1. Which ACS program do you think best helps the job-seeking ACS member? How would you improve it?
Gone are the days when it sufficed to advise people to take a course in resume preparation, polish their interview skills with a workshop, and bring clean copies of their resume and wear appropriate attire to a job fair. Believe me, I fully recognize that we are facing a significant imbalance between job seekers and job openings. However, it is hard for me to point to any one ACS program that is helping job seekers in a significant way, and this needs to change. The best thing that I could do as ACS President is to ensure that all of our members have every advantage to outshine the competition, in terms of knowledge and skills, for the jobs that are out there. Specifically, ACS employment and career programs must empower members to:
- Know which sectors are currently hiring (and which are not),
- Know which sectors are likely to be hiring in 5 years and in 10 years,
- Identify jobs at small and mid-sized companies that aren’t usually visible at a national level,
- Connect with entrepreneurs and investors to explore promising new scientific ideas,
- Find out about internships which can offer an employment advantage,
- Know exactly what employers are looking for and what skills are needed to “hit the ground running” when that job offer does arrive.
While on the campaign trail, I have heard examples from local sections of successes in these areas, and I suggest that we find out what works and deploy this at the national level.
2. 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? Does this argue against the idea of a STEM shortage and the need for more STEM students?
Having worked with a number of groups in the ACS that formulate policy, I can tell you that there is no explicit ACS policy to get more students to study in STEM fields. It definitely IS an ACS policy, expressed through the Strategic Plan, to nurture an appreciation for the wonder of scientific discovery, to foster the most effective chemical education system in the world, and to encourage the understanding and appreciation by the general public, including lawmakers, of the role of chemistry in addressing many world challenges in human health and welfare.
Wages for chemists have risen and fallen throughout the past decades, and it is true that wages have been stagnant since 2008. There is a nuance to this in that total employee compensation has actually risen slightly over this time period, and you can blame that on the economic factors that are affecting virtually every job in the U.S. What bothers me more than flat wages, which would imply that we’re actually in a steady state situation with supply and demand*, is that it’s taking increasingly long to land a job, multiple post-docs are becoming the norm, and there is a trend towards contract (fixed term) labor and an increasing number of involuntary part-time (or adjunct) positions.
*Overly simplified, I admit, given inflation and other factors.
In short, I argue that there is no current “STEM shortage” when it comes to chemists. I’ll also point out that this issue is not unique to chemists, and I know that many other job seekers in the physical and life sciences are experiencing exactly the same pressures.
3. In the past decade, what was the one action of any ACS President that has had the greatest influence -good or bad - on members' employment and careers? Other than working groups and reports, 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?
To be honest, I can’t point to any one action that has had a noticeable long-term effect. I will say that an excellent report with very good ideas was put together by a task force chaired by George Whitesides, at the request of 2010 ACS President Joe Francisco (google “Innovation Chemistry and Jobs”). However, for the most part, this is yet another report that gathers dust on the shelf and therein lies the issue: Each President has their emphasis and goals, but there is no sustained long-term mechanism to carry forth the ideas and progress from one President to the next. This has to change, as changing the employment situation for chemists is not a one-year effort. If it were, we would likely have fixed this by now. My approach is not yet another task force, but to create an ongoing, forceful, and effective means to deal with the situation. We have mechanisms for the sustainability of ACS publications and governance and local sections and divisions, but why don’t we have these for the elephant in the room for too many of our members: employment and careers?
On the second part of the question, I have to be realistic and state that I don’t believe that the ACS can do much to increase the number of jobs. As I’ve pointed out in my answer to question #1, I believe the answer lies in connecting ACS members to the jobs that are available and ensuring that they can favorably compete for those jobs.
4. One of the chief roles of the ACS to advocate for chemists in the US Congress. Which of the following options would you prioritize, and why? (increased grant funding, more training in entrepreneurship for students, shifting funding from academia to more SBIRs or retraining postdocs?)
I don't believe more funding is the solution (although some individuals would no doubt benefit), and I don’t believe that post-docs need any more training. Of the four options, I would prioritize the second, “training in entrepreneurship for students” but I’d like to broaden this by encouraging students to seek a broader knowledge than just highly specialized technical skills, e.g., in areas such as laboratory record keeping, data analysis and statistics, business and finance, contracts, and so forth. I don’t suggest students become experts in all of these, but many employers have told me that they would place high value on job applicants with such skills. For that reason, the broader version of #2 would be my priority.
I’ll end by saying that I’m not running for ACS President for the pay (there is none) or even the honor and recognition. It’s just in my nature to try to help people, and I’ve volunteered for thirty years teaching career workshops, advocating for science education, mentoring students, and leading at the local section through international levels of the ACS. But I’m not here to tout my background as this isn’t about me; it’s about our members and our profession.Thanks to Dr. Balazs for his responses. Dr. Allison Campbell has received the questions and has indicated her interest in responding to the survey; her responses will be published within 24 hours of receipt.