Monday, April 9, 2012

The chemical workforce: a view from an older member

I always enjoy reading the letters in C&EN, especially for the views from much older members:
I would like to add to the situation presented in Attila Pavlath’s thought-provoking letter (C&EN, Feb. 27, page 2). I entered the workforce in 1945 and soon found a roughly four-year cycle regarding employment in the chemical industry. At one point, demand for chemists would be high, and chemical engineers were loudly proclaimed by industry. This resulted in large numbers of students electing to major in those fields. In approximately four years, this would result in an oversupply of professionals and a paucity of jobs. Then, students would major in other fields, resulting in a shortage of chemists and chemical engineers. Then the cycle would repeat. 
Another point by Pavlath is that universities do not prepare students for industry. The one factor he does not mention is that the subject matter presented in chemistry courses is highly academic, beginning with high school chemistry courses. They deal with what I call chemical physics and very little chemistry. They deal with chemical kinetics, reaction mechanisms, and the nucleus, but little attention is paid to actual chemical reactions. I was fortunate to graduate when this was not quite so, but by the time my kids went to college, the subject of chemistry had been made uninteresting and not one of them chose to enter the field. 
By Peter R. Lantos, Erdenheim, Pa
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be a chemist during the times when the industry was in a high-growth period. (I also wonder what it was like when the majority of the chemical workforce had a bachelor's degree.)

There's probably an argument to be made about the differences in chemical education between the early 1940s and now. If anyone's ever taken a chemistry course from a much older professor, I feel that there's a focus on the practical applications (I'm recalling a freshman chemistry lecture on the different aspects of limestone, etc. "And then you add water to it... and that's slaked lime!") and a little bit less on learning the fundamentals of molecular orbitals, etc.


  1. I'm jealous; I would have loved a course on practical organic synthesis!

    I'll admit that colors, crystals, and structures got me into the field, not orbitals, Hamiltonians, and rate laws. But, everyone's different.

  2. Chapter One: The SN2 Reaction, or, This Doesn't Actually Work
    Chapter Two: Detecting Cyanide during Reactions, or, Smoke 'Em if you Got 'Em!

  3. Here comes the rumbling from the young assistant professor.

    In a semester style course, I would LOVE to be able to teach on one set of practical applications. But, my problem is, what do I teach? If we look at Gen Chem/OChem, which is where I'm assuming this argument is most applicable in terms of exciting and retaining students, I wouldn't even know where to start. As a faculty member, I have to prep the majors for their advanced courses, I have to prep the pre-meds for organic and for the MCAT, and I have to teach so that the students taking this for their GenEd requirement can mentally function within the class.
    Let's say that I taught "practical" gen chem in order to get the students to be able to function in "industry". What would I teach them? What one thing would I have them do? Being honest with myself, many people with a BS in chemistry who do chemistry jobs end up running analytical equipment. So, do I make the whole thing a practical on using a GC/MS, LC/MS, and HPLC? That's what would be most effective "training" for industry. If I did this, I would screw over the majority of my students who need a different kind of background to excel in Orgo or Biochem. If I stuck to Biochem type problems, then I would thwart any development of people interested in inorganic/materials.
    This is a no-win situation. Back in the "day", the chemical industry wasn't too difficult to pin down. But look at how vast it has become. Chemists make drug molecules. Chemists run polymerizations. Chemists make batteries. Chemists mine ... um ... minerals. We do too many things. If I teach 1 thing, I am not teaching everything else. This is my biggest complaint with industry saying that academia does a poor job training people. Each industry wants academia to prep students for THEIR field and none of the others. This won't work. (Mr. Lantos himself says that chemical hiring runs in 4 year cycles. If I trained undergrads for what was hot "today", their training would already be mostly obsolete by the time they graduated)
    Now, I am all for bringing back more practical things to education. But, I think that we do that in the lab setting. I think that we need to teach them the basics of chemistry (equilibrium/kinetics/etc). But, in a lab, we can show them how to apply these to one specific process. I can imagine designing a whole semester of gen chem laboratory out of making novel batteries. This would be difficult to do. But, I think that its important and worthwhile. It is something that we are working on here at AU. And ... we need to place more emphasis on these types of labs.

