Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Conversations with Cramer: How should you talk to undergraduates about graduate school?

A frequent reader was prompted by Professor Cramer's recent advice on applying to graduate school to ask the following question to him: 
In my professional capacity, I frequently work with undergraduate students who are considering graduate school in chemistry. For some of them, that choice reflects a love of chemistry and a genuine intellectual desire to do research and/or pursue a career in science. Many of these undergraduates have read widely and forged relationships with faculty. They make their decision to postpone their career for half a decade or more with eyes wide open. 
Others, however, bright and successful though they may be, are not so well-informed. They may easily gain admission to programs, but their reasons for wanting to go to graduate school do not arise from a genuine interest in chemistry. Rather, they demonstrate an unwillingness to make an immediate career decision and cite a need to procrastinate in their job search. I have even heard reasons like “because my [boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other] is going to graduate school and I want to go with them.” (This makes me want to cringe, but who am I to tell someone how to live their life?) In short, they seem to be choosing graduate school because they feel like they have nothing better to do. 
I never want to discourage anyone from following their heart and I refuse to think (despite or because of my own experiences in graduate school and career) that I know better than anyone who is making this very personal decision. When they ask for my advice, I hesitate to say anything other than “are you sure you have thought this through?” and then I send them in the direction of CJ’s blog.  
I would appreciate hearing someone else’s take on how to handle this with tact and concern. How do you stress to students that graduate school undertaken for misguided reasons may result in anguish and that the rewards are not guaranteed?
Professor Cramer responds:
To be honest, I think we have to salute this questioner for having achieved what seems, to me, to be pretty much the optimal combination of compassion and self-restraint. By contrast, many people confronted with situations like this, while admirably motivated by concern, nevertheless engage in a bit of hubris in assuming that they know better what an individual should do with their life than does the individual. Relying on my own experience as a faculty advisor, and also as a Director of Graduate Studies, I have seen students excel who I never thought would make it, and I’ve seen seeming superstars crash and burn as disconnects between expectations and reality set in. And usually that process takes two to three years — as that’s about 10-15% of the life span of a person that age, one can be forgiven for doing poorly with predictions made based on antecedent circumstances. 
I see at least a couple of factors here. First, people have to be allowed to make mistakes — we learn from them — they build resilience. That said, it is CERTAINLY appropriate to have a conversation that focuses on questions like, “Why do you want to go to graduate school?”, “What do you want to do afterwards that makes graduate school the right choice for you?”, and “Do you feel like you’ve done enough research on what to expect that you understand what graduate school is going to be like?” Sharing information and experience surely cannot hurt, and may moreover be useful in guiding an individual’s choice of programs, assuming grad school continues to be thought to be the preferred option. 
Second, one should not discount the enormous potential influence of both a program and of an advisor. Trying to align desired outcomes with the right programs and people can be decisive in fostering success. Impressing upon ANY student (whether you think they’re burning to be a Ph.D. or not) that they should address those questions during program visits and talks with prospective advisors is noble work. We programs and advisors are supposed to do our best NOT to have a lot of crashing and burning going on! (Mind you, it is simply unrealistic to think that every admitted student will be successful, but that’s a topic for another time.) 
I’ll say again that I like very much how the questioner put it: one should structure one’s response around “tact and concern” while recognizing the fundamental agency of the individual. 
Readers, what do you think? What's the best advice to someone who is waffling a bit about graduate school? How do you inform while respecting their agency?  

35 comments:

  1. You are correct. See CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 12, 711–723, Winter 2013
    "…participants chose to attend graduate school based on a love of science and an interest in scientific career mobility rather than a commitment to a specific career…the postdoc represented a default pathway rather than an intentional choice...."

    Things I'm often surprised they don't know:
    Conducting original research in graduate school is completely different from undergraduate lab classes (where everything has been retested many time to make sure it will work.) Graduate school will be dealing with failure. A lot.

    In the hard sciences, you get paid to go to grad school. Enough to live on, if you're careful.
    You can take out student loans, lots of them, and spend a long time paying them back.

    While earning a PhD opens some doors, it closes others. Make sure you're not educating yourself out of the kind of work you want.

    People are important. Who your advisor is, and whom they know, maybe more important than the type of chemistry you study.


    There's probably more, but helping them understand these things would be a good start.

