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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 →

Scientific staffing: Connecting employers with job candidates

Profile: Lynn Sullivan, Chemist (B.S., 1999), Account Manager for Aerotek, Inc.

Lynn Sullivan brought seven years of industry experience to her current job as account manager for Aerotek, which provides recruiting and staffing services. Courtesy photo.

Chemists on the job market may be all too familiar with the process by which staffing companies work with recruiters to connect employers with job candidates.

But has it crossed your mind that it takes someone who has firsthand experience in the chemical industry to know who will be a good fit for the job?

Lynn Sullivan serves as an account manager for Aerotek, which provides recruiting and staffing services in the Atlanta metro area. Prior to her account management role with Aerotek, Lynn worked as a chemist for seven years. For more than four years now, Lynn has been working to help the scientific and healthcare industries find hiring solutions.

Although she started off as a biology/pre-med major at Delta State University, she decided that wasn’t the career path that she wanted and made the switch, receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After graduation, she landed an industry job, where she worked in quality control and eventually moved into R&D.

While working as a manager in an R&D department, Lynn was responsible for hiring technicians to work in the lab. She used a staffing company to help her identify job candidates, which led her to consider a career switch into the field.

“I thought it would be a great fit for me because I could stay in the sciences but work more with people,” Lynn explained.

Day to day, you can find Lynn calling companies, meeting with customers and working with recruiters to identify candidates for the companies’ needs. One of her favorite parts of the job is building relationships with people in a variety of scientific fields.

Lynn strongly believes that her degree and prior experience in the scientific industry helped prepare her current role. She doesn’t miss working in a lab—after seven years at the bench, she realized it wasn’t her passion. But her current job requires her to visit labs often and learn about the research at various companies—so she still feels very connected with the scientific world.

For those interested in a career like Lynn’s, she said there’s no industry-specific experience required. However, it’s important to make sure you don’t want to work in a lab environment and are willing to go into more of a sales position within the science community.

Lynn said working for a staffing company requires an interest in sales because “we are selling our staffing solutions to employers, whether it’s to meet a temporary, cyclical or more permanent solution.”

The obvious question to ask a person who works in scientific staffing is: What advice to you have to chemists on the job market today? Here’s what Lynn had to say:

Lynn's advice to chemists on the job market is: network well and have a clean, professional resume. Photo credit: flickr user washtenawcc.

“Two things that are important for chemists looking for jobs:  networking and their resume.  Networking is key to helping people find employment.  When networking, you want to make sure you have a clean, professional resume.  Chemists often forget to include laboratory skills, and that’s what will catch the eye of an employer or recruiter.

“For new graduates in Chemistry, it’s important to not only include any undergraduate research or internships, but to speak specifically about what your role was in the laboratory, and what equipment or techniques you utilized.”

In her spare time, Lynn is an active member of the American Chemical Society, and is currently the Chair Elect for the Georgia Local Section. In the past, Lynn served as committee chair of the Women’s Chemist Committee for the local chapter.

When asked why she has chosen to be involved in ACS, Lynn said she initially got plugged in for networking purposes and to meet new people in her area with a chemistry background.

“Organizations like ACS allow you the chance to meet chemists with a variety of backgrounds and to stay current with new research and industry trends,” Lynn said. “It also gives me the chance to volunteer by educating and promoting the field of chemistry to others.”

Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)

Women in their mid-thirties with careers in science, engineering and technology are twice as likely to quit their jobs as men– and studies on women and work-life balance suggest that it will take more than surface-level changes to put a dent in this statistic.

Even though it's not 1923 anymore, women in STEM careers still report that they struggle to thrive in a male-dominated workplace culture. Photo credit: flickr user Meaghan Courtney

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review wrote about a research study that explored the reasons why women leave behind STEM careers:

“The Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work, recently reported that women in science, engineering, and technology fields are likely to leave their positions, in large part ‘because the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in the United States, then this [science, engineering, and technology fields] is its Alamo– a last holdout of redoubled intensity.’”

