Monday, July 26, 2010

Interview: Dr. Fenton Heirtzler

Fenton Heirtzler is a frequent commenter on Chemjobber; he is currently looking for a position in chemistry. Recently, I asked him a series of questions on his job hunt. This e-mail exchange has been lightly edited and checked for accuracy by Dr. Heirtzler.

CJ: How long have you been looking for work?

Fenton: Until 2003, I was faculty at a university in England, which closed its chemistry program. So I returned to North America, and post-doc’ed for four years while applying for faculty jobs over here. For the past three years, I've also been applying for industry jobs. In the summer of 2009, I had a three-month appointment as 'Visiting Scientist' at Brookhaven National Laboratory. That is a really great place for science geeks to work.

CJ: If you were to estimate the number of positions that you’ve applied for, what would that number be?

FH: This year, I've been busy with an adjunct position at a university in central/southern New Jersey, where I'm also allowed to do my own research (volunteer basis) on a shoe string budget. So I've been applying for fewer positions in 2010 (there have also been fewer ones which are appropriate). For 2010, the totals are: industry: 9; academia: 9. For 2009, from September to December I applied for 119 positions at companies and 28 with universities (of which some were abroad). Most recently, I've been inquiring with academic polymer scientists and engineers about temporary positions to retrain in that field.

CJ: How many interviews have you received?

FH: Beyond the aforementioned period of time, I have had maybe four interviews with companies - but none since September 2009. From this year's applications for faculty jobs, there was one interview in April. Over the past three years, I've had six university interviews. Two interviews with government or military laboratories, but the positions were cut.

CJ: What emotions go through your head when you think about getting work?

FH: Anger. Depression. Frustration. Indignation that all the talk by Obama about "new jobs" and "science" does not include New Science Jobs. "Could have - should have - would have".

CJ: You mention age discrimination as something that you're concerned about. I have a feeling this is something that some of my readers are concerned about and that all of my readers may face at some point. Can you elaborate a little more about your concerns?

FH: Post-doc positions are slanted so that salaries for those who are more than five years beyond their doctoral degrees are too expensive for the P.I. to afford. I have even heard from faculty at Ivy League universities that this policy "prevents exploitation" (huh?).

Also, DOE laboratories (e.g., NREL, Sandia, PNW National Laboratory, Brookhaven and Lawrence Berkeley) refuse to appoint as post-docs those who are more than five years beyond their doctoral degrees. Of course, who wants to become a professional post-doc? Nevertheless, this is closing the door on a major re-training opportunity for US scientists. In spite of the occasional person who completes their doctorate at a later age, this policy still overwhelmingly amounts to age discrimination.

Finally, NUMEROUS advertisements for industrial positions stipulate that only RECENT PhDs are welcome.

CJ: Can you describe the day-to-day process of “getting by” financially? What has been the most telling part?

FH: Limiting myself to an internet job search of twice per week. Counting pennies. Applying for free medicine from Pfizer and BMS (why not a job, instead?). Registering for "Charity Care" at a clinic in a nearby city. Getting an "Energy Supplement" from the State of New Jersey to pay for gas and electricity. Hoping that I don't have to (again) raid my pension in order to pay the rent. Advertising as a private tutor on Craigslist. Otherwise, on a daily basis, I try to stay focussed through the aforementioned research program activities. Being my own PhD student :-)

CJ: How long will you keep looking for work in chemistry before you consider another field?
FH: Good question - the only retraining option that gets a lot of coverage is becoming a schoolteacher. Teaching without research I find to be intellectually repugnant. There should be other options for retraining those with advanced science degrees . But I love Chemistry.

CJ here again. Thanks to Dr. Heirtzler for the interview and best of luck with finding a position in these tough times.


  1. Back in the late 60s – early 70s, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries contracted making it very difficult to find a job except as an analytical chemist. The number of PhD chemists graduating subsequently dropped by about 25%. If you doubt this statement about these hard times, check out the last page of the November 1971 issue of Life Magazine.

    Things began to turn around in the 80’s and with the exception of some ups and downs seen with the early 80’s and 90’s recessions, employment prospects of new PhD chemists improved. Hyper production of new PhD chemists resumed amid cries of an impending shortage of US chemists by 2010.

    However all was not right in chemistry land. Starting in the 80’s and continuing to this day, there has been a relentless and profound downsizing, off-shoring and shuttering of this country’s industrial chemistry R&D infrastructure. This phenomenon was driven by cost pressures including pharmaceutical pricing pressures, litigation and regulation, technology changes (particularly in the agrichemicals business) and M&A activities throughout the chemistry industry. Biotech’s need for chemists temporarily masked the profound loss of chemistry jobs in the chemical and agrichemical industries as seen by the fact that these industries were for the first time hiring fewer PhD chemists than the biotech-pharmaceutical industry. However Biotech careers are of a different nature than traditional pharmaceutical careers being fleeting jobs at best, not careers, and highly dependent of the generosity of the fickle financial markets.

