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This past November, C&EN ran a cover story on the employment outlook for chemists.
The coverage consisted of several simultaneously published stories regarding various aspects of the employment outlook. The main focus shared by many of these stories was on chemists already in the workforce, and the effects that recent or impending layoffs have had on their lives. I offered a few thoughts on the topic as it stirred up fresh memories of having gone through similar experiences myself.
The bleak employment outlook for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry was also described, but in less detail than given for experienced workers. Those details, plus profiles of some recent graduates, were provided earlier this week, in “New Bachelor-Level Chemists Face Grim Job Market,” an excellent article by C&EN Senior Editor Susan J. Ainsworth. Some thoughtful comments on this story have been provided by Chemjobber this week.
The first paragraph of the C&EN article sets the tone for what is to follow:
The inhospitable employment climate has not spared anyone in the chemical sciences, but many who have recently earned a bachelor’s degree may be in for a particularly tough fight.
Some survey data was provided to accompany the previous qualitative assessment:
In the most recent American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields, in 2011, 14% of recent bachelor’s degree recipients reported that they didn’t have a job but were seeking one, up from 12% in 2010 (C&EN, June 4, 2012, page 36). In contrast, 9% of new Ph.D. grads said they were seeking employment in 2011, up from 6% in 2010.
With such limited employment prospects for new graduates, it stands to reason that the bar would be set high to be considered for those opportunities that do exist.
Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.
First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past
This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?
Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.
“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.
Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:
The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.
Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!
The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.
There are many reasons for a person to seek out a career that’s seen as nontraditional within their particular field of study. With the current state of the job market within chemistry, a lack of employment prospects has been one reason focused upon here. Another motivator may simply be choice, based on a change in personal values, a need to escape a career that has become stressful, or a desire to convert a lifelong avocation into a career…among other considerations.
For example, many chemists have left the bench after becoming disenchanted with laboratory work, and then seek something else, often because of a perceived lack of opportunities for career progression in a lab-based position.
And then there are those who are forced to seek a career change because their position, which may have been considered traditional, no longer exists, nor does any real prospect of future opportunities in their field.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across blog posts about people in other disciplines seeking alternatives to their “traditional” career options. This should come as no surprise—the circumstances described above for seeking a career change are by no means experienced by chemists alone.
A couple of random examples include a profile within the field of sports psychology and speculation on career possibilities for boxer Manny Pacquiao (okay, that latter example is pretty specific).
One career, in particular, seemed to stand out by its prevalence—Lawyers
It is simple really: I was just never cut out for a life of 9-5 traipsing into work every day and doing something I really didn’t care about. Unfortunately for me, legal work was something I really didn’t care about.
Not too different than a research chemist losing interest in research.
One reason why the notion of lawyers in nontraditional careers caught my attention is because, as you may remember, the law—specifically patent law—was highlighted as a nontraditional chemistry career option in a profile here a couple of years ago. The possibility seems somewhat unlikely, but I’m anxious to see if it comes full circle—are there examples of a lawyer (or someone from another career covered here) seeking out chemistry as their nontraditional career of choice? I’ll keep looking.
In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise:
Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.
After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point.
Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme:
I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.
I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance:
Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”
Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days.
I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s particularly timely in light of last month’s ACS Presidential Commission report and C&EN coverage on the status of graduate school in the chemical sciences and Deirdre’s terrific ensuing guest post here.
This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN:
Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data.
Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken.
After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business.
I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish.
And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors.
But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, I know I’m not alone in having an intensely nostalgic view of food. Certain foods will always be strongly associated with memories of my childhood and inextricably linked to my family as my children grow. Or rather, now that they are grown.
As I look fondly to the past, I also wonder what the future of food will look like. It is certain that chemistry will play some role here, because, food, like everything else, is made of chemicals.
When I was a young boy, all technology, including chemistry (!), was chic and modern, or, rather, mod. The food industry was creating product after product that, to me, seemed cool as cool could be, and I literally ate them up. My experience of this era mirrors that of Michael Pollan, writer of “books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.”
In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Futures of Food,” he wrote:
“all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.
The general consensus seemed to be that “food”—a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned—was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology.”
Sadly, this love fest with technofood was short-lived:
“What none of us could have imagined back in 1965 was that within five short years, the synthetic food future would be overthrown in advance of its arrival. The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization.”
Over forty years later, although food technology has continued to proceeded, the concept of synthetic food has not regained any luster. The opinion that processed food is to be avoided has transcended the counterculture, and has been embraced by the popular culture and medical establishment. Whole, natural, fresh foods are the healthy dietary high road for you to travel.
