Monday, July 9, 2012

Washington Post: "U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there"

For those of you not tied to a computer over the weekend, Brian Vastag of The Washington Post has written an article on the troubles in finding a job in science. It was on the front page of the paper yesterday; the article has garnered 3,712 comments (most of which are ridiculous elephant-v-donkey yelling.).

Vastag's article is a fantastic writeup of the situation. I have some small points to make, which I've written up here. Go over there and tell me your thoughts! 

A quick note -- one of the pharma scientists makes this comment:
Haas, the former drug company chemist, has even harsher words. She plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”
Obviously, this is sad and one would rather that chemists could encourage their kids to get into their field and become proud members of NAICS 325.*

That said, don't all parents say some version of , "Kid, you don't want to go into my field -- there's gotta be a better way of making a living"? (My Dad doesn't -- he's an engineer and he thinks it's a great field.) But it seems like just about everyone thinks that way -- why should scientists be any different?

*See this comment for my clarification of the statement. 

35 comments:

  1. My kids are relatively young, but you can bet your ascot I will steer them away from science as a career. I don't even think I'll need to try too hard, it's not like they will not notice layoffs, spells of unemployment and moving to a different state every 3-4 years.

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  2. Um, that was me who gave that quote. I don't mean to discourage my daughter from learning science. But I don't think it would be a good idea for her to practice it as a career. Fortunately for her, she's very talented in a number of areas, especially languages. So, I am trying to steer her in the direction of international studies, linguistics and languages. I think the people who will do best in the future are the people who have cultivated something unique. You need to be a one off in the work world of the future or at least until this unsustainable course we are on has run it's course.

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    1. At the moment, I think you're telling your daughter the right thing, especially over the next 10 years or so. There are a lot more shoes to drop in this field.

      [N.B. When I said "this is sad", I meant "it's sad to discourage one's children to enter one's field", not "it's sad/wrong to discourage your daughter to learn about science." Just so I've made myself clear.]

      I agree that cultivating something unique is the right way to go about things (or at least a unique combination.)

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    2. ...and by "sad", I mean "unfortunate that one must tell the truth."

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    3. By the way -- thanks for reading the blog. I am honored.

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    4. Just curious, is the job market for linguists better than that for chemists?

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    5. There's only about a billion people that already speak Chinese, and that's considered a hard thing to study. So, lots of effort, but "unique"?

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  3. My dad's a physician and if I were to enter med school, he'd be happy as can be.

    My grandpa was a judge and if I were to enter law school, he'd be happy as can be.

    I'm a chemistry student and currently am pretty happy, even with the gloomy outlook for jobs.

    Ubi amatur non laboratur.

    When I hear something like "cultivate something unique", I feel a bit queasy. My opinion is that yes, the world needs a higher level of education in general, but not in one particular field. What we're really in need of is hard working, skilled, attentioned workers willing to work until the job is done - whatever that job is. Too many times I see people trying to get a job with the best salary possible, but the least hours worked possible.

    I also think that what chemistry needs is more entrepreneurs, as [Gaussling](http://gaussling.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/the-chemical-entrepreneur-part-3-2/) has written about.

    Scientists need balls.

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  4. Anonymous @8:36:

    “businesses with fewer than 20 employees
    have only a 37% chance of surviving four
    years (in business) and only a 9% chance of
    surviving 10 years.” source: U.S. Small Business Administration. (2003)
    Retrieved 11/9/2003 from http://app1.sba.
    gov/faqs/faqindex.cfm?areaID=2

    So what you are suggesting is after spending 4~7 years getting a PhD in chemistry, you should risk it all on a 9% chance of success? If you started a business in your late teens you have time to recover after failure but late twenties (time to start a family) is a rough time to risk it all.

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    1. I'm either suggesting not doing a PhD before starting a business (B.Sc is fine if you've got the balls and will not stop learning)

      OR

      That you take the chance once you get your PhD.

      I agree with what the next Anonymous(9:42) said, namely that chemists seem to replace one kind of defeatism with another.

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  5. Look, we're constantly being confused (by the public, the media and the policy makers) with the Computer Sci/Engineering/Programming people. They all do pretty well making their own opportunities through start-ups and freelancing. Then, we get the spillover from the tech world's push to import tech workers through H1Bs or just open immigration, which they support by saying those workers somehow are even more entrepreneurial, and create even more jobs! One way or another we're going to have to do something to justify our existence.

