Thursday, October 21, 2010

Did industrial chemistry have 'tenure'? Should it?

While the story of Charles Davis is certainly sad, it is also instructive; it points to the differences between academic science and industry. Both Douglas Prasher and Richard Heck have talked about the difficulty of securing funding for their positions, but their stories only point to the holes in a fairly secure academic science safety net. In a slightly different world, Doug Prasher would now be a full professor at a university, happily teaching classes and writing letters for postdocs. In a slightly different world, both men would have tenure and struggle, but still be able to secure funding for their work.

In the industrial world, there is no safety net. It seems, from stories of the old days of industrial chemists, that bench guys like Don Suddaby were employed well into their older years, quietly working away. Now it seems layoffs appear like off-kilter Biblical plagues that strike only middle-aged and older, leaving their younger colleagues wondering when the HR Angel of Death will darken their door.

I know, I know -- a company is not a charity, and the world is more cutthroat (as Prasher would put it) and more competitive than ever. And yes, royalties and consulting gigs are there for the blessed few. Unleashing a force like tenure into the industrial world would not lead to more innovation and better outcomes -- I think it would be a bad idea. But I think there should be something. I don't know what the answer is, but it might just be a more humane future for industrial chemists.

5 comments:

  1. It's called the death of the middle class. Young idealistic people are going to keep pushing until they crash, become destitute, in student debt and barely above the poverty line, REGARDLESS OF YOUR CHOSEN FIELD. It's just more insulting as a chemist, because you spend 10 years "paying dues" before you learn the hard way the world doesn't want you, and most of us won't be "special" enough to be awarded dignity.

    If you are under 30, how many of your friends are trying to take the LSATS? How many of these people really want to be lawyers?

    At least you get paid to go to grad school for chemistry, even if that ultimately turns into a dead end job.

    Jablonski

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  2. A lay-off that strikes only the middle-aged and older is a class action lawsuit. It never happens like that. Instead, management makes their initial list of who is going to get cut, the legal department reviews the demographics and then the horse trading begins.

    I am fortunate enough to work for a contract R & D house. We pretty much never hire or even interview anyone under the age of 40 - they haven't been around the block enough to be able to bring in new ideas and experiences.

    Make that VERY fortunate.

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  3. On the subject of student loans....

    Too much student loan debt - not to worry! NIH is here to repay it for you, just apply to this program: www.lrp.nih.gov Up to $70k could be written off (postdocs, grad students and even undergrads are eligible)!

    I find it pretty amusing that govt is issuing/guaranteeing loans with one hand and repaying themselves with the other.

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  4. Yes anonymous 3:41, it's on one of the many many things on my to do list, is to finish that application.

    If the private sector research job market crashes, this is one of the few things might put me back in the drivers seat of my life. Indefinitely postdocing is an option, walking away is an option, going back to school (ugh) becomes an option. And sadly enough, thanks to deflation, I'm on the upper average of what most people my age seem to make these days.

    Jablonski

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  5. Why would you want to institutionalize mediocrity
    as universities do? It's bad enough that 1/3 of the company staff is dead weight, according to one Ph.D friend of mine in management.

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