Derek Lowe had an interesting post earlier about outsourcing and the effect that free trade agreements have had on chemical employment in the US.
This raised a question in my mind: what does a PhD in chemistry enable you to do? If you get a degree in organic chemistry, that usually implies you have some kind of expertise in organic synthesis, but as we’re seeing lately, more and more synthesis is being farmed out to CROs internationally. These CROs may have PhDs in their labs carrying out the synthesis for their clients, but that’s besides the issue; I am concerned with holders of PhDs in chemistry in the US. Generally speaking, fresh PhD graduates will usually enter industry positions working on early-stage projects, if they are doing synthesis. If the early-stage synthesis is being shipped out to other countries, then how can fresh graduates get their foot in the door? Derek Lowe states that companies are generally wary about outsourcing late-stage API synthesis to other countries due to IP security issues, but “for early-stage material, it generally works pretty well.”
Now here’s the kicker: Derek Lowe concludes by saying, “there probably be shouldn’t be that many basic-level organic chemistry services in the US. There are times when it makes sense, and the further up the value chain the more sense it makes, but “grunt work”, however you define it, is (other things being equal) going to migrate to lower-wage situations”. If fresh PhDs are generally expected to work on basic synthesis when they are first hired by industry, does that mean that a PhD simply certifies you to do “grunt work”? And does that mean there is no longer a market for fresh PhD’s in the US to do synthetic work? This would go a long way to explaining why postdoctoral experience has become a requirement for industry positions in chemistry, to ensure that fresh entrants are more experienced and can begin at a more advanced stage.
I had the opportunity to have an in-depth chat with the current ACS president Donna Nelson and the ACS president-elect Peter Dorhout at the ACS convention in San Diego earlier this month about the issue of underemployment and unemployment of chemists today. Interestingly enough, they pointed out that there has been a 100% increase in the number of BA/BS degrees awarded in chemistry over the last 15 years, but the unemployment gap has also grown to about 14% today (the link is from 2013, but that is the latest figure I could find). Another thing to keep in mind is that students can dodge unemployment/underemployment by going back to school for another degree, so this statistic can be difficult to measure. This is key at both the BS and the PhD levels, and PhD’s have the additional option of doing a postdoc, which is becoming increasingly common – and as Chemjobber says, “postdoctoral positions are quite often the scientific equivalent of an inferior good, that is a position that one would not take, if one had a better option”. There is also not enough effort being done by universities to track the career paths of their graduates; at the bachelor’s level, that may be prohibitive due to the volume of data (but of course, that should not be an issue for a “data scientist” skilled with “big data”), but at the PhD level, it is more feasible, and should be done. There should be a database where students and postdocs should be able to look up PI’s and track the careers of their graduates; a PI who has too many students going to get additional degrees after their PhD would raise a red flag. There should also be some way to tie federal grant funding for PIs with student career success – but the issue there is what metric would you use? My idea is to track the number of students gainfully employed in their field of training and with a salary of at least $100,000 within 3 years of graduation (I think that’s reasonable, but feel free to tell me I’m crazy). The exception would be those on the academic track, either as an assistant professor or a postdoc.
The other thing that crossed my mind is that the ACS should put out an advisory to all students interested in chemistry about the poor job market, similar to what was done by Texas A&M University for its incoming Petroleum Engineering students in 2013! If the ACS were to really be looking out for its members, it should do what the AMA does, and start restricting the supply of chemistry graduates. In any case, it is amusing (and heartening) now to see the word percolating out. If the Chemistry subreddit is any indication, the level of realtalk nowadays is increasing, which is a good sign.
The modern scientific-academic complex as it exists today in the US is the legacy of Vannevar Bush. In a document called Science, the Endless Frontier, he advised the president at the time (Truman) to continue funding fundamental science in a big way, setting up the huge expansion of the university system in the US, and the eventual founding of the NSF in order to publicly fund science. This rapid expansion of the US university system in the latter half of the 20th century made it relatively easy for PhDs and postdocs at the time to find academic positions. Unfortunately, the market has long since saturated, resulting in the situation below, summarized by Jorge Cham in a tongue-in-cheek manner:
I know people are tired of reading this over and over again, but I wanted to get these thoughts down, as they’ve been in my mind for a while. I’ll do my best to refrain from this topic in the near future, since people have told me that they do find this depressing.