-Quote from p. 50 of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples

The researchers found five reasons why women leave science:

  1. The hostility of the workplace culture
  2. A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
  3. Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
  4. Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
  5. Bemoaned by the “mystery” surrounding career advancement and lack of mentors

It’s easy to see how it can become a downward spiral: Women drop out because there aren’t many other women who they can relate to—which serves to worsen the situation.

But it’s not just that there aren’t more women around. The pressure of juggling responsibilities of work and home, as well as a plethora of other factors, contribute to why more educated women are quitting their jobs recently than ever before.

The results of a research study on why women opt out of their careers are chronicled in a book titled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family. Continue reading →

What it takes to be a chemistry entrepreneur

If you’re a chemist with a great idea, it just might be that some entrepreneurial training and business savvy is all you need to start up a company that could lead to new jobs, according to Harvard University professor George Whitesideds.

George Whitesides, professor at Harvard University, talked about what it takes to start up a small company. If you missed the ACS Webinar, check it out here: http://acswebinars.org/vcf2011-innovation

A few weeks back, Whitesides, along with ACS Immediate Past President Joseph Francisco, co-hosted an ACS Webinar titled “Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Jobs.” If you missed it, you can view the recorded webinar here.

The option of taking your idea and starting up a company is something that’s not talked about in much depth in the circles I run in, i.e. in grad school.

Whitesides said he believes this is a problem. Students are coming out with advanced chemistry degrees but without the entrepreneurial know-how to turn their ideas into profits for the benefit of themselves and the economy.

During the webinar, Whitesides shared his thoughts on this issue and also offered suggestions to the ACS regarding what they can do to help create more jobs for chemists.

Read the entire report from the ACS Task Force here.

What’s the problem?

Whitesides had a thing or two to say about what it will take to get chemists back in the game.

To begin, the Task Force asked the question, What is causing the decline in employment for chemists? Is it a problem of declining need for chemists, or chemists’ decline in innovation?

The Task Force’s conclusion was that “there’s no loss in innovation, but there are problems in getting the ideas that are emerging in chemistry into a state where they are recognizable in creating large numbers of jobs,” Whitesides said.

In other words, the problem is not that there’s nothing left for chemists to contribute. In fact, the biggest problems facing society now are problems that require chemistry– so the opportunities are, in principle, unlimited, he said.

Okay, it’s not that chemists aren’t needed in society. They are. So, the problems lie more in the arena of turning brilliant ideas into marketable products.

But starting up a company is not as simple as we’d like to think. Continue reading →

Upcoming ACS Webinars: Virtual Career Fair 2011

Hi everyone! Just wanted to draw your attention to several opportunities for learning more about chemistry careers and the job market.

As you all know, the ACS National Meeting in Denver, CO kicked off yesterday. Check out these awesome C&EN Picks videos for a sneak peak at what’s going on at the meeting this week.

Thanks to the wonderful interwebs and ACS Webinars, those of us who are not in attendance at the ACS meeting can still tap into some of the awesome career information, as if we were right there. All you have to do is sign up and then log in for the live webcast and watch the seminar in the comfort of your own home (or office, lab, or wherever you will be at the time).

For some of the sessions, you can even have your questions answered by the speakers themselves by submitting them online during the live Q&A.

Here’s a list of the webinars:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 – Live video streaming from Denver, Colorado Convention Center

Navigating the Global Industrial Job Market
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM (Mountain Standard Time)
Richard Connell (Pfizer, Inc.), Scott Harbeson (Concert Pharmaceuticals, Inc.), Jos Put (DSM), and moderator,  David Harwell (American Chemical Society)

Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Jobs
11:00 AM – 12:00 N (Mountain Standard Time)
Keynote speakers George Whitesides (Harvard University) and Joseph Francisco (Purdue University), and moderator,  Madeleine Jacobs (American Chemical Society)

