Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why choose a Ph.D. in chemistry? A response to @DocFreeride

A while back, Janet Stemwedel wrote a long, detailed response to my comment on Jon Bardin's commentary (got that?) on the angst of senior science graduate students looking for jobs.

I'll paraphrase some of her main points here:
  • Like Jon Bardin suggests, getting a PhD in the sciences is about more than money. 
  • Chemistry graduate students aren't special in facing difficult job prospects -- philosophy students have always faced this!
  • Chemistry graduate students, for some reason, have never calculated their job prospects accurately. Perhaps it's that they don't care (they're young, dumb, and full of confidence!) or perhaps (purposely?) they are misinformed.
  • Attempting to lower supply of PhD chemists might be unwise and may result in cutting off options for young people who love chemistry. 
As you can tell from the time that has passed, I've wrestled with Dr. Stemwedel's essay quite a bit over these last weeks. I hesitate to say that the essay has persuaded me, but it has got me thinking about these issues more. Some direct responses to my reading of her points:

The knowledge problem: I agree that chemistry undergraduates and graduate students don't know and possibly don't care about their job prospects. For those that do, there's the ACS Salary Survey/ChemCensus, the ACS Starting Salary Survey, their advisers, their fellow students and postdocs, the rumor mill (and this blog.) I don't think (and apparently, neither does she) that they're purposely misinformed. I think it's more likely that professors just don't have the incentives set up to keep track of all of this information: career prospects, hot fields or the overall state of the #chemjobs market. (What's worse is that I'm not sure anyone knows the current state of the chemistry jobs market. I try my hardest to measure where I can, but I do this as a hobby, not a day job. The American Chemical Society has decided to put its effort into 3 or 4 measurements, spread out through the year. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does its thing once a year. That's pretty much the extent of what's out there.)

The casino problem: The metaphor that she uses for a portion of the essay is a casino:
How exactly are chemistry graduate students presumed to be different here [than philosophy graduate students]? Maybe they are placing their bets at a table with higher payoffs, and where the game is more likely to pay off in the first place. But this is still not a situation in which one should expect that everyone is always going to win. Sometimes the house will win instead. 
(Who’s the house in this metaphor? Is it the PIs who depend on cheap grad-student labor? Universities with hordes of pre-meds who need chemistry TAs and lab instructors? The public that gets a screaming deal on knowledge production when you break it down in terms of price per publishable unit? A public that includes somewhat more members with a clearer idea of how scientific knowledge is built? Specifying the identity of the house is left as an exercise for the reader.) 
Maybe the relevant difference between taking a gamble on a philosophy Ph.D. and taking a gamble on a chemistry Ph.D. is that the players in the latter have, purposely or accidentally, not been given accurate information about the odds of the game.
I think the casino metaphor is useful, but incomplete. It is my understanding that philosophy graduate students pay for their own tuition, teach classes/get a fellowship to get a stipend and generally need to more or less fend for themselves (with student loans making up the difference.)* In the case of chemistry graduate students, tuition is very rarely paid by graduate students (as opposed to their departments/advisers) and teaching classes is seen as a temporary problem until their professors support them. (In fact, many departments severely frown on students taking outside odd jobs to gain more money.) While finding prestigious postdocs (and NIH/NSF postdoctoral fellowships) are difficult, it is always possible to find a postdoc somewhere. Federal or state funding, of course, pays for all of this.

Not only are philosophy students playing a different game in the casino, they're also being charged admission to the house. They probably see the bills upfront and regularly. On the other hand, it's probably only a mild exaggeration to say that workers in academic chemistry are not charged admission and are plied with free drinks and food while they sit (and toil!) at the tables . In short, the costs (opportunity and otherwise) may be more obscure for chemistry graduate students than those in philosophy.

*UPDATE: Dr. Stemwedel points out that philosophy students are funded fairly similarly to chemistry graduate students: "Ph.D. students in philosophy don't pay their own tuition, either. It's pretty much just the same deal as Ph.D. programs in chemistry, except the TAing probably involves less contact with pre-meds, and the number of years of guaranteed support is usually lower (4-5 years), which means that if you go beyond that (which many do), you need to find a job, or a stop-gap grant, or take out loans."

What's it all about? Her concluding paragraph:
"[T]he whole discussion suggests to me that the very best reason to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry is because you want to learn what it is like to build new knowledge in chemistry, in an academic setting. Since being plugged into a particular kind of career (or even job) on the other end is a crap-shoot, if you don’t want to learn about this knowledge-building process — and want it enough to put up with long hours, crummy pay, unrewarding piles of grading, and the like — then possibly a Ph.D. program is not the best way to spend 5+ years of your life."
I don't know how to choose a career (or a career path), but when I think about the different motivations that might enter the decision, I think of the diagram above. I don't know where I came up with this Venn diagram, but it's been in my head (Kekule-like) since I've been reading responses to my Bardin post. Maybe you would come up with a different Venn diagram with different factors, but those are the ones that come to mind. It's fairly self-explanatory, with factors like love (the sheer joy of chemistry), status (e.g. that we are thought well of by our friends and family for having an advanced degree, that I am proud to be a manufacturing chemist) and money (i.e. for the most part, our jobs pay an above-median wage) lend themselves to thinking that a Ph.D. in chemistry might be a good deal. I feel each one of these factors deeply.

This blog (and all of the #chemjobs talk that I do) is basically worrying about the fact that love and status will not make up for the changing economy and how it affects money. To me, Dr. Stemwedel's post says "Forget about money -- will love and status will be enough for you?"

For me, that answer (most days) is "Yes, for now." And for you?


