Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Is there a "last bastion of making stuff"?

In his follow-up post to his potential graduate school picks, Chiral Jones asks (regarding total synthesis):
Is there a last bastion for those of us that want to “make stuff,” or will we forever run into the dilemma of choosing a field we like, but with less job security, or choosing a field we’d rather not do, but take content in being able to find a job later on?
This is a difficult question. I should note that I really want to avoid the classic (and beat-to-death) "total synthesis is dead!" / "No, it's alive, well and the only way to show you're smart!" debate.

But to answer Chiral Jones' question, my answer is: no, there is no bastion. The global economic forces that seem to shape our lives will forever commoditize whatever can be commoditized. Unless the world we live in dramatically changes, it seems that if chemistry is simple, easy to communicate and profitable, there will always be a push to make things more profitable by substituting a cheaper chemist.

In regards to making stuff, I suppose it's the inorganic/materials folks will be the ones who are going to be 'making things' worry-free for the next twenty years or so. I'd like to think that organic chemistry and organic chemists will find a way to remove themselves from the commoditizing/outsourcing bullseye someday, but I don't think it's anytime soon.


  1. Mainstream media says no (finally).


  2. The Quote is:


    Nearly half of all chemists are employed in manufacturing firms — plastics, pesticides, and paint, to name a few. And that's a bummer for them, because manufacturing companies are continuing to outsource their R&D and testing to small, specialized firms, cutting job opportunities for in-house chemists. The profession lost 42,000 jobs from 2008 to 2009, according to Chemical and Engineering News, and the BLS projects only a 2 percent rise in the total number of chemists employed by 2018.

  3. "The profession lost 42,000 jobs from 2008 to 2009, according to Chemical and Engineering News."

    I find that really hard to believe.

  4. Whoa there anon.

    If a company is outsourcing it's R&D, someone has to do it. The issue here is a) capital and b) contacts.

    Young or underemployed chemists have neither; which prevents them from starting small, nimble R+D outfits.

    While bigger science-based companies look for hires with "experience" and purple squirrel features.

    Pharma/Biotech seem to be transitioning to small startup does the ground work, and large company moves it through.

    Specialty/Fine Chemicals will have to ramp up the ability to do cleaner/more efficient syntheses.

    And that's where there's a disconnect b/c there's no ability to start a small company focused on specialty chemical R+D.

    So how do you join the capital with the expertise.

  5. Chemjobber,

    We can't complain that the ACS is shining us on with respect to chemist's employment outlook, then complain when they own up to bleak numbers that are more in line with what we all have been feeling in our guts. Yeah the number seems high but I know a lot of chemists whose jobs are gone, never to return.

  6. I think that number is incorrect because I suspect it quotes job loss numbers for the chemical industry (chemists, admin, engineers, etc.) as a whole, as opposed to *actual chemists.*

    As a scale reminder, ACS only has about 161k members. Sure, there's the whole industry/academia thing, but I just find it really unlikely that close to 25% of chemists lost their jobs in a single year.

  7. Well there are several C&E N folks who monitor this blog, so maybe they would care to clarify the statistic?

  8. Okay, a quick check of BLS reveals this number is just pure crap. According to BLS, there were (estimated) 79k chemists in the US.


    I'm fairly sure this was a mistake; I'm putting in a e-mail to the author to be sure.

  9. "In regards to making stuff, I suppose it's the inorganic/materials folks will be the ones who are going to be 'making things' worry-free for the next twenty years or so."

    I'm not so sure about that. Why do you suppose that to be?

  10. I think we're getting sidetracked by minutiae here. Regardless of the numbers, there's a lot of chemists out there that aren't making a good living lately and lots of them have Ph.Ds. Chemjobber perfectly well answered the original question; no, you will not be able to make a steady/comfortable living doing total synthesis (unless you can become a tenured professor IMO).

    The question, Chiral Jones, is this: can you be happy doing something else? Because if not then you should at least go into graduate school with your eyes wide open; the market for synthetic chemists in pharma is terrible and will probably never be like it was in the "good ole' days." It sounds like you're passionate about your research and that's great, because a Ph.D in chemistry is far from a guarantee of an easy life. If you're still convinced that you want to do this and you MUST do total synthesis, go for a tenure track professorship. If you still want the education, but can sacrifice on total synthesis then you will need to be extremely flexible with what you want to do. I won't recommend you study materials or polymer chemistry because who knows what will change by the time you graduate. When I started grad school everything was great for people who wanted industry jobs. By the time I graduated nobody could get one. There's lots of people with Ph.Ds that are moving away from bench chemistry altogether, that's a reality you may find yourself facing too.

    So go through with your grad school apps and interviews, but please also do yourself a favor and figure out what you want to do in the future and research the opportunities for that. You may find that grad school and a Ph.D aren't necessary for you to do all the things you want to do/achieve.

  11. @Chemjobber - I suspect you've already heard from the author by now, but she tells me the figure comes from Ivan Amato's Nov. 2, 2009 story "Down But Not Out":

    "The Labor Department collects information on the chemical manufacturing sector, and its statistics provide a broad-brushstroke view of all employment within the chemical industry—where 51% of ACS members work. For September 2008, 844,000 people were chemical industry employees. One year later, that number had eroded to 802,000. Average chemical industry employment in 2007 was 860,000."


    But the reporter concedes that it was incorrect to attribute all those jobs to chemists. Rather, they are all jobs in the chemical industry, as you thought this morning.

  12. @Chemjobber

    If chemical employment is expected to grow by 2% according to BLS from the current situation, is that really growth? Put another way, say there are 100 chem jobs, the industry suffers a modest 5% reduction over the past few years but grows 2% (2010-2018), that would still only give us 96-97 jobs in the end. A net decrease. I hope my math is wrong. Because if it isn't a lot of chemists are gonna be very unhappy this coming decade.

  13. ACX:

    Well, 2% of a big number is big, but who knows if it's big enough to absorb everyone? (doubtful?)

    I covered the 2% factlet in April: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2010/04/uh-oh.html

  14. "If a company is outsourcing it's R&D, someone has to do it. The issue here is a) capital and b) contacts."

    You are forgetting one thing. For a large percentage of those plentyful outsourced jobs you also need: c) knowledge of Chinese or Indian languages. d)willingness to relocate across the world e) ability to accept lower pay then you can get here for doing something else

    And if you think connections will save you, consider this... I got a lot of new connections a few years back. Heck, we joined each other in networking parties. We networked really, really well with one another. We were there to support one another. All us chemists would do anything to help one another... It may have helped every single one of us find jobs, except for one thing. All of us were unemployed.


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