Monday, May 21, 2012

A vote for alternative careers

From this week's C&EN, another letter from someone who has had a good career after a B.S. in chemistry (responding to both Mrs. Flohr and the high level of chemist unemployment):
I wholeheartedly agree with Rudy Baum’s editorial “Chemical Employment,” in which he says that chemistry “remains a wonderful intellectual pursuit that can lead to many different career paths” (C&EN, April 16, page 3). In my case, a B.S. in chemistry enabled me to have a successful 30-year career with the Department of Defense until I retired in 2009. 
Although my employment was not directly in the chemical field, everything I studied, including organic chemistry and polymer science and engineering, was applicable to my work. From missile solid-rocket motors to composite aircraft structures to space systems, my chemistry education was extremely valuable to my work. 
In retirement I’ve used my chemistry background in my consulting with Red Bull Technology regarding materials for their Formula 1 race car. I’m sure there are many other career paths outside of direct employment in the chemical industry or university environment where a chemistry education is most beneficial. 
By Frank T. Traceski
Turners Falls, Mass. 
When older chemists talk about their chemistry degrees and how it enabled them to have a long, successful career, I want to believe them and I hope that it is true. However, I feel there's a bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning; perhaps it was not their chemistry degree, but their innate ability to learn and adapt that was key. Who knows?

10 comments:

  1. This guy is talking pure BS and does a great disservice to young chemists. Just because I have had a great career in chemistry the past 35 years does means such an career is open for today's chemists, it most certainly is not.

    Saying things were great in the 1950s for chemists did not make it so when I got out of school in the 1970s. We had to struggle to find jobs and many of my peers drop out of chemistry to go to med school.

    Things are much worse now than they were back then as so many companies who hired chemists in the 1970s are long gone. Plus so many chemistry jobs are now off-shored to places that were Third World or Communist countries back then.

    He mentioned rocket fuels. Ask yourself how much of that kind of chemistry is going on today? There were lots of those jobs in the 1950s but best I tell they ended with the moon race in the early 1970s. Read the book Ignition! The final paragraph reads:

    There appears to be little left to do in liquid propellant chemistry, and very few important developments to be anticipated. In short, we propellant chemists have worked ourselves out of a job. The heroic age is over. But it was great fun while it lasted.

    Now substitute ag chemist, med chemist, synthesis chemist, organic chemist.....

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    1. I was going to say this same thing. I don't think it's so much post hoc ergo propter doc as it is the times now are nowhere near what they were 30+ years ago. We're in the worst economic/job climate since the Great Depression with unemployment for college graduates at an all time high. It's shortsighted and insulting to compare any time of employment to this, telling students that it's not that bad because you were able to get a job 30 years ago. Only 10 years ago the pharma industry was doing awesome, so it must be a great career path now, right?

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  2. CJ, I have a potentially interesting question, a bit of future forecasting: What jobs, that we look at as "new" or "cutting-edge" will people today actually be working in, 30 years from now?

    If I had to take a stab in the dark, I'd say informatics (more data, more eyes needed, esp for litigation), chemical / patent law, solar technology, and university tech transfer officers.

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    1. I dunno. I agree that there will always be jobs (it seems) in the cutting-edge of IT and adapting software for better productivity in chemistry. Those same productivity improvements will probably negatively affect jobs in higher complexity fields such as law and intellectual property (i.e. patents, tech transfer.)

      If you believe in the increasing scarcity of crude oil (not necessarily 'peak oil', but certainly 'peak cheap oil'), then one would expect increases in investment towards non-oil-based energy sources. One hopes that chemists can find work there.

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  3. Mr. Traceski’s career experiences are tangential, at best, for someone looking for a position in today’s job market.

    Based on him saying he retired in 2009 after 30 years in the Dept. of Defense, that places him as earning his BS in 1979. Things were great then – I got my BS in 1981, and there were plenty of chemist jobs to go around in the chemical, oil and consumer products companies (about pharma, I don’t know). In fact, Mr. Traceski would not have faced much competition getting his DoD job, with so many industrial positions available at the same time.

    Let’s fast forward to 2012 – if this DoD job were posted today on USAjobs.gov, how many would apply for it? 100? 200? More? I believe there was a post on this blog about two weeks ago from federal chemist, saying that he now gets 200-300 applications per opening at his lab.

    But wait! In response to the Federal deficit, there has been a presidential directive in place over the past year, stating that federal jobs are to be cut back by 200,000 over the next several years, mostly by not replacing those who have retired. Mr. Traciski, if he were to retire today, would most likely see his position retired as well, unless it is critical to national security. I live in the DC area, and have neighbors who work at the Pentagon, and they tell me that each position vacated by a retiree is scrutinized carefully, and many are not being filled again.

    Good luck to a recent graduate trying to pursue Mr. Traceski’s career path at the DoD.

    Mr. Traceski, though your thoughts are well-meant, they don’t jive with today’s reality.

    Why does C & E News publish letters like this? Are they trying to convince themselves that it’s still 1979, or that a new 1979 is just around the corner?

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  4. The idea of a career only lasting 30 years is a bit out of date as well - I anticipate working for nearer 40 years, and that is with a PhD.

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    1. The idea of spending them all at the same place is even more out of date.

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  5. In related news, Black Death survivors report that it was perfectly survivable and wonder what all the fuss is about.

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  6. I am Anon 7:12 pm from yesterday -

    Mr. Traceski, being a Federal employee, was able to retire with a full pension at age 55. He will have health insurance until he hits 65, at which point his federal plan will become his secondary plan. In other words, he has full medical benefits forever. Totally unlike the private sector (now). In addition, he never faced the possiblity of being laid off.

    This is why he only had to work for 30 years, and then was able to pursue his dream of consulting for a race team.

    This all seems rather quaint, doesn't it? Or rather like a piece of fiction.

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  7. Mr. Traceski is out of touch with the current job market for chemistry graduates. His statements are unhelpful and unsympathetic to the plight of young chemists who are struggling to kick start their career in today's job market.

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