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In the lead story of C&EN’s annual employment package, Senior Editor Susan Ainsworth surveys the employment landscape for chemists and finds reasons to believe that bleakness is giving way to a few rays of hope. Even though the outlook is tepid, chemists can take solace that the massive downsizings of the past few years seem to be waning.

This year’s survey coincides with the ACS Virtual Career Fair on Nov. 2–3. At this event, Ainsworth and C&EN Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum will discuss the job prospects for chemists and how to prepare for what’s ahead. You can join them and participate in the rest of the fair by registering at presentations.inxpo.com/Shows/UBM/ACS/HTML.

Coincidentally, as we were producing this week’s issue, I attended a career symposium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Mole Day, Oct. 23. The event, organized by the Younger Chemists Committee of the ACS Wisconsin Section, attracted 138 postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads, as well as one high school student. They came from Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa. They listened to a mix of speakers, including me, who brought perspectives from industry, academia, government labs, and alternative careers.

Speakers emphasized the same themes: A chemistry education can be forged into many career outcomes; the paths to satisfying careers are varied; good communication skills and lifelong learning will open windows when a door shuts.

Emily Wixson shared that her fondness for people, language, and communication marries well with her love for problem solving, experimentation, and observation—skills that a chemistry education cultivates—in her role as a senior academic librarian at UW Madison’s chemistry library. Yet she is among many science librarians who don’t have a science degree. Early in her career, she realized that her English degree would not be enough to maintain a science librarianship career so she took various science courses, including chemistry. “A chemistry degree opens the door to most science library positions,” she said.

When teaching high school chemistry didn’t work out for Brittland DeKorver, she channeled her B.A. in chemistry into an unusual position at UW Madison’s Institute for Chemical Education. As an outreach specialist, she coordinates after-school science clubs, plans outreach events such as National Chemistry Week, and advises a student organization that is devoted to informal science education. In explaining the challenges of her job, she said, “Imagine explaining chemical concepts to a seven-year-old, who doesn’t have the vocabulary or the ability to think in the abstract.”

Steven Sobek, laboratory director for the Bureau of Laboratory Services, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection, brought welcome news: “There will be jobs opening for analytical chemists in government labs in the next four to six years because of many staff retiring.” Offering encouragement in the midst of the difficult job market, Sobek said, “Skills learned in the sciences—mathematical reasoning, problem solving, logic, and understanding the complex—are transferable” to numerous positions. But to compete effectively, he added, job seekers “must also develop the soft skills of communicating and collaborating.”

And Victoria Sutton, an intellectual property associate at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, emphasized that federal internship programs, such as the Emerging Leaders Program of the Department of Health & Human Services and the Presidential Management Fellows Program, can lead to government careers.

The students I spoke with said they appreciated hearing about the many ways chemistry-educated people work. The different perspectives, they said, will help them plan the next step in their education. They praised the symposium organizers—UW Madison chemistry graduate students Benjamin Bratton, Michelle Cooperrider, Christine McInnis, Danielle Stacy, Eugenia Turov, and Gene Wong—for an informative and engaging symposium. For everyone, participating in the symposium was a good way to spend Mole Day in Madison.

5 Comments

  • Nov 3rd 201008:11
    by Postdoc

    “There will be jobs opening for analytical chemists in government labs in the next four to six years because of many staff retiring.”

    Isn’t this exactly what was told to people 20 years ago about faculty positions?

  • Nov 3rd 201009:11
    by Maureen Rouhi

    Sorry, postdoc, I have no personal knowledge of the predictions for faculty positions 20 years ago. What I’m hearing is that work for chemists is available in government labs and agencies and that the federal government is a good employer.

  • Nov 4th 201013:11
    by Fenton Heirtzler

    Maureen, you write: “What I’m hearing is that work for chemists is available in government labs and agencies and that the federal government is a good employer.”. Actually, I am surprised to see you make a blanket statement like that. Especially since you are following the discussion that I started on LinkedIn:

    (1) short-term jobs at federal labs for PhD chemists are known as post-doctoral appointments. If the PhD chemist is more than three to four years past his/her doctorate, then they are not allowed to apply. I met several chemists at the virtual career fair working in menial jobs (Starbucks, cleaning service) who would nevertheless be glad for a temp job with the federal gov’t where they could acquire new skills (myself included)

    (2) Many of the job posting listed on USA jobs -especially those for the armed services – are nothing more than resume collection exercises: there are no jobs. I have already corrected another ACS blogger on her statement in this regard.

    (3) Ironically, the career fair that you attended was at Madison WI. The same location as a certain ACS presidential candidate who has demonstrated on paper his lack of interest in the employment situation for the American chemist.

  • Nov 4th 201014:11
    by Maureen Rouhi

    Given the job market especially for Ph.D.s, do you think chemists should not go to grad school? What about those in other physical science disciplines?

  • Nov 4th 201021:11
    by Fenton Heirtzler

    That is a very good question that you raise. Thank you for soliciting my opinion. This is a question for which it may be challenging to find a well thought-out and honest response.

    I am a volunteer scientist at a smaller university on the East Coast, where there is a significant cohort of chemistry undergraduates. They approach me because they see that I’m actually doing “real” research, and inquire about either research projects (great!) or career advice.

    In my answer to them, I firstly explain that the job market for PhD chemists is becoming very thin and that this is a long-term trend over the past 30 years that has little to do with the current Great Recession. I advise them to already think about what they would do with a doctorate in Chemistry. I tell them that if they wish to stay in chemical research, then they will need to have a doctorate from a prestigious university with a high-profile research director. Or that should at least be the case when they do a post-doc. If the student chooses to follow this path, but can’t get into Harvard et al, then it might be a good idea to consider one of the other two options that I describe below.

    On the other hand, you if can’t get into an elite graduate program (for whatever reason) but still love the subject or think it’s “cool” then you should treat getting a PhD in Chemistry like getting a graduate degree in Art History, French Literature or Psychology. In other words, do it somewhere that you like and chose a research director based on one’s personal resonance with the person. But there will be very limited opportunities to work in the field afterward. Under those circumstances, I would suggest _insisting_ on having the time during the graduate degree program to study a minor (e.g., business, health sciences etc.) so that you will have some options afterward. Some, but not by any means all, research directors help their former students find real positions. Check the track record of the person for whom you wish to work before joining the group. Speak to _former_ graduate students, if possible. If the former students have just moved on to post-doc positions, then take that with a grain of salt. Don’t assume that if you put in 60 hours a week for a research director that s/he will help you find a job afterward.

    The third option is, of course to seek work with a BSc or MSc degree, so that one is not priced out of the job market. Companies hire “hands” more readily than “brains”. In contrast to what many graduate programs will suggest, leaving a graduate program with an MSc and not completing a doctorate is _not_ a stigma.

    If you wish to inform yourself about the situation for organic chemistry graduate students who aspire to work for “Big Pharma”, I suggest reading the brief article titled “Could big pharma fill its openings with only elite groups’ students?”, at http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2010/10/could-big-pharma-fill-its-openings-with.html

    The situation that I describe may sound brutal, but it’s also pretty close to the truth.

    My limited information suggests that analytical chemistry is still a relatively safe bet for a job after the PhD. But I can’t speak for the situation in other branches of the physical sciences.

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