Friday, January 25, 2013

Interesting, amusing, frustrating quotes by members of the Shakhashiri Commission

From Michael Price's interesting article in ScienceCareers comparing the Tilghman report with the recent report from the ACS Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences:
Although language in the report specifically highlighted the crowded market for Ph.D. chemists, in interviews with Science Careers, members of the ACS commission downplayed the idea of shrinking graduate student enrollment, focusing instead on the need for departments to broaden the range of skills they teach so that there is less redundancy among Ph.D. graduates. One of the major obstacles to young chemists finding jobs, they say, is that too many departments prepare students with the exact same sets of skills.... 
[snip]  
..."Obviously, the biotech industry has collapsed in terms of employment, but that doesn't mean that chemists are not being employed," (Georgia Tech chemistry professor Paul) Houston says. "There is a large chemical industry, and there are still some very good jobs at the bigger chemical companies, but there are a lot of jobs at start-up companies and smaller outfits, too. So one of the things that we thought a lot about is what kind of training does a graduate student need to be successful in that kind of market." 
[snip]  
...Resistance can be found even in the commission's ranks. (Georgia Tech chemistry professor) Schuster, for example, does not believe that chemistry departments should reduce their graduate enrollments. "Opportunities in chemistry, viewed as the 'molecular science', are growing as disciplines such as biology and materials science become ever more 'molecular,' " he writes. " 'Population control' is not necessary or desirable. What is required is increased diversity of skills and perspective so that students see and embrace all of the opportunities of the 'molecular science.' "
I respectfully remind Professors Houston and Schuster of a variety of facts:
  • For 2011 and 2012, American Chemical Society member unemployment is at 4.6% and 4.2%, which are (respectively) the highest and 2nd highest unemployment numbers in recorded history for the ACS Salary Surveys. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has measured "chemist and material scientist" employment for 2011 and 2012 at 6.1% and 5.5% (respectively.)
    • I should also note that it is the conventional wisdom that most working chemists believe, but cannot prove, that these numbers are underestimated. 
    • I also note that we should not be comparing these numbers to the National Unemployment Rate (currently at 7.8%), but we should be comparing them to the unemployment rate for bachelor degree holders (currently at 3.9%). 
  • ACS member salaries have fallen between 2002-2012 (measured in constant dollars) by -0.2%. 
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures chemist job growth at 4%, while all occupations are expected to grow at 14% for the period between 2010 and 2020. 
    • To Professor Houston's point that there are jobs in the chemical manufacturing sector, the expected job growth in chemical manufacturing for that period are as follows: Basic chemical: -15.1%, Resin/synthetic rubber, etc.: -7.1%, Agrichemical: -22%, Pharma: -0.7%, Paint, coating, adhesive: -11.3%, Cleaning products: -6.3%, Other: -17.3%, Plastics: 21.3%, Rubber, -7.4%
  • The small company discount (50 employees or less) by the ACS Salary Comparator is 17% lower than the median salary, I believe. 
As to Professor Schuster's point that other fields with higher job growth are becoming "more molecular" and will offer more positions to chemists, I ask this: is there any evidence that chemists and their graduate degrees  are somehow more competitive? If not, would 'population control' indeed be a necessary step? 

27 comments:

  1. All that good will that the commission built. All of the seemingly "smart-ish" proposals that were headed in the right way.

    All of that is gone because the authors of this report show that they can't break their addiction to graduate students.

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  2. Well as they say- there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are professors' words.

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    1. I think I'm being appropriately charitable when I say that I don't think they're lying.

      I simply think that they are not be fully aware of the relatively unfavorable situation among their alumni.

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    2. Well then you're more charitable than I'd be. Maybe I've been reading too many PhD Comics...

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  3. Few long time professors, stuck in their cozy academic worlds, looking at their next set of grants to be able to bring in the grad students and post docs and getting the next set of data to enable an ongoing flow of publications, have any idea of being a chemist in industry. How many profs try to match the number of people in their group to the anticipated to the future economic environment for scientific jobs? I know of several very talented folks in several years of ongoing post-doc servitude within excellent, well known labs who have had job offers withdrawn or have not been able to get any type of offer over the last few years. These people do not even count as "unemployed" but almost certainly are not where they really want to be at their ages and point of career when they started the process. Some in the country say we need more people to be trained in the sciences, yet their comments don't match today's economic realities.
    When I my grad school / post-doc 6 year adventue, the world and the future of job needs looked encouraging. Not today. I would try to discourage my son or anyone else I know from going through this path today, unless they seemed absolutely brilliant at it from the get go. As for myself, I'd likely take a different path which would still use my skills in math, science, logic, problem solving, but avoid going to chem grad school.

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  4. Go ahead, pump out another 10 thousand unemployable Ph.D's, see what that does to your chemistry.

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  5. MR. MCQUIRE: Ben - I just want to say one word to you - just one word -

    BEN: Yes, sir.

    MR. MCQUIRE: Are you listening?

    BEN: Yes I am.

    MR. MCQUIRE: (gravely) Plastics.

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  6. I hate these people.

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    Replies
    1. - Don't we just hate it?
      - Yes!!! Yes!!!
      - Don't we wish they just died?
      - Yes!!! Yes!!!

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    2. Easy there chief. No one is proposing buying anyone gift tickets to an Egyptian soccer game.

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  7. Well, Schuster got a PhD in three years back in the day 40 years ago, so it wasn't so painful. Of course, his students now probably take more than three years to get a PhD. It's not because he was more talented than them. Plus, if they exercise population control, it won't be the top ten schools that get less grad students. It will be places like Georgia Tech with 50% less grad students and 50% less papers. Maybe they'll even tell people past retirement age to 'beat it' as well in order to reduce numbers quicker...

