Friday, May 22, 2015

The best idea I've had in a while: instrument user manuals in graphic novel form.

Credit: @badphysics
Surely someone could come up with a great primer on running an Agilent 1100 in comic form. Until then, Peanuts comic strips will do. (comics annotation by @badphysics.)

XA: "I made it through only because I got help...."

Our second story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "XA." It has been redacted for privacy.
The comment about “STEM Propaganda” caught my attention immediately, as I definitely feel I was fed a lot of propaganda in undergrad. For me, graduate school was an almost automatic step because I knew I wanted to teach chemistry at the college level. I felt well prepared because I had done well in undergraduate coursework, although in retrospect my undergraduate research should’ve thrown up red flags (turning an RBF of bromosilane into a literal pyrophoric firebomb was probably the low point). Earning a poor grade—and yes, I earned every bit of that poor grade—in Advanced Organic Chemistry Lab was another red flag. 
I started in graduate school with blinders on, pointed directly at the post labeled “organic synthesis.” I worked my ass off to do well in classes—one story that stands out in my mind is the day I forced myself to memorize something like twenty different aldol methods. “This sucks,” I thought, “but I guess this is just what graduate school is.” I joined the research group of [Very Prominent Professor] who was well known to be extremely demanding. Upon starting research I realized that no, coursework is nothing like what you’re expected to do in the lab. The chasm between coursework and research both seduced and misled me, and I would encourage any young students to look very carefully at the nature of coursework and how (if?!) it promotes research skills. Places like Scripps do this really well; my sense is that most places do it horribly. 
I chugged along in research for a few months at an embarrassingly slow pace, sliding incrementally deeper into depression. Pardon the metaphor, but it felt like the activation energy associated with graduate school was climbing ever higher, and that I was not going to be able to get over the hump. Though I was very passionate about teaching, teaching at the college level just felt out of reach. Resigned to my fate, I walked into [VPP]’s office fully intent on leaving graduate school. Miraculously, in a move that instantly restored my faith in humanity, he compelled me not to leave, but to look for other options within the department. He was literally the catalyst that threw my ass over the hump. 
Ultimately I ended up switching research groups and working on research projects that were much better aligned with my long-term goals than organic synthesis. In my new group, my advisor was upfront about his lack of knowledge about my work, but didn’t aggressively question or put down the work. Some might say I got lucky; however, in retrospect many of the same things that were true in my first research group were also true in my second. I was still basically on my own. 
It took a great deal of maturation for me to come to grips with what graduate school entailed. I tell students regularly that I wish I’d waited a few years to start graduate school. That said, there’s a certain “delusions of grandeur” mindset that comes with being a graduate student in chemistry, and my sense is that most survive, rather than thrive. The system is broken at many universities, and in my experience it boils down to too little focus on developing research skills in coursework. I spent too many years aping my professors and not enough getting comfortable with doing science. I made it through only because (a) I got help from [VPP] and (b) I matured enough to set my own expectations.
Thanks to XA for their story. Readers, if you're interested in sharing your story of staying or leaving graduate school in chemistry, please e-mail me at

"PF": "I'm glad I stuck it out."

Our first story of staying in chemistry graduate school comes from "PF"; it has been edited for privacy: 
I did my first degree at [Very Prominent UK University], and in those days ([the early 1980s]) [VPUU] was one of the few Universities that did a 4-year Bachelor's course, of which the last year was a research year, culminating in a thesis, which was regarded by other universities as equivalent to a Master's. I had done very badly in my final exams, and was on the borderline between a second and a third class degree on the basis of my exam results (my P-Chem let me down, but I had done well in my Organic and Inorganic exams. Ironic, because I really enjoyed spectroscopy, thermodynamics and quantum chem. Oh well!).  
I realized that I needed to work really hard in my fourth year if I was to have any chance of coming out with a second and going on to do a Ph.D. I was very fortunate in my Research Instructor. He was a new recruit, and keen to make a name for himself at [VPUU]. I got an interesting synthesis project to work on, trying to make the carbon skeleton of [well-known natural product class], and I put as much time in at the lab as I could. I got on well with my supervisor, and he advised me to apply to various universities to do a Ph.D. in Organic synthesis.  
I applied to many universities, and was rejected by all but one ([another UK university],my supervisor's alma mater). I got in there, to work on a project sponsored by [Famous Pharma Company]. I did a summer internship at [FPC], and started work at [UK university] in September [redacted], working on the [project P] until [late 1987.]
Sadly, I became very disillusioned with my Ph.D project, and almost quit. I managed to piss my [FPC] supervisors off so much they withheld my grant money for my last term. My supervisor, a really nice guy who had been very tolerant, told me that in all honesty he couldn't recommend me for a post-doc as I was too unreliable (ie I spent too much time in the pub and not enough in the lab). 
My parents persuaded me to come home and write up my thesis, which took me a year, spending about 4 hrs a day (I was so fed up with the whole thing that was as much as I could manage). At that stage I never wanted to do any research work again, so I decided to do a PGCE (a bit like an education diploma) and tried teaching High School chemistry for a year. I hated that too, so in 1991 I got an entry-level job (for a Ph.D chemist) in the chemical industry at [UK fine chemical company]. 
And the rest is history. I'm glad I stuck it out. But I had certain advantages that many of the people who posted their stories did not. My project was well-defined, if dull. The data I collected on the various substituent and protecting group effects was all valid data, so it went into my (rather short) thesis. My supervisor was very tolerant, and did everything he could to make sure I got my Ph.D. And I worked with a friendly group of people (which was part of the reason I spent so much time in the pub). 
So I guess you could file this under "why I almost quit Grad School but didn't". I'm glad I didn't. My Ph.D. eventually allowed me to get a pretty well-paid job in the US, and allowed my wife and me to enjoy a much higher standard of living than we would have had in the UK.
Thanks to PF for their story. 

