Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How many polymer chemists are there, anyway?

Also from this week's C&EN, the revised undergraduate guidelines from the ACS'  Committee on Professional Training:
...Other changes in the 2015 guidelines seek to improve student preparation for postbaccalaureate careers. However, the committee does not prescribe a one-size-fits-all curriculum for approved programs. Consider polymers, which are important to society and a major source of jobs for professional chemists. CPT debated the essential role of polymers in the curriculum for a certified degree. Most compelling to CPT is the fact that the properties of large molecules and aggregated systems are different from those of small molecules and that students need to understand these differences...
This reminds me of a recent piece by chemblogosphere stalwart John Spevacek, who wrote recently about the numbers of professional polymer chemists:
I finally hit some real paydirt when I looked at the federal government's tabulations. The Bureau of Labor Statistic (BLS) has collected all the relevant data and provides an accurate picture (open up the spreadsheet for chemists if you to see all the details). In 2012, there were just under 88,000 chemists. Of that number, 2100 worked in "Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing", 1900 worked in "Paint, coating, and adhesive manufacturing", and 600 in "Plastics and rubber products manufacturing". That's 4600 in manufacturing. There are some broader categories that undoubtedly include polymer chemists, such as the nearly 18,000 that work in "Scientific research and development services", and the 4600 that work in "Educational services; state, local, and private". Even if everyone of these last two groups were all polymer chemists, that would still only total to 27,200 chemists, not even 31% of the total workforce. I think a more realistic number would be just 10% of those last two groups, which would be 2260 more for a grand total of 6860 chemists. This is not quite 8% of the workforce. 
It seems reasonable to me that undergraduates should get some exposure to polymer chemistry, but it is not clear to me that it's a "major source of jobs." The polymer industry is huge, to be sure, but the number of working polymer chemists is unclear. 

10 comments:

  1. Polymer folks are often split up between chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science departments in grad school. I was shocked at how few polymer chemists I saw in grad school after seeing polymer chemistry considered a full-fledged area alongside organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical at my undergrad and REU schools, but I later found out my graduate alma mater actually had plenty of polymer people - they were just invisible to me because they were in different departments. Each school has its own way of doing things.

    I would argue that polymer chemistry is still a major source of jobs. Most of my undergrad classmates went into pharma, which has since collapsed, but there will always be companies out there making coatings, adhesives, sealants, etc. Both the resin makers and the formulators will always need chemists, and there are a lot of small formulators out there making specialized products.

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    1. It depends on what you mean by "major." One way or another, it certainly should be a field that people consider. Perhaps the issue is that they're not counted as being "chemists."

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  2. The new ACS program guidelines: http://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/about/governance/committees/training/2015-acs-guidelines-for-bachelors-degree-programs.pdf

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  3. I am a bit baffled by the BLS data. They claim, for example, that there are about 100 chemists working in the semiconductor industry, which is my field. That's insanely wrong. Heck, I 've worked with that many personally! Essentially all of these are "polymer chemists", either by training or in practice.



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    1. Follow-up:

      The semiconductor materials market is around $45B, about 10% of which is in the US (by purchases, I expect sales is higher). So the US market is $4.5B, which at 6% for R&D translates into a $270M research budget or over a thousand workers. Most of these will be technical people, and I would expect at least a third are chemists or material scientists. I really don’t see where BLS gets a hundred chemists from - it is clearly multiples of that. Within the semiconductor materials market, most of the sales and an even larger portion of the R&D is polymer related, as things like solvents and process gases don’t require a lot of R&D, even if they suck up the cash.

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    2. What kinds of polymers does the semiconductor materials market make/research? Is it organic materials or do you mean coordination polymers? If it's the latter, I don't think it's correct to consider them as part of the polymers market. They are more in the inorganic/materials part. Though, also having worked with making polyaniline and polypropylene by making them electrochemically, I like to think of them more as oligomeric materials. And most of the time polythiophene cannot really be called a polymer at all by that criterion.

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    3. Photoresists, temporary wafer bonding, die attach, dielectrics, encapsulents, molding compounds, directed self assembly, substrates, organic polymer semiconductors, etc etc. There are polymers all throughout the semiconductor manufacturing process and products. For organic / printed electronics, pretty much the whole structure is polymeric except maybe the OSC itself, and the metal gates.

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    4. Perhaps the issue is that they are have been trained as chemists, but their work is not defined by the BLS as being part of the chemist occupation?

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  4. Chemjobber OA friendJune 12, 2015 at 8:42 PM

    I am a synthetic organic chemist who started out in pharma. I semi-switched careers, continuing to work on heterocyclic chemistry and SAR analysis outside of pharma. However for a few months I have been also making polymers.

    Does that make me a "polymer chemist"? Does that mean I have to put aside the labels of "small molecule chemist" or "medchem/SAR analyst" or "process chemist"? What do I call myself on days that I formulate? If I am in the pilot plant, do I then become an "engineer?" If I use my MBA at work, am I no longer a "chemist?"

    Too many assumptions are made in these calculations. I wonder if this leads to counting a chemist several times in employment indices.

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    1. I guess it depends on whether they're counting 'hats' or 'seats'...

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