Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reddit Chemistry Jobs FAQ, part 3: Does your Ph.D. granting institution matter?

It's time for another portion of the Reddit Chemistry Jobs FAQ. Here's part 1 and part 2. Today's questions:
czechychicky: How important is a PhD supervisor vs. university at which the degree was obtained? 
chemistress: How much does the graduate school you attend matter? Will I seriously be hurting my future job prospects if I receive my PhD from a (much) lower-ranked school?
The old adage is that your terminal degree/experience should be the best one possible. There's a lot of caveats there, but I think that's it is broadly true.

If you want a classic Ph.D. chemistry job, the conventional wisdom is that your institution matters a lot. For Ph.D.-level jobs in the US chemical/pharmaceutical industry, it might even be true that the Ph.D. supervisor matters more than the institution itself.* I don't know about other fields in chemistry; it's possible that they are not nearly as exclusive. (I should hope not.)

Here's how I look at the difference between an adviser and the institution when it comes to jobs: your institution will help your CV (the "prestige" factor, networking, potential internships with nearby employers, other professors to be your references, facilities), while the interaction between you and your adviser is what makes your thesis and makes your job talk. Which is more important in getting your job? I would hope it's your science and your skills, but let's not be too naive. It's probably best to maximize both.

Will you be hurting your job prospects if you get your Ph.D. from a lower-ranked** school? I don't really know, but there is probably a wide gulf in the distribution of job offers and salaries between graduates of, say, the top 5 or 10 institutions (the Harvards and the Caltechs of the world) and everyone else. Is there a big difference in salaries and lifetime earnings between the 50th ranked school and the 100th ranked school? Possibly, but again, I don't really know. It is also quite possible that if you get a Ph.D. from a lower-ranked school, you're probably increasing your chances that you might need a postdoctoral stay at a higher-ranked school to polish your CV.

[If you haven't noticed, I keep saying "I don't know, because there's no good data." This is basically the story of the paths in our field. While individual groups/professors can be quite good at keeping track of their alumni, neither universities, employers or employees (or the American Chemical Society, for that matter) seem to be interested in gathering, synthesizing or divulging data in an attempt to inform younger people. Why that might be is left as an exercise to the reader.]

There's something that I haven't mentioned yet, which is success. It's a really difficult thing to define, but it will probably mean 1) publishing a lot of good, well-regarded science and 2) learning to be a high-quality, independent scientist. I think that's hard to do anywhere, but some institutions and professors fit you and your personality more than others. So that's going to be my spin on the above adage: you should go to the best school that will help you be the most successful.

*UPDATE: Experienced commenters disagree with me and seem to agree that in industry, the school matters more than the adviser name.

**Whose rankings are we going to use, for that matter? 

28 comments:

  1. My understanding has always been that advisor mattered more than institution for grad school, since there are a lot of big names and good scientists at "mid-tier" schools.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I quite disagree with the Chemjobbers naive advice. The school name actually matters a lot more in most job search situation - the bigger and more bureaucratic your potential employer is and the bigger the job applicants pile is, the more it is true. The only exception is when you are applying for a tenure track faculty position - then the name of your research advisor carries more weight. Or if your (famous) advisor picks up the phone and activates old boys network to get you a job - then it really matters.
    But left on your own, with a mere publication list and a glowing letter of recommendation, it does you little favor to boast an awesome natural product synthesis in Woods group while applying to decent paid industry job because you graduated "only" from Colorado State - the HR who will collect (and whittle down) the job applications had never heard of total synthesis. She can hardly tell the difference between steroids and asteroids (both are injurious to health) and imagines organic chemistry has to do something with premium tomatoes and manure-based fertilizers

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with this statement. Believe it or not, outside of your small niche chemistry subfield, the "heavy hitter" and "superstar" professors are nobodys. If you are going into an industrial job, most likely no one has heard of your advisor. However, if you went to Harvard, MIT, or Caltech, etc. you will constantly be referred to as the "(Top 5 university name) guy".

