musings on music and life

September 7, 2017

Should chemists learn to code?

Filed under: Chemistry, Chemistry Jobs, Coding, education — sankirnam @ 9:25 am

I recently posted this comment on a post in Chemjobber earlier this week, so here it is. This is in response to the question in the title.

My two cents:

It’s not just that “chemistry majors should learn to code”; I feel that all college graduates today should learn to code. Programming is becoming a fundamental type of literacy these days. Just like how all college graduates should be fully literate in English and have some exposure to mathematics (e.g. calculus), all graduates should also have some experience with coding or programming.

As to how to incorporate programming into a typical undergraduate chemistry curriculum – I’m not entirely sure. Like a lot of people here, I took a required course as an undergrad on Matlab programming, after which I promptly forgot everything, since we never used it again. My PhD work in synthetic organic chemistry also involved zero programming, and other organic chemists here will probably also have similar experiences. In organic chemistry, programming is one of those things that is nice to know, but not at all necessary for success, and may even be viewed as somewhat of a distraction – is knowing how to program in Java going to get you better separations in your columns? Not really.

Everything I know about programming came AFTER I finished my PhD – I self-taught programming with online courses, starting with Codecademy, and after I felt I had reached a decent level of competency, I enrolled in a “Data Science” bootcamp last year. Everything I learned was completely orthogonal to chemistry; there’s little overlap between training and running a machine learning model using Python/scikit-learn and being able to do asymmetric oxidations at -78 C. 

If you’re doing computational chemistry, then sure, knowing fundamental programming and CS is incredibly important. In experimental synthetic chemistry…I’m not so sure. My academic experiences have proved that programming has limited utility in chemistry. I think it’s time for this part of chemistry to catch up to the modern age as well. Like Anon 3:15 PM says, if you can type print(‘Hello World!’) into a Python interpreter, then congratulations – you know more programming than 99% of organic chemists. But you also know less programming than 100% of professional developers.


May 31, 2017

#Chemjobs and H-1 visas

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 10:02 am

The interplay of the chemistry job market and the issuance of H-1 visas is a topic of close interest, as it personally affects me – I was unemployed for 2 years in a futile job search for employment in the chemicals sector, and I strongly believe that one of the main causes for this protracted period of unemployment is the abuse of H-1 visas and shady hiring practices by a lot of companies in the U.S. today.

C&EN paid some lip service to this issue a couple of weeks ago in a brief snippet:


It’s things like these that make me livid. Firstly, there’s no dearth of domestic talent in chemistry – as a U.S. citizen who applied to several of these companies and institutions and was repeatedly turned down, this makes no sense. Why do these companies have to hire foreigners to fill these positions? A potential explanation could be the paltry salaries they’re offering – domestic graduates are smart, and will likely have much better offers.

More evidence, if it were needed, that science hiring is broken…

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.

January 28, 2017

Good news

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 9:29 am

Regular readers of this blog will know of my struggles to find a job for the last two years. I finally have some good news on this front – I started a new job on Monday for a small consulting firm in Orange County. The work is challenging, but at the same time, interesting and rewarding. I also have the privilege of working alongside some extremely successful, accomplished, and intelligent people, so I am actually excited to go in to work each day!

I’m very happy that the position is local – one of my priorities was to stay in CA, not just for mrudangam but also given recent developments (the election and the US economy in general). For better or for worse, everything is getting concentrated on the coasts, and most tech/biotech jobs are either in the Bay Area or Boston – not being proximate to those areas can set you back in terms of job growth potential. In addition, I learned the hard way that networking is everything when it comes to getting a job – applying online is like playing roulette hoping that your resume gets chosen out of the pile out of 100’s/1000’s of others.

#chemjobs #thestruggleisreal

November 18, 2016


Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 10:43 am

Please see this video if you want a realistic perspective on the field of chemistry today. He touches on very important topics that I have discussed here in the past, such as:

  • The fact that it is hard to get realistic, accurate information on chemistry employment. Chemjobber remains the most accurate, up-to-date source available online, even if people may find it depressing. ACS information or BLS data is either inflated or not representative of the general population (due to selection bias).
  • Money, unfortunately, IS EVERYTHING. The people who say otherwise are those who have plenty of money, a decent income, and are well off. Being poor limits your opportunities, and as pointed out, lands you in a vicious rut which is difficult to break out of.
  • The flooding of graduate programs. As correctly pointed out, chemistry graduates usually end up in graduate degree programs, whether it is pharmacy, medicine, or chemistry graduate school. This is a structural issue that needs to be resolved at a more fundamental level; the chemistry B.S. needs to be reworked and maybe become more rigorous so that it is worth more.

