Thursday, June 20, 2013

Part 3 of dialogue between Chemjobber and Andre the Chemist

This is part 3 of a four-part conversation between Andre the Chemist and CJ on the geography of chemistry jobs and advice for young chemists. Yesterday was part 1 and part 2; today is part 3. Part 4 will be hosted by Andre tomorrow. 

Dear Andre:

Thanks for a great response yesterday. To answer your last question first, I don't have the problems with Detroit (and the Great Lakes State) that you do. (One suspects that from late August until early January, you refer to Michigan as 'that state up North.') I did, however, root against the Bad Boys of Detroit when I was a kid with all my heart. Bill Laimbeer, I still hate you.

I think you've hit on a major issue with the chemblogo/Twittersphere, which is that it is indeed heavily populated by current and former organic/pharmaceutical/medicinal chemists. Would that it was different! I would love to hear different perspectives on the employment market from other core fields of chemistry (yet another thing the ACS Salary Survey has not really tackled -- I am sure that they would, if they had the resources.) For what it's worth, there are a lot of organic and medicinal chemists in the American Chemical Society, compared to the other fields.

While I agree with you that the geographical centers of the pharma world (the Bay Area, San Diego, Boston, RTP and New Jersey) are not quite the list of states that you mentioned (Texas, California, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin), but there is some overlap between the two. A funny question: are we ascribing too much to a state, as opposed to a city here? It would be very interesting to me to know if Wisconsin's private chemistry employment could be found outside of Milwaukee, or if Minnesota's private chemistry employment could be found much outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul (Rochester?).*

Second, I think that there are some patterns that are emerging in these states, because it seems to me that there are some distinct fields there. Let me take a stab at defining them:
  • Life sciences: Bay Area, San Diego, Boston, RTP, New Jersey/Philadelphia
  • Classic chemical manufacturing: New Jersey/Philadelphia, Delaware, Minnesota, Michigan (basically Midland and southwestern MI?), Wisconsin
  • Oil/gas: Texas, New Jersey, Oklahoma
[Readers, I am sure that I am wrong. Please correct my definitions in the comments.]

We could have a really interesting discussion about which of the above geographical areas that you and I would rather live in. I confess that I am not excited about moving to either Texas or Oklahoma, even though I suspect that I am more amenable than your median American chemist. (Main problem for me: our respective families are on the coasts. Yes, I know that plane tickets are relatively inexpensive and affordable. But committing basically $2000/year (family of 4) in flights/rentals and 1 week of vacation time is a real cost.)) But yes, their cost of living is remarkably low, including housing.

I agree with your recommendation of Texas as a state that young chemists should look at more closely. As Rick Perry was fond of reminding us in 2012, Texas managed to survive the Great Recession and come out more or less OK. I know of a number of my former colleagues who are living in the Houston area, working in chemistry, and seem to be doing just fine from a professional perspective. Also, it seems to me that that the Texas state government is trying hard to move into the life sciences, so that is something that young chemists could keep an eye on.

Idealism, etc.: I am terribly amused that you find "think deeply about what is truly important" as an idealistic statement -- it's not meant to be. What I mean by it is, I think an undergrad/grad student/postdoc should think seriously about how much they care about money. I know that we're all supposed to love, love, love chemistry and be willing to do what we love for $55,000 a year (or pick some other low-ish number.) But I think that some people value freedom and a relaxed schedule much more than a top 10% salary -- and students should think seriously about whether or not earning a relatively low salary rankles them. If it does, they should know that -- and do something about it.

International jobs**: I think international jobs are a very interesting problem. Outside of specific fields (flow chemistry, etc.), is there expertise, training and/or valuable job experience to be found overseas that cannot be found in the United States? Yes, there are lots of stories of US pharma chemists going to Shanghai to take their old job, but those positions don't really seem to be open to younger chemists. I am sure that such fields exist, and that there are specific scientific skills to be gained overseas that cannot be found in the United States -- I would love to know what they are.

I guess my concern boils down to this: can chemists work overseas and then come back and find work in the United States? (Let's leave aside academic training and/or multinational companies and secondments for now.) Outside of the oil/gas industries (a field that will allow a chemist to travel the world!), I am not completely sure that there is a clear path back to the bench. If so, I'd love to hear about it.

[Obviously, if you ultimately want to be a business-type, living/working overseas and getting the language skills would be fantastic.]

What would I have done different?: I am not really sure I have an answer to that question. For the most part, I think I have a career that I desire, I just wish that it hadn't taken as long as it had, or cost as much in terms of moving (3 moves in 4 years) or relatively slow salary growth. If there is one thing I would have done differently, I think I would have hewed much closer to your advice of not treating graduate school like school initially, and much more like a job. Perhaps my imagination is just limited that way.

I have more to say, but not much more time to write, unfortunately. Here are some questions for you:
  • How the hell is a relatively young student supposed to know what interests them, and where they might go if they have multiple interests? 
  • How much money/time have you personally spent on moves, after you graduated from college? 
  • Of the 3 fields I've identified (life sciences, chemicals/polymers manufacturing, oil/gas), which fields do you think offer the most promise? Which one of those would you have chosen? 
  • Do you root against the Red Wings, or just the Victors? 
I'd love to hear what you have to say. Cheers, Chemjobber

*First person to find me a chemistry job in the Boundary Waters might get a $25 gift card from me. 
** Slightly altered from original version to clarify meaning (4:37 Eastern.) 


