Monday, October 7, 2013

ACS Presidential candidate Bryan Balazs on #chemjobs issues

Last week, I contacted the 3 ACS presidential candidates, Bryan Balazs, Charles Kolb, Jr. and Diane Grob Schmidt and asked them if they would like to comment on jobs related to chemistry employment and unemployment. The first to respond was Dr. Bryan Balazs. His comments are below:

CJ: Which ACS program do you think best helps the job-seeking ACS member? How would you improve it?

Dr. Balazs: There is no doubt that chemists are in a competitive job market in the current challenging economic times.  In my opinion, applicants need three things to land a job: A) they need to find out about job openings (this goes without saying), B) they need to have the required skills for the job, and C) they need to outshine the competition when it comes to the application and interview process.  The ACS needs to focus its efforts on all three of these requirements:

A)  Quite frankly, the ACS does not do a very good job at identifying for its members where the jobs are and who IS hiring.  This can be improved by coming up with a database of websites that ACS members can use to locate the jobs that they might be qualified for, including companies that are "non-traditional" employers of chemists.

B)  In the fast changing competition for talent around the world, we need to constantly encourage our students and workforce to keep learning new skills, even while in a job.  One of the latest trends in our education system is the onset of online courses, and I will explore collaborations between ACS and institutions offering such courses to benefit our members.

C)  The ACS has good resources to help members polish their resume, work through the application process, etc., but surprisingly few members take advantage of these resources.  We need to find out why, and we need to improve this.  One of the areas we can improve is to offer online services for those seeking help in this area.

CJ: Is it ACS policy to get more students to study in STEM fields, specifically chemistry? If so, how do we reconcile the fact that wages for chemists are stagnant or falling? Does this argue against the idea of a STEM shortage and the need for more STEM students?

Dr. Balazs: The need for students to pursue education in STEM fields is a priority for our nation, but at the same time, the ACS has had a longstanding discussion about whether we have too many chemists or not enough chemists, with both sides making good arguments.  After reading countless articles on the employment of chemists, my reconciliation of the apparent discrepancy between the number of chemists and available jobs is:  There are sufficient jobs in the U.S. for the supply of chemists, BUT (and this is the critical point) these jobs come with depressed salaries due to a global labor market and these jobs stipulate exacting (and thus hard to satisfy) qualifications that the employers need at that point in time and without regard to building a long-term workforce.

In short, it's an employer's market currently, and employers are more picky about who and when they hire.  However, history shows that this balance eventually reverses itself, although often at an agonizingly slow pace. One thing that I am perfectly clear on is that we should not discourage people from pursuing chemistry if that is their passion.  At the same time, we should not gloss over the low spots of the job market and make promises that are out of alignment with employment trends.

We also need to remember that the borders between the traditional scientific fields are fading and with that, the need for interdisciplinary training has become imperative.  So, we need to extend our attention towards encouraging interdisciplinary training across the STEM fields.  There needs to be a serious conversation within the ACS about this issue, and I believe that we need to be reaching out to other scientific societies and work together to advance our common mission.

CJ: Each ACS president candidate, for at least the past decade, knows the challenging job market facing ACS members and inevitably speaks of "growing jobs" in the US. Specifically, what tangible steps would you take to increase the number of chemistry jobs in the US, and is this something you think is really achievable?

Dr. Balazs: The ACS cannot create jobs nor can it mandate that employers hire more chemists, but it can nurture the conditions that bring about the creation of jobs for chemists.  What the ACS also can do is to publicize with companies that are hiring the various skills that a chemist has that they are looking for, skills such as: analytical thinking, creative problem solving, and being able to work as a team (after all, science is a team sport).  The ACS can also continue to advocate for innovation, entrepreneurship, and small businesses at all levels, something which is only slowing growing in terms of priority within the ACS but that I believe will be where the jobs and careers of the future are.  The ACS must not become an organization for solely large employers, whether in industry or academia.

4. How would you describe ACS' response to the Great Recession and the increase in unemployment amongst its members? How should ACS respond to similar situations in the future?


Dr. Balazs: The recent recession was unprecedented in many ways, and we have been through some tough transitions in the past 5 years.  I believe that we at the ACS were caught off guard like almost every other sector in our country.  At the same time, the industry and academic fields have changed enormously in the past decade or so, but the good news is that we have learned a lot and can carry this forward should such a crisis arise again in the future.  The ACS' Department of Career Management and Development now provides a wealth of services (click here for an example), and many of these have been added or otherwise strengthened in response to the Great Recession.

