Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Reddit Chemistry Jobs FAQ, part 2: getting a job in industry

In part two of the Reddit Chemistry Jobs FAQ (part 1 is here), a set of classic questions about jobs in industry. From stathicus:
Realistically, can you get a job in industry with just a B.S in chemistry in this economy? How difficult is it to find jobs in industry? Is it super competitive? 
Also, what are the chances of getting a job working for a company that would pay for graduate school? I know quite a few people who graduated with physics and engineering degrees and are now working for companies that are paying for them to persue master degrees but I haven't heard many stories about chemists getting the same deal.
From gunbladelh: "Is it easier to find a job in industry with an M.S or a Ph.D?"

From deathbyentropy: "I'm worried that I will get an Ph.D. entry level position and be worked to the point that I hate it. Are there many Ph.D. positions that only require the 9-5 +/- a few hours?"

Let's go with the numbers (as we have them*) first:
  • For all ACS members in 2012, unemployment decreases with degree level (B.S.: 5.9%, M.S.: 5.4%, Ph.D.: 3.4%). 
  • For ACS members that graduated in 2011, the percentage that were employed full-time did not really correlate to degree level (B.S.: 33%, M.S.: 48%, Ph.D.: 38%). (Note that a high percentage progressed further to graduate education or a postdoc.) 
  • For ACS members that graduated in 2011, the percentage that were unemployed also did not correlate to degree level (B.S.: 17%, M.S.: 23%, Ph.D.: 12%).
These numbers suggest that, to understate, it is difficult to get a job in industry with just a B.S. in this economy. I believe that it can be done; I have seen it myself. What I believe has changed from five or ten years ago is the amount of effort it takes to find a job out of college. 

I worked as a B.S. analytical chemist/formulator in the late 1990s for a year; I applied to a scant number of positions with my not-particularly-impressive credentials (B.S. in biochemistry, about a year of working in a laboratory during the school year, nothing special**). Applying in January or February of my senior year (just a few months before graduation), I was able to get a full-time job doing bench science at a drug delivery company fairly easily. I don't think that's much the case anymore. I suspect that most B.S. entrants into the job market have, like a recent post of mine mentioned, been spending their summers and off hours in the laboratory getting direct work experience, either through REU-style academic internships or industrial internships. In other words, doing well at your coursework is insufficient. 

I don't think it's "super-competitive", like medical school, where it seems like the interviews have only gotten more complicated and the necessary grades and test scores have only seemed to increase over time. But I really think that some effort and planning between your sophomore and senior years is required. 

As for paying for graduate school, I think that it is relatively uncommon for companies to do this. For the most part, they want to hire you after the schooling, not before. You typically get paid to go to graduate school in the sciences; either you get a fellowship (no teaching requirement), you teach to earn your keep (teaching assistantship) or a professor pays your stipend (research assistantship.) Sometimes companies will pay for part-time or online master's programs, but I think the pool of master's students is deep enough that there's no real incentive for this. 

It has long been a truism that "master's chemists are the most employable." To a great extent, I believe that. However, I don't think there's very much outside of intuition to support that. Certainly, the numbers up above don't really show that; Ph.D. chemists have had the lowest unemployment rates of the different degree levels. I think that it is true that master's chemists have more flexibility to be hired into entry-level positions -- there are a lot of lab associate-type positions that are essentially closed to Ph.D.s. 

Finally, entry-level Ph.D. positions are not exactly 9-to-5 (more like 7-to-5), but are not the "round-the-clock and weekend" hours that you might be used to in graduate school. Industrial hours are usually somewhere around 8-to-5 (especially at the larger corporations), and weekend work is relatively rare (or even sometimes forbidden, from a safety perspective.) You're low person on the totem pole, and so you'll be expected to put in your hours, but, compared to graduate school, it's relatively relaxed (emphasis on "relatively.") (UPDATE: See Arr Oh and The Aqueous Layer add their wisdom, basically cautioning that while you won't be worked to death, but you will still want to work hard.)

More questions to be answered next week! 

*ACS surveys have statistical issues; they're surveys of the members (not all chemists are members) and the response rates can be quite low (for example, the response rate of the Starting Salary Survey was 17%, so the fuzziness of those numbers is high.) 
**Outside of class-required labs, I had 2 summers of molecular biology-oriented laboratory experience and 1.5 academic years of undergrad research under my belt. Hard to say if that's a lot or a little, but I didn't have a ton of papers to show for it. 


