Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How should we feel about folks with chemistry degrees working for WalMart?


Linda Wang and Susan Ainsworth have been looking for stories of how chemists got their current jobs. Among them is a May 2013 chemistry graduate who is now working as an assistant manager at Walmart (hat tip to See Arr Oh). How should one feel about this? I suppose there are a couple of different tacks:
  • This is a sign the chemistry job market is not good. 
  • This is a sign that universities fail to prepare their students for the available job market. 
  • This is a sign the person in question knows themselves, and decided on a different career path.
I think all 3 categories are in play here. In a world where starting B.S. chemistry graduates would be making $68,000 a year and looking at 7% annual pay increases, one imagines our young chemist would find themselves deciding that research could be for them. We don't live in that world. 

But I think it's equally likely that the young person in question found that leading and training people is something they're passionate about; the likelihood of finding such a thing in research is low indeed for a B.S. chemistry graduate. Best wishes to the new assistant manager, and to all of us. 

31 comments:

  1. From the same CEN list, I think the Margaret E. Grow situation is much more indicative of how things are going.

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  2. I worked many years in a large supermarket chain during highschool and undergrad, and always thought if this chemistry thing doesn't work out I could always go back. I can't speak for Walmart management positions, but I know management positions in the company I worked for made $70-100k+ a year with a nice set of benefits. These people generally didn't have highschool diploma's never mind PhD's.

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  3. The hard part for me is I love being in the lab. It feels like home. So for me to have a job in Medical Records, I feel lost.

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  4. I wonder if this might have been an individual who wanted to live in their hometown. A Wal-Mart management job in a rural area would probably enable someone to own a bigger house than a chemist in a high-cost-of-living metro area.

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  5. An important fact to note in this listing in the graduation date of May 2013. I'm not shocked that he hasn't found employment as of yet given the state of hiring and general avoidance of Bachelor's only workers in this industry.

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  6. I know of one Ph.D. from a group I worked with who got a job at Chapters (Big box book store) since he couldn't find a job in chem. Don't know if he is still there, or if it was just to pay the bills while searching for a job.

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  7. Unemployment is about to reach new highs... Yellen is to be nominated as Fed chair.

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  8. I'm sorry, but is any fed chair person likable by economic conspiracy theorists?

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  9. Yellen is perceived to be the biggest dove of all. The markets will move considerably just from her nomination...

    All inflationary actions have consequences. Just look at Merck's actions the day ObamaCare went into effect - 8500 were laid off.

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  10. I feel bad for the person, with prices for undergrad degrees in the States being the way they are, that they wasted so much of their money on a useless degree just to work at Walmart. If it was a free degree, then it's fine as you're learning new things that may be interesting to you, but paying so much money for it must hurt.

    I did my undergrad chemistry degree in a country where it was practically free (at the time) and I had a scholarship anyways, so I wasted a lot of my time on courses that I would not normally have taken like nukelar chemistry, radiochemistry, 20th century American literature, and shit like that which is completely unrelated to what I do now. These days, you always have to have practicality in mind for each credit, carefully balancing it with cost. Being at Walmart nukes the practicality part of the calculation for the chemistry degree.

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  11. I'm a little frustrated that you include "This is a sign that universities fail to prepare their students for the available job market" as place to put the blame here but don't include a corresponding point about how employers are not doing a good job searching for and recruiting employees. Actually I'm a little frustrated that point is included at all.

    As a chemistry professor, am I supposed to teach my class (or design my degree curriculum as a whole) to cater specifically to the needs of every student's career goals? I would have to be teaching with the aim to optimally prepare my students for med school, grad school, QA/analytical jobs, synthetic jobs, high school teaching jobs, nursing, law school, etc. (In reality I'd have to teach most of my students to prepare for med school but then to find a job when they don't get in or decide half-way through their senior year that med school "isn't for them".) They don't pay me enough to do this. (And if you think universities have the infrastructure outside of faculty to do this for each and every degree they offer, think again.) If I were to focus only on the desires of the majority of my students (the "paying customer"), I'd be teaching MCAT prep courses. Not a good way to prepare students for any job (save MCAT exam writing or tutoring).