October 18, 2016

Still on the job search

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 4:09 pm

It has been about 20 months since I got my PhD in chemistry, and I’m still on the search applying for my first job. It’s been a really emotionally draining, tough ride. Before I graduated, I had heard horror stories from others about the chemistry job market and how brutal it is…but there’s nothing like experiencing it firsthand yourself. There are several major hurdles, which I’ll try and document here.

  • Applying online. The major portal for job applications is now online. This is convenient for both job seekers and employers; job seekers can electronically send applications for positions (which normally include a cover letter, resume and/or supplemental information such as a research summary) from the comfort of their home or office. With the internet, employers and recruiters also have a larger talent pool. The process is still time-consuming, however; I would estimate that it takes me on average about 45 minutes to fill out an online application; this includes filling out the information in the online forms (I always end up having to manually do this since the resume parsing never works), making edits to my resume to tailor it for the position, and writing a cover letter. I put in all this work, only to be greeted with:
  • The cone of silence. This is the most frustrating aspect of the job search. You’ll submit your application online, and usually within 1 minute receive an e-mail saying “Thank you for your application, it has been successfully received, and will be reviewed by our team”. This will be followed by….. silence. You won’t hear anything for weeks, or even months on end. I have a list of all the jobs I have applied to, and at least 85% of them have a note saying “Status: No reply”. I would follow up… if I knew who to follow up with! The internet is only so helpful in this regard, and its not always possible to find out who the particular recruiter or hiring manager is for a particular position.
    Case in point: I recently applied to 3 positions in Allergan in August, and still have not heard anything back. The recruiter for the position (as listed on LinkedIn) was unresponsive to my e-mails, and it was only by following up with a friend of a friend in the company that I was informed that yes, they had my application and that it was still under consideration. The funny thing is, these positions are still being listed on job boards and are still accepting applications!
  • The insane saturation of this particular job market. Don’t listen to the politicians – we don’t have a shortage of scientists in this country. We have a massive, massive, glut, and anyone who does any kind of scientific hiring will be able to corroborate this. It’s especially bad at the PhD level – back to my example at Allergan, I was discreetly informed not to get my hopes up since they received 500+ applications for 1 opening in medicinal chemistry. Plus, I did happen to have some nice chats with senior executives at [unnamed pharma companies], and they (somewhat condescendingly) told me to stop wasting my time, because pharma hiring is focused on pedigree; if you don’t have a degree from Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Caltech, etc. your application will be immediately discarded. The irony is that these executives did not have degrees from those schools.

That being said, it seems to me that there’s really only one surefire way to get a job out of school, and that is through campus recruiting. Unfortunately no companies in my area of study (chemistry) came to hire at my university, so that ruled out that approach. The other way is to join a position through a friend’s referral, which works for smaller companies and startups. Applying to big companies is seemingly slower, since the application has to go through several stages – a recruiter (who may or may not know the subject and understand your resume), followed by an interview with the hiring manager (who will be knowledgeable in the domain), and further interviews. I have been told that ‘80% of jobs never get advertised’ and other statistics like that, but those are only relevant for experienced job seekers looking to move laterally; it’s not relevant for fresh graduates looking for their first job. For your first job, you need to play by the company’s rules for applications. Once you get experience and make contacts, then you can get your friends to backdoor you into positions at other companies.

At least, that’s my observation. I don’t know what other avenues there are for gaining employment (I should specify that I mean relevant employment that would utilize my education and background; I could always go and be a cashier at a grocery store, but that would be a massive waste of my education and also the taxpayer money that went into funding that education). If anyone has any ideas, let me know!

