Monday, December 13, 2010

We are the grist: "The Real Science Gap" and the present and future of industrial jobs in chemistry

Introduction

This blog roundtable about the future in jobs in chemistry stems from a discussion that Matt of ScienceGeist and I had about Beryl Lieff Benderly's article "The Real Science Gap." We decided to discuss the article and the broader problems with jobs in chemistry, gathering a group of like-minded chemistry bloggers. My contribution is today, Leigh is up tomorrow, Paul on Wednesday and Matt on Thursday.

Looking at “The Real Science Gap”, by Beryl Lieff Benderly  

In 1994, as an intern at a biology lab, I was warned by a hard-bitten postdoc that biomedical science was a hard place to make a living. "Don't do it, unless you can't find anywhere else to go" was his answer about a career as a life scientist. After a few attempts at attaining a tenure-track professorship, my cynical friend (now in his mid-forties) finally has a laboratory to call his own.  

Sixteen years later, Beryl Lieff Benderly's article "The Real Science Gap" (Miller-McCune, June 14, 2010) provides the reading public with an update of the state of the academic science labor market. Benderly covers the lowlights of life in academics well: long stays in postdoctoral fellowships and the interminable waits for a tenure-track position. She talks about some of the issues that excerbate the difficulties of aspiring academics: for postdocs, there is a lack of independence from PIs and a constant push by government and industry to lower wages by bringing in postdoctoral workers from developing countries. All the while, politicians and corporate titans say that the US will fall behind if it does not produce enough graduates in scientific careers.   

Benderly recommends a few things: limiting the numbers of new scientists by paying graduate students and postdoctoral workers more and by allowing less immigration of scientists from other countries. She suggests creating permanent ‘staff scientist’ career tracks in academia, as opposed to relying upon waves of itinerant postdoctoral workers.

In her article, Benderly does not refer much to chemistry, other than a particularly key statement: "For generations, most chemists have worked in industry." The rest of this post will be dedicated to responding to her article,  and the present and future of the industrial chemistry job market.   

What did Benderly miss? Benderly’s article is important, because it’s one of the few articles in the mainstream media that contradicts the trope that America Needs More Scientists Now. That being said, I feel that she gives short shrift to some aspects of the problems. First, many fields are well-known to possess limited employment opportunities. While I feel vaguely sorry for those eight particle physics postdocs at Princeton, I cannot imagine that they do not realize the difficulties that they face. I suspect, though I could be wrong, that Benderly doesn’t recognize that some scientists do what they do because they love it. Secondly, I think Benderly glosses over some of the long-term consequences of limiting scientific immigration into the US. Many of the countries (namely China and India) that supply much of our scientific workforce are going to be great powers in the 21st century; limiting the betterment of their society’s citizens and cutting off the building of intersocietal ties may have future negative diplomatic consequences for the United States. Besides, I’m not sure the ‘foreign competition’ idea is true -- it has been my experience that scientists from developing countries fundamentally have a difficult time competing for industrial positions within the United States -- the language and cultural barriers are difficult to surmount, no matter how long the CV. 

Finally, I believe Benderly misses the forest for the trees: why does a surfeit of scientific labor exist? Because the government pays for it. Why does NIH get funding? Because society, through Congress, wants NIH to cure cancer. Society will grind whatever grist it feels it must in order to get what it wants; in some sense, that grist is us. 

Is Benderly’s statement about chemistry accurate? In a word, yes. More than 40% of ACS members work in industry; the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports close to 80,000 chemists in industry and government, as opposed to 25,000 chemistry professors.  

What is the state of the industrial chemistry job market? What are the problems facing chemists? In two words, not good. Chemists are facing lower-than-average hiring and an unemployment rate that is the highest in 20 years at 3.9% (according to the 2009/2010 ACS Salary Survey). Many jobs that would be handled by entry-level workers have been commoditized and pushed overseas by constant price pressure. Senior chemists are constantly in threat of their jobs by periodic layoffs that will cull the slightly-less-than-immediately profitable. US companies are fighting international competition and a difficult business and regulatory climate.  

The current and future industrial chemistry job market, I believe, will be represented by three problems. They are as follows:

1. Scientist shortages are real, but unpredictable  

Are you an electrochemist? Chances are, you’re not. But if you were, right now, you could easily get a job, especially if you have experience with lithium-ion/polymer batteries. Doubtless, you’d be working in the burgeoning (?) electric car industry in Michigan or Silicon Valley. Over the past year, ads calling for such a chemist were common in the pages of C&EN. How long does it take to train a Ph.D. materials scientist that would add to a battery R&D team? I would guess that it takes four or five years -- do you think that alternative energy concerns were high on the agenda in 2006? Similarly, when I was looking for a permanent position in 2008 (and the heyday of $4.50/gallon gasoline), there were a raft of positions posted by Synthetic Genomics and Amyris Biotechnologies and a dearth of medicinal chemistry positions. Sadly, I had trained for a career as a synthetic chemist, not a biofuels specialist.

I’ll submit this to our reading audience: considering the time frame of both undergraduate or graduate careers (4 to 8 years), economic conditions and job prospects are basically unpredictable. Today’s hot field could be tomorrow’s old-and-busted outsourcing minefield. Certainly medicinal chemistry was the hot field, ten years ago. This is a fundamental problem with professional scientist training in the US. While the market will always be clamoring for trained scientists today, the labor supply is close to a decade behind.  

2. Switching fields in chemistry is swimming against a strong tide

Let’s say that you decide to become a materials scientist, after years of being a synthetic organic chemist. How do you go about making such a transition? Certainly, it wouldn’t be easy. You could certainly attempt to go back to graduate school, and attempt to gain some sort of academic credential. Or, you could try to get a postdoctoral fellowship in it -- but wait, you can’t.

Principal investigators are relatively resistant to hiring older postdocs, and perhaps with some legitimacy: why hire someone with a family and financial responsibilities when you could hire a younger person? In addition to these informal barriers, there are formal barriers to retraining as a postdoc. Frequent CJ commenter Fenton Heirtzler points out that many postdocs are basically closed to mid-career scientists by federal regulations that insist that the hired be within 3 to 4 years of attaining their terminal degree. While it certainly reserves those positions for the intended, I suspect that it acts as a barrier against a more nimble US scientific workforce.

3. Once you get your position, you have about ten years to move up or out  

A hoary but potentially true view of the past: if you did a good job and didn’t screw up too badly, you’d keep your job for life. If you did screw up really badly, you’d get fired right away.

A hoary but potentially true view of the present: If you do a good job and don’t screw up too badly, you’ll be safe until the next layoff. If you screw up really badly, you’ll be fine and then you’ll get the ax at the next layoff. 

The competitive financial pressures of industrial chemistry are unrelenting; often, leadership of these companies decide that the answer to these pressures are layoffs. For example, Pfizer has had layoffs of its R&D staff in 2003, 2005, 2007 and twice in 2009. While the correlation may be relatively thin, I believe that I have found evidence of these pressures in this post, based on the ACS Salary Survey. You can see in the linked graph that the unemployment rate falls between the chemists that are 20-29 years old and 30-39; for the 40-49 year old cohort, the unemployment rate begins to rise again steadily.  

Although thin, I believe it is partial evidence that there are two selection mechanisms within the chemistry job market: 1) internally, periodic layoffs are a way for companies to make management moves and blame them on consolidations and economic conditions and 2) the chart is also evidence of an informal selection mechanism within the overall industrial chemistry market, where there are unwritten (and potentially unfair) expectations from hiring managers and HR departments about the achievements of mid-career scientists. The message is cold: keep up or get out. 

What should we do? There are two long-term labor problems within chemistry: the problem of experienced chemists and the problem of entering chemists.  

What to do about experienced and out-of-work chemists? Well, we need a Manhattan Project to recreate the societal scientific excitement of the Apollo Moon shot.

