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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.

Continue reading →

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

Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education?

twocharts450Earlier 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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market

You’ve probably seen the numbers.

On August 3rd, the July unemployment figures for the US were widely reported. Relatively stagnant, again, with an overall unemployment rate of 8.3%

Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.

This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.

She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”

She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:

“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”

She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:

“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”

I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.

Okay, where to begin?

Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”

Gee, um, thanks, Mom.

That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:

“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”

He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →

ACS Webinars: Academic Jobs Outlook

You may be wondering why I’m blogging about academic careers on a blog which is supposed to be all about nontraditional careers for chemists.

Well, I attended the ACS Webinar titled “Academic Jobs Outlook” that was videostreamed live from the ACS National Meeting in Denver last week. If you missed it, you can still sign up and view it here.

While watching, it dawned on me that many chemists get turned off from academia because they realize that they wouldn’t want their PI’s job.

But there’s more to academia than R1, and that’s what I hope to highlight in this post.

The webinar hosted a panel of three faculty members who shared about their experiences at three different types of academic institutions: an R1 institution, a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) and a community college.

Meet the members of the panel (modified from the ACS Webinars website):

Here is a table that summarizes the topics that were discussed by the panelists, highlighting the differences between the three types of academic positions. Continue reading →

Making a Case for the Overqualified

You think I’m qualified for the job? I’m delighted you think so! When do I start? What’s that? You said overqualified? Really, now, that’s quite a compliment. You’re making me blush. I’m sorry – am I missing something? You say “overqualified” like it’s a bad thing. Oh…I see. I’ll just show myself out, then.

It sounds like a compliment...and it should be. Photo credit: flickr user o5com

In my current combined job search and self-discovery vision quest, I’ve been met on different fronts with the recurring theme that a wealth of experience may, in fact, be a detriment. There is no shortage of “expert” advice, online or otherwise, suggesting that you should hide or neglect to mention years of education and/or employment. If your light is too bright  or its spectrum contains too many wavelengths for the position, hide it under the nearest bushel. Okay, honestly, I do get it – target your resume and cover letter toward a specific position. Focus I understand. However, I can’t completely evade the feeling that this gamesmanship of playing hide-and-seek and cherry-picking facts seems disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. It’s somewhat against the grain of how one is trained to think as a scientist.

Even if one hasn’t been met with this particular o-word per se, it lies not too far beneath concerns that are more openly stated.

Prospective employers are worried that so-called overqualified candidates might jump ship at the first opportunity for a better position elsewhere. They’re concerned that after going through the interview process, they won’t be able to seal the deal because their budget can’t meet the candidate’s salary requirements. They fear their new hire may soon be bored. This sort of thinking is, well, a bit risk-averse, shall we say.

A recent post by Amy Gallo on the Harvard Business Review blog makes a case for taking such a risk. A challenge is posed:

“When making hiring decisions, visionary leaders don’t just focus on the current needs, but on the future.”

So, will the final hiring decision for the position you desire be made by such a visionary leader? Does the future lurch and loom darkly before them, or will they embrace the challenges ahead? I think it’s safe to say that most people would prefer to work for someone in the latter category. A perceived benefit for a hiring manager to adopt this mindset is driven home:

“Hiring overqualified candidates can help you achieve much higher productivity, grow, and achieve opportunities that you may not even be thinking about pursuing right now.” There are other less obvious benefits too: these employees can mentor others, challenge peers to exceed current expectations, and bring in areas of expertise that are not represented at the company.

Yummy knowledge! Save some for me! Photo credit: flickr user Christian Haugen

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Honestly, though, don’t most people’s jobs change over time? There are new developments in technology, best practices, knowledge within your discipline, business needs, what have you, that necessitate modifying some aspect of what you do. If you’re adamantly resistant to change, you’ll be left behind. Successful people aren’t usually like that, though. They have amassed their supply of deep, diverse experience because they want to learn all the time – that’s what has driven them from day one. They don’t wait for knowledge to be fed to them; they seek it out like it’s a special treat, and then devour it – nom nom nom nom. They evolve; curiosity and a hunger for knowledge feed their evolution. To behave otherwise invites negative consequences. The philosopher and writer of social commentary Eric Hoffer put it best: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  This preferred path of continuous learning will reap benefits whether you’re an experienced professional, a new chemistry graduate, or anywhere in between.

Okay, prospective employers, here’s my mission statement. While I’m in your employ, you will have my full attention. I will give my all and strive to grow in the position. All I ask is a chance to do what I do best every day. I will reward your courage with my efforts to contribute and make a difference. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Show me the money: How a Ph.D. chemist is helping corporate America team up with K-12 STEM education programs

We hope this blog is making it abundantly clear that a chemistry degree qualifies you for a lot more than you might think. I mean, who knew a chemist could land a job at a Disney theme park where he could use his chemical knowledge to help make, for example, a more corrosion-resistant artificial skin?

It seems, therefore, that a reasonable approach to discovering your chemistry dream job is this: Figure out what you’re passionate about and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Then find a job that lets you do that. (Word of caution: Not every job you can dream up will be able to pay the rent, so that’s something important to keep in mind).

Zakiah Pierre, Ph.D. chemist, is a research associate for "Change the Equation", an organization whose goal is to improve the state of K-12 STEM teaching in the U.S. Courtesy photo.

This seems to be the approach Zakiah Pierre is taking in pursuing her career. Although she started grad school thinking she’d go into forensic science, along the way she discovered she was really passionate about “mentoring and paving the way for our future engineers and scientists.”

The more she got more involved in mentoring students, the more she became convinced that a science career that allowed her to have an immediate impact on students was the right path for her.

That line of thinking has led her to where she is today with Change the Equation, an organization focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for every child, with a particular focus on girls and students of color.