  1. What is most valuable from masters program, is you often get internships or essentially very close academic industrial partnerships. It's great for networking, and great for training. Ph. D., well advisers vary. Advisers that have great industrial relationships and encourage internships are better than others.

  2. Outside of government, are there ANY 9 to 5 jobs in the US that pay >$75k/year?

    I guess this is good. US per capita GDP is substantially higher than those life-enjoying good time Fritzs/Jaques over in the EU. And so what if Americans don't live as long, even as Canadians (brrrrrr), we get to work more.

    USA! USA! USA!

  3. Dear Dr. Jobber-wonky:

    In your discussion of 'typical' working hours for entry-level PhDs in industry, please don't forget to mention the ricrazulous hours worked by those in small startups or 'semi-virtual' companies. I find that, when you add in teleconferences, library runs, ordering, travel, legal stuff, and lab work, the hours stretch out to something like 9:00-8:00 most days (and taking home the laptop over the weekend).

    My $0.02,

    1. This is partially my experience with a start-up, but it depends on your role in the star-up. A tech with a BS/BA is not expected to put in quite the same hours as anyone higher up the totem pole.

      I did take the computer home with me evenings/weekends to keep up with the literature, reports, etc. But I was physically at the lab closer to 9-5/9-6 most days.

    2. If you want to make your mark as a young PhD, 9-5 isn't going to get you noticed or promoted, at least in big pharma. The first couple of years, you're going to be expected to work very hard, and accept more and more responsibility as time moves forward (committees, etc). After your first promotion, the expectations grow.

      In these days of smaller workforce numbers and greater pressure to produce, working 9-5 isn't going to be enough time to do the things you'll be expected to do, even if you are uber organized...

    3. "In these days of smaller workforce numbers and greater pressure to produce, working 9-5 isn't going to be enough time to do the things you'll be expected to do, even if you are uber organized..."

      I don't see what's the problem. More tasks requiring to be done and not enough workers to do them? Easy, hire more people.

  4. "I don't see what's the problem. More tasks requiring to be done and not enough workers to do them? Easy, hire more people."


    That's inside-the-box, non-innovator, 20th century thinking. Today's next generation, best-in-class, hiring model empowers organizations to leverage their stakeholder-base by affording the win-win synergy of optimized incentivation per unit worker input.

    Translate that into up-goer five.....

    1. Do they really teach you that stuff at MBA school? I kind of almost regret not going for it now.

    2. "Do they really teach you that stuff at MBA school? I kind of almost regret not going for it now."

      Oh ya. Buzzword class was just before the pie chart seminar.

      Despite the alarming lack of substance in MBA school, business students are remarkably assured of their intellect and worth. Amazing.

  5. bboooooya:

    Thanks for giving me a good laugh this afternoon. That must win the prize for the most vomit-inducing buzzwords in one sentence.
    At the end of the day, we need to off-shore all those lazy grey-sky thinkers as we right-size our organizations going forward. Best practices dictate that to take it to the next level we need to do whatever it takes to proactively not reactively get on the same page, work smarter not harder to grab all the low-hanging fruit before somebody eats our lunch. I've got a lot on my plate right now so I'll have to circle back and touch base with you on this one off-line. The 30,000 foot view: we need some rock-star thinking to shift the paradigm holistically into impactful win-win territory. It's really a no-brainer.

    1. Hmmm. sounds like all you need to do is ask David Sinclair for his next lifespan-altering idea....

  6. You forgot about the action items and metrics.

  7. 1) I think jobs are more difficult to get now than they were. I will note that I worked in the biotech/pharma space during the "golden years", and even then I took a technician job that I was later able to use to upgrade to an RA position. I think there's a lot of expectation from students that they should be able to bypass this step.

    2) No company that I can name right now would pay for your graduate education.

    3) I'm guessing MS is more marketable than PhD, but I can't say I've witnessed a trend myself. If you look at the numbers, you only need 1 PhD to lead a group that can be composed of several MS/BS scientists. Math tells you that the MS is statistically going to have better odds at landing a job. Ultimately, both positions are being rapidly exported overseas, so it's a crapshoot in my mind. But the MS is less of your life spent "training."

    4) If you expect to work 9-5 with a PhD, quit. I'm being serious. Doctorate programs aren't meant for people who expect to work 40 hour weeks, either during or after grad school (and they never have been). Most PhD level positions also aren't meant for people with that expectation (others have already explained why). If you can't do 50 or 60 without bitching, get out with a MS, they tend to have more flexibility with their hours.

    1. " Doctorate programs aren't meant for people who expect to work 40 hour weeks, either during or after grad school".

