, who puts out a short report in November and a longer one in December. The most recent one says that in 2009, there were 49,562 doctorates awarded in the United States in all science and engineering fields. That’s up 1.6% over 2008, an increase that’s almost totally due to a rise in women getting these degrees. This is pretty much irrelevant to this discussion, but I thought it was interesting. Moving on.

The NSF breaks down these numbers into separate fields of study. And look, I took their data and made graphs!

They consider biochemists life scientists, while chemists fall under the physical science category. This makes things a bit convoluted later, but that’s why they’re separated here. SOURCE: National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resource Statistics, 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates.

As you can see, the number has fluctuated a bit over the last ten years, but the general trend has been up. Last year, there were 2,398 PhDs awarded in chemistry and 859 in biochemistry. The chemistry number is up 6.2% from 2008 (2,247), while the number of new biochemists is down 4.5% from the year before (898). There was a small spike of chemistry PhDs awarded in 2006 (2,362), and biochemists seem to have maxed out (minimally) last year. Overall, the number of fresh new chemists has grown 11.0% since 1999 (2,132) and biochemists are 11.6% more popular than they were ten years ago (759).

So, what does this mean? Well, that there are more chemists now than there were 10 years ago, but I think we could have all guessed that. The real question is, how many jobs have there been available in since 1999?

There’s a problem with that question. Namely, that there isn’t an answer to it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2008, chemists held 84,300 jobs. But that’s all chemists, BSs, MSs and PhDs together. Besides, that’s people holding jobs. How many chemistry jobs open up each year? We know that CJ tracks the ads in C&E News, but of course not everyone advertises there. And not all jobs are even advertised anywhere; supposedly, only about 60% of openings ever blink in the sunlight. And how would you count alternative careers? Does it count as a “chemistry job” if it’s in policy, communication, or law?

These reasons, among others I’ve surely missed, are probably why these data don’t exist. And without solid data about the number of jobs out there, we can’t possibly say if there are too many PhDs being awarded.

But what we can do is guess. The NSF tried to hack away at it a bit, by asking new PhDs what their job plans are. They call them “Definite Postgraduation Commitments,” and go on to say, “The proportion of doctorate recipients reporting definite commitments is an indicator of the overall strength of the job market for doctorate recipients and the availability of positions relative to the supply of new doctorate recipients.” Unfortunately, in this case they don’t separate the chemistry numbers out from the rest of physical sciences. So the data graphed below includes all kinds of physics, astronomy, math, and earth, atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

SOURCE: NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/NASA, 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates.

Please note the data range on the side before you get all crazy. But still. That looks like a pretty strong upward trend. To put things in perspective, the number of PhDs awarded in the physical sciences in 2004 was 3,350. Of these, 2,116 had definite commitments upon graduation. That’s 63.2%. In 2009, 2,829 of the 4,289 doctorates awarded had a job or what-have-you lined up. That’s 66.0%. Overall, 2.8% more of new PhDs had some kind of paycheck to turn to last year than five years ago. That doesn’t sound like they’re having a harder time finding jobs to me.

Oh yes, I can hear you shouting in the back there. “But I bet more of them are taking post-docs!” Well, I hope you didn’t bet too much on that, because you’d lose. It’s about the same. A tiny bit less, even.

NOTES: These numbers are given as percentages, and they’re based on the number reporting definite commitments for employment or post-doctoral training/study in the United States. Due to rounding, percentages may not add up to 100. SOURCE: NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/NASA, 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates.

Very tiny. In fact, all those bar sizes up there look about the same. Now I do remind you, those numbers are for all physical science PhDs.  Would it look drastically different with only the chemistry data? Don’t know. Wish I did.

The BLS also puts out an employment outlook for chemists. Their 2008 report states “Job growth is expected to be slower than average for all occupations.” That’s for the next ten years, and they mean that jobs will increase anywhere from 0 to 9%. I went and dug up the same numbers from ten years ago (not an easy feat on a government website), and found that in 1998 they said that job growth would be average (meaning it will increase 10 to 20%) up to 2008. I think they flubbed on that one, since they say that there were 96,000 employed chemists in 1998. Their 2008 report says that chemists plus materials scientists together held 94,100 jobs that year. (They didn’t differentiate between the two in 1998.) That’s a loss of 1,900 jobs, or about 2%. Of course, it would have been nearly impossible to predict the slow keening death of the pharmaceutical industry, but that’s precisely why you can’t bet your bottom dollar on predictions like this.

What’s more interesting is their data on salaries. My colleague at CEN, Bethany Halford, is writing a longer article on this topic for inclusion in next month’s magazine. She suggested to me that a lot can be learned from watching how much chemists get paid. The BLS puts data out on this as well. In 1998, the median chemist salary was $46,220. If we adjust this for inflation, we get $61,051 for 2008 (I used this calculator). So if demand for chemists decreased, the 2008 mean salary should be less than this. The BSL reported the actual number as…$66,230.  That’s a raise of 7.8%. According to that, chemists are still in demand. [ETA: Bethany mentioned in the comments that the starting salaries of chemists has fallen, suggesting that demand for chemists has decreased.]

So, what gives? All hard data we have suggests that new chemistry PhDs are doing okay in the job market [but being paid less, see above note], and that chemists are still being paid the same or more than they were ten years ago. But does this match reality? I know a lot of my colleagues in grad school are having a very hard time finding jobs. This is anecdotal, though. And it seems that, in the past, it’s been quite common for established scientists to point that black finger of blame to those newly anointed in the field when times get tough. Like here. Or here or here or here. People have been saying there are too many PhDs for many many years. Is it truer now that it was then? Is it true at all?

You know what I’d like to see? Some of that NSF data broken down by subfield, ie organic, analytical, materials, etc. Especially the data on definite US commitments. Because I think Chemjobber had a very good point when he said:

“Today’s hot field could be tomorrow’s old-and-busted outsourcing minefield. Certainly medicinal chemistry was the hot field, ten years ago. This is a fundamental problem with professional scientist training in the US. While the market will always be clamoring for trained scientists today, the labor supply is close to a decade behind.”

