Friday, October 4, 2019

Is there a bias against analytical chemists?

Via Twitter, this fascinating statement:
I am an analytical chemist specializing in mass spectrometry. I am growing tired of colleagues in other chemistry disciplines looking down on analytical scientists, for some reason that I cannot yet explain. Let’s move on to the 21st century! 
This statement was backed up by another, more senior, scientist:
The top tier chemistry departments eliminated analytical chemistry decades ago. It is also why some of the same top tier universities were very late to the "proteomics party" if they showed up at all. What will they miss next?? SCP?
In discussions about these two statements, I thought this comment from a very senior chemistry professor was relevant: 
It is true that the elite private institutions that dominate the top 10 programs do not have dedicated analytical pathways. The top analytical programs are at the public institutions, especially in the Midwest.
As someone who has worked with industrial analytical chemists for over a decade (man, I'm old), I'm more than a little bewildered that there is a seeming bias against analytical chemists. How the heck do you not love people who help you see your compounds and understand your science better? I also was surprised, but the second largest group of chemists to be produced out of doctoral programs in the United States are analytical chemists. But with Professor Burstyn's comments, there does appear to be a seeming inequality in treatment amongst subfields at different universities. 

So, readers, some questions: Is this true? If so, when did it start? And finally, how can it end? 

21 comments:

  1. Analytical chemists seem like they're used in service to other chemists or scientists - in finding out what's present in things or in biological systems, in finding out what people made - and so people maybe figure that they're only worthy of being second fiddle to someone else.

    In a broad sense, though, the Nobel people don't seem to agree - methods for seeing new things are fertile ground both for important discoveries and for Nobel Prizes.

    If you can't see or know what's present somewhere, it's kind of hard to do anything.

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  2. I think a lot of the resentment arises in grad school, and then persists throughout ones career. The field of analytical chemistry has had some major advancements and discoveries that make other kinds of science easier as a whole. They provide an invaluable service everywhere I've been. But the analytical grad students where I did my PhD all punched in at 9, clocked out at 5, never came in on weekends, got about 3-4 papers per year like clockwork, got to have a life outside of the lab and still all graduated exactly on time.
    Compared to the bigger risk bigger reward area I did my PhD in where the hours were practically "as much as you can handle" success was NOT guaranteed, and graduating on time was the exception. Its hard to say "this person is my equal"
    when in some cases they put less than half as much work into their PhD as I did.

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    1. I know what you're talking about, my analytical peers in grad school worked 40 hours/week in the lab and yet still graduated on time and with more pubs. Were they just worked smarter than everyone else or just gamed the system, that is debatable. I am an analytical chemist by training, but I have observed this odd trend.

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    2. My memory of grad school is that organic attracted all of the ultra-competitive Type A personalities (both students and faculty), and analytical, physical, and inorganic grad students all looked like a bunch of slackers by comparison.

      Of course, when I was in grad school, organic attracted all the ultra-type-A types because the best jobs were at pharma companies like Wyeth, Schering-Plough, SmithKline, etc!

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    3. This is so interesting to read, but definitely not my experience. I definitely lived in lab as a grad student and postdoc and self-identify as an analytical chemist (I use instruments to measure things). I guess now I'm re-thinking this, and probably should identify more as an environmental chemist, but decided to go with analytical for purposes of applications as many departments also don't have official "environmental chemistry" research areas.

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    4. Wow! That's priceless.

      Let me bring a different viewpoint since, obviously, you are trapped in the incestuous little circle of PhD's petty indulgence, in what Freud referred to as narcissism of small difference. (yes, its a thing).

      First, hours worked as a gauge of productivity is a very, very, Asian concept. And I hate to shock you, but Japan, Malaysia and China are ranking consistently at the bottom of the productivity scale, while France, Germany and other European country rank at the top. Productivity is a measure of GDP output per hours actually worked. If you are unsophisticated and rely on first degree assessment, the kind of mechanical thinking that my 6 years old engage in, to judge how hard people work then I agree, mindless attendance to the workplace does make a strong impression on the feeble minded.

      Second, placing your worth in life on a scale made of grad school hardships makes you a fool. PhD’s are referred to a brotherhood of losers for a reason. That unshakable sense of higher worth in life, I mean, what’s up with that? I have yet to quite identify why that is, despite years of reflection on the subject. Bezos, Musk, Zuckerburg, and countless more had “what it takes” to truly make it, and were not fully content in life with 140K$, 500 LinkedIn connection and a luxury sedan in the parking of their Colonial house. And they ditched grad school or college altogether as a waste of time, something that doesn’t sit well with the guild of fake doctors, frauds literally spitting in the face of what America is really about.

      Unless you have an MD or an engineering degree, nobody is impressed by your degree. As for distinguishing between the hundreds of flavors of PhD’s out there, making one worth more than the other, it shows a backward looking tendency that speaks volume to how much current achievements are weighted out in the process. It is my personal experience that most PhD’s do not believe that they need to carry their own weight, and rather point out to their degree, school, advisor, publications, and what not as to why we need to piss away so much money on these man babies always whining at something.

      What you have created in value-added contribution to the bottom line of your company is THE only measure of one’s worth, and if grad school could infuse as little as 1% of this mindset in the brain of the future scientist, that would make a big difference. But in the meantime, we will expect nothing but overblown entitlement rooted in the complex inner world of graduate school totem polls devotion.













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    5. Anon8:29: Civility, please. Use of "you" to refer to other commenters on this blog is discouraged.

