Friday, September 28, 2012

Podcast: Chemjobber and Daniel Lametti

Daniel Lametti is a graduate student at McGill University and a writer for Slate Magazine. He wrote an interesting piece on science PhDs and how they do. As folks may remember, I took aim at the post and critiqued it. Dan and I decided to talk over Skype about our different views on the topic. The results (lightly edited for clarity and audio) are below:

Once again, my apologies for the audio and the lack of prettiness. Also, I apologize for the background noise, including my ice machine.

If you're looking for two people yelling at each other (or me yelling at Dan, and Dan giving up, Perry Mason-style), don't bother. If you're looking for two scientists talking about their differences rationally and holding their own, feel free to give it a listen. (For what it's worth, I think I could have represented "my side" better, but I don't think I acquiesced too much.)

Selected highlights:

0:00: Introduction of CJ and Daniel and the topic
4:00: Daniel and I talk alternative careers! transferable skills!
8:00: CJ argues that your late 20s are special, and people may not realize how much of a chunk of your youth graduate school will take
13:00: Daniel argues that graduate school is really fun and that should be taken into account.
16:00: Daniel talks about the varying reactions to his piece.
17:38: CJ and Daniel talk about older chemists and how they're hurting.
20:00: CJ asks Daniel, "Would you recommend the Vastag piece?" Daniel says "No."
22:00: Daniel argues for the importance of a good Ph.D. adviser.
25:00: CJ and Daniel talk about whether it makes sense that biologists and chemists become business consultants.
28:00: CJ talks about how chemistry is special, especially with respect to the working world.
30:00: CJ and Daniel talk about whether policy should be changed to discourage Ph.D.s.
36:00: CJ and Daniel agree on how student debt is undesirable.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Some needed levity

NFL context here, hexacyclinol context here.

(Readers, I'm sure you can do better than me. Try it here.

Glenn Ruskin clarifies his statement

This morning, I send the following e-mail to Glenn Ruskin, director of the ACS Office of Public Affairs:
Dear Mr. Ruskin: 
I saw your recent comments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I am writing to express my disappointment with your statement about blogs and other forms of electronic communication. I have also written on it in my blog, Chemjobber.  
I sincerely hope that you were somehow misquoted. If not, I hope that I can convince you that your generalizations about the incivility of blogs were incorrect.  
Best wishes,  
P.S. I am an ACS member; if so desired, I can prove it. 
This afternoon, I received this reply:
Dear Chemjobber:

Good afternoon, and thank you for reaching out to me on this matter.

It was not my intention, nor the intention of ACS, to denigrate blogs or users/contributors of blogs.   My comment was directed toward the blog that was the subject of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) story.  Unfortunately, CHE did not use the totality of my comment as I think it would have been clear that I was speaking specifically to the blog that was the point of the story.  Here is the totality of my statement (bolded section was omitted by CHE):

"We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance and common courtesy are not practiced and observed.  As a matter of practice, ACS finds that direct engagement via telephone or face-to-face with individuals expressing concern over pricing or other related matters is the most productive means to finding common ground and resolution. Therefore, we will not be offering any response  to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued."

I respect and appreciate responsible bloggers, those that thoughtfully engage on those blogs as well as those that utilize listservs.  No insult was intended, and apologies to those that interpreted the comment that way.  These outlets provide important avenues to further dialogue and collaboration and are valuable assets in the ever evolving digital age.

The individual responsible for the above cited blog certainly has the right to her opinion, but that does not excuse rude behavior or her use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing ACS or its employees. While not evident in the most recent postings, I won’t repeat what she has posted in the past.  But I think you would agree that vulgarity and profanity postings do not lead themselves to meaningful, productive and civil discourse, thus our decision not to engage any further with her on this topic.

I hope that helps clarify this matter and I thank you for reaching out to me to share your concern.

I find this to be an interesting response (and assertion!), but there we have it.

This statement will be retracted, right?

From a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Jennifer Howard on the recent SUNY-Potsdam-stops-ACS-subscriptions kerfluffle comes a rather hot quote:
A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said that the group would not offer a response to Ms. Rogers's blog post or the conversation that's sprung up around it. "We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance, and common courtesy are not practiced and observed," Glenn S. Ruskin, the group's director of public affairs, said in an e-mail message. "As a matter of practice, ACS finds that direct engagement via telephone or face-to-face with individuals expressing concern over pricing or other related matters is the most productive means to finding common ground and resolution."
There are two statements here, one of which is reasonable, in my opinion. The latter statement is basically "we don't negotiate on price very much, and we certainly do not negotiate on price through the press." Leaving aside ACS' pricing structure (a big thing to leave aside), that's a predictable "no comment."

As for the former statement, it's silly on its face. It seems to me that the most prominent communicators of chemistry are all communicating through blogs. It is no mistake that ACS' Division of Chemical Health and Safety runs a useful and quite civil listserv, and has been doing so for years.

I think that Mr. Ruskin generalized broadly and wrongly; I trust that he will clarify or retract* this statement soon.

UPDATE: The statement has been clarified.

*"or retract" added later. 

Process Wednesday: Continuous flow microwave chemistry?

Credit: Morschhäuser et al., Green Process Synth.
From this week's C&EN, a look at microwave chemistry from Stephen Ritter; the article ends with an industrial-scale appplication:
For example, Kappe has been engaged in determining how to translate the benefits of the high temperature and pressure of batch microwave reactions to microwave-assisted continuous flow. 
In collaboration with scientists at specialty chemical firm Clariant, Kappe recently used his model benzimidazole synthesis and carried out what he believes is the first reported description of microwave-assisted continuous-flow chemistry at the production scale (Green Process Synth., DOI: 10.1515/gps-2012-0032). The researchers used a flow reactor capable of operating at up to 310 °C and 60 atm pressure and at flow rates as high as 20 L per hour, which works out to about 1,000 metric tons per year. The reactants need to spend only about 30 seconds in the microwave-irradiated zone for the reaction to be complete. 
“For many researchers in the lab, microwaves have become the first choice and not a last resort,” Kappe says. “Now, in moving to microwave flow chemistry, we may be seeing a new game-changer in sustainable process chemistry.” 
Looks interesting to me. Obviously, capital costs and maintenance would be an issue, as well as the broad applicability of the specific setup.

[The concerns about safety and microwave leakage become really real -- does anyone remember the "Microwave Oven in Use" signs from the early 80's?]

[You can click through to the actual Green Process Synthesis article and download the PDF, stunningly.]

