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From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

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.

Continue reading →

On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market

You’ve probably seen the numbers.

On August 3rd, the July unemployment figures for the US were widely reported. Relatively stagnant, again, with an overall unemployment rate of 8.3%

Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.

This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.

She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”

She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:

“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”

She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:

“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”

I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.

Okay, where to begin?

Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”

Gee, um, thanks, Mom.

That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:

“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”

He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →

Developing laboratory safety certification

Responding to a request from several former ACS presidents, the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety is attempting to develop an online laboratory safety certification program aimed at chemistry graduate students. The program ideally would address longstanding complaints from industry that Ph.D. programs do not adequately educate students to work safely in industrial research and development laboratories. A well-planned and peer-reviewed online certification program could be part of the solution to this training gap.

The development cost for online training programs, according to an informal survey of commercial online training providers, is approximately $20,000 for each presentation hour of this type of safety course. This means that developing an 8- to 10-hour course with about a dozen training modules would cost $160,000 to $200,000.

The division is now facing the following questions and would welcome input from Safety Zone readers:

  • How might costs be lowered? What work could be done by volunteers rather than paid consultants?
  • Does ACS have the resources to develop the program without using a training provider?
  • Several organizations are willing to support program development: the ACS Corporate Associates, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, and Council for Chemical Research. Are there others that might be interested?
  • Is there sufficient demand to warrant developing the program? Can it meet industry’s needs?
  • What topics should be covered, and what is a realistic amount of time to commit for effective training?
  • Is taking an online course and passing tests sufficient for certification or should there be other components?

Related post: Teaching safety to chemical engineers

Teaching laboratory safety

Over at Endless Possibilities today, Katherine Haxton, a chemistry lecturer at the UK’s Keele University, discusses the safety talks that she’s giving to students at the start of the term. She asks:

Another thing that struck me as I was preparing the safety talks is how few undergrad lab safety talks there are available on the internet – do we all just hide them away in the dark recesses of our virtual learning environments? Are we scared to make them public just in case something happens that the talk didn’t cover? I would have thought that prospective students and their families, and those of current students might quite like the idea of being able to see the safety requirements set out somewhere. Just a thought. And where can we actually share best practice for undergraduate lab safety?

I know that the Journal of Chemical Education and the Journal of Chemical Health & Safety both publish papers related to lab safety education (and papers on some of the programs I wrote about last year appeared in JCHAS over the summer), but does anyone have ideas for faster, less formal dialogue in this area? If people have some good suggestions, perhaps this a project that the ACS Safety Culture Task Force would consider.

Explosion at the University of Maryland

The explosion occurred in a fume hood in a chemistry teaching laboratory. Credit: Prince George's County Fire Department

On Monday, an explosion occurred during an organic chemistry lab at the University of Maryland (UMD). The local fire department responded, reportedly sending “16 pieces of fire, EMS and Haz-Mat units and about 70 personnel” to the scene. Two students received first- and second-degree chemical burns and were taken to an area burn unit.

UMD chemistry department chair Michael Doyle tells C&EN that:

The evidence that I saw with the fire marshall was consistent with waste material (strong acids) being inappropriately added to an organic reagent bottle and not to a waste container. I believe that the lesson learned is the need to segregate reagents for a lab from the reagents being used.

One of my colleagues notes that this is also a reason to be careful about reusing old reagent bottles as waste containers–current reagents and waste can be easily confused (although I don’t know if this was actually the situation at UMD).

The fire department’s blog has more photos, although the post differs from Doyle on the cause of the explosion.

Risk and safety in science education

Food for thought on the tension between making labs safer or greener and making sure students still learn essential skills: I recently ran across this video of Theodore Gray speaking about risk in science education. Gray–of Gray Matter, Mad Science, The Elements, and Wolfram fame–argues that “we’re all ninnies” when it comes to accepting risk in science experiments. He makes the analogy that we accept some risk of injury or death when it comes to children riding bikes or playing football, so why not when it comes to the laboratory? “There’s real value in communicating the fact that science is a big thing that goes out and does stuff in the world,” Gray says. “Sometimes it’s dangerous and that makes it exciting.” And it’s that excitement that can draw in students, both those who will someday become professional scientists and those who won’t but still need to understand the key role that science plays in society.

(h/t to Context and Variation)

ACS Webinars: Academic Jobs Outlook

You may be wondering why I’m blogging about academic careers on a blog which is supposed to be all about nontraditional careers for chemists.

Well, I attended the ACS Webinar titled “Academic Jobs Outlook” that was videostreamed live from the ACS National Meeting in Denver last week. If you missed it, you can still sign up and view it here.

While watching, it dawned on me that many chemists get turned off from academia because they realize that they wouldn’t want their PI’s job.

But there’s more to academia than R1, and that’s what I hope to highlight in this post.

The webinar hosted a panel of three faculty members who shared about their experiences at three different types of academic institutions: an R1 institution, a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) and a community college.

Meet the members of the panel (modified from the ACS Webinars website):

Here is a table that summarizes the topics that were discussed by the panelists, highlighting the differences between the three types of academic positions. Continue reading →

Proposals to encourage educators to focus on safety

By Russ Phifer, a consultant with WC Environmental and past chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety.

Two weekends ago, I attended an informal ACS meeting in Philadelphia that had two functions. One, in which I participated, was a writing session for the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) Task Force on Laboratory Chemical & Waste Management to update two of our documents. The second was a mini-summit of ACS groups to talk about safety culture. The two groups met together only during meals and for a brief joint session.

The safety culture meeting, which was essentially an ad-hoc group of CCS and Society Committee on Education members, was there primarily to address concerns over shortcomings in academic safety policies in the U.S. ACS President Nancy Jackson was a special guest, adding her perspective and taking the opportunity to learn more on this issue. Chaired by Dr. Robert Hill, the group appears to have a good handle on safety culture, what it means, and the nature of this culture at a wide variety of academic institutions.

Many organizations have tried to define the term “safety culture”; perhaps the best is one from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (pdf): “safety culture is how the organization behaves when no one is watching”. The discussion was similar to the National Academies’ Safety Summit last year. While recent laboratory incidents are a major impetus for these and other explorations of (primarily) academic chemical safety, many people have been concerned for some time that colleges and universities don’t do a good job of training and supervising either students or faculty, for various reasons.

Research has been done, stories told, and questionnaires sent. Evaluation and discussion are ongoing. But the real question is where do we go from here? How can we convince colleges and universities to make safety a higher priority? Since industry reportedly most values those graduates with a strong safety background, why aren’t more institutions making this a focus? What can ACS and other organizations do to encourage this?

My proposals:

  • Strengthen the ACS Committee on Professional Training accreditation program for undergraduate chemistry programs. Give it some teeth, perhaps in the form of funds to enable actual audits of college safety programs. More than 300 schools of all sizes participate in that program, and all place value on the accreditation.
  • Continue to seek input and involvement from the Campus Safety Health & Environmental Management Association, the National Association of College & University Business Officers, and other campus safety organizations. Form a consensus on what standards should be applied to laboratory safety in academic institutions, and then apply them.

What are yours?