Ha, ha -- just kidding.

I don’t really know.  Changing the business climate of industrial chemistry would be nice, but improbable. Certainly, removing regulations that restrict retraining (such as the time-from-degree restrictions on federal postdoctoral positions) would be helpful. Some small-bore initiatives might be to hire experienced chemists into needed fields in state and federal government research forces. It is unclear to me what the next great scientific innovation and/or challenge might be; helping chemists get into those fields (materials science? nanotechnology?) from their former industrial positions (chemicals? pharmaceuticals?) would be a great start.  

What to do about young chemists entering the field? I am hesitant to suggest limiting numbers of graduate students or postdoctoral fellows; I’m quite (small-c) conservative in my policy recommendations. Here are my suggestions:  

A government or ACS effort to track scientific employment in the industrial labor market: this should provide current and future members better information on their job prospects. What’s the likelihood of any one organic chemistry graduate student becoming a medicinal chemist in industry? Dunno. That’d be awfully nice to know. If the odds are less than 5% to attain gainful employment, that’s an important statistic.

Initiatives to determine the expectations of industrial employers of all levels of employees: It’s probably uncontroversial to say that if you don’t publish a single article during your doctoral work, it will be difficult for you to attain a position. What are the characteristics of the hired? No one knows. What are the differences between the laid-off and those who survived the HR Angel of Death? Other than vague rumors and supposition, nobody knows. An effort to determine this systematically (and industry-wide) would be helpful.  

Rebalancing chemistry by changing funding: The final, most speculative and potentially most important change: it is my unfounded speculation that the future of chemistry does not lie in the life sciences, but in the physical sciences. Funneling chemists into the NIH funding grinder has created many of our current problems (and given us a plethora of organic chemists, myself included) and has given the short shift to solving non-life-science related problems. What is the ratio of NSF’s budget to NIH’s budget? It’s about 1 to 5. Assuming that the global race for non-medical scientific advances is the future of chemistry (a big assumption), I suggest changing that ratio to be closer to 1:1. While it may not decrease the number of life scientists in the long run, it may serve to give chemists a way out of the life science rat race. 

Readers, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations -- and thanks. What do you think? Amirite? Am I crazy? You probably know better than I do. And again, thanks for listening -- and over to you, Leigh!

86 comments:

  1. If we end up limiting the number of scientists we train and the number of foreign students we allow into our system, it will be interesting to see how research is affected at mid- and lower-tier doctoral programs.

    Life at the top schools probably won't change much, but other schools might see their labs (and faculties) shrink in size. The profs there might also have to work at the bench.

    In theory, I don't see foreign students as much of a problem for US chemists seeking jobs. Grad students and postdocs are a nice, cheap labor supply for American academic research. So long as most of these students return to their home countries, they won't affect the labor supply for "real" jobs in the US. I think the US should consider granting permanent residence to fewer foreign PhD students...let's keep the best ones, but not the mediocre when we've got so many chemists with US citizenship out of work.

    And, even then, the problem could be destined to get worse. I suppose as the world becomes better trained (with US PhDs returning home), more American jobs will be outsourced.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with you fully. I don't agree with 80% of the Benderly article, because most of us, even us Ph. D.s really do not want or never wanted an academic position. R and D in the private sector, in a number of disciplines, including engineering, seems to be scorched earth these days.

    I feel squeezed by the intense competition for anything in science, especially a career with dignity. The solution is really to try to create a culture that values long term R and D and investment. As someone once told me, there isn't a researcher shortage, there is a researcher position shortage.

    So many careers are deterred by the upfront cost to the laborer in education, money, and time and not just science. If the culture persists, it won't end until everyone of us is "overqualifed" to pour coffee.

    Jablonski

    ReplyDelete
  3. A quick note and then some comments.
    CJ is going to be kept busy today and doesn't know how much he'll be able to pop in and reply to comments. But, we really want to hear your thoughts, so keep 'em coming!

    I really like CJ's idea about career re-training. There is no way that research interests and immediate business interests can be on the same page. The thought of doing training centers at national labs is appealing to me. But, how do we decide what directions get funded. Can we ensure, if we are supporting and providing specifically-trained scientists for the private sector, that the sections of the private sector using those scientists are kept from firing any scientists currently working there? Its a neat idea. Thoughts?

    I also agree with CJ on the need to rebalance the funding areas. As someone who directly benefits from NIH resources, I see the physical sciences coming up much shorter than needed. How does this rebalancing get done? Do we cut NIH to add to NSF? Do we just add to NSF? Do we make additions to the NSF part of some over-all innovation strategy?

    I'll add some more ideas on this later today.
    Keep the comments coming!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. While I feel vaguely sorry for those eight particle physics postdocs at Princeton, I cannot imagine that they do not realize the difficulties that they face.

    If chemistry grad students don't know, why would particle physicists?

    At any rate, most of the content of the article isn't new to anybody in the blogosphere (the article itself is six months old), the question is how do we get this information out to the people who need to hear it?

    ReplyDelete
  5. @4:43

    Amen to that. I don't know the best way to do that. We've tried to contact several journos and as many outlets as we could for this blog-o-rama that we've got going. Hopefully we're not just talking to each other.

    Went to a talk by Andy Reynolds, Hillary Clinton's science advisor at State. He seemed to be reiterate some of the points CJ (and Benderley) make. At least that's a good sign. Still need more, though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. First - the waves of low-wage foreign postdocs into the country may be for other reasons, among them:

    1. schools cut back on non-tenure-track staff, necessitating more TAs, or
    2. cultural mores: many cultures train students to expect weekend work, to be more attentive to authority, do anything to succeed, more than many American students would care to.

    These qualities bring success to an early-career professor or a less well-funded dept.

    RE: Re-training - it needs to start at the beginning. You can't train grad students for a '60s synthesis mentality - "just finish a molecule and someone will hire you" - and expect them to compete in today's economy. I wish that, during my time, I had received (earlier)training in: management, finance, basic energy science, and marketing / commercialization. Perhaps the answer is more "hybrid" ugrad majors, such as "chemical editor" or "solar specialist" or "scientific stock analyst".

    Finally - we need, as a field, to make chemical research more palatable to young, energetic scientists. No one wants to hear at 18 that their future "career" is still 9-13 years of brutal work-weeks away...especially not if they can major in something leading to the "good life" faster, like accounting or marketing. The graduate research mentality also artificially lengthens the amount of time people wait before starting families / buying property, which can also detract from the career. As CJ stated earlier, this may be a "forest through the trees" argument, but the tree is a decade of $25,000 a year...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Regarding the retraining of scientists...
    Why limit the retraining (or "training centers") to a national lab setting? What if the training took place at an actual private sector company? Suppose the scientist is hired by the company, but their salary for the first year comes from the government (in the form of a one year "retraining fellowship" or the like) rather than from the company. This way the company's concerns about financial loss due to lag time/training of the new hire will be lessened.
    Take CJ's example of electrochemist. Perhaps there are some analytical PhD's graduating this year that could do electrochemistry just fine but they don't fully possess all the skills of the company's ideal hire. If there's truly a shortage of qualified chemists for the position, then the company should be willing to take on some "underqualified" staff if they don't actually have to risk money on the new hire. The flip side is that the new hire would most likely have to accept that their fellowship pay isn't going to match that of the ideal candidate. After a year of on the job training this new hire would be fully capable of performing all the functions that the company was originally looking for. Then the fellowship would expire and the person would be hired at the company.
    I know there's lots of assumptions in there and the details are not clear on how exactly this would work (will you absolutely be hired when the fellowship ends? how would you get the fellowship? etc), but I like the basic idea. In essence what I'm describing is an industrial postdoc where the government pays the bills. Since the company doesn't foot the bill they would/should be willing to hire someone they wouldn't have been willing to hire before. The company wins b/c it ends up with a good scientist possessing all the desired skills, and the scientist wins b/c they get training in the actual job they would end up doing.
    Stewie Griffin

    ReplyDelete
  8. I second Stewie's idea...good thought! Especially since it would introduce you to corporate contacts you wouldn't normally meet during a postdoc

    ReplyDelete
  9. Speaking of careers in chemistry, I've just read this snarky article:

    http://finance.yahoo.com/career-work/article/111385/disappearing-jobs-high-paying-careers-with-no-future

    Methinks the article's definition of high-paying is a bit broad...

