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...

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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...

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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...

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On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market
Aug14

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.”...

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ACS Webinars: Academic Jobs Outlook
Sep09

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. Note: The panelists spoke from their individual experiences, so it may differ from school to school— I suggest you talk to faculty members who work at the university or college you’re interested in applying to, in order to get a clearer idea of what it would be like to work at that school. Breaking it down If you love teaching undergrads but could do without writing grants and managing a lab, you’re probably most cut out for a faculty position at a community college. If you like the balance of teaching undergrads and research/managing a lab, a professorship position at a primarily undergraduate institution may be a good fit. If you are really passionate about research, and you enjoy (or at least don’t hate) writing grant proposals, and could see yourself managing a lab with grad students and postdocs, and also do some teaching at various levels, then the professorship path at an R1 university would be a good choice. The question of work-life balance During the Q&A portion of the webcast, I took advantage of the “submit a question online” function and asked if the panelists could talk about work-life balance. My question was selected! I got really excited in a nerdy kinda way. Anyways, their answers weren’t surprising, and were pretty consistent with what I’ve heard from other professors. The pre-tenure years are busy because of all the expectations and pressures to build your tenure portfolio (different components depending on the institution). You should expect to work long days and weekends during the academic year. During the summer months, you may get to have a more 8-to-5...

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Making a Case for the Overqualified
Apr06

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. 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...

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