Thursday, December 30, 2010

Yes, chef, right away, chef.

Photo credit:
Listening to Jacques Pepin on NPR yesterday, he talked about the old school way of teaching cooks:
MONTAGNE: Do you think that chefs who've never experienced that long apprenticeship, do you think that they missed out on something?

Mr. PEPIN: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Not necessarily, no. We learn very, very differently now than we used to learn years ago, because we learn in a different way. We learn through repetition, through osmosis, you know, looking. The chef never told you what to do. He would say do this, and if you had dared to say why, he would have said because I just told you. That was about the end of the explanation. [Emphasis CJ's]

So you would work like that for weeks, months actually, and all of a sudden the chef, as it happened to me, told me, OK, you tomorrow, you start at the stove. I was terrorized because I say, I don't know anything about the stove. And somehow I went there and I knew how to do it.
I've always found common strains between cooking and chemistry (and so have many others), but here's where I see a fairly significant difference in training between the two. Cooking seems to be (because of the time pressures, doubtless) an affair where immediate obedience is key and people are always jumping to the head guy's commands and there's relatively little room for introspection.

Chemistry seems to be a place where there's always a reason for doing things the right way, and we're going to tell you why it's the right way, and we're going to randomly quiz you on "Why do you do it this way as opposed to that?" to make sure you understand. Unfortunately, sometimes the answer to expository questions is "because it works" as opposed to professional kitchens' "because I told you."

Doubtless I'm wrong somehow here; I've never trained as a professional cook, so take my words with the proverbial grain of salt. I am sure there are quiet moments of teaching and learning in cooking, just like in chemistry.

Daily Pump Trap: 12/30/10 edition

Good morning! Between December 28 and December 29, there was 1 (one) position on the ACS Careers website. It is not an academic position.

Clorox!: The Clorox Company is looking for Ph.D. analytical chemists; sounds like a great position. Best of luck, folks.

A broader look: On, there are 75 entries for the search term "chemist." They always seem to be working for folks like "Air Force Materiel Command", "Navy Field Office" and my personal favorite, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Best of luck, folks (and I don't doubt these are fascinating positions.) I will say this: navigating federal job postings are like learning a different language -- in English.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

29/42 to 14/20 adapters

A collection of small things that make me happy (and yes, not much time to blog this morning):

- It's a really bad idea not to It's a good idea to find a secure place to back up your Ph.D. thesis.
- Check out this post on reddit chemistry about exposure to polymer resin dust; looks like legal action to me.
- Probably you've all read it, but check out Derek Lowe's recipe for French onion soup.
- Read the latest on formaldehyde-containing hair products at Brazilian Blowout Central Sharon's blog, I Can Has Science.
- Go submit your nominations for the 2010 Chemmys at ChemBark. (I should really start the Jobbies, or something like that.)
- Why are the letters "z" and "x" so popular in drug names?
- An excellent list of quotes from journal referees at ChemistryBlog.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The limits of (tangential) expertise

Photo credit:
As it is the holidays, I suspect that a non-zero portion of the Chemjobber readership went through the TSA's new backscatter X-ray scanners while traveling. I don't really have much to say about the political aspects of the issue. Government does what governments will do -- sigh.

But one aspect of the conversation is fairly interesting, which is the health effects of the backscatter X-ray technology. James Fallows is a well-known author who writes a pretty great blog; his readership has been debating the science of the issue in posted e-mails.

Here's a missive from a physics professor talking about the difference between millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray instruments:

"All microwave photons are far too weak to cause damage to molecules through their absorption. The energy level of a microwave photon is sufficient to cause a molecule to rotate or vibrate (this is how microwave ovens work) but not to cause it to disintegrate or modify its structure, and those are essential requirements for causing a DNA molecule to mutate into a malignant strand... Lesson? Cell phones do not cause cancer. Period."

This caused a biophysicist to write in to contradict*: "Microwave energies can cause beaucoup molecular change; hell, I've used (um, well, I told my undergrad to use) a microwave source in an organic synthesis, so I'm real sure the emailer doesn't know what he's talking about. I mean, it can't _ionize_ (easily). Big whoop; most of biology is acid/base chemistry."

Oh. No. You. Di-dn't. I guess the biophysicist hasn't heard about last year's experiment by Kappe, where a silicon-carbide (thus microwave-irradiation opaque) vessel was used to perform reaction chemistry that showed no difference from traditional heating. If I'm interpreting correctly, the experiment strongly suggests that microwaves do not have a microwave-specific effect and microwave chemistry is just about faster and better heating. Therefore, it's the heat that causes 'beaucoup molecular change' and not the microwaves.**

I have a few points here:

1. I have no idea who's right about backscatter X-ray technology. There are a lot of things to worry about: their operation, their calibration, the exposure that a passenger gets, the exposure that TSA officers get, etc.