    But it seems chemists only replace one kind of defeatism (no jobs! why did they force this stupid free degree on me!) with another (we can't make jobs for ourselves and need a guaranteed ROI!). Great.

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    1. "Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey."

      So, 9% chance unacceptable, 14% chance acceptable. Also, "i need a guaranteed life appointment by my late 20's, or i'm pretty much stuck."

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    2. Not everyone wants an academic position, and jobs in pharma are hardly guaranteed life appointments. Have you had your head in the ground the last 4 years? What do you think the "bloodbath" Haas is talking about is?

      Regarding your first comment: "What we're really in need of is hard working, skilled, attentioned workers willing to work until the job is done - whatever that job is. Too many times I see people trying to get a job with the best salary possible, but the least hours worked possible."

      You must be either a) an undergrad or b) in a very crappy Chemistry department. Getting a Ph. D., all you do for 5 years is work your ass off til the job is done, and then you work some more because your boss still isn't satisfied. You describe exactly the kind of person who actually finishes a Ph. D. If your institution hands out doctorates to people who don't fit those criteria, that's your institution's problem.

      Regarding your entrepeurship argument: "The barriers to entry are extremely high in the pharmaceutical industry. Many of the top firms have "significant manufacturing capabilities that are hard to replicate". Also, they have extensive patents that guarantee the protection of their products while they defend their brands with large marketing budgets. Since any emerging pharmaceutical company can expect a sharp retaliation from the established competitors in the pharmaceutical industry, the overall threat of entry into the global marketplace is relatively low in comparison to other international industries."

      http://www.duke.edu/web/soc142/team2/social.html

      In other words, pharma entrepreneurs can't get off the ground from someone's garage like Facebook or Google did. This hypothetical entrepreneur would need to find some other application of his chemical invention that has enough potential to interest investors. If you can think of such an application, keep it to yourself and best of luck to you in your entrepreneurial endeavors.

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    3. Phil,

      You're confusing the different Anonymous posters :) I'm the one who posted at 8:36, whom you quote first. I'm considering setting up a named account.

      You've also missed the point of my argument: I was NOT talking about chemists in particular, and especially NOT about PhD students. It was a more general comment, based on my extra-academic experience (from the days of workshop toilet cleaning to the more recent QC position).

      I don't particularly want to be in academia.

      I just feel bad that chemistry seems left out in this startup game.

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    4. And i'm at 9:42 and 10:58. i guess my points was that i agree with 8:36 and found 9:14 somewhat entitled or maybe sheltered (late 20's too late to start a new line of work? really?). Everyone has a low probability of success by one rubric or another, but everyone has to try.

      The TE of STEM are not only getting jobs, they are getting imported and then (alledgedly) starting businesses that create new jobs. i know chem has different barriers but one way or another we're the only ones who are going to create new opportunities for other chemists.

      (sorry for the many Anons but i'm tired of logging in under Gmail account)

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    5. Anon 7:22: I apologize for confusing the Anons and also for misinterpreting your argument. As I posted above, there is a reason chemistry is left out of the startup game, the barriers to entry into pharma are astronomical. The only startup I can think of that would be viable would be a custom synthesis laboratory, of which a handful have been started recently. Even then, the costs to build or buy lab space and equipment make it significantly harder than, for instance, opening a store. And my guess is the profit margin isn't much better.

      Anon 7:45: I think I also misinterpreted your statement, thank you for the clarification. I agree that late 20s is hardly too late to change career paths. There is certainly some level of entitlement left over from the good old days, when a degree in chemistry (biology) did mean a lifetime suckling from the teat of big pharma (biotech). I think that was never even really the case, but it's what many SM of STEM believe. They need to get over that fantasy.

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    6. Anon 7:45,
      Late 20s is really too late to start a new line of work that *pays decently*. A lot of jobs that pay >70k require schooling. Late 20s early 30s sometimes means wife, which also may mean kids. Are you really going to switch careers and start at the lowest end of the ladder once again and not be able to support your family?

      Show me a well-paying job for which you don't need more education and I'll change careers today.

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    7. Generally speaking, your experience leading up to your late 20s will affect what level you start at, provided you move to a related field (one for which your experience is somewhat relevant). I guess what you mean is late 20s are too late to start professional school (law or medical)? An MBA can be obtained while working, and that will allow a scientist to move seamlessly into a business function, for instance.

