Thursday, November 18, 2010

What will recovery look like?

Listening to Rudy Baum and Susan Ainsworth's keynote address at the 2010 ACS Virtual Career Fair, I was struck by a simple question: how will we know when the chemistry job market has recovered? In her article and her comments, Ms. Ainsworth notes a couple of things: mass layoffs are slowing down (the problem of the second derivative), and some mid-career scientists are finding positions.

Here are some signs that I think might herald an actual recovery:

- Multiple double-page ads in the back of C&EN. (The only one this year (that I can remember?): SABIC.)
- Ads that aren't regarded as "fishing." (Millenium, I'm looking at you.)
- Recruiters for contract employment agencies that can't seem to fill their positions
- An article from C&EN that there aren't enough chemists (I kid because I love, guys.)
- Comments from federal employers that they're can't compete with industrial positions
- Rumors of starting bonuses (remember those days?)
- Pharma companies begin hiring fresh PhDs at mid-tier universities (an indicator of a peak?)

Readers, what do you think? Do you remember the last boom employment time for chemists ('96 to '03(?)) What were the signs that things were good or even getting too hot?


  1. Good old times: when interviewing at Merck Rahway for an MS associate position (fresh from the school) in 2000 I got an giant black limo complete with a limo driver in a uniform, to take me from airport to the hotel and from hotel to from the interview. The purpose was apparently to avoid me getting lost in Rahway - which is an eyesore - but still.

  2. When grad schools require you to pass a competency test on a Chinese or Indian language in order to graduate with a Ph.D.

  3. I had the same limo treatment by Merck (different city) in 2006.

  4. I would have said that back in 2005, things were still pretty hot. In fact, it was quite common on my way to one interview, to be called on my cell for another one. I would say in 2006, things got incredibly slow. I had 1 interview for half the year and I went to the ACS job fair and was able to squeeze out two more flights for interviews.

    The previous year, the employment market was on fire. And I will second milkshake's experience, first class to NJ from San Diego and a limo from LaGuardia.

  5. I remember an on-site recruiting session held at Stanford where I was a postdoc sometime around 1997. The representative from Rohm and Haas said that the good news was that we as candidates could look forward to 'worrying about more interesting things than survival.'

    For a number of reasons, I don't think the next boom for research chemists will look much like the last one.

    But one thing is certain: when Derek Lowe can write a post on a new scientific paper and not one commenter brings up the crummy job market, the worst will be behind us. We'll all be worrying about more interesting things than survival at that point.

  6. I've had about half a dozen recruiters contact me in the past month. (I am not looking for work, and keep telling those who call me so.) I think this is a good sign for those who are currently looking. A few years ago, recruiters were having trouble getting positions to fill.

  7. A7:32a:

    Can you give a broad generalization as to your CV? Time in industry/degree level/industry?

  8. Too hot (2002) - When I was a lowly intern, new folks hired were still being placed (directly from grad school, some) at low 6-figures, with full benefits, stock options, and signing bonuses that allowed them to purchase new cars. No joke.

  9. A732a:
    I am a MS chemist who was laid-off from a major pharma company during the recent downturn. I chose to search outside of the "pharma box" when looking for a new position. I am still in chemistry, but not in pharma.

    I wish everyone who is looking the best. It is difficult to go through the uncertainity of a layoff. Keep your mind and your eyes open. There are other fields where your skills and knowledge can be utilized, if you are open to them.

  10. I had the Merck limo in 2008.

  11. Sign of Chemistry Job Recovery: The on-campus recruiters actually provide breakfast, business cards, ans souvenirs.

    Reminiscing about the Tail End of the Good Old Times: Non-first class yet direct flight from California to NJ. Limo transportation between airport and hotel as well as between hotel and work site.

    Reality check: Despite all the problems from the Asian R&D sites of Big Pharma, nothing short of a world war will stop outsourcing. I'm going to guess that labor rights will take a hit with the incoming congress, so forget about negotiating for better (if any) benefits from the CROs and temp agencies.

    @Paul/Chembark: Many chemistry PhD programs used to have a "foreign" language requirement (usually German, French, Russian) in the days before ACIE. Columbia still had laughably easy German test for organics when I visited in the early 2000s. Perhaps the languages of science are changing from European to Asian.

