Monday, April 16, 2012

Senior chemists react to Mrs. Flohr

In this week's C&EN, Rudy Baum uses his column to talk about #chemjobs issues, especially responses to Barbara Flohr's letter to C&EN about her daughter:
In the same issue, we ran a letter to the editor from Barbara Flohr who was responding to a story on encouraging young women to enter the sciences. “I am one of those parents who fell for the advice to encourage my daughter in math and science,” Flohr writes. “She is a 2011 summa cum laude chemistry graduate without a job. She has lowered her expectations considerably and now wonders every day if she made a stupid decision to study chemistry. So do I.” 
Flohr’s letter struck a nerve. We have already received a number of letters from readers about it, and we will run a selection of them in an upcoming issue. Two of C&EN’s Advisory Board members also sent me e-mails about Flohr’s letter. Kendrew H. Colton, a chemist and intellectual property lawyer in Washington, D.C., writes: “It’s a sad state of affairs when an aspiring scientist has her aspirations nipped in the bud. In the past, specialty synthesis companies were known to be looking for rock-solid chemists, and certainly the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is actively looking for top talent at all ranks. The former is ‘wet chemistry’ and the latter is ‘paper chemistry,’ but they can overlap. A couple of my former colleagues—both excellent patent counsel—were bench chemists in labs. I don’t know if you respond to folks like Ms. Flohr, but if you do, tell her daughter to aim high and don’t give up.” 
I wonder if Mr. Colton's note has a sentence edited out of it, such as 'it's too bad that current economic times are hitting specialty synthetic companies particularly hard' or something like that. Certainly USPTO's one open chemistry position (at the moment) looks to require a fairly intense industrial background. There are a number of internship programs, which I'm sure he was referring to.

It would be easy to start an intergenerational flame war, but that wouldn't be wise nor constructive. So I simply suggest to Mr. Colton that he recognize the current state of the chemistry job market (especially for young people), its historically bad nature and ponder whether to factor that into his future advice. 

25 comments:

  1. I find Colton's comments less offensive than Rudy's closing statement in the editorial.

    I know that people are justifiably frustrated with the current employment situation for chemists, but chemistry remains a wonderful intellectual pursuit that can lead to many different career paths.

    So to summarize, the chemistry job market is the worst the ACS has ever seen, but chemistry is still an awesome career choice? Are there strong enough people in the world to help pull these peoples' heads out of their ass?

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  2. @Bender...
    Actually, he's not saying the chemistry is an awesome career choice. He's saying it's a "wonderful intellectual pursuit that can lead to many different career paths." Many DIFFERENT career paths is the key, and in that, he is correct. There is medicine, dentistry, business, law that can be followed with a chemistry degree.

    As to the letter...just another young person letting their mommy takeover their lives. Never ceases to amaze me with the laziness of the generation we have now. These are the same people whose parents call employers checking on their offspring's candidacy (yes, that actually happens). A degree is not a guarantee for employment, nor should it be.

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    1. Lyle, don't you think that's potentially unfair? Ms. Flohr could have written the letter all on her own.

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    2. Or it could be that Ms. Flohr feels that writing a letter to a magazine that caters directly to chemists and "whining" would be a bad career move. The whole "don't rock the boat" idea. This inaction of her daughter may have forced Mrs. Flohr to be her advocate. I commend the mother, she cares about an issue that sees very little light compared to the campaign of needing more chemists/STEM graduates.

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  3. No, not unfair. And the parents that call the employers could be working on their own? Nope, fair is fair.

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    1. More like FOX-fair

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    2. I think it is definitely unfair to complain about a parent "taking over the life" of a fresh graduate. A simple reason is financial as it takes the combined effort of the "middle 75%" to pay for a child's college education.
      More to the point, parents are a great networking resource to the child. The "hard work and talent" seldom gets one a job. Networking does. The parents are already there and unless the graduate chooses not to involve them, it is only natural to help.
      On the subject of science vs. non-science... In high school my kid was showing good talent in molecular biology, including some heavy duty hands-on activities (we were lucky to have this kind of access). Yet, instead of a molecular biologist we are going to have a promising artist. Somehow I have a feeling that watching my contortions to find a non-temp position again didn’t help. Pity.

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  4. The whole "don't rock the boat" thing has become rather obnoxious. I also commend Ms. Flohr for writing a letter. It seemed as if her daughter wasn't taking her chemistry career seriously anymore, so why not say something and "rock the boat"?

    Why is it opportunistic for, let's take an example, GWB to be given several businesses by his parents to run to the ground, but over-reaching for parent to write a concerned letter about the nuanced issue of STEM overproduction? So it is ok for parents to give their children jobs, but not ok to make a fuss if their already hard working children have none?

    I am also rather taken aback that one would insinuate that young people aren't willing to work, when I know so many younger people that are still in their 20s who suffer from high blood pressure, ulcers, and chronic depression while still trying to maximize their weekly output. Yes, many of them are scientists.