2. Experts who step out of their area of direct expertise do so at their peril. There are plenty of people who seem to have deep but tangential experience; witness the above debate and also the UCSF X-ray crystallography professors who have written letters of protest to President Obama's science adviser.  Here are a couple radiologists and they seem to be fine with it. Huh. I'd really, really like to hear from a professor of medical physics or radiation dosimetry before I have any idea who's right.

3. What does that mean for Chemjobber? Well, I'm a chemist who covers labor economic issues -- draw your own conclusions. I try to be as humble as possible in my analyses and my predictions. Why? Because I'm an amateur, that's why. Thanks for reading anyway.

*Check out this bad dude's credentialing: "Who you're taking _this_ from is a biophysicist and enzymologist who did his Ph.D. thesis in a cyclotron and who has overseen diagnostic sections in a hospital and attended Biophysical Society." Oh, okay -- so what you're saying is that you're smart. Gotcha.

** The physics professor responds: "So does he know what the microwave source actually did? Reaction rates frequently have a strong temperature dependence and a microwave source could give you very fine control over temperature. However, in that case, the fact that it is a microwave source is inessential. You could (and in the days before microwave sources, often did) achieve the same effect with a simple flame."

Daily Pump Trap: 12/28/10

Good morning! Between December 23 and December 27, there were 3 (three) jobs posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, zero were academically connected.

Whoa: So there's the holiday break right there. I'm sure it will come back -- right? Right?

Patents!: USPTO is looking for B.S.-level patent examiners; sounds like a good time. Now if you only had a few theories to work on in your spare time.

Markets!: The United States Pharmacopeia is looking for a market assessment manager; B.S. in the sciences and a M.B.A. are desired. Enjoy.

APIs!: Alphora Research is looking for a senior synthetic organic chemist (Ph.D.-level position). It appears that the company is located in Missisauga, Ontario, which is outside of Toronto. They want someone with 5+ years of industrial experience to work on process development for API work.

Broader look: Careerbuilder, Monster and Indeed show (respectively) 580, 209 and 1612 positions for the search term 'chemist'.

Monday, December 27, 2010

New poll!

New poll question to your left: how will 2011's job market compare to 2010's? Go and vote!

The 1950's and 60's: when chemists were kings?

Over the long weekend, there was one (and only one!) comment. Anon1226100642p writes in that:
I am one of those organic chemistry PhD chemists from the early 70s. The factors for so many of us chemists from that era were:
1) the baby boom #s
2) we were inspired to be scientists by society's worship of atomic, space, agrichemical and pharmaceutical scientists' betterment of all our lives and their role in winning WWII. Remember plastics!! and nylon stockings and DDT?

3) we could play with chemicals in back yard laborators making all kinds of obnoxious things like bromine, white phosphorus, nitric acid, lead azide, silver fulminate and nitroglycerin without worrying about the fire marshall, DEA, AFT or EPA taking us to jail or showing up in bunny suits. Yes I made them all by age 14. You could buy all kinds of chemicals and glassware at the local hobby shop back then. I even purchase sodium azide, and it was sent to me by US mail!

4) we were highly employable and highly valued by industrial employers. Chemists today have no idea how well scientists were treated by corporate types in the 50s and 60s. We were considered company crown jewels.

5) a vast expansion of academic employment and government funds for training the baby boomers
Anon goes on to talk about the factors that changed; a lot of us are pretty familiar with that story. But I think the one thing that surprises me (perhaps because I've never known this world) is statement #4: that chemists were highly valued and well-treated by management.

I think you can find a few companies that treat their chemists particularly well: high pay, good benefits, nice bonuses. (And of course, they don't hire very many people these days.) But for those companies, I don't really think that they treat their chemists any differently than say, their development staff or their accountants (other than pay differentials -- which is a pretty big thing.)

Do I want to be treated better than the average employee, other than pay? No, I don't. But I do believe (what entry-level employee doesn't) in treating employees well with perks: occasional free food, nice end-of-year bonuses, free corporate-labeled trinkets from China, you know, that sort of thing.

Of course, not being first on the layoff line would be nice, too, but I'm not holding my breath there.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Photo credit: AugustGoForth

Merry Christmas, everyone. Thanks for a pretty great year. Here's wishing that you are at home with your loved ones, resting and not thinking too much about chemistry.