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    1. "Things I'm often surprised they don't know:
      Conducting original research in graduate school is completely different from undergraduate lab classes (where everything has been retested many time to make sure it will work.) Graduate school will be dealing with failure. A lot. "

      Surprised by this, because I have never met anyone who attended grad school in recent years without doing a lot of substantial research as an undergrad. The level of autonomy varies (pipette monkey for a postdoc vs. driving a senior thesis project independently, for example), but exposure to the failure that happens in real lab happens even when you are doing someone's grunt work.

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    2. Bing! This was my problem. I did see grad school as sort of a default option, but I wasn't trying to postpone deciding what I wanted to do - I thought I knew. I didn't have enough research experience, though, to understand how different research was from classwork, or for me or anyone else to know exactly what I could do in lab. (I had not done substantial research as an undergraduate. I saw some research when I was in high school, and how it could go unpredictably wrong, but it didn't take, other than how neat the research was.)

      When I went people thought that working in chemistry would get you used to having money, which would make it more difficult to go back to grad school (particularly if you got married or had kids), and while I think that could be true, it would have been good for me to have worked in a lab for a couple of years before going to grad school. I wasn't going to get married, and I needed to understand how to do lab work - at least to get comfortable with it. It would have been more problematic in organizing applications, but it probably would be a good idea (certainly for me, maybe for others). Working at company for a semester in school would help, but those opportunities don't seem to exist (and would become less in any case as smaller companies that don't have time or money become the main employers).

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    3. Hap: "When I went people thought that working in chemistry would get you used to having money, which would make it more difficult to go back to grad school (particularly if you got married or had kids), ..."

      Two of my classmates worked in industry; I'd worked in federal labs. One of the other guys had a wife and three kids, the other had divorced before having kids. The pay cut hurt (more for my previously-better-paid classmates). It hurt, but we all got over it.

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  2. Frankly, I don't see much of an upside to going to grad school. One of the most successful grad school classmates I had, who landed a professor job at a large university, is now burned out and unhappy with work. For those who don't reach that level, many are stuck in a nomadic life of crappy adjunct jobs after being post-doc into their thirties, and 35-year-old PhD's with no industry experience are both overqualified for entry-level BS jobs, and beaten out by superstars for the small supply of PhD-level jobs.

    Any undergrad considering grad school should read the posts tagged "I quit grad school in chemistry" and google Jason Altom.

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    1. I get the "I quit grad school in chemistry", but to have undergrads google Jason Altom as an example of why not to go to graduate school is the same as having them google Phil Baran as a reason to go to graduate school. What happened to Mr. Altom is a real tragedy, but it clearly was not norm of graduate school experiences and shouldn't be put out there basically saying this is what is going to happen to you.

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    2. The actual suicides are thankfully rare, but a hell of a lot more grad students give it serious consideration. I can think of several people in my own department who, had they killed themselves, I would have been saddened but not surprised.

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  3. I think there is a lot to be said for working for a year or two (even at a fairly menial but still "science-related" job) after undergrad, before making a decision about grad school. Doing so tends to put a damper on the "snooze bar of life" approach to grad school enrollment.

    When I was in grad school, you could easily tell who had taken time off to work -- they were more focused and deliberate about their work.

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    1. I can confirm that our grad students who enroll after one to a handful of years in industry are superbly focused and have generally learned excellent time-management skills. They tend to return because they have concluded that their advancement opportunities will be greater with the advanced degree than the bachelors. One challenge, though, is the salary hit -- especially if they're supporting families.

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    2. My grad school experience mirrors what both of you had said. My alma mater took on people with lab experience, and about three times as many academic superstars (high GPA/high GRE). The previously-worked crowd was overrepresented among the 4-4.5 year graduates (department average, 5.25); the superstars were overrepresented among early departures (with/without MS).

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  4. For what it's worth, I've prepared a written statement for my undergraduates who are interested in graduate school, first itemizing the reasons to go and to not go for a Ph.D., and then outlining what they can expect if they do go for the degree. When I hand it to them (always printed), I make the point that I was 35 before I landed a permanent job, which usually makes their eyes bug out since most can't imagine being that old, let alone waiting that long for a real job.

    My document is about ten pages long. I've considered shortening it, but decided to lead off with the disclaimer "if this document is too long for you to read, proceed no further as your path is chosen; you should never attempt a Ph.D. if you can't read ten pages on a subject you couldn't care less about".

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    1. I would be very interested in reading this document, especially since I'm at a crossroads with my MSc degree, and whether or not to continue doing a PhD. Reply to this comment if you have a way of letting me read this document? Thanks.

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    2. I have a PhD, and would be interested in this too. I've written about these things in various places but haven't combined my thoughts into a single document. I have people asking me "is it worth doing a PhD?" all the time, and having a single place to point them to would be useful.

