Monday, October 4, 2010

A crazy idea: a Draft Advisory Board for chemistry

In the middle of the Scott Kern thread (50+ comments and counting!), a discussion about the difference between M.S. and Ph.D. scientists broke out. While I don't wish to relitigate the issue, it touches tangentially on something that I've been wondering for a while: how does a young grad student know 1) if he or she should get a Ph.D. and 2) if (s)he gets a Ph.D., how do they know if they will get a job?

Allow me to go on a tangent for a bit: the NFL draws most of its players from college football. If a college football player enters the draft, that player is no longer eligible to play in college. Faced with such an irreversible decision, the NFL has instituted the Draft Advisory Board, which can advise a college football player if the player will or will not be drafted and where he will go in the draft. While the recommendations of the board can be ignored by the player, the board has apparently proven to be fairly accurate.

Why isn't there a similar board run by ACS? The decision to get a Ph.D. is more or less equally irreversible. You could get somewhat senior people from industry (group-leader level) and having them anonymously review (anonymous?) CVs and research summaries. They would answer one question only: how does the student's credentials compare to that of recently hired employees? You could imagine any number of possible recommendation rubrics, but I'd go with: not likely to be hired / average candidate / above-average candidate.

This is something that you'd think would be good: students can't really rely on their peers for such recommendations. While faculty members are going to be fairly accurate at their guesses, there's conflict-of-interest and privacy issues that might push a student to want a 2nd (or 3rd) opinion. While I'm not entirely convinced* of the "Ph.D. glut" theory, this board might be a way of alleviating that problem, too.

Readers, what do you think? Tell me how wrong I am, please.

*Meaning that I haven't looked at the data and/or given it enough thought to have a real opinion.


  1. Probably not a useful idea.

    I thought the NFL's DAB was created to prevent college athletes from making a mistake in foregoing their NCAA eligibility to enter the NFL draft, only to go undrafted and unable to return to college football. The analogy would be to take a third or fourth year Ph.D. candidate and ask whether she should remain in grad school to get a Ph.D. or just enter the workforce as an M.S. After that long in grad school, you probably don't need the advice of an advisory board to figure out what to do.

    As for preventing people from making a mistake by entering grad school in the first place, that would be hard for an advisory board to judge after undergrad. Grad school draws on a completely different skill set than college. I can (but won't) name two huge academic superstars who are under 50 and would have, with near certainty, been advised against grad school based on their academic record from college.

  2. "After that long in grad school, you probably don't need the advice of an advisory board to figure out what to do."

    You're probably right. That said, it doesn't hurt to get the skinny from the experts available to you.

  3. It's to the advantage of industry to have a glut of candidates from which to chose for the available PhD-level positions in industry. And so the logic of such a board is not clear, at least to me. The Brits call it "appointing the goat to be gardner"

  4. Hey, on an unrelated (?) matter, a discussion on the pedigree-specific hiring preferences of specific "big chemistry" companies would be helpful.

  5. You think the professors are the only one having a conflict of interest in giving the advice? ACS is the ultimate douche factory

  6. 3 thumbs down already -- probably a bad idea.

    But seriously, milkshake, who else is going to step up here? You can't trust the academics 100% (oh, yeah, you'll get hired, no problem!) and the industrial folks are the experts. Under whose umbrella would we do this other than ACS?

    (Of course, you could have another organization, but I'm not interested in starting that on my own. This, a small group could handle, I'd think)

  7. I think it's an ok idea, but the "goat tending the garden analogy" is pretty accurate. Also, nobody gave a damn about this problem when we were swimming in research positions. Research burn outs were promoted and had their MBAs paid for!

    That said, the ACS has built itself up as a powerhouse of prestige on the backs of "flaky" Ph.D. students. The establishment says, "let them eat cake" when any of these plebeians want dignity at the end of the tunnel.

    I like you chemjobber am stumped. Sadly, I think the best thing to do will be to wait it out. I'm pretty sure that, either the chemistry market will correct itself (to great peril of the state of research in this country), or we go back to work. I'm hoping that in five years, it will be like "nothing happened at all."

  8. Chemjobber, I don't think that pursuing the PhD is an "irreversible" decision. Half of my cohort left with Masters; some got knocked up & didn't want to work w/ teratogens, others realized that they wanted to do something else. I do think it's a shame that most graduate programs have scuttled the terminal Masters programs, thereby relegating the once-respected Masters degree to "concession prize" status. However, there are a few MSEd programs (Columbia & Penn come to mind) that are geared toward producing chemistry teachers. Furthermore, I feel that organic PhD programs have become watered-down in terms of their educational demands, forcing students into the pissing contest of who can fill out the most notebooks rather than have breadth & depth in the field. For example, most have gotten rid of competency, foreign language, & cume exams. I'm not a Germanophile, but I thought that Columbia's now-defunct German requirement was a charming quirk. As a result of this "watering-down" & over-specialization, the once-Renaissance Men & Women of organic chemistry are becoming mere PhD cogs on the molecular assembly line. If we have nothing more to offer than outsource-prone labor, should we really be surprised when job prospects become scarce?