See you on Monday.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chart of the day: organic chemistry Ph.D.s, 1960-1999

After last week's chemistry jobs roundtable, Leigh published a chart noting PhDs awarded by subdiscipline. Being an organic chemist, I decided to isolate the data for organic chemistry PhDs in the chart below:

Source: Just Another Electron Pusher, NSF report on US Doctorates in the 20th Century, Appendix A
Interesting how there was a big spike in the 1965 to 1974 period. Anyone have an explanation for that? I note that the trend in the late nineties is up -- I assume that the next decade showed an even greater increase. 

Daily Pump Trap: 12/23/10 edition

Good morning! Between December 21 and December 22, there were 18 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 8 (44%) are academically connected.

Titanium!: DuPont is looking for a Ph.D. chemist to be a research investigator at its Johnsonville, Tennessee Ti plant; knowledge of metal oxides and colloids is desired.

At least you're honest: MacDermid is looking for a B.S. chemist to be a "entry chemist"; typical lab assistant functions, sounds like.

Stone and Tile (again!): DuPont's Hayward, CA facility is looking for a B.S. chemist to be an associate investigator in their Stone and Tile division. Experience with formulation is desired.

Now that's a title: USDA is looking for a "research leader" to work on transforming agricultural products into value-added materials. "Familiarity with instrumental analysis techniques necessary for polymer characterization is required." Looks like you'll play in Peoria, IL.

Now there's a list: Unilever is looking for a B.S./M.S. chemist (2-3/1+ years of experience, respectively) to perform analytical work. Here's the brands Unilever's responsible for: "Axe, Becel, Ben & Jerry’s, Bertolli, Blue Band, Breyers, Caress, Country Crock, Degree, Dove personal care products, Hellmann’s, Klondike, Knorr, Lipton, Omo, Popsicle, Promise, Q-Tips, Skippy, Slim-Fast, Suave, Sunsilk and Vaseline." Look, if you're the dude(tte) responsible for Axe, I think your ACS membership should be pulled.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Now THIS is Soviet-style propaganda

Parody of this Soviet-era poster. 

I don't see Leigh's post being anything close to this poster.

(By doing this parody, I don't wish to make light of the killing machine that was/is Communism.)

Process Wednesday: phase-transfer catalyst

I have seen it with my own eyes: the power of phase-transfer catalysis is remarkable. But you guys shouldn't trust me -- as always, you should trust Neal Anderson:
PTC can provide a safe, highly effective approach to reactons with NaCN and NaN3. First of all, reaction conditions are usually basic, which safely keeps NaCN and NaN3 in solution as the anions. Second, because the nucleophiles are less solvated under PTC conditions than in DMSO or similar solvents, PTC provides more reactive conditions. Hence fewer equivalents of NaCN and NaN3  are needed, and reactions are generally faster.
Of course, there may be emulsion difficulties on the other side -- but those can be dealt with, too. Phase-transfer catalysis is your friend -- so don't be afraid to reach for the tetrabutylammonium bromide.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mile wide, inch deep?: do you need to be a 'well-rounded' expert?

Is it a inch or a mile deep?
Photo credit: icanhazcheezburger
 Anon1220101032a asks a very good question:
"I used to hear that professional organic chemists, especially in industry, preferred to hire candidates who were "an inch wide and a mile deep". Nowadays a disproportionate amount of public funding seems to be allocated to multi-disciplinary research, e.g., organic projects often NEED to have a discrete biological component (usually assays done by collaborators). My guess is that recent organic PhD graduates may, by neccessity, have acquired "diverse" (disjointed? disparate?)research skills during their graduate studies. Is it so bad to be "a mile wide and an inch deep"?
Ideally, one would know everything about everything and be able to do anything, however I would be the first to admit my limitiations. In my conversations with late-stage grad students and postdocs at recent ACS conferences, I've often heard complaints from them that industrial recruiters were focused on hiring those with demonstrated expertise in restricted skill sets (i.e., synthetic jock). What should an eager-to-learn yet jack-of-all-trades new PhD do to gain employment in the chemical (fine & pharmaceutical) industry while competing against hordes of temps who already have the specialized skill sets and experience?"
I find it very difficult to answer these sorts of questions, because who knows what an employer wants? But I have a guess -- I believe that when employers hire Ph.D.-level chemists, they wish to see 1) mastery of a chosen field and 2) the ability to solve all incoming problems and complete projects.

What does this mean from a practical perspective? In your graduate and/or postdoctoral work, you do work that shows a synthetic chemist that "Hey, (s)he's just as good as (or, better than) me" first; then, you show them that you've shown that you can do lots of other stuff.

To answer the final question about competing with more experienced chemists, I believe that you can't. You can only hope to show them that you'll be cheaper, (maybe) work harder and try to have a steep learning curve.