The other question that comes up is “so, what about Data Science?”. Yes, that is still on the table; I’m still working with recruiters from Harnham, but nothing has panned out yet. To be honest, I’m not totally thrilled. After doing some soul-searching, I have realized that I don’t necessarily have the mentality to go into “Data Science” or software development. It’s one of those things that I am simultaneously overqualified (I have a PhD, after all) and underqualified (PhD in a irrelevant subject) for. I don’t have years of software development experience or deep knowledge of a lower-level language (e.g. Java, C, C++), or a degree in math, statistics, computer science, or physics (which are considered sexy in this field). I have actually been advised that maybe I should hide my PhD in organic chemistry since it is irrelevant to Data Science. At the same time, I’m glad I took that bootcamp – I can now study the material at my own pace, and the knowledge of programming and computational thinking is becoming increasingly critical today, what with the amount of time we spend interfacing with digital devices in the form of laptops, cellphones, tablets, and other computers.

So….I’m still looking for my first job in chemistry! If anyone has any leads, please do let me know.

I forgot to include this gem as an example to illustrate my point:
I applied to this position at BBraun in Irvine in March – on paper, it is a typical Analytical chemist position, and one that I am reasonably well-suited for. The only weird thing is that they explicitly want “Pharmaceutical industry or a relevant post-doc experience of 3-6 years for PhD”, which doesn’t make much sense (but can be chalked up to “credential inflation” in this over-saturated job market). In any case, I was swiftly rejected by the company, but to my surprise, the position is still up, over 6-7 months later! Stuff like this just really infuriates me. Companies like these waste so much time searching for the perfect “purple unicorn” candidate, and then raise a hue and cry about a “STEM shortage” when they’ve rejected everyone for the most random reasons.jackie-chan-wtf

I know people are curious, so here are the stats:

Jobs applied to: 1465
Interviews: 9

EDIT (10/26/2016): This morning, I was greeted with this e-mail from Merck: “Thank you for your interest in Merck.  We appreciate you taking the time to pursue career opportunities with us.  We have chosen at this time to suspend the search for this position and may reopen the search at a later date”. I applied to this position 2 months ago (August 25, 2016, to be exact), never heard anything back, and then received this notification. Seriously, something is screwy in hiring – has this happened to other people, or is it just me? Also, I honestly think there should be less of a stigma against unemployment – just look at how much time elapses in the job search! The companies are the ones that are slow in getting back to job seekers; in other words, the rate-determining step in the job search is waiting to hear back from companies, which means that individuals should not be held completely responsible for long periods of unemployment if they are applying aggressively.

2ND EDIT (11/16/2016): Yesterday, I got this email from Eli Lilly: “Thank you for your recent inquiry for the Research Scientist-Small Molecule Design and Development-Developability position, requisition #28370BR.

The position in which you originally expressed interest has unfortunately been cancelled and was not filled. Please feel free to review current openings and submit your interest accordingly”. At least this position didn’t leave me hanging for that long – I applied to it on 10/13/2016. I’m just completely nonplussed here…

June 9, 2016

Mixed messages

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 12:56 pm

I mentioned before my reasons for not wanting to do a postdoc after completing my PhD. I will freely admit that when I started as a young, naive, doe-eyed first-year graduate student, I initially wanted to go into academics – I was even told multiple times by people from within and outside my department that I had the “mentality” and “intelligence” for academia. After having my soul properly crushed a few years into the program, my goals readjusted to something more realistic – that is, getting an industry job, a goal that was considered by many “selling out”, “settling”, or “selling yourself short”. I didn’t do a postdoc because I wanted to get an industry job, but now it appears that a postdoc is necessary – and this is information that I only found out after graduating.

Now, the problem is that there’s no clear-cut advice as to what PhD’s should do in order to get industry jobs these days. As far as academia is concerned, a postdoc or two is mandatory in order to broaden your knowledge base, make your CV more competitive, and get additional network contacts and letters of recommendation. However, if industry is the goal, then you will hear things from all over the spectrum, such as “doing a postdoc lowers your eligibility for industry positions since it means you’re too focused on academics”, to “we throw the resumes of applicants without postdocs in the trash”, to illustrate the two extremes.

SeeArrOh wrote about this situation a month ago, but it is still valid, and I think the situation is going to get worse with time, as the saturation of scientists at the PhD level keeps increasing year after year. My experience tracks with SeeArrOh’s observations. I think that my inability to get job after completing my PhD could be attributed in part to not doing a postdoc after graduating. That being said, doing a postdoc does not guarantee getting a job either! It’s still a very risky gamble.