Request: "I Stayed in Graduate School in Chemistry"

A while back, Tehshik Yoon complimented the "I Quit Graduate School in Chemistry" pieces, but asked for stories where people indeed stayed in graduate school, they overcame a challenge and it worked out for them.

I am not done posting "I Quit" stories -- I still have four or five to edit and post. But now that @chemtips has gone and written about the series (for which I thank him), I feel duty-bound to invite success stories as Professor Yoon asked for them:
...So I’d really like to hear some success stories as well.  Tell me about times that the system worked: folks who had a hard time in grad school but ended up in good places; mentors who did the right thing by their students; stories of women, minorities, and LGBT students being supported by the field.
So, with that, I am asking for those stories, or any of them that you choose to post. E-mail them to - confidentiality guaranteed. Also, I am posting the first two in that series today. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Daily Pump Trap: 5/21/15 edition

Been a while. Let's look at a few of the positions on C&EN Jobs in the last two weeks or so. 

Newark, DE: I've never heard of Taghleef Industries, but they're looking for an analytical chemist with experience in the polymer industry.

Foster City, CA: A couple of EH&S positions posted by Gilead, too.

Process positions!: One in Seattle (B.S./M.S./Ph.D., looks like), and two at DuPont Crop Protection in Newark, DE.

Rockville, MD: Someday, I'd like to understand what USP does better - anyway, they're looking for some reference standards scientists.

Cambridge, MA: I see that Warp Drive Bio is hiring Ph.D.-level medicinal chemists.

IP land: Steinfl and Bruno (Pasadena, CA) posting their usual position; a couple from the mellifluously-named Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Milton, DE: Dogfish Head looking for a quality manager.

I don't get it: Why would an energetic materials chemist (Virginia Beach, VA) need a biology background?:
Point One USA, LLC is seeking an entry level chemist (Bachelors Degree) or senior level chemistry student (Internship). The ideal candidate will have completed organic chemistry I and II with relevant lab experience. Candidates with a strong biology background will have preference. Candidates must be willing to work with hazardous materials (including energetic materials) under the guidance of an experienced chemist. Job duties will include maintaining chemical and consumable stock, setting up mock laboratories, and assisting Point One employees with chemistry and biology related tasks in addition to any other general tasks. 
- Must have completed at least 3 yrs of college in a relevant field.
- Must be willing to relocate to Virginia Beach.

Job posting: fluorine chemist, Synquest, Gainesville, FL

As my eyes were going to and fro on the Internet, a job posting from one of my long-ago favorite suppliers. Synquest is looking for a fluorine research chemist:
SynQuest Laboratories, Inc. (SQL) has an opening for an entry level fluorine chemist in our research group. The successful candidate will have an advanced degree in fluorine chemistry. The ideal candidate will have experience in the safe handling of toxic and corrosive fluorinating agents (such as F2, HF and SF4) and familiarity with autoclaves and high pressure equipment. A passion for organofluorine chemistry is a must, as is the ability to independently plan, troubleshoot and successfully execute efficient synthetic routes to target compounds in a timely manner.
Best wishes to those interested.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

pl pll pirn bpa pscale: How much is Bruker charging these days?