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  5. I am now nearing retirement age in my 60s.

    In high school was always attracted to science and technology but physics seemed too abstract, and biology (at that time) too empirical and fuzzy...

    I majored in Chemistry in college because I found it the most interesting subject in high school. I found chemistry a good mix of the intellectual and practical and that attracted me.

    I originally wanted to go to grad school but my college years (and the first decade beyond) was full of very difficult things outside of school (and work) that took a huge toll on me and my ability to concentrate... so I good not have gotten into a really good program if I had applied.

    In any case while I had a strong interest in Chemistry relatively speaking , it was not to the level of an obsession, it was just the strongest among a number of things I found interesting.

    While I did want to go to graduate , as said I was in a very bad emotional place at the time. So after graduation as I had to survive, I went to work with my BS, which was probably a good thing. Back then I had no idea what graduate work would have entailed and I have no doubt I would have not made it through...

    When i started work the routine nature of the BS level (basically technician job) job left me totally unsatisfied, so I started a part-time master's program in Chemistry, with the intension of eventually going back to get a PhD after I got my masters.

    I did get the masters but other things in life still got in the way and I never did go for a PhD.

    But being in the MS program while working helped get me a job with Dupont (well actually a company that Dupont had just bought and has since sold) where I did a bit more interesting work in a department that acted like it's own little company with the acquisition which also (initially) acted fairly independently from the rest of DuPont.

    It was combination of product development, bench scale (very high value compounds per mass) production and all the things that go along with production and I was there for over a decade.

    After that I got a job with a Pharma startup and was there for over a decade also, rising to an Associate Director position in R&D.

    Now I am in another startup as a senior chemist at the bench but also running a department that is tackling a wide variety of problems using a wide variety of techniques. (my biggest issue is that some with PhD's don't professionally respect the judgement and opinions of those without one)

    Over the years several people have asked me why I don't have a PhD and I just say life got in the way and shrug.

    As I said the funny thing is that I know if I had gone to grad school right after undergrad or even right after I got my masters I would have washed out, but ironically it is only now that I think I have enough understanding of research and how to get things done, as well as the overall maturity to succeed in a PhD program...

    And strangely, although it's not possible practically, I still feel the desire to do it.

    While it could be argued that I would have been better off financially and maybe more successful in another field, I never left Chemistry because of my interest in science.

    Sometimes things work out even when you don't know what you are doing! ;)

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  6. Original questioner here...my heartfelt thanks to Professor Cramer for taking the time to construct a thoughtful response. It validates both my desire to warn students that graduate school isn't to be undertaken without serious consideration as well as my hesitation to dissuade them from pursuing a path that may be absolutely right for them.

    I appreciate the comments, too, as I feel like the tangible rewards of going to grad school have evolved over time and that needs to be taken into account when those of us with experience are asked for advice. The employment prospects for chemists have transformed and are continuing to change, and students need to know that. When I started graduate school, for example, job openings seemed plentiful in the field that fascinated me. When I finished, the industry had been dramatically altered (pharma layoffs, site closures, etc.) Graduate school was not a golden ticket to the career of my choice, and in hindsight, I was naive to believe that it would be. I would have benefited from some flexibility (but I wonder if I would have listened if someone had told me that.)

    I am also interested in reading Anon 11:01's itemized reasons why grad school may or may not be a good decision. I am frequently asked for advice and would like to know if there's something that has not occurred to me to bring up.

    Thanks again, everyone, and hats off to CJ for facilitating the discussion!

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  7. This is a good thread. Having worked in industry before grad school and having managed to (for now) hang on to a job after the Ph. D., I always tell prospective grad students the same thing: make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. If you truly love the science and can imagine yourself doing it for the rest of your life, then go for it. Any career will have its ups and downs, and right now our industry is seemingly in a long trough. But if you truly enjoy science, you can deal with the other BS.

    The converse, though, should serve as a warning. Don't do it because you can't think of anything else to do besides being a grad student (because it's often miserable and the rewards on the other end can be sparse). Don't do it because you feel like you're being funneled down that path. Don't do it because "an advanced degree in the sciences opens up a lot of doors" (you can probably open those same doors without wasting 5+ years of your life). And don't do it because you had a fun undergrad experience and you think grad school will be more of the same (I can't believe the number of first years who think this is the case).