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Stewie

    Great idea. Could a company be expected to hire 1 full-time, full-pay position for each postdoc it takes at the end of each post-doc term. This would give the firm and the employee the flexibility to opt out of the "relationship" each are in. The company could say, "this person isn't up to snuff, we want to look elsewhere" or the postdoc could say "I really don't like how they run their business, I'd like to work somewhere else". This way too, the company would still be on the hook for hiring someone to pay back the benefit of having "free"/motivated labor. Thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Paul: "If we end up limiting the number of scientists we train and the number of foreign students we allow into our system, it will be interesting to see how research is affected at mid- and lower-tier doctoral programs."

    NIH, NIDDK, & NCI would be wrecked if that policy were enacted in brute force, not to mention organic groups ranging from Nicolaou's to Buchwald's. Do these institutions/professors fall under your definitions of "mid-" and "lower-tier"?

    "I think the US should consider granting permanent residence to fewer foreign PhD students...let's keep the best ones, but not the mediocre when we've got so many chemists with US citizenship out of work."

    Where would you draw the line to such selective xenophobia? What is to be done with all the "medicore" US citizen chemists? Should they remain unemployed in exchange for securing the best and brightest from overseas?

    "In theory, I don't see foreign students as much of a problem for US chemists seeking jobs."

    During an on-campus interview with GSK and Pfizer a few years ago, an Asian-American (non-Chinese heritage) friend was asked by the non-Asian recruiters if he spoke Mandarin Chinese. Also, it is difficult for native-born American chemists to get jobs in economically prosperous Asian countries, regardless of their cosmopolitan aspirations.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The other question is: Would this just keep the hiring numbers stagnant while employers would take the free labor each year and still only hire the number of people they would have otherwise? Does this do anything to increase higher employment rates?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Anon@7:58: Limiting immigration is not, per se, xenophobia. US policy has to be 'biased' towards employment of US residents and citizens.

    ReplyDelete
  14. @Matt
    My proposal was based on the ultimate goals of 1)getting people full-time employment for jobs that need to be filled anyway and 2)not letting vast amounts of knowledge/talent go to waste just b/c it can be difficult to switch research areas and to time your career training with the demands of the market. Like I said there's lots of details that would need ironing out, and you bring up some good points. There definitely would need to be a mechanism by which the employer is prevented from treating this "retraining fellowship" as a free form of contract labor that can continuously be recycled. I would suggest that there need to at least be clear criteria for assessing the fellow's performance (laid out and agreed upon at the beginning of the fellowship), with the result being if the criteria are met the fellow must be offered the job.
    If the employee has done a good job (by meeting the criteria) but the employer still doesn't want to hire them, then I would suggest a buy-out where the company has to repay the government for the fellowship money.
    Since I see the proposal as favoring the company more so than the research fellow I think there would need to be some mechanisms for ensuring that the research fellow has an honest fair shot at the job. For example, what happens if the employer made their assessment/criteria purposely difficult so as to not have to hire the fellow?
    Ideally the company would want to hire this fellow... who's better qualified to do the job than there person that's been doing it for a year (and at no cost to you)! But I can see how it could be abused.
    I'd be interested in hearing other mechanisms for how to get the company to hire the person when the fellowship is over.
    Stewie Griffin

    ReplyDelete
  15. @bad wolf: Not unless you're a proponent of the DREAM Act.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I'd love to know the statistics too. I think it could be done by a dedicated individual or two if they looked for Ph.D. chemistry graduates at the top 50-60 US schools over the past 10 years. If you consider -20 Ph.D. graduates per school per year, you're looking at ~1000 people per year, which would mean contacting/tracking 10000 individuals over a specific time frame, but much less if you wanted to focus on a specific area like synthetic organic chemistry. It would be a lot of work but doable. You could then have a database of individuals, educational background, and companies to mine for data. Patterns would emerge.

    ReplyDelete
  17. @anonymous: well, that seems to be targeted at persons of high school age, so not really applicable here. i was just trying to note that there is always SOME limitation on immigration, and that it is always a cost/benefit balance. There has been some talk of opening citizenship to ALL PhD applicant/graduates, which is definitely closer to the concerns here.

    ReplyDelete
  18. @Stewie
    I think that for this to work out, two things would need to happen. 1) The fellowship would go to someone completely out of field. i.e. Medicinal/synthetic person to echem. This is a training grant after all. This should be reflected. The company would still feel pressure to hire an expert out of a PhD or postdoc. And if the trainee did well enough, the company *should want to hire them. 2) You could also envision a scenario where there are 2 year fellowships or a 1 year fellowship where the govt/company splits the cost 50/50. The company, I think, would still be making out. But there would be more incentive to develop the trainee into a future employee.

    I know in Europe there are a lot of doctoral fellowships sponsored by corporations. Supposedly, one of the reasons is to reflect the amount of market need for chemists. Any of our colleagues across the Atlantic care to comment on this practice in general. Useful/not downfalls/benefits.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I love the idea of industrial fellowships to retrain. There is such a depth of good scientists who could easily be great in other fields, with a window of time to learn the foundations. But, they are more mid level, so are unlikely to relocate from San Diego to Los Alamos, with their family, to do that. How many chemists have been forced out into new careers but would secretly love to be practicing chemistry again.

    re reasons for being on the wrong side of the layoff knife. My gut feeling is that the reasons are more often than not strategic (lose the more remote site, lose the program) or capricious, than not). But I think hiring managers tend to mostly assume that it is ability based (they have their job still, and are great, so it must be right).

    And totally agree about the issue of the long time from making substantial career path choices to looking for work, and the difficulty in predicting trends. My academic path was actually more on the physical chemistry side (synthesis of molecules with physical chemistry attributes). When I finished my postdoc, there were very few jobs in that area then, so I ended up in MedChem. Now, its too late to go back, even though I would love to.

    I personally think that the techniques in medchem (the pattern recognition skills, rather than the total synthesis skills) would be well applied in the new industries. Parallel synthesis, and SAR, of oLED components? But I might be on my own here.

    Good discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Anon@7:58:

    I would echo the conclusion that restricting hiring practices to citizens of one's own country isn't xenophobic:
    (1) if you can't respect your own citizens, then how can you fund research from their tax revenue?
    (2)As I've mentioned elsewhere, I spent 16 years of my professional life in Germany, Switzerland, England and Canada. As an American, do you think that I was granted equal access to jobs in those countries?

    ReplyDelete
  21. This could be relevant too:
    http://money.cnn.com/2010/12/10/news/economy/long_term_unemployment.fortune/index.htm?hpt=T2

    ReplyDelete
  22. Furthermore, consider the hard-hat workers who are benefiting from the infrastructure improvement projects now being funded by the federal government. Let's now imagine that some gov't appointee started chirping about "hiring the best and the brightest" for those construction jobs. And so a construction company from abroad was hired to repair the NJ Turnpike or build the next generation particle accelerator. How long would it be before the same gov't appointee was found dangling from a lamp post?

    And yet, that is close to the policy that our federal government, institutions of higher learning and industrial major players are taking towards American PhD scientists. Or is the policy of supporting cheap scientific labor at our universities different?

    Please also note the policy statement of the New ACS President regarding visas for more PhD students.

    ReplyDelete
  23. some scientists do what they do because they love it.

