Thursday, October 29, 2015

Paula Stephan on chemistry jobs: "declining"

A week ago, the postdoctoral/graduate student advocacy organization called Future of Research held a symposium in Boston; they had a hell of an opening panel with Professor Paula Stephan (author of "How Economics Shapes Science") and Dr. Michael Teitelbaum (author of "Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent"). I was listening to Professor Stephan's talk (the morning session) and, near the beginning of her talk, she had the following comment: 
So some of these trends, I want to say, are long term trends. But some really reflect what we can think of as structural changes in demand. And for example, I think, in chemistry right now, we're really seeing a structural change in demand.  
It used to be that over 50% of all new chemistry Ph.D.s went to industry; they went quickly to industry and they worked in industry for the rest of their career. Well, jobs in industry for chemists have been declining.  
There's lots of evidence of that. The major large labs such as DuPont downsized remarkably or closed, so that piece of the market has gone, and there's been a lot of restructuring in pharma and we believe the data show that pharma has not been hiring nearly as much.  
And Howard Garrison and Susan Garbi in their (FASEB) article say that, since 2011, salaries for new Ph.D.s in chemistry have been declining. 
Here's my brief recording of Dr. Stephan's comment on chemistry:



I wonder if the job market for chemists in industry is recovering/will ever recover? I hope so. 

22 comments:

  1. @ CJ: It will never recover, period. It all makes economic sense and we all see the writing on the wall. Ever since the companies have moved on with their research in the biologics,we all knew that in future there will no role for small molecules. None whatsoever! The biggest advantage the biologics offer are little or no adverse effects (as opposed to small molecules!). on top then there are many in the generic market (Blood pressure, the statins, diabetes etc.) and it pretty much killed the incentive in these line research in small molecule area. Even we now have an anti-body based medication for cholesterol control. As someone who worked in the small molecule area in big pharma we knew that this day of reckoning would come. So what Prof. Paula Stephan is saying is not new, at least for someone like me as well as for others!

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    1. There can be very nasty affects of biologics, for example, if you ligate the wrong protein with an Ab on a T cell. Ligate CTL-4 on a T cell: life extending treatment by activating T cells to kill cancer. Ligate CD28: kill subject, or nearly so (this was a phase 1 clinical trial about 10 years ago). I suspect there are a lot of adverse affects with biologics but you dont hear about them because they are "negative" results that are never published. The CD28 study has not been published to the best of my knowledge.

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  2. I agree that there is growing interest in biologics as pharmaceuticals, and consequently less interest in small organic molecules (though I'm not sure I'd agree with "no adverse effects".) However, new areas such as nanotech, materials science, and so on are also taking over what was traditionally called "chemistry". Perhaps it's just a splintering of the field, or a change in nomenclature? The world will always need better, cheaper, stronger materials and ways to make them, and that is one thing chemists are good at!

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    1. "The world will always need better, cheaper, stronger materials and ways to make them..."

      And the world will always need better, more effective drugs, right?

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    2. Yes, but the return on investment is faster for "materials" (and I'm using that term loosely) vs. drug development/pharmaceuticals. This makes companies more interested in having a few chemists on staff for R&D purposes.

      *For the record, I'm an organic chemist who moved over into the polymer/composite camp, and rather happy with my decision. It's non-traditional in one sense, but I get to use my training on a daily basis and am paid very well for my experience level.

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    3. "...the return on investment is faster for 'materials'"

      That depends, doesn't it? How long did it take for carbon composites to make their way into jetliners? Most engineers opt for what's available, proven, and cheap. It can take decades for the expertise, infrastructure, and economies of scale for a big-time commercial application to appear.

      There's a long, sloppy, non-linear history between Edison burning bamboo filaments in his lab and the 787. A guaranteed, short-term ROI on any new material is rare, and I'm not so sure it's a better investment than developing a new drug. (The fact that there's no Big Materials like there's a Big Pharma would seem to support that statement.)