Readers, do I have the priorities right? Do you need to be an expert or well-rounded? I'm pretty sure I could be wrong on this one.

Daily Pump Trap: 12/21/10 edition

Good morning! Between December 16 and December 20, there were 38 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 23 (61%) of these are academically related.

Hello, big companies!: Yet again, larger pharma companies are advertising, but for the development side. Merck shows up with a couple of engineering positions and Amgen arrives with some formulations positions.

Alabama: Serina Therapeutics in Huntsville, AL is looking for a B.S./M.S. process development chemist.

Also...: Boeringer Ingelheim is looking for a B.S./M.S.-level process chemist.

Thanks, China!: Molycorp is hiring an experienced chemical engineer to work at the Mountain Pass mine in California; glad to see that rare earth mining is making a comeback in the US.

Huh: Tyco Fire Products is looking for a Ph.D. chemist to handle its regulatory affairs regarding fire protection compounds; experience with fluorinated compounds is desired.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chart of the day: openings versus graduates

Thanks to Anon1219100226a for the link to this chart from Calvin College's Computer Science department. I suspect that the chart was being used to suggest that there were plenty of computer science positions; one hopes this is an accurate statement, for the graduates' sake.

Anon notes the paucity of life sciences positions; while we all know this to be the case (pity the poor biology Ph.D.), I think it's interesting to see. It's worth pointing out how many life science graduates end up becoming physicians, which are not reflected on the jobs side (18k in 2010, according to Wikipedia.)

Chemists, of course, are physical scientists; our pain is not reflected in this chart. Well, that's life.

Family separation -- the new normal?

A depressing topic for a Monday morning, for which I apologize. I'm noticing a new trend in our post (?)-recession economy, which is the family breadwinner (typically the father) going away from their family and working, while the other spouse (typically the mother) stays behind with the kids. Obviously, the difficulties of selling their current home is part of this problem.

I'm hearing people plan for this, I'm seeing it in the workforce and I'm seeing it in my Facebook news feed. While I don't doubt that most (if not all) of the affected families are planning for reunion of some sort, there will undoubtedly be a small (but non-zero) number of families which will be hurt by this. This is a new twist to the two-body problem, which seems to hit young marrieds more than families with kids.

I suspect that the trend is quite strong in chemistry. While the past expansion in pharma/biotech had spread beyond the traditional hubs (SD, SF, BOS, NJ, NC), one imagines that the post-2003 era of mergers and layoffs has hit the smaller places (the Seattles of the world) harder. I don't doubt there are many people getting hired on in one of the hubs (where the remaining jobs are), renting a small apartment in the big city and keeping their families elsewhere, where the cost of living is lower and the quality of life may be higher.

Let's hope this trend(let?) reverses itself, as/when/if things get better.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Funniest comment of the week

I should really go to bed, but this deserves some kind of award*. Anon1218100201p in the adjunct professors post:
Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good *chemists* or bad. Why we chose that catalyst, or why we isolated the minor diastereomer. All that matters is that our paper got accepted by JACS over many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom. So grant me one request: Grant me tenure! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!
I sure hope Crom's listening.

*Is this because he's the only commenter who noted "The Wheel of Pain"? Maybe. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Future of Chemistry Jobs: Recap and thanks

What a week of great discussion on chemistry jobs! We started at Chemjobber with his thoughts on the future of chemistry jobs, Leigh posted a wonderful analysis of the incoming supply of PhD chemists, Paul arrived with a full-throated attack on the tenure system, and Matt wrote an excellent post on the potential for industrial and science policy to solve some of our current and future employment woes.

We received quite a bit of support from other people in the Twitter/chemblogosphere, but the biggest amount of support that we’ve received is from you, the reader. We’ve all decided to recap our posts, talk about what we’ve learned from our writing and the many excellent comments we received.

Chemjobber: “We Are The Grist”

In Monday’s post, CJ talked about Beryl Lieff Benderly’s essay “The Real Science Gap” and three fundamental problems of the future of chemistry jobs: 1) that employment projections were moot because of the length of training/education, 2) that mid-career retraining is very difficult and 3) that there may be an informal selection process that culls chemists about ten years into their industrial career. CJ’s potential solutions: removing barriers to using postdoctoral fellowships for mid-career retraining (thanks, Fenton!) and publishing granular statistics on employment rates and employer expectations throughout a chemist’s career.

Readers were quite receptive to mid-career retraining with public/private partnerships. Also, commenters were interested in reworking graduate school and making it more of a “real job” (do they give free pizza at real jobs? I don’t think so!) Comments were also brewing with an alternative solution to employment difficulties: the restriction of scientist immigration into the United States. Overall, there were few defenders of the status quo.