    Feedback, positive or negative? Lavoisier

  9. I would say getting out of PhD program with masters is pretty irreversible and not the other way around. One can toy with the idea of going back to grad school but it is not that easy just after you left/were pushed out of a grad program - and as the years go by it gets progressively harder. Maybe a degree in another field would be easier to get - a chemistry friend of mine wound up in jail for dealing contraband OxyConting to support his own habit (which ended his grad school). He tried to apply back into the same chemistry program later but there were no takers - even after staying sober and straight for several years. Yet the business school at the same Uni was very happy to have him. He will be rich one day soon, he is a natural businessman.

  10. Another anonymous poasterOctober 4, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    When I was in grad school I TA'd a master's internship program over the summer, where MS students would take intensive class and lab courses, then do an industrial internship during the academic year. I think most of them are now employed full time, usually with the company they interned for. So it's definitely not a dead end IF you navigate it right. Given the choice to do it over again, I might have taken that road if I knew the job prospects were better. An advisory board might be helpful, but they'd have to actually have the students' best interests in mind, and we all know how common that is...

  11. I just don't see the same dynamics (i.e., money) here as in sports. The agents had everything to gain and nothing to lose by pushing a kid into the draft, but there is nothing like that in (or external to) the Ph.D.

    A carzy idea, but not a bad one. (Bad crazy?)

  12. @Chemjobber: who says you have to return to the same grad school? I know three people who left one program with drop-out masters and reinitiated their PhDs @ other schools. As far as advisory boards go, they might be more pertinent to undergrads @ small colleges who aren't exposed to all the ugliness of grad school research. As an undergrad @ an R1 university, the grad students and postdoc did more than enough to discourage me from getting the PhD. I still went to grad school, so I can't blame my former mentors for misleading me.

  13. @Lavoisier: Graduating with a Ph.D. basically means that you're overqualified for any master's-level job. True? That's what I mean by irreversible.

    @A9:19a: I don't think it was me that said that. As for reinitiation, it's cool, but you've probably (at minimum) burned 2 years that you can't get back.

  14. master-level job in pharma basically means rather independent research done by a career-crippled scientist - someone who cannot be promoted above a certain level in the lab. The main reason why PhD usually do not get hired for MS jobs (even if they are hardworking and willing to take the pay cut) is the concern that they would not be content in the subordinate role in the longer run, that they would fight for getting a credit for their own ideas and bench work, and, God forbid, may even one day want to become a PI. No boss likes to hire his own potential replacement.

  15. A glut should be evaluated by the price vs. cost.

    1) What is the price of a newly minted PhD over time? Adjusted for inflation a newly minted PhD's pay has gone down significantly over the years. Post-docs are an attempt to cover up that decline by trying to extend the "training" period. Check out the RAND Corp study on that.

    2) Does the price of a PhD cover the cost (lost opportunities + loans) over time? Again, another no. Check out the PhDollars article for more info.

    There is obviously a glut just by using the price level as an objective measure. The use of ads is not very objective and doesn't control for many variables. Nice attempt though.

    There is a glut.

  16. @A3:08:

    Thanks for the substantive comments; feel free to leave a link to your studies in the comments or e-mail them to chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom.

    Assuming that the price level data is accurate, I would agree that it is a data point in favor of the glut theory.

    As for measuring ads, it is not meant as a measure of supply of PhDs. It is meant as an imperfect, but open, measure of labor demand.

  17. @ milkshake:
    "master-level job in pharma basically means rather independent research done by a career-crippled scientist - someone who cannot be promoted above a certain level in the lab"

    Very clear and accurate description. Add to that the much increased "disposability" factor of MS chemists. MS careers seem to have a much shorter expiration date than PhDs. If you get laid-off after the age of 40 you are going to have a tough time finding a similar position. PIs want someone "fresh" that they can 'mold' into their own personal mini-me.

  18. RAND Corp. Study: "Is There A Shortage Scientists And Engineers?"

    Science Magazine: "Ph.Dollars: Does Grad School Make Financial Sense?"

    The raw data for the Science article is here:

    Feel free to comb through those data tables if you are still feeling optimistic. Science is kind of like U.S. farming now. It produces a massive excess of product, that is bought by the government (in the form of post-docs/longer PhD programs), performed by desperate immigrants in crappy conditions and justified by fear, ex: "We're getting behind in science!!"

    We justify crop subsidies for "security", another form of fear mongering. Science is a classic example of govt subsidized oversupply. The PI's ( are just like the farmers. Afraid to lose those subsidies, so they use fear mongering to keep the dough rolling in.

  19. @Chemjobber: What is your take on this assessment regarding the PhD path?

    Anyway, a "crisis of faith" has been happening in the chemistry since you and I were playing on the Nintendo 8-Bit. (Free ACS articles!)

    Although the older article is skewed positively, it doesn't take into account that most BS Chemists end up leaving benchwork and moving into more lucrative careers. Unfortunately for us industrial chemists, our continued employment depends on the decisions of those who, by difference in education and career path, don't empathesize with us.

    Thanks again for running this blog and putting up with the daily bitchfest.