These have helped deal with the effects of the recession, but rather than continue to add more and more of these, the ACS should look at some of the areas I've noted above, such as educating "non-traditional" companies on the value of chemists, helping chemists find these non-traditional jobs, and ensuring that chemists outshine the competition when it comes to the application and interview process.  We should also do much more to encourage entrepreneurs and small businesses, as this is where many of the jobs of the future will be.

Thank you for taking the time to read my viewpoints and please visit my website, see my statement in Chemical and Engineering News, or view my short video.

Sincerely,
Bryan Balazs

Note: The 2 other candidates will have their responses published 24 to 48 hours after they are received by Chemjobber. 

25 comments:

  1. So the answer to whether we should encourage students to study chemistry is yes, it will get better?

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    1. his answer wasn't a complete waffle, but i'm curious as to whether the "lessons of history" about employment cycles can really be applied when, as he states, the global labor market is to blame. after all this is a new phenomenon

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    2. We should encourage students to study chemistry (and science in general) if that is their interest. At the same time, we should be honest with them about the current labor market for chemists and work to help them find jobs with the companies that ARE hiring chemists (and these openings are not always obvious). Remember that labor markets can often change quickly -- a recent example is that China is now outsourcing its labor needs to Vietnam, where labor costs are lower. Who would have guessed this only a few years ago?

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    3. New ACS campaign to support young chemists: It Gets Better

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    4. I think I would like the ACS to be more activist regarding chem jobs. One thing on my mind: should we limit the number of chemistry degrees? It might be difficult to enforce but one could limit the number of ACS-certified degrees, for example.

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  2. "we need to constantly encourage our students and workforce to keep learning new skills, even while in a job" - does this mean he supports the redesign of the traditional PhD?

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    1. I would not characterize it as a redesign, but rather a reminder that almost everything we learn in life adds to our "toolbox", and there are many non-technical skills that are valued by employers, which one should try to learn while on the way to earning a Ph.D. Collaboration, business management, finance, public speaking, experience in leadership, and so forth.

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    2. Thanks. I completely support this opinion.

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    3. a different anonymousOctober 8, 2013 at 7:14 AM

      I think the problem is that the secondary skills we obtain in graduate training are more valuable for the "non-traditional" occupations than the technical skills are.

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  3. I like the statement. But I recently read a good essay on graduate education. I don't know where to leave this comment so I'll put it on this post. I think the ACS should adopt most of the ideas in this essay and pressure the NIH to change it's grant model. It'll be for the good of the academic research enterprise and good overall for recent graduates going into industry.

    http://elife.elifesciences.org/content/2/e01139

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    1. I'm still in learning mode here, but believe me, such discussions are occurring at all levels of the ACS.

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  4. ACS President is just a figurehead, his opinion is worth nothing.

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  5. Not true. The President of the ACS has, along with the Board of Directors and the overall membership, enormous influence in the emphasis that the ACS places in various areas and its future direction overall. The ACS President is the public voice of advocacy for chemists and chemistry across the world, so (if elected) I would be your representative in this global environment.

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    1. If elected would you come on The Collapsed Wavefunction podcast (my chemistry podcast) and talk about your plans for said advocacy? I would really be interested because I feel like the ACS isn't doing as much outreach as it should (and it's not reaching as far as they think). To me this is one of the most important things the ACS needs to be doing. I worry that chemists are taking a head in the sand approach to public opinion (not true about everyone, of course).

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    2. When you say 'ACS isn't doing as much outreach as it should,' I hear 'ACS membership--that is you, me, and the rest of the crew--isn't doing enough outreach.' There are plenty of people (student affiliate chapters, local sections, and individuals) engaged in outreach.

      Perhaps ACS could do a better job of empowering this sort of activity, and perhaps this is what you mean.

      I hope you don't mean that the DC office of the ACS should try to go it alone on outreach. They simply don't have the staff to undertake such an effort in a remotely meaningful manner.

      What do you have in mind?

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    3. You hit the nail on the head. The ACS could do a better job of empowering this sort of activity. I've seen some amazing outreach by local chapters. No, I'm not saying that the DC office should go it alone; that would be really ineffective, but I do think they could do more. What do I have in mind? I'm not sure, honestly. That's one reason I would like to talk to Bryan Balazs on the podcast. He mentioned outreach specifically in his election video, but nothing more than that. I wanted to hear what his specific ideas were.

