Monday, April 30, 2012

A poor and tone-deaf response to Mrs. Flohr

Also in this week's C&EN, a letter from a Dr. David A. Marsh to Mrs. Flohr, who aptly summarizes the arrogance of the let-them-eat-persistence crowd. I reproduce Dr. Marsh's letter in full:
I am absolutely flabbergasted that Barbara Flohr would make such negative comments about science education, criticizing a nonprofit organization for encouraging students to participate in science fairs and deriding President Obama’s efforts to increase funding for basic science research (C&EN, March 26, page 4). 
I understand the frustration of having a loved one unemployed. But such an attitude is counterproductive. Although it is true that ACS members are experiencing the highest level of unemployment since 1972, that level, 4.6%, is relatively small when one considers that the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. is currently 8.3% (C&EN, March 26, page 10). The glass is 95.4% full, yet Flohr is focusing on the empty portion. 
Instead, Flohr should focus on encouraging her daughter to take some positive steps that could enhance her career, such as the following: Consider earning an advanced degree at a top college; concomitantly broaden that chemistry background (e.g., pharmaceutics). Intern at an institution that advances one’s knowledge base and marketability. Participate in professional organizations and become an invaluable member of committees. Develop an international network of professional friends. Publish and present at every opportunity. Be open to moving anywhere in the world to get a job that advances one’s career and knowledge base. If the job is outside the U.S., learn the language and culture. Ensure that the résumé is complete. Remember that human resources personnel may be searching for keywords, which they may not understand. Your résumé may be selected based on acronyms like IR, HPLC, NMR, GC, MS, IND, NDA, PLGA, MAA, etc. If infrared spectrometry appears in the résumé but IR does not, there is a fair likelihood that that keyword will be missed on an HR search. 
Above all, keep a positive attitude. Institutions want to hire scientists who are not just smart but also enthusiastic, energetic, and hardworking. 
Since 1976, when I received my doctorate, my career changes have always been focused on finding jobs that challenged me to learn new fields within science. My first six years after graduation were financially quite difficult. But I broadened my career; I learned to synthesize new drugs, test them in vitro and in vivo, radiolabel the molecules, and follow the pharmacokinetics of key actives. I loved that poor-paying job! 
Science has given me a wonderful career! My advice: Seek knowledge, love science, and all else will follow. 
By David A. Marsh
Irvine, Calif
Perhaps Dr. Marsh is unaware that the 4.6% unemployment for ACS members was measured in March 2011 and the latest BLS number is 6.1% (estimated over the entirety of 2011) -- perhaps the glass is 93.9% full. Maybe Dr. Marsh is not aware that the latest number for unemployment (2009 data) for new B.S. chemistry graduates is 15% -- and so the glass might be 85% full.

Or perhaps Dr. Marsh does not recognize that Mrs. Flohr's daughter is unemployed, and so for her, the glass is 100% empty.

I'm amused at Dr. Marsh's laundry list of ideas to improve Mrs. Flohr's daughter's chances of getting a job in chemistry. Some of them (the resume keywords) are eminently practical. Some of them ("become an invaluable member of committees") are odd, interesting and have more of a long-term payoff. Some of them ("Be open to moving anywhere in the world") are easy to recommend to other people but a lot more difficult to implement. I am curious to know if Dr. Marsh decamped to other countries during his long career.

Finally, "I loved that poor-paying job!" and "Science has given me a wonderful career!" are cold comfort to people who are suffering now. While "all else will follow" may have worked for Dr. Marsh, I suggest that this era in the American chemical enterprise may be different, and past performance is no guarantee of future performance. 

24 comments:

  1. Considering that he recommends "pharmaceutics" as a great place to gain chemistry knowledge for the sake of employment just reinforces the fact that his knowledge of the current job market is way out of date.

    On the other hand, he's right. She could get off her lazy ass and apply to Beecham, Pharmacia, or Schering Plough.

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    1. I hear there's a lot of hiring going on nowadays at Parke-Davis, Upjohn, and Searle.

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  2. "Publish and present at every opportunity."

    As advice an unemployed holder of a BSc? I'm confused. How? What?

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  3. "Some of them ("Be open to moving anywhere in the world") are easy to recommend to other people but a lot more difficult to implement."

