Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beginning the Endgame: a midcareer chemist's musings

From the inbox, a really interesting comment from NJ on a long career as a chemist:

I am a 50-year old industrial chemist. I am blessed with an excellent resume. I went to great schools, had pretty good grades, got a Ph.D. and have worked for desirable companies. I've been awarded patents, published papers, given presentations, etc. I'm a member of multiple professional societies. In short, I have a great resume. I also keep up on the literature. I'm a new employee’s worse nightmare: I know everything they do and more. Plus I have experience. Interviewers, recruiters and HR people all have told me that I have a great resume. While that is important, I've had a trump card in my pocket for getting a job. I kill at interviews. Whenever I’ve gotten an onsite interview, I always received the offer. Always.

Then something happened recently that changed this. It started innocently enough when after an onsite interview, I didn't get the offer. OK., all streaks must end. I really wasn't concerned until it happened a second time, and then a third time. It's happened so many times now that I have to stop and think about what the exact number is.

I'm sure CJ has younger readers who think that at 50, I am getting ready to retire. No. I'm old enough that I can't collect full social security until I am 67. That means that I am working for at least 17 more years. 17 years! Think about it. I've only worked for 23 years. I'm barely halfway done with my career. Retirement is not in the picture at all. I also doubt that any employer looking at hiring a younger person expects them to stick around 17 years.

I started becoming concerned with the difficulty of find my next job, but another thought has arisen that has totally scared the living-daylights out of me: I now realize that there are very few moves left on the chessboard for me.

If you're not familiar with the game of Chess, let me explain. People who study the game generally break it into three different phases. First there is the opening. This is usually the first dozen or so moves that each side makes. It is usually as tightly choreographed as a Broadway musical number. White does this, then black does this. There is very little thought involved since the opening are usually memorized from books. Next comes the middle game. This is the exciting part plans are laid and put into action, traps are set and most of the pieces are captured. Books can provide guidance, but the options are many and it is often difficult to see what the correct move is except with hindsight.

Finally there is the endgame. This is when there are few pieces left on the board. It is impossible to predict at the opening of the game what pieces will be left in the endgame and where they will be, but that doesn’t prevent people from putting intense effort into studying endgames. What’s ironic is that the endgame is usually just as tightly limited in choices as the opening is even as it appears otherwise. The board is wide open so that a lot of moves CAN be made, but most of them are bad moves. There are very few correct moves in any given situation. Very good chess players will never finish a game entirely. Once the endgame is presented, it is pretty academic as to how it will turn out. The players acknowledge this outcome and end the game.

I now see that my career has been like a chess game.

In the beginning, I did what everyone else did. I applied for jobs in my field, hoping to get an entry level position. Every newly degreed person does the same thing using more or less the same procedures. This was the opening. Then I got to the middle of my career where after having gained some experience, I started to move around through promotions, lateral transfers within a company and leaving for another company entirely. There were lots of options to consider. While the moves I made usually seemed like good ones at the time, it is only with hindsight that I can see which ones were truly good and which ones were awful.

And now I am at the endgame. I am sure that I will eventually find another job, but I can see already that that's going to be it. Wherever I end up will most likely be my last job. The next employer will keep me until I retire or am laid off. That's what scares me. Not only do I now have to hope to get an offer, but I have to decide if that employer and I are going to want each other for another 17 years. Because if it doesn’t work out, if I get laid off before my 17 years is up, I may never be able to recover, and that’s what really scares me.

My search goes on, but it is a far more serious venture than ever before. These additional worries are now hanging over me, and they will never go away.

So this is my situation. I’ve always heard that finding a job is more difficult for older workers and I find that to be true, but I’ve never really heard others describe this phase of my life, at this young age of 50, as the endgame: that there are few moves left, that every move now is critical, and how scary the recognition of that is.

Thanks to NJ for an excellent essay.

24 comments:

  1. It's sad that 50 is now to old. Especially when I consider this to be the age when today's chemists are most useful. They have been around and immersed in the field long enough to truly make significant contributions. This is one of the reasons why the average age for receiving the big RO1 grants is increasing towards 50 now. With the amount of knowledge to learn and the lack of low lying fruit, I believe 50 to be the right age to really impact science.
    What a shame.