    Too many people in grad school don't. They are under the impression that having a Ph.D will be their bus ticket to Easy St. with a stable, high-paying job and limitless demand for their skills. It's not entirely their fault though, that's exactly the way many professors and senior scientists make a Ph.D sound.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @bad wolf: I meant to assert that the distinction between protectionism and xenophobia can be blurred especially during economic downturns. I have a friend who's doing a postdoc in Europe and has been applying to industry jobs in England, Germany, & Switzerland. Understandably, he's felt some mild hostility from his European coworkers; the EU economies are still crappy.

    I do agree with you that there should be immigration limits, but again where would you draw the line? In 1989 many Mainland Chinese grad students & postdocs studying in the US benefited from being granted amnesty following the Tiananmen Square protests. We were "saving" them from political oppression. However, the next decade saw the creation and wholesale implementation of the H1-B Visa, which flooded the US with cheap trainee labor. NAFTA and unregulated outsourcing followed, effectively annihilating US-based industrial manufacturing of non-weaponry and even tech support.

    As stated by the Benderly's article, over HALF of the 93,000 postdocs in the US are foreigners. Furthermore, many of them do NOT want to return home unless they get job offers that are better than the $35-45K/year they get here.

    ReplyDelete
  25. -End the PhD and Post-Doc.
    -Make science a regular job at all levels. You go into a university, work at low wages (20-30K) and when you find a better opportunity in a another lab, go for it. Also, your boss can fire you, just like a real job.
    -How does this help things? If there is a glut at some level, entry into the field will become difficult and limit the production of scientists, since they can't find jobs above their current level. In good times, those 20-30K jobs (currently graduate positions) will open up and allow some production to resume.

    Invisible hand baby!

    ReplyDelete
  26. @10:34 Nice. Are you suggesting that university PIs be considered bosses in your scenario or are you suggesting that we just cut all university-based research funds? If it is the case where "graduate positions" would just be jobs and research funding to universities were kept steady and if the workers are considered as actual employees (with real, full benefits) this might actually benefit everyone involved. Highly unlikely to happen ... but interesting to think how that might actually work.

    @10:00 brought up a good point that hasn't been touched on yet. I know that CJ has talked about it in his posts as well as Paul and others ... but what role do the advisors play in all of this. What do they OWE their students and postdocs. Should/can they be held more accountable? Do university departments need to offer better training (management/budgeting/alt-career)?

    ReplyDelete
  27. Re: "Too many people in grad school don't. They are under the impression that having a Ph.D will be their bus ticket to Easy St. with a stable, high-paying job and limitless demand for their skills."
    I think this is a bit of a false dichotomy. I honestly don't think the problem is that there are people who don't like science but went to grad school just b/c they thought they'd earn an easy living. It's not simply an issue of loving science or not. Do I love science? Yes. Do I love science enough that I'm willing to sacrifice starting a family, living closer to my immediate family, having a stable career, working for a fair wage, etc etc?? I don't know. I think that's the question many grad students are finding themselves having. Many loved science enough that they were enticed by the perceived returns on their investments, and thus chose to get a degree only to see the returns aren't what they expected.

    On a completely different note (hopefully I'm not getting too crazy here),... but why the academic PhD? Wasn't the goal of the academic PhD to train more professors (for like when the older professor kicks the bucket). Of course the PhD teaches you how to think, how to carry out experiments, blah blah blah but from the I-just-need-a-job-viewpoint the PhD seems to me to be just another benchmark employers can use to weed through the applicant pool. Whether or not that's a good thing, could there be alternatives that would be just as valid?
    For example, I do synthesis and I've been told that nothing in my PhD would be able to properly prepare me for doing process chemistry in industry. It's just a completely different experience. So, would it not be reasonable to offer some sort of equivalent to the academic PhD degree but in the private sector (so instead of going to grad school you go to a company and earn your "degree", or whatever it would come to be called, in industry)? I suppose you could argue that one's resume is their "industrial degree", but I'm thinking more along the lines of if you enter a company to get the "industrial degree" perhaps you'd stick around or get hired upon completion of the degree. In essence I'm suggesting a real apprenticeship. I'm certainly not arguing that the academic PhD is worthless or should be abandoned, but perhaps it could be improved upon. Let students wanting to be professors go get an academic degree and let the students wanting to work in industry go get and "industrial degree".
    I suppose one could argue that the market would then better adjust itself b/c companies would take in smaller classes of "industrial grad students" in times of lean years but larger classes in times of good years. I guess this is all assuming that industry wouldn't just train you and use you as cheap labor only to throw you aside when it comes time to be paid a proper wage since there's always a new "class of students" coming in... :(
    Stewie Griffin

    ReplyDelete
  28. "Make science a regular job"
    I guess that better sums up my long winded post.
    Stewie Griffin

    ReplyDelete
  29. Good discussion, here. I like the idea of the industrial post-doc with government funding, with all of the necessary caveats.
    Regarding the question of visas and immigrant workers, my suggestion is that this is a case in which the country could stand to have a bit of (gasp!) central planning and industrial policy. It doesn't make sense to train people and then send them back, essentially creating our own competition. So we should do our best to figure out how many chemists (and engineers, and etc.) we think we might want to stick around and try to MATCH the number of student visas to the number of work visas we anticipate granting. Obviously this would be a complicated and imprecise process. But it makes more sense to try to consider immigration policy from the standpoint of benefit to the country, not some assistant prof's tenure application.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Stewie,

    Yeah, basically that's what your saying. By making graduate positions regular ol' jobs, there can be a give and take just like a job. If bosses are too hard or annoying, workers leave, so there is a necessity for a pay-work-life balance at all times to keep the machine going, since the grad student (indentured servant) label is not attached anymore. Same goes for the employee (work-kiss-ass-produce balance). This seems so simple to me, but scientists want a completely centrally planned, centrally funded way of dealing with all their problems. There's just too much guesswork in that method and it's far to inflexible over the long term.

    THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of my idea here is the badly needed equilibrium that is allowed to develop with the "ol' Job" model. When a glut of scientists develops, new low level positions dry up, limiting production! Those positions are simply filled or kept by the current workers, disallowing giant cohorts of PhDs to be produced every spring. We would need to revoke rules on funding that disallow highly experienced people from taking grad and post-doc level positions.

    The danger of Chemjobber's idea about funding is that there is still too much guesswork, which is what got us here. We just don't know enough to fiddle with the numbers like that. But what we can do is create a system with a natural check and balance, that will ease production when there are gluts and ramp it up when demand is high, without the need for so much central decision making.

    Giggity

    -Quagmire

    ReplyDelete
  31. Quagmire,
    I question your assumption that there has been any significant degree of planning which has gotten us to where we are today. Please enlighten me (really I'd like to know, if it's true). Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Stewie and Quagmire

    In this scenario, would government funding for research dry up? Would there only be industrial-track chemists in industry and PhD tracks in academia? Would academic PI's still mentor multiple workers (whether they are academic or industrial track)? Would the shock be bigger to the chemical industry due to the fact that they would need more manager-level types to oversee the training of the new young chemists?

    I agree that it's impossible to predict which "research" is going to be fruitful. My vision in that investment in science should be like investment in an exchange index. You invest knowing that over the long-term, the whole of the index will increase. There should be some funds set aside for other projects. But the largest portion of public science investment should be done with the acknowledgement that we don't know now what's going to be important in the future, but we know that the research being done will lay the groundwork for that future.

    But, I would like to hear more about what you think will be the "reality" of change in your scenario.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Do I love science? Yes. Do I love science enough that I'm willing to sacrifice starting a family, living closer to my immediate family, having a stable career, working for a fair wage, etc etc??

    That's what I meant, thanks for clarifying Stewie.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Quick FYI. Some reading that the commenters here may be interested in from Rudy Baum's blog on Basic vs Applied research.