    Pedagogically, my aim (and the aim of most of my peers who I've talked to) is to provide a modern and well-rounded chemical education that will benefit the students in whatever path they choose. We try to make generally good graduates whose skills will help them in life (including jobs) in ways directly related to chemistry, or not (although I think retail manager is a little outside of our self-perceived goals). It is short-sighted for our students to adjust the curriculum to the whims of a job market (although some schools definitely do this) that could change relatively rapidly (all those departments that hired new faculty in late 90s/early 00s to teach undergrad courses in med chem are probably questioning that decision right now). Sure you can argue that the job market has permanently changed, but I think it's too soon to say what will prepare my students for 15 or 20 years down the road, much less four years when they hit the job market.

    People hate to hear this, but in the end, it is the responsibility of the student, and only the student, to use the tools available to her or him at their university to prepare themselves for the job they want to have.

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  12. I would suggest that the May graduate apply for a position in chemistry with a local or state or the Federal government.

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    1. But those positions are few and far between...

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  13. Andre,

    I wanted to be a chemist from age 10 and went to college to get a chemistry degree which I considered just training to practice the craft, chemistry. It cost me $350 in fees to get that degree as I lived with mom and dad commuting to my college. I had to take general education courses which I care little about, but enriched my life in later years. I had zero debt when I graduated. However in 1972 the job market for chemists was in the crapper, so with my new wife's agreement, I went to graduate school as an afterthought. Somehow, mainly luck, this all worked out and I have had what most would consider a very successful career in industrial chemistry.

    Now today my wife and I have a running debate about the value of college and whether it is a life enriching life experience and a place to find ones self - her view - or a place to earn a craft so you can get a job - my view. The most important part of my argument is that at $20k to $60K per year costs, college must give something more tangible than great memories for the heavy debt many carry away from college. The challenge you face is giving students something that justifies these extremely high costs for what cost me $350 to obtain.

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    1. I understand that feeling definitely. However, first things first, it cost you more than $350 to go to college. I mean this in that $350 did not pay for your education (all the classrooms, instructors, labs, materials, etc). That money came from somewhere and subsidized education (although I believe it's a good idea) does not mean that your education only "cost" $350. The money came from you and other people.

      Second, yes we want students to get jobs, but it is impossible for me or you or students to predict what the job market will need, what skills are best to teach, etc so that the maximum amount of students get jobs. And is that even the metric we should use? Should we maximize all our students getting jobs, or put a few of them in really high paying jobs?

      If we tailor our studies so that students are well prepared for a job in, let's say, the pharmaceutical industry, we are also making all our students less fit for going into a materials job or whatever. It's easy to say "I wasn't prepared well by my school for the job I want (or the job that's available that I didn't know I wanted)" but I want to make it clear that it's not a good idea for an educational institution to make the decision of what job is best for their students.

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    2. Well put. Even a general liberal education earned at a state college in the the 70's used to get you a well paying job, that you could support a family on, and it didnt cost that much. It was definately worth it.

      Now, whether you will get a good job with a similar degree is a dice throw, but you will certainly have debt unless you have wealthy parents.

      Nowadays, a professional degree (with the exception of being a MD) is a dice throw as well. Things have really changed.

      The boomers had it good. Now we have to compete with a zillion cheap laborers around the world and in the US.

