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. Chemjobber was “surprised to see Ms. Jacobs comment on the decision of one scientist and mother to dissuade her daughter from going into science.” He was disappointed that Madeleine Jacobs limited her response to chastisement, and didn’t offer anything in the way of empathy, or propose any efforts the ACS could undertake to help mitigate the situation for its members. “It is almost as if she forgot that she was the Executive Director of the world's largest scientific society. It is almost as if she forgot that she is a person with much more influence than the average ACS member,” he wrote.

An all-too-familiar sign. Courtesy flickr user forwardstl

I can’t help but agree that Ms. Jacobs’ admonishment is both insensitive and unhelpful. Anyone who has, either firsthand or through a friend or loved one, experienced this cycle of layoffs and site closures can’t help but be at least a little bruised by it. So it’s understandable that views of the job market that paint a rosier picture than what we’ve experienced will be viewed skeptically, if not cynically. Oh, and we’re scientists, remember? We’re supposed to employ our critical thinking skills. Regarding the way the unemployment numbers have been presented—I was also under the impression that overlooking data that doesn’t support our beliefs is bad science. Those unemployment figures were among current ACS members. What about those chemists who have had to leave chemistry and are no longer dues-paying members? (And yes, I realize the ACS will waive dues for unemployed members.) Another complexity is that there are chemists, like myself, that no longer work for an employer that will pay their membership dues for professional societies or organizations. I paid my ACS renewal out of pocket last November, and I will likely continue to do so going forward—but apparently not because of words of encouragement from the ACS Board of Directors. Okay, enough snarkiness. There is one last bone I have to pick with another statement from Ms. Jacobs’ commentary:
“Indeed, industry has always employed the vast majority of chemical scientists, who can pursue many employment paths, especially if they are willing to use their talents in a wide variety of interdisciplinary scientific fields.”

Now do something really brave. Like hiring a chemist. Courtesy flickr user Ronan McGrane

It’s all well and good to urge someone to network and use their talents more broadly. However, I think this overlooks the crucial role of the will of the employer to be less risk-averse, not just the prospective employee. Perhaps this is an area where the influence of the ACS Board of Directors could be used to lobby US businesses to be bolder in their hiring practices. When I’ve been asked for advice (and people asking me for advice is a very dire economic indicator), I haven’t said give up on science or seek the Grail at all cost. My take has been somewhere in the middle—cover your bases. By that I mean have a well-rounded education. Take a class in a discipline outside your comfort zone. Business, for example. All this will add to your set of transferable skills and give you some perspective. Let me pause for a moment to point out that I’ve been in this game a long time—in my 25th year of ACS membership (hey, where’s my anniversary coffee mug?)—and I still love science. That love (okay, and a paycheck...and health insurance) gives me the motivation to commute 60 miles one way to my current position, spending around three hours on the road per day until I come home, pretty well spent. And I have it much, much easier than most of my former coworkers, whether still in, or now out of science. But we all have scar tissue. Please try to understand that, and display a little sensitivity.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenernst

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  1. If you search for “chemist” on the BLS website, the prospects for the immediate future don’t look too great either. To quote: “Employment of chemists and materials scientists is expected to increase by 4 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the average for all occupations” Average increase for all occupations over this period is projected as 14%.

  2. Chemistry needs more entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial chemists need more support from angel investors, academic departments, and incubators. Our culture needs to change. Young scientists should be thinking about making their own jobs from the first year of graduate school onward.

  3. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large.

    Not only that, but ACS members with PhDs have higher unemployment than PhD holders in general. And we’re not even talking about those in temporary positions (post-docs, etc.) Yikes.

  4. Aaron — You’re absolutely right. Chemistry curricula need to incorporate aspects of entrepreneurship as part of their core requirements, for undergraduate as well as post-graduate education. That way it won’t seem as foreign a concept to new graduates, and adaptation to the changing job marketplace should become easier.

  5. lost your job? few job prospects? “take more risk” (says the tax-payer subsidized, IP stealing capitalist) aka, provide me more “content” to eat.