Friday, December 17, 2010

The Future of Chemistry Jobs: Recap and thanks

What a week of great discussion on chemistry jobs! We started at Chemjobber with his thoughts on the future of chemistry jobs, Leigh posted a wonderful analysis of the incoming supply of PhD chemists, Paul arrived with a full-throated attack on the tenure system, and Matt wrote an excellent post on the potential for industrial and science policy to solve some of our current and future employment woes.

We received quite a bit of support from other people in the Twitter/chemblogosphere, but the biggest amount of support that we’ve received is from you, the reader. We’ve all decided to recap our posts, talk about what we’ve learned from our writing and the many excellent comments we received.

Chemjobber: “We Are The Grist”

In Monday’s post, CJ talked about Beryl Lieff Benderly’s essay “The Real Science Gap” and three fundamental problems of the future of chemistry jobs: 1) that employment projections were moot because of the length of training/education, 2) that mid-career retraining is very difficult and 3) that there may be an informal selection process that culls chemists about ten years into their industrial career. CJ’s potential solutions: removing barriers to using postdoctoral fellowships for mid-career retraining (thanks, Fenton!) and publishing granular statistics on employment rates and employer expectations throughout a chemist’s career.

Readers were quite receptive to mid-career retraining with public/private partnerships. Also, commenters were interested in reworking graduate school and making it more of a “real job” (do they give free pizza at real jobs? I don’t think so!) Comments were also brewing with an alternative solution to employment difficulties: the restriction of scientist immigration into the United States. Overall, there were few defenders of the status quo.

Just Another Electron Pusher: “Too Many PhDs?”

With unemployed chemists hitting an all-time high in the last few years, many people have suggested that too many PhDs flooding the marketplace are at least partially to blame. Analyzing the NSF's latest survey of earned doctorates, I found that the number of PhDs in chemistry has indeed risen in the last 10 years, but data from the last five suggests that these new chemists aren't having a harder time finding jobs or post-docs. However, it's likely that there is a glut in some subject areas and a dearth in others. But until we get some hard data on PhDs awarded per subject area, and on the number of jobs available each year, whether we are producing too many PhDs will remain an unanswered question.

Commenters agreed that entering graduate students, or better yet undergrads, need to be properly informed on the job market before pursuing a doctoral degree. But whose responsibility this is, be it the student's, the school's, or the ACS's is still a matter for debate.

ChemBark: “Time’s Up for Tenure”

Over at ChemBark, Paul presented an editorial that lobbied for the replacement of academic tenure with a system based on renewable ten-year contracts. While both the editorial and commenters pointed out several advantages to the tenure system (e.g., academic freedom), Paul did not think they outweighed the costs (e.g., inability for schools to remove dead-weight). He also questioned if chemists today really use the freedom granted by tenure and if this liberty really protects freedom of inquiry since you have to win funding for your research anyway.

Commenters who dissented weighted the important of academic freedom much higher than Paul, and asserted that the population of deadwood professors is sparse. Quite a few people liked the idea of replacing tenure with relatively long contracts (e.g., 7-10 years) as a compromise that would provide some degree of job security and academic freedom without permanently restricting the ability of universities to restructure their faculties. There was also concern voiced in the comments that ending tenure would drive schools deeper into the practice of hiring faculties of adjuncts, who work for peanuts and don’t contribute to the creation of knowledge through research

ScienceGeist: “How Do We Break The Cycle?”

Because securing funding is one of the main incentives for PIs to take on large number of graduate students, it seemed obvious that we should explore the policy of research funding. Upon review of some of the most current commentary about the present and future of funding policy, ScienceGeist suggested that a new funding structure could be envisioned. It is hoped that a new platform might relieve some of the stress on PIs to produce large numbers of PhDs. The proposal worked off of the following tenets: a priority should be placed on producing useful technologies, it is impossible to predict where long-term, future growth will come from, involve the public in decision making, agencies need to be agile, and, where possible, get companies and venture firms invested so that jobs stay in the States. The solution presented included a broad-based research investment that was partly directed by the public along with a more directed investment in research that directly addressed the most pressing national research needs and worked in collaboration with industry.

Commenters debated on the need for a federal presence to maintain manufacturing capabilities in the US. Discussion also returned to the proposal of an industrial postdoc brought up in CJ’s post on Monday. Upon further refining, there was some agreement that staying away from large corporations and, instead, focusing on newer companies and smaller industries might be beneficial to overall employment prospects. Finally, ScienceGeist ended with a plea that chemists should get involved with determining the future of science policy; noting that if they do not, chemists will be on the outside looking in when the decisions about our future are being made.

