Friday, September 18, 2015

ACS Presidential Candidate Bryan Balazs on #chemjobs issues

I recently sent an e-mail to Dr. Bryan Balazs, who is currently running for the ACS President-Elect position to see if he was interested in answering four questions for ACS presidential candidates about chemist employment and unemployment. Here are his unedited answers: 
1. Which ACS program do you think best helps the job-seeking ACS member? How would you improve it? 
Gone are the days when it sufficed to advise people to take a course in resume preparation, polish their interview skills with a workshop, and bring clean copies of their resume and wear appropriate attire to a job fair.  Believe me, I fully recognize that we are facing a significant imbalance between job seekers and job openings.  However, it is hard for me to point to any one ACS program that is helping job seekers in a significant way, and this needs to change.  The best thing that I could do as ACS President is to ensure that all of our members have every advantage to outshine the competition, in terms of knowledge and skills, for the jobs that are out there.  Specifically, ACS employment and career programs must empower members to:
  • Know which sectors are currently hiring (and which are not),
  • Know which sectors are likely to be hiring in 5 years and in 10 years,
  • Identify jobs at small and mid-sized companies that aren’t usually visible at a national level,
  • Connect with entrepreneurs and investors to explore promising new scientific ideas,
  • Find out about internships which can offer an employment advantage,
  • Know exactly what employers are looking for and what skills are needed to “hit the ground running” when that job offer does arrive.
While on the campaign trail, I have heard examples from local sections of successes in these areas, and I suggest that we find out what works and deploy this at the national level. 
2. Is it ACS policy to get more students to study in STEM fields, specifically chemistry? If so, how do we reconcile the fact that wages for chemists are stagnant? Does this argue against the idea of a STEM shortage and the need for more STEM students?
Having worked with a number of groups in the ACS that formulate policy, I can tell you that there is no explicit ACS policy to get more students to study in STEM fields.  It definitely IS an ACS policy, expressed through the Strategic Plan, to nurture an appreciation for the wonder of scientific discovery, to foster the most effective chemical education system in the world, and to encourage the understanding and appreciation by the general public, including lawmakers, of the role of chemistry in addressing many world challenges in human health and welfare. 
Wages for chemists have risen and fallen throughout the past decades, and it is true that wages have been stagnant since 2008.  There is a nuance to this in that total employee compensation has actually risen slightly over this time period, and you can blame that on the economic factors that are affecting virtually every job in the U.S.  What bothers me more than flat wages, which would imply that we’re actually in a steady state situation with supply and demand*, is that it’s taking increasingly long to land a job, multiple post-docs are becoming the norm, and there is a trend towards contract (fixed term) labor and an increasing number of involuntary part-time (or adjunct) positions. 
*Overly simplified, I admit, given inflation and other factors. 
In short, I argue that there is no current “STEM shortage” when it comes to chemists.  I’ll also point out that this issue is not unique to chemists, and I know that many other job seekers in the physical and life sciences are experiencing exactly the same pressures. 

3. In the past decade, what was the one action of any ACS President that has had the greatest influence -good or bad - on members' employment and careers? Other than working groups and reports, what tangible steps would you take to increase the number of chemistry jobs in the US, and is this something you think is really achievable? 
To be honest, I can’t point to any one action that has had a noticeable long-term effect.  I will say that an excellent report with very good ideas was put together by a task force chaired by George Whitesides, at the request of 2010 ACS President Joe Francisco (google “Innovation Chemistry and Jobs”).  However, for the most part, this is yet another report that gathers dust on the shelf and therein lies the issue:  Each President has their emphasis and goals, but there is no sustained long-term mechanism to carry forth the ideas and progress from one President to the next.  This has to change, as changing the employment situation for chemists is not a one-year effort.  If it were, we would likely have fixed this by now.  My approach is not yet another task force, but to create an ongoing, forceful, and effective means to deal with the situation.  We have mechanisms for the sustainability of ACS publications and governance and local sections and divisions, but why don’t we have these for the elephant in the room for too many of our members:  employment and careers? 
On the second part of the question, I have to be realistic and state that I don’t believe that the ACS can do much to increase the number of jobs.  As I’ve pointed out in my answer to question #1, I believe the answer lies in connecting ACS members to the jobs that are available and ensuring that they can favorably compete for those jobs. 
4. One of the chief roles of the ACS to advocate for chemists in the US Congress. Which of the following options would you prioritize, and why? (increased grant funding, more training in entrepreneurship for students, shifting funding from academia to more SBIRs or retraining postdocs?) 
I don't believe more funding is the solution (although some individuals would no doubt benefit), and I don’t believe that post-docs need any more training.  Of the four options, I would prioritize the second, “training in entrepreneurship for students” but I’d like to broaden this by encouraging students to seek a broader knowledge than just highly specialized technical skills, e.g., in areas such as laboratory record keeping, data analysis and statistics, business and finance, contracts, and so forth.  I don’t suggest students become experts in all of these, but many employers have told me that they would place high value on job applicants with such skills.  For that reason, the broader version of #2 would be my priority. 
I’ll end by saying that I’m not running for ACS President for the pay (there is none) or even the honor and recognition.  It’s just in my nature to try to help people, and I’ve volunteered for thirty years teaching career workshops, advocating for science education, mentoring students, and leading at the local section through international levels of the ACS.  But I’m not here to tout my background as this isn’t about me; it’s about our members and our profession.
Thanks to Dr. Balazs for his responses. Dr. Allison Campbell has received the questions and has indicated her interest in responding to the survey; her responses will be published within 24 hours of receipt. 


