The Future of Chemistry Jobs – Keep Reading and Commenting

Today marks the conclusion of a series of excellent blog discussions on the current state of the chemistry job market as led by Prof Matt Hartings at ScienceGeist (well, that’s who sent the press release), Chemjobber (opener and closer), Leigh Krietsch Boerner here at Just Another Electron Pusher, and Paul at ChemBark.

Here’s the quick list with descriptions from Matt:

• Monday, December 13: “We Are The Grist” at Chemjobber — an introduction to the topic and discussion of immediate ways to help clear the backlog of unemployed chemists

• Tuesday, December 14: “Too Many PhDs?” at Just Another Electron Pusher — an in-depth look at whether there are too many chemists on the job market

• Wednesday, December 15: “Time’s Up for Tenure” at Chembark — a critique of the current tenure system and how it influences academic competition

• Thursday, December 16: “How Do We Break This Cycle” at ScienceGeist — an overview of governmental policies related to science and technology and their impact on employment in these fields

• Friday, December 17: “The Future of Chemistry Jobs: Recap and Thanks” at Chemjobber — a summary of discussions initiated by each daily post.

I’ve had a bit of a different slant on the topics because I’m a pharmacologist who works with chemists rather than a card-carrying chemist (well, I do carry a ACS card). Many of the issues are shared across the sciences and an argument still exists as to whether we in the US are doing better or worse with unemployment relative to the national average.

The only place where I felt truly qualified to contribute was with my concern about ChemBark’s willingness to let tenure fall to the wayside. However, a discussion that emerged there and was addressed by Chemjobber was one threat that perhaps was not apparent to him in his R-1 institution: the proliferation of poorly-paid, no-benefit adjunct positions in chemistry departments at teaching-intensive institutions.

Loss of tenure would open the door to institutions that would willingly dump you for lack of extramural research funding and replace you and your teaching load with unemployed chemist educators at a total of 1/4 to 1/3 your salary. As universities have taken an unvarnished business approach over the last two decades, I do not trust higher administration at all institutions to act in the best interest of faculty and the discipline of chemistry when financial pressures come to roost. British contributors to the discussion did not feel this was a problem there where tenure was eliminated in the late 1980s.

As with any discussion about job prospects, particularly by academicians, is what constitutes a “chemistry job.” Not everyone will become a clone of their major professor, nor should they. We in academia need to be frank with our trainees, giving them education about non-academic careers while with us. With all of the talk of alternative careers, it is the tenure-track professor that is now in the minority across the professions of chemistry and the biomedical and physical sciences. Of course, it doesn’t help that non-academic jobs for chemists (i.e., industry, science communication) are facing the same pressures in this economic downturn.

It’s been a busy week for me and I really didn’t have the time to contribute to the discussions as I’d have liked. So, I’d suggest that you do what I’m going to do – tomorrow morning I’m going to go through all five posts in the list I have above and give some thought to what each blogger had to say. We’ll also have the opportunity to go through some very lengthy comment threads but don’t let that stop you from adding your own input. This is the beauty of the blogosphere and it is essential that this week’s efforts have the input from chemists across the spectrum of age and work setting.

Many thanks to all of the bloggers for putting this discussion together. Special thanks also go to our patriarch, Derek Lowe, for deploying his considerable blog muscle at In the Pipeline in support of this project.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Thanks David. We’d love to hear your (and your readers’) input!!


  2. I agree with ScienceGeist that the following article, “GE Goes With What it Knows, Making Stuff” is very significant:
    This article discusses what needs to change from a national perspective, and it is not just about chemists: “Many bought into the idea that America could go from a technology-based, export-oriented powerhouse to a services-led, consumption-based economy — and somehow still expect to prosper,” Mr. Immelt said in a typical speech last year before the Detroit Economic Club. “That idea was flat wrong.” He added: “Our economy tilted instead toward the quicker profits of financial services.”
    One of the commenters there mentioned the following Andy Grove article, which I also think is very important: In semiconductors, Intel made the investment back when GE backed off. Andy Grove discusses the importance of taking a long term view and the necessity of scaling “A new industry needs an effective ecosystem in which technology knowhow accumulates, experience builds on experience, and close relationships develop between supplier and customer. “ From an industrial point of view he points out that funds must be committed before much is known about the potential market.
    In this regard, I think that ScienceGeists “index investing” approach to science research is a very interesting proposal. It is not always possible for researchers to know the long term significance of their work. Funds must be committed in an effort to explore likely seeming possibilities, with flexibility, as more is known. To be right, we must risk being wrong.
    So this isn’t about chemistry, it is about national policy and national will. Again quoting Andy Grove:
    “Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better. “….”These {Asian} countries seem to understand that job creation must be the No. 1 objective of state economic policy. The government plays a strategic role in setting the priorities and arraying the forces and organization necessary to achieve this goal. “…”Long term, we need a job-centric economic theory—and job-centric political leadership—to guide our plans and actions. “
    A personal note: I once was employed as an analytical chemist at GE Semiconductor in Research Triangle Park, NC. Many years later, I now am a partner in a small startup.