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  14. Andre,

    Of course you are right. I attended the local community college for 2 years at an out of pocket cost of $28 for two years of lower division course work, plus the cost of books most of which I recouped when I resold them. My second 2 years were at the local state college which cost me $300 or so for two years plus the cost of books which I more or less recouped when I resold them.
    My father was an electrician earning a middleclass income of about $11K per year with which he could support my stay-at-home mom and two siblings and housing and food while I was attending college. He did indeed pay taxes to support California’s higher education system, but percentage of income he paid was far less than he does today in taxes, and he is now long retired. For example he now pays 12% sales tax and back when he was funding my college schooling, he paid about 4% sales tax on much less pricy items. This is also true for real estate and income taxes in this state in that era. Yet today the State seems to no longer able to afford its students the same level of subsidies I receive when attending state schools.

    Schools cost what they cost. The question every potential student should be asking is what is the value of such a very expensive education if in the end of it all I have is a pant load of debt and some great memories? I seriously doubt that the education today is so much better than when I went to school or the Profs are conveying more valuable information such that high costs are really justified. I think education at every level must be restructured to return better value to the students and so it is affordable for people who come from modest circumstances like I did. Employers do not want to train general education student anymore and are demanding that schools do that training for them. Educations perhaps should shift from liberal arts toward vocational targeted training which in the end will work best for most students.

    My daughter is highly cynical about the value of higher education in general stating that when everyone has a college degree no one is special anymore. She wishes I would have just given her the college money, so she could have invested it. The retail jobs she has had since graduation, she could have gotten without a $ 60K college degree (20 years ago) and she feels she would have been better off in the end with the money to start her life.

    NMH,

    Every generation has its cross to bear. Yes the Boomers had it great unless you happened to be drafted and sent to Vietnam only to be shunned and spat upon when you returned. Or your father, an aerospace engineer, was fired with no prospect of a new job at the end of the Space Race. Such things happened way too many of my friends’ fathers decimating their family finances while my friends were in college and leading to a lot of suffering for some families. Then of course we got to watch hyper-inflation drive home values out of reach while the value of our graduate degrees were diminished in value only to pay 14% interest on our mortgages once we were able to secure them.

    Two days ago I spoke with my father on the occasion of his 88th birthday. He was telling me what a wonderful, wonderful life he has had including the 68 years and still going marriage to my mother. Now this is a man who was 4 in 1929 and spent his entire youth in the Great Depression. He then spent four prime-of-life years in the South Pacific visiting such delightful places as Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa courtesy of Uncle Sam. He even got to share is bunk with a unexploded bomb delivered by a Kamikaze pilot. He inherited diabetes from his mother. After 50 years living with disease cannot feel his feet or hands. He is incontinent and frail, yet for him, he has lived a most wonderful life. I hope that the economic suffering the young are facing confers upon their souls the grace that my father’s generation has as they will be much happier for it.

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    1. Anon, I'm quite touched by your comments here, especially towards the end.

      I also like your historical analogy. I think, if I may, that the issue with "my generation" is that 2013 is 1937 or so, when things still look quite dark. Where things will go from here (whether they will get better, or worse, or first worse, then better) is anyone's guess.

      Thanks for adding your comments.

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  15. the generation before always has had it easier, and the next generation are know-nothings with no respect for their elders.....

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  16. Chemjobber you are making the right analogy to 1937 but we do not know how Great Depression would have ended without WW2. Fortunately with no Hitler or Imperial Japan in the picture, these times will not play out the same way they did in the 40s. Your generation has troubles on the horizon no previous generations have faced. As a writer noted above your generation is now part of a global labor pool. Most of those global workers are hungry, driven and willing to take less for their labor than comparable American workers can afford to take given the fixed high costs to live here in the US. Today capital moves about the world at the speed of light to create jobs in the cheapest locales where the desired expertise, even high tech expertise, can be found. Also looming on the horizon is the retirement of the Baby Boomers when all those enormous Social Security and Medicare benefits promised by FDR in the Great Depression and LBJ's Great Society will come due. Paying those IOUs will fall upon the backs of your generation even as you all try to raise and educate your families. These two trends might crush your generation especially as wages stagnate or fall. I really feel for your generation and hope you can look to my father's generation's strengths to get you through this. .

