Wednesday, October 26, 2016

ACS Presidential Candidate Thomas Gilbert on #chemjobs issues

I recently sent an e-mail to Professor Thomas Gilbert, 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? 
Career Navigator (CN) is the ACS one-stop shopping center for helping members advance their careers and land new jobs. Its resources include career counseling; basic guidance on resume writing and interview preparation, and linking job seekers with prospective employers. These are effective tools as long as job seekers have the knowledge, skills, and experience to the fill the jobs that are available. For those who don’t, CN offers a variety of face-to-face and online training courses. These are quality courses, but they have price tags to match: often between $1000 and $2000, which is more than many members can afford, particularly those who have been out of work or who took huge pay cuts to find permanent jobs. On my Presidential to-do list is making these courses and other professional education services available to unemployed and under-employed members at reduced or no cost. 
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? 
It is true that ACS has major programs designed to improve the quality of K-12 STEM and chemistry education in the US, and to encourage students from under-represented groups to pursue careers in chemistry. The goals of these programs are to create a population that has an understanding of, and appreciation for, how science and scientific inquiry benefits all of us, and to create more diversity among chemistry professionals. I don’t see them significantly increasing the size of the chemistry work force. If others argue that ACS should be restricting enrollments in undergrad and grad chemistry programs, my counter argument is that we should focus on improving the quality of those programs so that they produce graduates who have the knowledge, skills and experience that are in demand in today’s chemical enterprise, recognizing that future job growth will not be within the traditional boundaries of chemistry but in cross-disciplinary areas built on an understanding of how processes work at the molecular level. ACS-certified education programs need to reflect that reality. 
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? 
An action that I believe will have an impact on the ability of young MS and PhD chemists to find employment is the work of the 2012 Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences. Their report made it clear that too many graduate programs are preparing students for jobs that no longer exist, guaranteeing that their students will dwell in the land of the perpetual post-doc for years before they acquire the skills – and not just laboratory skills – that they need to land a decent job. On too many campuses, graduate programs in chemistry are archaic, inefficient and inherently unfair to the students in them. The time has come to address this problem by putting into action the recommendations of the 2012 presidential commission. 
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?) 
Linked to my answer to the previous question, I believe that ACS should work with NSF, NIH, and other funding agencies to redesign how young chemists are trained. We need national models of cooperative undergraduate and graduate education in the chemical sciences that encourage partnerships between faculty and their colleagues in industry. Programs supported by these partnerships would provide undergrads with experiences they do not get in most college teaching labs, and would engage graduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations focused on solving real-world problems that actually impact peoples’ lives. I believe prospective employers would find considerable value in the knowledge, skills and experience that graduates of these programs would have.
Thanks to Professor Gilbert for his responses.


  1. On question #3, the implication is that most post-docs are not quite ready for "decent" jobs and therefore need extra training. I'm flabbergasted at his complete ignorance of the realities of the scientific labor market.

    1. When you see job ads requiring X years of 'industry' experience with Y, Z, and W, the obvious implication is that employers do not value the training we get as grads or postdocs at all. People are in there working but the experience you get doesn't count as a matter of corporate policy. Definitely this has to be dealt with. It sucks but it's reality. Of course there's likely a bit of protectionism too, people who already have industry jobs don't necessarily want to compete with hordes of desperate postdocs who they know will work 60 hour weeks for $35K salaries. I could be paranoid here. But I might be right, too.

    2. Or it could be that employers want someone else to pay for training.

      Grad school and postdocs aren't supposed to train people for particular jobs, but to impart skills and the mindset necessary to do research. Some things (*cough*safety*cough*) could be done better for industry and for general training, but most of what people learn in grad school and postdocs isn't supposed to replace training at a job.

      In the labor market employers want, though, it makes no sense to train people when they will go work for someone else - it make them more valuable to others and costs them money. Hence, they would like someone else to do it. It doesn't make sense for grad students and postdocs to get training in skills for particular employers considering that those skills may not fit with the long-term intentions of grad schools (assuming, of course, that the main point for schools isn't just to get papers and cheap labor for someone else) and since those companies are unlikely to want people that have those skills for very long. Long-term training in specific skills for short term jobs is a recipe for disappointment and unemployment.

    3. This is something that has irritated me - a lot of companies in the US want the benefits of being in the US, namely a steady stream of graduates (PhD/postdocs) trained on the governments/taxpayers' dime, but don't want to contribute their fair share back - they relocate to other countries/tax havens to avoid paying US corporate tax rates. This is hypocrisy at its finest!

    4. I suspect the reason no one wants to hire 35-year-old perma-postdocs is that they never went through the acclimation to a corporate environment that most new bachelor's grads experienced at 21 or 22. I'm talking soft skills like email etiquette, office PC culture, how to run a meeting, etc. Unless you're at some company that still does fundamental academic-like research, most chemists are overqualified for their own jobs on the science side, and it's ignorance of the soft-skill/business/managerial stuff that limits us.

    5. I think most of the perma-postdocs are people who can't find jobs. Some of them might be unfit for purpose (and some might be trying for academics and not succeeding), but most I suspect are victims of "If no one else wants you, neither do I." I don't think training is going to make that problem go away - training more people well than you have jobs for (or the general ability to use) just means that people will be better trained in work and on the unemployment line. And there'll probably be another excuse why there are lots of people who can't find jobs.

  2. If he wins, the ACS president will be someone I Have actually met! (I went to Northeastern U.)