Issue Date: April 16, 2012
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 cenm.ag/vid13.
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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