    Also, in the above discussions, I think that there should be some form of "planning" done by the government in respect to where it thinks that science should be driving innovation. But, this planning needs to be done with an understanding of the limitations of basic research and the limitations of that sort of planning. ...

    ReplyDelete
  35. ChemJobber: "Besides, I’m not sure the ‘foreign competition’ idea is true..."

    It's not only true but it's been quantified. A 10% increase in the supply of PhDs through immigration results in a 3% decrease in everyone's wages (immigrant or native.) See this article from Harvard's George Borjas:

    http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/gborjas/Papers/w11217.pdf

    Certainly, immigration is at least part of the oversupply problem...as Ms. Benderly correctly points out. As it stands, anyone with a bachelor's and a pulse can get an H1-B.

    ReplyDelete
  36. @Matt and Anon 11:41,

    Biggest change is the realignment of supply and demand. Schools are producing new scientists regardless of the current job situation. There is no feedback mechanism. That's the problem I'm trying to address here. It's cool to fund these nifty science projects, but let's not make life worse than it has to be while doing the science.

    Govt funding would not dry up, but the rules would change. If some guy/gal was having a hard time finding a job, they could still apply within an NIH funded environment, regardless of experience or job level. Academics could join industry and vice-versa, since it’s just another job. There wouldn't be a shock to the chemical industry, things would remain as they are, but the glut would not be made worse every spring graduation. If the industry faced a shortage, it would be short lived. People in low level positions would find work and allow new entrants into the field simultaneously. The chemical industry would operate uninterrupted, with the PI’s being the ones to find new scientists, which they are already good at. People that wanted to become PI’s in this system would apply just like they always do, with a nice list of publications, experience, H-Factor and JIFs if need be. I don’t see a problem with that. There just wouldn’t be PhDs anymore, raw experience and publishing would be the only things considered.

    CENTRAL PLANNING is the problem here Anon 11:41. What do you think the NIH and NSF are? Does 'NATIONAL' not scream CENTRAL anymore? Ok, that was harsh, but the point is that these organization dictate the skills people are obtaining and do not respond to the demand for them, leaving many scientists, like the med chemists, without jobs while still funding the KCN's Total Synthesis of UselessPainfulToxin.

    There is no way we can really make the NIH and NSF more efficient IMO. But at least we can provide a feedback back mechanism to stop them from producing too many scientists by using people that are already there. A change of rules is really all that is needed to keep the scientific pipeline in line with demand.

    -Quagmire

    ReplyDelete
  37. More from ACS: Point-counter-point on Al Bard's "Academic Research Shouldn't is Too Influenced by Money" argument.

    @Quagmire
    I completely disagree with your issue with central planning. Any good organization does some sort of planning for the future. I am positive that you are aware of the novel organic reactions that can come out of medicinal studies. The issue, is that you disagree with how the funding is allocated. That is valid. What I believe is an invalid concern is that we should be rid of central planning because they don't get everything right. The all-knowing market doesn't get everything right either.

    In response to the Bard statement, you really need both types of research in a basic research environment: unfettered research that is only looking to be creative and find new answers to old and emerging problems, and research that attempts to focus on what are viewed as larger problems with some market value. If you kill off one side, the other side will suffer for it.

    ReplyDelete
  38. But the overall idea of a feedback mechanism to control the graduate school machine is definitely worthwhile.

    ReplyDelete
  39. @Quagmire12:38 Personally, I prefer KCN's synthesis of kissmyassolide :P

    ReplyDelete
  40. @Matt
    Since I don't think the PhD will ever go away but the idea of making science a plain old job is appealing, I came up with the hypothetical where the academic PhD exists but it's influence on industry would be far less than it is now since industry would have its own certifications.
    With regards to some of your questions...
    I think of it like electricians. You can be residential, commercial, or both. However, just b/c you're residential doesn't mean you are automatically qualified to do commercial jobs. You may be, or you may not. I see my hypothetical as just an analogue of this scenario where with an academic PhD you may be qualified to do some industrial work and vice versa, or you may not. The point is that we would stop requiring the academic PhD as the starting point. As far as switching from academics to industry or vice versa... one solution could be that just as a residential electrician must get certified for commercial work if they want to do commercial work, the academic PhD would need to pass certain certifications to do industry work. Or perhaps the academic would just have to start out on the bottom of the ladder just like the others entering industry. I don't quite know how it would all work out, but there needs to be some way to ease the flood of PhD's. Ideally there would be a feedback mechanism, but academics will most likely never agree to it since it would only hurt them. So I feel that if industry set its own standards, it could control its own supply (as needed by the market).
    Stewie Griffin

    ReplyDelete
  41. Sara Urrego - Colombia UNDecember 13, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    Thank you very much for the article, was very useful,Im going to get my degree as chemist next march and i would like to say that im very concern about our situation as a scientist and our professional future in the workforce

    ReplyDelete
  42. All those scientists attempting to synthesize JoblessToxin agree with me. I'm in total synthesis, I can attest to working on such a toxin also. KissMyAssOlide is way less challenging then GetsAJobOlide, need to read up Anon 1:26. :P

    -Quagmire

    ReplyDelete
  43. I am really shocked that even in the USA there is not a central planning going on... I am from Turkey, I'd thought that this was a problem of developing country like us. What I'd recommend you guys that another completely new organization body that is dedicated for nanomaterial funding and new branches to the old bodies (ACS) that would integrate those "useless (you call it, for me, that is how society will survive)" KCN derived methodology to material science...

    I do not anticipate your nationalist points of views, since this is the 60s thought,as well (by the way, I am not a total synthesis guy at all, another fading star). What we should do; is to organize a worldwide chemist society that would direct the innovation through out the academic system which would reduce the alternating research suffers in academia. I think, what we need to understand is that, in future, at any point, any of us would need to know Mandarin or so; besides chemistry. Since their potential is way bigger and different than Japan.

    At last, it is true that those big companies should also co-direct the research of their own scholar (funded by them, already).

    ReplyDelete
  44. I am an electrochemist so yay. Unfortunately I am in the UK, so maybe it'll even out. I'm in the last year of my PhD and I have to say that although I accept that a job for life is a dead dream, putting my efforts into years of work for zero job security is not appealing. Like most vocations, science as a career is one that will never love you back. I'm still considering packing it all in and trying to get into science policy instead. Maybe there some change can be made.

    ReplyDelete
  45. @Quagmire13:50 Yeah, a colleague in grad school tried to impress the pharma recruiters with his as of yet incomplete synthesis of watdaphukamine. Didn't get any onsites, so he ended up doing a postdoc that he actually likes.

    @Jablonski: "I don't agree with 80% of the Benderly article, because most of us, even us Ph. D.s really do not want or never wanted an academic position."

    So, you've NEVER entertained even a fleeting idea becoming an academic? Didn't good teaching play a role in convincing you to pursue a chemistry PhD? I had thought about going into teaching, but was discouraged by the competition and intrigue necessary to survive in academia as described by Benderly. Fortunately, I somehow made a pact with a higher power (unknown whether heavenly or hellish) and got an industry job.

    Going back to the thread topic(s), I was really disturbed to read that in addition to lousy job prospects, the time to degree among the sciences is getting obscenely longer. (Chemjobber addressed this trend earlier.) I've heard several respected organic professors criticize the field for "eating its own young".

    Despite all the socio-economic drawbacks of getting the science PhD, departments are still hellbent on drawing more hapless cannon fodder into the "Ponzi scheme" of non-for-profit research. Why is there still such a stigma in getting the Master's degree? A lot of industrial chemistry really does NOT require the PhD. As CJ and others have calculated, the marginal increase in total career earnings by getting the PhD vs the MS may not be worth the extra heartache.

    ReplyDelete
  46. Chemjobber & posse: Thanks for hosting these discussions. Although none of us (I'm assuming) is a national policymaker, at least you've provided a forum for frustrated chemists to engage in civil catharsis.