Just Another Electron Pusher: “Too Many PhDs?”

With unemployed chemists hitting an all-time high in the last few years, many people have suggested that too many PhDs flooding the marketplace are at least partially to blame. Analyzing the NSF's latest survey of earned doctorates, I found that the number of PhDs in chemistry has indeed risen in the last 10 years, but data from the last five suggests that these new chemists aren't having a harder time finding jobs or post-docs. However, it's likely that there is a glut in some subject areas and a dearth in others. But until we get some hard data on PhDs awarded per subject area, and on the number of jobs available each year, whether we are producing too many PhDs will remain an unanswered question.

Commenters agreed that entering graduate students, or better yet undergrads, need to be properly informed on the job market before pursuing a doctoral degree. But whose responsibility this is, be it the student's, the school's, or the ACS's is still a matter for debate.

ChemBark: “Time’s Up for Tenure”

Over at ChemBark, Paul presented an editorial that lobbied for the replacement of academic tenure with a system based on renewable ten-year contracts. While both the editorial and commenters pointed out several advantages to the tenure system (e.g., academic freedom), Paul did not think they outweighed the costs (e.g., inability for schools to remove dead-weight). He also questioned if chemists today really use the freedom granted by tenure and if this liberty really protects freedom of inquiry since you have to win funding for your research anyway.

Commenters who dissented weighted the important of academic freedom much higher than Paul, and asserted that the population of deadwood professors is sparse. Quite a few people liked the idea of replacing tenure with relatively long contracts (e.g., 7-10 years) as a compromise that would provide some degree of job security and academic freedom without permanently restricting the ability of universities to restructure their faculties. There was also concern voiced in the comments that ending tenure would drive schools deeper into the practice of hiring faculties of adjuncts, who work for peanuts and don’t contribute to the creation of knowledge through research

ScienceGeist: “How Do We Break The Cycle?”

Because securing funding is one of the main incentives for PIs to take on large number of graduate students, it seemed obvious that we should explore the policy of research funding. Upon review of some of the most current commentary about the present and future of funding policy, ScienceGeist suggested that a new funding structure could be envisioned. It is hoped that a new platform might relieve some of the stress on PIs to produce large numbers of PhDs. The proposal worked off of the following tenets: a priority should be placed on producing useful technologies, it is impossible to predict where long-term, future growth will come from, involve the public in decision making, agencies need to be agile, and, where possible, get companies and venture firms invested so that jobs stay in the States. The solution presented included a broad-based research investment that was partly directed by the public along with a more directed investment in research that directly addressed the most pressing national research needs and worked in collaboration with industry.

Commenters debated on the need for a federal presence to maintain manufacturing capabilities in the US. Discussion also returned to the proposal of an industrial postdoc brought up in CJ’s post on Monday. Upon further refining, there was some agreement that staying away from large corporations and, instead, focusing on newer companies and smaller industries might be beneficial to overall employment prospects. Finally, ScienceGeist ended with a plea that chemists should get involved with determining the future of science policy; noting that if they do not, chemists will be on the outside looking in when the decisions about our future are being made.

Conclusion and thanks

One of our main goals during the formulation of this round table, aside from just voicing our observations of the employment situation that the mainstream media was continually contradicting, was to put in a good-faith effort to try and craft some legitimate solutions to the problems PhD chemists are facing. Knowing that the four of us would never be able to do this on our own, we put our trust in the online chemistry community to lend their voices and opinions to our conversation.

And the response that we received was overwhelming. At the end of each day, our proposals had been refined and optimized through the discussion threads that our readers were such a valuable part of. Also, we should note, we tried to bring this to the attention of a broad audience (chemists, science communicators, science policy workers), and we don’t really know if any of our messages made it out. But, we do know that forums like this are going to be worthwhile for directing the future of our field. (Also, the forums are a lot of fun. We had such a great time participating in this, and, judging by all of the comments that we received, our readers did as well.) We hope, and fully expect to see similar roundtables popping up in the future.

Our sincerest thanks to all of the support on Twitter, especially our friends at C&EN and Nature Chemistry. Also, our warmest thanks to Derek Lowe, who gave us fantastic levels of support on In The Pipeline.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Future of Chemistry Jobs, part 4: at ScienceGeist

Matt's installment on government and science policy is up. Titled "How do We Break This Cycle?", it's an excellent post with lots of interesting policy ideas. I love the 'index investing' idea. If done right, it could be a real helper, along with the ARPA-E/DARPA model in pushing science along.

