Another change is the employment outlook for organic chemistry graduates. “In the past, chemistry departments could turn out as many synthetic chemists as they wanted because pharma hired people who were trained very deeply, albeit fairly narrowly, in organic synthesis,” Schwab says. “But these days pharma isn’t doing much hiring in the U.S., if any. There are relatively few jobs now for people who are trained in this way.”
Chemistry departments must keep pace with the changing workforce and train their students broadly, Schwab stresses. “I think we need to be very much involved with our graduate students and postdocs to understand what their career goals are and to help them be realistic about preparation for the careers that will be there,” he says. Departments should support alternative career paths such as journalism, law, or policy, he points out. “I think it is going to be very important that people be flexible.”
For students still interested in pharma careers, Schwab notes, related jobs are moving to East Asia and South Asia. With that in mind, he says, “an understanding of foreign cultures and foreign languages would be useful” when job hunting.It could be frustrating and even galling to hear such things about your industry. That being said, I'm really glad that someone that's relatively influential understands the difficulty that synthetic organic chemistry graduates in the United States are facing. I think the question that we're faced with is how many high-profile Big Pharma synthetic jobs will still be around in the next ten years and will there be a boom time again for organic chemists in industry. Right now, the answer doesn't look good.
I suspect that Schwab is, like the rest of us, casting about for an answer to these problems. His answer, like many in our field, is that chemists now need to be trained 'broadly.' I admit that I find this answer to be unsatisfactory, probably for emotional reasons than anything else. If there is a better time (and a longer one) in a chemist's lifespan to gain expertise in chemistry than in graduate school, I would like to know when that time is. Seems to me that postdoctoral training is an excellent time to gain broader experience in law, policy or journalism.
[By the way -- seriously? Journalism, law or policy? Two of these three fields are suffering terribly right now, and I don't think the world needs more Ph.D.-bearing policy analysts. Call me crazy.]
Perhaps it's stupid optimism (and self-interested, too!), but I suspect that some level of chemical employment will continue in the United States, and it won't be necessary to add functional Mandarin or Hindi to your candidacy exam. (Hopefully.)
But it's important, as Schwab says, to look at things realistically. While I might quibble with his answers, I see Dr. Schwab as a kindred spirit in that he's clearly attempting to wrestle with the question of chemical employment. Thanks to him for his service, and best wishes for his retirement and good luck to all of us.