  1. "Outside of the oil/gas industries (a field that will allow a chemist to travel the world!), "

    It's worth noting that very few of those places will be glamorous or even enjoyable. Unique certainly, but rarely enviable.

  2. A European here but is the US really lacking in Flow chemistry expertise? I would have assumed that it was a popular area by the amount that Jameson, Buchwald and Jensen are pushing out. Is it just an MIT thing?

    1. I feel like there's much more emphasis in the UK than there is in the US as a whole. That's just a feeling, not a real statistical measurement.

    2. CJ: I concur with your view and I would like to think that "Flow Chemistry" is very European. In my previous job as a medicinal chemist at big Pharma I had used it (for hydrogenation)but found not many willing takers! Just like with any other technology, we spend lot more time fixing and servicing it! People would tell me that they still like doing the things the "old fashioned" way (Parr shakers etc). We in the US are facing similar issues like wise in the so called "Micro fluid" based reaction cells. A paper dealing with the preparation of F-18 by micro-fluid is published a while back from UK (and other parts of Europe) but have only limited takers here in the US.

    3. I would not agree Flow Chemistry is more European although believe there a are a couple generalities that may lead to that impression. Based on my interactions with many chemists trained in EU vs US the academic exposure to basic industrial chemistry and ChemE is much more widely ingrained in European education/model than in US, where these are more separate and specialty fields. Majority of US focus appears to be geared strongly toward growing new academic Professors and/or "Researchers" than people with more preparation for industry and particularly process "Development" positions.

      Similarly the US emphasis and dominance is (or was?) aimed at "Pharma" where the medchem mode is majority with greater interest on getting molecules synthesized than good techniques of how they are made. For Pharma process especially again even though flow chemistry and continuous reactions are certainty known about as viable and possible of greater efficiency/lower cost, plus much more prevalent in chemical and oil manufacturing, but in practice have only rarely been able to over come a batch process mindset. Costs pressures may mean increase in investigation and use of Flow Chemistry yet see Pharma is decades behind related industries and some academic labs in accepting this a valuable approach.

  3. I know next to nothing, but doesn't pretty much everyone state that international experience is A Good Thing, regardless of field? Shows you're adaptable and you have the balls to up and leave for a good while without knowing anyone or anything around you, etc etc yadda yadda yadda.

    1. Yes, I agree that this is the conventional wisdom in the US; it seems to me that the best time to get that "certificate of leaving the country and not completely freaking out" is during schooling, not while working.

    2. Yes, you don't need to be doing chemistry research to leave the country. Leaving it with no job lined up and hardly having any money in my account during undergrad did it for me, although I had to sleep on the street a bit in a strange place where I didn't know the language. Moving for a postdoc afterwards is a joke afterwards; it's like somebody holding your hand all the time. Still, only the moves within the context of your chemistry career will count. I can't list my factory assembly line experience, or container paint stripping (the jobs that I eventually found in the foreign place for a summer), on my CV. And the sleeping on the street or at train stations is generally also frowned on as a CV line.

    3. It's easier to move abroad during your college years, or even as a post-doc. Doing so once you enter the workforce is harder, but far more lucrative (long live COLAs!).

      From my experience, I would guess no more than a third of the researchers at a typical chemical company are interested in working abroad. Most people have too many family or local ties, are just plain aren't interested. Just indicating that you would be willing to go is a big plus in moving you forward in your career. If you are ever offered an international position, just do it. Nine times out of ten, it will advance your career relative to staying in the states. And I guarantee that no matter how it works out, you will have a more interesting and memorable time that you would back home.

    4. Immanuel Kant never went further than 15 kilometers away from Koenigsberg during his lifetime, and I'd rather have a chat with him than with some of the more annoying 'worldly' people that I've met.

    5. If I recall, Kant didn't travel much as Air Prussia had very few flights in his day, and economy seating was very very cramped.

      Travel in grad school or for PDF can be great. In my own experience, I did a PDF in a place I never would of thought of living and, 15 years later, would never think of leaving. Probably partly due to location---not sure same would apply had I moved to Toronto or Wollerton, but who knows.

  4. It's not a job opening, but there is a chemist that teaches at Vermilion Community College in Ely, MN. That's about as close as you can get to the Boundary Waters and still be in a city...

  5. As a former Texan, a state that got some fair consideration in the post, I have just a couple thoughts:

    1. It is in many ways a good state. Hot as hell, and often very humid. But business shows solid growth and even better it is shifting from deep red to purple. Not trying to be political, but living on the extremes in either direction can be annoying.

    2. Don't forget the gulf coast of Texas as a center of "classic" chemical manufacturing in addition to the oil. For instance Dow and BASF both have a major presence in Freeport. For Dow it may even rival the size of their Midland site in some ways.

  6. "How much money/time have you personally spent on moves, after you graduated from college?"

    In my final term as a PhD student, I took out an $11,000 student loan (tripling my student debt), paid off my truck, and used the rest as relocation money for my first post-doc, with maybe a couple thousand left over as a safety cushion. I had no other debt at the time, but insignificant assets as well.

    Since then, all of my relocations have been covered by the corporation. The first two where from outside the company to inside, and typically had a ceiling expense around $10,000 or so, which I had no problem staying under. The next two were company internal international moves, which are fully compensated. In reality, though, even fully compensated moves end up costing you $1000-2000 as you have to, for example, throw out hundreds of dollars's worth of food, servicable-but-not-worth-shipping furniture, houseplants, etc.

    1. Don't forget paying sales tax (or some relabeled variant) on your vehicles a second time when doing interstate moves. New licenses, security deposits for rentals, closing costs on homes...