  1. Have to give him credit for honesty in Question 3. It's a sad commentary on the ACS that a gentleman running to be it's head can't think of a single concrete step taken by the ACS president (and, by proxy, presumably the ACS) in the past decade that has helped members. A very good question, though.

    On Question 2, "Wages for chemists have risen and fallen throughout the past decades, and it is true that wages have been stagnant since 2008" I think is wrong twice:

    Yes, there are upticks in real wages for chemists over the past decade, but overall the trend is clearly down. Since 2008, real wages have not been stagnant, they've fallen (assuming one believes the source of said data, appears to be an organization called A C S)!

    1. Bryan Balazs, Candidate for ACS PresidentSeptember 18, 2015 at 9:56 AM

      BTR, I was thinking of exactly the data you point out in the link to C&EN, and while wages are indeed down when adjusted for inflation, in absolute dollar terms they have been generally flat since 2008

  2. A few years ago the ACS put together a video at one of the national conferences. They interviewed current and future grad students and asked if they knew about the current job market and what they were planning to do about it. Of the people who did know the dire prospects, none had any concrete plans beyond "I'm hoping the job market will be better by the time I graduate, but I guess I'll network too."

    It's not within the responsibility or power of the ACS president (or the ACS as a whole) to create jobs. What they can do is present real outlooks and perspectives, and I think the ACS needs to improve a lot in this area because they're really bad at it. A lot of people say they should lobby Congress to make changes, but I don't know that the ACS has that much power either. This issue goes beyond chemists too, so every other society would need to join in to really get the message across. However, if people know that the job market sucks and go into higher education anyways, then any fallout from that is on them, not the ACS.

    1. It's this video:

      Note that, irony of ironies, Susan Ainsworth (the reporter in this video) was laid off this year.

  3. Well stated, Dr. Z, and I agree.

  4. Yeah, kudos to Dr Balasz for brutal honesty. Much as we as a community have railed on the ACS for a while on their inaction in the last decade of job stagnation/deprecation, I have also thought that their ability to effect change is minimal. I honestly don't see Pfizer, Merck etc taking too much notice if the ACS petition them to stop laying off so many chemists.

    The only constructive thing I can think of is, assuming there actually is a growth field chemists could reinvent themselves into, would be some kind of programs to facilitate that. Chemists are trained to enquire and think creatively and could likely apply that to new fields should they be able to get up to speed quickly on the current state of that science. But I'm unconvinced any of the new growth fields (GreenChem, battery chemistry, advanced materials) have been generating the jobs we have hoped for. And - I guess the stagnant jobs field reflects that as it reflects all chemistry jobs and not just the medchem ones I typically think about.

  5. Dr. Balasz, in his answer to question 4, does touch on something that the ACS can do to make chemists more attractive to hire. Through the BS degree certification, the ACS can ensure that certified BS chemists enter the job market with a deeper knowledge of statistics, business, etc., so that a chemist with a BS is more attractive to hire than a biologist with a BS for that $13/hr entry level QA/QC position.

  6. Regarding Dr. Balasz' answer to question #3: yes, it may be true that the number of "chemistry jobs" is inadequate to the demand. It is furthermore possible that the expanding nature of the US economy through the 1960' s and 70's was an anomaly in that regard. That is one side of the coin.

    The other side of the coin is the mechanism by which basic research is done in this country, which relies on the "co-worker" under the alibi of "education". How many university faculty members whose forte is experimental chemistry have recently published results which principally stemmed from their own, hands-on toil in the laboratory?

