Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Where should a young chemist hope to start their career? (Part 1 of dialogue with Andre the Chemist)

The rest of this week, Andre the Chemist and I will be talking about career advice for (relatively) young chemistry professionals. Today, I'm writing about job geography and Andre is responding at his blog. -- CJ

UPDATE: Andre has responded at his blog. (Truly hilarious and thoughtful.)

Dear Andre:

Hope that you are enjoying your summer -- and that you're getting a good workout on the minor league wrestling circuit (isn't that what unusually large academic chemists do when they're not doing research or writing lecture notes?) 

Anyway, thanks for doing this dialogue with me. I'm excited to find and discuss our differences (if we have any) on what we think relatively young chemists should be doing to further their careers. I wanted to talk about geography -- and I think you wanted to talk about when chemists should specialize? Either way, I'm excited to hear what you have to say. 

I know it's been a month, but I wanted to pick some nits about some advice you gave recently to graduates (B.S. and further): 
...Go anywhere for a job. 
This is a big country. There are lots of places. Lots of these places have jobs. Some of these jobs are interesting. 
When I talk with students about jobs, I always ask if there are any locations in particular they are focusing on. Most students say they are looking at a combination of area X (which is close to where they attended school), area Y (which is close to where they grew up), and/or big city Z (which is any big city where it's fun to be a twenty-something)... (snip) 
...If you find a job in Idaho or Oklahoma or West Virginia or Arkansas or New Mexico or Michigan, try it out. You'll still get to see your friends and family. As a college graduate who's employed you'll make enough money to go on trips. You can fly anywhere in the country in a day and you can drive a lot of places. 
If you move someplace and don't like your job or where you live, you know what? Move someplace else. At least you'll be making money and getting job experience. And I haven't even talked about working in another country.
I agree that students tend to fall into the X, Y, Z category, and that they can be relatively unwilling to consider other areas. Personally, I am nearly indifferent to where I live, just as long as I can make the rent and my wife can find a job as well.* But I think that students are making a certain amount of sense:

1) The ties of family and friends count for a lot, in terms of happiness. Community takes time (and money!)  to build and it makes sense for students to attempt to preserve some social capital by either staying where they are, or going back to where they have been. While community can be developed and friends can be had by moving someplace and meeting people (I can say this, having done it a number of times), I suspect that people (and society in general) are getting worse, not better, at joining communities or integrating newcomers into communities. 

2) Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems like we're at a moment in our society where broad prosperity doesn't seem to be spreading across the country. Rather, there are pockets where things are going quite well (Silicon Valley, I'm looking at you) and there are places that seem less prosperous (St. Louis? Baltimore? I don't really want to single a city out.) While I don't doubt that your students' perspectives are skewed by television and that they're not consulting the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the latest on unemployment, do you think that some cities might be better for chemists (Boston, definitely) and some might be worse? 

I am loathe to give people firm advice on how to prioritize choices for a career**, and I suspect that what you are saying is "don't count any place out!" and I agree, for the most part. But I wonder if we can, through our discussion, come up with a means of determining what might be a good set of priorities that aren't 1) close to home/family or 2) in big city Z. If you put a gun to my head, here's my list:

1. Choose places where there are lots of people older/more experienced than you that you can learn from, than not. 
2. Choose bigger institutions over smaller ones. 
3. Choose bigger cities over smaller cities. 
4. Choose more densely populated regions over less densely populated ones. 

I confess I'm trolling a bit here, but I suspect that a successful career will have more in common with this list than not. 

What is it like for academics? Does the bright lights of the big city shine for you guys? What place would you never, ever, not-in-a-million years live? Can't wait to hear about it. 

Cheers, Chemjobber

*It would take a lot for me to live somewhere where it is consistently humid. 
**People who write to me for advice are probably frustrated by me saying "First, go think deeply about what is truly important to you." 


  1. The draft version I got was missing that footnote about humidity, which you can see from my post I completely agree with.

  2. A lot of this gets pretty complicated because many chemists have a 2 body problem - 2 Ph.D.s looking for work. I'd agree, bigger city, bigger institution, higher population density is best for these couples.

  3. I agree with your point (1). At least when you relocate for school, you get to interact with a pool of people who are going through the same process as you. When you relocate for a job, especially as you get older, the number of opportunities goes down. A number of job postings I have seen have been for small and/or geographically isolated places, where the number of people to meet is even less.