      Delete
    2. Add a 3rd vote for this. Polychem hit the nail on the head.

      Delete
    3. My graduate training was in inorganic chemistry, and the first I ever heard of organic synthesis big names like Nicolaou was reading In The Pipeline years after I finished school. A resume from someone who worked for Al Cotton or Bob Grubbs would have impressed the hell out of me, but I wouldn't know the big names in the other sub-disciplines.

      When I worked for a bigger company, my experience was that all the young PhD's brought their friends in - certain departments seemed to be over-represented. The "old boys' network" is alive and well.

      Delete
  3. You should think very strongly if you're going to get your PhD from a school other than a top-10 institution. I went to a school in the Big 10 and stopped with a MS for this reason - got a job as an associate in pharma before transitioning to manufacturing and quality assurance. Interviewed at Merck, Roche, and Novartis, amongst other places.

    Big Pharma is only interested in ivy league grads for PhD level positions. Think heavy hitters in synthesis, such as Baran, Trost, Evans, Corey, Boger, Nicolaou. If you don't come from this caliber of a group, they will turn up their nose at you. It also matters for post-doc, as people from name brand groups are a safer bet than people from lower-tier schools or groups. Why go with an unknown commodity if an ultra-productive Overman PhD wants a post-doc with you versus the promising guy from the U of Iowa? 90% of the job offers in chemistry for PhD positions come from 10% of the groups in academia. I am on the inside and saw the people we brought in for interviews, and this fit this mold.

    If you want to succeed in chemistry, go to the best school and the most famous advisor you possibly can. If you're not in a famous group or top 10 school, it will be difficult.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lol, 90% come from 10% of groups??? How many phd students do you think these guys have? If you are not going to an elite school it doesn't matter if it's 50th or 200th. Nobody checks arbitrary rankings when evaluating apps. Perhaps if it's so obscure the general public has never even heard of it, that old hurt. But big state schools are all the same.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I forget if it was Chemjobber himself that calculated it, but one big-name school (Harvard, Cal) produces more than enough PhDs to fill all open R1 tenure-track positions each year. Sure, not all of those people are applying, but do you want to be competing with that?

      Delete
    2. Close: it was me, but it was looking at lots of big groups and their ability to fill open big pharma spots: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2010/10/could-big-pharma-fill-its-openings-with.html

      Delete
    3. Thanks for correcting me. I couldn't find the numbers for Harvard offhand but Berkeley claims 480 grad students, so estimating 100-120 graduates a year from that one school alone gives numbers not too far off from your 200 from major groups.

      If you have an estimate for number of tenure track openings a year, please share. Surely it isn't more than the number of big pharma industrial positions?

      Delete
    4. Harvard averages about 35 graduate students per year in chemistry and chemical physics combined. Chemical biology is about 5 - 10 per year.

      Delete
  5. I think that statement refers to positions in big pharma, not every single chemistry position. Based on my experience (some of it with former hiring managers from big pharma), Anon11:15 is correct.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'd like to add that although I do believe this cronyism is rampant, it doesn't mean it's impossible for grads from other schools to get jobs. You probably won't get looked at by a big pharma, but maybe that's not such a terrible thing these days.

    The key to finding employment if you went to a non-Ivy is your ability to sell yourself, your persistence/resilience, and your flexibility. If you lack one of these you will have a tough job search ahead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Again i wonder if the incestuous hiring practices and the whole idea of preferring total synthesis pedigrees for medicinal pharmacology is part of the problem in the first place.

      Delete
    2. Jinx. (see below, same time stamp)

      Delete
    3. I'm looking for a job near ______, but I'd be willing to take anything within a 24,901 mile radius.