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    1. If you're doing it to open doors, an MBA, law degree, or (rarer) an MD/PhD might be better options than a science (or any) PhD. At this point, any degree that seems to "open doors" will likely become overpopulated with other people doing the same thing (if they can) and will not do what you think; if it requires enough work to weed out those people, then you had better love it, because you won't make it, otherwise.

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    2. The advantage of the MBA, over JD or MD/PhD, is that its faster to get (6 months of material crammed into 2 years) and easier (save for maybe 2 classes the top 50 school I went to were uniformly easy). I really have no idea why people think an MBA has value, but it seems to (and really am happy to reap the benefits).

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    3. Hap's right, as far as my observations of Ivy League schools, law, MBA and soon MD/PhD programs. If there's an obvious way to credential yourself to success, there's a world of people looking for the same thing, and many of them are already ahead of you.

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    4. Expecting grad school to be a continuation of my enjoyable undergrad experience was part of the problem. I did an REU and had some exposure to full-time research, but it was at a lower-tier department - a place where terminal MS grad students outnumbered PhD students, the professors had time for spouses and kids, and the environment was much more laid-back than at a top program. I think I would have liked grad school if I'd gone there, but I also would have been thoroughly unemployable!

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  8. This post and the advice of the commenters are the reason why I would advise chemistry majors to read Chemjobber every day.

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  9. From what I have seen through my grad school/postdoc career so far, one of the most dangerous notions to have as an undergrad coming into grad school is the "it's going to be different for me". I would say a lot of people are told that grad school is tough and even though they acknowledge it superficially, there often seems to be this "I'm special"-thing hidden in the minds of a lot of incoming grad students (which seems to be more common at prestigious schools). This ranges from overestimating one's chemical prowess (thinking that one can outsmart nature) to the relationship with an advisor. Especially the last part can be devastating because it leads to people craving their advisor's love, which sets them up for a huge disappointment when they realize that they aren't going to be able to get the recognition they want from them, regardless of how much work they put in (again, this problem seems more common with the big shots who have groups with 20+ grad students/postdocs and very little time/interest in individuals). Unfortunately, it requires a lot of self-reflection to get rid of this sense of being special, especially at the age when the decision comes up (which might be another reason for people who work after undergrad are more realistic in what to expect).

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    1. One of the most hurtful things about the whole experience was believing for a long time that my advisor was trying to help me, like a tough coach or drill sergeant, and finding out after a few years of this that he hated my guts all along and had actually been trying to get me to quit. Imagine how you'd feel if you found out that your coach really just wanted you to quit football, or your drill sergeant really just wanted you to quit the Army.

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    2. that is a bad feeling i am sure. my advisor regularly talked trash about all of us in the group to one another. Probably still does. it burns my ass to know he is paid so well all while treating people that way.

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  10. Pointing the undergraduates in the direction of current graduate students might also be helpful. An invested academic advisor can go as far as facilitating 1-on-1 chats, and suggesting to the undergrad the kind of questions they should be asking.

    Also, kudos to the OP and Chris Cramer for demonstrating such a nuanced understanding of the realities/suitabilities of grad school. I've heard plenty of academics whose default response to undergrads uncertain about career paths is: "...Well, have you thought about grad school?" and/or "strongly recommend" against taking time off to try out industry, etc.

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  11. I can see both sides of the argument about whether to take a few years off and work in industry first. If I had done so, I think I would have better been able to see that I was in an unhealthy relationship with my advisor and either change groups or leave rather than thinking "I'm going to try really hard and impress him" until I was completely burnt out. On the other hand, I've also known too many people who were stuck in student life into their thirties while their peers got married, bought houses, had kids, and lived the life of adults.

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  12. I am one of those individuals who worked for 4 years before starting a Ph.D. When I got my BS (35 years ago), I was completely confused about what field I wanted to study, or even if I wanted to ever go to grad school. Now mind you, every professor I spoke to said that if I started working, I would never want to go back to school, because I'd get too used to the money, etc.
    I did end up going back, for what I still consider good reasons: I knew the field I wanted to study in more depth, I had already chosen the professor who I wanted to study under, and I had more confidence in my lab skills and was far better at designing experiments and interpreting data than 4 year earlier. Grad school for me was a focused event, one in which I was determined to finish in less than 5 years (took 4.5 in the end). Sure, I was 30 when I finished, but in the long run I feel I've been better off.
    I've also known others who've worked than gone back to school, and I don't know one of them who regretted it. They, like me, went back because they wanted to be there, not because a posse of professors told them to do so.