    If any faculty members wish to assert that they have, indeed done so, then I will say "congratulations, join the club". Otherwise, unless the current system changes, then job market imbalance will continue indefinitely.

  7. On the subject of facilitating chemists re-inventing themselves career-wise -
    One concrete thing that Dr. Balasz could do is to lobby federal agencies/departments about the 'rule' that restricts science fellowships/post-docs at federal labs and government offices to those individuals who are no more than 5 years out from having earned their doctorates. For a chemist older than 35 or so, it is impossible to gain experience in a different research field at a government lab, or to gain experience in various government functions in federal agencies, due to this 'rule', which apparently is not actually a law mandated by Congress.
    And the sad part about this is that when these federal labs and agencies have permanent openings for scientists, they often restrict themselves to only interviewing Ph.D.s who have had one of these fellowship/post-doc positions, further disadvantaging those who have not done so, or could not do so because of when they earned their degrees.
    Although not intended so, this 'rule' is de facto age discrimination, since it immediately puts anyone over a certain age at a serious disadvantage.
    Dr. Balasz bringing up this issue with the right people, and highlighting its negative effects, would have an impact.
    (Is there any other field in the government that has such a 'rule'? The government does not restrict itself to only hiring lawyers who are no more than 5 years out from having passed the bar.)

    1. I grimly note that I wrote about such a policy change 4 years ago:

  8. Anon 9:46, this is an excellent idea. There have been many times since returning to the US when I could only gnash my teeth at what you have identified as de-facto age discrimination. Oak Ridge National Lab, for example is advertising such a position right now, and they also stipulate "early career" applicants. And yes, gov't labs do seem to have the tendency to only hire their own post-docs. :-(

  9. Anon and GC, I will look into this, but I believe it is the general approach for Lawrence Livermore Lab to accept post-doc applicants who are no more than 5 years past receiving their Ph.D. I don't know how widespread this philosophy is at other national labs, though. I can say that LLNL does look closely at our post-docs as a potential hiring pool, but we also look at outside candidates as well. Part of the complexity (at least in LLNL's case) is that the Bay Area hiring environment is very competitive now for scientists and engineers in general, and we often see job offers that are declined in favor of [insert your favorite Bay Area high-tech company here].

  10. I don't expect the ACS to magically increase the number of jobs for chemists, but I feel I was lied to when I heard the "STEM shortage" message repeatedly as an undergrad, and found it especially grating during a few long periods of unemployment I've been through. If they'd just cut out the "scientist shortage" talk, my animosity toward them would go away.

    On a separate note, I would be more interested in ACS-sponsored conferences and journals if they were less academic and more geared toward industrial chemists. Especially now that I'm at a smaller company that doesn't have NMR spectrometers and other such fancy things, I feel like there's little I can apply to my job at ACS events.

  11. This is Anon 9:46 pm again –

    Dr. Balasz, thank you for responding to my post, and for stating that you will look into this federal fellowship ‘rule’. This problem is nationwide, and extends beyond laboratory research positions. Here in the Washington DC area where I live, fellowship positions for Ph.D.s even extend to regulatory and science policy work in federal agencies, where again the 5-year rule applies. This absolutely baffles me, since these two areas are often touted as alternative careers for scientists; but if you want to change into these fields from laboratory research, you better do it within the magic 5 year time frame.
    I myself lost out on a regulatory position at the FDA, due to this rule. Several years ago, a supervisory chemist from the FDA contacted me about an opening in his office, that was originally listed as a permanent federal job (on the GS schedule) on Long story short, the supervisory chemist lost the funding for this position, but then found funding for the work through a staff fellowship program. When he contacted me again, I asked about the 5 year ‘rule’, since I’m in my 40s. I never heard from him again; apparently he realized at that point that I was ineligible for the fellowship.
    Why does our government do this to Ph.D. scientists? Our government doesn’t do this to other fields that require professional degrees, like in law, medicine, accounting, etc. I’ve met people from the private sector with these backgrounds, who have switched into government work, and have not had to contend with this 5 year rule. But scientists contend with it no matter what type of government-related work they are interested in doing.
    The one federal agency that doesn’t adhere to this rule, that I know of, is the Patent and Trademark office. They also do not depend on fellowships/post-doc postions when they hire scientists.

  12. Anon 9:46 pm and 6:08 pm, thanks for the info. This wasn't something I was fully aware of, another reason I'm grateful when chemists tell me what's happening from their perspective.

