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Category → ACS

How long does it take to make a chemist?

This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN:

Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data.

Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken.

After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business.

I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish.

And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors.

But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.”

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Now it’s official—it’s not a pretty picture out there

Well, no doubt you’ve had at least a cursory look at the excellent C&EN cover story regarding the 2012 Employment Outlook for chemists. The cover shows a long queue of labcoat-wearing chemists, all presumably in line for the one available position. Cheery.

Even a beer line at a poster session is never this grim.

Image: C&EN

This story is in contrast to some previous commentary suggesting a recovery may be around some invisible corner, and, as chemists, we can get through it with grim determination. Following that, we’ll be somehow rewarded at the end of the ordeal. All we need to do is say “entrepreneurship” three times, click our heels together, and we’ll all be given a cushy new job in Kansas with all relocation expenses reimbursed.

If you’ve been through layoffs and site closures, as I have, and are, in turn, still connected to former colleagues facing a similar fate—again—or are still unemployed after a protracted period of time, this insistence that things aren’t so bad can be, well, annoying. It suggests the problem is you.

A few months ago, my personal annoyance meter pegged out, and I took ACS CEO and Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs to task for portraying the chemistry job market as rosier than I saw it, and for scolding a mother, a scientist who had gone through a downsizing, for urging her daughter to “not go into science.”

Well, although I’m sure my post had little if anything to do with it, a similar message has gotten through. Facts are presented, and they are cold and hard.

Okay. If you haven’t already, you need to read this cover story in greater detail. It’s broken up into several articles, with titles shown below. Under the heading of each title, I’ve followed with a few of my thoughts upon reading each one. There’s much more information within each article than referred to with my superficial observations. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read each article in their entirety, regardless of where you are in your career journey.

Overall, the full story was a struggle for me to get through—not because of how it’s reported (which is excellent), but because it rings so true. I’ve been there. Others still are there. It’s no fun revisiting.

Anyway, here we go:

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The ACS provides a variety of career information for you

Periodically, we’ve pointed out some of the available resources and information provided by the ACS Careers to help you with career decisions. Well, that crisp autumn chill in the air reminds me that it’s time to do it again.

Recently, the ACS Careers Blog has profiled two categories of nontraditional chemistry careers. First is science and technical writers, a topic also covered by JAEP in past posts (here, here and here). Another is supply-chain manager and contract manager, (with some similarities to a project manager).

For those of you interested in more traditional chemistry careers (depending on what “traditional” means to you), many profiles have been compiled by ACS Careers and can be found here. These are provided as part of ACS Careers Programs, accessible through the online ACS Member Handbook, or via the ACS portal.

Remember, too, that overviews of career opportunities and discussions of factors affecting the broader employment outlook are available through the ACS Webinars Careers Channel. Check out this page for a list of past webinars covered by JAEP.

Upcoming: Next week, there will be a webinar with the provocative title of Doctoral Glut Dilemma: Are There Solutions? This webinar will broadcast next Thursday, November 8th at 2:00 PM EST. This one promises to provide all the controversy you can stand. I’m afraid, however, that you’ll have to supply your own popcorn.

And, don’t forget, all ACS webinars are available for viewing through their archives (under the Past Webinars tab) or via the acswebinars YouTube channel. View a webinar from The Past! What were ACS members’ concerns years ago? How has chemistry fashion has changed over time? (Admittedly a trick question—fashion doesn’t exist for chemists, let alone change). The archives only go so far back, though. So there’s no footage of a grad student being reduced to tears by the steely gaze of R.B. Woodward.

And if your attention span can’t endure a full-length webinar, there are even webinets! What do you mean, that’s not a word? The ACS says it is, so there. The webinets are given the overarching theme of “2 Minutes to a Smarter Scientist.” Well, count me in. I would also like to be smarterer. Here’s a sample webinet to give you a taste:


Irresistible, right? So do yourself a favor, and give this bounty of information a thorough perusal. You’ll be glad you did.

25 years of American Chemical Society goodness

As I arrived home from work last Friday, awaiting me was a small package from the ACS Membership Affairs Committee. What could it be, I wondered.

“Dear Mr. Ernst,”
Oh, ACS, you’re too formal. Just call me Glen.

I excitedly opened the box. Inside was an even smaller box, and a letter addressed to me. The letter began:

“It is my great privilege to congratulate you on your 25th anniversary as a member of the American Chemical Society.”

They remembered! Well, I am embarrassed. I didn’t get them anything….except 25 years of dues.

Another excerpt:

“In the past several years, we have significantly enhanced your member benefits to offer a wide range of programs designed to enrich your personal and professional life. … For a full picture of all that ACS offers, please visit our interactive website www.acs.org/memberhandbook.”

In the spirit of full disclosure—and partial irony—I must admit I haven’t browsed through the full breadth of available ACS online content. The online version of the Member Handbook is nicely done and easy to navigate, facilitating access to important areas such as ACS Career Programs.

Further on, the letter read:

“As a special token of our gratitude, and in celebration of your 25 years of membership in the Society, please accept this engraved pen. May it serve as a reminder of your contributions and achievements with ACS!”

I mean it. Thank you.

I opened the small box. It was a pen. A shiny, sturdy, blue pen. A pen that cries, Behold, all ye mighty, I am a pen to be reckoned with. Yes, that sort of pen. And as promised, it is indeed engraved—twice. The engravings state, “AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY” and “25 YEARS OF SERVICE.” Bonus—the pen works!

Time to dial down the snarkiness. (Snark is my baseline setting.) It is a nice pen. I will use it. It’s not a 25th anniversary coffee mug depicting the entry for manganese from the periodic table, but, hey, I like it.

My recent criticisms aside, I’m proud to have been a member of this organization for the last 25 years, and look forward to continuing into the future.

The letter concluded:

“Because of your long-term participation in the ACS, we’ve become a richer, more influential organization, providing the highest levels of excellence in our programs and services. Again, congratulations on reaching this membership milestone!”

My contributions and achievements. Flattering, but to be honest, I haven’t done much beyond doing science as honestly as I know how. Regarding the ACS, I don’t feel I’ve really contributed—I’ve consumed. I do vote regularly in ACS elections, broadly, locally and within the divisions of which I am a member. Beyond that, the most I’ve given back has been through some of what I’ve written here at JAEP.

Can a pen cause shame?