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:
- 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.
- He also believes that we overly focus on what is the central "thing" and bucket the rest of these things as "alternatives."
- 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."
- 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.
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.