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    6. Original Comment Poster
      Re: Anon8:29
      I appreciate the wildly differing opinion. Truly I do. I was, and arguably still am stuck in an academic bubble. (Whether academia or industry has more "incest" is a discussion for another time and another medium). I wish to point out some finer details. Notice I didn't just talk about hours worked but also publication count. I too recognize there is a massive difference between working to fill time, working hard and accomplishing anything. Paper count, since the length, merits and quality of papers vary drastically is a poor stand-in for the latter two. I know. But it was an attempt to recognize this. Childish not to, as pointed out.

      Secondly. "Placing your worth in life on a scale made of grad school hardships makes you a fool." I could not agree harder. That is a terrible mistake some people make, one that I have thankfully outgrown. The narcissism of small differences is everywhere unfortunately. I try really hard to judge the people I see before me as they are, and as they could be. Overcoming biases when they no longer hold true is important and is the basis of my comment above. I know some great analytical chemists. And I know some bean counters happy to fill time and collect paychecks. In many many different fields and education levels both inside the university and outside it. I am sorry to anyone my comments rubbed the wrong way.

      Lastly "What you have created in value-added contribution to the bottom line of your company is THE only measure of one’s worth"
      I agree that, while self worth is important, it is your worth to the entire world that matters in the long run. Not what you take, but what you can give and do. Conflating ones value to a company with your value to the world seems dangerous and unhealthy. I agree that is all the employer sees, and values. At least in North America, that has been my experience. It would be nice if that was taught near the beginning of grad school. Not when you get tossed back in to the industrial world at the end. But conflating your value to the company with your value to the world has only ever worked out badly for the all of people I know who do it (and I'm counting a couple family members here). Most companies last less than a generation, while kids and other institutions whose development you can contribute to can last a lot longer.
      It is valuable to have these ways of thinking pointed out, and truly appreciated. Thanks.

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  3. Analytical chemistry has some overlap with physical chemistry, organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry. You can learn analytical techniques in many kinds of labs. You don't have to have the title of "analytical chemist" to do chemical analysis. Even developing new techniques. Was STM developed by someone specialized in analytical chemistry? I honestly don't know, but my guess is they weren't an "analytical chemist". Now maybe studying something like separations is truly within a narrow scope of analytical chemistry. I actually saw a job at a university in the midwest where they were looking someone specialized in "bioseparations"? Is that really a "field"? Should universities really be making assistant professor positions that narrow? It sounds more like they are looking for an advanced technician. My feeling is that "analytical chemistry" really does need to be separated as a major field. Obviously the most successful chemistry departments agree with me as they do not have a separate analytical division as all fields of chemistry involve analysis, and can involve making new forms of analysis.

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    1. There are two kinds of inorganic chemists. Those who make stuff, and those who measure stuff!

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    2. STM was developed by phyicists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Roher. See Wikipedia.


      I think "bioseparations" is necessary because it indicates the types of molecules that will be dealt with, the matrix or matrices in which they are found, and the analytical techniques the chemist should be familiar with (perhaps HPLC, HPLC-MS, and SFE, but not GC and GC-MS.


      "You don't have to have the title of "analytical chemist" to do chemical analysis." This is true. But if "correctly" is placed after "analysis" it becomes much less true. It's also true that you don't  have to be an organic chemist to do organic synthesis. After all, how many meth cookers have chemistry degrees?

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    3. I've been at 3 of the top 15 analytical departments, and while I think most schools probably don't place much emphasis on it, the instrumentation development and method development that goes on in true analytical groups is often quite intense. While most places have a mass spec or nmr person on faculty, having a focus on pure measurement techniques and applications in a department is a different thing entirely. To me, this is the difference between a pchemist and an inorganic chemist who does significant electronic structure calculations and spectroscopy. They're similar in some aspects, but both have their place.

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  4. Edit to previous comment: does NOT need to be separated...

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  5. I wasn't aware that "The top tier chemistry departments eliminated analytical chemistry decades ago" as stated above. I knew that a lot of departments don't have analytical as an official division and the faculty members doing analytical research are officially classified as physical, inorganic, etc, but I thought this was just a hold-over from the days when electronic instruments like NMR's and HPLC's didn't exist.

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  6. I haven´t thought of this topic, but I think this might be true in my case. As a process development chemist in a pharmaceutical company, most of my interactions with analytical chemists begin with they telling me that this or that product has an impurity above the specification limit; hence my lack of sympathy towards them as some type of “kill the messenger” syndrome. Moreover, most of the times I find them very attached to guidelines and regulations (disregarding of chemical reasons), making me feel like they are closer to lawyers than scientists. In my case, this might be the reasons why I feel more comfortable working with organic chemist than analytical….

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    1. "Moreover, most of the times I find them very attached to guidelines and regulations (disregarding of chemical reasons), making me feel like they are closer to lawyers than scientists." - that's pretty much my impression of pharma in general!

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  7. My opinion about this topic is that: there is no bias. Its just a fact that the analytical chemistry is advanced enough to help organic, inorganic, chemical biology and so on. All the other chemists need is NMR, MS, IR, X-ray and a few separation techniques. If analytical chemistry offer something newer, definitely they will draw more attention.

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  8. Simple facts - there are more job opportunities for analytical chemists than most other sub disciplines in chemistry. And yet most university chemistry departments have fewer analytical chemists than the other sub disciplines.

    On that 2nd point, I’ve seen this in my own and other depts. Quite often we also do heavy lifting and are responsible for instrumentation. How many times have you’ve been asked - could you analyze this for me? What if the tables were turned and you asked if they could synthesize this.

    Just saying

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    1. "Simple facts - there are more job opportunities for analytical chemists than most other sub disciplines in chemistry."

      [citation needed]

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    2. Lots of "chemical companies" no longer do serious R&D, but need chemical engineers to run the plant and analytical chemists to do QC (or oversee the techs doing QC).

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    3. Sure, I can believe that. I just don't think we know enough to call it a "fact."

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