Which is similar to the point Derek Lowe was making here. Do we have too many PhDs being produced? Yes. And no. There is a glut of medicinal chemistry and synthetic organic people, probably. But there aren’t enough electrochemists or people to work on new energy storage systems, like CJ pointed out. But how can we possibly know what kind of scientists we’ll need in twenty, ten, or even five years? We can’t. It sucks but there it is.

So…what can we do about it? Well, not much. I think it’s an obvious answer that incoming students should be aware of the job market before they even think about grad school, but well…that’s likely not going to happen. Did any of us know what we were getting into when we started grad school? I sure didn’t. And I think most incoming grad students don’t have the brains or foresight or whatever to do a lot of research into this as they’re starting out. Hell, a lot of students go to grad school because they don’t really know what else to do when they get that undergrad degree.

Is it the adviser’s job to instruct a new student on job prospects? I think we could debate this until the cows come home to roost, but it’s not going to do much good, simply because it seems to me that advisers would NOT see it as their job.  For one, I wonder how many professors pay attention to the job market at all. (They already have jobs, after all.) For two, apart from the student being nuts or the PI already having a maxed out group, I can’t imagine a prof that would turn students away, since we all know that students = hands in the lab = more research being done = more papers = more stuff to put in grants = more dollars = tenure = more students and so on and so on. (Please understand that I’m not saying that ALL advisers are like this, but many are.) So  a prof saying, “Gosh, don’t join my group! You won’t get a job when you graduate, because the field is so tight”? Riiight.

So no to students figuring out job prospects on their own, and no to advisers filling them in. What’s left? In an ideal world, I think PhD granting programs should each have their own career counselor, at least part-time. That’s obviously not going to change the job market, but it would at least give potential grad students a heads up about what they’re about to subject themselves to. (Er, in one respect, that is.) Or even if it’s worth their while at all.

What I don’t think will work is putting a limit on the number of PhDs given out every year. While it may curb overproduction in one subject, it will likely lead to shortages in another. Even if there was some almighty overseer that would say, “We will allow blahblah number of PhDs in X this year, and some other number in X,” it would be a total crapshoot to get those numbers right. And you’d end up with out of work chemists, just like now. Or people trained in the wrong area.

So there’s one thing I kinda skipped over here. Since new PhDs are having about as hard a time getting jobs as they have in the past five years (according to the NSF numbers), and unemployment for chemists is relatively high, are new PhDs forcing older, more established scientists out of their jobs? Unfortunately, the data we have for that is completely anecdotal, therefore not citable, therefore not trustworthy. So this will ultimately end up, like most of the things I’ve brought up here, a guessing game.

Okay, Readers. I’ve said my piece. Now say yours in the comments.  A note: if you haven’t commented here before, your comment has to be approved before it shows up. (It’s the software.) So please be patient if you don’t see it right away. I’ll be approving as fast as I can!

Please be sure to check out Bethany Halford’s CEN story in January. She’s been interviewing actual people, so it should be pretty interesting.

And with that, take it away Paul!


  • Dec 14th 201009:12
    by Postdoc

    I think it’s an obvious answer that incoming students should be aware of the job market before they even think about grad school, but well…that’s likely not going to happen. Did any of us know what we were getting into when we started grad school? I sure didn’t. And I think most incoming grad students don’t have the brains or foresight or whatever to do a lot of research into this as they’re starting out. Hell, a lot of students go to grad school because they don’t really know what else to do when they get that undergrad degree.

    THIS is a problem, and one that people should definitely start taking more seriously.

    FYI, I don’t predict much of what you said is going to be very popular. I hope you’ve got thick skin.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Bethany Halford

    Leigh, you’re right that while there’s good information out there on the supply of chemists, demand is a little tougher to get a grasp on. I spoke with Kevin Swift, an economist with the American Chemistry Council, who tells me that one way to get a handle on demand is to look at the starting salary of Ph.D. chemists. According to the ACS starting salary survey, if you adjust for inflation, this number has dipped in recent years–indicative of an oversupply.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Barney

    What I know of the job market largely comes from talking to friends in industry at meetings–if they’re hiring the market sounds good, if not, it doesn’t. It seems like surveying job prospects is something that might be done best at the Society level (or at least should start there). It is too much to ask of faculty members to send students to other groups because job prospects in their area are slim, though we ought to be expected to try to turn our research programs in directions that will get kids jobs.

    I don’t see how to get around the lag in the distribution of PhD research areas responding to the way that jobs are distributed. The combination of 2-5 year grant lifetimes and 4-6 year graduate student ‘lifetimes’ with the long-term investment of PIs in specific areas makes it difficult for most PIs to be nimble enough to adjust their programs to match market needs (in the cases where that is even possible).

    I’m probably biased in this regard, but the PhD/job mismatch also seems to strengthen the argument for training interdisciplinary PhDs–it is hard (and probably not desirable) to be a generalist for a PhD program, but getting deeply involved in the details of a few different subdisciplines would I hope increase the ultimate employability of the student, though it would still ultimately depend upon what those disciplines were and upon the willingness of an employer to consider hiring someone who wasn’t a purist in one area.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Dr.Rakesh Sahay

    It has to balance the out put and job availability. i think we should not compare Ph.D with unemployment or good job opportunity. Job availability, salary and job stratification is depends on so many other factors.

    It is basically depends on on individual interest and liking. Research should not be linked with handsome perks but it should be reasonable balanced.