Are there adjunct professors in chemistry? If so, uh-oh

Adjuncting: the Wheel of Pain
Photo credit to
It's probably understandable, but I really like reading non-science blogs, too. One of my favorites is Unfogged -- it's like a never-ending cocktail party, and it's mostly liberal arts academic types. One of the things they like to complain about (creatively) is the tedium of being an adjunct professor, and hoping beyond hope one day for a shot at a tenure-track position. It's one of those symptoms of funding strains and a potentially diseased academic system.*

Gotta say, I was surprised to read a couple of people on Paul's installment yesterday talking about the presence of adjunct professors of chemistry. While you see "lecturer" positions, "visiting assistant professor" positions and the like, I've rarely seen "adjunct" positions posted. But Matt has something to say about that...
In the spot that I’m in right now, it has been handled by an adjunct for the past 5 years. The chair convinced the dean to hire my position because finding a qualified adjunct who was willing to teach the advanced inorg lab was too difficult. Also, there are a lot of professionals in our area who really want to do some sort of adjunct work. They really want to try their hand in teaching. There is no shortage. So, when the need comes up, the chair has a pool of people he can go to without having to post an ad. I don’t know that they’re required to advertise seeing as how its not a full time job.
Ruh-roh. If we're adjuncting in chemistry more and more, that means we've got a problem, too...

Daily Pump Trap: 12/16/10 edition

Good morning! Between December 7 and December 15, there are 79 new positions posted on the ACS Careers database; of these, 38 (48%) are academically connected.

Greenville, SC: GTI Solutions is looking for an experienced Ph.D. polymer/organic chemist to be the "Head Chemist"; gotta like that title.

Ann Arbor, MI: ADCO Corporation is looking for a brand new B.S. chemist with some experience in polymer chemistry/testing and rheology. Over to you, John!

And a green job!: ADCO's also looking for an experienced Ph.D. materials scientist to apply their knowledge to sealants for alternative energy and green buildings. Huh.

Pleasanton, CA: QuantaLife is looking for a Ph.D. organic chemist with 3+ years experience in synthesizing libraries of surfactants. Dude, I'm going to guess that there are less than 200 people in the country with this skill set. Maybe I'm crazy.

Suffolk, NY: Avon calling! They're looking for a Ph.D. analytical chemist -- doubtless, there's a biologist next door hammering their excipients into the eyes of cute bunnies. (Kidding! Kidding!)

BMS: You know, I'm noticing them sending out regular feelers for the development side; I should look into this more. But it's about a posting a week or so.

Little lost lamb: The Stowers Institute for Medical Research is looking for undergraduates to do REU-type internships. And you're here because...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Future of Chemistry Jobs, part 3: over at Paul's

This morning of our blog roundtable, Paul at ChemBark takes dead aim at tenure for professors. You know, I don't think this is going to happen for us, but I think it would free up a lot of research money for sure. Go over there and participate!

Home for the holidays for graduate students

Friends, print this out and send it to your parents -- it'll make your lives easier.

Tough times for medicinal chemists confirmed by ACS salary survey

From December 6, 2010 issue of Chemical and Engineering News
David Pittman's article on medicinal chemistry in the December 6 issue of C&EN is worth noting (I'm surprised that none of the usual suspects have mentioned it), but I found the chart to the right particularly noteworthy. He summarizes the data in this web exclusive.

The unemployment rate for ACS members is about 3.8%, with a U6-like rate of 10.4%. The rate for medicinal or pharmaceutical chemists is 5.5%, which is about 44% higher than all ACS members (assuming my calculations are correct). The U6-like rate is 12.2%.

I also note the lower percentage of part-time medicinal chemists, which is an interesting number. Hard to say whether I expected higher or lower numbers for that.

I am loathe to trust data that confirms my preconceived notions, but I think it's safe to say that it's a tough time for medicinal chemists. Recovery won't happen for pharma until these numbers improve.

Monday, December 13, 2010

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


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!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

MONDAY, MONDAY, MONDAY: Blog roundtable on the future of jobs in chemistry

Next week, three of the finest blogs of the chemblogosphere (and this one) will be discussing the future of the chemistry job market.

On Monday, I'll kick it off with my thoughts on Beryl Lieff Benderly's "The Real Science Gap" (a fairly comprehensive article on the academic science labor market) and my own thoughts on the present and future of the industrial chemistry job market.

I'm (unfortunately) otherwise busy for the next couple of days, but I really invite comments on Benderly's article and thoughts that people might have that I should talk about.

The following days, the discussion will be hosted by Leigh at Just Another Electron Pusher (general topic: too many chemists?), Paul at ChemBark (tenure = awesome) and Matt at ScienceGeist (government's role in this.)