    Moving abroad is so awesome. I always wanted to run away from family for a bit though. It has been one of the best things that has happened to me. Americans are sort of ignorant in general of the world beyond English North America, but if you're a foreigner, even an American, suddenly you're a sign of 'diversity' in your lab or job. Plus learning a new language means even if your chemistry sucks, you can make progress on something else. Unless you're one of those people who don't care about learning local language and culture I guess, but the activation barrier is not that high and the payoffs are huge. Just today there was a note on my car, and I could read it and understand it 'almost' perfectly (the handwriting was a bit messy). It really made my day!

    "Dear car owner. While going backwards, I hit your parked car. Managed to damage my car a bit, but after examining yours it looks like it's fine. If you want to involve insurance and want to make some claims and if you want to call me, here is my number: xxx-xxxxxxx --so and so"

    Awesome. And I didn't even study the language that hard-core.

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  4. A brief search on Reaxys and Google Patents suggests that Dr. Marsh (I could only find one in chemistry active in the '70-'80s) worked for Angela Brodie, a pioneer in aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer.
    J. Med. Chem. 1985, p. 788-795

    He then moved to Baxter Travenol, later Baxter Int'l, and (maybe) pops up here an there in the patent lit. at Bausch & Lomb and other industrial concerns.

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  5. I assume David Marsh used to walk 5 miles to school each day in the snow, uphill both ways!

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    1. With barbed wire wrapped around his bare feet for traction, no doubt.

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  6. "Consider earning an advanced degree at a top college"

    I know grad students and post-docs at a very well known top school in the northeast area who are having a very difficult time finding employment.

    "Intern at an institution that advances one’s knowledge base and marketability"

    Uh, good luck competing with 100,000 other applicants for that internship and good luck paying the rent with the internship's pay rate.

    "Participate in professional organizations and become an invaluable member of committees."

    Oh, you mean like join an organization like the ACS that provides bogus jobs numbers and offers very little in obtaining actual employment in return for membership dues, which are used to pay the 150k salaries of the directors? Golly, where do I sign up?

    "Publish and present at every opportunity."

    Yeah, so about that advanced degree, my future employment prospects don't look much better with one...

    "Be open to moving anywhere in the world to get a job that advances one’s career and knowledge base."

    I'm sorry, but when we make the decision for a particular career path, we're not exactly interesting in only being able to pursue that career in another country. Perhaps I enjoy the states and perhaps I would much rather be closer to family, especially my 79 yr old father. Some people don't have the luxury of dropping everything and getting a job in Singapore.

    All respect that's due, but Dr. Marsh is completely out of touch with the reality of the chemistry job market. When aspiring scientists make the huge decision sophomore year of college what career path they'd like to follow, at least be honest with them.

    As a side note, CJ, I applaud you for hosting this blog. I would imagine it takes guts to present an alternative view of the current job market that the big-wigs at the ACS are trying their damnedest to skew.

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    1. Thanks, Anon1213p, for the kind words.

      I'd like to think the bigwigs at ACS are waking up to our new reality (see the Dennis Chamot essay below.) Step by step, we're getting there.

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    2. "Be open to moving anywhere in the world."

      I'm pretty sure there are some jobs available in India, and China, but even if you could take the cut in pay, you probably couldn't get permission to work there anyway. Most of the rest of the world's not hiring, either.

      Of course, when the $20T in debt (+ underfunded SSI) that his generation helped run up comes due, I'm sure the US will be a chemistry paradise, right?

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    3. I think you mean $500k salaries at ACS.

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  7. Maybe she should send he CV to:

    Syntex, Sterling, Bayer, Berlex, Alza, JNJ – Ortho, Monsanto, Dupont Pharma, P&G, Robins, Knoll (BASF), 3M, Burroughs-Wellcome, Rorer, Merrill-Dow, Rhone-Poulenc, Wyeth, Lederle, Pfizer – New London, AstraZeneca – Delaware, USV, Sanofi Bridgewater pharma R&D centers

    Or AmCy, Stauffer, Sohio, Amaco, Shell, Chevron, Rohm & Hass Ag R&D sites

    I means I sent my CV to all these places when I got my PhD in 1977. They are all still open right?