    As someone who is currently going through the relocation process, I underestimated the stress involved. Changing jobs is hard enough, but doing it in an unfamiliar location away from my social safety net is tough. Worse, since my funding is from grants in an uncertain economic climate, I face the prospect of doing this all over again in a few years. I've had some sleepless nights debating whether or not I should get out of science now.

    1. I think I may be in a similar situation to yours; I have tried to make a career in academic science, despite the low pay. Good chance Ill lose my job in a year due to poor funding in academia right now. Because I have been on soft money, Ive always lived in an apartment, but see that I need to live in a house to save money. So do I take a chance and buy a house, or move and live in an apt the rest of my life?

      Should have been a pipefitter.

  4. This is another reason to get out of science while you're still young. Moving is easy when you're fresh out of college, single, and don't own a house. If you stay in chemistry, there's a good chance you'll be forced to move later on when it's massively inconvenient for you to do so - you own a house, your spouse has a good job, your high-school-age kids will hate you for it, etc.

    Growing up, I had one set of grandparents in the area and one set who moved away when they retired. The former I was very close to; the latter I saw once a year and barely knew. I like chemistry, but I don't like it enough to have kids who barely know my parents. I'm lucky to be able to be a chemist and live where I grew up, but I'd leave the field before I'd move away. I did live in another part of the US for grad school - it's fine to do that for a few years in your 20s, but it's no way to live your life.

  5. I'm with Anon@12:24pm. I grew up with both parents in the Navy. We moved every 4 years. Its not a great life for kids or spouses. Just as you get settled in and pull together a group of friends or wiggle your way into a group of friends, then its time to move again. Going through the same thing for chemistry doesn't seem worth the trouble.

    1. Being a military brat sucks. Growing up in the DC area, almost all my friends were military so I had complete turnover every four years or so as well (it was like being a college sports team). However, there is also a disadvantage to staying in the same location for a child's entire life. Experiencing something new is a great opportunity I wished I had (of course I am glad I didn't move every four years). My friends all had lived for a time in Seattle or Colorado or San Diego or Hawaii. That's cool. Being stuck in the swamp of the middle Atlantic for 18 years... that sucks. (Did I mention how much I hate humidity?)

  6. Chalk me up as another chemist tired of the nomadic lifestyle. I'm done with that. I'm staying put where I am now even if I have to work bagging groceries. I'm also done listening to people giving advice they themselves have never had to follow. "Why don't you just move across the country? I hear that there's lots of science jobs in San Francisco and Boston" I have more disposable income as a wage slave in my fly-over state than as a scientist in either of those cities.

  7. When I was seeking out PhD programs, I had the mentality of "go anywhere, as long as the research is top-notch." I landed in Champaign-Urbana, where I realized that I am miserable in a small town. Moreover, I didn't think being so far from my family would affect me so much. I went to grad school thinking that I would just go where I could do the best research; in retrospect, I wish I had gone where I could do *my* best research, and I now know that is where I have a support system.

    1. I absolutely despised living in Champaign-Urbana for grad school. The locals had a huge chip on their shoulder toward students in general, who they saw as a bunch of spoiled rich kids from suburban Chicago, and they let it show with the most overzealous parking ticketing and towing of any college town I've ever been to. There wasn't much there besides beer-soaked undergrad bars and stores that sold nothing but T-shirts and bongs.

    2. Yeah, but a least it's cheap. You really think the parking situation would have been any better in Boston? Berkeley? Any other R01 top 10 university in the US? The parking ticketing was very very strict, and I often though about what 50 lbs of the right mix of aluminum and iron oxide powders would have done to one of the meter-maid's vehicles. Even better was the Urbana law making it illegal to put money in someone else's meter. For the cost of living and the grad salary; however, I don't think you could beat it UIUC.

    3. Sure, rent is cheap. Great. Unfortunately everything else costs exactly what it costs everywhere else in the country (a gallon of milk is a gallon of milk; my car payment is my car payment), so my grad stipend, which is scaled to the average rent, not cost of living, is paltry. Sure, I'm able to live reasonably comfortably, but don't make it sound like paradise.

      And the point of my post was that it doesn't matter; I'd rather be broke off my ass in Boston, where I'm close to family and have at least some chance of doing something different to blow off steam, than having a slightly bigger house in C-U. This is not something I thought I would value coming to grad school.

      tl;dr It's infinitely easier to deal with being underpaid and undervalued when you have some sort of support system to get you through it.