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  17. I saw a sign the other day --"NOW HIRING" in front of Wal-Mart and I thought about it for half a second. HALF A SECOND. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Especially in areas where chemist entry level jobs are not available.

    Walmart in a college town? Oh hell no.

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  18. This post will make me sound old, but the thing that strikes me is the current generation's lack of respect for the older generation. The whole "you're old enough, you should retire so I can have your job" thing really struck me, and not just here. We had a recent culture survey at our shop where a few scientists commented that there were a lot of 'older' scientists just 'hanging on until retirement', blocking the path for hiring new (young) scientists. These were anonymous, of course, and probably not expected to have their comments published, but it shocked me a bit to see someone seriously suggest that older scientists be moved along simply because they were older.

    What's even sadder is that even if they did incentivize these folks to leave, there is no guarantee that they'd even be replaced, at least here in North America.

    The country is in a pickle, and if you can earn a good wage by being a manager at Wal-Mart, and are OK with it, then there is no shame. Gotta do what you gotta do to make ends meet.

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    1. I'm 50 and work in an academic lab busting my butt (except when Im posting on this site (!)) doing experiments and reading papaers all day. I would like nothing better than to see the 60-70 year old professors who no longer bring in grants to retire, to free up money to support new faculty who might get a grant, or to provide more bridge funding for labs that might need it, like mine.

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    2. PBB, I agree with your predictions (i.e. replacement of older scientists would not necessarily happen).

      I would however like to ask you where you saw this sentiment, either in the comments to this post, or in the post itself?

      That sentiment is not uncommon, certainly, but it is contra my feelings (most recently expressed here: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2013/10/its-not-nice-to-ask-question.html).

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    3. Not this post, this one: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2013/09/cpi-says-no.html

      The 'we are getting screwed by older chemists, now they want post-docs' thread.

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  19. "but the thing that strikes me is the current generation's lack of respect for the older generation."

    I see the opposite direction for lack of respect. Where I work older chemists push out the younger experienced chemists so the older chemists will be retained past retirement age to hire/train new graduates who they do not find a threat.

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  20. Out of curiosity, what was the average size of a chemistry research group in 1900, 1925, 1950 and 1975? I'd love to see the PI:PD:GS ratio as it changes over time. That data has to be on record somewhere, in the convocation and employment lists of the unis at the very least. Are we churning out more PhDs for the same number of jobs, are the jobs going away at static grad student levels, or something in between?

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  21. The unrealistic expectations are something I'd really like to see the older generation and some of my peers drop already. I'm a postdoc and I am tired of the expectation that I am making lots of money, have a stable career and work 9 to 5 like everyone else in life (with a job). I'm ok with "paying my dues", "no pain no gain" and all those other metaphors. Been working like this for awhile, so can't say I haven't been putting my "nose to the grindstone."

    I will grant that every generation has their cross to bear. True. But I would like the older generation to recognize that a poor economy, highly competitive labor markets and incredible educational costs are some of the things we are dealing with and which have made it hard to succeed. Many friends, even outside of science have had to just deal with waves of layoffs and are always retraining for the next "wave of the future" career that gets pushed at the local Junior College. I feel fortunate that I don't live with my parents like they do, so I can't complain too much about the postdoc life.

    I love when a baby boomer rants about the laziness of my generation in my presence, then I can just tell them about my PhD, postdoc, long work week and publications. They likely have none of these things. Their reply is always the same "you must have did something wrong." Yeah, I must have, like not going into the medical field...

    I'm not saying one generation has it any better or harder than the other but every time I see a comparison pop up on a forum/comment section, my eyes roll and I begin to hate my boomer bosses a little bit more. I just cringe at the thought when these people think I am a lazy, poor thirty year old, while I am working like a madman.

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  22. I wonder how long will it be till we witness one of these Wal-mart chemists break bad, manufacture meth from common household items and distribute through their comprehensive logistics network.
    Love that show.

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