Academic Jobs Outlook
1:00 PM – 2:00 PM (Mountain Standard Time)
Christine Gaudinski (Aims Community College), Laurel Goj (Rollins College) and Jason Ritchie (University of Mississippi), and moderator,  David Harwell (American Chemical Society)

Networking 101 — Making Your Contacts Count
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM (Mountain Standard Time)
Located in the ACS Village in the ACS Exposition Hall with speaker, Bonnie Coffey (Contacts Count) and moderator,  David Harwell (American Chemical Society)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 – Webinars Only

Working in the USA — Immigration Update
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM (Mountain Standard Time)
Navid Dayzad, Esq. (Dayzad Law Offices, PC) and Kelly McCown (McCown & Evans LLP) and moderator,  David Harwell (American Chemical Society)

From Scientist to CEO
11:00 AM – 12:00 PM (Mountain Standard Time)
Keynote speaker, Randall Dearth (Lanxess Corporation) and moderator David Harwell (American Chemical Society)

What Recruiters Are Looking For — Making the ‘A’ List
1:00 PM – 2:00 PM (Mountain Standard Time)
Meredith Dow (PROVEN, Inc.), Alveda Williams (The Dow Chemical Company), Jodi Hutchinson (Dow Corning Corporation),  and moderator, David Harwell (American Chemical Society)

A blurb about ACS Webinars:

ACS Webinars™ is a free, weekly online event serving to connect ACS members and scientific professionals with subject matter experts and global thought leaders in chemical sciences, management, and business. The ACS Webinars are divided into several series that address topics of interest to the chemical and scientific community; these series include career development, professional growth, business & innovation, green chemistry, and joy of science. Each webinar is 60 minutes in length, comprising a short presentation followed by Q&A with the speaker. The live webinars are held on Thursdays (and on some Tuesdays on career topics) from 2-3pm ET.  Recordings of the webinars are available online and upcoming events are posted at http://acswebinars.org/.

I’ll be blogging about a few of the webinars and will also post links to other blog posts that summarize the discussions that take place during these webcasts.

Stay tuned!

Chance favors only the prepared (and clear) mind

Last week, there was a terrific post here by Christine on the value of looking deep inside yourself to find what you truly love to do. This caught the notice of David Kroll, fellow blogger on Terra Sigillata here at GlobCasino.

There’s a connection here that’s relevant to me, and how I was able to keep my brain engaged while seeking my next position which I landed a few weeks ago.

Please bear with me as I explain, as I think there’s a shred of relevance here for anyone who’s currently unemployed.

My unemployment began in early January of this year. During my job search, I knew I needed to stay active mentally and physically, be focused, and expand my network.

Part of my strategy regarding networking was to use social media, including Twitter. I had an account for over a year, but tweeted seldom, with brilliant witticisms such as “Got new tires for my car today.” It’s a wonder my relatives followed me, let alone anyone else.

I got into it more seriously this time around, looking to establish a consistent personal brand, as advised by the social media mavens and jargonistas. I started following science-y folks, including science bloggers, like David Kroll.

Then, on February 3rd, I saw this:

Opportunity tweets but once. (Well, not counting retweets)

I answered each bit internally:

Hey you! Who, me?

Job-seeking in non-traditional chemistry careers? Why, yes, it so happens that I am, if you must pry.

Wanna blog with some killer writers? I’m not sure. Sounds dangerous. What or whom did they kill? Oh, wait, I get it. My answer is, um…..yes?

Contact @rachelpep http://bit.ly/eeRKOv

I checked out the link. I became better acquainted with this blog and the rest of GlobCasino. (Confession: I had visited the blogs here before. Once. I hereby throw myself upon the mercy of the court.)

I really enjoyed reading the past posts by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. There was a lot of useful info that really hit home—and funny at the same time.

This sounds challenging and fun, I thought. What the heck, give it a shot! So I did, and, well, here I am.

I could have dismissed this opportunity out of hand. But in it I saw a chance to get out of my comfort zone and keep my brain active. And, hey, you never know where things will lead.

