Wednesday, February 27, 2019

#chemjobs, #altchemjobs and the center of the central science

Marshall Brennan is a long-time denizen of the chemblogosphere. He’s written many years at Colorblind Chemistry. After his postdoctoral position, he’s taken on editor positions at Nature Chemistry and now he is the founding publishing manager of ChemRxiv, the ACS/RSC/GDCh open-access preprint server. He’s a tireless advocate of preprints for chemistry on Twitter.

If you haven’t had a chance to read his piece on the tag #altchemjobs and why he hates the term, you should. Marshall is not the only person who feels this way, and the piece is an eloquent cri de coeur on why he feels excluded when people use the tag. I’ve summarized his points below:
  1. Marshall believes that, as of late, the #altchemjobs tag has become a bit of a joke on Twitter. He believes it is rude, and dismissive of non-laboratory jobs. 
  2. He also believes that we overly focus on what is the central "thing" and bucket the rest of these things as "alternatives." 
  3. He dislikes the overall feeling in graduate school that you can 1) get a research track job (industry, academia or government or 2) "something else." 
  4. He notes that many people feel that there is some level of stigma or shame associated with expressing interest in non-research jobs during graduate school, citing the many messages he gets where people will privately express their interest to leave the laboratory (as he has), but are unwilling to express this to their advisers. 
So, as with many blog posts about conflict, I’m going to start with an apology: as the main poster of the #chemjobs and #altchemjobs tag, I hadn’t noticed that that the #altchemjobs tag had become increasingly jokey and outré. For that, I apologize to Marshall and the undoubted many people on Twitter who were offended/put off by this. I am sorry.

I am also going to indulge myself in some definitional discussion, which I am very fond of.

I find this statement by Marshall worth examination: “I have an “altchemjob” that I feel makes very good use of my chemistry background and has a measurable impact on chemistry research.” As a main arbiter of what is and isn’t in #chemjobs tag or the #altchemjobs tag, I am not sure I agree with Marshall’s characterization. I can see both sides: he works for the American Chemical Society, which is the professional society for chemists. In that regard, Marshall is part of the “chemical enterprise” (another frustratingly vague term that the American Chemical Society is fond of).

But what is the “chemical enterprise”? Marshall works for ACS Publications (I think), and they are a publishing house and (to throw out one definition) they are not part of the chemical manufacturing subsector (NAICS 325). Then again, neither are professors (NAICS code 611310 - Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools.) If chemistry professors aren’t part of the “chemical enterprise”, then no one is.

I would like to put all of this definitional folderol aside and just settle on numbers. As I never, ever tire of reminding people who meet me in person, you can look at the Census Bureau’s 2012 study of those who have gotten a science and engineering degree and discover one true fact: the majority of people in the United States who have physical science undergraduate degrees do not work as physical scientists. In other words, most of the people who have a chemistry degree do not work as chemists. As the (few) people who have heard me speak in person on this topic have heard me say: this is not good or bad, it just is. It’s not what should be, or what ought to be, it is what IS. One more time: to the best of my interpretative ability, I believe the Census Bureau has determined that most of the people in the United States who have gotten a chemistry B.A. or B.S. do not work as chemists. If that’s the case, this should free people from any burden that they are doing something not normal by not working in the laboratory.

[This means YOU, grad students and postdocs who are forwarded this post.]

However, we have no idea if this is true for those who hold master’s or doctoral degrees in chemistry. In fact, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of my discussions with people, including my dear friend and debating partner Lisa Balbes. How many chemists leave the lab? I have no idea. When do they do it? Don't know. Is it growing? Don’t know. Are more people going straight from graduate school into non-research careers? Don’t know. (Probably?) Are careers in laboratory chemistry getting longer or shorter? Don’t know. What is normal for Ph.D. chemists? Don’t know. What is abnormal for chemists in terms of careers? Don’t know. We just don't have the data.

