What a week of great discussion on chemistry jobs! We started at Chemjobber with his thoughts on the future of chemistry jobs, Leigh posted a wonderful analysis of the incoming supply of PhD chemists, Paul arrived with a full-throated attack on the tenure system, and Matt wrote an excellent post on the potential for industrial and science policy to solve some of our current and future employment woes.
We received quite a bit of support from other people in the Twitter/chemblogosphere, but the biggest amount of support that we’ve received is from you, the reader. We’ve all decided to recap our posts, talk about what we’ve learned from our writing and the many excellent comments we received.
Chemjobber: “We Are The Grist”
In Monday’s post, CJ talked about Beryl Lieff Benderly’s essay “The Real Science Gap” and three fundamental problems of the future of chemistry jobs: 1) that employment projections were moot because of the length of training/education, 2) that mid-career retraining is very difficult and 3) that there may be an informal selection process that culls chemists about ten years into their industrial career. CJ’s potential solutions: removing barriers to using postdoctoral fellowships for mid-career retraining (thanks, Fenton!) and publishing granular statistics on employment rates and employer expectations throughout a chemist’s career.
Readers were quite receptive to mid-career retraining with public/private partnerships. Also, commenters were interested in reworking graduate school and making it more of a “real job” (do they give free pizza at real jobs? I don’t think so!) Comments were also brewing with an alternative solution to employment difficulties: the restriction of scientist immigration into the United States. Overall, there were few defenders of the status quo.
Just Another Electron Pusher: “Too Many PhDs?”
With unemployed chemists hitting an all-time high in the last few years, many people have suggested that too many PhDs flooding the marketplace are at least partially to blame. Analyzing the NSF's latest survey of earned doctorates, I found that the number of PhDs in chemistry has indeed risen in the last 10 years, but data from the last five suggests that these new chemists aren't having a harder time finding jobs or post-docs. However, it's likely that there is a glut in some subject areas and a dearth in others. But until we get some hard data on PhDs awarded per subject area, and on the number of jobs available each year, whether we are producing too many PhDs will remain an unanswered question.
Commenters agreed that entering graduate students, or better yet undergrads, need to be properly informed on the job market before pursuing a doctoral degree. But whose responsibility this is, be it the student's, the school's, or the ACS's is still a matter for debate.
ChemBark: “Time’s Up for Tenure”
Over at ChemBark, Paul presented an editorial that lobbied for the replacement of academic tenure with a system based on renewable ten-year contracts. While both the editorial and commenters pointed out several advantages to the tenure system (e.g., academic freedom), Paul did not think they outweighed the costs (e.g., inability for schools to remove dead-weight). He also questioned if chemists today really use the freedom granted by tenure and if this liberty really protects freedom of inquiry since you have to win funding for your research anyway.
Commenters who dissented weighted the important of academic freedom much higher than Paul, and asserted that the population of deadwood professors is sparse. Quite a few people liked the idea of replacing tenure with relatively long contracts (e.g., 7-10 years) as a compromise that would provide some degree of job security and academic freedom without permanently restricting the ability of universities to restructure their faculties. There was also concern voiced in the comments that ending tenure would drive schools deeper into the practice of hiring faculties of adjuncts, who work for peanuts and don’t contribute to the creation of knowledge through research
ScienceGeist: “How Do We Break The Cycle?”
Because securing funding is one of the main incentives for PIs to take on large number of graduate students, it seemed obvious that we should explore the policy of research funding. Upon review of some of the most current commentary about the present and future of funding policy, ScienceGeist suggested that a new funding structure could be envisioned. It is hoped that a new platform might relieve some of the stress on PIs to produce large numbers of PhDs. The proposal worked off of the following tenets: a priority should be placed on producing useful technologies, it is impossible to predict where long-term, future growth will come from, involve the public in decision making, agencies need to be agile, and, where possible, get companies and venture firms invested so that jobs stay in the States. The solution presented included a broad-based research investment that was partly directed by the public along with a more directed investment in research that directly addressed the most pressing national research needs and worked in collaboration with industry.
Commenters debated on the need for a federal presence to maintain manufacturing capabilities in the US. Discussion also returned to the proposal of an industrial postdoc brought up in CJ’s post on Monday. Upon further refining, there was some agreement that staying away from large corporations and, instead, focusing on newer companies and smaller industries might be beneficial to overall employment prospects. Finally, ScienceGeist ended with a plea that chemists should get involved with determining the future of science policy; noting that if they do not, chemists will be on the outside looking in when the decisions about our future are being made.
Conclusion and thanks
One of our main goals during the formulation of this round table, aside from just voicing our observations of the employment situation that the mainstream media was continually contradicting, was to put in a good-faith effort to try and craft some legitimate solutions to the problems PhD chemists are facing. Knowing that the four of us would never be able to do this on our own, we put our trust in the online chemistry community to lend their voices and opinions to our conversation.
And the response that we received was overwhelming. At the end of each day, our proposals had been refined and optimized through the discussion threads that our readers were such a valuable part of. Also, we should note, we tried to bring this to the attention of a broad audience (chemists, science communicators, science policy workers), and we don’t really know if any of our messages made it out. But, we do know that forums like this are going to be worthwhile for directing the future of our field. (Also, the forums are a lot of fun. We had such a great time participating in this, and, judging by all of the comments that we received, our readers did as well.) We hope, and fully expect to see similar roundtables popping up in the future.
Our sincerest thanks to all of the support on Twitter, especially our friends at C&EN and Nature Chemistry. Also, our warmest thanks to Derek Lowe, who gave us fantastic levels of support on In The Pipeline.