Conclusion and thanks

One of our main goals during the formulation of this round table, aside from just voicing our observations of the employment situation that the mainstream media was continually contradicting, was to put in a good-faith effort to try and craft some legitimate solutions to the problems PhD chemists are facing. Knowing that the four of us would never be able to do this on our own, we put our trust in the online chemistry community to lend their voices and opinions to our conversation.

And the response that we received was overwhelming. At the end of each day, our proposals had been refined and optimized through the discussion threads that our readers were such a valuable part of. Also, we should note, we tried to bring this to the attention of a broad audience (chemists, science communicators, science policy workers), and we don’t really know if any of our messages made it out. But, we do know that forums like this are going to be worthwhile for directing the future of our field. (Also, the forums are a lot of fun. We had such a great time participating in this, and, judging by all of the comments that we received, our readers did as well.) We hope, and fully expect to see similar roundtables popping up in the future.

Our sincerest thanks to all of the support on Twitter, especially our friends at C&EN and Nature Chemistry. Also, our warmest thanks to Derek Lowe, who gave us fantastic levels of support on In The Pipeline.


  1. Just for the record, i believe going away from tenure system would decrease the reliance on adjuncts, as it would no longer be an 'all-or-nothing' system. By the way, no one touched on it but i believe the tenure system (essentially monomania until age 40) also worked against hiring of females in academia (at least in the past) as they were assumed to be waiting for tenure to have a family, or (if a family already) not dedicated enough. This problem may have been mollified in recent years though.

    Anyway, great work on this week everybody! Lots of interesting ideas out there.

  2. Thanks to you, bad, for your comments!

  3. I think one of the most important things about this discussion was bringing in a broader range of readers by spreading it over four blogs (and it was discussed on many others). I'm surprised at how few chemists read online blogs about chemistry, at least among the chemists that I know (in academia, industry and government). People are worried about the future of chemistry but don't know where to look for information. Hopefully the publicity surrounding this week will get people talking! Great job, everyone.

  4. Thanks, Kay -- means a lot coming from you.

  5. It was a great idea CJ. Unfortunately, I came away with feeling that things can't change. Too many loyalties, entrenched interests, etc. have formed. Changing the rules hurts someone, and that someone is usually a person in power that enjoys those rules. Also, it seems from the discussion that scientists want more govt meddling, instead of finding a system with some natural, sustainable balance.

    My "real job" idea stemmed from the Japanese situation of stepping up govt funding for academic doctorates. Before that, Ronbun Hakase, was the norm. An industrial doctorate earned after many years being employed in the private sector. (Read the Wiki). It seemed like an excellent illustration of my idea in the real world vs. the govt production model.

    After govt funding was used aggressively to produce academic doctorates, the Japanese ran smack into the problems the Americans are facing now. Large numbers of unemployable PhD holders who must find govt supported stipends (Post-Docs). It's gotten so bad that the Japanese govt has proposed subsidizing companies to employ these scientists.

    Read Here:

    The "Real Job" model forces attrition to occur early and often, so people don't get stuck in the scientific pipeline for 7-10 yrs.

  6. I share Quagmire's impression that things won't change...anytime soon, at least. But, it is useful to look at these areas to see what improvements should be made; perhaps we can chip away at the problems.

    Also, I'd like to see people and organizations "run experiments" in terms of jobs. For instance, what would happen if one good school eliminated tenure? What about starting a small industrial postdoc program just to see what happens?

  7. @Kay
    Thanks for the kind words. I share your sentiments about the lack of blog readership in the chemistry community. Unfortunately this is reflected in the fact that there aren't many pop-sci blogs on chemistry for the general public. I can think of a lot covering biology, evolution, astrophysics, etc. But there really is not much of a readership for chemistry. This is not a good sign.

    Really enjoyed the back and forths this week. I really appreciate your contributions. Through the week we heard a lot of: we need to get rid of government meddling or we shouldn't be supporting big pharma right now. Obviously, this reflects the general national sentiment right now. Unfortunately, there will always be some government intervention (raising taxes-lowering taxes, building incentives removing incentives - all are government intervention). And right now, we need someone to push the employment prospects. So its a game of chicken b/t govt and industry. We all want industry to go first. It's better for everyone when that happens. But, they're not going to flinch. The federal govt is more directly affected by people being out of work. So the feel that they HAVE to do something. I think that what all of us were trying to do here (especially in my funding post) is figure out how to rejigger the system to work better based on our needs. This doesn't necessarily have to do with adding more funding or having the government pick winners (which I think is a bad idea), it just has to do with a reorganization of what we've got. The government HAS to be a part of it. Big industry HAS to be a part of it. Small companies HAVE to be a part of it. And, as chemists, we had better be the ones setting the agenda.