Okay, this blogging opportunity didn’t directly lead to me securing my current position. But I have no doubt it made a difference. It definitely helped me keep a positive frame of mind. I was getting feedback, getting to meet new people, talk science—all good stuff.

So, when I scored a couple of interviews for chemistry positions, I was ready. I was psyched, not scared. I was able to interview without appearing desperate or downtrodden.

Okay, now for the broader relevance part.

The one facet of my job search strategy that I intentionally omitted above was giving myself a break when necessary.

That's right—cut yourself some slack once in a while. Photo credit: flickr user szlove

If you go at this 24/7, it’s easy to get burned out. In that fatigued frame of mind, it can be difficult to recognize opportunities and stay mentally engaged. Don’t forget to step away from the job search when you need to. And you will need to.

I don’t think it matters all that much what you do, within reason of course, as long as it makes you feel like you’re productive and making some sort of contribution, even towards your own edification.

You can do volunteer work, take a class, gain a certification—expanding the breadth of your transferable skills—to further (or change) your career. Do whatever makes you feel useful and that you’re advancing in some direction—even if you’re not completely sure what direction that is sometimes.

I think the key is in striving to keep an objective, open mind. If you can, avoid job search tunnel-vision. If an activity doesn’t appear directly related to your job search, it still might be well worth doing.

Yes, you need to find a job, but you’re only human. Breaking up your routine will help your mind stay clear. Searching for a job is a job. In any job, some time away every now and then is valuable and can improve your performance.

Many companies like to tout a focus on their employees’ “work-life balance.” When you’re unemployed, your work and your life can become almost inextricably intertwined. During your job search, you need to achieve some separation. If you can find something to do that gives you enjoyment, all the better.

So, if you’re dealing with the stresses of being unemployed, or feeling overworked while employed—please remember to give yourself a break now and then. You deserve it, and it will likely pay off.

And one more thing: Thanks, David. Thanks, Rachel. I owe you one.

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

As it is, only a tiny fraction of Ph.D. chemists can bring their research skills to academia because professorship jobs are few and far between. Would the creation of professionalized post-doc positions be a win-win solution? Photo credit: flickr user mstephens7.

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem.

This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs:

“To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone…
The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the ‘tournament’ model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change…
“An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set.”

In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision.

Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic.

Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced.

Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists.

The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research and not just be another set of hands.

But professionalized postdocs would reduce the number of spaces in the lab available to new grad students and postdocs. Isn’t that a bad thing?

If you would be as happy as this guy doing academic research long-term, but don't want the added duties of a professorship, a professionalized postdoc could be the ideal choice for you. Photo credit: flickr user Nomed Senkrad.

That’s a tricky question. As it is, too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs available, contributing to the high unemployment rates in science. Academia would benefit, several commenters said, by emulating the way medical schools manage their supply and demand problem. Every year, the number of students accepted is determined by the projected need for doctors. Yet in academia, undergrads are actively recruited to graduate school without consideration for their future job prospects, and this is a severe problem.

Hold on. I thought the U.S. was all gung-ho about convincing young people to go for science since we don’t have enough scientists. This blog post seemed to argue for the contrary.

But we need to make a distinction here: the shortage of scientists at the MS/BS level is a real problem, but the overabundance of PhD scientists is something entirely different. It’s a pyramid structure, where there are far more jobs for MS/BS-level scientists than for PhDs. Unemployed PhD scientists commonly find they are overqualified for many of the jobs out there.

Especially in academia, the number of spots are so few that only a tiny fraction of grad students and postdocs have a shot at becoming professors. Some would argue that it has as much to do with luck as it does hard work and research smarts. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

The point is this: academia would benefit from providing  long-term postdoc positions to PhD scientists who want a research career in academia but don’t want all the other responsibilities that come along with academia. Otherwise they will be forced to take their skills elsewhere and find work in other fields.

