Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Has the US/world #chemjobs tipping point come? When will it?

An astute reader at a major research university has alerted me to a very interesting job opportunity; it's a partnership between a major US multinational firm and a smaller company located in India. They desire a M.S./Ph.D. in chemistry; the chemist would work for a year for the multinational firm in the United States; following that, they would go to work for the smaller company. Interestingly, the opportunity states that the candidate must be authorized to work in India (thus, presumably, shutting out anyone who is not an Indian citizen -- perhaps I am incorrect.)

I think this is very interesting -- I have heard of these sorts of opportunities, but I've never actually seen one "in the flesh", so to speak. I don't think it's particularly scandalous, for what it's worth. Seems to me that there's a perfectly legitimate reason for such a job to exist.

But it raises a very interesting question about the nature of the chemical enterprise in the United States, both industrial and academic. For generations now, graduate students have come to the United States (especially from developing countries) and gotten their technical training here and gone to work here. The vast majority have stayed in the US (or other Western nations), relatively few have gone back home, contra Mark Zuckerberg and half of Congress. The pay is better here, benefits might be better, etc., etc.

But over the past few years, as job opportunities in the US have become scarcer and jobs 'back home' have become more plentiful, I imagine the 'settlers'/'returners' ratio has begun to shift towards 'returners'. The job opportunity above is an indication of this changing ratio, but as I see it, most graduate students and postdocs from other countries still manage to find work in the US.

I have 3 questions for readers:
  • For chemistry, what do you think the 'settlers'/'returners' ratio is? I suspect that it is currently 5:1, but I think it is definitely higher lower than 10 to 1. 
  • Do you think the ratio is climbing or falling? When will it peak? 
  • What would be the best way to measure this ratio for chemistry?
Thanks to the astute reader. 


  1. You pose intriguing questions indeed.

    1.) In my field Biochem/MioBio I think its about 10 or 15:1. As I said before, Ive never met a Chinese scientist type who want to go home. I think life is much harder in China I suppose.

    2.) Falling only slightly. Unemployment for research associates in academic science in my university is definately increasing, as labs are shutting down because the PI cannot get a major grant. Ive noticed whole floors in buildings becoming quiet when 10 years ago they were full of activity. Appointments are getting more short lived. But, IMO, a chinese individual would have to be flat broke on the street before they would consider going home. I guess living on an outpost on the Amur river defending China against Russia is not a great job.

    3.) Not sure, hard to get solid information about this.

    All in all, I think this is for the best for acadmic science. It might force some needed changes to the system, such as ending tenure and replacing it with 5-10 year contracts.

  2. 1) At least for China, >96% of the population is making $2K a year or less (according to Paul Hodges's blog) - while I'm sure returning people should make much more than average and the cost of living (not in the big cities - Shanghai, HK, Beijing, etc.) is lower, they might not want to take the risk of falling towards the average Chinese standard of living, and the culture might be out of sync with what they are used to. Same with India, and I don't imagine the Ranbaxy scandal and the changes in clinical trials (both of which seem to desire to place India firmly in the minor leagues) make it easier for someone here to want to go back to India.

    2) I can see why contracts would be better for schools, but when universities don't pay all that well, with industry collaborations, etc. seem to circumscribe what research you can do, and take the majority of any monetary rewards from such research, I'm not sure why being a professor would be a job to clamor for. I also imagine that it would impact the likelihood of people actually wanting to teach at the university level - no pot of silver at the end of the road, and not much along the roadside doesn't make for a rush. (Did it work out well for Bennington, for example?) Of course, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of victims...err, employees, so I'm not tyhe target audience. Perhaps such a shift will change the labor balance.

  3. The survey of earned doctorates asks about citizenship and location of work after graduation, but I don't know if they correlate this data. It could also possibly be biased toward "stayers" since they reach out to you through snail mail and your university email address, both of which might not reach you if you've moved to another country (ie might not be checking your old email).

    1. I agree with this answer to Question 3, and I have the same concerns, re: returners.

  4. The ratio of stayers to leavers could possibly be measured through US Immigration Services, since they have the data on how many people come in with student visas compared to how many extend their stay after graduating (getting a work visa, green card, etc.) The biggest problems with this, however, would be making sure they record what is being studied as part of the work visa (I wouldn't be surprised if they do have this information; I've got a Canadian student visa and it says that I'm studying chemistry on it), differentiating between those going for an undergrad degree and those going for a graduate degree (and those who drop out before getting either), and getting the government to actually release the data with that level of detail.

  5. Apparently things aren't getting any easier for those that return, either:

    1. Excellent quote from your link:

      "A European investment banker says turtles often cling to quaint Western notions like transparency, meritocracy and ethics, which puts them at a disadvantage"