    Ph.D s can be well absorbed if some of them start their own business linked with knowledge base work.
    Dr.Rakesh Sahay

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Matt

    Those numbers are absolutely astounding! I never would have guessed that. It certainly could be different for chemistry, but who knows. At the moment I’m digesting this. Has the mean/median salary changed? What about the standard deviation on salaries? On the industry/business side, how many are at the bench? How many have found their way into alternative careers? Wild to see this data while personally seeing so many people struggle. Must mull some more …
    The one thing that I am sure of is that incoming graduate students NEED to know what they are getting into. The ACS needs to start putting this data together so that new students can make informed decisions. It is in the best interest to the survival of the organization.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Matt

    The one comment I would make here is that if we go the multidisciplinary route (which I also think is the way to go) the chemical industry needs to be on board with that decision. I’ve seen lots of good people get passed over for jobs at big companies because they weren’t a perfect fit.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Carmen Drahl

    I agree on the PhD career counselor idea, Leigh, but I think it’s just a start. I was lucky enough to be at a grad school with a ton of resources, including a dedicated graduate career counselor. The most important thing she did was tell me about informational interviews and how to do them right. Even the best advisers mean well, but they can’t provide the same kind of insight into jobs as someone who’s on the ground.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Barney

    It has happened a lot in the academic market too (just on a smaller scale)–I like to think this is a generational thing and that eventually interdisciplinary training will be less of a handicap as more people making hiring decisions are sympathetic. Though again it probably depends quite a bit on the sub-discipline. e.g., lots of synthetic PhDs means that hybrid synthetic folk are less likely to be hired for a pure synthesis position; fewer electrochemistry PhDs should mean a greater likelihood of a multidisciplinary PhDs w/ some electrochem component to their training getting jobs?

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @Bethany: Thanks for setting me straight! I added a note in the text.

    @Barney: I think making PhDs more broad would be a great idea, in theory. But like Matt said, I think that would actually be detrimental to job prospects, the way things are set up now. But if things could change, the opportunities would open up considerably for a new grad.

    @Carmen: I agree that career counselor type people need to move beyond editing CVs and teaching people how to interview. While those things are helpful, it would be infinitely MORE helpful to have someone who did follow the job market and analyze trends. And they’d have to be honest about job prospects with the students, of course. Sugarcoating only hurts people down the road.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Carmen Drahl

    I should add that I’m not completely absolving advisers of having any role- I think it’s their job to be aware of the fact that there are such things as “alternative careers” out there (whatever that means), network on your behalf in the circles where they run- for the average total synthesis chemist, that would probably be academe and pharma/biotechs where there’s a consulting role- and then write you a letter of recommendation, ideally consulting you first to ask whether, for instance, the folks at the patent law firm would be interested in learning about how elegant your radical-mediated key step was or might prefer knowing about how you speak multiple languages and regularly translated highly technical manuscripts for the group.

  • Dec 14th 201010:12
    by Carmen Drahl

    @Leigh- you’re faster than I am :P I agree- honesty is the best policy. So I guess this question should be for all the bloggers in the roundtable– if you had to assemble a “Required Career Reading” list for new grad students- what would it be?

  • [...] -Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess. – by Just Another Electron [...]

  • Dec 14th 201011:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @Carmen: All of our blogs, for a start. :) Also Derek Lowe’s. And actually, the chem blogosphere in general, since that’s the best source for updated information. Books are problematic, since their info gets old so quickly. I would also add the NSF annual reports, and the BLS reports as well.

  • Dec 14th 201011:12
    by Hap

    Entrepreneurship can take up some of the slack, but in the worst case (2008), there won’t be any money to start businesses with either. Some research groups tend to generate businesses, or equip people to start their own, but if you’ve spent twelve years in school, acquiring debt and opportunity cost, a relatively risky endeavor such as starting a business is unlikely to be for everyone.

    I’m wondering (because all I know is anecdote) if employers generally value the broad-based scientific skills of PhDs or if they are looking for the deep technical skills – if the latter, then even if new PhDs can get jobs, they are unlikely to hold them, because once they’ve been drained of info, they aren’t necessarily useful, and they are unlikely to be able to acquire enough deep knowledge in a different field to be hireable. That would significantly increase the uncertainty of an advanced scientific degree. It would be consistent with continued demand for new PhDs but unemployement for older ones.

  • Dec 14th 201011:12
    by Chemjobber

    First, Leigh, this is great.

    Carmen, I’d say that new grad students should be exposed to the most bitter opinions early. That would be, of course, Philip Greenspun’s website: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/

    Of course, I think Greenspun has the wrong take on A LOT of things, but it’s not like you’re never going to run into people who buy into that thought process. You might as well hear it early.

    I also have this challenge for 2nd or 3rd year graduate students in organic chemistry: do you think that you are in the top 10% nationally? Because if you’re not, you are going to have a very difficult time finding a job as a PhD organic chemist.

    I don’t know if it’s true, but I’m pretty sure I’m within 10 points of the cutoff.

  • Dec 14th 201012:12
    by Old Timer

    I don’t understand the argument about advisers not turning students away. Remember how the system works: Once a student has decided to attend graduate school, a professor tries to recruit that student into his/her group. It would not make sense to turn away a student already intent on graduate school. But professors also interact with undergraduates. Talented undergraduates doing research need to be properly informed as to the difficulties one might face in the various fields of interest after graduate school. No student should attend graduate school because they don’t know what else to do – that’s crazy.

  • Dec 14th 201012:12
    by Lisa Jarvis

    Carmen, I think that required reading list should be given out to undergraduates. There’s been a lot of talk about career counseling for PhD candidates and the role of the advisor in helping students understand the realities of the job market, but wouldn’t it also be helpful to start that process a lot earlier on? Thinking back to how I picked a graduate school, I am mortified at how uneducated I was about how those choices fit into my long-term goals. I sense that’s a common theme for folks who get their undergraduate education at liberal arts school rather than one of the top-tier science schools, where there are more mentors around–even if they’re just grad students going through the struggle of finishing/finding a job.

    I’d also really like to see the data on alternative careers.

  • Dec 14th 201012:12
    by Matt

    As opposed to reading what’s already there, I’m going to give my wish-list of material that should be available to every incoming graduate student.