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Want to be a professor of organic chemistry? (2012 edition)

The 2012 back-to-school edition of Chemical and Engineering News was almost two weeks ago, but I wanted to do my traditional listing of openings in the print edition for assistant professors of organic chemistry. I included all ads that had the word "organic" or "bioorganic", but none of the ones that said "any field." (Medicinal/drug discovery professorships were not included.) I've put an asterisk next to the universities that were looking for professors of organic chemistry last year.

Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS*
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
California Lutheran University, Thousands Oaks, CA
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
College of Charleston, Charleston, SC
DePaul University, Chicago, IL
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA*
Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
University of Mary Washington, Fredricksburg (Fredricksburg! Fredricksburg!), VA
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY*
University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Berry College, Mount Berry, GA
Utah State University, Logan, UT
University of Houston, Houston, TX

12 slots of professors at PhD-granting universities among 19 advertised slots overall. Best wishes to all applying. 

Daily Pump Trap: 9/25/12 edition

Good morning! Between September 20 and September 24, there were 69 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 19 (30%) are academically connected and 42 (69%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Slim pickins': Not really very many non-academic, non-Kelly positions today. Sigh.

Sunnyvale, CA: Pharmacyclics is looking for an analytical chemist for routine (and non-routine) QC work; 0-2 years for a Ph.D., 10+ years for B.S./M.S. holders.

Cambridge, MA: Vertex is looking for even more people on the development side of the house; 4 more positions, including a temp analytical associate (B.S./M.S., 1+ year experience.)

Richmond, VA: Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories is looking for a postdoctoral fellow to do near-IR spectroscopy to do, among other things, tobacco analyses. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 9/25/12 edition

Good morning! Between September 18 and September 24, there were 31 new academic positions posted on the ACS Careers database. The numbers:

Total number of ads: 31
- Postdocs: 4
- Tenure-track faculty:  23
- Temporary faculty: 1
- Lecturer positions:  0
- Staff positions:  3
- Ratio of US/international positions: 29 / 2

Charlottesville, VA: The University of Virginia desires an assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Go Boilermakers!*: Purdue University also is looking for an assistant professor of organic chemistry.

*I'm not a Purdue fan, really, but I love a unique team name.

Fresno, CA: California State Fresno is looking for a professor of wine chemistry, specifically "wine grape chemistry." Sounds interesting.

Durham, NH: The University of New Hampshire is looking for a director of its instrumentation core.

Kings Point, NY: The US Merchant Marine Academy desires an instructor/assistant professor of chemistry, M.S. desired.

Millersville, PA: Millerville University's department of chemistry (ACS approved!) is looking for an assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Monday, September 24, 2012

2012 ACS Salary Survey: slightly lower unemployment, salaries not keeping pace w/inflation

Credit: 2012 ACS Salary Survey
The full data from the ACS Salary Survey is out, reflecting some of what we learned earlier. From an article in this week's C&EN from Sophie Rovner:

The important details:

Unemployment is down slightly: The unemployed number ticked down slightly from 4.6% to 4.2% (which is still the 2nd highest in the last twenty years.) The number of ACS members who are postdocs are still relatively high at 2.6%. Overall the "U6-like" number (part-time + postdoc + unemployed/seeking employment) is still in the double digits, which in my opinion, has been a signifier of the relatively difficult times that chemists have been facing over the last few years.

Salaries are not really keeping pace with inflation: From the article, an interesting set of facts about inflation-adjusted salaries:
The survey revealed that the median salary for chemists who were employed full-time—and who had not changed jobs over the prior year—fell 2.1% in 2012 to $92,000. That decline hit those with a Ph.D. hardest. This group saw a 2.0% drop in median salary to $100,000. Chemists with a master’s degree saw no change in salary from March 2011 to March 2012, while those with a bachelor’s degree experienced an increase of 1.9% to $74,200.... 
Credit: 2012 ACS Salary Survey
For all chemists who were employed full-time—whether they had changed jobs in the prior year or not—the survey showed that the median salary slipped 1.1% from 2011 to $92,000 in 2012. Chemists with a bachelor’s degree saw their median salary rise 2.6% to $73,900. Those with a master’s degree held steady at $85,000, and those with a Ph.D. saw a decline of 1.4% to $100,600. 
Compared with a decade ago, the median salary for bachelor’s chemists has risen an average of 2.5% per year. The median salary for chemists with a master’s degree has grown an average 2.2% per year and that for chemists with a Ph.D. has increased an average of 1.7% annually. These findings are in current dollars, and therefore don’t account for inflation. The sobering truth is that the average annual change in median salaries over the past 10 years in constant dollars—a calculation that eliminates the effect of inflation—is 0.2% for chemists with a bachelor’s degree, –0.1% for a master’s, and –0.6% for a doctorate. Overall, the median salary for all chemists has risen an average of 1.9% per year in current dollars, but shrunk 0.4% per year in constant dollars. (emphasis mine)
Interesting unemployment tidbits: From the article, a set of interesting questions that have not been typically publicized:
The survey turned up some other results that are both intriguing and disturbing. For instance, the percent of ACS member chemists who were unemployed at some point in 2011 was 8.2%, down slightly from 8.4% in 2010. This number has historically been about twice the March 1 unemployment number, ACS’s Edwards notes.  
This year’s survey also includes for the first time questions related to issues of underemployment and staffing. A little more than 12% of ACS member chemists reported that they had accepted a position or compensation package over the prior three years that was less than their previous position in order to maintain employment. 
Unemployment rates remained significantly higher for ACS chemists previously employed in industry (5.4%) than for those from academia (2.2%), according to Edwards. 
Nearly two-thirds of ACS chemists reported that their department or business unit was either significantly or somewhat understaffed. Just over 30% of respondents expected their department or company to increase staff over the next year, and 59% believed staffing levels would remain the same; the other 11% expected staffing reductions.
CJ is bothered by:
  • So this is the data for the 2012 ACS Salary Survey, the one that showed a drop from the all time high of 4.6% member unemployment measured in March 2011. Where is the data for the 2011 ACS Salary Survey?
  • We have been told that the ACS Salary Survey measures unemployment at a specific point during a year (March, typically.) In the article, it is noted that they have numbers for "unemployment during some point in the year" for as far back as 2010 -- why haven't these numbers been released contemporarily? 
  • Where is the traditional "Employment Status of ACS Members" table (scroll down for the 2010 version), with its breakdown of member unemployment? What happened to it? 
More to come as I have time to mull over the numbers.