  20. Lavoisier again. Note that in both "Provocative Opinion" ACS Articles, immediate employment at Age 26 is assumed and that a 5% annual salary is assumed following graduation. Do you know of any 26-year old, non-postdoc PhDs working in industry? Also, how common is the 5% annual salary increase in any profession these days? It's very disheartening to see that most of my postdoc friends (aged 28-35) aren't even making $64,420.20 (what $45,000 in 1995 is worth in 2010). See the link to the nifty CPI Inflation Calculator Below:

  21. Lavoisier (my thoughts exactly)

    Sooooo ... the death of middle class greatly impacts those that invested heavily in education? This is exacerbated by the overabundance of self inflated martyrs in our field just being the blowhards that they are?

    What really hurts is the advert on the bus on the way to my postdoc "kids who do well in math and science get better jobs." Of course, my crap postdoc salary is quite good for people my age, unless they are insider traders.

    Sadly, it's easy to understand why we are turning into a bunch of headcases. Though we are special we aren't THAT special. I mean, look on the bright side, we could have just graduated from law school (to be run of the mill lawyers and not lucrative patent attorneys.)

  22. Internships!

    Poaster at 8:10 AM commented that industrial internships were the way to go....I'd like to take it a step further....perhaps to suggest that this IS a form of Draft Advisory. A summer - or two - at a crucial point in your career, say, at the end of undergrad or after the first year of grad school (don't laugh, I know grads whose advisors pushed them to do this!), can really help people to see 1) what a successful PhD does all day, and 2) if they like the work.

    Once you've been exposed to your "potential future" this way, it's much easier to plot a course through grad school. Plus, as previously noted, it gives you another set of ears to run your ideas past, namely, the scientists who mentor you at the company.

  23. SF -- you know, you're probably right. I don't know how many PhDs end up this way, but I know this is a big thing for undergraduate hiring.

  24. @CJ

    Y'know, I was a 3x summer was at the last one that I decided to go to grad school, because I saw the PhDs got to have all the fun planning out the routes and targets!

  25. Oh, I meant to type "empathize".

    @Scripps Florida: Several of my classmates, despite having industrial experience, ended up leaving the PhD program and chemistry altogether. Also, during your internships did you notice a trend in academic pedigree with your PhD-level mentors? You've entered a close-knit (somewhat incestuous) subculture where who you know can override what you know. Anyway, it's refreshing to hear your enthusiasm for the science. It tempers the melancholy from the "older" crowd!

    @Jablonski: I hope that you're still having fun despite the meager salary. Anyway, hold on to your sanity...even if your kids(?) do well in math and science, at least they don't have to get jobs in those fields. (Actually, math might be a more employable major than chemistry!)

    Ever phosphorescent, Lavoisier

  26. CJ, I see the value of what you're saying, but as was mentioned in the other topic, until we get rid of this quitter/flunkie stigma of getting a Master's it's going to be hard work convincing some people that they shouldn't follow through all the way to Ph.D.

    Unfortunately, this is a problem that lies on the faculty to correct and they're more interested in the metric of how many students enter and successfully complete a Ph.D than how many of them end up with fulfilling careers.

  27. @Lavoisier.

    Sigh, the kid thing becomes more unlikely and less responsible given our circumstances and the world they are inheriting. The plus side, if my child was good at math, I'm sure he could figure out a way to short the register at Starbucks.

    Seriously ... we have got to figure something out.

  28. Chemjobber, I don't know if you've written on this before or if you take requests, but would you consider blogging about the alarming trend in protracted PhDs in the US? Well, at least I think it's alarming. I finished in 5 years, but a lot of my friends in the years below me are entering their 6th, 7th, even 8th year! They're not even MD-PhDs, just standard chem grad students. Some are using grad school as an economic shelter. Plus, I find it strange how chemistry PhDs in the 50s and 60s, when many groundbreaking studies were done, typically took only 3 years. Considering all the technological advances since then, why is it taking longer to get the same degree?

  29. I really think a lot of academics encourage the wrong people to go into grad school. You really have to love science to do a 6 year phd. The average in biosci is up around 7 years now and chem is not far behind. If you don't love it, those hours are gonna take a real toll on your mental and physical health. Even if you do love it a lot of people are getting burned out by the length and the expectations for work hours/productivity. I actually like the European Phds I've seen a lot more, get through with the education part, the first three years or so, the last few are essentially producing papers and honing. Do that producing as a post doc, because phds students are really students in name only late in their careers.

  30. I was a 2x summer intern with continued work each and every christmas and spring break and thanksgiving. I like the research and the long hours in the lab. I like that feeling of optimizing and getting 99% conversion or high-yields. Some folks spend their whole lives as cogs in a machine; welding or sand-blasting. They don't get to know the satisfaction of completing a study and waiting to see which journal will pick it up, wondering if their achievements will have some major impact for the next hundred years. There's something we do worth more than money. This is not merely a decision we should make based on cold hard cash, NO!

    There's only one reason we do Chemistry ladies and gentlemen; it's Dead Sexy!

    Long Live Florence and Her Flask!