  8. @Quagmire: Thanks for the kind words. I think the idea of a Ronbun is pretty cool; one imagines that it would only take one large company to decide "hey, we can do this" to get it started.

    (You could imagine Google tackling something out of the box like that.)

    Also, the situation will change when one of the factions with power finds themselves with the figurative gun to their head. Then stuff will move.

  9. What's needed is a closer relationship between academia and the industries that use the basic science to develop commercial products. Today there is a disconnection and both are suffering. Industry needs basic science to drive innovation but can't invest in the long basic science timelines. Academia needs funding but can't raise capital (hence academia's reliance on public tax money). The problem this creates it that academia ignores the needs of industry and everyone suffers because the industruial innovation pipeline runs empty. Industry needs a much bigger say in determining academic funding to fix the problem.

  10. @genghis
    That's part of it. But academia needs to be able to create on their own terms as well. You need both. You need some sort of balance. Right now I agree with you that it skews too far toward the academic. How do you support the creation of salable technologies in academia? I tried to talk about that a little in my post on Thursday.

  11. Matt,

    If I had money to invest, I'd never allow chemists set the agenda. For the past 20 years institutions have been letting chemists set the agenda of funding processes, why would they continue?.

    Strategic goals need to be set by the funders, not by employees/contractors. If people are visionaries, they're unlikely to have chosen to remain chemists.

    Companies in the early 20th century told their research departments what the problems were, and asked them for viable solutions, typically over 5 - 10 year periods for major problems eg safer refrigerants, polymers, pesticides, transport fuels, etc.

    In that environment, companies that delivered competitive solutions to the market thrived, their competitors withered. Successful researchers then received funds to address the next problem, perhaps even employing staff from failed competitors.

    As I noted in one of the comments threads, some current major chemical problems are obvious, and viable solutions are likely to require multi-faceted consortia, perhaps even global groups.

    In many cases, the problems are so complex that bespoke research consortia may improve success rates.

    Funders should take responsibility for defining problems and, with appropriate performance monitoring and realignment of goals, award contracts to research providers that have the resources and commitment to deliver viable solutions in an agreed timeline.

  12. Nobody mentioned professional researcher positions at university with a possibility of a long term contract / tenure and a reasonable salary. That would drastically cut down on the number of graduate students and postdocs and take some power away from the professors. They latter would have to deal with ambitious people who have job security and are capable researchers who can train students as well. Overall, research in publically funded universities would only gain from this arrangement, but since it's going to take a big stick beating professors over the head repeatedly for a long time for them to give up any small amount of their power, I don't see it happening.

  13. @Uncle: That's Benderly's solution for sopping up postdocs. It's not a terrible one, but it's hard to say what kind of incentive structure would be appropriate.

  14. @Bruce
    I understand your prejudice here.

    But, at the moment, good ideas have to come from somewhere. I think as a profession (and you hit this nail on the head) we CANNOT be navel-gazers. That's been a big problem with a lot of university science. And, it has to stop.

  15. @Matt

    I say my Real Job Model and your govt ideas can still coexist fairly well actually. My idea is trying to prevent the gluts that put the price of labor below the costs (loans and opportunity costs) they have incurred. You can fiddle with where the money is allocated while the labor supply is allowed to naturally fill the size of the market (Public and Private Sectors). I really am just trying to limit mindless production of scientists we currently have.

    The only downside is for the academic PI's. They will have to deal with the fact they can't issue as many PhDs and will have to live with a far more volatile labor force that can give their two weeks notice to go to another position. But it seems with Tenure, the PI's could adjust.

  16. Quagmire - the PI's will have to deal with not just a labor force that can give them 2 weeks notice, but a labor force that will probably punch them in the face if they dish out the same kind of abuse they routinely give grad students!

    That said, I think replacing grad students with professional staff scientists would be the best way to both reduce the glut of unemployed PhD's while continuing to get basic research done, and would have the side benefit of forcing PI's to treat people with more respect. The remaining grad students would benefit too - groups made up primarily of people with industry experience would be less likely to tolerate abusive bosses.

  17. @anonymous

    If it is true that abusive behavior still exists in the labs and is tolerated by any university administration - that says volumes about how badly antiquated the current system is.

  18. IF! it is true that abusive behavior still exists!! My, my, my....that is sweet. My mind is blown. PI's do what they want without regard to anything. That has ALWAYS been the case. To keep revisiting this as questionable is crazy. Let us all accept this as fact and move on. Not all do it, but enough do it for this behavior to be stopped.


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