Who's the most important participant in all of this? You are, of course. We want you to comment, contribute, critique and harangue us about our positions on these subjects -- hope to see you there!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Would you hire this man?

Process Wednesday: writing up for scaling up

It's time to face facts, if you haven't already -- that procedure you wrote up to scale up? It's probably not detailed enough. Once again, from our friend Neal Anderson, page 114 and 115:
Details of the specific conditions must be thoroughly described before a process can be safely and reproducibly scaled up, especially by someone who did not develop the original process. Few chemists are naturally inclined to describe in detail the conditions that they used. The nonspecific descriptors ("groaners") listed [below] in Table 5.1 are not sufficient to allow for ready scale-up of most processes: 
Added slowly, added dropwise (CJ's note: my personal favorite), to a dilute solution, added in portions, added to a cold solution, was run overnight, added at -78°C (was the temperature kept constant during the addition?*), with a slight exotherm, at room temperature (colder in England, hotter in the tropics*), excess reagent, vigorous agitation, worked up in the usual way, gave a white solid, sufficiently pure, yields given without consideration of product quality. 
Well, now you know -- so take a little more time writing up next time you throw it over the fence, hey?

*Anderson's comments, not CJ's. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chemjobber, elsewhere

In case you're interested:

- I speculate on the future of material science positions at MaterialViews here. Thanks to MaterialsDave for the opportunity.
- I am interviewed for Knovel Blogs here; thanks to Neil Schulman for the opportunity.

What are some signs of a good business?

"I don't have any problems that can't be solved by running another reaction" - Chemjobber

I used to say that when I was a graduate student and as a postdoc; for the most part, it was true. Research productivity and gettin' things done was key. As a working industrial chemist, I still think that's true, but I really think that who you work with and the culture of the company matters, too.

If you're being observed and interviewed for a position, you might as well observe and interview them and the organization, too. What are good signs to look for? John at "It's the Rheo Thing" has a wonderful starter list:
  • Intelligent people. This can be broken into two subsets: 
    • They have areas of expertise and know what they are
    • They also know what areas are not their expertise, they recognize this and publicly acknowledge this
  • Management that may or may not be present, but certainly show restraint in their involvement
  • Clear definition of both what the problem is, and what a successful resolution would be (scope creep in a project a great warning sign)
  • Open communication:
    • Bad news can be spoken about
    • Politics are very limited below the management levels
As I said, if you're a younger chemist like me, keeping your nose to the grindstone is probably your best bet. But culture matters, and you might as well look for a culture that you'd like (and will take care of you and your career) as opposed to one that you wouldn't (and that won't.)

Daily Pump Trap: 12/7/10 edition

Good morning! Between December 2 and December 6, there were 49 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 24 (49%) are academically connected.

Toxicology: Millenium's San Diego laboratory is searching for a B.S./Ph.D. chemist to perform toxicological research; extensive experience with HPLC and LC/MS desired.

Renewables: Amyris is one of the more prominent biofuels companies; they desire a Ph.D. analytical chemist with experience in management and method development. Experience with lubricants and polymers also desired.

Cross into the blue: The United States Air Force wishes to hire a M.S. radiochemist; you will be an intrepid monitor to "ensure that underground or atmospheric nuclear weapons testing samples are processed and measured to obtain data on the radioisotopes identified by the evaluators." You will, of course, need a "TOP SECRET (TS) clearance with Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) access in order to fully perform the duties and responsibilities of this position." Sounds important.

Plastics: Silberline Manufacturing wishes a B.S. chemist with experience in plastics and/or material science for plant research and support. "Must be experienced in plastics processing technology with strong mechanical attitude." Uh, okay.

What am I doing here?: The University of Massachusetts at Lowell wishes to tell you that they have raised their graduate student stipends and they are accepting students. No, really, that's what they want to tell you.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Research misconduct, by the numbers

Thanks to Paul's posts, I decided to take a look at the adjudicated cases that the Office of Research Integrity has handled. Here are the results of my tabulations; please note that I am NOT a biologist, so my categorizations are probably incorrect:

Retrovirology: 1
Endocrinology: 3
Genetics: 7
Epidemiology: 1
Organic chemistry: 1
Psychology: 1
Nephrology/transplant science: 4
Immunology: 6
Sleep science: 1
Pharmacology: 2
Clinical trial misconduct: 5
Developmental biology: 2
Neuroscience: 2
Radiology: 1
Protein expression/isolation: 1

What does this say? Not much, really, except that HHS and NIH fund a lot of biology, probably a heck of a lot more than chemistry.

Another interesting tabulation was the gender of the "respondent": 25 men, 15 women and 1 unknown. Certainly, gender parity has not reached scientific misconduct yet.