    So here we are in 2010, the pharmaceutical and biotech industry are shedding chemistry jobs by the hundreds if not thousands and the agrichemical and chemical industries are no where in sight with respect to hiring chemists. Will this turn around when the economy rebounds? The simple answer is no. In the 1960s companies just stopped hiring, but kept their R&D sites operational. Today a very large number of those 1970 R&D sites have or are being shuttered. They are gone forever.

    Number of large US pharmaceutical R&D sites shuttered in past 15 years – Syntex, Searle, Sterling, UpJohn, Park-Davis, Bayer, Berlex, Alza, JNJ – Ortho, Monsanto pharma, Dupont pharma, P&G pharma, Glaxo – RTP (plus 4 R&D sites around the world), Robins, Knoll (BASF), 3M pharma, Ciba Summit, Burroughs-Wellcome, Rorer, Merrill-Dow, Rhone-Poulenc, Sanofi-Aventis, Wyeth (6 sites), Lederle, Pfizer – New London, AstraZeneca – Delaware (multiple sites in the EU), Schering Plough – Union site, Merck (ex-US Merck Frosst and Organon plus multiple other EU sites)

    There are also a large number of agrichemical and chemical R&D sites that have been shuttered over the past 15 years. With the exception of a few small new R&D sites in Boston, it has been a downward spiral for US chemical R&D employment opportunities in the US and will continue to be so.

    Industrial employment opportunities in the US will be much diminished going into the future you can count on it. So now may be the time to find a job, maybe a career, that can not be off-shored. You know, something like plumbing, cooking or mowing lawns.

  2. I think that your article brings up a very good point about the lack of re-training opportunities for chemists in US. Not only DOE laboratories but also NIH and all other national labs do not hire postdocs who finished PhD more than 5 years ago (the cut-off is more like 3-4 years). I have finished my PhD slightly over 5 years ago, did a postdoc and afterwards worked in a start-up company. At the end of last year, because of lack of funding, the company closed its chemical division and I lost my job. Since then I have been teaching part-time at a community college. I've sent many job applications (didn't count them but must have been over 50) mostly for industry but also for post-docs, thinking that if I re-train, learn something new I may have a better opportunity to find a job. But even in academia it is rather difficult to find a postdoc position. I received 1 positive response but ended up not taking it because of geographical reasons. Just for comparison, when finishing my PhD I got 3 postdoc offers. Does more experience not bring somebody any advantage?
    Anyway I miss research and I'm wondering if I will ever get chance to work in my field again.

  3. Out of the horse's mouth, here are the comments of a LLNL person on the DOE age discrimination policy (taken from the ACS "LinkedIn" Group):

    "Limiting postdoc positions to candidates no more than 5 years past their PhD is, as far as I know, a general DOE lab policy and not limited to LLNL. I don't expect this limitation to be lifted anytime soon. My understanding is that the limitation is actually supposed to protect the employee from exploitation: the logic is that 5 years after completing the PhD, the applicant will have accumulated a skill set that warrants at least a flex-term position, and thus should be paid accordingly, rather than just being paid a postdoc salary."

    Please note the "logic" to the DOE lab policy. Thanks, Professor Chu!

  4. "Teaching without research I find to be intellectually repugnant"

    Interesting attitude

  5. Hey, Anon 9:27- if you want to be a schoolteacher, then don't let anyone stop you!

  6. Dr Heirtzler, whilst I feel sorry that you are currently in a difficult position, I feel must comment on a couple of things in your interview regarding industry.

    Firstly, 119 applications to industry in 3 months and not a single interview?! I simply cannot see how this can be blamed on perceived 'age discrimination' alone. I spent a number of years working within the pharmaceutical industry and was involved in various rounds of recruitment (Yep - it was a few years ago!). Yes, we took on plenty of fresh PhDs/postdocs but we also recruited more 'mature' scientists when they had the correct skill set for the advertised position.

    There's the rub from an ex-industry person. I am taking an educated (I hope) guess here but I suspect your CV is filled with various academic positions, a good number of academically focused papers and little in the way of industrial experience? Well, if that's the case in my eyes that's the reason for the lack of interest from industry - it is extremely difficult to enter that environment with your background and work in the way industry demands. You say you 'love chemistry' - well I wonder how you would cope with getting the phone call saying that your project was dead, and all of the chemical development work had to stop that instant. I suspect you may struggle.

    I may well get shot down in flames on this blog for these comments, but I really wanted to put this point across. I personally never once practised 'age discrimination', and I can say the same of my colleagues at the time.

    I wish you the best on your search, I hope something comes along for you soon.

  7. 99% of PhD's are crap and most of those aren't smart enough to realize it. Just cause you got a piece of paper from some school while they kept you around as a TA for all the premed students (slave labor) doesn't make you employable as a chemist.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20