    1) Every department should publish in detail a) the graduates from each group b) their employers over the past 5 years c) If the graduate went on to do a postdoc, for whom did they work and where did they go next.

    2) The ACS should publish a) The chemical industries who have been hiring over the past 5 years (pharma/chemical manufacture/instrumentation/startup/government). b) The % breakdown of the type of chemist each hired (organic/biochem/analytical/physical/materials/inorganic) that were hired c) The breakdown of educational experience for those hired (BS/MS/Postdoc).

    3) The ACS should publish a business forecast for the next 5 years. Based on current industry speculation: what types of jobs are going to be important/what type of training.

    1 seems doable, and, I think, any good department or good group is on top of this info already. But, it should be explicitly given to the incoming students.

    2 is a bit more of a stretch. I think that the ACS has the potential to pull this off. It just really needs to rally support a little more effectively.

    I don’t know how helpful 3 would ultimately be. Although immediate concerns sometimes trump future planning (2008 anybody), plenty of industry and investment people do speculate on this sort of thing.

  • Dec 14th 201012:12
    by CMCguy

    All these stats show the trends are increasing output of PhDs but don’t seem to address the question of real demand for that level of chemist. The sheer percent of those going to Post-docs shows majority are just perpetuating system for academic centric emphasis for more PhDs labs with only delay in entry time frame for 2-4 years with little concern for whether the students/post-docs have prospects afterward.

    Although one of your concluding paragraphs mentions unquantifiable anecdotal info market for new PhDs reflects probable overproduction. Difficulties in finding a job, or even taking a position at non-PhD levels, suggests more output than is required. And I do see much “replacement of older/higher paid staff with cheaper ones” as typical practice to save money since experience hard for MBAs to quantify. Basic problem is that regardless of degree few technical people have any real control and are now servants of business/investors types who do not care about how the science is done and only look at the (their?) bottom line.

    As eluded too it may not be as much a problem of too many but not the right kinds. Some PhD areas do provide adaptable skills most tend to generate over specialization which if not aligned with hot areas is an imbalance that is hard to correct. A BS or MS chemist typically do not get so over trained in a single area and should be able to transition to new research fields however those degrees are under valued in many places and more often than not face hard barriers to advancement that are side stepped by PhDs.

  • Dec 14th 201012:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @OldTimer: I wasn’t suggesting that a PI turn away a student from grad school entirely, but perhaps rather steer them to another group. For example suggest that they join a more materials-based group instead of a synthetic organic one, if the job prospects there look better. (That was just a for instance. I don’t know if that’s true.)

    @OldTimer and @LisaJarvis Now that you mention it, it would be a better idea to give more career counseling at the undergrad level. Including new grad students in that wouldn’t hurt either, though.

    @LisaJarvis: I would also love to see some data on alternative careers! If it only could be had.

    @CMCguy, “All these stats show the trends are increasing output of PhDs but don’t seem to address the question of real demand for that level of chemist.” Right, that’s the problem! I wish we had that data. It would make things a lot more cut and dry.

  • Dec 14th 201013:12
    by Postdoc

    OldTimer you’re right, but the problem is that a lot of people automatically default to going back to school when they have a hard time finding a job. It offers a temporary shelter from the harsh economy, but they don’t always look into whether that education will actually benefit them.

    Matt, I agree that #1 should be easy to do, but I can only think of a small number of group websites I’ve ever visited that have ANY of this data at all, let alone detailed data that goes out 5 years. No surprise, most of these groups are very well-known and the PIs (Baran for instance) have no trouble placing their students so it’s more of an advertisement for themselves, not a service for the students. Pick a less well-known school and count how many professors have this data on their website. I bet you won’t need two hands to count them.

    If schools have a bad record of placement you can be certain they won’t compile this data to give to students, they’d be shooting themselves in the foot. The onus here is not on the university, but on the student because regardless of whether it’s ethical or not, a school simply won’t give a student this information unless it makes them look very good. That’s why I’m so adamant that people need to educate themselves about their future BEFORE going to grad school, not during or even worse, after.

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Organic Chemist

    I entirely agree with the notion to create more career awareness with incoming PhD candidates, and continue that education throughout graduate school. Chemistry Department-sponsored groups (like the link below) with strong networks to alumni are one way to create this career awareness (probably cheaper than having a full-time career counselor). Not only do these groups provide an arena to investigate potential jobs (and the prospect of finding said job), they provide avenues to reach out to alumni (who are usually past members of said group).

    It’s probably naive to expect all 15 incoming organic chemists to land pharma jobs straight out of graduate school…the earlier those students realize that, the better.


  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Chris

    “Oh yes, I can hear you shouting in the back there. “But I bet more of them are taking post-docs!” Well, I hope you didn’t bet too much on that, because you’d lose. It’s about the same. A tiny bit less, even.”

    This is still depressing data. More PhDs end as postdocs right after grad school than anything else? More than twice as many as end up in industry/business? And what the heck is ‘other’? Does that include truck drivers and ditch diggers? I would like to know what the data is going further back. Do they tell undergrads about this stuff?

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by octopus manifold

    The focus here seems to be employment immediately after obtaining a PhD. What about 10, 20, 30 years after? What’s the attrition rate for chemists working as chemists?

    Perhaps young chemists might have a different perspective on their chosen careers if they knew they’d only be doing what they love for first third of it.

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Fenton Heirtzler

    A summary of the employment track record for each and every academic chemistry department, along the lines of the suggestions of Matt, CMC guy and ‘Postdoc’ is long overdue.

    On the other hand, change is never easy. A glance through the websites of many chemistry departments shows that they are still recruiting on the assumption of ready employability of their degrees. And so, the stakeholders in the current status quo, which basically amounts to university budget directors, research-active faculty, H1-B visa applicants and companies seeking cheap employees, will resist change. I haven’t read any contributions so far from representatives of those interest groups to this week’s discussions.