The Eka-Silicon caveat: I almost forgot! The ACS Salary Survey and the ChemCensus have both had relatively low response rates from members, which limits the extrapolatability of the data.   The response rate for the 2012 ACS Salary Survey was 35%, which is much lower than the 80% that professional survey types like to see. A discussion of this can be found here. At the same time, ACS unemployment numbers for their members more-or-less track the BLS survey data for chemists (see linked graph). 

The other side of the temp story

From this week's C&EN, a letter to the editors:
After working several temp-to-hire jobs, I saw the article “Temps Wanted,” which asserts that staffing companies are beneficial to industry and new graduates (C&EN, Dec. 12, 2011, page 41). My experience, however, has been contrary. 
When I applied directly to a company, I was handed over to a hiring agency to cover the background check and drug testing, but the agency never checked up on me. In addition, when I was ill, I had no paid sick leave and barely made enough to cover living expenses. A few days before my contract expired, I was laid off with no notice and had been misled three weeks prior that the company would be happy to hire me. The temp agency had no backup jobs available, nor did it have anything months later when I followed up with them. 
From what I’ve heard, agencies make 15–35% on your salary (meaning their client could hire you permanently for at least your current pay rate). In addition, some agencies require the client to “buy” the contractor for a headhunter fee of $5,000–$20,000 to convert the contractor to an employee. Europe has laws requiring contractors to be treated as regular employees after four months, with equal benefits and commensurate pay. 
ACS needs to reconsider temp agencies and to advocate for its members. Moving every three to 12 months when a contract expires, as well as not being treated equally with coworkers, is mentally and financially exhausting. 
By Emily Bloom
San Lorenzo, Calif.
This is a part of the temp-to-hire story that doesn't get told enough. (I confess it's one of the reasons that I do not cover the Kelly Scientific jobs in the ACS Careers database in the same manner as typical positions.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

From the inbox: Associate Scientist, Chemistry

Ensemble Therapeutics is a drug discovery startup in Cambridge, MA. They're looking for a B.S./M.S. chemist with 2-3 years of industry experience and knowledge of bioconjugation chemistry:
Reporting to the Director of DPC Technologies, this position requires a talented chemist with a sound knowledge of organic chemistry including thorough experience with modern methods for purification and characterization of organic and bioconjugated molecules. Prior experience in preparation and purification of oligonucleotides and/or peptides would be highly advantageous.
Best wishes for those who are looking!

When a chemist is too productive

Courtesy of Boston-area news tweep and chemist Brian D'Amico, I was alerted to the story of the shutdown of the Massachusetts state drug testing laboratory in August due to irregularities. But another tweet from @FreeRadical1 noted the political fallout from it, with respect to Governor Deval Patrick:
“We’re dealing with, by all ­accounts, a rogue chemist who for many years, going back to 2003 or 2004, has not done her job, and that’s gone undetected for a long time,” Patrick said. “I know there are those who want to say this has to do with the budget challenges of the last two years, but that’s just not borne out by the evidence.”
I gotta say, a "rogue chemist" being blamed for troubles is pretty funny. Of course, the rogue chemist in mind, Ms. Annie Khan (or Dookhan) has gotten the Masschusetts criminal justice system in a good bit of trouble:
In a letter sent to members of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, association president Max D. Stern said his group, along with federal and state public defenders, were given more details on the extent of the scandal involving the former state chemist. 
During the meeting, Stern wrote, the defense bar was given some insight into why the State Police have notified prosecutors that 64,000 drug samples — representing 34,000 criminal cases — may now be tainted as a matter of law and as a matter of science. 
“The lab analyst in question had unsupervised access to the drug safe and evidence room, and tampered with evidence bags, altered the actual weight of the drugs, did not calibrate machines correctly, and altered samples so that they would test as drugs when they were not,’’ Stern wrote in the letter.
What I found most remarkable about Ms. Khan/Dookhan's troubles is how they had not been caught:
On Thursday, top Patrick administration officials said that lab director Dr. Linda L. Han had resigned and director of analytical chemistry Julie ­Nassif had been fired. Disciplinary proceedings are now also underway against Dookhan’s direct super­visor, the officials said.
Administration officials said Dookhan’s supervisors missed obvious signs of problems. 
In 2004, for example, Dookhan processed 9,239 samples while her peers tested an average of 2,938 samples. (emphasis mine)
When someone at an analytical laboratory is 3 times as productive as their colleagues, people should be concerned about both quality and pencil-whipping. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

That's an uncomfortable set of facts...

From an interesting article in Bloomberg Businessweek on student loans and the cost of college:
So maybe the real problem is that credentialism has trumped learning. That drives people to get degrees simply to displace others who don’t have degrees, says Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He notes that the U.S. has more than 100,000 janitors with college degrees and 16,000 degree-holding parking lot attendants. (emphasis mine)
Political scientist Charles Murray would get rid of the bachelor’s degree altogether. In an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate last October in Chicago, he said education is or at least ought to be a lifelong process for everyone, diploma holders or not. “We are all engaged in the same process,” Murray argued. “We are not divided into professionals and service workers or blue-collar workers. We all start out as apprentices. We become journeymen, and we all strive to become master craftsmen.”
Yikes. No one likes credentialism; perhaps the problem is the cost of higher education? Dunno.

Daily Pump Trap: 9/20/12 edition

Good morning! Between September 18 and September 19, there are 30 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 14 (47%) were academically connected and 12 (40%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Hankamer, TX: A mysterious company is looking for a B.S. chemist to be a QA/QC person. I'm terribly curious as to what plant this is -- it doesn't really show up on Google Maps (not after a cursory glance, anyway.)

Alexandria, VA: The Institute for Defense Analyses runs federally-funded R&D centers towards defense-related issues. They're looking for M.S./Ph.D. physical scientists -- sounds interesting, if you're looking for that sort of thing.

Who are these folks?: routinely advertises a ink formulation chemist position in Colorado Springs, CO. Who are these folks (they don't tell you.)

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed, and show (respectively) 234, 795, 2,741 and 8 positions for the search term "chemist."  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Open thread?

This is just to say...

I have had an
busy morning

and you were
Process Wednesday
and a funny post
or an angry post

Forgive me
Excuses are stinky
Just like the walk-in hood I helped clean up. 

(Seriously, I'm like 4 posts behind. Back ASAP, possibly tomorrow, definitely tomorrow morning.) 

If you have any suggestions for posts that I should do (or things that I have been doing poorly recently), please put them in the comments. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ivory Filter Flask: 9/18/12 edition

Good morning! Between September 11 and September 17, there were 49 academic positions posted on the ACS Careers website. The numbers:

Total number of ads: 49
- Postdocs: 2
- Tenure-track faculty:  44
- Temporary faculty: 0
- Lecturer positions:  1
- Staff positions:  2
- Ratio of US/international positions: 46 / 3

Look at that number!: There are 44 faculty positions available this week!