But here’s what I do know - this is a solvable problem. There are numbers that can be quantified. Let’s quantify them, dammit. Because if we find that 95% of Ph.D. chemists go into research careers in industry, academia and government, and only 5% of them do something else, that’s a minority, and that’s worth noting, and worth taking into consideration. If we find that it’s 50% research careers, and 50% something else, that’s sure as heck worth noting as well. (Until that day, we’ll be stuck having this same f------ debate.)

I’d like to end by questioning a final statement that Marshall makes and I strongly disagree with. He says “I don’t think we’re going to be at a point where we equally revere and celebrate the folks who are currently under the #altchemjobs umbrella as those who do lab work anytime soon.”

So here’s my perspective: I don’t talk about my work much and what I do, but suffice it to say I work at a chemical manufacturer. What many people don’t know is that I too have transitioned out of the laboratory to a position that I charitably describe as “chemistry-adjacent.” Because I actually work at a plant (which is a relative minority of the chemical enterprise by employment), I have never forgotten who pays the bills: the chemists who invent the molecules, scale them up safely and economically, and the chemical operators who manufacture the products. No chemists, no product. No product, no money.

Laboratory chemists are central to the central science. If laboratory chemists do not produce the new products and new knowledge they do, Marshall doesn’t have a job and neither do I. All those alternative/non-traditional/non-research/non-laboratory jobs that we like to highlight? No lab chemists? No fancy IP lawyers. No smelly greasy lab coat wearing goob? No EHS consultants. No pedantic research fellow? No business development BMWs. That’s why laboratory chemists are special to the chemical enterprise, and that’s why they are celebrated as “the main thing” and that’s why they should be.

So here’s what I’m going to do: As Marshall has noted, the #altchemjobs tag has gotten dismissive and jokey (honestly, neglected), and because of that, I’m going to increase my posts on the tag, with the non-research/non-laboratory posts that I hope he and others will find appropriately respectful and worthwhile. I’m glad he’s started this conversation, and I hope it continues.

14 comments:

  1. -Chemist, -Biochemist, +ScientistFebruary 27, 2019 at 10:18 AM

    Bioscience has been struggling with these numbers as well. I went to both FOBGAPT conferences, and folks are definitely taking an interest in finding out what people are doing (See Workshop 5 in the white paper: What Data on Master’s and PhD Students and Postdocs Can Be Collected Nationally and Used to Inform Trainees and Training). They are trying to get a universal tracking method established and look at outcomes for masters/phd/postdocs at 10 years out. These recommendations should be adaptable to chemistry, and as pointed out above, a hugely important set of data to inform our discussions.

    Chemistry seems to have more industry depth than the biosciences, and many colleges are trying to gain additional accreditation by offering more degrees in the biosciences, another problem avoided (thus far) by chemistry.

    Whitepaper link: https://gs.ucdenver.edu/fobgapt2/pdf/FOBGAPT2_whitepaper_final.pdf

    Future of Bioscience Graduate and Postdoctoral Training Conference (FOBGAPT) link: https://gs.ucdenver.edu/fobgapt2/main.php

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  2. While I'm not familiar with long-term tracking for PhD recipients, the NSF's "Survey of Earned Doctorates" is a good start (see https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/data), at least for the short-term.

    There's a lot of interesting data there, but see in particular Table 52: "Definite postgraduation commitments of doctorate recipients, by sex and major field of study: 2017" - where the surveyed PhD students are going immediately after graduation.

    For Chemistry, there were 2,697 recipients, of which 1,554 had "definite commitments" postgraduation. Of those: 777 were going to postdoc, 153 for academic employment (presumably either teaching-oriented positions or maybe researcher/instrument experts?), 461 to industry, 52 other, and 110 going abroad.

    I'm guessing "industry" includes all private sector positions, so we still don't know if they're "doing chemistry" or not, but it's a start/

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  3. It is true that there is stigma in pursuing non-research jobs during graduate school, but it's funny how quickly that erodes once people get out of grad school. I've heard several people who continued in lab jobs lament their decision to not get out of it earlier, and rarely heard anyone who left the lab wish they never did. But it's also true that we still need people staying in chemistry and doing it, but no one group really deserves more reverence.