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  8. I think the letter writer misses the point entirely. I still got the impression from Mrs. Flohr that her daughter is jaded to the point where she no longer takes her Chemistry degree seriously. In the face of the laundry list of items one must achieve in order to remain competitive, if not employed, she is walking away from the field. Like so many other scientists these days, it's only a rational human thing to do. Some of us have families and lives we would like to be a part of and not globe trotting to try to achieve some new world's chemists fantasy. Why martyr yourself to the cause with only a B. S. in chemistry. It's not the end of the world, and it shouldn't be a slight to Mr. Marsh's ego.

    It need not be the end of chemistry either. If society can re-engineer itself in such a way that we can reward research, especially long term research, then problem solved. If researching chemists value their trade, and they should, they have to take ownership of these problems and build incentives to keep researchers a part of the game and believing in the game.

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    1. "Why martyr yourself to the cause?" - I couldn't have said it better myself! I like chemistry, but I don't like it enough to see my family once a year at Christmas, or to be a postdoc when I'm 33 and my peers all have houses and kids!

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    2. Damn. You just described me pretty much perfectly (except I don't see my family even that often because travel during that time of year is ridiculously expensive, even moreso on postdoc salary).

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  9. One of the speakers at my school this year regaled the students who went out to lunch with him of stories of how in his day they competed to see who received the most offers before they had graduated. It sounds to me as though Dr. Marsh came of age in a similar time and cannot conceive of the structural difficulties facing aspiring chemists today. Given the present environment it seems the most career enhancing move to make would be to find another field. Until enough of us leave chemistry there's going to difficulties for everyone. Given the climate I would say that the ACS should try to take steps to lower the number of students at all levels. I would like to start behaving more like the AMA - limiting the number of chemists. Instead of focusing on the number of members they can enroll it would be better to increase the quality and limit the supply allowing wages to rise and unemployment to drop. This might have the extra advantage of making the US competitive with overseas again by raising the quality of chemists here making it worthwhile to pay a premium for a US based chemist.

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  10. I think the real problem with this response is context. With success and employment, all of those steps to enhance one's career come quite easily. Lacking a position, a purpose, most of those activities seem futile. They are also much more difficult to do in general, and people have to do something to make a living.

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  11. Just from what I've seen as a soon to be graduate (last round of finals), there are a large number of students in chemistry who lack the fundamental understanding and laboratory skills necessary to be a chemist, especially practical laboratory skills. My experience has been that going out of your way to get practical laboratory experience (internships, academic research) does more for your career prospects than any of those suggestions.

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  12. How come no one mentions the fact that he commits a major fallacy by equating chemists and ACS members?

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  13. Really, the guy got his PhD in the '70s. I doubt he has any clue whatsoever about the current job market. Most of his comments were either common sense (really--getting keywords right?) or inapplicable to BS level positions.

    I admit coming at this from conflicted viewpoints myself because I've seen both the good and bad.

    In my current job at a fed lab, we've hired a few techs over the last year and can see how bad the job market is from the applications coming in. We are flooded with applicants when a position opens these days (~2-300 if the position is open for a week); many of them are overqualified PhDs that we would never be allowed to hire anyway--even from top schools. In the "good" times this never happened because our lab is deep in "flyover" country and only would get a few (<25) local applicants. When the economy sucks as bad as it does and there are an excess of workers to positions open, there really is no advice that can address this.

    On the other hand, prior to moving to the fed lab a couple years ago, I was at a univ (3rd tier) doing the research group thing and all of my students--~10 undergrad and 5 grad--had no problems getting jobs. Now my group wasn't synthetic but analytical but the point is that the perspective from a lot of people is that things just aren't that bad or at least they are not much worse then previous times. I'd probably still have that perspective if I hadn't seen the other side myself.

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  14. I think you guys have been too quick and too harsh in your judgement. Yes, Dr. Marsh's worldview is myopic, but it probably reflects his personal experience. I would rather consider why Mr. Baum chose to publish this particular letter.

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    1. Precisely. It is truly sad how C&EN has been turned into a political propaganda sheet in recent years.

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    2. http://www.campaignmoney.com/political/contributions/rudy-baum.asp?cycle=08

      Does this information surprise anyone?

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