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    4. My "day job" responsibilities often get in the way of a timely response, but here are my thoughts: ACS members (often through their local sections) do a tremendous job of public outreach, with National Chemistry Week, Chemists Celebrate Earth Day, the Legislative Action Network, etc., being prime examples. These are often facilitated with resources from ACS staff, who do a tremendous job of supporting members in general. I've been involved in outreach for many years, and you can take a look at my website www.bryanbalazs.com for examples.

      One of the thing that I have noticed, at least where I live, is that there are large numbers of other organizations engaged in exactly the same mission of speaking on behalf of science, and we have little if any connections to these groups. So, one specific idea I have is to connect with these groups and leverage our resources to greater effect. I do feel that if we can achieve progress in spreading the value of science to the general public and to our government officials, a lot of the issues in education, funding, jobs, will be easier to address.

      Chad, please tell me more about your podcast and I would be happy to participate.

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  6. The problem then is that undergraduates in chemistry are not learning what they need to be. There is not enough emphasis on the application of mathematics and physics to solving problems in chemistry, and too much emphasis on qualitative picture-book style memorization "learning". That is to say, chemistry is starting to move away from being a physical science and towards a life science or humanities.

    The biggest problem is the physical chemistry curriculum and to a lesser extent, analytical chemistry. Physical chemistry should be taught as 2 separate 1 year sequences - 1 year of quantum chemistry and spectroscopy alone, and 1 year of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and kinetics alone. Just as physics students do not learn classical mechanics and electromagnetism from 1 big book called "Classical Physics" why are chemistry students being forced to settle for less?

    A comprehensive coverage of spectroscopy in physical chemistry will also free up time in analytical chemistry for things used in industry, like statistics.

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    1. How would that comprehensive coverage free up time in analytical chemistry? What you're suggesting is basically an additional year just for physical chemistry (I'm pretty sure most undergrad institutions have one year for p-chem and you think it should be two).

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    2. As I've mentioned before, this is already how it works in Canada, and I don't see fantastic employment opportunities for chemists here...

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    3. It sounds like you want a degree in chemical physics, as opposed to straight chemistry. While what you suggest would be good for a subset of chemists, but not all types of chemists. The curriculum has to be constructed to fit a broad, diverse array of chemistry interests. This is balanced with what faculty can be hired and supported (research wise), especially at smaller schools.

      You also have to consider the workload on the student. Chemistry students already are required to take a large array of chemistry courses, many lab courses, add in the math and physics prerequisites, and it's already a tough degree to attain. More in depth p chem would probably require even more math education.

      If you were arguing that graduate students in all fields of chemistry need this training, I might be on board. However, not all chemistry undergrads need this (I don't particularly see how this will help potential employment in chemistry careers, which in my experience, tend to favor students with more lab/research experience than those with an extensive math/physics theory background).

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  7. I wonder why a Ph.D. in chemistry for 4+ years is considered to be "normal," while the number of joint B.S./M.S. Degrees for 5 years has been increasing.

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  8. Thanks to Dr. Balazs for taking time to answer the questions and respond to comments

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    1. You're welcome. I don't have all the answers, but all of your comments are helping me come up with a more informed understanding of the issues.

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  9. I'm the anonymous from 5:06 PM.

    The reason is I believe more math and theoretical knowledge is good for chemistry students is because math is a general skill. It is generally useful in the physical sciences. Also, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics is at the heart of modern chemical analysis, processes and products, ranging from pharmaceuticals to plastics to photovoltaics. That is why it should be emphasized. What makes physics BS graduates have a higher average income than chemistry graduates, even though what they learn is less applicable in industry? Probably their math skills. Yes, in some cases, it doesn't improve average salaries, but it opens up other opportunities, perhaps outside of chemistry.

    I understand that there are many prerequisites and GE classes. However, engineering, physics and computer science students also have many prerequisites and GE classes, and have a heavier courseload. Maybe a heavier courseload is what is needed to deter those who aren't serious about chemistry (such as premeds) from majoring in it. If just 2 extra courses discourages those who aren't serious, who is to say that chemistry will not be better off for it? At the very least there'll be less competition.

    I also believe that all graduates students in chemistry would strongly benefit from a solid background in physical chemistry, including biochemists and organic chemists.

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