    4. I suppose I should point out that I'm doing just fine in C-U with regard to my PhD, but you could say that I'm not chomping at the bit to find my next position in the Midwest...

    5. 8:49 again here. Parking is legitimately in short supply in places like Boston. Champaign-Urbana artificially creates a parking shortage with miles of yellow curb and marked parallel spaces big enough to accommodate a school bus. There was really no good safety argument for most of the no-parking or one-side-of-street parking areas; you see much narrower streets on the east coast with parking on both sides. I did appreciate the cheapness of the area; I had a great apartment to myself for a little over $500 a month. The flyover-country aspect I could live with; it was the college-town stuff I couldn't stand.

  8. I am finding that "roots" in science is turning into a bit of a field position game. I would take the job in a smaller city, or less cultural identity if I knew it was easier to walk away from. Keep your expenses, low, your savings high, and perhaps when you are independently wealthy enough, you can live where ever you want, do whatever you want.

  9. Having worked in the biotech/pharma space in both BS and PhD positions, I think it's important to note that this advice can't be applied universally.

    As a BS scientist I was never once offered relocation money and moved on my own dollar when it was necessary. I was fortunate to have friends in hub areas that were able to let me stay with them until I could land a job and repay them for their kindness. I wasn't struggling for money while I was working, but I was living in hub cities and wasn't able to save a whole lot. When the layoffs came, my savings depleted quickly. That made moving with my own money rather onerous. Again, this was only possible because I had friends in areas where jobs were. I don't think it's responsible to advise people at this stage to just jump into a totally new scene for the adventure. Being young doesn't mean you can afford to be reckless just because you have more years to bounce back from it. Every person has their own preference, so the big city/small city is really a personality dependent variable. But smart planning is absolutely essential for people at that level. All of this ignores the fact that most companies won't even consider non-local candidates for BS positions due to the huge talent pool to draw from. Even during the "golden years" this was true.

    As a PhD scientist, you MUST be flexible or be prepared to work non-ideal jobs. It's frowned upon in American universities to "inbreed," which indicates that there's an expectation that you'll be moving around to different places quite a bit. Don't want to move away from your hometown for work? Fine. Don't bitch about how you have to bust your ass adjuncting with no benefits to pay the bills. Like having an affordable apartment to yourself? Great. Don't complain about all the good jobs being in expensive locales that you don't want to live in. It's true that being a scientist nowadays requires an ability to be nomadic. I'll mention that I've moved a lot and have never gotten very generous relocation packages. Unlike BS level positions, most of the best jobs are concentrated into very specific geographical areas and it can be difficult to break into them. Living in one of the hubs doesn't guarantee that you'll be immune from struggles either. But if you're flexible, then it'll make finding a job a lot easier for you. If you can keep a good attitude about it, then you're in good shape and you'll probably find your experience rewarding.

    1. Frequent moves to places where the cost of living is high with little to no relocation? What a great incentive for pursuing a post-graduate degree! If you don't like it, clearly the problem is with your flexibility and attitude.

      This isn't meant to be a criticism of you, but the system. I understand in part why things are the way they are, but it's not exactly geared to attract the best and brightest to the field or keep them there. I love science, but it is not the only thing I love in my life.

    2. You're 100% right, and I'm not advocating for the system being right by any means. This is what we have to work with though, and I've learned how to adapt to it. I'm enough of a sociopath that I don't have or want a spouse/kids/house, which makes me very mobile. I completely understand why people who do want/have those things are in a much trickier place. Unfortunately, it doesn't change the ruthlessness of the job market for them. I know too many people that work in one state during the week, then commute to another to be with their family for the weekend. I don't like constantly moving for work, but I would way rather move a few states over than have to fight tooth and nail to teach 30 hours at the local CC for small money and no benefits. I'm making the best of a non-ideal situation, but I would prefer to live in a city that I love and leave because I want to, not out of necessity. I anticipate this means one day leaving science. It's pretty pathetic that this is the choice PhD scientists have to make.

    3. "It's frowned upon in American universities to "inbreed," which indicates that there's an expectation that you'll be moving around to different places quite a bit." On the contrary, it's precisely those institutions that make a habit of "eating their own" that enjoy great reputations - e.g. MIT.

      Newer, lower-ranking institutions sometimes do this but only until they get far enough off the ground that they can start to attract employees from other institutions. Also, occasionally there's the "special instance" of "underrepresented candidates" but this has more to do with the availability and suitability of said candidates (and also, institutional internal politics) rather than general policy.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20