Finally, in response to thoughts that Bengu Sezen has not been punished enough, there was one case in which the "ultimate punishment" was meted out: Paul Kornak falsified records and misenrolled someone into a clinical trial in which they died. Because of this, Kornak pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was "excluded for life from participating in any and all Federal agency transactions, both procurement and nonprocurement."

Friday, December 3, 2010

BREAKING: November unemployment up to 9.8%

Fresh electrons from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the national unemployment rate is up 0.2% to 9.8% for November. The broader measure (U6) of unemployment stayed stable at 17.0%, which is nice to hear.

"In the lab" the lab. (photo credit from Scribblage.)
You know how people will crack open a fortune cookie and then add "in bed" to the end? I think chemists should add "in the lab." (Because, really, how often are you in bed, as opposed to in the lab? Don't answer that.) Try it with a few of the below (from here) -- and see how it works for you:

- There is a true and sincere friendship between you and your friends... in the lab.

- You find beauty in ordinary things, do not lose this ability... in the lab.
- Ideas are like children; there are none so wonderful as your own... in the lab.
- It takes more than good memory to have good memories... in the lab.
- A thrilling time is in your immediate future... in the lab.
Brilliant, right? So next time you're having Chinese with your friends, try thinking about your fortunes... in the lab.

How many chemists are working in the US?

Estimates of ACS Members from Wikipedia.
# of US chemists (5/09 BLS estimate) and definitions here.
# of US chemistry professors (2008, BLS estimate)
# of US chemists in pharma and basic chemical manufacturing (5/09, BLS estimate.)
# of US chemists in NJ, CA, WY here (5/09, BLS estimate.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What would be the Wikileaks of chemistry?

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Julian Assange of Wikileaks is making big waves in the world with his disclosures of internal US government documents.

I'm really not interested in talking about Wikileaks, but I would be really interested in getting an equivalent data dump from any number of large chemistry-related institutions. Here's my top 5 list of things I wouldn't mind downloading and reading:

1. Internal grant-related documents at NIH and NSF; specifically, reviews of grant proposals from the chemistry-related study sections. Having a committee of active academics basically decide the direction of a portion of chemistry research is a pretty big deal; it'd be fascinating to see how the deliberations were made.
2. Internal e-mails and deliberations at Columbia during the Sames/Sezen debacle.
3. Internal e-mails at Angewandte Chemie after l'affaire J.J. LaClair
4. All incoming e-mails and letters at C&EN after an "AARRGGH" Rudy Baum editorial
5. All internal e-mails at UCLA and associated regulatory agencies after Sheri Sangji's accident. (Wait a minute, aren't they all public record? Hmm.)

Too bad I'll never get the chance, except for #5 (maybe someday -- c'mon, Jyllian!) One can only hope.

Daily Pump Trap: 12/2/10 edition

Good morning! Between November 30 and December 1, there were 9 jobs posted on the ACS Careers database. Of these, 4 (44%) were academically connected.

Orange, TX: INVISTA desires a Ph.D. chemist to work in R&D at their nylon / adipic acid facility in Texas. You'll be working on nylon intermediates; organometallic background preferred.

Ann Arbor, MI: IMRA America is looking for a Ph.D. chemist to work on thin film solar cell technology. "Experiences in thin film solar cell fabrication and evaluation. Experiences with CIGS will especially be considered." "Knowledge of solid state chemistry, material thermodynamics and kinetics" is also desired.

Umm, no: Sunrider Manufacturing desires a chemist to perform food chemistry research. What's that you say? You're a "a successful, world-wide multi-level marketing company"? Really? Hey, where do I sign up?

Broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder and Indeed show (respectively) 247, 569 and 1487 positions for the search term "chemist."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Not much time to blog this morning; I apologize. Thankfully, there's plenty going on elsewhere:

- Paul has decided to take on the Sames-Sezen case; he asserts that it "is the single worst (known) example of misconduct in the history of chemistry; we must learn from it." I'm not convinced of the former, but I heartily agree with the latter.
- Ken and Adam at Chemistry Blog have written up posts on their graduate research; they're a lot more personal than the typical "I published -- ask me anything" post. 
- Can I tell you how much I resent the hell out of this picture?
- Incidentally, Bethany Halford got to the bottom of the incorrect statement that that 42,000 chemist jobs were lost between 2008 and 2009. Again, this statement is NOT true. 
- Sharon is letting folks know that "methylene glycol" and "formaldehyde" are indeed the same. 
- psi*psi asserts that materials chemistry needs synthetic folks -- if so, that's great. In the same thread, polymer chemistry is suggested as a bastion of "making stuff" by AGAM. 

More later, I hope.