Thursday, July 16, 2015

My problems with the EUCheMS survey of European chemists and chemical engineers

Looks like people are being paid all right in Switzerland?
From Salzer et al. Chem. Eur. J. 2015, 21, 9921.
I am busy today, but I wanted to make note of my befuddlement with the pan-European employment survey published in Chemistry: A European Journal in June. I have been meaning to write on it for a while, but finally untracked myself this morning on Reddit. There are some very interesting tidbits in the survey, including the suggestion that the unemployment of the respondents was 3%. I'm skeptical of that number, but I am far more skeptical of our ability to learn anything from this survey, because of the difficulty of getting good data out of such a disparate population of chemists.

Here's how EUCheMS (a pan-European professional society of chemists, it seems) talked about the structure of the survey:
...A total of 4440 chemists and chemical engineers responded to the first issue of the European Employment Survey. This report does not differentiate between chemists and chemical engineers, and their responses have been evaluated jointly... 
...For convenience, in this Editorial this joint group of chemists and chemical engineers will simply be referred to as “chemists”. A rigid procedure was developed and applied to purge the responses of irregular answers. 3830 responses remained after this process and these were evaluated further. Particular emphasis was placed on the employment situation of chemists who graduated within the last 15 years, and 2445 responses came from chemists fitting this criterion. All responses were stored in anonymous form... 
...The questionnaire had six general sections (Personal Education / Employment / Job Training / Salary), which provided fields for free text responses. Industry employees were asked special questions in an additional section. The participation of industry employees accounted for 47 % of the responses. This group covered manufacturing industry,non-manufacturing industry, self-employed chemists, and publishing houses.The age of the responders exhibits a distinct maximum around 30 years of age (Figure 1)....  
...The results of a cross evaluation might be dominated by the large share of responders from Italy (my note: ~1000 respondents) and the UK (my note: ~750 respondents) (cf. Figure 2) and several conclusions could be heavily biased. Accordingly, this called for an evaluation of individual countries together with the joint evaluation of all European responses.... 
...EuCheMS currently has approximately 160000 individual members organized in 42 national member societies and supporting member groups. Those societies who agreed to participate in the survey account for approximately 90% of EuCheMS membership.
My issues:
  • It seems goofy to report the salaries of chemists and chemical engineers together (it would be in the US, anyway, dunno about Europe.) 
  • We have no idea how well this survey reflects the actual makeup of European chemists. 
  • We have no idea how well this survey reflects the makeup of European chemical societies. 
  • There was no attempt to understand who did not answer the survey. What was the response rate?
  • There was no description of the survey instrument. (Was it online or on paper?) 
  • There was no explanation of responses removed from the survey or why, just that it was "rigid." 
  • We know that they focused on people who graduated in the last 15 years, but that they have a respondent who is 87 years old (did they throw that person out?).
While I think the survey is interesting, I don't think anyone should draw any conclusions from it. Readers, your thoughts? 

16 comments:

  1. There's a reference in the acknowledgements to 'web-based data collection,' and early in the report to 'text fields' suggesting that data was gathered via online survey.

    On the responses removed from consideration, there is some language about "irregular answers" but what that means is anyone's guess.

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  2. Seems to be a reasonable survey for people who work in UK or Italy, are 30-40 years old and like online surveys. For the remaining 97.340% of members of EuCheMS/participating societies these are just pages to turn. Fast.

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  3. Clearly the Swiss responses in Table 10 reflect the inclusion of alchemists.

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    1. On the other hand, one should be aware that the cost of living is significantly higher in Switzerland than in neighboring countries.

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    2. Mixed feelings about CH:
      1. the cost of living depends on where you are living. Example: Basel is not expensive, while Zürich and Geneva are.
      2. Zürich and Geneva are still probably cheaper than Si Valley.
      3. The Swiss practice formal, codified age discrimination against foreigners, especially from non-EU countries. If you're older than 40, then they won't let you work there. Exception: you are a VIP professor, in which case the cantonal employer may buy you in.
      4. The salaries quoted in the survey depend on whether you have a job, period. I know highly talented, yet unemployed industrial chemists there. This may have to do with the CHF exchange rate.

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  4. Re: Ph.D. chemists in Portugal and Italy. How does 36,000 - 38,000 euros compare to the earnings of Ph.D. chemists in China (Shanghai area?).

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    1. Anecdotal evidence indicates that for new PhDs 25,000-30,000 USD is the norm, and experienced PhDs (around 5-6 years) earn between 50-70,000 USD - these are figures for US-educated Chinese who have returned to China to work.

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  5. I'm from Italy and I did not know there was this kind of survey going on. So I cannot tell if it was online or by another mean. I can confirm the figure is right for Italy, being the mean salary in the range depicted. And Switzerland... well, we all know salaries are incredibly high there, and it's not just a matter of the cost of living (UK is not that much cheaper, I guess).

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    1. The Swiss numbers may be pretty close to reality (as the median of experienced chemists, not starting salaries). The cost of living issues are real though, just a few examples: daycare for a single child: 22,000 EUR/yr, 25,000 EUR/yr in rent for an ok-ish flat of 80 m2, buying the same place will set you back a clean million. Food, restaurants etc. double of what you pay in neighboring countries. With Swiss salaries, it is fine, and traveling or buying a car is relatively cheap (compared to salary and other costs), but it is scary what kind of a turnover we have as a family of four.

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  6. Given the (relatively) high number of Italian responders, it seems fair to conclude that: a) Italy is a borderline poor country b) having a PhD is (as I could draw from my job search) useless.

    (I'm Italian, unfortunately)


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  7. The lesson from Table 10? Locate your chemical or pharmaceutical company in Romania.

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  8. The survey = mass anecdotal evidence.

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  9. UK, large corporation in the South. Experienced PhD chemists (not managers) earn ca. 35k GBP (50k euro), which is, by the way, the upper limit of post-doc salary in UK.

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    1. I was earning more as a "fortgeschrittener Mitarbeiter" (with doctorate) in Switzerland than as a Lecturer in Organic Chemistry in the south of the UK. And nevertheless, the quality of life was better in CH than the UK. Very different places....

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  10. Italy is in a lot of trouble. It's GDP has not really changed much from 15 years ago, demographics are terrible with ratio of dependents to workers approaching 1, and secular stagnation is killing future economic potential so salaries for chemists cannot be expected to rise in the future. By extension, the whole EU is in trouble and it doesn't have a fiscal union like Japan, which is going through something very similar.

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  11. This survey likely reports the typical salaries of chemists with a few years experience rather well, despite the statistical problems already pointed out. In order to make a decision about where to work and live, I would want to know the following as well:

    1. What do I have to pay with my salary and how does the salary compare with the cost of living? (Unlike the situation within the U.S.-American states, each European country has a very different legal system that regulates such things as retirement funding, healthcare funding, parental leave, childcare, etc. Depending on the country, these costs are paid by the employee, employer, or state.)

    2. How do chemists’ salaries develop with experience, and how does this development compare with that of other professions (e.g., business degree holders)? In some countries, a low starting salary as a lab chemist can be compensated with good career development perspectives and thus good options for moving into middle or upper management, whereas in other countries, moving away from the lab is more difficult.

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