Stevens Point, WI: The University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point is hiring 3 assistant professors -- organic, physical and biochemistry.

Providence, RI: Brown University would like to hire an assistant professor in nanoscience/chemistry. I think it will be interesting to see how these sorts of positions end up doing over time.

Los Angeles, CA: UCLA wishes to hire a professor of inorganic chemistry (all sub-fields) at any level.

The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Norman: The University of Oklahoma wants to hire an assistant professor of natural products drug development.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Are chemists to blame in the Lauterbur/Damadian dispute?

Also in this week's C&EN, I was reading Jovana J. Grbić's review of Morton Meyer's book "Prize Fight" (about the difficulties surrounding credit for significant scientific discoveries) and was surprised to read this section:
In his other case study, Meyers reviews the awarding of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to chemist Paul Lauterbur and physicist Peter Mansfield for their discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The careful wording of the prize reflects the fact that Lauterbur and Mansfield did not come up with the original idea of applying nuclear magnetic resonance to medical imaging. That distinction is held by physician Raymond Damadian, who realized there was a lag in T1 and T2 relaxation times between the electrons of normal and malignant tissues in rats and published a seminal 1971 paper laying out a case for NMR use in organ imaging (Science,DOI: 10.1126/science.171.3976.1151). 
Lauterbur, building on Damadian’s ideas, realized that you could use NMR to produce images by mapping the location of hydrogen nuclei in the body. The machine that he built, which pioneered the capture of magnetic gradients at different angles and NMR signals at each specific orientation, was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2011 by the American Chemical Society. Lauterbur also coauthored a Nature brief that has been called one of the most influential publications of the 21st century (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/242190a0). Nevertheless, Damadian had still beaten Lauterbur both in originating the idea of MRI as well as in building a prototype machine that produced images. 
Meyers contends that Damadian’s story is indicative of multiple manifestations of ingrained bias within the scientific community. Damadian is a medical doctor, whose pioneering ideas about chemistry and physics simply weren’t taken seriously by Ph.D. chemists. What’s more, Meyers writes, Damadian has a difficult personality, and he often rubbed his peers and colleagues the wrong way. 
Meyers uses the Damadian case to criticize the peer-reviewed funding of science in the U.S. He contends that the process is rife with cronyism and conflicts of interest. Colleagues siding with Lauterbur, Meyers writes, gave him advance notice to submit an NIH grant application for an MRI prototype. The application then received fast-track funding—before Damadian’s grant was ever evaluated.
I confess, my first knowledge of the Damadian/Lauterbur fight was Dr. Damadian's bizarre ads in the New York Times. After talking with some knowledgeable (albeit biased) chemists, I was left with the impression that Professor Lauterbur had made more of the key discoveries towards MRI. But Dr. Damadian (and now Meyers) has always laid this out as a fight between chemists and doctors, and well, all the people I know are chemists.

Does anyone have any insight on this issue? I'd love to hear the real story.

Letter: "... the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual."

From this week's C&EN, a letter that encapsulates a common opinion among chemists about the #SheriSangji case:
I am offended by a system that believes that prosecuting a chemistry professor for the accidental death of a student will somehow change the inherent danger a modern research lab presents (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34). Although it is unfortunate that a chemical accident claimed the life of anyone, the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual. 
As a graduate student in the 1990s, I was on the safety committee for three years and lectured to first-year graduate students in a short course on chemical safety. Our overzealous safety labeling and material safety data sheets tend to add more noise to the signal, often obscuring the true dangers. The label on a bottle of sand from Sigma-Aldrich will cause you to avoid the beach for good. 
For this reason, I focused on chemicals that will kill you if mishandled. Butyllithium and most other pyrophoric liquids fall into this category. These special chemicals can be used safely but demand respect and practice. Fifty microliters of butyllithium squirted into an empty fume hood will create an impressive fireball that should make the user think more than twice about proper handling. The larger syringe the student was using will easily pull out when it reaches near-maximum capacity. 
Nothing that can be said will bring the student back to life, especially prosecuting this professor. But this event and other tragedies in the history of chemistry should remind all chemists to be knowledgeable and respectful in their research because the stakes are so high. 
By Mark Morey
Santa Barbara, Calif.
There's an interesting debate about the point at which "the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual", a sentiment that I more-or-less support. I think it's fair to say that if the incident had happened with a "Dr. Sangji" or a "Principal Scientist Sangji" that the tone of a lot of commentators (including myself) would be different. I don't think Ms. Sangji had reached the point at which the preponderance of chemical safety was resting on her shoulders.

What I believe that Dr. Morey misses is the legal aspect, in which Professor Harran has been arraigned on violation of worker safety laws. I don't think that he recognizes that aspect of the case in his letter.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A note to North Carolina-area readers

David Kroll is well known among the chemblogosphere for his many years blogging, especially at Terra Sigilata. He has recently taken a position as the science communications director at the Nature Research Center of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. That museum recently hosted a Biotechnology Day, where companies located in the NC area were invited to have booths and talk about their technology.

That seems to have precipitated a negative response from Laura Combs, a local anti-vaccine and anti-biotechnology activist. From one of her many e-mails to the Museum:
I do not understand how Biotech Days at the museum is an "impartial venue." In order for to be an impartial venue, people like Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology and Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute would have been invited and they or their representatives would have presented information counter to the promotion of Genetically Modified Foods by BASF, for example. I think it would be a very worthwhile debate to have and provide the impartial venue that the museum is supposedly looking for - Monsanto and Bayer Crop Sciences or BASF representatives and Mr. Smith and Mr. Kastel in a moderated debate. Simply allowing the corporations who are profiting heavily from genetic engineering to present the risks is absurd and highly misleading the public.

Regarding the Pharmaceutical company representatives, an impartial venue would have involved those representatives as well as folks promoting informed choice, such as Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center and Dr. Larry Palevsky. Without balance such as they would provide there is no impartial venue for education.

I hope the museum considers hosting a forum where truly both sides of the issues, such as in the cases I highlight above, can be presented. I will be glad to help you make the necessary connections. In addition, I recommend that the museum consider hosting special topic nights, such as genetically modified food, vaccine efficacy and safety and other topics where speakers from both sides of the issue are present and discussing their positions in a moderated forum. 
As you can imagine, the e-mails have gotten quite convoluted. Ultimately, Ms. Combs has written an unhappy letter to the museum's director, calling for, among other things, all the internal e-mail correspondence about her. (I do not know the state of North Carolia's public records laws, so I have no idea what the correct procedure is for Ms. Combs.) I don't know what she expects to find, but I imagine that she's setting off for a fishing expedition.

