How long does it take to make a chemist?
Dec20

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.” In the NSF’s survey of Ph.D. recipients in 2003, the median time to the degree in chemistry in the US was six years. In fact, chemists beat out Ph.D.s in math, physics and astronomy, and biological science, who had a median of seven years to completion. It would be wonderful, of course, both for students and for...

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25 years of American Chemical Society goodness
Oct22

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. 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 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...

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Coping with the ups and downs of being in transition
May17

Coping with the ups and downs of being in transition

In the months since my former employer and I parted ways due to the closure of the site where I worked, there have certainly been some highs and lows. My then-colleagues and I were all forewarned of the impending emotional rollercoaster when the fate of our site was announced. Counseling was made available to us, and we’ve supported each other in various ways ever since. Still, it’s been a toll on our collective psyches, unquestionably. The worst part, for me, has been the knowledge that I’m competing with former colleagues for positions. I guess this is really nothing new—we’re always competing against our coworkers. This is especially true around performance review time, and further amplified if there’s a forced distribution for ratings. Now, however, the stakes are particularly high. There’s no perfect outcome, it seems. If they get the job, you’re left in the cold. If you get the job, you’re happy, but there’s still some associated survivor guilt. But maybe that’s just me. We were all put in the same boat. I prefer to think that we’re all wishing the best for everyone, including ourselves. I don’t believe anyone would deliberately sabotage a former colleague’s chance of success to secure their next position. Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Pollyanna—although I do bear a striking resemblance to Hayley Mills (…he said, exposing his age demographic—and a need for some form of corrective eyewear). The best part has been the ability to reflect and decompress—to recharge my batteries while trying to decide what I want to do next. I’ve been engaged in professional development activities (like project management training), networking meetings of various kinds, and working with an outplacement agency. I’m just trying to stay active—physically and mentally. I’m having a great time contributing to this blog. As a result, I’ve been able to get to know some terrific and talented people that I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise. If you find yourself in a similar period of transition, I really feel for you. If you have the luxury, some time for self-reflection can be very valuable. Take a mental inventory of what you want to find or avoid in your next position. I hope you’ll rediscover, as I have, that you have an abundance of transferable skills, and you can envision a fulfilling position in many fields. The chorus of advice for people in transition is to use this time to find your dream job. Well, my last job was a dream job. But, really, that’s not a problem. You see, I believe I have more than one dream…and I hope you’ll find that you do,...

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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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