musings on music and life

May 22, 2017

#chemjobs realtalk

Filed under: Chemistry, Chemistry Jobs, Uncomfortable truths — sankirnam @ 10:48 am

Courtesy of u/OldLabRat on Reddit:

“[…] suppose you take your fresh PhD in chemistry/bio/whatever to Cambridge or the Research Triangle or some other center of industry and start knocking on doors. “Do you need any chemistry done?” you may ask “maybe somebody’s out sick? I’ll totally help out cheap, just throw me some lunch money.” They might be tempted, until they ask your qualifications. “We don’t have any PhD level openings”, they will sneer. And I think every Chemistry department has the legend of the guy who left his PhD off his resume, got a bottle-washing job at Big Industry Company, and then was a preferred internal candidate for their next PhD opening so he got it – the corollary of that legend is that the position really had been wired for someone else, and Big Industry Company made a new rule that anyone who was found to have a concealed PhD would be fired. So that sort of pavement-pounding approach won’t work, they’ve seen it already and enacted countermeasures – such is the meaning of this popular tale. Chemistry is a field which has deliberately put up barriers, has institutionalized methods to avoid hiring qualified applicants who really want the job and would do it very well, in favor of seeking members of an elite ‘network’ who possess that elusive quality of ‘fit’.

It’s often posted here that the key to chemistry employment is networking – which seems to mean being popular and charismatic. This really is a sign that becoming a chemist is more like becoming a fine artist, or a philosopher of postmodernism, or a rock star, than it is like becoming a schoolteacher or a car mechanic or a pastry chef. You do not simply offer enthusiasm and hard work, let alone skill, it’s about projecting an image of your awesomeness.

If people really need work done and want to hire somebody to do it, they don’t mess around in quite the same way. I don’t know of any schoolteachers who got their job by following the ‘networking’ methodology. Nobody runs up their credit cards attending teacher networking meetings and conference, where they listen eagerly to presentations from already-employed teachers before politely introducing themselves and passing out their aspiring-teacher business cards, afterwards going to the bar and buying drinks for successful already-employed teachers while asking them to share their wisdom and experiences and oh by the way here’s my card. Teachers don’t have time to sit at a bar and have drinks bought for them by aspiring applicants. They’ve got assessments to grade, activities to develop, chemicals to buy, lesson plans to write, professional development to attend to: work, in other words!

So I’d say chemistry is a ‘luxury’ profession right now, or at least society is treating it like one. Becoming a chemist is less like becoming a master electrician and more like becoming an opera singer.

Of course we’re more dependent upon the products of the chemical industry than ever. But honestly it doesn’t take a chemist to follow a procedure. It takes a chemist to write one, but after that it doesn’t. And even if you did want a chemist, there are plenty in China and India who will work for a slightly lower salary and are able to just dump their waste jugs down the sewer drain, which is ever so much more efficient and globally competitive!”

This. This is what I faced for two years while desperately trying to get a job in chemical research – it’s not enough to be competent, knowledgeable about the field and have domain expertise, but you also have to possess that elusive quality of “fit”, which could be anything, depending on the hiring manager’s mood that day. The “elite network” mentioned above is very real – it used to be solely an academic thing (i.e. 99% of new professors at most universities these days are from Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Caltech/Berkeley), but now, thanks the insane saturation in the chemistry job market at the PhD level, it has percolated into industry. The two biggest questions I would get while trying to convince people to at least give me some kind of opportunity at their companies would be:

  1. “If you’re as competent as you claim, why hasn’t someone hired you yet?”
  2. “If you’re as good as you claim to be, why isn’t your degree from Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Caltech/Berkeley?”

The tech industry, in contrast, is refreshingly egalitarian. It doesn’t have the saturation and craziness present in science hiring, and hiring decisions are not really swayed by academic pedigree or awesome networks but rather by a track record of tangible projects and results that you have brought to the table.

As I have said before, the first thing that needs to be done to fix this situation is to stop oversaturating the market with scientistsUniversities need to stop recruiting graduate students by the droves and invest more into ensuring the career success of existing students and postdocs. Of course, most professors will balk at this since their supply of dirt-cheap labor will be threatened – the incentive to change can only come from the top, from funding agencies such as the NSF and NIH.


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