Monday, November 13, 2017

Stories from after the Great Recession

Linda Wang's article about chemists 10 years after the Great Recession is out in today's issue of C&EN. Don't miss the really great stories (including a couple of friends of the blog). I really enjoyed this story from an anonymous chemist-turned-nurse: 
A woman who graduated with an M.S. in chemistry from a western university around the time of the recession recalls the difficulty of finding work as a new graduate. The woman, who did not want to be identified by name so that her job prospects would not be affected, was unemployed for two-and-a-half years, she says, and heartbroken at being unable to find work in a field she was passionate about. 
But she had to pay the bills, including student loans, so she worked at a hotel chain before deciding to return to school for a nursing degree. Now that the woman has graduated and obtained her nursing license in two states, she has the luxury of choosing among four job offers. 
Some chemists question whether they should encourage young people to go into the sciences when their journeys have been so difficult. “It’s kind of hard to encourage kids I know who want to go into science, which is terrible because it’s a great field, and we need scientists,” [CJ's note: former Pfizer chemist Pamela] Case says. “But when they ask for my experience, I have to be honest.” Many chemists like Case were forced to leave the bench.
If I were laid off and could not find a job in my field, I would imagine it would be hard-pressed to recommend it to others. That's got to be a tough thing to mention during a career day session.

(Readers, what do you do during career day sessions? I regret to admit my audiences get more exposure to the Survey of Earned Doctorates than they would ever want...) 

8 comments:

  1. After reading this, I hear "Weird Al" Yankovic singing "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Chemists".

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  2. My kids are still quite young, so when I come in I get to talk about how much fun it is to work on really hard problems.

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    1. Hopefully those really hard problems extend beyond finding a job in a tight market.

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  3. Being unemployed for almost a year after mastering out of grad school was the last thing someone with beaten-down self-confidence needed. From an employer's perspective, it was probably "this applicant with a master's is overqualified to be a QC tech," but from mine, it was "I'm not even good enough for this $14 an hour job doing routine QC."

    Seeing the STEM shortage stuff repeated makes my blood boil, and my friends who believe and repeat the ACS line are usually academics who never worked in the real world and don't know what it's like to be unemployed.

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    1. It's sort of a Shangri-La thing in chemistry. It doesn't take much to have your progression from eager grad to tenured professor or well-paid industry chemist to be interrupted. Therefore the people who did make it are by definition people who did not face serious hardships during the process. If you ask them, they'll tell you everything is fine, because for them everything actually has been fine.

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    2. It's like the Empire State Building: it's a long climb to the top and you can fall off at any time. I've seen folks with amazing undergraduate records disappear as grad students. I've seen amazing graduate students disappear as postdocs. I've seen amazing postdocs disappear as assistant professors.

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  4. I basically tell people that it's interesting to study but it can be difficult to find a job, and particularly an interesting job. A few years ago Ronald Breslow said that (paraphrased): we used to be able to tell people that they will find a job; we can no longer do that. Universities should seriously consider hiring industrial chemists. The academics need better projects. When innovation slows in industry there are less jobs for chemists. Academics tend to work on things that are exaggerated in their usefulness.

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  5. @OldLabRat: About your statement "..Therefore the people who did make it are by definition people who did not face serious hardships during the process." That is not true in my case. I realized after I was shown the door that at the time "stability" (not life style!) of the family was very important. I had a kid in the college and two teens along with wife to take care. So, for me, at that point chemistry (drug discovery) took the back seat and any job with bare essential chemistry (the only thing I knew well) would suffice. We all were buying time and hope for the best and better time would prevail, but that never came! So you are stuck with it! Meanwhile you realize that there were others looking for job (some time the same!) and the situation grew only worse. My point is none had it easy and lot of compromises (salary, home, place) had to be made, and you don't do it, someone will do it and take away that job, with compromise! The last great recession cycle was the worst and many people did not recover from it because they all had hoped something better will come along. The C and E News article talks about only the successful chemist who landed on their feet but not as a chemist. Remember that for every one successful there are more than 5 failures, as I was told!

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