    Being a chemist can be rather self-rewarding and empowering. You find yourself working with your hands creating things that make modern civilization possible. Then it becomes rather easy to feel empowered, entitled, and arrogant to all that riff-raff who have taken no initiative nor personal responsibility for their lives. It's strange, how your self importance and self reliance deflates when you have no access to fancy analytical equipment (NMR, MS) or that very expensive scientific literature.

    Being employed for quite some time now, I hope I never have to feel like that again.

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  5. Many enablers here I see....

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    1. If by enablers you mean those that feel that the current/future chemists have been given a raw deal and need more help than just the advice of yesteryears on getting a job, then yes, you are correct I am an enabler.

      I'm in this process(grad student); it sucks seeing that the current job market is bleak and 5 years(7, who am I kidding?) down the road are not looking any better. If laziness is your only justification for the frustration of family members of young scientists and their unemployment, then I have to ask what is your definition of lazy? Summa cum laude in chemistry is no small task that you just get.

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    2. Raw deal for chemists? Seriously? Times suck for everyone, not just chemists. What about those art history majors? I have no problem with nepotism; that's been around since the beginning of time. If a parent wants to bring their child into the family business and groom them to take over - by all means go for it. If, as a previous poster posted, GWB (don't know why he, in particular, was brought up) gets to run several businesses into the ground, so be it. However, I have seen it first hand too many times over the past several years (and, by the way, never prior to this) that a parent starts doing the job (as far as job searching, etc) of the child. A child applies for a job (graduate school, post-doc) and it's the parent that does all the leg work. The student just sits back and, apparently, does nothing because I am only fielding inquiries from the parent. There is something wrong in that.

      There is networking, and there is doing the work of a lazy child. Or a meddlesome parent, and more times than not, both.

      Auriside - good for you. But, thee is a difference between Summa cum laude in school, and having a work ethic. You may have both, awesome, so many others do not. And, if you don't have a work ethic by 22 - 23, you're never getting one. Plus with all of the grade inflation going on, it's not that difficult anymore. Several years ago 80% of all Harvard graduates, graduated with honors. It is still happening.

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    3. You are on a site dedicated to chemistry related jobs if you go through the other posts dealing with employment in the chemistry field, you will see that unemployment is at an all time high. As a graduate from the same year as the graduate in the letter you take offense to(2011),I consider it a raw deal that all I saw growing up were slogans that can be summarized as, "we don't have enough STEM graduates we need more STEM graduates!" only to graduate and see major pharmaceutical companies shed thousands of chemists into a job market that is terrible. My advisor had a good observation of the current situation,"There was a time where you could get a B.S. and be able to line up a job to go directly into industry. Those days are gone and not coming back for a long time, if ever." Those words do not invoke confidence in the system we chemists are dependent on for our career.

      You have an issue with parents and from the sound of it you are a recruiter of some sort. I ask you, when was the last time YOU were unemployed? When was the last time YOU had no foreseeable route to financial security? And finally when was it that whatever YOU did would not change a damn thing about your employment situation because the employee pool is getting larger and the number of jobs are getting smaller? I would say I would be hard pressed to put the effort in to find a job considering most jobs I see posted are requiring prior experience(I do not have) a higher degree(i do not have) or both.

      Work ethic does not mean a whole lot when your major sink for people in your field of expertise has gone on a wholesale culling of divisions, plants, and support personelle. You see lazy people. I see lost people.

      You are right though, the economy sucks for everyone, but know that this is the worst for the chemistry/chemical industry since the ACS kept record. That speaks volumes about our current situation.

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    4. A few personal questions if I may Lyle:
      What year did you graduate? How many jobs did you apply for? How many interviews did you attend? What were the graduate chemist unemployment figures? Are you just being a troll, or are you actually so entitled and out of touch to think that the entire graduating generation is lazy and not willing to look for work? Have you even read the posts on this blog, especially the one about the woman who was plunged into a deep depression due to the job search situation?

      To be honest I am not sure why I am nipping on your bait, but I found your attitude so offensive I felt moved to reply.

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    5. Are you f-ing kidding me? You've just made my point about this generation, thanks! The ones I feel sorry for are those that have made a career out of chemistry. Spent 25 years in the profession and are now finding themselves out of work with no real prospects. You're in grad school - chemistry prospects suck? Do something else. Stop bitching about how bad your life is when you still have plenty of time to make a change. It's those that have dedicated their lives and made significant contributions that are being shelved that I feel for.

      You have a foreseeable future to "financial security"...it may not be as a research chemist, but if you are as smart as you say, make a switch for god's sake and stop whining. Maybe you have to delay that dream of yours, so be it. Need a higher degree? Get one. Work ethic means doing what is necessary to be successful - not "lost" people. Pick up and do something else.

      "And finally when was it that whatever YOU did would not change a damn thing about your employment situation because the employee pool is getting larger and the number of jobs are getting smaller?" YOU CAN DO SOMETHING MAKE A CHANGE!

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    6. One could also argue that the current state of things is due to the older generation's complacency, myopia, and greed. They've ruined things for generations to come.

      Generational stereotyping is tedious and unproductive, Mr. Langley.