    As a matter of fact, I can think of a single organization that represents the aforementioned parties: the ACS. And so the difference between discussing a problem and eventually doing something about it will amount to insisting on a new and contraversial agenda for the same organization.

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Paul Hodges

    Leigh I think this is a great post, with lots of useful data and clear analysis.

    I would just like to add a future dimension to your argument. To me, one thing is clear about the next 20 years, which is that its going to be different from the past 20 years. This is simply because the Babyboomers are getting to retirement age, and there aren’t so many people in the following age cohort behind them.

    I recently checked out the US Population statistics (not an easy job, as you say!, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/vsus.htm), and the number of babies born in the 1946-64 period was up 50% versus the pre-War period. But then the number of births fell 15% in the following 1965-80 period.

    This surge has had a major impact on demand. The 25 – 54 age group sees people marrying, settling down, having kids, and generally reaching the maximum age for consumption. So as the majority of Babyboomers moved into this age range after 1980, demand for housing, autos and all the other trappings of consumer life rose with their needs.

    Equally, as they now exit it, and their median age next year will be 55, so their consumption will decline. And there will be 15% fewer people in the following generation to take up the slack. In fact, given social changes of people now delaying marriage and having kids, the risk to consumption may be even more than the headline 15%.

    On the other hand, of course, the 55+ age group has vastly improved life expectancy versus previous generations. So whilst they are naturally, at the moment, most pre-occupied with funding their beckoning retirement, they still have a lot of consumption ahead of them.

    Maybe, therefore, what needs to happen is that we might also focus during the rest of the week on trying to better understand what their needs might be? In turn, this might then open up job opportunities for people reading the blog who are interested in helping to supply some of these products and services?

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Chemjobber

    @octopus: The attrition rate of chemists is unknown; however, you can see here that after the age of 39, the unemployment rate of chemists begins to rise…


  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Matt

    @Chris. I agree with you on this point. It also begs the following question: “What is happening to all of those postdocs? Does anyone keep tabs on them?” But, I think, in an ideal world, the green and the blue bars in that plot would be switched (in terms of %).

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Cls

    I just defended my dissertation, I have a job and it’s not a post-doc. Alot of my colleagues are struggling right now. I believe my success is due to the fact that biochemistry is a sexy field. Unfortunately for my friends that are having difficulties, it seems to be the result of not many openings in organic and inorganic chemistry disciplines.

  • Dec 14th 201014:12
    by Chemjobber


    I think the hope is that the 55+ cohort will consume lots of pharmaceutical drugs and medical care. Of course, many nations (including the US) are balking at the projected costs.

    Nonetheless, it’s a good thought.

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Carmen Drahl

    Thanks for suggesting reading, @CJ, Leigh, Matt. I hadn’t seen the Greenspun website. It is really something.
    @LisaJarvis you’re right– career counseling should start in undergrad. But you’re always going to have to allow for undergrads changing their minds, and for undergrads being, well, undergrads. I can think back to when I was in college… even if I had been given warnings about a crappy job market from a career counselor, at the time I probably thought I was invincible enough to beat the odds. (I did a lot of growing up in grad school).

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @Chris: I was actually not surprised at all that most PhDs go into a post-doc. It seems pretty common at my grad school. When someone defends, you don’t ask if they got a job, but rather who they’re post-docing for. And I have little idea what ‘other’ is, apart from people like me who will take some kind of ‘alternative’ career.

    @Paul: This is true that the population of people about to retire is larger than the generation now entering the workforce. But even so, there are more chemistry PhDs now than there were then. I couldn’t squeeze it in above, but the NSF has also tracked these numbers since 1920. [ETA: Sorry, my bad! It was from 1960, not 1920.] http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf06319/appa.cfm Unfortunately, they only go up to 1999 or they’d be a bit more useful. But does it translate into plenty of jobs being freed up by retirees? Don’t know.

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Chemjobber

    You know, there are fields where if someone announces their desire, everyone kind of steps back and says “Gee, that’s really hard!” like “I wanna be an astronaut!” or “I’d like to be a figure skater like Sasha Cohen!” or “Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be the starting left tackle of the Pittsburgh Steelers!”

    But it seems sad (almost), if we started to say, Look, son, what are the chances that you’re actually going to get hired at BMS to a bunch of first years?

    Without my boundless stores of optimism :P, I’d be despairing.

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Barney

    @Fenton: Most chemistry departments recruit students based upon how many TA slots they need to fill, not on how many jobs they expect will be available when that cohort graduates.

    Most departments could probably put together a summary of employment outcomes for their students, but it would require someone to actively maintain and update it (and it would also require former students to report back)–maybe more easily done across departments at the university level. And, for most departments, I would wager that the outcomes would be more dependent upon the person you worked for than the place you worked.

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Thomas McEntee

    As I have noted in several of Derek Lowe’s postings over the past 3+ years, my perspective (Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, 1972; process development and manufacturing for US pharma, 1973-1986; since 1986 at a Federally Funded R&D Center) is that a major factor in the too-many-PhDs situation is the vicious cycle of tenure-track assistant professor wants tenure –> needs publications –> need to do research –> needs cheap labor –> gets grad students –> grad student gets PhD….now what? I have likened this to a Ponzi scheme but in reality, I can’t blame the universities; they’re in the business of educating students. What it suggests is that the very people you’d expect to understand the ramifications of contributing to an oversupply seem not to understand what they’re doing.

    Now, I’m all for research…but teaching alone has been shown to be undervalued in the US. Maybe rather than having huge academic research programs, universities should focus more on classroom teaching and less on building yet-another “world-class” center for this or that. Another radical thought would be the development of industry-academia-government applied research centers such as the European aerospace community is doing in advanced materials and composites….just a thought.

