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!