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  13. I understand the motive to lay out the positives and negatives to students, and to encourage them to make their own choices. But I feel that there's a meta-level issue we're ignoring here, one that undergraduate and graduate students are entirely unready to appreciate: choosing *any* career in chemistry not only represents a trade-off in students' 20's and 30's, but will also affect their ability to deal with the natural ups and downs of a life-long career.

    Those of you like me, in my 50's, will know what I'm talking about. We had some years where, let's face it, we weren't at our professional strongest. Maybe it was the four years when we had three kids. Or the divorce (ugh). That soul-searching year when we thought about ditching it all and moving back to our small home town. There are a million reasons why we aren't always at our best. And now, in the 21st century, our careers have to survive those times. Students and their advisors have to look into the future and say: "In 2035, when you will make some unwise investment decisions and get yourself into a spot of trouble that will distract you from your job to the point of getting fired, you will be okay. Because job demand in your area is strong enough to absorb even folks that have the occasional professional setback."

    Now, you might think to yourself, "How do I know what the job market will look like in 2035?" Please don't fall into this trap. After 50 years on this Earth, we know some. I always ask myself a different question: "Is what I know about the trajectory of an area of expertise bad enough that I'd advise my own children to stay away?" When my kids talk to me about careers in journalism, or pop music, or astrophysics, I don't take the noncommittal approach that I see in the comments above. I say no. Sure, there are careers in these things for people who hit it out of the park every single time. But what about for the rest of us? Where are B.S. and Ph.D. chemistry jobs on that spectrum?

    So I feel we--the people who are in the best position in the world to make this assessment--need to take a stronger approach on questions like the one posed by the OP. Do we feel that paths in chemistry will get students into their professional 50's?

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    1. The problem for me is that I don't know if anything is going to get anyone into their professional 50's. I can't imagine people not needing chemistry, but maybe people in physics in the 80's couldn't imagine that either. Other than management at the upper end and some level of service and skilled service (doctors, lawyers, plumbers, etc.), nothing seems to be terribly predictable (and if the rest of the economy fails, those fields will get some of it too).

      Anything that makes significant money is unlikely to do so for a long time, because people will look for ways not to have to pay them lots. While outsourcing is hurting lots of people, nurses should be immune, but because they get paid more than hospitals want to pay, hospitals (at least mine) are using aides, assistants, and physician's assistants to replace them (they already use residents, so no luck there). I don't know that any expertise is going to be appropriately compensated - people will get it either from cheaper places or groups or substitute (supposed) equivalents when they can, and I'm not sure where they won't be able to do that predictably. I can't see how an economy of HR, marketing, and management people is going to be sustainable in any reasonable period without anything to make, know, or sell, but I've been wrong and may continue.

      I think the only things you can hope for and advise are for people to find what they love and do it, if they can. Later in life, they may not have those options, because they will have families and other competing loyalties, and they should be aware if what they want to do precludes those loyalties, but choosing what to do based on reliable employment does not seem like a game you can win.

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    2. OP again...wow, Hap, thanks for this. It's a wise comment and one I think I have been wanting to hear.

      First, it speaks directly to my knee jerk desire to answer all of them with "run away and never look back unless you want to get chewed up and spit out!" Obviously, that is a hopeless message that I don't want to send.

      Second, perhaps another question we should be asking the uninitiated to ask themselves is "do you love chemistry? Really adore it? Want to marry it and spend the rest of your life with it? Press on, then." :-)

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    3. When I was an unemployed post-postdoc a few years ago, one thing I did was play music in a bar band. It paid not much, but it's not like I would have done better at McDonalds. The 'joke' I would tell was that while I was still dreaming of becoming a real research chemist with an actual job, I was sure glad I had my guitar to fall back on. It wasn't really much of a joke. So I wouldn't dump on 'pop music' too much!

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    4. I wouldn't dump on music at all. Even if it doesn't pay the bills, making music is therapeutic. A friend, after going through a particularly dark period, said "music and friends saved my life."

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    5. I'm actually in this situation now... post-PhD, desperately trying in vain to get my first job, and glad that I have music to fall back on, pay some bills, give me something to do, and help me keep my sanity!

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    6. Post doc checking in, who is really untalented at anything in the arts. I can fall back on gaming and drinking beer though.

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    7. This is a really good reason not to recommend chemistry as a career path. I've seen salespeople land on their feet quickly after being fired for cause from my employer, but I had enough trouble landing my current job without a huge stain on my resume.

      A former employer of my was so well-respected in the industry that chemists who were fired for misconduct or poor performance used to be quickly snatched up 20 or 30 years ago. Today, they'd probably end up working outside the field.

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