    In other words, this sounds like a good idea, but only do it when Schuster is ready to move to his Caribbean retirement home. Let's say, ten years from now?

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    1. Retire!!! These are the guys who are going to keep their offices until they keel over and sit in front rows on seminars like Statler and Waldorf. I still remember one of them who angrily demanded in the middle of a talk "What's an ipso?"

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    2. Schuster was the Dean of Sciences and then the interim President at Ga Tech while I was there and more or less shut down his lab for the time. Houston was hired just as I was leaving and brought half a dozen students and postdocs with him.

      Ga Tech has been trying to improve their standings in the chem world for many years which involved hiring plenty of new profs, both those established elsewhere and junior faculty. The top-cited prof in the department is pushing 80 so they aren't totally in the business of turning over the faculty.

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  8. But why should profs care whether chemistry PhDs get employment afterwards? At my university, people who even consider working in industry are seen as lost causes anyway, not keen enough and all that.

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  9. http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1144

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  10. "What's an ipso?" That's nothing: I remember one asking why people had taking to putting a funny little bar through Planck's constant.

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  11. I always wonder why there is no ruckus in regards to young Phd Chemist's (especially from 2nd and 3rd tier universities)unemplotment rate and or poor salaries (Postdocs). Why Pharma industry is not being bailed out?helped by the govt!!!!

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  12. CJ: The fact of the matter is construction and auto sectors are the major driver for the job reporting statistics in the USA. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I reckon that despite the pharma profit, chemists are still hurting and hurting big time. The small molecule effort in many companies are lagging behind schedule and many companies are out of two major therapeutic areas and these are Anti-infective and neuro-chemistry. I am not buying any of these crap! Even my previous company that I was proud always hired chemists (as a regular job + benefits) is hiring medicinal chemist, but as a post doctoral fellow! I still feel that we do not know the big picture for the chemists.

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  13. Thirty years ago when employment of chemists was a problem, the ACS president lectured us in a C&EN editorial about how we chemists had no divine right to a job. He was a tenured professor which is the problem with the ACS. A significant percentage of their membership is tenured in their jobs and have lifetime employment. The ACS publishing empire is highly dependent on these guys and this addiction trumps all.



    Several years ago the dominate employer of new chemists shifted from chemical companies that had been contracting for years to growing pharma/biotech companies. When life science employment of chemists collapsed things got much worse for chemists than typically happened in downturns of the past. These jobs are now gone and frankly I do not see them returning in any sizable numbers.



    About 45% of the new PhDs are imported talent. There really is no need for US students to go into chemistry because the global chemistry manpower pool is so large. Profs and employers will just expand their use of this talent pool if by some miracle US funding for grad students were to shrink.

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  14. In every event, from every angle among every side of this board, all it exudes is negativity and a complete disregard for how this mess was created(or not ccreated) in the first place. As Ph.D. scientists, we have an obligation to create the jobs, and the products that will sustain our existence.

    It is not the time to blame the ACS, your choice of career, your thesis advisor or your genetic predisposition to be attracted to the scent of toluene and female undergrads in labooats. Now is the time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and compete globally, in areas of manufacture and chemical design. Instead many of you choose to sit here and whine about how miserable the situation is, while sitting around and creating nothing. Stop wasting electrons and choose to make a difference.

    Want to change the ACS? Attend the ACS meetings and shake the old farts by the lapels and get them to see how myopic and self-serving they have become in their obsession in their own novelty. Bring tools to our students that aren't 30 year old leftovers of the pharma industry, and teach our kids how things are really done. We are failing, not because of talent, but because of apathy.

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    1. Dear Anon:

      This is an interesting perspective, and one that I don't hear every often. I would like to hear more.

      1. What is the behavior that you would like to see less of? Who are you exactly aiming at with this comment?
      2. What apathy do you see in people that you know? What would you like to see?

      Best wishes, Chemjobber

      P.S. Please feel free to e-mail. chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com

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    2. "your genetic predisposition to be attracted to the scent of toluene and female undergrads in labooats"

      I know some people still think chemistry is a man's profession, but some of chemists are straight women.

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    3. If I wanted to martyr my life for science, I would have resolved to be a paleontologist, marine biologist, a or gasp an anthropologist. In my mind it was a compromise between doing good ethical work, and having a life! You know, family etc. To become pioneers in the "new chemical economy" strapped with student loan debt and ambitions of starting of family. Anonymous 4:29 PM, the best we can hope for is serve as life examples of what NOT to do.

      Sure, we all can and possibly will do great things. We will build the new Pfiezers and Merks, in the absence of anything better to do and being so personally invested in this ride, we have nowhere else to go or anything else to do.

      But seriously? I've lost a decade of my life, acquired high blood pressure and now I'm spending a fortune trying to fix my teeth from constantly gritting them to get through my days.

      How much personal accountability does the ACS expect from us at the end of the day? And I'll be damned if I contribute to a society that considers false teeth and lipitor before you are halfway through your 30s as "dues".

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    4. I'm sorry, maybe I'm just ranting about the state of the global economy in general, but what really gets my goat is when people insinuate that we aren't working hard enough to empower our own destiny.

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    5. It's funny how all these PhD's aren't smart enough to realize the surge in employment they enjoyed was in large part a result of equity market phenomenon such as IPO fever etc. Anyone with an ounce of common sense could see how much of it was nonsense.

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  15. Is there anybody who can show some light on European job market in organic chemistry? More specially on synthetic organic chemistry? How is the 1)academic job market (postdocs etc.) and 2)industrial job market for recent PhD students?

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