I think Ms. Combs is making a mountain out of a molehill a complete nothingburger, and that she should take her political beliefs about vaccines, genetically modified foods and the like to the appropriate forum, which would not be a science museum. As for Dr. Kroll, a friend of this blog, I think he was being very gracious to Ms. Combs and has done his due diligence.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bespoke molecules?

I am tempted sometimes to think of myself as a somewhat more educated tradesman (I have long described myself to laypeople as a "molecular carpenter", for example.) But it's interesting to see the life and finances of a tailor in New York City. From a "Planet Money" article in the New York Times Magazine by Adam Davidson:
A few years ago, Peter Frew came to New York with an important professional skill. He was one of maybe a few dozen people in the U.S. who could construct a true bespoke suit. Frew, who apprenticed with a Savile Row tailor, can — all by himself, and almost all by hand — create a pattern, cut fabric and expertly construct a suit that, for about $4,000, perfectly molds to its owner’s body. In a city filled with very rich people, he quickly had all the orders he could handle. 
When I learned about Frew, I assumed he was some rich designer in an atelier on Madison Avenue. That’s what Frew hopes to be one day, but for now the 33-year-old Jamaican immigrant works out of his ground-floor apartment near Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn, and makes around $50,000 a year. His former living room consists of one large table piled with bolts of cloth and a form with a half-made suit. As Frew sewed a jacket, he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design — the width of the lapel, the number and size of the pockets — for each client. What makes a bespoke suit unique, he said, is that it’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable. 
As I watched Frew work, it became glaringly obvious why he is not rich. Like a 17th-century craftsman, he has no economy of scale. It takes Frew about 75 hours to make a suit — he averages about two per month — and he has no employees. A large part of his revenue is used to pay off his material expenses, and because his labor is so demanding, he relies on an outside salesman, who requires commissions. (Frew can’t even afford to make a suit for himself. When we met, he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.) While he hopes to one day hire full-time assistant tailors and rent a Manhattan showroom, he knows it will be a huge challenge to get there.
Davidson goes on to note the competition the men's suit industry faces from mass production, overseas manufacturers and the like. Somehow, I am comforted to know that he can make a living, if not a very lucrative one.

I certainly don't think the economics of Mr. Frew's tailoring match well to synthetic chemistry; I think it's relatively rare for a person (or a group of people) to need a quantity of a specific chemical, and for it to be produced in a unique, hand-caressed fashion. Even if it were the case, there are many, many people trained in synthetic chemistry (many more professors of chemistry than Savile Row tailors, I suspect!) and our field has already left Mr. Frew's economics long ago.

[P.S. After reading this article, I remembered the short story "Quality" by John Galsworthy, about a bootmaker who made excellent boots that would not wear out, but most certainly could not make any money doing so. As romantic as it sounds, I don't want to be that guy.]

Daily Pump Trap: 9/13/12 edition

Good morning! Between September 11 and September 12, there were 34 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 8 (24%) were academically connected and 19 (56%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Manufacturing chemist?: Syngenta (Greensboro, NC) is looking for a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist, preferably one with 5 years in a chemical manufacturing environment. The position looks to be an all-around problem solver.

Tucson, AZ: Sion Power is a lithium/sulfur battery research company; they're looking for 2 chemists, a material chemist and an analytical chemist. Some amount of electrochemistry experience is desired.

What is Johnson and Johnson looking for?: Entry of the search term "chemist" yields 64 positions with the keyword "chemistry." A few of them look like actual "chemist" positions to me.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 221, 787, 2689 and 11 positions for the search term "chemist." 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Truly, a missed opportunity

From the Washington Post (emphasis mine):
NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey woman pleaded not guilty Tuesday to causing a man’s death with an injection of silicone he hoped would enlarge his penis — a procedure experts cautioned doesn’t work.
Kasia Rivera, 35, could face up to ten years in prison if convicted of reckless manslaughter in the death of 22-year-old Justin Street... 
Dr. Daniel S. Elliott, an associate professor of urology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said it was the first case he’d heard of involving a silicone injection to the penis, but he’s dealt with similar cases where patients had attempted to enlarge their penises with injections of fat or other substances. 
None of it works, Elliott emphasized, adding that there is no medical justification for the procedure. 
“If there were a legitimate method for penile lengthening, Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer would have bought it up and made billions and billions of dollars worldwide,” Elliott said. “The fact that they don’t means it does not exist.”
Man, if only PFE had not shut down that division at Sandwich!

[Back tomorrow, I promise. Long night/day at work.]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ACS presidential candidates on #chemjobs issues, 2012 edition

What isn't a nothingburger is the difference in the ACS presidential candidates' statements on problems in employment in chemistry. Here are links to the statements from Dr. Barton and Professor Echegoyen. Here's the comparison:

I'm intensely skeptical that the office of the ACS president has any power, so I'm not really convinced that any of this matters in the short- or the long run. But it's apparent that Dr. Barton thinks that the issue is worth a mention.

(For those intensely curious, both candidates last year thought #chemjobs were worth a mention.) 

Personally, I think this is a nothingburger, but still funny

It wasn't until that I looked that I saw that Professor Luis Echegoyen (who is running for ACS president this year), has previously run (and lost) for ACS president. Here are his candidate statements from 2010 and 2012. As you can immediately detect, they're pretty much the same, with some added paragraphs and changed word orders. The 2010 text is in the left column, with the 2012 text on the right. The same words are highlighted in yellow.

I don't think this is particularly probative, I just think it's kinda funny. 

Courtesy of Felix Salmon


Courtesy of Felix Salmon and Mike Konczal. (Careful clicking that second one -- it's filled w/more animated GIFs, which makes it slow-ish.)

More posts coming soon, today.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Living away from spouse/kids due to economic reasons? C&EN's Susan Ainsworth wants to hear from you.

Susan Ainsworth of C&EN wishes to hear from chemists who have taken positions that (due to economic reasons) were far away from their families. For examples of the trend, see my post from late 2010.

Her e-mail is s_ainsworth -at- acs(dot)org.

Who's at ChemOutsourcing?

A fascinating topic up for discussion today at ChemOutsourcing:

Anyone attending this thing?