  3. Hi, David — I’m glad you wrote it as “led by Prof. Matt Hartings”, because that’s really how I saw it, too. He did a very nice job of driving this forward.

  4. Also, I am very partial to BLS’ description of a chemist (SOC 19-2031):

    “Conduct qualitative and quantitative chemical analyses or chemical experiments in laboratories for quality or process control or to develop new products or knowledge.”

    That’s me, for the past 11 years.

  5. David and CJ, not sure I deserve that :)
    CJ came up with this idea during one of our conversations. I was just the pushy one!

    David, I also really appreciate your arguments for tenure. Seems that lots of decisions (on campus and in industry) are being made for purely short-term financial consequences. That’s been pretty degrading to our society as a whole.

  6. Well, you all did a fantastic job and it’s been great for me to expand my own science career counseling skills outside of pharmacology.

    Of course, I do have some general concerns about tenure when productivity languishes. The recent trend toward post-tenure review is a good one but only time will tell how this will influence the perception of “deadwood.” In some cases, that term is used to describe elder faculty colleagues who perhaps no longer have active research programs but who may still contribute to the university’s mission in other activities such as institutional committee work that an assistant professor wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. And then, indeed, there is some truly deadwood.

    Not to be too depressing but Deep Sea News blogger and marine biologist friend, Kevin Zelnio, tweeted yesterday about this article in The Economist that speaks toward some of our discussions, especially Leigh’s on the shortage/overabundance of PhDs:

  7. There is another way of looking at the (over) abundance of PhD graduates. I recall reading in C&EN ca. 40 years ago that compared to the quality of PhD graduates in the 1970s only a few percent worked at the level of PhDs who graduated in the 1930s.

    After WW2, the government realized that our technology was critical in our victory, and started pumping money into research. That begat science as a fund-derivied business. That drove a need for “hands in the labs.” In turn, that began the reward of PhDs for drones who were willing to work for cheap in exchange for a PhD, and it polluted the value for those of us who are students (not mere trainees).

  8. I don’t recall what I read in C&EN 30 years ago, but I do believe that some of JJM’s assertions warrant some statistical evaluation. As a baby boomer, I do know that as a student, I was told that the future in chemistry, and analytical chemistry in particular, was pretty rosy. But actually, that was probably based in part on my professors’ experiences which were based on University hiring patterns that in turn were predicated on expansions necessary to accommodate students like me. So, I think that the 1970′s were probably a pretty good time to have gotten a PhD and also likely to have been a great time to get a tenure track job.
    While I chose to opt out of a PhD program with a MS and head towards a position in government lab research, I certainly would not attack the integrity or competence of those who stayed. Some of them did hit economic slumps in the 1980′s and ended up in postdoc positions longer than they might have liked. This was not because they wanted to become drones, or were less competent than those who had been fortunate enough to get their PhD’s sooner. So, fast-forwarding to now, hiring is terrible (and BTW not just for chemists). But perhaps, just as many discouraged newly minted PhD’s are making negative noises to those about to enter the field, many of those older professors ought to be retiring.
    A lot of future prospects depend on the overall direction our country takes. De-industrialization affects everybody.

  9. Gaythia wrote “I don’t recall what I read in C&EN 30 years ago, but I do believe that some of JJM’s assertions warrant some statistical evaluation.”

    You are right, my comments were anecdotal and subject to confirmation bias. I had expressed the same ideas to a young assistant professor (a graduate of MIT) and he said it seemed the same at MIT, just less so.

    My point is that too many PhD students just want to get the degree in order to secure a routine job (basically, as a technician who can work somewhat independently), as opposed to those who want to advance chemistry. Another anecdote- a PhD student from my doctoral lab currently does day-in-day-out job of column chromatography to purify drugs. I can train a high school student to do that. That doesn’t show how low-level doctorates compete with scientists; but it does show that a PhD is only a ticket for a technician.

    My choice of the term “drone” was unfortunate. It is good that you pointed that out. I appreciate good technicians, I just don’t believe they should be given PhDs and competing for the small pool of real scientific jobs.

    If PhD-granting institutions were more discriminating, the supply/demand balance would shift towards the truly qualified PhDs.

    • I recently finished up my PhD doing some rather non-”drone” research (a project that two other postdocs were not able to complete) yet would love to obtain a low level technician job at this point. I live in the soon to be failed state of California (and am looking to get out). After about 11 months of sending out my resume my best job prospect is to be a lab tech I in a wastewater treatment facility. The only requirement is that I have at least an associates degree from a community college. I do not qulaify for the lab tech II spot b/c you need a year of experienece as a tech I first. Very likely I would be supervised by a lab tech II (someone with an associates degree). I wouild be much better off finding work with only a BS, and have considered omitting the PhD from my resume!