    Chemjobber may have addressed this already, but I really would like to see PIs take more interest in the career development of their students & postdocs. I am dismayed to hear from my friends in some flagship groups that their PIs are still taking employment prospects of their academic progeny for granted. Even if it involves kicking people out of chemistry, thinking of your group members as more than "factors of production" would do wonders to improve the quality of research and lifestyles of all chemists.

  12. I have never understood. What is the purpose of fishing?

  13. A1:37p:

    It's internet scuttlebutt that Millenium uses the resumes they receive (with salary history) to mess with their internal salary increases, e.g. "Hey, that guy has your job and he's willing to work for 15% less."

    I don't know if it's true, but there you are. I'm willing to be told otherwise, BTW.

    Also, there's the "we're running this ad and we won't accept anything other than the perfect candidate" sort of thing. (Also, internet scuttlebutt.)

  14. What is the purpose of this discussion? If you want to get off on fantasies, then go look up a porn website instead/

  15. If you want to get off on fantasies, then go look up a porn website instead

    Thy will be done.

  16. At this point the prospect of employment is far more exciting than any porn.

  17. I think that this is a very good discussion. Too many internet employment discussions talk doom and gloom. It is nice to spread hope where ever how big or small.

  18. A better question is, what will the "New Normal" look like? Will it be like humanities with hordes of anthropology majors working at Borders and very few getting applicable positions? Or are new frontiers coming up, like for the computer scientists in Web 2.0? I really don't think traditional med chem or synthetic chemistry as we knew it pre-2010 is coming back. Americans are far too expensive (needs and debt), want to live off site and are generally not as productive. But they may have other uses.

  19. @7:23
    "Americans... are generally not as productive"

    Sounds like something an accountant would state. Definetly not someone who has actually been involved in bench chemistry in a major pharma. I think this is an unfair statement.

    A fair comparison cannot be made between the US and their Chinese outsourcing partners. Most times outsourcing projects are the low-hanging fruit (i.e. well documented precedents) to ease the difficulty of working on a global project. Lots of projects sent overseas involve the scale up of chemistry developed in the US or easy combi chem to fill out SAR. The more difficult chemistry surrounding new SAR or cherry picked libraries is done in the US so there is a quicker response time to new data.

    Additionally, there is a reduced sense of accountability with all this outsourcing. When you buy a compound which is going into the Clinic, do you think the outsourcing company cares as much about the purity as a full time employee in the US? I know I've seen some real crap come from a major Chinese outsourcing company. Some people assume that outsourced compounds are the purity that is stated. This blind trust is not founded on fact, and is really going to cause problems.

  20. Remember BP? BP states the leak is not their fault because they got some bad cement from Haliburton. Haliburton states that the cement was not tested for the conditions BP used it for. Whose to blame? Shouldn't there be accounatability for something as important as that? Shouldn't their be accountability for the quality of clinical candidates or in the design of leads of compounds that can save lives?

  21. China and India have been stocking their new labs. Who worked out the kinks of all that cutting edge instrumentation to enhance their productivity? How many different cycles of automated equipment has your lab cycled through to make their new equipment more affordable than ever? How long has it been since you've replaced your equipment that keeps breaking down because it is so old and your management is comparing your costs to theirs?

  22. @Anon7:47 - This is a little off topic for the post, but I wanted to comment on something you said towards the end: "do you think the outsourcing company cares as much about the purity as a full time employee in the US?"

    The (US-based) CRO I work for is very congnizant of this exact problem, and we use it to our competitive advantage. I've opened up more than a few bottles from overseas where the top is beautiful white powder, and further down is brown / black muck. I've also ran into sleazy doping with inorganic salts to make target weight in the bottle.

    *However (you knew there'd be a 'however') - some non-US contracters really do good work, and the listed purity on the bottle is spot-on. Some provide lot spectra online. And quite honestly, when we buy in bulk, we sometimes contract to firms outside the US, because the prices are just so low. So, I guess you could say there are scientists who are ethical and work hard, and happen not to live in the US.

  23. Annon 7:47

    I've also had some very good experiences with an US outsourcing company. I've had some extremely bad experiences with Wuxi (large Chinese outsourcing company). There is another Chinese company which I have had only good experiences.