C&EN: Postdocs, undergrads finding work in industry

In this week's "Back to School" issue, the employment section of Chemical and Engineering News looks at industrial postdocs and entry-level B.S. positions. From Susan Ainsworth, a look at postdoctoral positions in the pharmaceutical industry, including a new, large program at Merck:
That’s been a major motivation behind a new postdoctoral research fellowship program that Merck & Co. is now preparing to launch, according to Christopher J. Welch, a senior principal scientist at the company. As postdocs come into the program, “they won’t be just turning the crank, doing routine work at a low price,” he says. Instead, they will be involved in “cutting-edge science with the goal of rapid publication of their findings in high-profile journals."... 
[snip] The new Merck program will add 15 to 20 scientists per year over the next three years, building to a “steady state” of about 50 fellows by 2014, according to Welch, who is cochair of the program. The postdocs will come from scientific disciplines from genomics to biology to statistics to all branches of chemistry and biochemistry, and will be spread across the company’s U.S. sites in one-year appointments that are renewable for up to three years, he says. 
To kick off the program, Merck is inviting its scientists to submit proposals for research projects in which they could mentor a postdoc. The top projects and mentors will be chosen by a committee chaired by Welch and Robert A. Kastelein, scientific associate vice president and cochair of the program. Beginning later this month, Merck will recruit postdocs through its website to fill the newly created positions. 
While Merck scientists remain focused on proprietary research aimed at areas such as developing the next blockbuster drug, postdocs will be working in a precompetitive space, developing enabling tools and techniques that will be critical to the pharmaceutical industry in the next few years, Welch says. In addition to training a small number of scientists who may eventually be hired as permanent employees, he adds, the program will “enable us to seed the outside world with folks who will be valuable future collaborators for Merck as they go to work in academia or at another pharma company or a supplier or vendor firm.”
From Emily Bones, a look at what undergraduates can do to get positions in industry:
Timothy Boman, for one, took advantage of opportunities offered by his alma mater. During three summers of his undergraduate career at Hope College, in Michigan, he conducted research. Each summer he did something a little different. In fact, halfway through his program he added chemistry classes to complement his mathematics degree. He ultimately stayed at Hope a fifth year to complete a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in math in 2010. 
Boman credits his research in organic chemistry, under Jeffrey B. Johnson, as a major factor in successfully finding a job after graduation. Boman is now a process development chemist involved in cancer drug discovery research at Ash Stevens, a contract research organization in Riverview, Mich. 
“During my interview, I was able to give a presentation about the project I worked on with Dr. Johnson,” Boman explains. To get ready for the job interview, he did a mock presentation for people who were working in his adviser’s lab group.
One thing that I found interesting about the article on undergraduate interns (and ultimately) employment in pharma was the note that one of the students had ended up working at AMRI - Indianapolis. I think that's worth noting; it will be interesting to see how that program goes.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Way Things Could Be

Janet Stemwedel does a wonderful synthesis of both Daniel Lametti's Slate column and my response* and responds thusly:
Graduate students are not receiving a mere service or commodity from their Ph.D. programs (“Would you like to supersize that scientific education?”). They are entering a relationship resembling an apprenticeship with the members of the professional community they’re trying to join. Arguably, this relationship means that the professional community has some responsibility for the ongoing well-being of those new Ph.D.s. 
Here, I don’t think this is a responsibility to infantilize new Ph.D.s, to cover them with bubble-wrap or to create for them a sparkly artificial economy full of rainbows and unicorns. But they probably have a duty to provide help when they can. 
Maybe this help would come in the form of showing compassion, rather than claiming that the people who deserve to be scientists will survive the rigors of the job market and that those who don’t weren’t meant to be in science. Maybe it would come by examining one’s own involvement in a system that defines success too narrowly, or that treats Ph.D. students as a consumable resource, or that fails to help those students cultivate a broad enough set of skills to ensure that they can find some gainful employment. Maybe it would come from professional communities finding ways to include as real members people they have trained but who have not been able to find employment in that profession.... 
It’s useful to have discussions of how to navigate the waters of The Way Things Are. It’s also useful to try to get accurate data about the topology of those waters. But these discussions shouldn’t distract us from serious discussions of The Way Things Could Be — and of how scientific communities can get there from here.
 More later, but go over there and read the whole thing.

*I think Janet groks this blog to a degree that I find really heartening.

Got good news? Rays of sunshine? Let's have it.

It's sunshiny, right? Credit: Flickr user londondreamer2
I'm hearing the occasional good news recently, anecdotally. (If you want your weekly silver lining, here's Ezra Klein's post on 5 reasons the US economy might be making a comeback. Grain of salt and all of that.)

Do you have good news to share? Let's have it. 

What to get the intern that has everything?

A few gift ideas for interns/summer students, especially those going to grad school:
  1. Thicker skin, for all those group meetings. 
  2. Tips on how to purchase cheap alcohol. 
  3. A briefcase. (That's a joke.)
  4. Deep and abiding understanding of the treacherous chemistry job market. 
  5. Donuts. 
  6. A nice, cutesy blog post. 
Best wishes, NF, for a wonderful time in graduate school in a lucrative field outside of chemistry. It's been great having you in the lab. 

How to work on your people skills?

The always funny Berate My Professor wrote up a perceptive post on interview skills:
I saw this firsthand as a graduate student when I was interviewing for jobs with some chemical companies. Even though I was leaning towards a career in teaching, I was intrigued with the idea of making money, so I put out my resume for companies making recruiting trips to our department. Like all my classmates who applied, I landed several interviews with companies that were supposedly interested in my credentials. After the interviews, no one was interested in my credentials. One interviewer even sent me an email a few hours afterwards to tell me I was rejected. I personally had thought the interviews went ok, but obviously I wasn't what they were looking for. Many of my classmates were getting the shaft as well. 
So what exactly were these companies looking for? We didn't need to ask the interviewers. We just needed to see who was getting the job offers. A few people each year always seemed to emerge as "the chosen ones" whom the companies seemed to love and fight over. While these chosen people were no dummies by any measure, they weren't the top chemists in terms of academic achievement. In fact, there seemed to be ZERO correlation whatsoever with chemistry knowledge and job placement. What these people did have more than the rest of us were strong communication skills and personalities that exude confidence. 
I understood that good interview skills were important for landing a job, but I wasn't expecting it be seemingly the ONLY factor. It was like once you passed the threshold of being good enough for a PhD, it made absolutely no difference how smart you were or how much you accomplished. Were the interviewers looking for the most productive employees who could make the companies lots of money or were they looking for a BFF to have a beer with after work?
While I think that it might be oversold just a bit, I think there's a lot of truth to "those who can project the most confidence (however horse-puckey-filled) tend to interview the best." I don't really know what to say about it, because "you should learn to lie better" doesn't sound very good. I've always tried to be "the best version of myself" during interviews and not much more.

