There was a good article in the Washington Post recently about the dysfunctional chemistry job market. One of the issues that has been a lot on my mind lately is what do next after graduation, and with options dwindling, it seems that I may have to settle for an alternative career, one that is not necessarily related to synthetic organic chemistry.
A lot of people are under the impression that any degree “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) related must have good employability; this results from people only thinking of Technology and Engineering when thinking of STEM subjects. Computer scientists, electrical engineers, and other engineers will always be in demand, as their training is directed more towards applied skills and the demands of industry. Science, on the other hand, has always been out of step with the needs and demands of industry. This is simply a result of the stochastic nature of research; one cannot predict when useful results will be obtained, and even then, what may be uninteresting today may have enormous value decades down the line. Plus, training scientists takes a lot of time. When I made the decision to study organic chemistry almost 8-9 years ago, the job market was reasonably good and Big Pharma had not yet begun the crazy downsizing of the past decade (over 300,000 chemists have been laid off in the US). Now, when I am thinking about entering the job market, the demand for chemists has dwindled. One just cannot predict what the economy will be like several years down the line, which is why I always tell people education is a big risk. It’s not a good idea to abandon a job for the sake of education, because these days there is no guarantee that you may be able to find employment after graduation.
The educational system for science (and chemistry in particular) in the US is particularly screwed up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, typical chemistry labs are staffed by numerous graduate students and postdoctoral scientists working for a professor. The research and results generated by the students and postdoc benefit the professor and earn him greater prestige and awards, while the students who actually generate the results are typically left in the lurch. Professors continually recruit and admit waves of students year after year into chemistry programs with nary a thought as to what their future employment prospects will be like. Postdoctoral studies, which were supposed to be a short stint, have extended to 5+ years in a lot of cases! Due to the overadmission of students into graduate chemistry programs and the overproduction of chemistry PhDs, the postdoc has become a new limbo of sorts, where scientists carry out extremely difficult research (beyond the PhD level) while also trying desperately to find employment either in tenure-track academic positions or in industry. In my opinion, one way to remedy this situation would be for universities to cut back on graduate admissions, and have labs primarily staffed by postdocs or scientists. It should become possible for postdoctoral scientsts to apply for permanent scientist positions at academic labs, and the pay for postdocs should increase (from approx. 30k per annum to 85-90k per annum). Of course, this may never happen in the near future, with the powers that be desiring to keep the cost of conducting scientific research as low as possible (it is better to have a lab with 4-5 clueless graduate students at <20k per year vs. having 1 experienced scientist at 90k, since more work can potentially get done).
Change to the system will be slow and can only occur through changing governmental policies, which can only be brought about by increased public awareness of the situation, which is what the Washington Post article attempts to do.
On the other hand, it can be said that “you get what you pay for”, since most chemists receive a free ride on government subsidies that flood the market with low paid chemistry professionals. Compare the situation to medical school, where people have to get good grades, study hard for the MCAT, and also pay (the barriers for entry to other professional schools such as medical, law, etc. are thus much higher). PhD admissions tend to be much, much less competitive, especially since the top students from undergraduate classes these days no longer choose to go into research. They choose to go where the money and jobs are – and that is not in science!
Obama and other politicians keep talking about a “shortage of scientists” in the US. This is nothing but garbage. We have a surplus of scientists – what we have is a lack of well-paying, stable jobs in science. Once we bring stability and well-paying jobs back to this country, public perception will change, and kids will also get more interested in science, since there will be money in it!
UPDATE: 2 more links for those interested in this topic.
1: Prof. Katz on why you shouldn’t become a scientist: http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html
2: A thriving Reddit discussion on the WaPo article