      You left off ", in this country". Of the German PDFs I worked with (~6-10, not necessarily a significant n) who went back to Deutschland, none work >40 hours/week regularly, and all started off enjoying 6 weeks holiday. The mentality there is, why are you working on the weekends or at night, couldn't you get your work done when you were supposed to? I assume it's similar in France, but with better wine.

      I get that Americans produce more per capita, but it seems to me at the expense of a nicer lifestyle (not to mention higher per capita drug use and shortened average lifespan). Just because I have a PhD and want a challenging position doesn't mean I also don't want to spend time with my family. It amazes me that Americans put up with this, and that people (myself included) willingly move to the country.

      Oh well, pass me another Super-Sized Big Mac meal, that'll make me happy. I'll get back to work after some pie.

    2. bboooooya, you and uncle sam bring up good points. My view is US-centric.

      uncle sam, while I admire your ability to efficiently manage time (as well as others who do this), American professors are generally uninterested in that. If you can accomplish X amount in 8 hours, imagine how much MORE you can do in 10 or 12! Most of them say they don't care about your hours as long as you're productive, but they always inevitably have a conversation about your productivity if you aren't there a whole lot. More honest professors will actually tell people they expect them to be there 10-12 hrs a day Monday through Saturday and a half day Sunday. There is no mention of how much you get done, purely just the expectation that you live in the lab.

    3. @ Postdoc

      2). I'm currently in grad school being paid for by my employer at a pretty big East coast University. In fact half the program are part time industry chemists going back to earn their MS. I would estimate >85% of them are getting their tuition paid for by their employer. The companies range from big pharma, to mid size ones, to chemical companies to biotech firms to small polymer companies and just about everything in between. Most mid size to large companies have some kind of continuing ed tuition reimbursement program... In my opinion a better educated employee is a better producing one.

  8. I completely disagree with the advice about working time in grad school of course. When I didn't have to teach and take classes, I found 30-40 hours (real work time) weeks really doable. And I still published in glamour mags as a first author. Of course, I worked in factories and warehouses before, so I know the difference between working and slacking off next to the machine. I also worked in organic synthesis in a semi-industrial setting. The guy in charge of the lab was a PhD refused to work more than seven hours a day (including lunch), saying that it was bad to be around all the 'chemicals' longer. But we got so much stuff done. Get in, in the morning, turn on the GC and start a reaction then while that is going do a column and while you're changing fractions on the rotovap, try to start another reaction or do a work-up of the first. There were not many minutes wasted while in the lab. We did two workups and two columns a day and delivered these things incredibly fast for the complexity of the synthesis. I only realized how fast and efficient we were after an academic lab opened up to 'help' us as a collaboration effort and they couldn't do in half a year what took us a few weeks.

    Right now I enjoy wasting time like any other postdoc. As long as the articles keep coming the boss doesn't care either. But when I really need to focus and get stuff done, I go back to the factory in my mind and work like I did there 7am-3:30pm and not like a PhD student 10am-10pm (with an hour or hour and a half long lunch). Then stuff gets done.

    Grad school... it was the teaching that killed me because I wanted to do a good job so I spent 30 hours a week on it. With a research fellowship, I managed to finish the Xenosaga trilogy and about 50 Civilization IV games and still got out as one of the top students. Once you figure out how research and publishing works, it's way easier than trying to get an interview for a good job, but those are the breaks if it doesn't say 'MIT' on your diploma.

  9. Re: Getting a job in industry

    I've just finished reading a C&EN article on how job applicants can improve their hiring chances. Does anyone else find that Bruce Roth (Mr. Lipitor, now a Genentech bigshot) comes across as condescending? While the importance of reputation (school and PI) is understood, does he REALLY have to name-drop Trost, Wender, and Du Bois? Are we to infer that if you're not from Stanford or Berkeley, then don't bother applying to Genentech? What's more ironic is that Roth himself doesn't have the "ideal academic pedigree".

    Sorry, I've never met the man, but if that attitude is widespread in industrial chemistry, it's no wonder that professional degrees are overall more attractive than a PhD. At least you don't have to come from a top-tier school AND a top-tier group!

    1. I noticed it ;-)


  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. If anyone is interested in PostDoc and researcher jobs in Europe, www.EuroScienceJobs.com might be worth a look. A sister site is the pharma-focused site called www.EuroPharmaJobs.com - less research focused, but could still be interesting for the Chemistry/Biochemistry crowd. For chemical engineers there is also www.EuroEngineerJobs.com
      Hope it helps

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