    Chemjobber, did we set a record for internet traffic at your blog today?

    ReplyDelete
  47. Regarding my xenophobicity in only granting visas to the best foreign PhDs...look what it takes for an American to get a work permit to play English football. You've got to be getting regular minutes with the US men's national team (~30 players). There are >80 *teams* in the FA.

    ReplyDelete
  48. I will second the congrats for a great done by CJ in setting all of this up!!

    @Qaugmire,
    I wanted to comment on how foolish it would be to get rid of Central Processing. Any good organization needs to be able to plan for the future. We can argue over what that planning needs to be. But, we just need to figure out how to do a better job of it. I'll try to cover that in more detail in my post on Thursday.

    ReplyDelete
  49. Matt,

    I have no arguments with centralizing things, just as long as that "Central Processing" can actually respond to it's environment. Production of new scientists with no regard to their utility in society, while taking society's cash (i.e. taxes) does not seem sustainable.

    Make the Central Processing responsive! Or at least have that natural check and balance of the "ol' job" model. Don't hire new people if you have plenty of experienced ones around.

    ReplyDelete
  50. CJ: A few months ago you did posts on published reports job placement and time to degree at various universities. Have you seen these recent stats for Princeton?

    http://www.princeton.edu/gradschool/facts/degrees/

    Over the past five years, the organic division at Princeton seems to have undergone a resurgence. The overall Chem Depts stats can be found under the Department Profiles link. Strangely, the average TTD has been *under* 5 years. How'd they manage that?! According to the most recent data (2009-2010), of the 19 PhDs awarded, 8 went to postdocs, 9 went to non-academic (industry or government?), and 2 went "nowhere".

    This editorial from Princeton's campus newspaper seems somewhat concordant with Benderly's article:

    http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2010/12/13/27191/

    ReplyDelete
  51. "Regarding my xenophobicity in only granting visas to the best foreign PhDs..."

    Really? let's consider the construction jobs that are part of the Federal gov't's push towards employment efforts. So now we have gov't appointee who exclaims that we should only hire "the best and brightest" construction company for e.g. the NJ turnpike or a new synchotron. How many days would it take until this person was castigated by the public and the press?
    Why should this be any different for someone who prefers a chemist from abroad over an American chemist, regardless of their supposed relative level of qualifications? Especially for a position that is funded by the US taxpayer?

    ReplyDelete
  52. btw ... You guys have been AWESOME today! I hope that this keeps going this evening. And remember, we're over at Leigh's blog tomorrow.

    ReplyDelete
  53. fentonh: I agree with you! It was other commenters who were castigating me as xenophobic for giving preference to US-citizen PhDs for American jobs.

    I favor granting visas to only the best and brightest foreign PhDs rather than practically all of them.

    ReplyDelete
  54. Well Quagmire (if you are still there...),
    I think we are talking about two different things. Incentives and disincentives abound, some of which originate in government and some of which originate in the private sector. When referring to planning and policy, I am talking about trying to coordinate and align these various incentives in a way that most of us agree is in our best interests. I realize that this can be a very messy gray area.
    On the other hand, we completely agree about grants for certain total synthesis types...

    ReplyDelete
  55. Current immigration laws as i understand them already provide fast track opportunities for the best and the brightest. Implying that all PhDs will achieve citizenship may staff labs but it will also encourage people looking for a way to the US (well, the West let's say) to go into a field in which they are not interested, and who will not stay and contribute in the way we ostensibly want them to. The less talented may expect to stay but we already have plenty of mediocre people here already for secondary employment needs.

    My impression is that the current situation derived from the postwar expansion period and that nothing has been significantly readjusted since then. The model of low-paid high-skilled temps (postdocs, grad students, foreign workers) in a Ponzi scheme only worked because there were concurrent expansions in industry and colleges here, or overseas opportunities to employ the results. Now that things have leveled off (at least) the still growing pool of candidates is left scrambling for a shrinking musical chair of good positions. It is simply expected that people will leave the field and/or the country. Except now those people can still compete in the global economy.

    ReplyDelete
  56. Paul: Your sentiment is well-taken but this is one of those cases where the implementation of a sound general idea is fraught with difficulties. I think the above commentator raised a very good point about how you would draw the line and slice the pie.

    Here's an example that would make the dilemma prominent. H C Brown hired several Indian postdocs who feature on many of his Nobel Prize winning papers. The belief is that he purportedly hired Indian postdocs because he could fit three Indian postdocs in the salary of two American postdocs. Today this would be regarded as exploitation but the point still stands. As far as I know none of these postdocs later became world-famous; they were only the "best" in so far as they would work very hard for three fourths of a typical postdoc salary. Although salaries have been standardized now, a similar scenario persists. As the above commentator pointed out, several foreign postdocs put in the eighteen hours a day drudge work for big names like KC and EJ. They would likely do the same if allowed to continue working for such premier scientists and institutions. Notably, they would work for these individuals and institutions and publish their research in American journals, not Indian or Chinese or Korean journals. In a field like organic synthesis, groundbreaking results depend as much on the drudge work done by these postdocs as they do on the ingenuity of the PI. Using your guidelines, what would we do about them?

    ReplyDelete
  57. Uh, wow. Well, next time I fly, I'm going to get myself a laptop and a WiFi-capable flight. Sonofagun!

    @A12:17a: I tend to agree that it might bring down the overall wage, but I was discounting the notion that it works in a "head-to-head" manner. I've really not found that to be the case, but I could be entirely wrong.

    @A3:27p: If not, it's pretty darn close!

    @A4:29p: Fascinating stats -- thanks for bringing them to my attention.

    ReplyDelete
  58. Sorry for the folks who got their comments eaten by the spam filter -- I've fished them out.

    ReplyDelete
  59. I agree that deciding where to draw the line over immigration is difficult.

    I'm not concerned with hosting foreign postdocs and grad students to fuel academic research. The question I was addressing was whether to let them stay here permanently once they've graduated. How much less do companies pay foreigners with US PhDs? Are Indians with US PhDs working 14-hour days in industry? I don't know, but my guess is that it's not reasonable to just open the borders and allow everyone in. And it's certainly not reasonable to do that and to have the government tell its citizens that there is a shortage of scientists.

    ReplyDelete
  60. Paul, I am going to guess that it's possible to get a 10% discount between the salary you would give to a domestic PhD versus an international one. I could be wrong, but that's my gut feeling.

    That being said, I really doubt the majority of US corporations practice this, but again, I could be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  61. "They are under the impression that having a Ph.D will be their bus ticket to Easy St. with a stable, high-paying job and limitless demand for their skills."

    A10:00a: I think everyone here agrees that if those days ever existed, they are gone now.

    ReplyDelete
  62. It seems like the future trend is going to be to keep management (all PhDs) and a bunch of students and outsourcing to do the bench work. This is already happening in one group where I work (large pharma co), and the trend is expected to continue. The only BS/MS that they will need are enough to train the students. If this happens in our group, those of us experienced MS who end up on the wrong side of the layoff decision will somehow have to go into another field if they wish to stay in the US, regardless of their nationality. I just heard that one of my former coworkers is now selling real estate, for example. She is a Chinese citizen who didn't want to go back, and she has a family here now. It would be nice if there were more opportunities in the US for chemists, but they are gone to China and not coming back.

    Alot of us in the mid-30's range and older who were in grad school during the boom times are caught in the middle-can't retire anytime soon, can't get another job in chem if things go bad at our current job, and probably considered too old to retrain and be competitive with the large amount of 20 somethings coming through now. I don't know what the answer is.