One of the ways CTEq strives to accomplish its goals is by identifying innovative programs to advance STEM literary in the United States, measuring the success of these programs through research and analysis and replicating them in communities that need them most.

This is where Zakiah comes in. As a research associate, she gathers data regarding the condition of STEM learning state-by-state and nationwide and assesses the impact of STEM learning programs that receive corporate support.

By evaluating the success of various programs, she helps CTEq make a solid case for why companies should continue funding them—and expanding them to new, underserved sites.

She also writes reports that let their partners know about the needs in STEM learning, with the hope that changes in policy will be made to address those needs.

In addition to research and writing reports, Zakiah also blogs about science education news and programs and occasionally represents the organization at meetings around D.C. on a variety of STEM education topics.

In the future, Zakiah hopes to expand her role to writing short briefs for peer-reviewed journals on current issues in K-12 STEM learning.

It may be apparent by now that Zakiah has had to expand her knowledge base and skill set. The beauty of it all is that the diverse skill set she acquired through grad school provides her with a good foundation for taking on this job.

So while a Ph.D. is not necessarily required for the job she has now, Zakiah said there are so many skills that one acquires in the process that are transferrable to other jobs.

“You also learn how to network, learn all those ways of communication, time management, things to learn that you wouldn’t get working somewhere,” Zakiah said.

Ahh, the beauty of transferable skills…

A little more about CTEq, in case you’re interested:

The 110 companies that are part of CTEq have pledged “to connect and align their work to transform STEM learning in the United States by shining a light on progress and problems; advocating and influencing; leading by example; and acting as catalysts for change.” Continue reading →

Making Science Cool for Kids with K-12 STEM Outreach

If you love kids and science, you can have your cake and eat it too with a career in K-12 STEM outreach. Photo credit: flickr user jasonsbytes

If you love working with kids and you love science, why not find a career that allows you to have both? I mean, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?

I know what you might be thinking: I’m in grad school. I’m busy. And plus, I want to teach college kids. K-12 is for pre-college teachers.

These thoughts also came to my mind as I started working on this blog post. For me personally, after I decided to go to grad school I kind of put pre-college kids out of my mind since I was moving on to “higher education.” If I teach anyone, it’s going to be college kids.

But it turns out that there is a lot that people in higher education can do to help prepare the next generation of scientists to be successful future leaders—and it’s up to you whether it’s something you just do on the side, or something that becomes the focus of your career.

You may have already known that. Perhaps you’ve already done some science outreach things and have even personally demonstrated to kids how cool science is by making ice cream for them out of liquid nitrogen and heavy cream, right before their very eyes.

But have you thought about what difference your contributions can actually make?

What gets Sharlene Denos going every day is the knowledge that her efforts are helping to make a difference in the future of science in America.

From her experiences working in K-12 schools, Sharlene (Ph.D. in biophysics, 2009) has found that the greatest need in K-12 STEM education is for more inquiry-based learning.

Sharlene Denos performs science experiments with kids. See kids—isn’t science fun?

“The way science is taught, it’s as though everything has already been figured out,” Sharlene said. “When children leave the classroom, they don’t feel empowered like they could actually contribute something to science, and I think that’s a huge problem.”

The reason it’s a huge problem is because these kids are the future of our country. If they’re not prepared to take on scientific challenges, or have misconceptions about what science is all about, what then is in store for the future of science?

Sharlene has set out to make a career out of crossing academia with K-12 outreach. She loves working with kids and says her goal is to become a professor that helps bridge the gap between research scientists at the university and kids in grades K-12.

There aren’t many people in academia doing that sort of thing. But that’s one of the things she wants to help change. One of her goals is to help people in academia find ways to “participate effectively in [K-12] science education,” even if it’s not the focus of their careers.

For Sharlene, it all started when she got to grad school and found opportunities to get involved in K-12 science outreach. Initially it was just something she did on the side. That is, until…

…she got a fellowship through the National Science Foundation (NSF GK-12 STEM Fellowship). Sharlene emerged from two years on this fellowship with experience teaching in a local school, developing science curriculum, and facilitating professional development workshops for science teachers.

“During that time I really caught the science education bug,” she said, with a laugh. “It wasn’t until then that I thought, ‘I really like this, I really want to do this as a career.’ But I wasn’t sure exactly how that could happen.”

At this point in our conversation I had a burning question: What about your adviser—did he freak out?

Thankfully, no. Sharlene said she is grateful for her adviser who always supported her K-12 outreach pursuits. But she said she knows not all advisers would be that understanding. Ain’t that the truth…

After getting her Ph.D., she stayed at the University of Illinois as the K-12 Outreach Coordinator for an NSF-funded center and is now also the Project Coordinator for an introductory course on K-12 science education (known as iRISE).

Sharlene will soon be taking on a post-doc through the Center for the Physics of Living Cells at Illinois and hopes to ultimately get a faculty position that allows her to do education research and K-12 science outreach.

“My ideal position would be one within biological sciences, but my research would be in [K-12] education, or it could be a sort of shared appointment,” she said.

Sharlene’s advice to anyone who is interested in K-12 science outreach is to just get out there and start doing science with kids.

And for those who are pretty sure they want to make a career out of improving K-12 STEM education, Sharlene highly recommends the NSF GK-12 Fellowship.

For more information: The NSF GK-12 fellowship website is chock-full of links to K-12 STEM Resources. Also, there’s a new movie/documentary out about the troubled state of education in America, called Waiting for “Superman.

Update (3/8/2011): The NSF GK-12 Fellowship program is being canceled due to budget cuts. Boo! According to the article in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6021.1127), this comes as a big surprise and disappointment to many who are involved in K-12 STEM education. There are, however, some who are campaigning to save the program (details in the article).