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  2. Thanks for the insight NJ. As someone who is still in the opening stages of my career, this is something that I have thought about. Though, I still have a couple decades before getting to your position.

    If you want to anonymously reply, I would like to know what missteps you may have made in hindsight that you believe could have changed your current outcome, or what advice you have to younger chemists to avoid this outcome (if possible).

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    1. Discussing the missteps would just distract from my main message: that the endgame hits you sooner than you think and that no one has warned us yet of this.

      The only option I can think of in the spur of the moment to avoid this outcome is to sidestep it completely and get into management. Although maybe that only changes the options. As you advance in management over time, the number of jobs higher up to fight for are fewer and fewer.

      Chemjobber has recently spent a lot of time discussing alternative career paths for chemists. I would be curious if people in those paths see the endgame the same was as I do. Maybe if was ask politely, we can get CJ to lead/organize the discussion.

      NJ

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  3. As someone closer to 50 than to 30, I agree it's pretty daunting and little to look forward to.

    That said, at least as far as I'm aware, most great discoveries (for example, most work that results in Nobel prizes) in science are made by those <40. I assume that that most RO1s are granted to those closer to 50 has more to do with cronyism than ability (speculation)?

    The current glut of graduating PhD chemists (thank you NIH/NSF expansion of late 90s!) and big pharma layoffs ain't gonna improve things much for the oldsters.

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  4. I discovered a folk group in my area when I was in my mid 20s, just starting my career. A favorite song talks about growing older and retiring, and the line that has started to apply to me, and to the above writer is this:

    He watches his options whittle down to a few, and his once wide horizons grow narrow...

    If I had to guess the major hangup with the writer's job searching is that a 23 year veteran with a great CV is not going to be an inexpensive prospect, not to mention that there might be many people of that caliber already on the market. The last 8 PhD level chemists my pharma company has hired are all fresh out of PhD/PD's. Not one experienced person was even brought it to interview.

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  5. If you're able to get a job with the GOV, 17 years is no problem. Boredom, however, might be.

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    1. Depends on where in GOV. NIH and DOE both have chemistry labs with a tenure track type of system very similar to academia. The problem is that they'll want to bring lab assistants or staff scientists in at GS-7 or 9. A PhD is supposed to bring someone in at GS-11...in theory. In the current economy and with the sequester, not so much.

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  6. NJ, make sure you add 'great writer' to that resume! This is superbly written.

    Good luck in the search.

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  7. NJ,
    I second what Neil said. You have described my own experience, only far more eloquently than I could have. I'm 51 myself, and have recently been through what you are going through now. To be honest I have a somewhat mediocre resume, but I eventually managed to find a reasonably well-paid job. However, the knowledge that if I lose this job, I am highly unlikely to find another scares me, so I try not to think about it. The job market for chemists (particularly in the pharmaceutical area) has become Darwinian. The only ones I can see who are benefitting are the multi-millionaire CEOs. For them, this must be like a second gilded age.

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    1. "...so I try not to think about it" Me too. In most cases, I do a good job of not worrying about that which I cannot control, but this is different. It's like that old saying about not being able to unsee what has been seen.

      Thanks for the complements on my writing, one and all. I wish I could have posted this with my name, but I don't want prospective employers seeing it.

      NJ

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    2. I am 57 now. I lost my job back in 2009 (I was a small pharma R&D manager- though close to the lab) . Despite what i thought was a decent resume , I was out of work for a year and half. ( Being out of work that long really put a dent in my savings to say the least!)

      The job I found is not at the level i was at (going back to the bench was not easy to adjust to) and does not feel secure for several reasons... I have STRONG doubts that it will last until anywhere near close enough to retirement (which financially needs to be at 70).

      That scares me quite a bit as I know if (when) it goes away, the likelihood of getting another decent paying professional job is slim. Both age and the times make that seem inevitable. I don't see I have a whole lot of options.

      I used to sleep well at night, but that is now a thing of the past.

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  8. Anonymous: I won't say that this job market is exactly Darwinian. In a true Darwinian struggle the donkeys don't get to decide by fiat that the lions must all go extinct.

    NJ: Very well written indeed. I hope someone as experienced and well-qualified as you finds a worthy position soon.

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  9. 23 years puts the writer in the job market at 27 years old. What's the average age of a big pharma Ph.D. level hire fresh out of academia? The runway must be significantly longer now, and the overall flight seems shorter too.