    ReplyDelete
  63. "then the company should be willing to take on some "underqualified" staff if they don't actually have to risk money on the new hire. The flip side is that the new hire would most likely have to accept that their fellowship pay isn't going to match that of the ideal candidate. After a year of on the job training this new hire would be fully capable of performing all the functions that the company was originally looking for. Then the fellowship would expire and the person would be hired at the company. "

    There is a much easier way to do this switch. Apply to a company which is searching for a position for which there is a shortage. Accept that your pay will be lower than if you were doing a job in which you'd be a perfect match. Learn the new field. If you are not given a salary increase after you learn the new field, apply somewhere else.

    I am learning a new field at a lower salary than I previously had. After a year recruiters are calling off the hook. (Which is even more outstanding when you consider I am not looking for a new position). I don't see why others couldn't do the same. However it takes a great deal of faith and guts to make such a switch.

    ReplyDelete
  64. A10:00a: I think everyone here agrees that if those days ever existed, they are gone now.

    Yes, all of us know, but how do you explain the continual flood of grad students into chem Ph.D programs? Do they know? I'm willing to bet they don't.

    ReplyDelete
  65. I think it would be worth doing a survey about the average salaries negotiated by foreign vs native postdocs. But apart from this, another good point raised above is that it also doesn't always help if foreign students get their PhDs or postdocs here and go back to their country; then they just end up working for the competitor and also siphon off jobs here through outsourcing. There are also deeper consequences; for instance, many Chinese students who studied physics in the US went back to work on their country's defense and nuclear programs. One could make a case that it would have been better to keep them here.

    Again, this kind of reverse immigration won't affect top-tier research but it's already affecting bottom and middle tier work. But basically you end up training the competition, and some people might argue that that's worse than retaining these people here. I think globalization has generated a whole new set of dilemmas and it's going to take a few years before we figure out the solutions.

    ReplyDelete
  66. @Anon 4:52AM
    Would you mind telling us what this new field is you're learning and how you went about finding it and getting a foot in the door. I think it would be really interesting to hear.
    And yeah that's great if it happens the way it did in your case. But what happens when employers stubbornly refuse to hire b/c they know that with a glut of labor they can wait around for their perfect candidate? On the flip side, laid off chemists probably hold out as long as possible to try to get the same standard of living they had before the layoff. But would they be more willing to take a temporary pay cut if it meant they'd eventually be ensured full-time employment with a salary increase after the training period?
    Robert Reich makes an interesting point in his book Aftershock... he proposes we have "re-employment insurance" rather than unemployment benefits. In other words, instead of getting unemployment benefits while searching for a job, you would get the benefits by going to work in an area that needs workers. In essence the gov would be paying you to get retrained. You would have a lower pay for a while, but eventually once you're training you should be able to command a higher salary.That's essentially what I am proposing for the government funded industry postdoc/retraining.
    Stewie Griffin

    ReplyDelete
  67. Hi Chemjobber,

    I like your blog and think you have a good take on the biz. You had a link regarding electrochemist employment in the battery field and it took me to a previous blog post about a position with Toyota. I actually interviewed for this position but didn't get it(I was runner up). I can actually tell you that I unfortunately don't have 2-3 offers right now! Even with research experience in this area, if you don't have industry experience, you'll find yourself having a tough time breaking into it.

    ReplyDelete
  68. A8:44a:

    Please, PLEASE e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom. I'd love to hear your story.

    ReplyDelete
  69. From a Retired Chemist (who apparently could not post a comment)

    I just came across the site yesterday and would like to offer my perspective. I don’t think things have changed that much over the years. I finished my doctorate in chemistry in 1975 and did a post-doc at a top Ivy. I knew things were tough when I was applying for faculty positions and there were 400 applicants for a spot in the biochemistry department at Wyoming. I moved on to a staff position at NIH but tenure was really not in the cards and after five years I switched over to regulatory affairs and spent 27 years in trade association work which was quite fulfilling.

    We will always see an excess of PhDs as long as the Federal government continues to fund research grants. The blunt truth is that PhDs and post-docs are cheap labor for PIs and tenured faculty positions will always be limited leaving a lot of folks on soft money positions in academia. Were it not for the biotechnology industry’s explosion in the mid-1970s the situation would be more dire than it is today. I haven’t looked at the recent employment statistics but I do remember in the late 1980s and early 1990s, biotechnology companies were in a hiring frenzy; that has probably slowed by now.

    Despite all the predictions of America falling behind in the knowledge race, I believe this is not the case and we will continue to produce outstanding scientists and engineers as long as the government keeps the funding spigot open. The bigger problem is whether these folks will have a meaningful long-term career with the current uncertainties. My advice (at least for those interested in the life science aspects) is to go to medical school in a combined MD/PhD program. Employment options are dramatically increased (several grad school colleagues are now practicing physicians).

    ReplyDelete
  70. If you too could not post a comment, please e-mail me the comment at chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom.

    ReplyDelete
  71. "Too many people in grad school don't. They are under the impression that having a Ph.D will be their bus ticket to Easy St. with a stable, high-paying job and limitless demand for their skills. It's not entirely their fault though, that's exactly the way many professors and senior scientists make a Ph.D sound."

    I'm not sure where this sentiment comes from -that students see a PhD as a ticket to easy street. Do people really believe that about students and do students really believe that about PhDs? I've never known either to be true judging by the people I've known and talked to, but this isn't the first time I've seen this notion expressed in an online forum. I certainly never saw a PhD that way. That's not to say I figured it wasn't worth anything. I didn't get a PhD as a favor to society.

    ReplyDelete
  72. There really aren't very many tickets to Easy Street; most high paying jobs have a brutal entry fee.

    Elite pharma: brutal PhD (5+ years), brutal postdoc (2+ years), 100k position.
    BigLaw: Routine snuggle-up buttkissing during internships during law school (3 years), 5 to 10 torturous years as an associate in a law firm.
    Medicine: Difficult undergrad selection process, tough professional school (4 years), 2 to 8 years as a resident/fellow before big paychecks.

    It's really a process of "pay now" or "pay later"; there's a reason why engineering undergrads seem so harried.

    ReplyDelete
  73. And the main difference between the pharma/law/medicine 'payment' is that getting your advanced degree in the sciences is basically 'free' versus the enormous amount of debt medical and law school saddles its people with.

    Free is relative, of course, but no-one walks out of a PhD program with $100K in student loan debt for their effort...

    ReplyDelete
  74. Good point, YP. If you left with debt, it was consumption (beer, housing, car) as opposed to 'investment', i.e. tuition.

    ReplyDelete
  75. "And the main difference between the pharma/law/medicine 'payment' is that getting your advanced degree in the sciences is basically 'free' versus the enormous amount of debt medical and law school saddles its people with."

    That's not a big enough difference. It's understood that the payoff won't be as big, but the sacrifice of prime earning years and the hours you work during those years requires a real return. To throw away the better part of a decade on these activities makes a result of being unable to find a good job and having a grim future not at all worth it. Whether or not med school or law school would have been a better choice, I think for a lot of people a PhD in chemistry turned out to be a very bad choice.
    I still don't know why people think it's asking so much for people to expect a reasonable job out of a PhD. Sometimes it seems people think I want a free ride.

    ReplyDelete
  76. Tumbler, you sort of answered your own question. You maybe didn't use the specific terms that you'd be on Easy St, but did you ever imagine that after 5-7 years of grad school (and maybe another couple as a postdoc) that you'd have to scratch and claw at positions and that you might end up doing something like reading documents all day instead of working in the lab? Or did you think that a Ph.D would allow you to get a decent faculty or industry position that would allow you to live comfortably and be happy? How many Ph.Ds have you heard tell prospective grad students that a Ph.D is the best thing in the world? How many say the opposite? I'm willing to bet the equilibrium lies towards the former comment.