  13. Hi Bryan,

    First up, thanks and kudos for taking the time and energy to 'get the pulse.' It's a first I am quite sure!

    Secondly, if elected, could you push for a real, robust, and professionally-fielded employment survey?

    While changes would make year-to-year comparisons difficult, it would provide some real data to understand the issues....

    1. Hi Eka, and yes, one of the very first things I would do as President-Elect is get some real data on what's going on. I'm reaching the end of my patience with surveys that tell us that everything is fine (or at least getting better), when all you have to do is look around and listen to people to conclude that things are not fine.

  14. Here is the hypocritical assertion, found e.g. at (thanks, Google) for post-doctoral openings at ORNL:
    "ORNL is an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants, including individuals with disabilities and protected veterans, are encouraged to apply. UT-Battelle is an E-Verify Employer"

    Of course, not everyone wants to become a "professional post-doc" but I hope that everyone reading this will also agree that if it opens a door for a potentially long-term job, then it would potentially worth considering. Even if one is personally far beyond the uniform 5-year limit of all government labs.

    It is challenging to make one's point on this subject, without being accused of being anti-social, etc. Nevertheless, Eka-silicon's suggestion of a comprehensive employment survey -starting with university graduates- is long overdue.

  15. Even Sandia is advertising on Craigslist for postdoc jobs:
    Quoting from the advert "The Ph.D. must have been conferred within one to five years prior to employment."

  16. Bryan, if you're still there: Question 4 -

    No, postdocs don't need any more 'training'. They do, however, need a way out of the trap where they're too old for entry-level industry positions and every higher position already requires "industry experience", so it's endless bench slavery for them. How about an internship program for them? Colleges don't care about postdocs because they aren't students, and neither do their departments, and the PI usually figures that they're doing the postdoc enough of a favor by contracting them in the first place.

    Maybe when times weren't so bad, industry was right to be wary of postdocs - obviously they were people who had tried to become research professors, failed at it, and would jump ship for a cushy tenure-track position at any moment. But when I was a postdoc, the labs were full of people who were just waiting until they got a real job and would work at any wage just to keep their resume current until then, but couldn't get one because somehow nothing they did actually qualified as 'experience'. Give them a way out and I'll vote for you, even if that means paying my back ACS dues, although I no longer consider myself a chemist.

    1. Hi Morris, and yep, I'm still here although I do like to sleep at some point each day. You raise a good point, and as we all know, a post-doc position used to be a chance to broaden your research background, publish some more, and (especially if going into academia) add to your resume by working with a well-known scientist. This still happens for some nowadays, but as you point out, post-doc positions can become the "valley of death" of many a career landscape.

    2. I appreciate your hearing me out. Along with G.C. and Anon, I'm talking about the 'dualization' of the chemistry job market -you have people with largely the same skills doing largely the same work, for wildly varying levels of compensation and security and future prospects. This is accomplished by placing of barriers, implicit and explicit, preventing certain people from taking positions that they are otherwise qualified for.

      Dualization is everywhere these days: from the fine arts to auto assembly plants, academia to airline pilots, all the way back to my very first job bagging groceries under New Contract while my seniors worked under Old Contract. Econ 101 did not tell us the whole story. Sure, when supply of workers exceeds demand, wages must fall. But they don't do so uniformly. What seems to happen every time is that social barriers are erected to prevent wages of some jobs from declining - and this is 'paid' for by having people toiling away on the other side of the barrier for a much lower wage and the prospect of getting a 'break' someday.

      Does the ACS support such barriers? Or will it help tear them down?

  17. Morris, I hear you. You are raising an important issue for Bryan.

    At the crazy start-up where I had been working, there was a talented colleague (PhD organic chemist) who confessed to me that he previously had worked for _free_ for the same crazy nut as we were both working for at that moment. It boggles the mind.

    On the other hand, your observation of "social barriers ... erected to prevent wages of some jobs from declining" reminds me of what I see every day around Si valley: filthy rich people + those who do their manual labor. Whenever a neo-con or Tr**p supporter proclaims that others should just work harder to become millionaires, I ask myself: if we were all millionaires, then who will clean the toilets, etc.?

    What I mean by this is perhaps analogous to the first law of thermodynamics: there is a finite amount of resources in the world, and at least to me it seems more ethical to insure a minimal standard of living on that basis. Either that, or work for Georgia Pacific and the Koch Brothers.

    On the subject of dualization, I can easily think of at least 5-6 universities where I can promise you that I would do a better job of teaching, mentoring, writing research proposals and pushing papers than the current, tenured faculty. I kid you not.

