Friday, October 7, 2011

The Inequality Prediction, or Why Now is Different than Then

Frequent commenter (by e-mail) John Smith writes in with a not-too-unfamiliar analogy of the current chemistry labor market:
Getting a chemistry PhD is now like playing college ball. You are exploited for the benefit of the college and coach (prof) and if you are one of the lucky ones, you get drafted by the pros but no guarantees of course. Your career will be short (but not as lucrative) and when the pros kick you out into the real world, you will find you have absolutely no marketable skills to secure your future.
Yet another frequent commenter You're Pfizered comments in a similar vein:
If you're at North Dakota State to study synthetic chemistry, you've got to think about what this will get you. I'm sure even the Ivy graduates are having a much harder time to find work, as the original subject of this thread indicated. 
These comments remind me of my running thesis of the past 2 years of blogging: the structure of the chemistry job market is changing, and not for the better. I don't have many bold predictions, but if I were to summarize the learning of the last two years of blogging and working as a industrial chemist, it would be this:

Because of the contraction of the pharmaceutical chemistry job market over the last 8 years, the structure of the available positions and their origins have changed. Before 2003, if you graduated from a R1 university with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, you were likely to find a position somewhere in the industry. During this time, top universities would send their graduates and postdocs to the large pharmaceutical companies. Less elite schools would send their graduates to less august positions, but they would still be employed.

After 2008, this structure has changed: now, only the top graduates/postdocs of the most elite schools are placing students with the pharmaceutical companies. Everyone else is now competing for jobs at startups, CROs* and the like.

I predict that this will have a profound impact on the nature of synthetic chemistry as a long-term career path, as the salary gap widens between those still employed by pharma (who command top dollar) and those who stay in the industry at smaller companies or startups. Unless the trend changes, these disparities will become more and more obvious and the people will choose their paths accordingly. During this time, I predict that we will see the income inequality between the top 10% of industrial chemists and the median salary (as measured in the ACS ChemCensus) will increase significantly.

Best wishes to all of us.

*The CAFOs of the chemistry world (TM milkshake.) 


  1. Not going to respond unless by email.

  2. Uh, okay. Chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom it is, then.

  3. You're PfizeredOctober 7, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    After 2008, this structure has changed: now, only the top graduates/postdocs of the most elite schools are placing students with the pharmaceutical companies. Everyone else is now competing for jobs at startups, CROs* and the like.

    And this applies mostly to PhD graduates. The job market for MS level synthetic folks, even from quality programs, has all but dried up.

    My apologies to anyone who reads this blog from NDSU, of course...

    Full disclosure: Didn't go to NDSU or an Ivy, fairly long-term big pharma employee without a PhD, but working at that grade level.

  4. I think you have to be from an elite group or closely connected to one of the elites, or an old really well respected guy with a million buddies on high in the private sector. I don't suspect coming from some top ten school but also out of a newer, young, only-very-good-not-spectacular profs group will cut it. So it seems to me. You also have to be well liked by your boss.

    Heck, a guy once told me he wanted profs to rank students on a scale of 1-10 against their group. He didn't want any 5s, only 8+. So I'm thinking this is pretty nutty because there are plenty of groups out there that pretty much crank out solid chemists. And this guy's telling me he essentially doesn't want a typical chemist from some of these groups when a typical chemist is rock solid and once upon a time they could get a job no problem and have wonderful success.

  5. The above, needing the support of one's PI (cf. confidential letters of reference for academic positions), is not at all surprising. It also does science a terrible terrible disservice to Science.

    This year's Nobel laureate is a decent example of this.

    "Scientists greeted Shechtman's discovery with resistance, even ridicule, the committee said. The head of his laboratory suggested he read a textbook on crystallography. When Shechtman persisted in his experiments, he was asked to leave the research group."

    I wonder how many similar discoveries have been squelched by supervisors unhappy with an actual free-thinking grad student or PDF?

    I hope whoever asked Shectman to leave is still alive.

  6. The salary gap may not widen as much as you think - many chemists are being "redeployed" within their pharma company, at a lower salary and lower benefits. The choice is being laid off vs. accept a lower salary. IF you get that choice. Disgusting.

  7. Don't forget the 'salary gap' which is accelerating the problem. Positions in China have salaries half that of the US. Pharma companies will continue to send more and more work to China whether through opening new sites or through low-cost foreign CROs. As the salary gap between China and the US is currently narrowing (through decrease of US salaries and increase of Chinese salaries), more pharmaceutical companies are sending work to the new alternative low cost labor, i.e. US universities.