    CJ, yes, grad students don't accrue debt. Yes, doctors come out with $100K of debt. But they're also provided a means to pay back that money, and it's basically guaranteed. I've never heard of physicians getting forced into alternative careers because they didn't have enough opportunity to apply their trade. If you're lucky enough to get through undergrad and grad school with no school loans (very rare scenario for most) and you are also fortunate enough to secure a pharma position without doing a postdoc (these days rare) then you have, what, 10 years to make money before the axe falls and you get laid off? 10 years if you're lucky, right? Then you re-train for something like Regulatory Affairs or keep job hopping to different pharmas living nomadically. Is that better than having a lot of debt right out of school but then having guaranteed and stable income after? That's up to each person to decide, but they should at least know the difference.

    The difference is that MDs go into their programs knowing that they will have crushing debt whereas most grad students have no idea how challenging their path is AFTER graduation (and this struggle for employment isn't new, as noted by Retired Chemist). As I said earlier, most believe they will have lucrative careers and there's not many people who will tell them differently.

    I've heard some rumblings that law students are in a similar predicament as chemists, there's more of them than the job force can absorb. The difference is that the schools are taking proactive steps to facilitate their employment because their placement rate factors into their school rankings. I read a report (I can find the link and post it if you like) about one school retroactively raising their students' grades in some classes in order to boost their GPAs and make them more competitive. I don't know any grad programs that care this much (or at all) about how their students fare after graduation.

    ReplyDelete
  77. A2:11,

    You might as well say anyone with a college degree expects to be on easy st by their 30s.

    ReplyDelete
  78. Unfortunately this "highly skilled but unemployed" problem is now spreading to even China.

    http://shanghaiist.com/2010/12/14/chinas_ant_tribe_university_degrees.php

    China now has an "Ant Tribe" of college grads that can't find work at wages above what they could have got without their degrees.

    There are even PhD street sweepers:
    http://www1.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2007-01/03/content_778128.htm

    So we don't have it too bad, but I would still say the lesson here is that govt funding can exasperate supply/demand misalignments very badly and for much longer than a free market.

    ReplyDelete
  79. "@Anon 4:52AM
    Would you mind telling us what this new field is you're learning and how you went about finding it and getting a foot in the door. I think it would be really interesting to hear."

    Got laid-off from pharma. Job search consisted of non-pharma and pharma positions. Wanted a non-pharma position, considering the big pharma contraction going on. Got a lot more interviews for pharma than non-pharma, but accepted a non-pharma position. My new field is very specialized (and small), but still utilizes organic chemistry.

    I got the position by a good deal of luck and the patience to endure some rejections. I consider it a semi-career switch as I can apply some stuff I learned in pharma, but still am learning a great deal. I got the job because they needed someone in their field who also knows synthetic chemistry. That particular combo was hard to come by, so they settled on training me. :-)

    I think I got my foot in the door by showing eagerness to learn. Keep trying, and don't be afraid to apply to very specialized fields. People don't usually learn those fields in graduate school so companies have to train someone. It might as well be you.

    ReplyDelete
  80. I guess I was very delusional 5 years ago ago when I decided to pursue a PhD degree in chemistry at some Midwest low-tier university. After spending last years at the bench with little social life other than research work, it feels pretty shitty to find yourself in a situation when you have to struggle to find any employment in this industry. I'm about to graduate shortly and I've been applying at lots of places (hundreds) for almost a year. Even with a few papers in your portfolio, but lousy academic credentials like mine, the industry in this country won't hire you anyhow and anywhere. The jolly academia offers you a postdoc position (hopefully, at some mediocre place). Yeah, right... As much as I love science, this postdoc path is likely to go nowhere and only to end up with the same, maybe even more severe, unemployment problems at older age. I'm glad it happened to me now when I still have time to rethink my career and find a different way to make a living. But, despite what academic staff tell, I will sure as hell make it clear to other students at my place what their prospects are.

    ReplyDelete
  81. You might as well say anyone with a college degree expects to be on easy st by their 30s.

    Well, is that not true? I don't think anyone that goes to college envisions that they'll be struggling to make ends meet when they're 30, it seems like an eternity away when you're 18.

    But the point is, don't most people believe that getting a Ph.D at some point will make their life easier than if they hadn't gotten it? If grad students knew of the struggles that are afflicting med chemists right now, would they have gone to grad school anyways? I'm willing to wager a good number wouldn't have. It sounds like you have some frustrations of your own about finding a position. Is that what you imagined would happen after you finished your Ph.D? Like I said, this situation isn't new, it's just not being told to the incoming grad students.

    ReplyDelete
  82. FentonH said:

    I would echo the conclusion that restricting hiring practices to citizens of one's own country isn't xenophobic:
    (1) if you can't respect your own citizens, then how can you fund research from their tax revenue?
    (2)As I've mentioned elsewhere, I spent 16 years of my professional life in Germany, Switzerland, England and Canada. As an American, do you think that I was granted equal access to jobs in those countries?

    I can't help feeling a little irritated by these comments FentonH. Whilst you do have a valid point to an extent, this smacks of 'sour grapes' somewhat. You have obviously been employed elsewhere in the world (presumably at the cost of the 'local' governments and in preference to members of the 'local' workforce). So, are you suggesting this privilege should now be removed for others wanting to come to the States to do precisely the same thing just because you can't land a job?

    ReplyDelete
  83. "But the point is, don't most people believe that getting a Ph.D at some point will make their life easier than if they hadn't gotten it?"

    Of course they do. There isn't any other reason to do it. My point is it isn't really easy st just because things become easier. I don't think college grads expect to be on easy st either. Say you're pretty bright and ambitious (enough that you could have done pretty well in grad school) and you work really hard for about ten years and do really well for your company or companies (at whatever -business). You'd expect your career to be in reasonably good shape -that you would be able to keep your job or find another one that treats you more fairly, i.e. you'd be employable. You wouldn't expect to be on the low end of the totem pole with dire prospects. Perhaps we just have different ideas about what easy st is and I do bristle at that term and what I perceive to be its connotations. I never thought I was getting a golden ticket, just a fair deal.

    ReplyDelete
  84. "I can't help feeling a little irritated by these comments FentonH. Whilst you do have a valid point to an extent, this smacks of 'sour grapes' somewhat. You have obviously been employed elsewhere in the world (presumably at the cost of the 'local' governments and in preference to members of the 'local' workforce). So, are you suggesting this privilege should now be removed for others wanting to come to the States to do precisely the same thing just because you can't land a job? "

    Let's set the record straight for the circumstances of my employment (chronologically):
    Germany - doctoral student, partially paid living expenses out of my own pocket
    Switzerland - T. A., no luck at academic positions
    England - 5-year contract (my British colleagues got permanent contracts), but then our university closed our chem degree program
    Canada - retro-post-doc.

    Whereas I will admit that 'sour grapes' is a factor in my own situation, the fact is that US job market is a lot more open than in those other countries (including your own) and that has to stop.

    ReplyDelete
  85. Good point Tumbler, I think we're arguing semantics. Take out the part about Easy St., I think that makes it more clear.

    ReplyDelete
  86. The most important thing for the whole industry is "what does the industry really need?" In old days, people tend to pay more attention to the technical side. Technical is the key to make progress. Today industry tends to pay more attention on the personal side. If you are not good at technical, no problem. We can train you. Here is a good example, when we go to the bookstores, how many books are about interviews? On the another hand, however many books are about the real technology? I do not think that the real world is really encouraging people to pursue the technology.

    Here is my own experience.

    Example 1:
    When I was working in a company, we got four interviewers for 4 positions. The one with the best knowledge was eliminated. The reason was that he asked some questions, such as "do you have this type software etc." My company thought that he said something technical.

    Example 2:
    When the manager went to ACS meeting, he said that "the company will not take the one with the best knowledge. If we found somebody was nervous in talking, but felt very comfortable in discussion the science. He/She will be eliminated from the candidate list."

    Example #3:

    As myself, I did technical support (TSR). There were 8 people in the group. My completed TSR was ~ 23% in the whole group. I was laid off. So ...

    ReplyDelete