    I understand that our current teaching style can seem dry. But don't complain about it unless you're going to give me real answers. The problem is much more difficult and nuanced than any of the critiques let on.

    1. FWIW, I think Lantos is a polymer guy... even more specialized than average!

    2. I took an advanced analytical instrumenation course in undergrad, and it was immensely helpful later. The final exam was "here's a bunch of analytical results, figure out the molecule!" I think this is the kind of thing everyone wanting to go into industry with a BS should take, although not every school would have access to all the instruments.

    3. The academic job market is so cutthroat that an experienced industrial chemist looking to change fields doesn't stand a chance, and hiring is really based on research credentials and not teaching aptitude. A chemist with a master's, a few decades in industry, and TA experience from grad school is plenty competent to teach undergrad gen chem, and would be better able to discuss real-life examples of the topics being covered than a purely academic professor. In 2012, that kind of person wouldn't be able to hope for more than a part-time adjunct gig.

    4. @Anon - I agree that experienced industrial chemists CAN (not necessarily do - the same is true with "academics") make wonderful instructors, the fact that my tenure/promotion is tied to my research (PRIMARY) and teaching (secondary) - as is the case at many if not most schools - makes it more difficult for someone not coming from an academic research environment to be accepted. I am certainly not saying that they wouldn't be able to do it. I think that it is difficult for multiple reasons.

    5. @Anon #1: In my undergrad, we had a similar course: "Spectrometric Identification of Organic Compounds." For the final, we were given an IR spectrum, several 1D and 2D NMR spectra, and a mass spectrum, and we had four hours to elucidate the structure of the compound (open book). The entire semester, we never even set foot inside the instrument lab, we just used spectra the prof pulled out of journals.

      Once you understand HOW an instrument works, it's silly to waste time learning all the ins and outs of the software interface, since the software at your eventual place of employment will be completely different anyway.

    6. Anon #2 here again.

      @Matt - That's exactly the problem, that a professor's main job isn't really teaching. I went from a small, undergrad-only school to a big state university for grad school, and was horrified to see that many people openly considered teaching or TA duties to be a waste of their time and a distraction from research. It appears that you take your teaching responsibilities very seriously - I knew some folks who did, but there weren't any consequences for those who didn't. A grad student friend of mine was caught dismissing a 50-minute class after only 20 minutes on a regular basis, and nothing happened to him aside from a brief scolding.

      @Slurpy - My analytical final was similar to yours - the whole (small) class was given several powders and liquids, and were allowed to use any instrument in the lab and any textbook to figure out what they were.

  4. I'd posit in 1st/2nd year chem courses, we're teaching a though process and a frame of mind more than a trade...

  5. @Matt, @Azmanam - As profs, I'd love to get your read on the value of "bottom-up" vs. "top-down" education.

    I guess, for me (disclaimer: not a Prof), I've always thought you can come at science pedagogy one of two ways: "Here's an example, now let's break it down into component parts." Or, "Here's some fundamental laws or data, let's build that up to a larger concept." This debate, for me, seems to be summed up in the argument we're currently having: Do we get students into some practical application (internships, labs, etc), then teach them as they go? Or do we front-load with information and theories, and then try to apply them?

    For me, I didn't really learn chemistry all that well until I was performing the labs. This forced me to look up concepts and papers, because I wanted to achieve my end goal - getting my reactions to work! I've had friends who wanted the exact opposite, who believe that you can't contribute until you have a deep understanding of the field.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. @See Arr Oh
      Here are my opinions. I agree with both points of view. I agree with you in that I learned more when I was doing research. However, if I just started off in research, without some instruction, I would have been blind to what I was observing.
      With those things in mind, I think that the first year should be front loaded with kinetics and thermodynamics. (I'm teaching GenChem II right now). I mix lectures with full period problem sessions that are aimed at developing the student's ability to solve applied problems. For instance, I'll give them UV Vis data at different time points along with calorimetry data and ask them to give me rate laws and delta G values. I thin that the first year and second year (where we really need to develop a new language with organic chemistry) are crucial for students to be able to "do" things. After that, I think that you have the ability to make it all applied. I think in a perfect world, all advanced courses would be primarily lab-based. These courses would need to be supplemented every now and then with lecture (for instance - when I have to describe crystal field theory/Inorganic molecular orbital diagrams/Point structures in inorganic). But, the majority of the work and the grade would be based on lab.
      The problem is two-fold.
      1) It takes a lot of work to design good teaching labs.
      2) Designed labs have the benefit and detriment of requiring specific answers. (This is good because the teacher can evaluate. It is bad because the students know they need a specific answer and they don't care how they get it. This is bad because this is NOT how science works. And we do a disservice to our students by putting them in instructional labs where they aren't expected to truly be scientists.)