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    1. I will distinguish between "reverence" and "celebration."

      I'm not sure that any particular group of people within the chemical enterprise should be "revered." I do feel that it appropriate that, for the most part, laboratory chemists (or research chemists, etc) are more celebrated.

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    2. Chemjobber, if I understand your point in the above post, it is that the "value added" comes from chemists actually doing chemistry or making discoveries, not from the jobs that crop up on the periphery. I can agree with that up to a point. However, I have met loads of chemists who can work at a bench (or instrument, computer, etc.) but comparatively few that can really effectively communicate their science. In other words, chemists who understand the science, can do the science, and understand how to communicate it to the public are rare...doesn't that make them equally worthy of celebrating, even if they aren't currently making molecules (instruments, modeling, etc.)? Similarly, people who understand chemistry and also IP/patent law, or who understand chemistry but can also navigate the tangle of public policy are much less common than bench chemists. To paraphrase something you have said in the past regarding the supposed "STEM shortage," we don't currently need more mediocre chemists. However, I would celebrate the day that more chemistry-savvy, scientifically-minded people went into journalism, politics, public health, etc.

      In short, I'm fine with the tag of #altchemjobs. I'm fine acknowledging the contribution and importance of practicing chemists. But if I have to "celebrate" any group, it's the ones who swim upstream against expectations, add value to whatever sector they are in, and give a good name to the value of a chemistry education.

      Disclaimer: In grad school, I did interview for patent agent positions with the full support of my PI and labmates but I ultimately went to academia. My experiences doubtless biased my view of #altchemjobs.

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    3. Hi, VTJ:

      Thank you for your continued readership and engagement - I am honored.

      As someone who is not inclined to celebration, I probably should best leave it to others to decide who and how they should be celebrated. I actually prefer your term of "value add" (as regrettably transactional it is), and I think that it can be applied to the people you suggest (i.e. those who are skilled at communicating, or skilled at being at the interface of chemistry and the law.)

      I will note those who are effective communicators also tend to be the people who are celebrated.

      For the record, I find both kinds of occupations equally [insert correct adjective here.] I do think that Marshall's posts miss my point about the correct emphasis on laboratory chemistry to our "enterprise."

      While I was writng a bit on Twitter yesterday, I was also reminded that the reason that I put so much attention on counting laboratory chemists is that the origins of this blog (now ten years on) was based on concern for the laboratory chemist in the United States and in more developed countries. In addition, I believe that the health of the laboratory chemist (and in particular, the industrial laboratory chemist) is central to the health of our field in this country. My quest for data is central to these concerns, and why I put so much emphasis in terms of my tweets and also my writing.

      Cheers, CJ

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  4. I've never experienced the stigma of electing for a non-research position during my postgrad, in fact my supervisor has encouraged it. About halfway through my PhD, I realised that research, at least in organic chem, isn't something I'd like to dedicate my life to (I'm not a competitive person, so that seems to exclude me from academia). My supervisor was very understanding of this.

    The problem now is actually getting a job outside academia. I can't get a postdoc anyway, at least at the moment, because I don't have any publications (partly due to being scooped several times - I did tell you I wasn't a competitive person). This leaves industry, and I'm not super keen on a laboratory position aside from technical support (I developed a taste for repairing mass spectrometers and HPLCs during my organic PhD).

    Then again, I did my PhD in Australia and I've been told we're a little bit more laid back here than most places in the world. Maybe I've never experienced said stigma because I refuse to talk to any other organic (and some inorganic) groups in the department unless I need to borrow a chemical - the one-upmanship and academic phallus-measuring becomes a toxic environment pretty quickly.