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    1. Rough cost benefit analysis for a chemistry student. Expected benefit of training = Y * S * X - (T + OC)

      Y = # years of expected employment
      S = (salary + benefits)
      X = % chance of obtaining employment
      T = tuition
      OC = opportunity cost of obtaining education / training.

      Have any of those 5 variables improved for chemists over the past 10 years? Would we expect them to improve over the coming 10?

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    2. The OC variable, or course, seems tough to quantify. For me, I would add H - P

      Where H = happiness (no idea what units are)
      and P = psychiatrist/rehab bills from sending years doing a career you hate

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  10. I think this essay and comments are ignoring one factor. The very awful economy. New graduates are not getting jobs. Slightly experienced people are not getting jobs. Just because someone could get every job they applied to in the golden age of chemistry does not mean that there are jobs to be had now.

    It not your age, there is no demand for chemists.

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    1. This is so true. I graduated with Bachelor's in Chem in 2007, got a contract position with Sanofi a few months later, then in 2009 they cut all contractors. I started my Masters, was unemployed for 8 months and just took graduate classes, then got another contract position with a CRO. While there my old department at Sanofi got cut from the original headcount of 49 people to 5 people. I was asked to come back as a contractor but ultimately Sanofi shut down the entire site and laid off about 99% of the employees. Don't know if I should try to switch careers as the future of a chemist seems uncertain.

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  11. Just a few questions from a small employer's perspective:
    1: Where do I find guys like this to hire?

    2. How much do they cost a month?

    Being a small business, cash strapped and under-banked, based outside the US and with options, my choices are between young Indian chemists or older American ones. I'd just like to explore my options. With Indians I found one person out of 100 is decent and takes the application process seriously.

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    1. You will find good chemists who are willing to work in the "older American" pool. I know as I am one of them. These are people who need the money and enjoy the work in chemistry.

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  12. I have some sympathy for the writer but not an extreme amount. He was lucky enough to be smart and skilled enough to go to top programs and get a good position. Some of are not born with that kind of luck, or make career mistakes that seem like good decisions at the time. There are chemists/biologists who have put as much into the system as he has and are much worse off then he is.

    Some of us PhD's will probably lose our job in science in our early 50's and the only thing we may get a job in is teaching high school science, if we are lucky.

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  13. Thanks for publishing this. Another great voice is heard because of your efforts. What strikes me about the comments is the fear and insecurity represented by the all the anonymity.

    I am this age, but employed. However, I've tired of chemistry and am certain I could no longer find a job as a chemist if I wanted one - I've looked forever. But, I'm turning to near minimum wage pursuits and hoping that my education enables me to rise to a livable wage in several years. One of the perks of grad school is knowing how to live lean. Here goes ...

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  14. One of the things Im wondering if there are some chemists out there that because they can no longer find a job in their field and because of just the saturation of all the professions, are re-training in vocations like plumbing and HVAC for example. To me this seems like a good idea.

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    1. I've started taking industrial hygiene/hazardous waste type classes, you'd be surprised how many related industries need these skills. Only takes a few classes at a community college for initial certifications, hopefully that gets one in the door and then additional training may come from the employer.

      Trades are an excellent new direction for anyone educated.

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  15. I was in your PhD shoes at age = 43, out of a job, with a mortgage, two young daughters with a third on the way. I got no respect for the breadth and depth of experience and worse, no interviews. I just turned 70 and in the 27 intervening years have worked for one company, making use of every bit of chemistry I had learned and learning new areas far-removed from my synthetic organic background. I did the same sort of mental calculus--"gee, I got a long way to go"--and became a contractor to the US Government. Yes, it has its downsides and it does require me to be agile and willing to say "I can do that" even though, say, my knowledge of analytical chemistry was circa 1965-1980, and my knowledge of materials science was minuscule. I have steady work and new contracts where I'm specified as 'key personnel.' My academic and chemical manufacturing experience provided me with the tools to learn anything. This isn't exactly the best time to enter this sector but we seem to be at a point in time where nothing is the "best". As some raders, above, have commented, there are plenty of industry sectors where an ability to explain technology is critical, so I'd start thinking outside the box and put a plan together to cover the next 20 years.

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