      At AU, we've gotten rid of all of our advanced labs (no PChem lab, no biochem lab, etc). The students are involved in two-semester-long research projects. The projects are guided by the faculty, but the students give direction as to the types of projects that they are interested in researching. As faculty we focus on making them be thorough with how they ask questions of their research and how they proceed with designing experiments. (What we are doing here has more nuance and complexity than what i've descibed ... but that's the basic gist of it).

      So. I agree with you in that I learn more in lab. But, I think that the lab-based learning needs to be predicated on intense student instruction within the first two years.

    2. IMHO It's like the climactic scene in the documentary Ratatouille. You don't get really 'good' at chemistry until you're served some 'fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective.' You don't get perspective until you've had your share of trials and failures and successes in lab. And you can't wrap your mind around the trials and failures and successes unless you've got a reasonable grasp on the concepts and theories and how they're all interconnected (which, itself requires some well-seasoned perspective).

      So I say the first year, year-and-a-half of undergrad should be heavy on theory (with practical application in problem sets/exams) and feet-wetting in lab. As they become second-semester sophomores, they should be able to have more open ended questions/labs and be able to start thinking things through like a chemist - but only if they start seeing the perspective.

      I agree with Matt, it takes a lot of work to design good teaching labs. I thought this paper had an interesting approach to OChem lab in this way.

    3. How's the old saw go? "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment."

      Thanks for your comments, @Matt and @Azmanam

  6. The point is not to "train" a young student about pipelines or chromatographs. The point is teaching chemistry as if it's a matter of mnemonic schoolbooks' formulae, never mind if they are classical thermodynamic or layman versions of quantum mechanics.

    Chemistry is fun, exciting and creative because it's chemistry, not multiple choice forms. A kitchen or a bathroom may be enough as a chemical lab if you are speaking about solubility, surface tension, viscosity or colour changes. And you need to know a lot of chemistry to teach it properly, because most textbooks are not helping. A beginner, in first courses, better in high school or even before, should be able to look at this fascinating world with wide open eyes AND THEN discover that chemistry is the key to understand the world, and that, e.g., you need a lot of maths to catch the meaning of physical chemistry.

    Let's try to teach the chemistry of indigo on blue jeans by staining our fingers, and the story of natural and synthetic indigo and of the auxiliaries used by dyers, and so on... and why the glue on a sneaker's sole is failing because of sweat or summer heat. THAT's chemistry. Then you'll find interested in improving your knowledge about polymerisation, forensic analysis, reduction potentials or industrial formulations. And about sustainability of woad, cotton and hevea crops in poor countries, and so on. Oh, I forgot rare earths in i-things and their relevance to US presidential election.

    I agree that there's a lot to change in org chem teaching, but also in gen chem. Think at your kids: are they old enough to discover that Santa Claus is not a fat Swede and/or to hear all that orbital stuff?

  7. I thought of agree with Sergio Palazzi, though I'm not 100% sure of his position from that comment and we probably differ somehow. At least I agree that I disagree with the letter.

    I would have really hated to be told anecdotes about slaked lime and all this other 'industrially relevant' stuff that I had no interest in at the time. I got into chemistry to understand the basics of matter that could explain to me how the world works. I wanted to understand electricity, but I also wanted to be able to explain a practical setup. I also wanted to explain the reason a salt can be made up of these two counterions in this proportion, and why it prefers to crystallize in this unit cell and not the other. If I was just told industrial anecdotes at the beginning with not much attention paid to orbital theory, I would have quit and gone into physics. And I actually do synthetic chemistry today.

    1. changing comment multiple times before finally submitting leads to spelling errors...