(Note to B-rate Prof: You know, it's entirely possible most chemists just aren't very good at interviewing people, and you just got a bad draw. I'm sure that's entered your mind, though.)

Readers, I'm probably full of baloney myself. What are your thoughts?

One more thing: If I had 3 questions I ask myself when I've been on the other side of the table at an interview, it would be these [I've never had sole hiring authority, but I've been able to (like many of you) chip in my opinion]:
  1. Is this person an axe murderer? Are they full of baloney? 
  2. Can this person do the job? Do they seem fairly competent?
  3. Will this person annoy the ever-loving crap out of me? 

Unemployment down 0.2% to 8.1%, 96,000 jobs created

Credit: Calculated Risk
Fresh electrons from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the unemployment rate fell from 8.3% to 8.1% between July and August. The broader U6 measurement of unemployment fell 0.3% to 14.7%. Non-farm payrolls increased by 96,000 jobs.

The big story today will be how the unemployment rate fell; it has a lot to do with the falling labor force participation rate. Sigh.

Thanks, as always to Calculated Risk, for the graph. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Who's the oldest CEO you know?

This is a pretty good story from the Wall Street Journal about the owners of the corporation that makes Tootsie Rolls:
Tootsie Roll's Chicago headquarters is a modern-day Willy Wonka factory. Massive puffs of steam billow out of humming machines on the roofs of the gray cinder block and red brick buildings, which sit surrounded by off-kilter "no trespassing" signs. The Gordons haven't granted an interview in years. The company declined repeated interview requests, saying "we have opted to use our quarterly earnings releases as a way to provide continuing updates to all business media at once." 
Mr. Gordon is currently the oldest CEO of a business listed on the New York Stock Exchange or the Nasdaq Stock Market, according to research company S&P Capital IQ. The company's proxy statement in March lists his age as 92, and his wife's as 80. The three non-Gordon members of the Tootsie Roll board ranged in age from 65 to 74, and at least one other top executive is over 70. 
The Gordons have given no hint that they intend to retire and no indication of health problems. "Their age is no concern, none whatsoever," said Jerry Schmutzler, 70, who works the midnight shift in the boiler room of Tootsie Roll's Chicago factory. The company also has plants in four other states, as well as Canada and Mexico.
92 seems pretty aged, but what do I know? Assuming that Mr. Gordon is still of sound mind (and that the board is not completely toothless), the company seems to be rolling along just fine. (And kudos to having a 70-year-old boiler man -- that's the heart of America, right there.)

Who's the oldest chemistry-related leader/CEO? A few years ago, I received a return phone message from Reuben Rieke, after I called to order some material. I estimate that he's in his early 70s, but that's just a guess. Emeritus professors hang around departments for a very long time, but that's very different than being a CEO or a senior manager.

Readers, who's the oldest chemist that you've worked with?

Daily Pump Trap: 9/6/12 edition

Good morning! Between August 30 and September 5, there were 121 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 47 (39%) were academically connected and 54 (47%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Sustained?: Shimadzu is continuing its hiring push, with 3 positions in the last week. 2 in New Jersey, one in Maryland.

Cocoa Beach, FL: About once a year, the Air Force puts out an ad for a Lead Radiochemistry Analyst; it's clearly related to monitoring nuclear weapons testing. Hmph.

Beachwood, OH: BASF is searching for a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist with experience in the battery industry, for pushing research into the pilot plant. Sounds interesting.

San Diego, CA: Takeda San Diego is still looking for their staff scientist in medicinal chemistry.

Somerset, NJ: Apicore LLC is looking for a production lead; looks like it needs someone with a chemical manufacturing background.

Newark, NJ: The head of Shamrock Technologies needs another driver, looks like:
Corporate chairman, technical director - looking for talented scientist to drive me to Newark, NJ. Includes career opportunity in management, product development, or other business position. The drive is from Millstone, NJ, near Turnpike Exit 8, at 8:30, leaving Newark around 4. The work will depend on the individual. It can be in polymer synthesis, product applications, maybe something we haven't yet thought of. Let me know your interests.
I hate to admit it, but it could be fun. Or, it could be completely bonkers. (Probably the latter.)  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

LADA takes plea deals off table in #SheriSangji case, not guilty plea entered for Professor Patrick Harran

C&EN's Michael Torrice (who was in the courtroom) on today's legal proceedings in the #SheriSangji case:
A judge in a Los Angeles County court moved forward today with arraignment of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran on three felony charges of labor code violations. The court entered a not guilty plea for Harran because his attorneys had objected to the arraignment altogether. 
Harran was in charge of the UCLA laboratory where, in 2008, research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was severely burned in a fire; she died eighteen days later from her injuries. Because of the judge’s decision to move ahead with the arraignment, Harran’s attorneys withdrew a motion, filed on July 26, that challenged the chemistry professor’s arrest warrant as well as the credibility of a California state investigator whose report on the accident was used to charge Harran. 
L.A. County Superior Court Judge Shelly Torrealba scheduled the preliminary hearing for Oct. 9. Evidence in the case will be heard on that court date and a decision will be rendered whether prosecutors have enough to support a criminal trial. Harran’s defense team says they will reserve the right to bring up objections made in their July motion to dismiss. 
At today’s arraignment, L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum said discussions of a plea deal between his office and Harran’s attorneys had ended.
So the judge's ruling Baudendistel gambit has been delayed until October 9. As additional confirmation of the prosecutor's position, here's the relevant line from the local CBS news radio station (KNX 1070):
Prosecutors said any plea bargain deals offered to Harran have been rescinded.
If you would have asked me if Professor Harran would ever go on trial, I would have said, "No way." I'm still convinced that the likelihood of a trial is below 50%. I would now put it at 33% (from an original position of less than 10%), but we shall see. 