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @CJ, there was an editorial today in New Scientist about how we should make science funding dependent on the opinions of the masses. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827905.000-time-to-democratise-science.html

    It kind of reminds me of this (fictional) story in Nature from a few years ago about ‘shopping’ for which research to fund. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7064/full/438128a.html

    Maybe if something like that happened, scientists would turn into celebrities and it suddenly would be more like wanting to be an astronaut or figure skater.

  • Dec 14th 201015:12
    by Thomas McEntee

    I should note, relative to my comment above about the consortium model for the European R&D centers, that a good number of these are built close to Airbus plants and that the R&D is VERY applied in nature and intended to solve major challenges in advanced aircraft manufacturing. Local and federal governments (principally Germany, France, UK, and Spain) provide their share of funding, tax incentives,and permitting. University students learn about real-world problems and help devise solutions. Not surprisingly, when finished with their studies, they take their technical diploma and walk across the street to work with Airbus. Academic purists might sniff “vocational school” but “it’s all about jobs, Baby”

  • Dec 14th 201016:12
    by Bruce Hamilton

    From what we see in responses to New Zealand advertisements in C&E News, there a global glut in some chemical disciplines ( organic synthesis ), but s global shortage in others ( energy-related ).

    Starting salaries for new graduates in 21st century industry are usually based on a pre-agreed assessment of the position in the organisation, rather than the “new brain” abilities and potential contribution of individual applicants.

    That approach favours people who interview well and come from respected institutions. Those people then hire using the same criteria, and decades of that selection pressure resulted in the current chemical industry research skill profile, which unfortunately has often not delivered value for money to employers – hence the current fad of outsourcing.

    There is still the need for researchers to expand the frontiers of chemical knowledge, and apply existing and new knowledge to important chemical problems, but there is a huge disparity between how most national strategic science funding organisations allocate resources to institutions and companies, and the obvious strategic 21st Century chemical problems.

    The issues of energy ( cost, imports, environmental) have been obvious for decades, but once the 1970s oil shock disappeared, those knowledge streams failed to show relevance tofunding organisations, and withered. Funding organisations appointed eminent/popular researchers to identify areas for funding, with the obvious self-interested outcomes. When confronted with funding applications in new fields, they tend to follow “hot” topics, regardless of strategic utility. That also favoured producing more graduates in their fields of interest.

    If you’re a product of such a system, what extra value are you to a 21st Century employer struggling with the current recession and looking to enter new markets or fighting lower-cost competitors?.

    In industry, research positions exist to produce something of greater financial benefit to the company than other uses of the money. For several decades now, chemistry-based research divisions of many US companies have over-promised, but under-delivered, ceding competitive advantage.

    Modern managers need to focus on the best global solution, and if that involves overseas chemists, so be it. To change the flows of US chemistry graduates to realign will take decades, and requires a much more ruthless culling by large funders in academia and industry of “nice, but not mission critical” academic grant proposals.

  • Dec 14th 201016:12
    by Matt

    I’m glad you brought those articles up. I’m going to talk a little bit about that stuff on Friday. It’s the big new trend now in science policy. Everyone seems to be advocating this. Not sure what the best way at it is. But its a thought.
    Couldn’t agree with you more. It is all about the jobs!! I love how industry and academia work a little more closely in Europe. Don’t know that it makes the system better. But, it certainly does train the students for a job that they are going to get. Benefits all around. Training vs Educating is another huge trending trend in the academic sphere. Academics tout that people need to have a college education to have a better chance at getting a job. But, why is that, really. What are we preparing the students for. Its not JUST to think critically. That’s only part of the game. They need directly applicable skill sets too. (this argument coming from an undegrad perspective … but part of an over-all discussion that needs to be had with graduate education as well).

  • Dec 14th 201017:12
    by bad wolf

    @Carmen–(I did a lot of growing up in grad school)
    I guess we all go on to grad school thinking we were pretty special, but that turns out to be just comparing ourselves to general college students or even the other majors. Comparing yourself to the top students in the top groups in the top schools in the country…. that realization takes a while to sink in.

  • Dec 14th 201017:12
    by Sharon

    Leigh, this was really interesting, as was CJ’s yesterday! Thanks for all the work you put into this.

    @Thomas McEntee re Ponzi scheme. I think this is a really good point. We may have too many PhDs for the jobs available, but can university research function without the current number of graduate students? I think the answer is no, but I have no idea what can be done to balance it out.

    @Leigh re scientist celebrities – Do you know anything about these Rock Stars of Science? http://www.rockstarsofscience.org/2010_rockdocs.htm

    My school has something called a Chemistry Professional Development Organization, which actually is really helpful. It’s student-run, and they bring in people who have gotten jobs or postdocs at various places to talk about their work and what it was like getting that job – usually over pizza. It’s pretty neat, especially when they’re able to bring in an “alternative career” person.
    (Link to CPDO: http://www.umich.edu/~chempdo/index.html)

  • Dec 14th 201018:12
    by AnonX

    What was the inflation adjusted pay in 1970 compared to 2010? I think 2010 is gonna come out the same or far below. The U.S. may have never faced a shortage of scientists at all.

    The fact that we are talking about this issue just further proves with 99% certainty that there is an unsustainable glut of scientists. Many of whom will not spend their lives doing an science, which just wasted taxes. We shouldn’t pay for things we are not going to use.

  • Dec 14th 201018:12
    by Matt

    Great to see you getting in with this discussion!
    I have seen the Rock Stars of Science campaign. While I tend to agree with Martin Robbins (I don’t think that the campaign is going to have much effect), it is great to be plugging scientists and the research that they do.

  • Dec 14th 201018:12
    by OrganicExtract


    “do you think that you are in the top 10% nationally? Because if you’re not, you are going to have a very difficult time finding a job as a PhD organic chemist.”