A while back, I noted the news that Agilent was going to stop manufacturing Varian NMRs. Marc Reisch and Jyllian Kemsley's article in C&EN suggested that there would be some pricing repercussions from the sole NMR manufacturer left in the business, Bruker:
In response to an analyst’s question about whether Bruker would take the opportunity to raise NMR prices with Agilent gone, Laukien indicated that prices would indeed rise. “Historically, there had been, in some cases, just very aggressive discounting. I think that may abate quite a bit,” he said.
This morning on Twitter, Cornell professor Dave Collum suggested that I write about Bruker pricing and how it has changed since Agilent has announced its departure. So, I am asking you, dear readers, if you've heard any rumblings about how Bruker's pricing has changed in the last year or two...

A useful bad idea from me: isn't there some consortium of universities, government research centers and the like that could band together and purchase the Varian NMR division from Agilent and run it as basically a non-profit, just so Bruker would have a competitor (other than JEOL, that is?) Surely, this would be a boondoggle, but there might be some good from it.

So, anyone want to go into the NMR manufacturing business? 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Job postings: GSK positions, King of Prussia, PA; Pfizer, Groton, CT

From the inbox, a few positions. First, two from GSK (their King of Prussia site)
Second, from the inbox via a respected reader, Pfizer is looking for Ph.D. synthetic chemists at their Groton site (job code 1013706). (Click on this link, click on "Advanced Search", enter "1013706", click on search. Yeah, I know.)

(You know how I know that we're not there yet with synthetic chemistry positions in the United States? "Postdoctoral experience strongly recommended" for that Pfizer position. Of course, Pfizer can pretty much name its price.)

What happens when a PI leaves for industry?

An interesting question from the Chemistry Reddit:
So, I was wondering if any of you can give me some solid advice as to how I should proceed with my current situation. 
Basically, my research advisor is leaving this July for a full time job in industry leaving his entire lab to fend for themselves. 
I am currently working on a project that I was going to use for my undergrad thesis defense this Fall, but I'm not sure if I can finish my project before this July. 
So, should I go to another lab this Fall and finish this s--t show of a project or just start completely new and defend in the Spring, new project and all? Thanks!
This is an interesting and rather unusual question. Most of the time, advisors leave research institutions, and the choice that graduate students face is: do I stay or do I go?

In this case, the advisor is taking no one with them -- now, then, what should happen? One hopes (just as in the case of more tragic circumstances), the department usually steps in and takes care of the students. Undergraduates are probably less looked after than graduate students, but I don't know.

Readers, any experience with these situations? 

Monday, May 18, 2015

With apologies to the author of Ecclesiastes

1 Do much research on your purifications and recrystallizations;
    after many days you may see some crystals.
2 Experiment with seven solvents, yes, in eight;
    you do not know what impurities may come upon the process.

reference here. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Joke of the weekend: "what, and leave chemistry?"

A favorite joke of mine:
A guy works in the circus, following the elephants with a pail and shovel. He absolutely hates his job, and is always complaining about the lack of career prospects, the lousy pay, etc etc etc. One day, his brother comes to see him. He says, “Sam, I’ve got great news. I’ve got you a job in my office. You’ll wear a suit and tie, work regular hours, and start at a nice salary. How about it? Sam says, “What? And give up show business?"

Friday, May 15, 2015

There Are Not Too Many Astronauts

A few weeks ago, a Future of Research symposium was held in Boston - this is a gathering of graduate students and postdocs who are concerned about scientific workforce issues. They had Boston University's Greg Petsko as a speaker; a good choice, I think, because Professor Petsko has been very prominent talking about postdoc issues.

A good summary of his current position is that graduate school in the sciences is great job training for other fields, but that the number of postdocs should be sharply limited. Here's how he presented it at the recent conference:
There Are Not Too Many Graduate Students
  • We are not training too many graduate students in STEM subjects. A Ph.D. in the sciences is superb training for dozens of different fields, including journalism, public policy, law, business and consulting, many (perhaps most) of which do not require postdoctoral research training. 
Suffice it to say that I found this statement rather surprising. @kmcld99 on Twitter pointed out:
Ridiculous. Astronauts have tons of transferable skills; doesn't mean we need to train more astronauts.
So, thanks to @kmcld99, I now present my version of Professor Petsko's slide. I plan to apply for astronaut selection myself - I hear it's a growth field.

University of Minnesota organizing a graduate student symposium at ACS Boston

From the inbox:
The American Chemical Society (ACS) and the University of Minnesota are pleased to host the fall 2015 Graduate Student Symposium, "Academic Innovations for Tomorrow's Industries," at the 250th ACS National Meeting and Exposition in Boston, Massachusetts. This symposium will highlight how academia can use commercialization as a mechanism for bringing the rewards of research to the world. The invited speakers will discuss the research that lead to the establishment of their successful companies and the exciting recent advancements coming from their groups.
More details here. There's an opportunity for a travel grant, as well as an opportunity to organize the fall 2016 graduate student symposium.