One big problem is that these employment issues are very opaque to graduate students, and it is only recently, thanks to the efforts of truth-tellers like Chemjobber, that these issues are coming out into the open, and students/postdocs are able to read about employment and unemployment in the chemistry job market (largely anecdotal, but these are better than no information at all). It also works to the advantage of PI’s to keep their students in the dark regarding employment after graduation; PI’s can promise the (nonexistent) big payoff in order to keep their students working hard 80-90 hours a week, sacrificing their lives at the altar of science.

Unfortunately, the issue “do you need a postdoc if you want to get an industry job?” has not been resolved, and this is something that incoming students need to be aware of. If the answer is yes (a postdoc is necessary), then you need to be prepared for the long haul; an additional 7-10 years in school after undergrad (PhD + postdoc) in order to get a job. That’s why I tell people science is a lousy career path these days. People used to criticize medicine for taking too much training before being able to start one’s career, but I think science has safely beaten that now. According to the 2014 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, the mean time to PhD in the physical sciences is 6.5 years (5.7 years in chemistry), and is slowly increasing every year. The question of “how long is the average postdoc?” is more difficult to answer, but SeeArrOh did a back-of-the-envelope calculation for chemistry, and the mean postdoctoral stay (for those who went to academia) was 3.7 years. 5.7 + 3.7 = 9.4 years in school. Granted, these numbers were only derived from those going to academia, but they at least give some sense of the situation. Compare this with medicine, which is strictly 4 + 4 (8 years, 4 for medical school, 4 for residency – or 3+4 in some universities!). Suddenly, medicine seems like a smart choice, when one factors in the opportunity cost of time, the fact that residents on average get paid more than postdocs (for similar hours of work), and the fat doctor salaries at the end (the big payoff!) thanks to the AMA.

Finally, and this is something that will hit most people the hardest: Unfortunately, society sends PhD students mixed messages. On one hand, there are people who say “wow, doing a PhD is great, you’ll be able to change the world!”. But once you graduate, you see the real value of the degree, which is…less than toilet paper, due to insane market saturation in both academia and industry. Another issue is that it is very difficult to find employment statistics of graduates of PhD programs – this data is crucial to being able to assess the relative strength of a program, because after all, you get a degree in order to get a job and make money, right? But most universities do not care about what happens to their graduates after getting a PhD, which is very unfortunate.

This needs to change. If departments properly tracked career outcomes of their graduates, then maybe the equilibrium salary of PhD scientists would properly reflect the amount of training involved, rather than being depressed due to an artificial flooding of the market.

April 18, 2016

Free Trade vs. Employment

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 10:15 pm

This paragraph from a recent article in The Economist is rather illuminating:

“But many workers displaced by Chinese imports did not simply find another job. Mr Autor and his colleagues have shown that, at local level, employment falls at least one-for-one with jobs lost to trade, and that displaced workers are unlikely to move to seek new work. The lowest-skilled who do find new jobs tend to move to similar, and thus similarly vulnerable, employment. One reason for this immobility could be that the economy is now an unwelcoming place for jobseekers without a university degree. The housing collapse of the late 2000s, which left many Americans trapped in negative equity, may have made things worse. This new strain of research has lent support to the claim of Dani Rodrik, a globalisation sceptic, that “If you are of low skill, have little education, and are not very mobile, international trade has been bad news for you pretty much throughout your entire life.””

This is also true at the high-skill level; thousands of jobs in organic synthesis and chemical manufacturing, which are at the level of requiring a PhD (or higher) in chemistry, have been moved overseas, never to return. I am very curious to know what has happened to all the thousands of laid-off medicinal chemists over the last decade, and what will happen to the thousands of chemists soon to be laid off in the Dow-Dupont merger. Will they be able to find employment elsewhere in the chemical industry? I hope so. Even “jobseekers without a university degree” are not the only ones at risk for being in “vulnerable” employment in this day and age – a PhD can leave you in just as much risk as not having a degree at all, and organic chemistry is particularly bad as it does not leave you with many “transferable skills” (the buzzword of our times).

March 31, 2016

PhD in chemistry = ?

Filed under: Chemistry, Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 11:29 pm

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:phd030909s

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.

March 5, 2016

PhD Job Prospects

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs, Data Science, education — sankirnam @ 3:44 pm

A friend of mine sent these two articles and asked for my comments on them.

  1. A bridge to business
  2. Enterprising science

The first article talks about how valuable PhDs, postdocs, and PhD candidates are to management consulting firms. It goes into detail about the training that a lot of PhDs receive while working towards their degree, and that their training is just as valuable as what MBA’s receive.