…not that exploring careers beyond the bench is a bad thing. That is, after all, what this blog is all about! But alternative careers away from the bench are not for everyone, hence, the proposal of this alternative career within academia.

If such a change could be wrought, I think it would be a win-win. PI’s would benefit from having seasoned researchers stick around for the long haul. Permadocs would happily pursue research careers in academia without the added pressures of being a professor. And the number of PhD scientists would go down, which would help our current supply and demand problem in chemistry.

What do you think?

Related Posts:

Doctoral Dilemma
Too many Ph.D.s?
Educating Ph.D. chemists
Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess

In transition again, but in the best possible way

Well, it actually happened, and I can’t believe my good fortune.

I have a job! And not just any job, but one in medicinal chemistry, in a similar role to the one I had before my, um, involuntary hiatus.

Vegas, baby! No, wait, that's wrong. Baltimore, baby! Photo credit: flickr user Union-Square

I’ve recently begun work at my new position. I’m now a Senior Research Chemist at The Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. I’m very excited, and couldn’t be happier.

Yes, I know, there’s nothing about this job that’s “nontraditional” at all for a chemist. It is a big change going from industry—Big Pharma, no less—to what is primarily an academic setting.

It is, of course, an even more drastic change moving from the ranks of the unemployed to the un-unemployed.

The only downside, if there is any, about my new job is the commute. Comparatively, though, it is a very minor inconvenience—I mean, I get to go home every night and be with my family. Many of my former colleagues, although employed, are not so fortunate in that regard.

To say that I’m extremely lucky is a huge understatement, particularly in this economy. As many of you know all too well, chemistry jobs are few and far between these days. I fully expected to move to a career outside the lab, if not outside chemistry altogether. I had worked on professional development activities, such as project management training, to prepare myself for such a move.

Being able to blog about what I’ve been going through has been very therapeutic, no question. It’s forced me to work through my feelings about becoming unemployed in a supportive (and very public) environment. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to contribute this blog, and hope to continue doing so as long as the opportunity remains.

While I’m ecstatic about this turn of events, I also feel something bordering on survivor guilt.

It’s not that I feel undeserving—I am good at what I do. But many, many other people are, too. The fact that so many good chemists have had to leave the discipline hurts science as a whole.

To my former colleagues and other fellow chemists still trying to find a job—although I know all too well how difficult things are, try not to despair. There are positions out there—there’s just an insane amount of competition for each one.

I realize this is probably cold comfort to many of you who have been out of work far longer than I had been.

What can I offer in the way of advice? Looking back, I cannot understate the value of networking to help secure a position. Yes, this was a publicly posted position, but networking was instrumental in helping everything all come together.

As chemists, we often become immersed in our work, and as a result, our world becomes somewhat insular. Take some risk, and put yourself out there.

Networking is not as mysterious as some job search gurus would like to have you think. It’s simply talking, and more importantly, listening to people. Anyone you talk to, and I do mean anyone, has the potential of being only one or two degrees of separation away from a hiring manager. Even when not looking for a new position, it’s an opportunity to be a spokesperson for chemistry in general.

Hey, don't we all? Photo credit: flickr user hanjabanja

It also helps to find some way to accept the fact that your employer decided to let you go, whether it was a downsizing or a site closure. Move on, and don’t look back. Yes, you and your former colleagues were like family. You can, and should, still keep in touch and stay connected.

But you need to cut the tether to your former employer. If your drank heavily from the corporate kool-aid, purge yourself in some fashion—and realize that science is a separate entity.

It was a love of science that brought us all to where we now find ourselves, right? It wasn’t devotion to a corporation.

So, what can I do to earn what I now have?

I think it’s pretty simple, really. I will make a promise.

I pledge to not take this lightly in any way. Since chemistry positions are so scarce, I feel duty-bound to do my absolute best, do good science, keep learning, and enjoy every minute of it.

I would hope that all other chemists who currently find themselves employed feel a similar obligation.