I know. Enough with the bad news, already.
Feb24

I know. Enough with the bad news, already.

Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news? The bad news, you say? Okay, here it is. The bad news—wait for it—is that there is no good news. Cue the trombone. The surplus of scientists at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels has been a hot discussion topic recently, as well as in the past. Last week, there was an appearance of even more articles focused on how badly the Great Recession has hurt new college graduates, at all levels. The scope of this phenomenon appears to extend beyond science, and beyond North America or the EU. What follows is a quick overview of three articles on various aspects of this topic. A devalued bachelor’s degree First, there’s the provocatively titled “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” a New York Times article by Catherine Rampell. The opening statement provides a startling and depressing premise: The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job. An Atlanta law office is presented as a microcosm of what’s being seen more broadly. At this firm, the minimum prerequisite for employment, regardless of position, is a bachelor’s degree. This includes office administrators, file clerks and even their in-office courier. Evidence is provided that this situation is not unique to this one law firm: Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites. The shortage of scientists is nonexistent Returning to the sciences—in spite of the data supporting the premise of a glut of newly graduated scientists, there has been chatter bemoaning the opposite. The Atlantic associate editor Jordan Weissman had apparently heard enough talk of a shortage of scientists, and presents data that flies in the face of that notion in “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts.” Politicians and businessmen are fond of talking about America’s scientist shortage — the dearth of engineering and lab talent that will inevitably leave us sputtering in the global economy. But perhaps it’s time they start talking about our scientist surplus instead. Weissman makes his case by providing graphs based on data from the National Science Foundation, broken down by broad disciplinary...

Read More
Work, Coworkers, and Love
Feb14

Work, Coworkers, and Love

This is, of course, an appropriate day to talk about love. I feel fortunate that I still love chemistry, and love being in the lab. But what if find you have a different kind of chemistry with a coworker? This is not uncommon, in any workplace. You work closely alongside people with whom you have common interests—a nice starting point for a relationship. But if you find romance in a laboratory setting, how should the two of you behave on the job? Such lab relationships are the topic of “Love in the Lab,” a recent article at Science Careers. The focus is primarily on academic laboratories, but many of the concerns could readily apply in other science workplace settings. Apart from mutual understanding and moral support, a scientist couple can collaborate and help each other scientifically. But living a romance in the laboratory, as in any other workplace, is complicated. To say the least. Workplace couples often find themselves often under intense scrutiny from their colleagues if they divulge their relationship: Some laboratory couples may be inclined to keep their romance a secret, especially at first. But whether your relationship is public knowledge in the lab or kept private, it’s important to remain discreet and professional. Regardless of the quality of the science performed by each individual, the couple can find their career progression viewed by others through a lens of suspicion: One issue that can be especially damaging to young scientists is the perception by peers that career success is a result of a relationship and not scientific achievements. The article continues with good advice regarding quite serious concerns of conflict of interest, abuse of trust, sexual harassment, and avoiding fallout after breakups. In my career, I’ve know a few couples who have worked together in the lab, and all seemed to employ strategies to separate their relationship from their work. One colleague in such a relationship told me that “we never talk about chemistry at home.” After my initial surprise this made sense, because there have been times, at home, when I’ve tried to describe some chemistry I’d been working on in detail. My wife—not a chemist—would listen attentively until her eyes glazed over a bit. This was, of course, my cue to change the subject. Now I try to keep things on a high level, like “I was able to get some tough chemistry to work today.” Or, more often, sadly, I’m venting about things that didn’t work. But that’s science for you. Did I mention I love chemistry? Happy Valentine’s...

Read More
The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?
Feb08

The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?

Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education? Earlier this week, Chemjobber blogged about the regrettable employment situation for chemists. The centerpiece of the post was a graphic, which originally appeared in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on 2012 employment numbers. The figure represented the unemployment numbers, broken down by highest level of education completed and the associated wages for those employed in each group. Chemjobber amended the graphic with both the ACS member unemployment numbers (also by degree), plus the BLS numbers in the category “chemists and material scientists.” The result is powerful. Chemjobber summed it up: As you can note, chemists come out worse in every single apples-to-apples comparison on all equivalent degree holders. Not. Good. A further irony is found in the title of the original graphic, which Chemjobber retained: “Education Pays.” Well, yes, if you’re employed, your salary will generally increase with level of education (except for the slight dropoff from “Professional degree” to “Doctoral degree”). However, if you have the misfortune of being among the unemployed—the numbers are even worse for recent graduates—your return on investment is currently zero. This adds insult to injury, particularly if you attended an expensive private institution and have a seemingly insurmountable student loan debt to pay off. “Education Pays” then sounds derisive. The soaring cost of higher education was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and former professor at Syracuse University. The title refers to an effort to provide more affordable higher education opportunities: One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California. To achieve these cost cuts, there is a reliance on distance learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOC) and other formats. Understandably, this goal has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism: Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities. Brooks then strongly disagrees with the notion that this effort will only amount to “awarding degrees that are worthless to people.” As he then points out: I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got way back in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made. He describes how he was able...

Read More

A glut of chemists with bachelor’s degrees as well?

This past November, C&EN ran a cover story on the employment outlook for chemists. The coverage consisted of several simultaneously published stories regarding various aspects of the employment outlook. The main focus shared by many of these stories was on chemists already in the workforce, and the effects that recent or impending layoffs have had on their lives. I offered a few thoughts on the topic as it stirred up fresh memories of having gone through similar experiences myself. The bleak employment outlook for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry was also described, but in less detail than given for experienced workers. Those details, plus profiles of some recent graduates, were provided earlier this week, in “New Bachelor-Level Chemists Face Grim Job Market,” an excellent article by C&EN Senior Editor Susan J. Ainsworth. Some thoughtful comments on this story have been provided by Chemjobber this week. The first paragraph of the C&EN article sets the tone for what is to follow: The inhospitable employment climate has not spared anyone in the chemical sciences, but many who have recently earned a bachelor’s degree may be in for a particularly tough fight. Some survey data was provided to accompany the previous qualitative assessment: In the most recent American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields, in 2011, 14% of recent bachelor’s degree recipients reported that they didn’t have a job but were seeking one, up from 12% in 2010 (C&EN, June 4, 2012, page 36). In contrast, 9% of new Ph.D. grads said they were seeking employment in 2011, up from 6% in 2010. With such limited employment prospects for new graduates, it stands to reason that the bar would be set high to be considered for those opportunities that do exist. However, even as an incremental number of jobs open for new B.S. grads, competition for those opportunities remains fierce. To stand out in a sea of applicants, candidates need to cultivate skills and experience to make their résumés sparkle. Often, it’s not enough to have been an exemplary student or perform undergraduate research: Recruiters also covet students who have exhibited “thought leadership,” which involves more than just serving as president of an on-campus organization, Simpson says. Instead, such students “have taken ownership of a project or come up with a new solution to a problem,” she explains. Several success stories are highlighted—chemists who have gone the extra mile to become attractive candidates for employment and have been rewarded with positions from which to embark upon their careers. The article then returns to those who haven’t been as fortunate, and who are now struggling to...

Read More
From the archives—a surplus of PhDs
Jan25

From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related. First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past. This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979. “What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head. Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins: The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987. Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!! The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period. Wait, that number’s smaller. Thank you, Señor Buzzkill. (Wait, was the  word buzzkill even used back then? Never mind.) Thus, the trend of scientists and engineers with Ph.D.’s to work outside their fields appears to be increasing. In 1977, for example, only 25,000 or about 9% of the doctoral labor force held nontraditional jobs. By 1987, about 17% or 70,000 of the Ph.D.’s will be otherwise employed. There’s that word—nontraditional. Although, back in 1979, a nontraditional science career seemed to mean anything outside of academia.  The article goes on to forecast more nontraditionalism to come: Moreover, NSF’s projections for science and engineering doctoral degree holders who receive their degrees between now and 1987 indicate that even a larger number of these will find jobs in areas unrelated to their training. By 1987 it...

Read More