Now, it all sounds nice on paper, but my experience has been the polar opposite. I applied to several consulting firms last year and was either soundly rejected or received no response (which is quite common when applying for jobs online), and this is in spite of being one of those “[valuable] Science-PhD holders” the author talks about. So I really have no idea what management consulting firms are looking for.

The author also states:

“The broad set of valuable transferable skills that you developed while in graduate school go largely unrecognized and unarticulated within the academy. Most PhD graduates restrict their job searches to what they feel qualified to do, rather than exploring what they are capable of doing.”

Again, this trope sounds nice on paper, but my experience with applying for jobs has been quite the opposite. The whole idea of “transferable skills” only really holds in the tech industry, and that too for a small set of subjects (more on this in a moment).

The second article mentions that early-stage scientists (such as assistant professors, post-doctoral fellows, and PhD students) should also look into commercializing their successful ideas and forming start-up companies. This is solid advice. The article also mentions that professors are also not the best people to be running start-up companies, due to the many demands on their time. That is better left to younger people. Of course, this comes with a caveat.

Applied sciences, engineering, and computer science are by their nature easier to commercialize, as opposed to theoretical or more “pure” fields. Problems that are academically interesting are not necessarily ones that will lend themselves to commercialization once investigated. Another issue is that startups are rarely founded off of PhD research because the interests of the advisor and the student are opposed at that point. The advisor will want the successful student to continue working, generating results and writing papers, while the student will want to leave to start the company. In any case, as the author mentions, it never hurts to allow PhD students opportunities to network with successful people in their field; this will help later when they apply for jobs! Sadly, most schools do a piss-poor job in this regard. In most universities, PhD career services are virtually nonexistent, as are networking events for graduate students.

In any case, back to the subject of transferable skills. From what I have seen, transferable skills are those secondary skills that you might pick up on the course of your degree that are not necessary for success in that field, but can be used somewhere else. For example, most PhD holders would have given talks at conferences at some point. Based on that, “making and giving presentations” can be listed as a skill, even though this something that no self-respecting person would be caught putting on his or her resume. This skill is transferable to other fields where giving presentations is important, such as consulting. I’m not sure if this is a good example or not, but it is what I could think of.

Now, one transferable skill that is being thrown around a lot lately is “data analysis”. The author even refers to it in the first article I linked to above:

“If you have earned a PhD, you know, for example, how to analyse data. You also understand how to examine those results to gain insights.”

The term “data analysis” is beginning to seriously annoy me, because it is incredibly vague. A five-year-old putting his hand on a hot stove, screaming in pain, and then learning not to touch the stove again is doing data analysis! Yet would people call the five-year-old a “data scientist”? Even if others wouldn’t, I would – the kid has used evidence (even if it is a single datum) to draw a conclusion! So yes, in the broad sense, we are all “data scientists” and we all go about our day doing “data analysis” all the time, even if we do it unknowingly!

But the crux of the matter is that the type of data you will encounter varies from field to field, and the types of conclusions you can draw – the analysis, in other words – is domain-specific. In other words, “data analysis” is not a transferable skill. This is a seemingly simple fact that unfortunately is being overlooked by recruiters, employers, and tech workers. For example, I can readily interpret NMR spectra, GC-MS data, and other types of spectra that are commonly encountered in a chemistry lab. However, I would be laughed at if I claimed to be doing “data analysis” in the sense that is used in the tech industry today! What the tech industry calls “data science” or “data analysis” is the statistical interpretation, most often using methods derived from computer science, of large sets of facts or figures that have been compiled. Case in point: Thanks to a friend, I got an interview a few days ago for a “data analytics” position. The HR recruiter who called me was thoroughly confused by my resume, and I had to clarify that even though I had a PhD in science, I had zero skills that they were looking for. She told me “oh yea, we regularly hire people from a variety of backgrounds for this position…we have computer scientists, math majors, statisticians, and even physicists!”. Now, as far as transferable skills go, they probably have a very good command over computer science and programming, as well as a strong mathematics background. These skills are not generalizable to all scientists (just like how I would not expect a PhD computer scientist or statistician to be able to go into a chemistry lab and synthesize small molecules)!

As one of my friends told me,”…well, looks like you have a PhD in an inferior science”.

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