Friday, October 24, 2014

ACS Presidential Candidate Peter Dorhout on #chemjobs issues

I recently sent an e-mail to Professor (and dean) Peter Dorhout, who is currently running for the ACS President-Elect position to see if he was interested in answering last year's questions for ACS presidential candidates.

He responded this evening. His unedited response is below:

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

Prof. Dorhout: Over the past few years, the careers office of ACS has been retooling and refocusing itself after several years of input from the ACS Board and ACS committees.  The new Career Navigator is version 1.0 of the career office web tool.  They have added a virtual job fair as part of National Meetings for people who are not able to attend the meeting to participate in the job fair.  They have added career consultants who are focused on helping chemists at various stages of their careers.  Because this is new, I’m not aware that it has been assessed for quality and impact yet - that assessment will inform me and others about what improvements need to be made - feedback from members about the program will be vital.  Nevertheless, everything we do in ACS needs assessment.

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?

Prof. Dorhout: No, it is not ACS Policy to get more students to study chemistry.  It is Policy to promote a general awareness of STEM and chemistry and to support and diversify the chemical enterprise - the practitioners of chemistry and chemical education.  Two recent ACS presidential reports on graduate education raise a similar question as you have - do we need to continue to grow numbers?  Since 1982, the number of chemistry PhD graduates has grown from 1,680 to 2,418 (44% increase) while biological/biomedical has increased by 120% and engineering by over 340% over the same time period (these data are from the Survey of Earned Doctorates published by NSF).  The US Census Bureau report I blogged about illustrates that only about 25% of all STEM graduates (BS, MS, or PhD) work in “traditional" STEM jobs - this issue is bigger than just chemistry and chemists.  The ACS Board, along with the new CEO, will need to wrestle with the concern you raise about wage stagnation, and Federal funding plans need to focus on the long-term impacts of infusions of resources on the health of the disciplines.  Industry needs to be a partner in educating the technical workforce.  I do not believe that promoting STEM to create more chemists will benefit anyone until we evaluate and understand the long-term needs in the profession.

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?

Prof. Dorhout: In my campaign statements, I have not said “grow jobs” but rather stated that as a Society, ACS has the means and talent to promote and advocate for an environment that supports jobs in the chemical sciences.  However, those jobs may not be in the same areas as before the Recession.

What comprises the category “chemistry jobs” has been changing at all levels, from the BS chemist to the PhD lab director position.  This is true for most jobs I’ve seen across the disciplines.  Educators need to embrace that changing job description and review how we prepare our students for the global marketplace.  That means we need to consider what industry tells us they need and develop educational programs that ensure a quality workforce and ensure that our graduates are ready to continue learning new skills over time to be flexible and versatile.

I plan to have ACS partner with other science professional organizations like AAAS, APS, NAS, IEEE, among others and advocate together to Congress for an improved environment in this country that will support science jobs at home.  ACS committees like the Committee on Professional Training and Corporation Associates need to come together to understand the needs of industry and the chemistry profession.  Industry, whether large or small companies, should expect chemists trained deeply in the discipline but also able to work safely and ethically, to work with a diverse team, to communicate effectively, and to be adaptive to changing corporate environments.  What we don’t need to do is create another office or Task Force in ACS - we need to be smart with our resources.

CJ:  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?

Prof. Dorhout: It’s very easy to look back and say that since we haven’t recovered our pre-Recession unemployment level among chemists, ACS could have done more to help. It’s harder to state that ACS did or did not impact a lower unemployment rate than could have been realized had it not intervened - there is no way to prove this either way. There are a lot of moving parts in how ACS responded.  I served on the Board during part of the Recession (2010-12), and we initiated the response from several different viewpoints - the health of the profession and the health of the organization.  The impact of the Recession on over 160,000 members (and the many other chemical professionals who are not ACS members) was that we once enjoyed a 1.5% unemployment rate, which more than doubled to 4.2% during the Recession - and it hasn’t fully recovered yet.

As a Board and as private citizens, we met with members of Congress and key committees to promote level funding (versus cuts) to agencies like NSF, NIH, and others, and we encouraged new ways of supporting industry in the US to promote job retention.  Within ACS, the career services office retooled (see #1 above) and focused on ways to help members with additional resources, ACS created two new centers (International and Entrepreneur) to provide resources to members who were seeking alternative career paths or being more competitive for jobs in multinational organizations, and ACS waived membership dues for any unemployed member so they may continue to access services.  Nevertheless, these initiatives were not panaceas for the Recession.  They are new enough that we don’t know the impact they have had, but they were demonstrative of how ACS has been able to respond in a short time to what we heard as member needs.  ACS cannot create jobs, but we can push hard on government and industry to improve the environment for businesses here at home, and we can retool some of the ACS programs to support chemists seeking jobs and alternative careers.  I also propose that ACS (the President-Elect in particular) should hold a regular monthly web “town hall meeting” to hear from our members about their needs and about the ACS programs - are they properly aligned and are they effective.  This will inform the Presidential succession and ACS Board about how we respond to changing economic environments in the future.  This will be an important real-time feedback loop in the event we are confronted by the signs of another recession.

Thanks to Professor Dorhout for his responses. Professor Lester will have his response published within 24 to 48 hours after it has been received.


  1. There's a hazard to blindly promoting increased research funding at the NSF, NIH, and other federal research institutions. The surfeit of science PhDs is due in no small part to the amount of funding being increased at NSF and NIH. It's not enough to advocate for increased funding - more needs to be done to ensure the funds are used in a way that leads to sustainable numbers of PhDs. I'm curious what Professor Dorhout thinks "an improved environment in this country that will support science jobs at home" consists of? A more favorable tax situation? More STEM education because our students aren't competitive enough (not something I believe to be true). A little more detail would be nice. As the largest scientific society in the world, it seems there ought to be more power wielded by the members. If enough members could be engaged to participate in a campaign for specific policies it seems as though we could move the needle on them at least a little.

  2. While not comprehensive, I have already made several policy suggestions along your lines of reasoning. They have already been posted on this blog.