Thursday, November 12, 2015

The preliminary numbers from the ACS ChemCensus are out: unemployment of members is at 3.1%, slightly up from 2014

Credit: C&EN
Also in this week's C&EN, the preliminary data from the 2015 ChemCensus, which is a longer
version of the annual ACS salary survey. There were a number of articles: 
The relevant numbers from the overview: 
  • As you can see from the graph on the right, it's pretty clear that salaries for chemists and chemical engineers haven't risen much against inflation (graph in 1984 constant dollars.) 
  • There were 23,843 respondents to the 2015 ChemCensus; I think that's a ~25-30% response rate, but I can't tell until the full report is released. 
  • The unemployment rate for ACS members in 2015 was 3.1%, which is up from 2014's 2.9%. 
  • "11% of members in 2015 accepted a job that paid less than their previous position to maintain employment." 
  • The coastal regions have the highest median salaries, with $118,000 being the median salaries for both the Pacific (WA, OR, CA) region and the New England (MA, CT, NH, VT, ME) region. 
  • "21% of members in 2015 said they do not have access to continuing education or technical training from their employer." 
I have to say that I am frankly a little surprised to see an overall increase in the unemployment numbers; I would have expected this year to be a little bit better, but we'll have to wait until the full report is released before we have a good sense.* 

The article by Andrea Widener that talked about the different perspectives of a current tenured professor (Prof. Shahriar Mobashery of the University of Notre Dame) and Jenny Zhang (recent Ph.D. grad from the University of Washington). There are some not so hopeful quotes in there: 
When Shahriar Mobashery got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1985, chemistry seemed like a great career choice. “I thought the future was open,” the University of Notre Dame chemistry professor remembers. “In retrospect, that optimistic perspective was wonderful.” 
Back then, graduate schools had a hard time keeping students from dropping out for high-powered jobs in industry. Even foreign students in need of visas were in high demand. “Everybody got jobs in the 1980s,” he remembers. But the optimism that pervaded chemistry departments when Mobashery was in grad school has since dissipated. “Our outstanding students and postdocs still do just fine,” Mobashery says. But average students don’t fare nearly as well.
I agree with Professor Mobashery, in that we should be tracking how well the median student's income/unemployment is doing. Speaking of which, the quote from Dr. Zhang was eye-opening:
Not all of her fellow graduates have been able to find the job they’ve been searching for, Zhang says. They might be teaching part-time at the test-prep service Princeton Review or at a community college, doing computer programming, or carrying out a postdoc.  
That picture fits with what the ACS ChemCensus data suggest about employment opportunities in 1985 and 2015. “It’s a lot harder to get hired with a Ph.D. in chemistry today,” she says.
I wish I could disagree with her.

*Gotta say, I miss the graph-based format from the older coverage of the ACS Salary Survey; while the infographic approach is nice, I think the median reader of C&EN is used to tables of facts and figures. Maybe I'm wrong.


  1. Yup. There have been cyclical variations since then - the early-mid 90's kind of sucked for industrial hiring so lots of my peers did one or more postdocs before going into industry. But overall the prospects have been getting steadily worse.

  2. I'm probably being too cynical, but is it a bad sign that of the 9 "tips", all of which I do believe were provide genuinely, only 2 are from ACS members with actual jobs in industry?

    Oddly, none of the advice was from middle aged white men. Maybe an underrepresented class of chemist?

    1. MSc and PhD students who clearly aren't jaded... yet! But I think Daniel Robbins advice at the end saves the day.

  3. When I was in high school, the father of one of my classmates was a chemist and his advice was (even then, in the late 80's) not to be one. I didn't listen, and it's been ok, but plus ca change...

    1. As they say, 'that's the "c'est la vie"'.

  4. Nothing wrong with computer programming. Over 40 years ago, I was looking for my first job. Got one doing scientific programming (civil service) in the Dept of Defense. Got three years of experience under my belt and went into industry. I'm still working at my industry job, same company (3 mergers so far). In a couple of weeks, I'll celebrate 38 years with them.

    I still enjoy reading about chemistry, but I don't regret leaving it either.

    1. Assuming the median length of a Ph.D. in chemistry (5.9-6.3 years, IIRC), I think that's quite an opportunity cost.

      But yes, I agree, nothing wrong with computer programming.

    2. Opportunity cost vs sunk cost..

  5. STEM shortage! STEM shortage! STEM shortage!
    oh, wait....

  6. The numbers are deceptive. I got into a discussion with someone who works at the ACS and points to the low unemployment rate as an indication that the difficulties are overblown. Proving that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. That one number conceals far more than it reveals between selection bias, underemployment, employment outside chemistry, etc. Furthermore the relatively stagnant wage growth would indicate at best a sort of equilibrium has been reached where enough people are exiting the field to prevent wages from sliding. It's surely not an indication of rosy job prospects. It would be interesting to look at data for other fields as well.

  7. The prospects in this field are terrible and I am awaiting the day where I can leave this field and do something else.


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