Process Wednesday: the details of crystallization

In Organic Process Research and Development, a request for exactness in speech and writing in process chemistry from John Knight:
First, take precipitation and crystallisation. This is not as straightforward as it might at first appear. Tung, Paul, Midler, and McCauley indicate that the process of reactive crystallisation is also known as precipitation but then go on to say that the term reactive crystallisation is generally applied only when the product is crystalline. If the product is amorphous or a mixture of amorphous and crystalline forms, then the term precipitation applies. Davey and Garside, on the other hand, discuss particle size, commenting that crystals can be almost any size from a few nanometres to several millimetres; traditionally, when crystals are less than a few micrometres in size, the term precipitation is used. For most of us, I suspect that we think in terms of the speed with which a solid was formed and deposited from solution, with precipitation usually being ‘fast’ but what is fast, and so it goes on. 
I ask that chemists and engineers aim to be more precise in the terms applied and suggest that, unless it is obvious or the process is known to provide crystalline product, then the term precipitation is universally adopted for a reactive crystallisation such as salt formations that result in essentially immediate depositions of solids, and for all other cases simply state that solid was deposited, harvested, etc. Adopting this simple distinction can avoid the forward progression of what may have been a ‘throw-away’ comment in a laboratory book about the ‘isolation of crystalline solid’ into a legal battle in 15 years’ time over solid state and patent validity! 
So what about an amorphous solid versus a crystalline solid? Much as above, unless you know the solid product to be crystalline either by analysis or by virtue of the known process of isolation, avoid using either term simply state ‘solid product’ was isolated etc. From a patent viewpoint, only factual data should be recorded; unless there is analytical data to confirm crystallinity, this is conjecture only, albeit educated conjecture.
I suspect that people like to use the terms "crystals" and "crystallize" rather than "solid" and "deposited" because it sounds more scientific. I certainly do not haul out the microscope to look at every solid product that I make (maybe I should?)

Well, time for me to go harvest some solid...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Daniel Lametti dismissed about scientist unemployment

Daniel Lametti is a budding science writer (and a neuroscience graduate student at McGill); he has written an essay for Slate entitled "Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time?" Here's a link to the essay -- please read it. A summary might be as follows:
  • Media accounts (like Brian Vastag's article in The Washington Post) are alarmist; scientist unemployment is not that bad,
  • Not all scientists want to be academics. 
  • Ph.D. scientist unemployment is low.
    • Ph.D. chemist unemployment is not that bad, really!
  • Opportunity costs don't matter, because grad school is fun and you get a doctorate! 
Let's start with my critique of the one NSF number that he relies upon:
A science Ph.D. is still an attractive credential outside of the university. According to a 2008 survey by the NSF (a summary is available here), there were about 662,600 work-ready science Ph.D.s in the United States, and only 11,400 of those people were unemployed. That’s an unemployment rate of 1.7 percent.
The number that Mr. Lametti relies upon is not without fault. It is old; based on numbers from October 2008, it likely does not take into account the increase in unemployment that was seen in early 2009 and beyond. It is too broad: by using this number, Lametti cannot distinguish between biology Ph.D. holders (1.9% unemployment) and physical science Ph.D. holders (2.4%) or computer and information science Ph.D. holder (an enviable 1.1% unemployment rate.) Finally, it is too academic: both professors (from the mightiest tenure-track holder to the poorest adjunct) and postdoctoral fellows would be counted as employed in NSF's Survey of Doctorate Recipients. 

[To be sure, I don't think anyone knows the actual, current unemployment rate of STEM Ph.D.s, a group of people that is so encompassing as to be useless. These fields are not interchangeable, which is one of the reasons that I don't go for broad-brush statements. But I digress.] 

What is more frustrating is his subsequent dismissal of chemist unemployment:
Of course, some of those jobs have disappeared since the NSF survey was taken. The pharmaceutical industry, the Washington Post reported, has cut scores of chemists. Even so, the American Chemical Society told me the unemployment rate among its Ph.D. members is 3.4 percent this year, down from 3.9 percent last year. During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from one Erlenmeyer flask to another. As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done.
Sigh. Where to start? (Pardon me, readers, if I repeat myself.)

The pharmaceutical industry has laid off 300,000 employees since 2000; a number better compared to the battle of Antietam as opposed to Lametti's pedestrian "some." Of those, chemists are a significant portion; "scores" should be more like "thousands", with at least an estimated 16,000 chemist jobs disappearing since 1998. Lametti seems to have missed the sub-headline of the article he linked to: "unemployment rate of 4.6% for ACS members in 2011 is highest on record" is apparently not worth mentioning to his readers. These facts apparently don't bear repeating.

Readers of this blog know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment number for chemists is 6.1%, quite a bit higher than the ACS unemployment number. (Strangely, Lametti also fails to note the accompanying number in the Brian Vastag article -- that of his young peers in chemistry, only 38% of them have managed to find full-time employment.) Of course, there are the other problems with ACS member unemployment numbers as a proxy for actual Ph.D. chemist unemployment: the response rates are low, that unemployed ACS members only have 2 years of unemployment waivers and are thus likely to drop off the member rolls, that it (once again) folds in academic chemists and postdocs.

(Oh, and that "less than half the national average" bit, where there's a link to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website? You wouldn't happen to be comparing the unemployment rate of a national labor force with less than a third college graduates against a subfield where a majority of the practitioners have a Ph.D., would you?)

But apparently there's no point in focusing on the problems with these numbers for Lametti -- apparently his anecdotes are far more compelling:
As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done. 
A mathematician who graduated in 2010 told me he was hired by the investment bank Goldman Sachs after a short search. Many of his colleagues, he said, have doctorates in math, physics, or computer science; his bonus can be a multiple of his salary. A biologist was offered a position as a medical writer seven days before graduating last year. A chemist got a job at a battery company two years ago after a short stint as a postdoctoral researcher, doubling his salary.
Transferrable skills! Alternative careers! I'm less that convinced that a doctoral dissertation shows that "you can get things done" to employers overall; I'm much more convinced that it means that you've completed a project, and convinced a small group of professors that you're ready to leave. I'm also less than convinced that Ph.D. biologists want to be medical writers, that Goldman Sachs is really the example that you want to use for an article about how a science Ph.D. is worth it and that earning double your postdoc salary is anything to crow about. Finally, these anecdotes are not proof that a science Ph.D. is actually a substitute entry-level credential for whatever non-laboratory position that a new graduate might be looking for.

I find Mr. Lametti's essay very frustrating. It is suffused with youthful optimism, which is no substitute for a cold look at the facts. I am surprised at the apparent non-existence of the unemployed scientist, and that there doesn't appear to be anybody older than 35 or so in his essay. Wrestling with the damage caused by layoffs or outsourcing don't seem to be worth his time; you got your Ph.D.! Isn't that wonderful? (You should be able to find another job in a snap!) Delving deeper into the facts of scientist unemployment or finding anecdotes of those Ph.D.s who are (or have been) unemployed weren't worth it, either. What a shame.

Rather, instead, the reader is told that "science Ph.D.s are just about the last group of people the media should be worrying about." I'm not one for written indictments, but to speak for such a huge group of people with such disparate fields and varying problems smacks of ignorance, if not arrogance.