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  3. Biologics are not a panacea. Yes, patients are becoming less resistant to self-administered injections, but the costs and risks of parenteral dosing are much higher than oral forms, and there is a significant portion of the population who will probably never be induced to auto-inject. As far as the supposed perpetual profits assumption, biosimilars are already starting to change the dynamic there, too. Yes, you can milk an engineered antibody for a longer time than a small-molecule kinase inhibitor, but in this business nothing is forever.

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  4. I think things only look bleak if you're a synthetic chemist. I'm glad I decided 10 years ago to do my PhD in chemical biology instead of synthetic chemistry (despite most agreeing at the time that it served no purpose). Bioconjugation chemistry has really taken off with biologics and the ability to modify proteins is pretty marketable right now in industry. Moreover, chemical biologists can usually still sell themselves as synthetic chemists or protein biochemists when applying for jobs if need be.

    I'm amazed how 90% of organic departments' research still seem to focus on throwing random metals and lewis acids at building blocks until they can identify a new reaction that will never be used. I don't think that sort of research prepares people for the job market anymore.

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    1. FWIW, I agree that bioconjugation chemistry is probably much more marketable than it was 5 years ago or 10 years ago.

      As for your assertion that chemical biologists can sell themselves as synthetic chemists, I think I'd like a little more data before I agree with that conclusion.

      In some sense, "metal + Lewis acid + starting material" is what fundamental organic/organometallic research should be about, i.e. chemists using chemistry to make new molecules. It's cheap (no fancy equipment needed), the least-publishable-unit threshold is low-ish and we've just begun scratching the surface of the interesting organic chemistry that metals can achieve. I'm hopeful for it, in terms of "long-term commercial utility."

      I sense that you're suggesting that getting a Ph.D. in synthetic methodology does not suit one for a more biologically-oriented/less small-molecule oriented life sciences industry. Assuming that's true, I tend to agree.

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    2. "I agree that bioconjugation chemistry is probably much more marketable than it was 5 years ago"

      Likely correct, but the issue is how long this trend will last. Heterocyclic chemistry was hot in the 90s (and may still be), but it always seemed short-sighted to me that people would follow HC PhDs with more of the same in a PDF. I guess if that's what employers want, but it seems a shame to relegate science to a trade school.

      To be fair, I deliberately chose organic chemistry over new-fangled 'computer science' decades ago---I can't see that field going anywhere.....

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    3. I am quite sympathetic to the "I don't want academia to be trade school for industry" argument, but if there is one place for that to happen, it's graduate school (i.e. not undergraduate programs.)

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    4. If employers don't want to train, then getting training in a narrow field is a recipe for long-term unemployment. Chemistry is unlikely to pay enough to justify a short career span, so training in a specialty to get a job is unlikely to pay off well.

      Of course, if that's true, then getting a Ph.D. with general skills is likely to be a dead end, as well. The people who get those might be able to do something with their degrees though, even if it doesn't make money, while tailoring Ph.D. education for jobs seems likely to lead to people who don't have jobs and don't have the flexibility to use their degrees for something else.

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    5. Agreed in general although I would single out total synthesis as a field with a lot of misplaced emphasis over the years. My particular bete noire is the longheld belief in chemistry that one should focus on TS in grad school and then 'get recruited'* by pharma, where one will rapidly 'learn all the biology one needs to know.'**

      There's been lots of pushback to this notion at In The Pipeline and others, but if chemical biology is a growing field, why not jump in on it when you get the chance?

      * this doesn't happen anymore
      ** this is actually harder than it sounds

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    6. "It's cheap (no fancy equipment needed), the least-publishable-unit threshold is low-ish and we've just begun scratching the surface of the interesting organic chemistry that metals can achieve. I'm hopeful for it, in terms of "long-term commercial utility."