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    7. What is unproductive is someone crying about their situation as if there is nothing that can be done. Nobody is arguing the situation is poor - the fact is Mr/Ms Auriside doesn't have to be a chemist. That is a choice and if they chose to do something with a bleak outlook, that is nobody's fault but their own. The monorail business isn't fantastic, but you don't hear me bitchin'.

      Actually, generational stereotyping is productive and the "Me-generation" needs to see that people see them for what they really are... It's only unproductive if you fall into that category, because more than likely you don't want to look into the mirror.

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    8. @LL
      Did you even read the original letter? It is not about how hard her daughter has it, it is about the C&EN being dishonest and self-serving trying to sell young people a career path that will lead them nowhere.

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    9. Lyle,

      I fail to see your "positive" spin on this. Personal accountability only goes so far, and unless you live in a cave in Alaska, and receive mineral checks from the state, and that cave has gold in it, I don't see personal responsibility as absolute. We as a (chemical) society have serious problems, and as a society, we are unfortunately pathetically slow at addressing, coming to terms, and fixing these problems. There is more at stake than just one disillusioned girl's and perhaps overprotective mom's career options. We have our livelihoods, and perhaps even cornerstones of modern civilization if we don't protect our field.

      And only the most nihilistic of us believes that "nothing can be done". And I agree whole heatedly, that that type of defeatist attitude is cathartic in the short team, but hazardous if one dwells on it for too long.

      For me at least, I'm just going to have more faith in this mother and that the daughter is working to the best of her ability. And If I am enabling lazy behavior (as if I was buying my alcoholic brother-in-law a six pack) so be it.

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    10. I'm not putting a "positive spin" on this. The outlook for chemistry jobs now, and in the near future at least, are bleak. There really is no reason for anybody to be caught with their pants down on this one. If what you're doing isn't working, then change. That is something we all can do. Don't wait for someone to do it for you.

      As I've stated previously, new graduates are at the perfect crossroads to do something different. You cannot expect everything to be roses and things just fall in your lap. Your major didn't just give you a job (that was never promised either); then look into something else. You don't have a career in chemistry, there is not real investment. It's those into their late 40's, early 50's that are getting the shaft.

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    11. -Young chemists knew what they were getting into...a bleak future.

      -A parent writing a letter complaining about ACS's bias in not reporting the bleakness of the profession is obviously out-of-line.

      -Everyone under 30 is lazy.

      -Mrs. Flohr, being the mother of someone under 30, is obviously a helicopter parent.

      -Everyone who is under 30 or a parent thereof has never heard themselves being stereotyped and would benefit from hearing it.

      -Anyone who sympathizes with this family is an "enabler."

      -Sympathy for veteran chemists who become unemployed after 25 years, however, is understandable.

      -Complaining about a bad situation is "whining."

      -Anyone who is "whining" cannot possibly be doing anything else to help themselves.

      Got that, everyone? Good. Now leave Mr. Langley to his basket-weaving.

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    12. Lyle, you need to realize that the problems that need to be solved are not just for the people in their 40s and 50s. It is systemic and me changing fields doesn't help the situation I just become part of the problem in another field that I'm not trained in.

      Here is a general outline of some of the steps that may help prevent this from happening again:

      The kids in high school need to have an understanding of what is entailed in any general field. The students in college whom are investing tens of thousands of dollars into a degree need better prospective from their advisors. Those generations are especially told that there are not enough STEM degrees and you will be a hot commodity.

      Those who go straight into the workforce need help finding job placement outside the usual suspects for chemistry degrees. Once again this is a failure of our current system. This is also true with graduate students and needs to be taken into consideration as most advisors are good at placing post docs and standard industry.

      As for those beyond these formative years, creation of programs to help diversify ones skill set beyond what they were initially trained in decades earlier to either help boost job security or allow for a wider transition if one loses a job.

      Thinking a little down the road helps more than just saying change jobs.

      Also to clarify I did not graduate with any sort of academic honors. Grades do not mean as much as some lead on but I am most definitely the exception not the rule as far as grades are concerned. You are right, I do not have to be a chemist. I chose to be a chemist to help create more awareness in the public sphere to chemistry and to do give students the same chance I was given at my undergraduate institution; the chance to do research.

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  6. One of the activities I have taken on to broaden my experience while looking for a job has been outreach through the Carnegie Science Center of Pittsburgh. It's been a a joy to share my passion for science with the next generation. But... I feel a little a odd telling students about great jobs for scientists while I can't find full time work. I agree with the commenter above- I have a PhD, I'll never want for a paycheck. But if I want to work in my field it's a different story.

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  7. As someone who is currently gainfully employed with a graduate degree in chemistry, I like my job, but it wasn't worth giving up my 20's for. Looking back, I would have been better off skipping grad school - I might be in a less interesting job today, but you're only 22 once. I enjoy being a chemist, but I still don't think the payoff is worth what I put in to get the degree.

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  8. flohr54@live.comMay 21, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    being a FLOHR with asperger's syndrome i could only dream of having support of any kind. school WAS NEVER AN OPTION. instead told about tough love and shown the door. rcf

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