Chemical Employment | April 16, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 16 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 16 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: April 16, 2012

Chemical Employment

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: chemical employment, chemistry careers

The poor jobs outlook for chemists, especially recent graduates, is drawing the attention of a lot of people in the chemistry enterprise. As I reported in a News of the Week story in the March 26 issue of C&EN (page 10), as of March 1, 2011, 4.6% of ACS members were unemployed, the highest level recorded since ACS began tracking employment in 1972.

In the same issue, we ran a letter to the editor from Barbara Flohr who was responding to a story on encouraging young women to enter the sciences. “I am one of those parents who fell for the advice to encourage my daughter in math and science,” Flohr writes. “She is a 2011 summa cum laude chemistry graduate without a job. She has lowered her expectations considerably and now wonders every day if she made a stupid decision to study chemistry. So do I.”

Flohr’s letter struck a nerve. We have already received a number of letters from readers about it, and we will run a selection of them in an upcoming issue. Two of C&EN’s Advisory Board members also sent me e-mails about Flohr’s letter. Kendrew H. Colton, a chemist and intellectual property lawyer in Washington, D.C., writes: “It’s a sad state of affairs when an aspiring scientist has her aspirations nipped in the bud. In the past, specialty synthesis companies were known to be looking for rock-solid chemists, and certainly the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is actively looking for top talent at all ranks. The former is ‘wet chemistry’ and the latter is ‘paper chemistry,’ but they can overlap. A couple of my former colleagues—both excellent patent counsel—were bench chemists in labs. I don’t know if you respond to folks like Ms. Flohr, but if you do, tell her daughter to aim high and don’t give up.”

The ACS unemployment data prompted a number of C&EN staff members who were planning to attend the national meeting in San Diego to quickly propose that they interview students and postdocs at the meeting about their perceptions of the job market for chemists and create a video to post on C&EN’s YouTube channel. Senior Editors Susan Ainsworth and Linda Wang and Associate Editor Lauren Wolf talked to students and postdocs at a student poster session and other venues in San Diego during the meeting. They also talked to David Harwell, assistant director for career management at ACS. Associate Editor Carmen Drahl edited the clips into the compelling three-minute video that you can access online at

The people on the video are realistic about the job prospects they face. Tom Aldrich, an undergraduate at Harvey Mudd College, points out that at a career fair he attended only one of some 100 companies was a chemical company. “So it seems that the job opportunities for an undergraduate are pretty slim,” Aldrich tells C&EN. Some of the undergraduates are planning on going to graduate school, at least in part because they hope the job market will be better in the five to six years it will take to get their Ph.D.s. One is planning to attend medical school because the job prospects are brighter for M.D.s than for Ph.D.s.

Kathryn Allen, a postdoc at the University of Southern California, says she “is very concerned about the job market.” She notes that she has about a year to go on her fellowship and that she knows that “finding a job is going to take a lot of time, a lot of networking, and a lot of talking and interviewing and exploring, which is why I’m starting a year in advance.”

There are many reasons to get a degree in chemistry. I wasn’t concerned about my job prospects as a chemist when I was studying chemistry because I thought I was going to become a doctor. That didn’t work out, and I fell back on my chemistry degree to pursue a nontraditional career, first in continuing education and then in journalism. I know that people are justifiably frustrated with the current employment situation for chemists, but chemistry remains a wonderful intellectual pursuit that can lead to many different career paths.

Thanks for reading.

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Bob Smith  (April 16, 2012 3:57 PM)
The Chem BS degree is no longer a sought after commodity. Computers do most of the chemical jobs a BS candidate did years ago( particularly in QC and analytical work). Product development is best done abroad where labor is cheaper and the market for the product is growing faster than here or in Europe. The Chem BS degree must be coupled with an MBA, or better a law degree, to get a good job.
This is just the way it is and yes, one has to really think hard about a career in Chemistry for it also must now include managment, legal experience or some expertise in the biological sciences. In other words you really have to have a lot of money--just to get the education required---and enthusiasm to go into chemistry these days.

I hope the increase in fracking and the subsequent reduced cost of natural gas not only encourages growth in the US Chemical industry but also creates lots of jobs for the BS,MS chemists. Hopefully the PHD's will educate the next generation of US chemists for these new jobs.
Molly B. Schmid  (April 23, 2012 4:35 PM)
The Baum Editorial on Chem Employment (4/16), and the prior letter from Barbara Flohr (3/26) struck a nerve for me too, because they describe a situation very similar to what I've seen for some time among biology undergrads (and unfortunately, grad students and post-docs as well).

We're training students in record numbers. In the US in 2008, there were nearly 12,000 undergraduates who receive BS/BA chemistry degrees, and almost 82,000 undergrads who receive BS/BA life science degrees (

Unfortunately, we are not very good at helping students realize how to use their science education in non-academic careers. My sense is that this hit biology harder, earlier, because there have always been more biology undergrads, and fewer entry-level bench biologist positions.

Now the outsourcing and down-sizing of industrial chemistry research has made it tough for chemistry grads to find bench positions that allow them a good transition from academia to industry.

What I tell the biology students (and I believe will be true for the chem students as well) is that there are many opportunities for them in what are typically called "alternative careers". These are the careers that require a good working knowledge and vocabulary of science, but that are not at the bench. These positions may be dubbed "alternative careers", but by my count, these positions are over 80% of the employees of companies that sell products (at least in the pharma companies we sampled): [Helen Liu and Molly B. Schmid. Maturation of the biotechnology industry changes job opportunities for scientists. Journal of Commercial Biotechnology (2009) 15, 199–214; doi:10.1057/jcb.2008.36]

In the past, these non-bench positions were often a "next career step" for people who initially worked at the bench in industry. Individuals would accept an entry-level research position, then look around in a few years and realize the many "alternative" opportunities that were available to them. These positions - in marketing, law, business development, manufacturing, quality assurance, regulatory, communications, … - probably don't need that 2-3yrs of bench work prior to the transition, except that students generally don't know that these positions exist, until they are exposed to them through their employment in industry.

The problem for students emerging from universities (at all levels, from BS-to-PhD) is that the students usually don't know these positions exist, and many of their academic advisors have not had significant exposure to industry to help guide them. AAAS has written about alternative careers for several years in their Science Careers section and website

The members of ACS have knowledge of the many types of positions that are available in industry. I encourage ACS as an organization to find ways to reach out to students - whether they are current ACS student members or not - to help them identify alternative entry points into these "alternative careers".
Mpho  (January 9, 2013 8:10 AM)
This industry is the best abroad
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