      Actually, the problem I see with the overwhelming majority of organometallic / catalytic research is that it is NOT cheap. If you are throwing a few mol % of a precious metal catalyst into your reaction, you are instantly adding hundreds of dollars per kilo to your cost base. Only pharma and perhaps electronics can support that kind of cost structure, even in the best case that the substrate is cheap, yields are high, and there are not multiple expensive steps. And of course, both these fields require that you get your metals down to low (low ppm or even ppb) levels in the end product. Adding 10k ppm up front makes this an expensive pain. Academic papers almost never even report residual metals, which I find rather annoying as it is a major issue in practice.

      Finding a new reaction that requires 3 mol% Pd is not likely to be industrially useful. Finding one that requires 0.03 mol% might be.


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    7. I should clarify to say that 1) I agree that many organometallic reactions are not cheap to scale and 2) that I meant 'cheap' in terms of "it's not too expensive for a professor to buy some palladium catalysts."

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    8. I would classify what you're talking about as methods development and not 'fundamental organometallic research'. That said, a few mol% is fine, if you take the view that if it's a new reaction useful to industry, then they are supposed to do the inhouse research to get it down to a fraction of a mol%. A great thing about organometallic catalysis is that you can optimize to your particular reaction and have a reasonable expectation you'll eventually get low mol% loadings and great activity, maybe after studying the kinetics. That's why there are thousands of Ziegler-Natta catalysts today. Also, ten years ago we routinely used a few mol% of Pd/C, Pd tetrakis, or other things like that to hydrogenate double bonds and we were not a pharma outfit, but were trying to quickly synthesize insect chemicals to test on a micromolar scale. There is all sorts of small-scale research beyond pharma or electronics that requires you to buy a bottle of precious metal catalyst once in a while, though maybe it doesn't pay the bills for the manufacturers. It makes our lives a lot easier if we can cut out a few steps in a synthesis or generate a reliable stereocenter with a Sharpless epoxidation. Never had to get a much more expensive new-fangled organic catalyst yet though.

      Academic papers should not report residual metals. If you isolate a product, you do a column presumably. That is again something for the industry to worry about and not something to be reported if you are describing a new reaction. It is completely acceptable to report a new 3mol% Pd reaction and many groups who only want to make a few mg of product would be happy running with it. Further papers on the reaction should try to make the catalyst loading better or report on a new approach.

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  5. On a related note, and now over 20 years old, is an interesting take on where science has been and where it is headed, by Dr. David Goodstein at Caltech.

    http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html

    The problems may indeed be structural, and the changes so gradual that they're hard to see without taking a step back.

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  6. Hmm. While I have always admired the dedication and persistence of synthetic chemists who use 50 steps to prepare a few mg of material, for some reason I just never got into it.
    Instead, after completing my completely useless doctoral thesis research, and some more esoteric research of my own devising, I ended up eventually getting into materials organic synthesis. Just earlier this week, I had the pleasure of having two patient colleagues explain to me the pending end of silicon-based semiconductor technology, which will eventually open up a new frontier for organic synthesis. Using the term of one of those colleagues, the "potential energy barrier" to that technology is the persistent industrial mindset, which wants to squeeze every last incremental improvement out of Si-based materials.

    This is of course the basis of my currently pending faculty adverts (a little bit of anonymous self-promotion).

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    1. "...pending end of silicon-based semiconductor technology, which will eventually open up a new frontier for organic synthesis."

      That's probably news to the people growing epitaxial compound semiconductors on Si...or the folks working on two-dimensional metal chalcogenides. Ever since the "molecular electronics" field went kerplop a decade ago, talk of organic transistors has generally elicited eye-rolls.

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    3. Well, like I wrote, these were two colleagues who are actively employed in Si valley in this field. One is actually a former organic chemist! They were explaining this to me, as I am a relative lay person. The underlying issue, as I had understood it, was that silicon will not be able to keep up with Moore's law.

      You may have a different opinion, which I would be glad to listen to.

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  7. Auntie MarkovnikovOctober 30, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    Downsizing at Dupont is expected to continue, outlook for the remainder of 2015 and into 2016 is grim. This article is from the Wilmington News Journal just this past weekend:
    http://www.delawareonline.com/longform/money/industries/2015/10/23/delawares-dilemma-fading-dupont/74329022/

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