    Is the challenge to drop out? I have struggled with the question of where my abilities rank many times. I honestly don’t think that I fall in the top 10%. But, I like what I do (usually). I’m on a project that is going pretty well (unlike other people I know). I’ve seen people who are less capable earn their PhD (so why shouldn’t I?). And if that’s not enough, I worry that if I quit now, I will have wasted 3 1/2 years of my advisor’s money (in a time when money is scarce) and my time (which is also precious). Sometimes it seems like a waste to quit and a waste to continue.

  • Dec 14th 201019:12
    by Paul

    re: The Ponzi scheme, I think that’s one of the reason foreign students are so important to the system. We need students to work in US academic labs, but we may not (or do not–I’m undecided) have the jobs for all of these PhDs when they’re done.

    Foreign students (who will be denied permanent work permits) can sustain the system for a little longer, but the tough thing will be convincing academia to adjust how it operates with regard to scaling down operations.

  • Dec 14th 201021:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @AnonX: I don’t know what how the 1970′s pay compares to today, but I’ll try to dig that up tomorrow. I have a feeling I won’t find it, though. Just going back to ’99 felt like unearthing ancient relics.

  • Dec 14th 201022:12
    by z

    I know you mention this in your post, but these sorts of analyses would be far more useful if they compared all the sub-divisions of chemistry–organic, inorganic, etc.–rather than treating all of chemistry as a monolithic entity.

    Practically, a Ph.D. in, say, organic synthesis is a completely different degree from one in materials chemistry. The two are not interchangeable, and I would imagine that the only way a person with a Ph.D. in organic synthesis could truly shift gears and successfully compete with someone who has a Ph.D. in materials chemistry would be to go back and get a Ph.D. in materials chemistry. There are so many people looking for jobs in the fields that they are qualified in that it is a huge fight for someone who is not qualified to be able to compete with them (not to say it is impossible, and we hear success stories all the time, but no one tells the failure stories).

    Organic chemistry in America is clearly headed down (at least in the pharmaceutical industry). Jobs are going oversees, older workers are being pushed out by younger workers, people are taking lower paying jobs they don’t really want, no one has any sense of security and most of us youngins don’t expect to be able to finish out our career doing the work that we truly love. Yes, this is all based on anecdotal evidence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It just means that the data can be hard to collect and nobody has done it.

  • Dec 14th 201023:12
    by Chemjobber

    @Organic: You know, that’s a really difficult question that only you and your advisor can answer. I’m sorry to take a cop-out answer, but I can’t judge your career.

    That being said, who knows? There’s your postdoc (maybe?) and you don’t necessarily have to go into Big Pharma, which is what I was really thinking about when I wrote that.

  • Dec 15th 201000:12
    by anonymous grad student

    I guess I was very delusional 5 years ago ago when I decided to pursue a PhD degree in chemistry at some Midwest low-tier university. After spending last years at the bench with little social life other than research work, it feels pretty shitty to find yourself in a situation when you have to struggle to find any employment in this industry. I’m about to graduate shortly and I’ve been applying at lots of places (hundreds) for almost a year. Even with a few papers in your portfolio, but lousy academic credentials like mine, the industry in this country won’t hire you anyhow and anywhere. The jolly academia offers you a postdoc position (hopefully, at some mediocre place). Yeah, right… As much as I love science, this postdoc path is likely to go nowhere and only to end up with the same, maybe even more severe, unemployment problems at older age. I’m glad it happened to me now when I still have time to rethink my career and find a different way to make a living. But, despite what academic staff tell, I will sure as hell make it clear to other students at my place what their prospects are.

  • Dec 15th 201001:12
    by Phytochemist

    I recently attended an NIH workshop for postdocs moving into independent positions. It was almost entirely focused on academia. During the one session on “Alternative Careers,” it came out that only about 20% of science PhDs end up in the coveted tenure-track academic positions. So tenure-track academic jobs are the real “alternative careers.” Indeed, it seems that they are becoming more scarce. As research funds get tight, and universities replace retiring faculty with adjuncts, it’s getting more and more bleak. And how many senior faculty will retire anyway? Most stay on until they die, because they are given a wide latitude. For them, it’s a very well-paid part time job. At the moment, their retirement packages have shrunk due to the economic crisis, so they have nothing to gain from retiring. And so there are fewer openings. While it might be more economical for universities to replace them with new, cheaper faulty, they can’t get rid of them unless they do something really heinous. Where else can we turn? Pharma is hemorrhaging jobs, and not everyone can get jobs as consultants, science writers, or patent attorneys. Trained as a researcher, these jobs are not really an option for many of us.

    No one said anything about jobs when I decided to go to grad school, and I was fairly clueless. If I knew then what I knew now…

    In my lab now, a casual poll of the ~10 postdocs will turn up not a single one who says they would encourage their kids to go into science.

  • Dec 15th 201002:12
    by John

    The commentary on chemistry pay is without merit. Using average pay says nothing about supply-demand which is only picked up in starting salaries. Salaries of employed chemists are almost never cut. Fired chemists’ salaries go to zero and are thus dropped from the pool of salaries in the averages. So there is little downward pressure on average salaries in the time span examined here.

    The over supply of PhD chemists has depressed chemistry salaries for decades. The starting Salary for a PhD chemist was $16,000 in 1968. Using your calculator, the starting salary for a PhD chemist should be at least $100,000 in 2010. I could hire a new PhD chemist in California for less than $60,000 today – 40% less than a chemist would have cost me in 1968. Now what kind of a return on a 12-13 year education is that? Think MD or CEO pay has eroded that much in the past 40 years? This is the impact of over supply chemistry bodies on the rewards of the chemistry profession!

  • Dec 15th 201010:12
    by Thomas McEntee

    @Paul: Scaling down academia is a difficult problem…my sense is that the US academic community can be a viable force, a bona fide “business”, in educating both US and non-US students. In today’s US economy, we shouldn’t sniff at viable businesses. I have been critical of the ACS in the past for promoting chemistry as a career in the face of steady declines in employment of chemists in US manufacturing and R&D. However, my sense has been that such optimism on the part of ACS is ill-advised, given the whole Ponzi scheme concept, irrespective of whether anyone is being purposeful in the scheme.

