Monday, February 27, 2012

Former ACS president hammers academia on #chemjobs

In today's issue of Chemical and Engineering News, a letter from former ACS president Attila Pavlath. An interesting section:
For years, many of those in the Ivory Towers protected by the Tenure Moat were waving the red flag of not having enough chemists. There were many Chicken Littles with predictions about dire consequences of the falling sky. 
There is nothing new about the shortage of jobs, which started many years ago. Sputnik made us realize that science education was inadequate in the U.S. and started a rush to produce more chemists. However, there was a chain reaction. Many graduates went to academe to produce more chemists. It was evident that somewhere the process had to come to an end, but those who dared to question the lack of proper attire of the king were ignored. In the 1960s, the ACS Employment Clearing House showed four jobs available for everyone who was looking for a job. Generally those were not recent graduates, because companies went to the universities to interview and hire the students before they had graduated. Starting in the ’70s the situation changed: Job seekers outnumbered the jobs offered by a 3:1 ratio. The most alarming fact was that the job seekers were mostly young graduates. Midcareer chemists who were terminated considered it more and more hopeless to sign up. 
[snip] We have the best educational system in the world; our graduates receive excellent preparation to go to another university and to produce graduates with the same capability. However, we do not prepare them for industrial employment where most of the jobs are for chemists. In order to make graduates suitable for industrial jobs, the curriculum has to be changed. Unfortunately, academe needs cheap labor for work that can result in publications to obtain tenure and grants. Teaching does not provide tenure; it has become a burden and secondary to the pursuit of fame, grants, and tenure. Until the system is changed, the students are the ones who will have difficulties in their job hunt.
I don't really know what to say about this, in that it's difficult for me to evaluate the factual/historical statements. Someday, it might be nice to get into a room of old ACS hands and get an oral history of their ideas about chemistry jobs.


  1. These criticisms of academia are nothing new. I was hearing this when I was in grad school, too. Grad school trains you to be a professor, nothing else. Once you get a job outside of academia, you need further training.

    I have no idea why academia has not moved to professionalized technicians more. It seems if there's a tension between needing more bodies to do research and not enough jobs for grads this solution is obvious. But I think professors have a significant advantage if their workers are students rather than employees so perhaps that's the reason.

  2. On a tangentially related note, the cover story about fluorination chemistry contains and interesting tidbit from Prof. Dolbier. He cites his concern about new people entering the field not properly citing his work. This will always be the disconnect between academia and industry. It doesn't matter to him that people are coming up with new products through it, only that he's not getting what's his. This is part of the attitude that's contributed to the backlog of PhDs, professors don't care about anything but themselves.

  3. What good does industry-specific training do when industry jobs are disappearing? Does he seriously think grad school curriculum will have any effect in the face of the macroeconomic forces at work?

  4. I went through grad school and didnt learn anything that was relevant or any useful skill that would help me land a job in the industry. Grad school was just doing research for my PI's benefits. With chem. jobs outsourced to china/india, I think people should just avoid chemistry all together. so much rigorous training and your salary is not even comparable to the blue-collar workers.

  5. Graduate school doesn't teach you how to be a professor, either. There are many aspects of a faculty position in academia (e.g., curriculum development, people management, budgetary stuff, grant writing) that graduate students are given almost no exposure to and faculty have to learn on the fly (or ideally as a post-doc).

  6. main ek chemist hun!

    I took a couple years of Hindi as a postdoc (thanks tuition discount!). Figure I could always move to India if this under-/un-employment thing lasts long enough. Departments could eliminate seminars and require the 50% of the students that are Americans to take Mandarin or Hindi instead. That might help their employability!