    I do agree that there are ethical, hardworking chemists who are not in the US. However, large generalizations about Americans such as anon7:23 are the reason that the our field is in the state it is today. Only when managements realizes that productivity cannot just be measured in number of compounds in isolation from purity, synthetic novelty and diversity will pharma produce new treatments again. Unfortunately, this is not what is practiced and it is frowned upon to bring up problems. Therefore quantity without quality trumps quality with some reduced quantity.

  24. @Anon 8:52

    OK, I understand where you're coming from. The common enemy - if that's the right word here - of all hardworking chemists is that guy in the suit in the corner office who believes that putting enough monkeys (us) and enough typewriters (rotovaps) in a room, he'll eventually duplicate the works of Shakespeare (active compounds).

    Unfortunately, as you have aptly pointed out, 1) there's no forward progress without troubleshooting and accurate reporting, and 2) thinking before you synthesize is still more of an "art" than an industry. One day in the books = 5 in lab, or something like that.

    Thanks for the reply.

  25. Americans are so touchy about their productivity and all have very different definitions of what it is. Mine is Productivity = Output/Input. What do I get for how much I spend? Americans may say their output is superior or greater, but they never take into account how much it cost to get. Even if the Chinese produced something with 10% by wt water, they may have produced it so cheaply, that the marginal cost of purifying it further is still below the total U.S costs.

    I don't believe college grads with $90K in student debt, who are gonna work in some of the most expensive places (SF, SD, Boston, etc.) and require all kinds of taxes, etc. are really cost effective, even if they are outputting 99.9% pure materials.

    The numbers are against them.

  26. Americans work longer hours. Europeans classify Americans as extremely hard workers. Americans know the cards are stacked against us due to currency manipulation which several countries participate in. Chinese yuan has been pegged low and steady against the dollar for many, many years. Their government refuses to strengthen it to its actual value so the US/European work all goes to their country. Though there is not just one way to balance world currency. Perhaps several more rounds of QE will bring back the chemistry jobs in the US. Of course, then all the older chemists will never retire, and new graduates will be just as worse off as they are now.

  27. "Americans are so touchy about their productivity and all have very different definitions of what it is. Mine is Productivity = Output/Input. What do I get for how much I spend? Americans may say their output is superior or greater, but they never take into account how much it cost to get. Even if the Chinese produced something with 10% by wt water, they may have produced it so cheaply, that the marginal cost of purifying it further is still below the total U.S costs."

    I got several different quotes for the last compound I needed outsourced. A US outsourcing company (which produces in good quality) beat the Chinese companies on costs. Perhaps you should look real hard next time you chose your outsourcing company. You may save some money and trouble on import/export.

  28. anon @5:06pm - if the chinese de-peg, stop buying your ever-expanding mountain of debt - then what happens?

    I think the end result would be total economic collapse for the US - the weak remnimbi has effectively been carrying the US economy for years. It works both ways you know, and makes Chinese-made products (iPhones, DVD players, toys and pretty much everything esle) cheap enough for you to buy).

    Of course the Chinese Communists can't afford to float the currency either - the carnage that would be caused to the millions of worshop slaves Chinese suddenly unemployed would see them shot in the street in the blink of an eye.

    Have fun...

  29. Ah, yes the poor poor Chinese Communist government created easy-to get credit out of thin air for the least responsible Americans and corporations. Just imagine all the American debt they created and funded! If it wasn't for all the shady debt China provided to those willing to take it America would never have gotten in this mess. I do not feel sorry for them, with the exchange rate against the dollar they came out on top even if a large portion is not repaid. They knew what they were doing when they lent that money. They know what they are doing now. They are making it more impossible for others in the world (not just the US) to make a living. Its like Walmart... Lower prices until you have a monopoly and then stick it to everyone you can.

  30. Uhh when a returns more than ten positions nationwide for the search "research chemist"

    I think a better approach would be to sack the ACS headquarters and pillage the executives homes.

    That's where the booty there lie..arghhh!

  31. Take off! Pfizer wants to sell a jet for 37 million

    I wonder how much of that $37 million will go towards paying severance packages and pensions during the next pogrom.


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