    Academia’s dilemma is tied to its funding model in which professor must obtain grants, most typically from without the university, and from which the university extracts a substantial portion. Add in the non-tenured assistant professor rat race and you have a recipe for an ever-expanding perpetual motion machine. So long as the manufacturing base is viable, personal and corporate taxes flow into the IRS for eventual distribution to US Government funding agencies, all is well. Assistant professors get tenure, grad students get PhDs, standards of living go up, and the machine hums along. But along the way, as standards of living go up, our manufacturing costs go up. Eventually, being a capitalistic economy, concepts like off-shore outsourcing spring up and you know the rest.

    The grant model for funding universities and the tenure-track rat race are big contributors to the problem. What if tenure were abolished except for true luminaries? What if the grant system were scaled back?

  • Dec 15th 201011:12
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    @z I really wish the data were available for comparison of all the sub-divisions of chemistry. Some chemistry jobs consulting business needs to start up where they track this kind of stuff.

    Hey Chemjobber, looking for a career change?

  • Dec 15th 201012:12
    by Matt

    If you’ve got someone to pay him, I’m sure he could be persuaded!

  • Dec 15th 201015:12
    by Grinch

    Phytochemist, I also know several postdocs who won’t encourage their kids to study science. How many phsyicians or lawyers tell their kids not to follow in their footsteps? Who would have ever guessed that the inspirational story about parents wanting their kids to have “a better life than they did” would stem from parents with a Ph.D in science? This is a pathetic state of affairs for all of science, not just chemistry.

  • Dec 15th 201022:12
    by Chemjobber

    You know, I think there are a lot of lawyers who tell their kids that there are better ways of making money…

  • Dec 15th 201023:12
    by Chemjobber

    “I could hire a new PhD chemist in California for less than $60,000 today – 40% less than a chemist would have cost me in 1968.”

    John, I really challenge that statement. Unless you’re talking rural California (Barstow?), I doubt it.

  • Dec 15th 201023:12
    by AnonX


    I wouldn’t doubt the $60K figure these days, I see new PhDs getting hired at $65-70K in LA and SF. Not to mention the fact that many people in industry now face long periods of unemployment (4-6 months)that further erodes their yearly pay rate. Over a course of 2-3 years, a PhD’s income might actually average far below $60K. Just hope they get unemployment benefits.

  • Dec 16th 201000:12
    by Chemjobber


    The comment said “less than 60k”; you’re saying 65-70k.

    Assuming John meant 59.5k, that’s a 10 to 17% difference.

    Also, in what industry are they getting hired in, especially in LA?
    No offense, but I just have a really hard time believing that less than 60k.

  • Pingback

    Dec 16th 201001:12
    by How Do We Break This Cycle? | ScienceGeist

    [...] about a couple really tough acts to follow. CJ, Leigh and Paul set a really high standard with their posts, and reader response has been [...]

  • Dec 16th 201002:12
    by Anonx


    The people that were hired at $65-70K were in Med Chem at smaller companies. Believe it or not, there is some Med Chem in LA, those people got laid off recently, some not even a year in. This is why I’m thinking the situation is leaning towards John’s side right now, because if you can’t count on being employed for a year straight, then you have to assume your yearly income is somewhere south of $60K, even if the rate your are being paid would add up to $70K when hired.

  • Dec 16th 201007:12
    by Chemjobber

    Interesting data point, AnonX — thanks for sharing.

  • Pingback

    Dec 17th 201000:12
    by Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock

    [...] Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess. [...]

  • [...] who sent the press release), Chemjobber (opener and closer), Leigh Krietsch Boerner here at Just Another Electron Pusher, and Paul at [...]

  • Pingback

    Dec 17th 201019:12
    by Friday round-up | The Safety Zone

    [...] First, folks, if you’re interested in the chemistry job market and haven’t already seen the blog roundtable discussion this week, head on over to Chemjobber’s recap today (note that Leigh at C&ENtral Science’s Just Another Electron Pusher contributed to the discussion with a post on Too many PhDs?). [...]

  • [...] excellent post and discussion can be found here. [...]

  • May 22nd 201121:05
    by Tommy L

    Nothing is ever 100% secure.

  • Apr 2nd 201207:04
    by Namita Dube

    Hi everyone,
    I have done MS in Medicinal Chemistry.Now I want to peruse PhD at US. After reading this article I have a doubt to whether join PhD in Medicinal Chemistry or Pharmacology. I need your kind guidance, Which will be better in regard to job opportunity.

  • Apr 18th 201223:04
    by D. Raj

    The over supply of PhD chemists has depressed chemistry salaries for over decades.It has to balance the out put and job availability. It should not compare Ph.D with unemployment or good job opportunity.
    I am mortified at how those choices fit into my long-term goals. I sense that’s a common theme for folks who get their undergraduate education.Job availability, salary and job stratification is depends on so many other factors.

  • Apr 30th 201201:04
    by PO'D PhD

    It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not there are too many PhD’s? In what universe? Of course there are too many PhDs. Unemployment is in double digits. Underemployment accounts for more than 50% of us: how many are rotting away in yet another postdoc? How many have gone back to school to get a JD and be bottom feeding patent leeches, er, lawyers? How many are stocking groceries with 10 years post-PhD research experience? How many years can we shut down every single university on the entire planet before we have a shortage of PhDs? Five years? Ten? Twenty? More? Oh and to the terminally clueless nitwit who challenged the idea of hiring a PhD chemist for $60k…you’ll have PhDs with 10+ years experience lining up around the block, and you’ll be able to hire your pick for half that because chemists are just that desperate. To the other nitwit citing 4-6 months unemployment, you’re off by a factor of five: typical PhD unemployment periods are measured in years not months. Don’t worry though, you’ll have the opportunity to experience long-term unemployment about once every three to five years.

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