  1. I think Greenspun still offers the best advice when it comes to choosing a good job/career (for a person of above average intelligence):

    "A good career is one that pays well, in which you have a broad choice of full-time and part-time jobs, in which there is some sort of barrier to entry so that you won't have to compete with a lot of other applicants, in which there are good jobs in every part of the country and internationally, and in which you can enjoy job security in middle age and not be driven out by young people willing to work 100 hours per week."


    Science (especially industrial science) basically matches none of these criteria, yet careers in science are still advertised as practical careers that can fit well around most people's lives. A person of above average intelligence in the U.S. is just not getting much intellectually, materially or socially from a career in science compared to their other options.

    If the science field does not make some big changes, not only will future graduates face a worse job market, the graduates will no longer consist of America's best and brightest, since they will have moved on to fields that adequately reward their abilities and effort. I already hear the higher ups complaining today's grads just are not what they used to be...neither are the rewards.

  2. I'm not going to bother with the original (is it behind a paywall btw?) but from you description it looks like good Dr. S. takes a pro-life approach of life beginning at conception complete with an utter disregard for well-being of newborn. She is, of course, correct that getting a PhD in the sciences is about more than money - it is about the science. Not the love for science, or bettering yourself through science, or anything else of the sort. It is about science-science, the progress, the discoveries that advance the humanity, and I simply don't see how science benefits from the number of PhD programs we have. In fact I submit that if all PhD programs ranked below 20, and yes, I know that USN&WR rivals ACS when it comes to quality of their stuff, anyway, I submit that if all PhD programs ranked below 20 were terminated today, it would not significantly lessen the quality of scientific results. It would take a few years for things to rearrange but if we were left with 20-25 programs the quality of scientific results would not decrease. I even think that the more or less exact number could be quantified: # students published in top 5 journals/avg # of student authors/avg manuscript productivity.
    Worse yet, we would still make more Ph.D. than we need. Look at the numbers, - Massachusetts, Illinois, California - each of this states could take care of nation's needs single-handedly at their present rates. Progress would just roll along happily. What would be threatened though is current model of chemistry education, where universities save money by dumping grunt work on grad students. I should probably correct myself - they think they save money. Last time I talked to my old boss he said that a grad student there costs 90+k a year. For that kind of money you can get two permanent lab supervisors, or a lecturer and a lab tech, who would do a much better job running those orgo labs for pre-meds.

    PS. I forgot, there's one more entity that would face bleak future in the new system - Elsevier.

    1. I think the welfare of graduated Ph.D.s is quite important. However, I think they maybe have a better shot at evaluating how their educational plans will affect their life prospects (and whether they want to be risk-seeking or risk averse), and then owning those decisions because they are basically adults.

      (In other words, I don't buy that an undergraduate is like a zygote in the relevant respects.)

      I do think that people who might choose a Ph.D. program should be given all the relevant information about the job market, the rigors of getting through the grad program, etc., up front, rather than having these useful facts hidden from them.

      I also think, more broadly, that we could all benefit from a job landscape where people could use their skills to make a living wage and still maintain something like a "life" (family, free-time, some choice about their geographical region).

      And, as important as the generation of a reliable body of scientific knowledge is, I suspect that this project probably goes better when conducted by scientists not wracked with angst about the horrors of the job market, or of the jobs they may have managed to secure.

  3. It's really a dynamic Venn diagram with a shrinking "Money" circle. The overlap with the other two domains is becoming smaller and smaller. Perhaps one day it won't overlap with the other two at all, which is what I imagine philosophy's three-domain Venn diagram looks like.

  4. A quick correction to one of your assumptions: Ph.D. students in philosophy don't pay their own tuition, either. It's pretty much just the same deal as Ph.D. programs in chemistry, except the TAing probably involves less contact with pre-meds, and the number of years of guaranteed support is usually lower (4-5 years), which means that if you go beyond that (which many do), you need to find a job, or a stop-gap grant, or take out loans.

    (Another difference is that the support is tied to your program, rather than your advisor's research grants, because the nature of research in philosophy is so different -- at least in terms of required apparatus -- than in chemistry.)

  5. The issue that makes chemistry different from, say, philosophy is that it's impossible to just "love" it without having access to the infrastructure required to pursue knowledge in chemistry. If you are not working in an actual chemistry lab, you have no access to journal subscriptions, chemicals and instruments required to do your experiments, etc. How would one pursue their love for chemistry as a hobby? Perhaps having a home lab? I think that's something that really makes lab-based science careers distinct from other disciplines of study.

    1. Yes, chemistry is not philosophy since you're taught a practical skill of how to work with chemicals. Philosophy is easier to do an 'alternative career' in, in that sense. Chemistry is a professional craft degree where you learn something new and how to work with your hands. If you're being taught how to work with your hands, normal people would expect some sort of industry for all that at the end of the day where you actually use what you learn, like a research job in a company. If I wanted an alternative career to start off with, I would go into Philosophy since that is way more flexible if you're going to end up as manager/paper pusher.

  6. Other reasons universities may want to really start thinking about changing their ways:

    "It’s just a matter o time until we see the same meltdown in traditional college education. Like the real estate industry, prices will rise until the market revolts. Then it will be too late. STudents will stop taking out the loans traditional Universities expect them to. And when they do tuition will come down. And when prices come down Universities will have to cut costs beyond what they are able to. They will have so many legacy costs, from tenured professors to construction projects to research they will be saddled with legacy costs and debt in much the same way the newspaper industry was. Which will all lead to a de-levering and a de-stabilization of the University system as we know it."



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