There has been much controversy in particular regarding genetically-modified organisms (GMO) contained in our food products. Any discussion of the future of food would have to include this. But having just opened that particular can of worms, I’m going to attempt to reseal it and approach the subject of food’s future from another tack, taking a very sharp turn toward a lighter, fluffier view. Like a soufflé. Hopefully it won’t collapse.
We are now well into the 21st Century. So, how did those 1960s predictions of our Food Future turn out? I don’t know about you, but I certainly enjoy all my food in pill form. I find it’s a good idea to eat light before flying in my rocket car, at least until my personal robot gets its pilot’s license.
Since many of these predictions have turned out later to be more-or-less fantasy, perhaps more reliable visions of our future in food are to be found in the world of fiction. So, below, I’ve compiled a small list of film, television and book titles—some are SF, some not, but all have a vision of the future or parallel present, dystopian or otherwise. In all these works, there is at least a moment where food plays a part. Please join me and scan the following menu:
Well, no doubt you’ve had at least a cursory look at the excellent C&EN cover story regarding the 2012 Employment Outlook for chemists. The cover shows a long queue of labcoat-wearing chemists, all presumably in line for the one available position. Cheery.
This story is in contrast to some previous commentary suggesting a recovery may be around some invisible corner, and, as chemists, we can get through it with grim determination. Following that, we’ll be somehow rewarded at the end of the ordeal. All we need to do is say “entrepreneurship” three times, click our heels together, and we’ll all be given a cushy new job in Kansas with all relocation expenses reimbursed.
If you’ve been through layoffs and site closures, as I have, and are, in turn, still connected to former colleagues facing a similar fate—again—or are still unemployed after a protracted period of time, this insistence that things aren’t so bad can be, well, annoying. It suggests the problem is you.
A few months ago, my personal annoyance meter pegged out, and I took ACS CEO and Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs to task for portraying the chemistry job market as rosier than I saw it, and for scolding a mother, a scientist who had gone through a downsizing, for urging her daughter to “not go into science.”
Well, although I’m sure my post had little if anything to do with it, a similar message has gotten through. Facts are presented, and they are cold and hard.
Okay. If you haven’t already, you need to read this cover story in greater detail. It’s broken up into several articles, with titles shown below. Under the heading of each title, I’ve followed with a few of my thoughts upon reading each one. There’s much more information within each article than referred to with my superficial observations. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read each article in their entirety, regardless of where you are in your career journey.
Overall, the full story was a struggle for me to get through—not because of how it’s reported (which is excellent), but because it rings so true. I’ve been there. Others still are there. It’s no fun revisiting.
Anyway, here we go:
Periodically, we’ve pointed out some of the available resources and information provided by the ACS Careers to help you with career decisions. Well, that crisp autumn chill in the air reminds me that it’s time to do it again.
Recently, the ACS Careers Blog has profiled two categories of nontraditional chemistry careers. First is science and technical writers, a topic also covered by JAEP in past posts (here, here and here). Another is supply-chain manager and contract manager, (with some similarities to a project manager).
For those of you interested in more traditional chemistry careers (depending on what “traditional” means to you), many profiles have been compiled by ACS Careers and can be found here. These are provided as part of ACS Careers Programs, accessible through the online ACS Member Handbook, or via the ACS portal.
Remember, too, that overviews of career opportunities and discussions of factors affecting the broader employment outlook are available through the ACS Webinars Careers Channel. Check out this page for a list of past webinars covered by JAEP.
Upcoming: Next week, there will be a webinar with the provocative title of Doctoral Glut Dilemma: Are There Solutions? This webinar will broadcast next Thursday, November 8th at 2:00 PM EST. This one promises to provide all the controversy you can stand. I’m afraid, however, that you’ll have to supply your own popcorn.
And, don’t forget, all ACS webinars are available for viewing through their archives (under the Past Webinars tab) or via the acswebinars YouTube channel. View a webinar from The Past! What were ACS members’ concerns years ago? How has chemistry fashion has changed over time? (Admittedly a trick question—fashion doesn’t exist for chemists, let alone change). The archives only go so far back, though. So there’s no footage of a grad student being reduced to tears by the steely gaze of R.B. Woodward.
And if your attention span can’t endure a full-length webinar, there are even webinets! What do you mean, that’s not a word? The ACS says it is, so there. The webinets are given the overarching theme of “2 Minutes to a Smarter Scientist.” Well, count me in. I would also like to be smarterer. Here’s a sample webinet to give you a taste:
Irresistible, right? So do yourself a favor, and give this bounty of information a thorough perusal. You’ll be glad you did.