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
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?
*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.)