      Delete
  7. CoulombicExplosionMarch 13, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    The path to my current PhD-level position in analytical chemistry started with a recruiter soliciting the department for recent graduates or soon-to-be graduates. She was directed by the hiring manager to send contact the departments of a short list of schools he recognized as has having good analytical chemistry pedigrees, especially in the area of my subdiscipline. I think it cheesed off my advisor a bit when he realized I was being recruited because of my circumstances (the grad institution I was at, plus an internship I did as an undergrad) and not because of his influence/reputation.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I certainly can't speak to the situation in Big Pharma, but in our mid-size, Midwestern specialty chemical company, we actively recruit both undergraduates and graduate students in chemistry and chemical engineering from three specific Big Ten schools. When hiring a new employee, it really helps to have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. By establishing relationships with specific departments, it is much easier to evaluate these qualities than it is through a resume/phone screen. Note that it is certainly possible to get hired here without a degree from one of those institutions, but the probability of that happening is somewhat lower than it is for the target schools. I have friends who are recruiters for other companies, so this situation is fairly common. Thus, for an industrial position, I'd say choosing the correct school is fairly important.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ignoring the fact that I disagree with some of these statements (I know several PhDs from my non-top-tier grad school who got jobs in big pharma) the question I have is could we draw a correlation between the (assumed) big pharma top school elitism and the recent relative fortunes of the industry?

    If you cannot develop methodologies for selecting the top candidates for a position (and, no, using school ranking as an exclusionary factor is not a very good methodology) then perhaps you're not destined for future success.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. People often say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but in this case I would say there is enough corroboration to believe it's true. That's not to say there won't be people who break the mold, but that also doesn't invalidate the original claim.

      You and bad wolf raise a good question about the wisdom of such a selection process, but I wouldn't even begin to know how to answer it.

      Delete
  10. The last paragraph that CJ writes has some weight, at least in my case. Take it for what its worth:

    I went to a school currently ranked between 70 and 100 on USNews chem programs. I did a post-doc with a top-5 researcher in my field, but not particularly well known out of that field. However, I published lots of papers in quality journals and overall was very successful at both places. This success landed me a job with a multi-national chem company doing something completely unrelated to my academic research. I am not in pharma or biotech.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very similar to my background except my grad school is much higher, probably top 30s or top 40s at least. My postdoc advisor is definitely top five, but no nobel prize, so not well known outside the field. I also had first authors in high quality journals and even one of them Nature Chems. Some bitter guy at work told me that for companies that means nothing because the lower the journal, the more they think they can trust the work, so I just published something in 'ACS Stoichiometric Reactions'.

      I'm thinking you got lucky though, since I'm not getting any positive answers from the States, but it could be since no one is willing to look at me as I'm on another continent. This should matter less for academic positions, one would think, but also no luck with that. There are people from my lowly grad school department who ended up in big pharma and academia, after doing postdocs at much better schools like I did, but I'm starting to think it was foolish to assume that publications matter more than name of PhD school.

      Delete
  11. Advisor names certainly matter in academia, but I remember reading somewhere that the top 5% or so of chemistry departments account for 90% of all chemistry professors in the country. So school name also seems to count.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I can't comment on pharma, but in polymers, the school matters a lot. Grubbs, Matyjaszewski, and Frechet are good groups to come out of if you didn't go to one of the 'big' polymer programs (UMass, Akron, Case), but coming out of a well-regarded materials science program like MIT or Caltech will get you farther than a 'superstar' advisor (unless your superstar advisor was at a 'superstar' polymer program).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know what Dow currently does, but when I was at Rohm & Haas, they very seldom hired anyone with a polymer background. It was arrogance in my opinion, "we're the only ones who know polymer chemistry and no one else does."

      Delete
  13. Make Money online from home without investment, Just Register and click the ads and earn upto 10 Dollars Daily, The best and Legimate Earning Sites Ever you want
    ProBux.com

    ReplyDelete
  14. Awesome review. I got to your blog from yahoo while i was looking for job search. I will turn over your site to other people and I am sure they will think the same about your article on this site.

    ReplyDelete