      No one is saying it's easy, but as I said above, if you have a Ph. D. you should be prepared to work your ass of through adversity when it's necessary.

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    8. AnonymousFresh at 8:25 pm here. I know I'm late to the party but I just had to put my 5 cents in. I returned to school for my SECOND career, nursing, at age 27. I'm now back in school pursuing engineering at age 46. My Mother-in-law just got her Masters last summer and she's 72. She's gone back to work, too. Using your age to limit yourself is a cop out in my humble opinion.

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  6. Haas doesn't appear to have a PhD according to the LinkedIn profile i found. Still, 6 figure salary for 20 years based on a BS and a couple of classes at Princeton? Hard to believe you wouldn't want to pass that on to the next generation.

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  7. Well, my old man has a PhD in organic chemistry and he still does research, but now that he and his wife have that store that sells things to immigrants and they are making twice as much money as he ever did as an organic research chemist at the university, he recently told me that if I want, I can take over the store and run it eventually since he put me as the store recipient in his will.

    Not a big vote of confidence for chemistry right there (or your longevity for that matter... which has me worried in turn since it's partly genetic). He does look pretty happy when he's in the store, and he knows I also have a PhD in chemistry...

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    1. Sells things to immigrants? Like what, Green cards?

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    2. Groceries and products from their home countries/region. Also coocked foods and certain things they are used to from back home that they can't get in a normal department store. A person walking into the store will normally get nostalgic and end up buying way more than they planned, so the lowest sale is almost never below 20 bucks (I think). It's a pretty good deal and this group of immigrants didn't have a high quality store that catered to them in that part of the city previously.

      Obviously, I'm not going to say which region of the world my dad is from (for anonymity's sake and all that). Green cards is a high end business. We're not into that yet, but maybe we can sponsor a sales clerk or something. Ability to speak the language(s) is essential for this job.

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  8. One thing we can say for sure; the religious parents sure aren't steering their kids away from religion.

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    1. So what you are saying is - science is a lifestyle choice?

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  9. My Dad is an engineer, too, and he advised me not to go into engineering. Not because it wasn't a good career, but because it is still so male-dominated and he'd seen too many women given a hard time.

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    1. I think that's fair. Things are probably just a little bit different now than then (one hopes.)

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    2. I'm not sure engineering is such a good choice either whatever your gender. A Washington Post in January gave these statistics on unemployment (the piece was linked to online with the recent PhD piece) showing that the sciences (life and physical) were only slightly better for getting a job (7.7% unemployment) than engineering (7.5% unemployment). Interesting to note that business, which I often hear as being a better choice for majors, has 7.4% unemployment and computers and mathematics was worse than all others (8.2% unemployment).

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    3. And by computers and mathematics being the worst, I mean versus the other majors I listed. Recreation (whatever this is), social sciences, liberal arts, arts, and architecture are the worst 5 majors for employment.

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  10. Heh, religion pays far better than science.

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  11. I was just talking to a company Fellow yesterday about this, and how neither of us think science is a wise thing to go into. I have a 3 month old at home, part of me wold love for her to take an interest in chemistry, but part of me would dread it as well. I'm really torn about the issue.

    Also, chemistry is a hard major, even a BS is chemistry isn't easy, I did it partly because it isn't easy, but it was a useful degree. Now, it's just another degree that doesn't have a viable employment base. My company is huge, I can't recall the last time I saw a job posting for a BS chemist, we don't hire them anymore.

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  12. Meanwhile our esteemed tenured friends claims we need an extra 1,000,000 (one million) STEM graduates:

    http://chronicle.com/article/Encouraging-STEM-Students-Is/132425/

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    1. Ugghhhh.... Damn you Chad Mirkin!!! I guess by increasing the number of students by 33%, the size of the Mirkin group will increase by 33%, but will it come with 33% more glory for the Chad? That is the question.

      http://chemgroups.northwestern.edu/mirkingroup/group.html

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    2. I just noticed on his website that he is a member of Obama's advisory team on science and he testified on Capitol Hill in 2011 on the need for nanotechnology funding.

      That's fucking it! I'm going to go British on his ass and write him a letter. Except that I need to figure out how to write it very nicely and yet make my point, without jeopardizing any job prospects in the future....

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