    Thanks for not erasing this, CJ.

    1. It's an interesting question. How do we solve the dual labor force problem? Do you raise the standards of the "inferior" (for lack of a better word) workers to that of the "superior" workers, or the reverse?

      Each method has serious drawbacks. You probably cannot do the former because of lack of available money to pay the "inferior" people (there really is enough money, but the "superior" people have it), but if you do the later then nobody will want the job, if everybody is an "inferior" worker.

      Looks like, again, capitalism has devised a system to maximize productivity at the expense of ethics.

    2. This is turning into the sort of conversation which I instigate with random philosophers on Saturday nights in a certain dive bar in Palo Alto.

      The question which I will bring back to Bryan Balasz is which ACTIONS he would undertake that would distinguish him as ACS president from the meaningless styrofoam which his competitor just wrote on this blog? Well?

      Is the next ACS president willing to question the status quo?

    3. GC: Yes, I am willing to question the status quo, but I am going to lead this by working collectively with employers, unemployed and employed chemists at all career levels, and ACS Staff, and I'm going to be open and transparent in my approach. I'm not going to make promises that I can't fulfill or engage in finger-pointing and blame mongering.

    4. Hi Bryan, please continue to communicate with the rank-and-file and act on their concerns. Broadcasting political generalisms, as your current competitor and predecessors are doing and have been doing, is insulting, and automatically disqualifies them from any role as a representative of US chemists.

      Heck, they probably won't even read this, and they did, then they wouldn't care.

      And remember the first law of thermodynamics.

    5. Thanks GC. I read everything, even the outpouring of frustration (some might call it venting) by fellow chemists. It's hard at times, but I do sense that I am one of the few candidates over the years who has listened to everyone and tried to approach the problem without preconceived notions of "the way things should be."

    6. Bryan, over the past week, I have been collecting the adverts for positions with national labs. Seven were post-doc adverts, with implied age discrimination, two were not. Of the two which were not, one was at the director level, and therefore it is possible that the management is obligated to continue advertising until negotiations with whoever are complete. My data is not statistically complete, this is just a sampling which arose during my own job searching activities:
      Links to:
      Links to:

      No age discrimination:

      For reasons of space, it is not possible for me to include the flowery, yet hypocritical statements about EE/EO which accompany the job descriptions. Who wrote them - Allison Campbell? In any case, interested parties can simply search the relevant web pages for the term “five” and they will quickly see what I am illustrating.

    7. Those seven URLS are in addition to the two earlier ones which I have posted. I accumulated all of that data in the process of my own job search activities.

      It is possible that a good place to set an initial example in straightening out the disfunctional job market would be with the federal labs. That would make a further contribution towards establishing the legitimacy of the basis of your campaign for the ACS presidency.

    8. " straightening out the disfunctional job market would be with the federal labs"

      I'm curious why you think the ACS has any influence over Federal labs? Has the ACS ever claimed this? I assume the ACS has as much responsibility for Federal labs as it does for the boiling point of DMF. Seems to me you'd have more luck trying to get your congressional reps, who actually control DOE that is responsible for the labs, to act.

    9. GC, regarding post-doc positions at the national labs, I offer a quote from a National Academies 2014 study on post-docs, "...postdoctoral researchers in industry and at national laboratories do not face the same problems as academic postdoctoral researchers. Their roles are better defined, salaries are higher, terms are shorter, and the connection to career development is clearer. For this reason the recommendations that follow are intended to address the problems primarily encountered by postdoctoral researchers in the academic setting."

      For the full National Academies report, see:

    10. Thanks, I will study this report before following through with my congresswoman. Just this afternoon, I did indeed initially discuss with her local representative what the correct strategy would be to bring this up.

      For the moment, I will agree that the situation for academic post-doc fellows is fundamentally worse than for those with the government. I can't comment on industrial post-docs. For that matter, quoting from :
      "Outcomes: At the conclusion of the fellowship, approximately 60% of the fellows secure a staff position at LLNL. The majority of those who leave obtain tenure-track positions at top-tier universities including MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. A number of former fellows have started their own companies. " opposed to the use/abuse/discard program by which academic post-docs are treated.

      Since last writing, I have noticed that the DoD also uses a very similar wording, especially regarding that magic word which damns one's intellect and abilities to irrelevance, namely "five".

  18. Oh, yeah. Here's another one of those 5-year-limit government job adverts. Only thing is, that in this case, they can't decide whether it's five years after the PhD or after the BSc:


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