    We had a 'industry meet and greet' last year. One of the questions that got asked was whether there were any jobs for PhDs in industry. "Why yes, of course there are. Half of us on this panel have PhDs" came the reply. When grilled further, it became apparent that none of them had entered the industry with PhDs, most of them had either done them part time or taken several years off to do them at a reasonably advanced stage of their career. They then (rather sheepishly) admitted that they didn't know if there were any positions in industry for a freshly minted PhD. Most of the jobs out there are for Bachelors level (with a few years of unpaid or part time experience, generally) and the PhD positions require some kind of managerial experience, which despite managing several years of honours, third-year and even postdocs threatening to blow up the lab, doesn't appear on paper.

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    1. Bias from US here, so this might not be applicable. Our pharma industry has groups that are dedicated exclusively to separations and purification, as well as spectroscopy(NMR/MS). If that is what you like, go for that. In the US, I'd suggest shooting for an industrial postdoc to gain that experience and foot-in-the-door. Not sure about AU. Good luck!

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  5. After a very long hiatus from this website, I will venture some comments:
    (1) working as a PhD chemist vs working in something else, but with a PhD in chemistry. Is this of choice or of necessity?
    (2) It has been claimed that a doctoral degree bestows special abilities in critical thinking, imagination, boot-strapping, etc. Is it absolutely necessary to continue on into a doctoral program in Chemistry to acquire those skills?
    (3) If, one way or another, you're not going to be able to find "the job" in Chemistry in the context of either science or research, then at least for some of us, it could make sense to stop with a BSc or MSc and then compliment it with degree in management, communication, IT etc which will be more realistic on the job market.
    (3) These are undoubtedly observations which others have already made. A
    (4) mong my friends in North America, I know two PhD chemists who are working as such, two who became cynical and gave up, one who has become an analytical technician, and approximately five who were not able to find positions as chemists and have unwillingly left the field.

    Myself, out of either lack of imagination, psychosis or bravery will continue to draft a patent and the delusional belief in grounding a startup. So it's time to leave this blog again for the next year or so. My axes are only for me to grind for myself.

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    1. Many non-lab chemistry positions still have a PhD requirement, such as consulting or patent law to name just a couple.

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  6. I hate lab anymore, so I'm in search of #altchemjobs. Whatever the #hashtagName is going to be for them, I don't care what it's called as long as I get a job out of lab, hopefully soon. Anyone looking for a no frills guy who just wants to do a damn good job outside of the laboratory?

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  7. It's hard to say where the lines are. Most PhD level people with "chemist" in their title don't do benchwork; they direct technicians and BS chemists.

    I've also seen a decline in respect for benchwork since I started my career. I think PhD's who enjoy doing benchwork seem to get stigmatized, like "if this person were successful, he/she would be sitting at a desk and assigning the benchwork to technicians."

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    1. There's probably a kernal of truth to that stigma, inasmuch as the definition of success is often tied to title or salary and ascendancy to management is the fastest road to both. That being said, I left industry because I was being pulled further and further away from the technical aspects of the job and ended up taking a faculty position at a PUI. There's certainly still a managerial component to my job, but getting anything done at a PUI usually means that I'm putting in as much (or more) time at the bench as my students. I'm probably not considered successful by most measures, but I'm having more fun than I've had at any other point in my life, even if my colleagues think it's weird that I do my own lab work. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

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  8. Whether or not one does lab work while managing chemists/technicians depends on the culture of the company you are at. I have a manager title but have been told by a recruiter that she considers me to be a "research fellow". I once interviewed for a director level position in organic synthesis and was told that about 80% of my time would be spent at the hood (5 PhD organic chemists would have been working under me). If you want your "superiors" to give you the "credit" for the innovation, you might need to be at the bench at least some of the time. After reading CJ's post and all the comments I'm not sure I remember the exact point of the post, but it seems to be about celebrating people who actually do the lab work which contributes to other people getting jobs. I'm all for the alternative jobs but I find the people doing the lab work often get treated like dirt, at least where I am at. Developing a potentially commercial product seems to upset people in other departments (more work for them), which then encourages the red tape to come out and start making more bureaucracy to prevent more progress.

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